Sunday, July 5, 2009

When Less is More

I've been thinking about the beauty of walking out to the garden with a basket to gather up whatever has come into readiness that day, versus the sometimes overwhelming feeling of wandering about the grocers with endless choices of foods. What is available in the garden often dictates which direction dinner will flow that day. If it is not gardening season, I really have to have a plan. Meals can be a real stress factor for the person in a family doing the cooking. I often think that the decision of what to make- or how to do it- can turn someone who would make a great cook into someone who just dreads the whole kitchen setting. I am probably speaking from more experience on this topic than I would ever care to admit. With that being confessed, here's how I turned it around. When I began cooking for my family, I knew very little. I had gathered up some cookbooks, but these may have even detracted me further. There just wasn't all that much that seemed to be inspiring. What I was going to discover over the next two decades was that having four or five cookbooks you really love would do more than an entire library full. The trick was to find your cooking soul mates. I then decided to learn to make the things I really loved eating out. I also made a rule that I wouldn't try to educate myself during the stresses of the work week. I wanted to enjoy the experience so I made myself wait till the weekend, or even a Friday night, when I could be more relaxed. Being more relaxed means a few things. I never follow a recipe exactly. For one, it's not practical. You are almost certain to not have an ingredient, or some piece of equipment. But more important, if you just learn to copy a chef, you'll never really be a great cook. The trials and errors in cooking are where the real learning takes place. You learn different avenues of technique and you learn how different ingredients do, or do not, combine. Once I learned to master about five dishes I made the same things a lot. I broke down the ingredients into a list and downloaded a copy on my computer. I keep one of these printed out on my kitchen counter where I just simply circle it if I am running low or fresh out. These dishes change a bit to keep things interesting. For example, a homemade spaghetti dinner may graduate into a lemon and herb pasta dish during the summer. Some things become a ritual- like hand tossed pizzas every Friday night. But even the pizza turns into a Calzone if we're feeling the slightest bit tired of pizza. You don't even have to change the dough recipe. Since I make most everything from scratch, it is easy to experiment with ingredients and it makes cooking fun. I have found nearly without exception that cooking with whole foods is almost always preferred. Everything tastes better, and this is no lie- it fills you up faster. I think the reason is that fresh and whole foods are more nutritious. If you have ever grown your own peas, you know the true, clean, crisp taste of a newly shucked pea. Added to salads and pastas they bring the garden straight onto the table. Our new peas never hit a pot of boiling water- ever. Farmers Markets can be your best friends when learning to cook. They give you good reasons to try new types of produce. Last summer one of our farmers grew tiny purple potatoes that made an incredible color story with little red skinned potatoes. Nothing more than a quick boil with parsley and a pinch of salt was necessary for this dish. There have been very few times that I wasn't able to swap out a plain ingredient with a rarer, and much more interesting, cousin. Rarer cousins tend to have more flavor and need less seasoning and butter, or cream and sugar, as the case may be. The most important thing about mealtime is that it should be relaxing. At best, it should also involve the entire family. If you can teach your family to make certain parts of your daily meals at your side it can make a real difference as to how you view mealtimes. If I could change one aspect of every family's mealtimes it would be to banish the electronics. I would rather have my family eating straight out of the pots and pans around the kitchen island than around the television. Nothing is more of a conversation or taste buzz kill. So if you are feeling stressed about mealtimes, let's recap. Choose a few great cookbooks that you love and learn them slowly and learn them well. Make a master grocery list and keep it handy. Have a recipe but take a relaxed approach to learning it. Involve those you love and let them learn and appreciate your meals at your side. I'll be sharing some of our weekly favorites with all of you over the next weeks. What do you want to learn to make? We'll be glad to share everything we know.

No comments:

Post a Comment