BY CAROL J. BUTLER
Many of today’s contemporary cooking shows stress the importance of quick-n-easy, with a focus on getting you out of the kitchen as soon as possible, as if the kitchen were a terrible place to be.
Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, says Americans are spending less and less time in their kitchens, a trend that studies correlate to our growing waistlines, because, apparently, the less work we do to prepare our meals, the more we tend to eat. In an interview with Tracie McMillan for The Slate Book Review, Pollan concludes that not cooking causes a ripple effect of troubles, affecting “the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land.”
It’s clear that cooking gives us many benefits, but perhaps what we need to adjust is our expectations about what cooking requires of us. Real cooking using real ingredients – whole vegetables, meat, legumes, and grains not processed in jars, packages, or cans – takes both mind and muscle, but here’s the thing: That’s what makes it fun. There is a certain thrill that comes from rising to a challenge, breaking a sweat, making it yourself, and doing it well. I’d like to help reverse the idea that being in the kitchen is some kind of medieval punishment. Here are several suggestions on how we can get more out of cooking—not by spending less time in the kitchen, but by enjoying more the time that we are there.
Obstacle #1: I’m too tired
I am of the belief that happy cooks make better food. If you are a working parent like me, sometimes coming home to make dinner is the last thing in the world you feel like doing. My solution is to begin with Happy Hour. Start with small appetizers such as a salad or set out vegetables with hummus. I usually don’t prepare anything too elaborate, but I always come up with something, either beverage or snack or both, to serve myself and entice the kitchen help. I suggest limiting the snacks to plants, such as vegetables, nuts, and seeds, as the goal here isn’t to fill up, but simply to take the edge off the hunger—and maybe the edge of your day, as well! I like to serve raw vegetables (and red wine) because they are both healthy and easy to prepare. My husband installed a pair of kitchen speakers for me, and the music I hear goes a long way toward keeping me light both on my feet and in heart.
Obstacle #2: It’s just so easy to order take-out
Yes, take-out is easy, but it can also get boring, and in my experience, even pre-packaged food items can hinder creativity. Instead of re-lying on the same old bag of pre-shaped carrots, give a weird vegetable a try. Visiting farmers’ markets and joining a CSA are easy ways to expose yourself to an adventure in produce. Food coops also do a great job of offering variety. Bringing home just one new item or trying one new recipe a week can go a long way toward building anticipation and excitement in the kitchen.
Spices can also liven things up. The Coop spices available in bulk allow home cooks to try just a little bit of this or that; Penzeys Spices offers larger quantities in bags with a variety of blends; Wayzata Bay Spice Co. is a local distributor of bottled spices available at Kitchen Window, Lund’s, and Coastal Seafood. You can also broaden your horizons by trying combinations from other countries, or visiting spe-cialty markets such as Holy Land or Pooja.
Obstacle #3: I don’t have time
Lack of time is the number one reason most people cite for why they can’t cook. Ironically, the more time you spend in the kitchen, the faster you will get at cooking. Most of the work done preparing meals involves chopping or cutting of one kind or another. Learning how to wield a big knife is the most important thing you can do to improve your efficiency in the kitchen. If you don’t have a chef knife, get one, and get chopping. The better your skill, the more enjoyable cooking will become. Learning other skills such as sautéing, whisking, flipping, and frying can also broaden your horizons and add variety to the list of things you can comfortably prepare. Watching a cooking show can give you a few tips and pointers here, but practice is the only way to develop the skill yourself. To quote Julia Child, “You get good at flipping it by flipping it!”
AMMA’S VEGETABLE STEW
By Carol J. Butler
“Amma” is Icelandic for Grandma, and when it comes to cooking fresh in our family, she leads the way. This recipe utilizes many of the fall finds for the season, though you can make substitutions, add onions, and try other kinds of beans. A vegetarian dish, it can be made ahead of time and frozen for an easy meal on a busy night, as the flavors will only meld and improve. It is also thick enough to serve over whole grains such as rice or quinoa for a change of pace. Serves 10 to 12
1lb pinto beans soaked overnight (1lb dry beans = 6 cups cooked)
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
rutabaga, 1 medium
turnip, 1 medium
parsnips, 3 to 4
zucchini, 2 to 3
celery, 4 to 5 stalks
garlic (two to four cloves)
1 yellow pepper
1 red pepper
1 orange pepper
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped (or half jalapeno, depending)
One bunch of kale, Swiss chard, or other greens, chopped
2 small cans or 1 big can diced tomatoes with their juice
1 box organic vegetable broth
1tablespoon chili powder
½ teaspoon turmeric (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Drain water from your soaking beans and cover with fresh water, allowing at least two inches of liquid to cover the legumes. Boil for 1 ½ hours, check-ing water level. When tender, drain into a colander, rinse, and set aside. Meanwhile, wash, your vegetables. Peel, slice, and cut rutabaga, turnips, and pars-nips into chunks. Slice your celery, and dice your zucchini and peppers. Mince your garlic and jalapeno (if using.) In a Dutch oven or large pot, melt 2 tablespoons butter or oil, and sauté your vegetables to soften, starting with garlic first, and going from your smallest to largest vegetable pieces. Add water to cover, salt, and cook over low heat, allowing the vegetables to create a flavorful broth. When tender, add your cooked and drained beans, spices, and canned tomatoes with their juice. Lastly, chop your greens and add to the pot with the broth, (you do not have to add all the broth if you prefer a thicker stew) stir to combine, and simmer about 20 minutes to meld flavors.
Taste and correct seasonings. Ladle into bowls, and serve garnished with a dollop of sour cream. For vegans or for a dash of color, garnish with fresh ci-lantro or chopped green onions.