With the holiday season upon us, people across this great nation of ours start thinking about food. Not just any food, but traditional, iconic home cooked food. The problem is, not everyone knows how to cook. Actually, I think most people don’t really know how to cook, and why would they? Since the 1970s, we have been opening a can, thawing something frozen and preparing meals that are already prepared, processed and terrible for you. Why peel a potato when you can open a package of instant potatoes? Why by a bag of rice when you can buy Uncle Ben’s minute rice, and throw it in the microwave. Why? Well, because instant mashed potatoes and Uncle Ben’s instant rice suck in comparison, and it is not at all good for you.
When asked, most folks will say that they don’t have time to cook. What a crock, and speaking of crock, how about those three crock pots you got as wedding gifts? Dust them off, plug them in, toss in a hunk of meat, some potatoes and carrots, go to work, and come home to a wonderful home cooked meal. Easy as that. There really are no excuses for eating that frozen, processed and prepared slop. Take the time to fix something real, something good, something you will enjoy and be proud of. And as for time, it takes less time to fix many meals than it does to fix a frozen TV dinner.
Let’s take chicken soup. You could open a can and dump it into a pot to heat, or you could make your own chicken soup in as little as 20 to 25 minutes, longer if you want it to be special. I start with a 2 quart sauce pan. I toss in one chicken breast or thigh. Cover that with water, add a little salt, a little pepper, one stalk of celery, chopped as finely as you like it, one onion and one carrot, both chopped to your liking. Bring it to a boil, turn it down to a simmer, add a lid and in 20 minutes you have chicken soup. (I usually chop up the boiled chicken about now.) At this point, I like to add a bouillon cube and a quarter cup of rice. Simmer this for 15 more minutes and you have chicken rice soup (substitute noodles if you like). Let’s say you didn’t add enough water. You could add some after it is all cooked, or you could leave it thick and call it rice pilaf. I know that we are all tired at the end of a work day, but chopping vegetables is cathartic, and the smell of onions and celery cooking is good for fighting off depression.
Everyone likes pizza. Try stopping by the store on your way home from work. Pick up a french baguette, a tomato, some fresh garlic, a package of sliced or shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese, and you’re half way there. Cut the baguette in half and then slice that in two. Lay all four pieces of bread on a cookie sheet. I like to microwave a clove of garlic with some butter to coat the bread, but olive oil and minced garlic works just as well. Slice your tomato very thin and lay it evenly on your bread (substitute pizza sauce from a jar if you like). Sprinkle some salt, pepper, Italian seasoning and cheese. Place all of that in a hot oven. I use 450 for about 15 – 20 minutes. Pizza doesn’t get much better than that. Of course you could add pepperoni, or cooked sausage, too. My friend, Bob Heldreth, has turned pizza making into an event for friends and family. He went so far as to build a brick oven in his yard that he fires with wood. If you can’t have gluten, you can make a wonderful thin crust with garbanzo bean flower and water.
If you’re a meat eater, but never know how to cook it, here’s an easy way. It’s called chicken fried. It is good for chicken, pork chops or lamb. Heat a little oil in a skillet that has a lid. If you want breading, you can add chopped bread crumbs and salt, pepper and garlic powder into plastic bag. I use the ones that you put vegetables in at the grocery store. Mix this all up, add the meat, one piece at time and shake. Just like shake and bake as a kid. This covers the meat with a thin coating of the seasoned bread crumbs. Then place the meat into the hot oil. Cook for about four to five minutes, turn the meat over, reduce heat to low, cover with a lid and come back anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. The longer you let it cook on low, the more tender it will be. Add corn on the cob to this, and you are in for a fine meal. You do not need to coat the meat with bread crumbs. You can use flour instead, or nothing at all.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, and speaking of iceberg… have you ever been to PF Chang’s? They have a wonderful, gluten free chicken lettuce wrap that is easy to make at home. I start with a thawed chicken breast. Using my fingers,I pull it into small pieces. You can also chop it if you prefer. Once it is in pieces, I fry it in grape seed oil until it is done. While the chicken is cooking, I chop up fresh green onions, ginger root and water chestnuts. I also make a sauce out of sesame oil, soy sauce, fish oil and my secret ingredient, orange marmalade. When the chicken is cooked, I add the sauce and let it thicken a little on high heat. Then I toss in the veggies and serve on big pieces of iceberg lettuce. It is to die for. Sometimes as an added bonus I will chop up peanuts to garnish the wraps with.
So the next time you are wanting something special, something a little different, something good for you, try cooking. Sure, you will make mistakes and have flops, but you will learn from every mistake and every success. Soon you will be a cooking fool.
I am not a trained chef. I seldom follow cookbooks. I usually start by seeing what I have in the garden, refrigerator or pantry. I make things up as I go. Lets say that the only vegetable you have is fresh or frozen spinach. Nothing to worry about. Toss it in a skillet, add some salt, pepper, chopped garlic and butter, add a little water, put a lid on it and simmer. That is what is known as soul food, or southern cooking. So you are out of veggies, but have a bag of apples, slice and core the apples, sauté in a skillet with butter and a little sugar, or my secret ingredient, orange marmalade, and you have an amazing side dish that goes great with just about anything, especially country ham.
Mmmm. I’ve got to go now. I have oven-baked homemade pierogis cooking. I like to make them when I have leftover mashed potatoes. I’ll confess. Sometimes I make too many mashed potatoes just so I can make pierogis. I’m talking about a pierogi casserole here, not the works of art that the little old Ukrainian ladies made back in my neighborhood when I was a kid. That’s right. I found a hack for pierogis.