Benefits of Cooking…YES COOKING! by Dana Carpender

I understand the public schools long ago did away with cooking class. It’s both a blessing and a shame.

When I was a kid (approximately a million years ago), girls were all required to take a couple of semesters of cooking in junior high school; boys were not. My cooking classes mostly consisted of learning to pour canned cheese soup over macaroni, to make macaroni and cheese, and some basic lessons in baking things like muffins and biscuits out of white flour and hydrogenated vegetable shortening – in fact, the cookbook we used was published by Crisco. Not inspiring.

By the time my brother, 4 years younger, got to junior high school, boys were required to take “Bachelor Living”, where they learned basic cooking and how to sew on a button. Isn’t that name a hoot? The implication, of course, was that no married man would ever cook. Little did they know that the day was fast approaching when many married women wouldn’t cook, either.

The downside of the demise of cooking class is the fact that so many folks seem to know virtually nothing about cooking. I think it’s a shame. Not everyone needs to be able to do fancy cooking, especially since a lot of that stuff is nothing you should be eating anyway. I can think of no good reason to knock yourself out learning to make puff paste, or how to cook the crust and the filling for a custard pie separately, and then slip the filling into the crust. I’ve never done those things, and I’ve been cooking ever since I can remember.

However, being completely helpless about food will cost you in a lot of ways. You’ll spend truly outrageous amounts of money on very basic things, like, say, roasted chicken, or salad dressing. You’ll eat more chemicals, bad oils, and added sugar than you meant to, since you’ll be at the mercy of the food processors. Heaven help you if you want to go gluten-free. And if you want anything beyond the basics to eat, you’ll end up going out, which is really expensive, if often fun, and may well expose you to hidden carbs in sauces, marinades, stuff like that.

Still, I know that a lot of folks are intimidated by basic cooking. They think of it as a complex, arcane skill, requiring great precision and gobs of time. This feeling is reinforced by ads for processed food, which so often show a sweaty, disheveled woman slogging her way through some arduous chore like, oh, you know, mashing the potatoes. I remember one night twenty years ago when a group of friends, all young and broke, got together to have a little dinner party. We roasted a couple of chickens. When they came out of the oven I noticed there were lots of nice brown drippings, and asked, “Would anybody like me to make gravy?”

Well! They stared at me as if I had asked, “Would anybody like me to transmute base metals into gold?” “You… know how to make gravy?!” they asked. “Uh, yeah, I’ve been making gravy since I was about six,” I responded. All those ads for jarred gravy had convinced them that this was some terribly difficult task, but I knew the truth – that making gravy was, quite literally, child’s play.

Most Americans have been convinced that certain foods simply grow in bottles, cans, or jars at the grocery store, and that’s it. Salad dressing, for instance. I rarely use bottled salad dressing; I “dress my salad” instead. Did you even know that’s where the term “salad dressing” came from? How do I dress a salad? I crush a clove of garlic into a small dish, and pour a quarter to a half a cup of olive oil over it, depending on how big the salad will be. I let this sit while I assemble the salad itself. I toss the garlicky oil into the salad first. Then I’ll add various things, depending on the salad and the meal as a whole. For a Greek salad, I’ll toss in lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a little oregano. For a mock-Caesar style dressing, I’ll toss in lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, a little mayonnaise to make it creamy, and a good shot of Parmesan cheese. For an Italian style dressing, I’ll add wine vinegar, mixed Italian herbs (found labeled “Italian seasoning”), salt and pepper, maybe a little mustard. I’ll taste as I go, remembering always that it’s easy to add more and impossible to take too much out. It never fails to come out tasting better, and fresher, than the bottled stuff!

Am I trying to convince you to cook if you really, really hate it? Am I trying to convince you to make a five-course dinner after working a ten-hour day? Not at all. If you don’t want to cook, I have no vested interest in convincing you that you should cook, so long as you can afford the extra expense that not cooking incurs.

Nope, I’m aiming here at those of you who are intimidated by cooking; who are quite certain you simply can’t cook. I hope to convince you that plain cooking is really not difficult at all – that it’s something you can do. This is a little pep-talk for all the folks out there who have been snookered into thinking that they need to pay the food processing industry to do the difficult, complicated job of getting food on the table. Paying someone to cook for you has always been a luxury. Perfectly ordinary people have been cooking for millennia, and they’ve done just fine.

Ever watch the Food Network? One of it’s longest-running stars is Emeril LaGasse, one of the reigning chefs of New Orleans. Emeril has not one but two of the hottest restaurants in town, heaven knows how many cookbooks, and, last I knew, two cooking shows on the Food Network. The one to watch is Emeril Live!, where he cooks in front of a studio audience. Why? Because he’s so obviously having fun, and he demystifies cooking so much. “Now we’re going to put in some garlic,” he’ll say. The audience will ooh and ah their delight. “You like it? Put in some more!” And he’ll throw in some more garlic. “You don’t like it so much? Don’t put in so much. Hey, it’s not rocket science. We’re just cooking.”

Isn’t that great? One of the most celebrated chefs in America today, and he’s telling you, “Hey, it’s not rocket science. We’re just cooking.” What a liberating attitude!

And he’s right. I make stuff up all the time. Now, granted, I’ve been cooking since I was a kid. But I started by playing with cooking, all those years ago, and I really didn’t mess it up very often. Here’s my mantra: If you start with good ingredients, how bad can it be? So long as you have the smarts to not put, say, barbecue sauce in the vanilla custard, your results may not always be utterly brilliant, but they’re likely to be quite edible.

Further, as a low carb dieter, you have a real advantage, since you won’t be doing a lot of baking. Baking – making muffins, biscuits, pastries, breads, stuff like that – is by far the touchiest and most difficult form of cooking to master. Even an experienced cook can turn out flat bread, or tough muffins with tunnels in them. However, this is not your worry!

Basic cooking you can learn, if you can read. You can learn, without much trouble, to roast a chicken, a leg of lamb, a piece of pork shoulder. You can learn to sauté a chop or a chicken breast in olive oil and garlic for a fast, tasty meal. You can learn to plunk things into a slow cooker, cover it, turn it on, and go to work. You can even learn to use a recipe as a starting place, instead of viewing it as immutable law. Like Emeril, you can learn to add more of a seasoning if you like it, or use less – or even leave it out! – if you don’t. It’s all a matter of deciding who’s in charge, you or the food. 

I know that the low carb dieters who already cook are always looking for low carb cookbooks, and I appreciate that very much. But those of you who are making your first tentative steps into the wonderful world of cooking also need something a bit more basic; something that will do some explaining. You need at least one good, general cookbook that will define basic terms for you, sort of an encyclopedia of cooking. The best selling cookbook in the English language for decades – with good reason, I might add – is The Joy of Cooking. It is available at any – and I do mean any – general bookstore in America, and much of the rest of the world. This is the sort of cookbook you turn to when you need to know how long and at what temperature to roast a turkey, or how many cups of butter to the pound, or what the heck the instructions “cream until light” mean. Oh, yeah, good recipes, too. 

Again, if you simply don’t want to cook, and don’t mind eating out, or living on frozen grilled fish fillets, pre_cooked shrimp, rotisserie chicken, bagged salad, pre_formed hamburgers, and the like, that’s fine with me. But if you’re bored with all that stuff, and don’t have the money to eat out every night, I hereby encourage you to give cooking a shot. 

Hey, it’s just food! We’re just cooking, it’s not rocket science. 

I’m going to go baste the spareribs in my oven. 

© 2011 by Dana Carpender. Used by permission of the author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments toDana Carpender


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