Monday, January 9, 2012

why I cook

When you live in Manhattan, you exist on take out.  It's so easy to fall into a rut of pizza, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Greek, repeat.  Many of my friends (and myself included) have folders or even entire binders full of takeout menus.  It just seems simpler to have someone else make the food -- especially when every restaurant, including McDonald's (if you can call that a restaurant) delivers to the door of your apartment.  Kathy was a big NYC takeout eater too -- until her mother came to visit and a 2 year-old A yelled "FOOD!" when the doorbell rang.  It was hard to explain that Pavlovian response in a way that did not involve copious amounts of takeout.

Growing up, my busy mom's cooking style was mainly this:  (1) go to the grocery store and buy things that are on sale and that she knows we like; (2) put most of it in the freezer; (3) at dinner time, open the freezer and stare in, trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

I thought this was how everyone did it, which is why, when I went to college and "invented" my own method for planning/shopping/cooking, I felt like a genius.  Then, I discovered that my sister had also "invented" this method, and that, in fact, it was what a lot of people did.  But there is so much joy to be gleaned from good food, and really, it's not all that hard, even if broke or busy, or both.  The key, I think, to being able to cook good food at home, is the grocery shopping.  If you want to make good meals, you need to have the ingredients in the house at the time you want to start cooking.  And that is why I started writing a long, preachy post about grocery shopping, one of the most mundane of topics.  A post that was so long, and so preachy, that I deleted almost the whole thing.  Believe it or not, this masterpiece is a mere fraction of what I have to say about grocery shopping and the benefits of learning to cook, even if you just learn to cook a little.

So, aside from the fact that I enjoy cooking, and the meditative aspect of the rhythm of cooking (chop, chop, sizzle), here is the short list of WHY I COOK:

1) The food you make is healthier than anything you could buy.  Want to know why restaurant food tastes so good?  I can tell you in one word:  BUTTER.  Okay, maybe another one too:  OIL.  Not that there is anything wrong with butter and oil per se, but a person should only eat so much butter and oil in a lifetime, and you can get that in about one month of eating nothing but takeout.  That is why that rich, creamy pasta has a nasty film on it when you reheat it the next day.  They've worked a whole stick of butter and half a bottle of olive oil into that sauce.

2)  It is actually faster to cook a quick meal than it is to go out to eat or order take-out.  For example, would you ever make a meal on a busy night or a night where you're tired that takes you an hour?  Of course not.

But consider this:  15 minute drive or walk to the restaurant, 10 minutes to get seated, 5 minutes to make up your mind, 5 minutes to get your drinks, another 15-20 to get your food.  Bam - an hour before you've eaten.  On top of that, most times, the 15 minutes it would take you to get home is really all the time it takes to clean up the kitchen afterward.  Unless you live in Manhattan, it's not that easy to get take out in less than 30 minutes either.  So take the 20-30 minutes to cook yourself something, and you've saved time, and money, and eaten something healthier.  And if you're me, you can do it while chatting with your sweetie at the end of a long day and drinking a glass of wine.

3)  Cooking is (almost) always cheaper than ordering prepared food.  If you ignore the KFC/McDonald's option, it just is.  Ingredients are cheaper than prepared food, and stuff you make yourself is cheaper than stuff someone brings to your door in a paper carton or to your table on a heated plate.  Because obviously, you're doing the labor yourself rather than paying for it.


Once I had realized that the benefits of cooking at home were such that I wanted to do it, I had to learn how.  My mom and grandma had taught me the basics, but I am largely a self-taught cook.  But if cooking has benefits, really cooking, not just making stuff out of a box, multiples those benefits.  I realized, though, about halfway into my fifth recipe that I didn't have any ingredients for, that if I wanted to learn to really cook, I had to learn to grocery shop.  That means:  (1) Plan meals, whole actual meals, not just a dish here and there; (2)  Make a list; and (3)  Buy the stuff on the list, and only the stuff on the list.  I know, not exactly rocket science, but so different from the shop/freeze/stare method that it actually took years to come up with it.  But the benefits are many:

1)  Grocery shopping takes less time if you take a few minutes to plan and organize.  Maybe not the first week, but definitely once you learn your grocery store and get used to it, it's much faster.

2)  Grocery shopping is MUCH CHEAPER this way.  I find that I can usually feed my family of 5 for nearly $100 less per week if I plan and shop with a list than if I revert to the shop/freeze/stare method, in an attempt to cut corners.

3)  Less food is wasted if you put some thought into it.  If you have a plan for each item you buy, you will not throw those items out.  If you throw everything that looks good into your cart, your compost will get a boost but your wallet won't, and you will run out of key ingredients by the end of the week.

4)  It gets you out of your rut.  One of the worst things about only making things you already know how to make out of the ingredients you buy every week is that it gets so boring.  It's why eating the food that has been cooked at home becomes a drag.  The beauty of a few good cookbooks is that you are constantly thinking to yourself, "Really? You want me to combine orange juice, maple syrup, and chili peppers?"  Yes.  Yes, they do, and if you try it, you'll be pleasantly surprised. 

5)  Take all the reasons to cook instead of ordering takeout, and multiply them times five if you make something from scratch.  Then, add this reason -- food made from scratch, food made with lots of love and mistakes, simply tastes better than anything pre-packaged and preservative-laden.  The five hundred year shelf life of a Twinkie comes to mind. 

I realize not everyone likes cooking or wants to make fancy meals.  Or maybe you are a crappy cook.  That's fine.  But if you give it a chance, and practice a little, it's not actually horrible.  And personally, I think even if you're not a huge fan of cooking, you can do anything 20 minutes a day for health and monetary benefit.  So try it, and if you hate it, at least you will have learned to make a couple things for when you feel bloated from all the restaurant dinners and want a break.

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