Don’t Fear the Pizza!
One of the things that intrigued me the most about Jane and Marcy and the gang's stay at Plame House in DC was how they managed to feed themselves. Did they send out for kung pao? Cook enormous turkey roasts? Hire a chef? Or just fight over who got to eat the Cap'n Crunch straight out of the box?
That led me to think about how I, who came from a non-cooking household, learned to cook — and how cooking, if one uses a little foresight, is not only cost-effective, but also can be quicker, tastier and more fun than ordering out all the time. If you choose organic or fair-trade ingredients, you also get to feel like you're doing a small bit to save the planet. (Oh, and the inventors of Silpat need to be worshiped as gods. But that's another story.)
So herein is presented a short and not particularly authoritative selection of guidelines on cooking for non-cooks, by a non-cook, with a view to keeping the waistline trim, the wallet fat, and the tastebuds happy. Bon appetit!
Rule Number One: Don't EVER Use Minute Rice. Just don't, okay? Not for anything. (Well, maybe if you were throwing a party for Karl Rove.) It's not that much quicker than real rice and it's nasty. Rice isn't rocket science, anyway — you boil the water, throw the rice in with maybe a dash of olive oil or butter, cover and turn off the heat; leave cover on for fifteen minutes and the rice will do its own thing without any need for you to intervene. (Brown and wild rices are treated slightly differently, but don't worry — they both come with instructions on the bag. Just follow them and you'll be fine. And mushroom caps stuffed with wild rice cooked in homemade chicken broth (more on that later) are ambrosia, in addition to being fall-off-a-log easy.)
The question of time leads me to:
Rule Number Two: Gauge how long it takes to prep what you want to eat. Let's say that you want grilled or pan-fried pork chops with carrots on the side and a salad beforehand. The salad is easy since it needs no cooking time (this assumes a standard side/pre-dinner salad with no meat), and if you're using pre-chopped ingredients such as in a bagged salad, prep time is the thirty seconds it takes to cut open the bag, pour the contents into bowls, and adorn with dressing and croutons. The pork depends on if it's fresh or frozen — if it's frozen, start it first (and thaw it first in the microwave if you have one), then wait about fifteen minutes before dishing up the salad while it's cooking and then start the carrots after the salad is done; if it's fresh, start it just before dishing up the salad and start the carrots at the same time. (The real cooks among you are no doubt shaking your heads at this point at things that are second nature to you; but really, you wouldn't believe how many people don't know this stuff. Just like you wouldn't believe how many people don't know that the reason their clothes aren't drying in the dryer is because they haven't ever cleaned out the damned lint trap.)
Rule Number Three: If you eat poultry, buy the whole bird whenever possible and cut it up yourself with kitchen shears. There are at least four reasons for doing this. First off, it's healthier; pre-packaged cut-up poultry parts very likely didn't all come from the same bird — and healthy-looking pieces may have salvaged from a diseased or spoiled bird. Second off, it's cheaper — it costs less to buy a whole bird than it does to buy that same bird parted out. Third off, it's ridiculously easy to do with kitchen shears — and the shears come in handy if you're ever attacked by angry villagers. I'm not particularly good at it and I can have a chicken cut up and wrapped for the freezer in a little over five minutes. Fourth off, you can use the back and giblets and wings to make chicken stock, which you can freeze in ice cube trays so you can use as little or as much as you want in a dish. (Making chicken stock is another thing that's ridiculously easy to do: use about two to two-and-a-half pints cold water for every pound of chicken parts, bones included and toss in some onions, then boil, skimming off any schmutz and impurities that come to the surface; then toss in some carrots, celery and any seasonings desired and simmer for at least two hours. Strain the stock into a bowl, then refrigerate; skim off the fat that rises to the top and either freeze for use in cooking or throw away.)
Rule Number Four: Crock-pots are your friend. They're excellent for rice dishes, especially for wild and brown rice dishes. Not only that –they are, in fact, the best way to barbecue pork if you don't have access to an outdoor barbecue. Marinate the pork overnight in a vinegar-based marinade (I'll leave the spices up to you), then before you go to work in the morning, put the marinade and some more spices into the crock-pot, up to a depth of one inch or so, set the heat to "low", then suspend or raise up the meat over the surface of the marinade. This is so that it gets the aromatic steam vapors but doesn't soak in the liquid while cooking, which paradoxically washes out the flavor and makes the meat tougher than it otherwise would be. (This is classic barbecue technique, by the way — in true 'cue, neither flame nor liquid touches the meat when it's cooking. That's what makes it so tender and flavorful.) Eight to ten hours later, when you're home from work, it's ready for dishing up and eating either naked or with the sauce of your choice.
With a little care given to time management, cooking anything can be a lot easier than you think, even stuff that you've come to think of as strictly restaurant food. Which brings me to this:
Rule Number Five: Don't fear the pizza. That is to say, don't fear making a pizza (one of the most-commonly-ordered takeout foods) from scratch. You wouldn't believe how easy it is. (See above photo.) Even the most time-consuming part — getting the dough ready — is pretty darned easy; if I can do it, you can do it. (Apologies for the messed-up formatting; that's an artifact of the Google crossover Blogger made — and the reason I switched my blog to WordPress.) Oh, and the pizza dough doesn't have to be used for just pizza dough: You can use it for breadsticks and rolls, too. Make up a batch and store in the freezer, and pull it out at least a couple of hours before you want to use it.
Albert Grande of PizzaTherapy.com outlines the reasons for making it at home: cost savings, control over ingredients (important if you're watching your intake of things like salt and fats), fun group activity, et cetera. Those reasons apply to most other kinds of foods. Granted, there will be some things you'll want to let a pro handle — in my case, that's anything having to do with pastries — but you'd be surprised at how good many of the foods you get as take-out, or in restaurants, can be when done at home. Yes, even by you.
Got any favorite food tricks? Share 'em here. How and what we eat is as much a political statement as anything else we do, if only because we do it a minimum of three times a day.