In the comments thread for yesterday’s post on frozen dinners, Maryn made a great comment about why the whole “cooking from scratch” concept might seem so overwhelming to people who are just getting started cooking real food:
I think it’s really important for people who are starting to cook (or cook more, or more healthfully) to hear that the freezer can be your friend. Learning to integrate real cooking into your life seems so huge, if you’re not used to it – OMG I have to cook every dish from scratch every night for the rest of my life??? – that it’s easy to stumble into catastrophic thinking and imagine you will never be using a freezer or microwave (or toaster oven) again. The freezer begins to feel like an evil portal that allows processed food to sneak into your house, when really it’s just another tool for extending good foods’ seasons.
Aha! Well no wonder people are feeling overwhelmed. It never occurred to me that someone would think that your own frozen food wouldn’t “count,” or that folks who have no experience cooking might not consider that you can plan ahead, cook extra and get two or three meals out of one evening in the kitchen.
I rarely eat processed meals from the store, but that doesn’t mean I cook every night. I cook in spurts — and when I cook I almost always deliberately cook more than I’m going to need for that particular meal. For instance, last night I roasted a chicken and a pan of vegetables (onions, carrots, potatoes, brussel sprouts with some of my homemade pancetta and some garlic).
I can roast a chicken on one night, and get another three or four easy meals out of it by reheating or using the chicken breasts in quesadillas or sandwiches for lunch. Those veggies can be reheated, or tossed into a dish with a little cream and cheese for a gratin. Or made into a simple soup.
I think that maybe one of the tricks is to begin to see beyond the immediate horizon of “I’m hungry now.” The processed food industry wants to keep us hobbled to the immediate, wants us to think that cooking real food is “too hard” – there’s all those decisions to make — and dishes to clean up and they want us to believe that their food in boxes “frees” us from all that.
I learned to shop and think about a week’s food budget from my mom when I was in middle school and she was trying to learn to live on not much money after her divorce. She went through a turkey phase — turkey is not expensive, and from one turkey we got a couple of nice dinners, then sandwiches, and a carcass to pick at and then finally, the dread turkey soup. I learned to cook a pot roast for the same reasons — it was a big piece of cheap meat and we could get a couple of dinners out of it, and then make soup. A whole turkey or a big pot roast was cheaper by the portion than a package of chicken breasts or a package of steaks. Here’s where the freezer comes in — who wants to keep eating that damn turkey until it’s gone? So pack up a couple of dinners, pop them in your own freezer, and move on to the next thing. Then next week, when you’ve had a crappy day, you can pull out your own nice food, pop it in the toaster oven or the microwave, and have real food.
Mom also made cookie dough in big batches, and then froze them in logs so we could cut off a few cookies after school and cook them up, either in the oven or in the toaster oven. (One of the things Alice Waters and I seem to have in common — a love of the toaster oven.) Cookie dough in a tube had just come out at that point, and my mother, who is not necessarily a frugal person in some other parts of her life, was appalled by what they were charging. Look, she told me — flour, sugar, butter are all inexpensive. We can make it ourselves for less money out of better ingredients.
With a little practice, this gets easier. And I don’t know, I just can’t help but think that once people start eating real food — food that isn’t full of stabilizers and emulsifiers and added salt and sugar that they’ll begin to realize what they were missing. It doesn’t have to be hard. The difference is negligible between tossing a plastic tray of frozen food into the microwave and reheating a piece of chicken with some veggies in the toaster oven, or putting a bowl of leftover soup in the microwave.
And although Alice Waters has been frightening people by implying that it doesn’t count if you can’t get the most perfect vegetables from your local farmer’s market where you’ve developed a relationship with your farmer — I think her message boils down to pretty much the same thing I’ve been trying to say about cooking. It’s just not that hard. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate thing with dirty dishes all over the kitchen. You can make a simple salad from real ingredients and a fresh dressing, or roast a chicken and then get a couple of other easy dinners out of it that you can reheat later, you can roast some veggies with the chicken and then make a delicious little soup out of them. Whether they’re pristine organic veggies or just ordinary commercial veggies from the produce aisle, I think if we can stop eating them precooked, drowned in chemicals, and frozen in blocks, then we’re making real progress.