Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cooking Experience, the First

While we had a little garden out back for fresh vegetables, I grew up primarily on TV Dinners, frozen pizzas, and somersausage sandwiches.  My mom would make a roast or meatloaf on weekends, and we always had take-home fish and chips on Fridays, but the rest of the week was from a box. 

I'd like to say I did her one better, but much of our sustenance comes pre-cooked also - pre-cooked or very simple.  I could eat plain rice with raw veggies every night, but my family isn't as easily pleased.  I'm vowing to make this year the year I learn to really cook.  About ten years ago I re-did my kitchen and decided that was the year, but it didn't take.  Time for another kick at the cat....

This is really important to me for several reasons.  What kind of an environmentalist eats boxed food??  Not being able to cook well is a real social barrier too.  I avoid potlucks after many experiences with making something and having to bring it back home untouched.  And dinner invites are out because I'll have to reciprocate.  It's embarrassing.  In my incredible neighbourhood, whenever someone has a baby a meal tree is set up so they don't have to cook for a couple of weeks.  I can't play. 

But the really big motivator is my older kids.  At 13 and 15, they often disappear to other people's houses for dinner.  My son made it clear that, yes, it really is because of my cooking.  So, for Christmas I asked him to gather up some recipes from his friend's mom who cooks so well.  Instead, because she's the sweetest woman ever, she bought me the book she uses for most of her meals:   Simply in Season which is "guaranteed to please any palate and satisfy any appetite."  It took me a month to really dive into it, but last night I went full force with Savory Tempeh and Vegetables.  The word savory did it for me.

My first hurdle was that I don't know what many of the ingredients are.  We're well outside my scope of meat and potatoes on this one.  Kombu seaweed, tempeh, and red kuri?  Hell, I don't really even know what parsnips are.  The groceries took my dude over an hour because he had to hit a couple different stores to get everything.  

I realized as I was trying to follow the recipe that a big problem I have with cooking is impatience.  Case in point:  I don't like to read the recipe over and over, and I can't really remember it, so I often just make stuff up, then it ends up tasting horrible.  It's a funny thing, but it's painfully tedious to me to re-read the same few lines.  Weird, I know.  But after we were home from groceries, as I got out all the ingredients, I realized I needed to make the thing in a dutch oven.  I've heard of a dutch oven before, but I didn't think that's what they meant, so we looked it up on-line.  It's a pot!  I sent my guy back out to find one while I cut and sorted ingredients into little bowls like they do on cooking shows.  I actually liked that part.  I like sorting things. 

It took about 40 minutes to cut everything into cubes.  My guy was home well before I was ready.  But the pot he got wasn't like the cast iron job pictured above.  He couldn't find one like that.  This baby was pretty much made of tin-foil.  It could only be heated to 350, and the recipe called for 400, but we figured we'd just cook it at the lower temperature for longer. 

I simmered and sauted and layered ingredients.  Then it had to go in the oven for 25 minutes.  We don't actually have a working oven.  It broke over a year ago.  With an electrician in the house it's not cool to call in a repair guy.  I'm hoping next Christmas we can bake cookies again.  We typically use a toaster oven to heat up those pre-cooked roasts and fries and such, but the pot wouldn't fit in there.  So we put it in the barbecue. 

The pot melted a bit.  Just the plastic handles and top.  A big reason for trying to get away from processed foods is to avoid plastic packaging which leaches crap into the food.  Now I had a meal surrounded by fumes from melting plastic.  Lovely. 

The meal was edible.  It didn't have much flavour at all though even though I was so, so careful to measure everything perfectly; boiled potatoes on rice with soy sauce would have tasted the same.  But I tried to keep in mind all the many nutrients I was getting from all the new foods I was eating. 

The biggest problem with avoiding reading the recipe right to the end before I start (to avoid having to read the same stuff over and over) is that I had no idea how long it would take to make this thing.  And I didn't find out until way at the bottom that I also had to make some rice to put it all on.  We started shopping at 5:00 and cutting at 6 pm as I fed my 5-year-old cereal to tide her over.  It was on the table by 8:00, her bedtime.  She ate a bite, swallowed like a trooper, then said "Bluck!"  She had some rice though.  I can do rice.

That's three hours of my life I'll never get back. 

By sheer luck a neighbour happened by with beautiful blueberry muffins with real whipped cream on top.  They were delectable. 

I might try again tomorrow, but when I put "pot roast" on the grocery list, dude got the pre-cooked type in a box that we always get.  Only ten minutes in the microwave!  It's looking mighty inviting.


Michael D said...

I would, uh, heartily recommend Seasonal Ontario Food for solid recipes and explanation. The beef stew has been my winter go-to when I need to make a lot of food but can't handle anything complicated.

My approach has been about gradually getting the hang of things I feel are basics: bread (self-link), porridges, pancakes, soups (split pea, mushroom barley, borscht, chicken noodle), stews (above beef stew, beef stroganoff), pulses (various kinds of dal, hummus), perogies, etc. It takes several times of making a recipe exactly as directed before I feel like I really have it in my repertoire.

You may find Manjula's Kitchen a good source as well. (Though you may find yourself wanting to add the ginger, garlic, and onion that I believe she doesn't use.)

Finally, do yourself a favour and get a proper Lodge cast iron dutch oven! It lasts forever, is good for stews and such, but you can also bake bread with it.

Marie said...

Thanks Michael!
The Seasonal Food site is great because it's like he's talking to you. The few I scanned actually tell you how long it all takes at the very beginning - crucial for me. I do, however, have over 40 cookbooks (because it's such an area of insecurity I think). My trouble is knowing which recipes will be a hit - I want someone to fold over the corners of the pages of the good ones. But that might not work either: I brought leftovers to school and one colleague liked it, but it's really not to my taste at all.

I'll try the beef stew on your recommendation though. And I'll be on the lookout for a solid dutch oven.

Another glitch is my persistence is lacking. If I fail once I tend to give up instead of trying the recipe again. It's good to know it's not just because of some inherent issue, some genetic mutation or somesuch, that a meal I make isn't up to par on the first run through!