The Unintentional Smugness of Food Bloggers
It seems that I might owe my readers an apology (well, me and most of the food bloggers out there, actually), or at least an explanation. I recently read an article that reminded me that as food writers and food photographers, we crank out blog posts showing perfectly plated meals that most families just don’t have the energy to create on any given busy weeknight. (That photo above? It was part of a photo shoot for one of my cookbooks, not Tuesday’s dinner.) As people devoted to the world of all things food, we wax for paragraphs on why everyone should be able to [insert difficult cooking technique here] without accounting for their lack of equipment, training or time. We’ve spent countless hours learning about our food system and become frustrated when others “don’t get it”, without admitting that maybe people who don’t do this full time just don’t have the time to read all of those articles about food politics. We expect everyone to love cooking as much as we do, and are shocked when someone says that they don’t cook at home. And so I offer not just an apology for that unintentional smugness, but a blog post that really might make your life easier in the kitchen.I’ve cooked my whole life, taught by a mother (pictured with me about 15 years ago) who shared her skills and passion with me, and yet I know that’s not everyone’s experience. And frankly, even if your mom, grandfather, or anyone else did teach you to cook, that might not mean you love doing it every day. But at the end of the day, it’s important that we feed ourselves and our families something that is affordable, pleasurable, and nutritious. So if you truly don’t love to cook, are strapped for time, have limited equipment, and weren’t taught how to cook, how are you going to do it? I’ll refrain from saying “it’s easy” because I do acknowledge that it’s not. Instead, I’ll tell you some “secrets” about me and my cooking rituals in the hopes that you just might be surprised, and might pick up some tips to make your life easier.I don’t cook every day. Does that shock you? Did you think I’m in the kitchen whistling while I work each evening, putting out gorgeous food every day? Well I’m not. Even though I love cooking, I’m tired just like you at the end of the day. In some cases I’ve spent hours in the kitchen already for any one of the non-profits I volunteer with, and I can’t face another knife, pot, or ingredient. So even though we are a household of only the 2 of us now that our kids are grown, I rarely cook just 2 servings of anything. At a minimum I make 3-4 portions so I have something decent to eat leftover for lunch, but more often than not, I make large batches of things that can be frozen in individual or family sized portions for another occasion – a home cooked meal in minutes, if you will. I do this with soups, chili, meatloaf, meatballs in sauce, lasagna, cannelloni,and more. You can heat up the leftovers quickly, serve it with a simple salad, and feel good about what you put on the table for your family. And just click on any of those links and you’ll find plenty of easy recipes that can be scaled.I don’t make gourmet meals very often, but rather simple home cooked dinners (like this favorite of my husband’s above: Italian sausage with peppers and onions simmered in marinara sauce). Sure, you might have read about my 8 course New Year’s menu that I put together for friends, but that’s the rare occasion, not the norm. Learn to make a few simple things well instead. Learn how to roast a chicken. Learn how to braise cheap and tough cuts of meat. Figure out a recipe for chili that your family loves and stick with it. Focus on simple, one-pot dishes or casseroles so you aren’t creating several different recipes each night. Again, just look to the Tag Cloud to the right for inspiration.I definitely have learned how to flavor food. Perhaps the most challenging thing for home cooks is how to combine flavors in a simple fashion to take food from boring and bland to exciting and flavorful. When I first started cooking without recipes, this was the first thing I focused on, and it’s pretty easy for you to do also. First, ditch the iodized salt for some great sea salt like the fleur de del above. Don’t be afraid to throw in some fresh herbs (see chart below), or to finish a dish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil or a great balsamic vinegar. Simple combinations of flavors yield certain cuisines – or at least something close enough to it that your family will be happy. Many years ago I found a list called A Cooks Guide to Ethnic Ingredients (website now defunct or I would credit them), and you can download this as a guide to combining flavors. You don’t need to use all of the ingredients or spices, but think of trios: basil, tomato and garlic will give you something that tastes Italian; cilantro, chiles, and coconut will create something that tastes Thai; and lime, cumin, and avocado will make you think of Mexican flavors.And I stock my pantry with basics. Peruse that list of ethnic ingredients above and stock herbs, spices, and staples that will allow you to combine things simply and quickly for a weeknight dinner. Instead of broiled halibut, why not simmer the halibut in some coconut milk with a bit of jalapeño, curry, and ginger? Instead of a plain chicken breast, why not bake the chicken with peppers and onions and some tomato sauce? You get the idea – just combine a few ingredients that seem to go together for any given cuisine, and you’ll be much more excited about the food you’re serving for dinner. Remember, this doesn’t mean the technique has to be complicated or take a long time – the examples I’ve given can be done in less than 30 minutes. They can be served with some simple rice or pasta on the side and a salad for a great dinner. In the coming months I’m going to be going back through many of my recipes on this site and adding a Category called as Easy Entrees – click on the Category drop down to the right and you’ll find many there already. In the meantime, let me leave you with this fabulous Herb Pairing Guide from our friends at Personal Creations. I hope you find lots of inspiration from their ideas – and please forgive me if my posts ever sound a bit smug. I promise it’s not intentional!