Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I Challenge You

I think I promised early on to post only when I have something special to share. Today I don’t. So I lied.

Instead, I’m going to share some thoughts. You can have your own epiphany in the kitchen. You don’t need to be a skilled cook to do so, either. Anyone reading this certainly has a cookbook or two on hand. Take a break from whatever you expect to be doing when you finish reading this. Go get one of those cookbooks…any one, it doesn’t matter which or what cuisine. Start reading the index in the back.

As soon as you see a recipe that sounds good to you (that is, you’d like to eat some of whatever it is right now), go to it. Make a list of any ingredients it calls for that you don’t have on hand. Before you go to the store to get them, think for a moment. Does the recipe call for lemon zest? Consider trying orange or lime instead. Does it call for bread crumbs and what you have is those Italian flavored ones? Throw them out and put Panko bread crumbs on your list. The “herbed” bread crumbs will hijack your recipe from the gitgo.

Maybe the recipe suggests fresh basil or thyme or oregano, your choice. Consider using two of them, or even all three in modest amounts. Are you supposed to use eggs? Consider using what I call “fake” eggs, the ones that come in the milk-sized cartons. They work perfectly well for most applications and spare you the angst of eating something with CHOLESTEROL in it. Besides, a few eggs a week is again considered part of a healthy diet.

Remember another thing: are you cooking for yourself or just two? Most recipes in cookbooks are for four or more. Do a little simple math and make what will get eaten, especially if you are one of those people who stick your leftovers in the fridge and ignore them for weeks at a time. You know who you are.

Do you get the drill here? You will make your life much more interesting by doing this exercise.

Here’s another way you could go about it. Think about your protein for today. There are a lot of possibilities: steak, lamb, myriad kinds of fish, shrimp, pork chops, chicken. You notice I’m not including the meats that require long cooking such as roasts. If you’re going to do this more or less on the spur of the moment, don’t scare yourself off before you even get started.

Was steak your choice? Does your supermarket have a sale bin for items that are about to pass there “best if used by” date? Check it out. I got a nice piece of sirloin this morning for 30% off. Even it had been a day or two past the date (which it wasn’t), that’s not a problem with a steak. For gosh sakes, fancy steak houses age the stuff for days or weeks.

Do not, I repeat, do not buy ground meat. The possibility of contamination is far greater than it is with an intact hunk of meat. You want a burger? Buy a piece of chuck steak and cut it into 1” cubes. Stick it in the food processor and pulse it until it breaks up into burger texture. If you’re really concerned about safety, drop that steak into a pot of boiling water for just 30 seconds before you cut it into cubes. E coli can only exist on the outside of a hunk of meat. Now you can make a burger as rare as you want at no risk.

You can make your coming repast easy by being expedient. Buy a head of your favorite kind of lettuce and one additional item, a carrot, a stalk of celery, a bunch of radishes, some or all of the above. Lettuce and one or two additions will make a perfectly satisfying salad. Dressing? Go ahead, buy a bottle. Make this dinner fun.

Add a starch to your list, or don’t. It’s fun and easy to cook some orzo pasta and dress it with butter (ok, or margarine), some salt and pepper and maybe a little parmesan or romano cheese. DO NOT, I repeat (in a more gentle tone of voice), do not buy one of those green cylinders of parmesan cheese. That stuff really sucks. Far better is to get a tub of pre-shredded cheese if you don’t feel like going for a wedge of the real stuff.

Don’t want a starch? Maybe for you the salad and steak or burger are enough. So be it. However, if you want to add a vegetable to the menu, do not (I kept my voice down this time) buy canned veggies, with a couple of exceptions. A side of white or black beans with just some lemon juice and olive oil and salt and pepper can be fun. Buy a can. Do not buy: canned corn, peas, asparagus, or green beans. Canned beets are more than ok. I even like canned potatoes. They have a flavor all their own, but one I enjoy.

Instead of the canned foods section, you’ll do much better with any vegetable in the freezer section (although not as good as fresh veggies). Do not buy frozen green beans, carrots, asparagus, or corn. Peas are just fine, as is frozen corn, black-eyed peas, artichokes, and a few others I’m just not remembering at the moment.

So are you saying now that I promised to make this easy and I’m going on and on and complicating everything. Bullshit. I’m just giving you a method, a plan of attack, a raison d’etre culinarily speaking. Not for tomorrow (although that would be fine if you need more planning time or your main squeeze is taking you out tonight), but for today – right now.

Make a list. Need I say it again? Make a list! I guarantee that if you don’t you will forget something.

Get your ass out the door to your favorite market and buy those things you decided you want and need.

When you get home, slavishly follow that recipe you found. If you have “Joy of Cooking” you’ll find that the steps are very clearly laid out. Just follow them.

I hope you get to share this meal with someone. It’s good for your health to be with friends or loved ones (or friends who are loved ones) across the dinner table. Enjoy yourself.

Oh yeah, on the way home from the supermarket stop at a reputable liquor store. Tell the people there what you’re going to cook and whether you want red or white wine (either one can be drunk with anything). If what you want is beer, get your favorite kind.

Ok, that’s it. My work is done here.

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