As everyone I know knows by now, one of my fantasies is being the next Food Network star–and, indeed, they had tryouts in Chicago a couple of months ago. Did I even attempt to audition? No, not at all (though I had some brief thoughts about it), in part because, even supposing I could get on the show (and take off several months from my current job to do so), and even supposing I could win (which is a huge supposition), I don’t actually want to be on television. For one thing, I’d have to stop cursing, which I’m not sure is entirely possible.
All that being said, I watched last season, and I realized that my angle–or, as they say on the show, my “POV” (i.e., point of view)–would be Iron Chef: Your House. This all started several years ago, when a friend was unemployed. He bought the bruised and battered–and cheap–veggies from the leftover produce rack at the local small grocery store, because they were, yes, cheap. I’d often go to his house of a Sunday, and we’d make dinner, and I usually handled the veggies and side dishes. He’d point me to whatever he purchased from the rack, and I’d have to try to make something tasty out of it. I succeeded more often than not.
Now, the new CSA year is about to start. Yes, my CSA does a winter share, too, though this is the first year they’ve tried it. Unlike the rest of the year, it’s every other week, and it will apparently include some frozen and canned stuff from the farm. I’m already excited about the frozen butternut squash–in the weekly newsletters, Chris, the farm owner/manager, said that they had squash that were too bruised to include in the boxes but were otherwise perfectly good. This pleased me, not least because I like butternut squash, but also because I liked the idea of not wasting imperfect veggies. This is the fourth year I’ve done this, and the CSA box is a similar exercise in using what’s on hand, even if the veggies are more expensive and in better shape. And that’s really what this is all about: how do you cook what’s on hand? How to you minimize waste? And, in my case, how do you eat local, sustainable, etc., as much as possible? (This may not be an option for everyone, because it can cost more, but you can at least try to eat seasonally.)
As I’ve thought about this whole thing, I realized that I have several things going for me that might not be the same as your life. I’m nearly an omnivore. I can’t eat a few things (bell peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, iceberg lettuce), but otherwise am willing to try just about anything. I do not eat very much meat, but I do eat it, and what I do cook tends to be wild game (venison, wild turkey, occasionally rabbit), because I have a friend who is a hunter (and a getter; turns out the hunting is only useful if you actually get some meat at the end). In addition, when I buy meat or fish, I am privileged enough to be able to be very picky about it and pay more for it–my basic principle is that the flesh I eat not have been tortured in a factory farm while it was alive–but I also recognize not everyone can afford that. Even without the privilege, though, I don’t eat all that much meat, and I may go days without eating any.
For another thing, I don’t have to feed a family. It’s usually just me, with possibly one or two friends, and the friends I feed are also omnivores, so I don’t have to deal with kids or picky eaters, and I don’t have to deal with getting a meal on the table at a certain time. But I do bring my lunch (and sometimes breakfast) to work every day, and lunch is my main meal, so I cook with the intent of leftovers, and I package and freeze things so that it’s easy to do that: meal-sized packages are always my desired result. When I was in grad school, and even after that, when I was broke and not making much, I would spend part of a weekend making several big batches of stuff, and then portion and freeze it all. While it would probably require more cooking over all–to feed more people–the same approach could work for families. Thus, one of the purchases I recommend, if you can afford it, is a good stand-alone freezer. I have a 7-cubic-foot chest freezer, and it’s very nice to be able to throw things in it.
Finally, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve lived alone for a substantial portion of my life, so I’ve rarely had to cook to please others, which has given me a lot of room for experimentation. Some experiments are more successful than others, but I haven’t really had to worry about something not coming out properly and still have others waiting for a meal. If you haven’t been cooking from scratch for all that long, or if you’re used to only cooking from recipes, you’ll see pretty quickly that my approach is different from that. I do use recipes–though now more as a starting point than as a complete guide to what I’m going to do–but what I do more often is amalgamate what I have on hand with what I’ve learned, maybe with some glances at some recipes along the way.
Okay, enough intro for today. I’ll do more of these things as I go along, though.
Today’s food is going to be pretty simple: homemade pizza. I made the crusts several weeks ago and par-baked and froze them, because I was hauling them elsewhere for a meal. We had leftovers, so the unused crusts came back to my freezer. I also have some vegetarian tomato sauce in the freezer, as well as some sausage (from the farmers market this summer–the vendor buys a whole pig and then butchers it and makes various things from it, including sausage), fresh mozzarella, and spinach. I’m also making a bolognese sauce today, from the ground venison in the freezer. My recipes for these things are from:
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (the bolognese sauce) and Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Baking (the pizza crusts). The tomato sauce I already knew how to make, and I’ll walk you through a version at some point. The Reinhart book has become my new scripture, and it is completely awesome. If you are at all interested in baking your own whole-grain breads, it’s a fabulous source. I plan to make crackers from that book as well.
One last thing: partly because I worked in a bakery for two years, and partly because I’ve been doing this so long, I tend NOT to chop and dice everything before I start. I gather it all to make sure I’m not missing anything, but I don’t do all the chopping first. I know how long onions take to soften or caramelize, so I’ll chop the onion first, throw it in the pot, and then start cutting up the next thing that will go in the pot. This approach reduces the amount of time things take to make, but it may take some practice.
So, welcome to the kitchen! I hope you come back.