Thursday, July 20, 2006

Try to get myself, but myself can't figure it out

For most of my life, I talked about cooking only in the context of making a joke. "Yeah, I'm good at doing cereal, but toast is a little too advanced for me." In middle school (or junior high, as it's called in Minnesota), everyone (both boys and girls) were required to take a Home Economics class that, among other things, included several weeks on cooking.

I didn't set myself on fire or anything, and I enjoyed the food I made. The one part I really remember was making souffles, which in retrospect seems a little advanced for 7th graders. Anyways, it was kind of neat, and was sort of interesting too.

Apart from school, my role in the kitchen, if any, was always as an assistant. I would occasionally peel potatoes or wash fruit or otherwise assist my mom, who always carried the bulk of the work. Christmas was the best time, of course, and everyone wanted to be involved in stamping out and frosting her delicious sugar cookies.

I think it was also around junior high that I started on my quest to learn how to make one of my favorite desserts, Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars. If you're reading this blog, odds are close to 100% that you've eaten them at some point. Your reaction to the word will reveal a lot about our relationship. If it's something like, "Those are really good!", you're probably a fairly recent acquaintance. If it's "I was really surprised that they actually tasted fine," we probably met in high school or college. If you have humorous anecdotes about the cookies, you're an old pal from Minnesota.

This is something I wanted really badly to be good at, and it took my a long time to get to that point. I would lose track of how much flour I'd already added and end up with too little or too much; I remember one party where I served the "cookies" in bowls and we ate them with spoons. I would confuse teaspoons with tablespoons and baking soda with baking powder. I would forget to set the timer. Pretty much any problem you can imagine, I encountered. Fortunately, since this was literally the only thing I would bake, I had plenty of practice, and eventually got to be pretty good at it. I no longer need a recipe to make it, and it's always the first thing I bake on moving to a new apartment.

In a weird way, my hard-won skill at making Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars made me feel like I'd earned an exemption from all other cooking duties. I never felt guilty or weird about not being a good cook, or even trying... I knew that I COULD produce edible food, and that was enough for me.

I guess you could divide my culinary life into the following broad categories:
Age 0-18: At home, eating what Mom has prepared. Assemble my own cold lunch for school.
Age 19-21: At college, eating whatever is offered by the various on-campus dining facilities. Supplemented occasionally by restaurants, Pizza Lunch, snacks in the dorm, and unbelievable quantities of Sprite.
Age 22-23: The years of Regular Eating: cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, frozen entrees and packaged sides for dinner. Supplemented by occasional trips to restaurants, Bear's Den or Cerner cafe. Will occasionally fix an entree (such as lasagna) and eat it for a week.
Age 24-Present: Increasing tendency to prepare own food; greater integration of fruits and vegetables into diet. Supplemented by occasional restaurant trips; decreasing consumption of snack foods.

When I graduated from college I received a pair of cookbooks: a Better Homes and Gardens one from my parents, and The Joy of Cooking from my Aunt Fran. Both are fine books. For the first several years, I almost exclusively used the BH&G one - it's very easy to navigate, has simple and clear directions, features color photos (quite helpful to clueless people like me), and contained most of the things I could think of making. If I felt like, say, trying a poached egg, it would be less than a minute until I had started making it.

Since moving to California, I have shifted over almost entirely to the Joy of Cooking, and now use it almost exclusively. It is harder to find things, but that's largely a function of how incredibly dense it is - far more recipes, and a great deal of information on tons of topics that used to feel irrelevant but now matter to me a great deal: how to select produce, how to store different foods, different methods of cooking, and more. I'm now generally forced to study a recipe carefully before starting on it, and often find I don't have all the ingredients it calls for. I've gotten pretty good at figuring out when and what I can substitute, and when to move on to something else.

After my first year in KC, my grocery buying settled into a routine: I would stock up on a lot of raw ingredients (beef, chicken, noodles, rice, etc.) and some prepared foods (soups, Chicken Helper, etc.), then gradually eat my way through the store. I liked having some flexibility in deciding what I'd be eating, and also the freedom to just grab, say, some Clam Chowder and have a meal of that.

Since reading Fast Food Nation, I've started thinking a lot more about what I eat and how I eat. Not just the obvious scary questions of "Will I get mad cow disease if I make my own hamburgers?" As more time passes I think in broader terms... where did this food come from? What will it do to (or for) my body? Who am I supporting with my food dollars?

The way I shop and cook now feels much different from earlier in the year. For the past month I've been going to the local farmer's market once a week; here I stock up on fresh berries, fruits and vegetables, along with bread, fresh fish from Monterey Bay and a breakfast pastry (an homage to my previous Sunday tradition). Outside these broad categories, I don't have any particular plan in mind; I just wander around and see what looks good, making secondary decisions based on the vendor (trading off between cost, organic labeling and personality).

Then, later in the week, I decide what to make. Instead of selecting a dish and seeing if I have the ingredients, I look up an item I picked out from the market and browse through Joy of Cooking until I find something I can make with it. One nice thing about such a big book is that I'm almost guaranteed to find something that meets my time and ingredient constraints; there are things in there that start with instructions like "soak for 12 hours", but plenty more that I can get through in a half-hour or less. Along the way I'll read the two or three pages on the particular vegetable (garlic, squash, peppers), and in the process get a much better idea of what stuff I can do with it, either as part of a dish or to prepare as a side.

(One of the big appeals of farmer's markets is the personal interaction between producer and consumer; people are encouraged to ask questions, find out how to prepare things, what goes well together, and so on. Being extremely introverted, and doubly so in new situations, I don't take advantage of this. I sort of lurk around, scoping out from a distance what's available, then once I make up my mind I pounce, fill up one or more bags and purchase, with a minimum of chatter but a friendly smile. Then I return home and do homework to figure out what I could have learned in less than a minute of conversation. Yeah... I prefer books to people.)

So far, I've been incredibly pleased with the results. One thing that feels great is the variety; because I'm looking from ingredients, I'm looking up dishes I've never heard of before, or wouldn't have thought of making. One of the first I did was extremely simple but also way tasty: a garlic and egg noodle dish, quite flavorful. I've also made pecadillo, chile relleno, and four different fish dishes. Oh, that's another big plus: cooking fish. I've been picking up half a pound, preparing half of it Sunday night and the rest Monday night, which gives me fresh, warm fish both days. Sauteeing is much easier than I thought it would be, and tastes sooo good.

What's kind of funny is, I'm still eating off the food I picked up in my last run to FoodMaxx. I still have about a pound each of beef and chicken, in addition to all the crackers, cereal, and other staples. So even though it has been a long time since I decided to start making changes in the way I eat, I'm still largely feeding off my previous lifestyle. Ah, that's fine though. Anyways, part of what this means is I still have lots of canned fruits and vegetables which I now plan to save for the case of an earthquake instead of eating through normally.

Once I'm ready for another grocery run, I think I'll finally check out Trader Joe's. There's a TJs just a few minutes from my house (by car) that I've been meaning to check out for a while, but I want to go in there in the mood to browse and stock up instead of, say, just grabbing more milk and eggs. Speaking of which, those two items are now things I pick up from Whole Foods, who I will probably also tap for beef and poultry. In some ways it seems like this will be more complicated than before, but probably not by too much... instead of stocking up at FoodMaxx and replenishing at Albertson's, I'll be getting fish and produce from the farmer's market; eggs, milk and cheese from Whole Foods; and everything else from Trader Joe's. (Maybe! Keep in mind that, despite my enthusiasm, I technically have not actually BEEN there yet. Still, everything I've heard about that place encourages me.)


  1. If you're ever in the market for another cookbook Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything is rather good, although erroneously named. It's set up in a "here's how you make this. Here's a few variations, now go play" sort of manner.

  2. Cool, thanks for the tip! I'll check it out sometime.

    Some other things I meant to mention but forgot: I picked up a book shortly after graduation called "All Grown Up and Nothing to Eat." I love the sentiment; the book is just all right, with some good recipes but really focused more on presentation and hosting than making food.

    Also, one of the coolest sites ever is Cooking for Engineers. It's tailor-made for my brain, presenting recipes in an amazingly clear format (together with a nice narrative about what you'll be getting).

  3. I am the exact same way as you when it comes to not taking advantage of asking questions of vendors at similar venues. In fact, I've been putting off asking the folks at the Wheaton Meat Market where they get their stuff, whether it's grain/grass fed, etc., for about a month now, specifically because I feel like a jerk actually exercising my consumer intelligence by engaging in a dialogue. Hooray!

  4. Haha, that's kind of funny. I think mine is worse, since it seems like consumers are sort of expected to question people at the Farmer's Market. Even when I TRY to engage in a purely financial transaction, I'm occasionally forced to participate in the broader ritual, and end up learning more about how different fish taste, or how long the season for a particular vegetable is.

    As for the Meat Market, I think it depends on who you'd be talking to. If they're actually owners or people who otherwise are engaged with their job, they'd probably love to discuss it with you. If it's high-school counter jockeys, the worst you'd get is a blank store. And a lifetime ban from the store, I suppose.