Monday, January 11, 2010

Fast Food

One of the things I've noticed about people's reaction to my comments that I cook from scratch is that they think they don't have the time or expertise to cook that way. Many people rely on packaged foods, complete meals frozen by food processing companies, and fast food or restaurant food because they think cooking from scratch is too time-consuming or too hard. But neither is true.

Last fall I had a juxtaposition of things that got me to one of those aha! moments. I read two books that used the idea of preprepping ingredients. They were Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Judith Jones was Julia Child's editor and Tom Colicchio is one of the judges on Bravo's series, Top Chef. Both of these books are about creating food and using it in multiple ways. They're about making ingredients to be used in the recipe, but having extra to use in another recipe.

Although that seems like a fancy term for "leftovers", they're not like the how to use leftover articles I see in women's magazines after Thanksgiving. Those recipes don't have the creativity I see in the above mentioned books. That creativity is one reason I think of them as ingredients, not leftovers. Another reason is that you can make the food without making the original recipe and just use it in other dishes. That's an ingredient, not a leftover.

The second aspect of the things that got juxtaposed in my mind was when a weekend came up and I had some rare free time. I wasn't using the recipes or cookbooks I mentioned. I don't think I had them yet. I was just trying to be more efficient. So, I cooked granola, oatmeal, rice, beans, baked some potatoes and browned some ground turkey. I don't remember what else I made, maybe some salsa? The next week I was able to prepare meals from scratch in about the same time as if I'd used packaged ingredients from the store. I realized that by time-shifting as much prep work as I can, I can work the odd hours and run the weird schedule I have without sacrificing fresh meals.

Those two things came together in my mind and I realized that cooking from scratch when you don't have hours to spend before dinner making dinner is mainly a matter of planning and having preprepped ingredients, along with a pantry stocked with staples, you can use to create meals.

I've always enjoyed pulling things out of the pantry and fridge and just cooking whatever comes to mind. What's a new concept for me is the idea that I don't have to cook everything at the last minute. Nor do I have to cook entire meals in advance or an extra casserole to freeze for later. I don't like to do that because there are only two of us and we end up eating the same thing for days if the whole meal or main course is completely prepped in advance.

But most people, including me, weren't taught how to break recipes down into prep steps and how to figure out which of those can be done in advance. If people manage to do that, there's the problem of how to prep the ingredients so you can store them without losing flavor and nutrition or having them spoil before you make the dish. That's why it seems hard.

I've learned a lot from professional chefs, experimentation, and research about how to do this. I think I need to practice what I already know and continue to study how to use that knowledge because becoming proficient in planning, making and using preprepped ingredients is the best way I can think of to achieve my personal goal of eating at home and reserving restaurant meals for special occasions. I'd much rather eat out less often, but eat at really good, which usually means more expensive, restaurants.

Sometimes it's not the time to make dinner that makes people go out. It's the added time to clean up the mess from cooking that makes eating in seem like too much work after a long day. Foods like one-skillet dishes from a box or microwaved meals from the freezer or take-out pizza guarantee fast, easy clean up. Planning and prepping ingredients in advance also gives you easy, fast cleanup on the busy nights because most of the cooking mess is from prepping, not cooking the meal.

So, one of my goals for this year is to streamline the planning process, which will allow me more time to do the actual cooking, and use the knowledge gained from my aha! moment to allow me to get meals on the table at a reasonable hour even if I get home from work late.