Friday, September 24, 2010

Culinary Misadventures

Let me tell you about my previous forays into affordable cooking at home. It usually starts with a recipe (don’t they all?). I’ll be flipping through my recipe books, drooling over the dishes that I have all the desire but none of the ingredients to make and I’ll stumble on a recipe that just looks amazing. I’ll jot the recipe down onto a sticky note and off to the store I go. All will be going great, I’ll have a full basket of goodies…and then I find it. The one ingredient that I’ve never purchased before and will likely never, ever need again.

“Oh my god, nigella seeds? What the hell is a nigella, and why do I need the seeds?” I stare at the sticky note, my mind running through every cooking show I’ve ever watched. “Nigella? Isn’t that the new chef? Okay, is this a spice? An herb?” By this time I’m turning circles in the aisle, peering up at the large signs hanging overhead as if magically Aisle 10 will show Pasta, Canned Vegetables, and Nigella Seeds. By the time I figure out that it’s a spice, and not just a spice, it’s an EXOTIC spice, all the way over in the special International Foods corner of the store…by the time I’ve measured the pesky black seeds into a baggie and tied it off…I’ve spent $8.99. On a spice. That I wasn’t even sure was a spice, and will likely never, ever use again. Well, so much for my healthy AFFORDABLE meal…
But, nonetheless, you have to splurge every now and then and treat yourself to a new, exotic taste, right? So home I go, ingredients in hand, and bank account a little lighter to start cooking. I spin around my kitchen like a tornado gathering pots and tools so I can have them all lined up on the countertop. Now, here’s the thing. I’m a single girl who is a foodie at heart, but I’m a foodie on a budget. I don’t have the money for all of the expensive pots and pans that seem to be required. A bundt pan? Please. Why am I going to spend money on a pan that lends itself to the creation of only ONE dish? A double boiler? Yeah, that’s called stacking two pots together with water in the bottom. I would LOVE to live in a world where I had every creative tool at my disposal, but that’s not my reality, so yes, I’ll admit, my large frying pan has substituted for a wok on more than one occasion.

I mean, that’s how we really live, right? Most of us have pots and pan collections that we’ve inherited from one location or another; a frying pan from our parent’s house, a saucepan we stole from our ex-boyfriend when we moved out, a cracked Corningware casserole we found at a garage sale.. It’d be nice to have that beautiful, cast-iron dutch oven, or that shiny new pressure cooker, but it’s just not practical. When we cook at home, we hope that it can be made in one pan or baking dish. If it’s going to take 5 dishes, one of which is something fancy-shmancy that we don’t really have, we’re probably not going to cook.

Now, when I’m cooking in the kitchen, I tend to see the recipe instructions as more guidelines than rules. If I don’t like something, I’ll change it up. If I don’t have a particular ingredient, I will find a work around. If I’m not clear, the internet is an awesome resource. If there’s a spice that I don’t particularly care for, I’ll leave it out. I make the recipe MY way, and I can do this because I really, genuinely love cooking and like living on the edge in the kitchen. For me, there is no worst case scenario – if it doesn’t turn out right, I don’t eat it, (yay for the random packages of ramen in the back cupboard!) and I make notes on what turned it into a kitchen disaster in the first place. Well, let’s be honest here. I’ll probably eat it anyway. If my little experiment works out, I do a little dance, fall into a comfy chair, and enjoy the fruits of my creative labor.

But that’s not how the rest of the world works. If you’re cooking for your family, you HAVE to know that recipe is going to work and it’s going to be delicious. Otherwise, you’re going to wind up with some unhappy campers on your hands and a lot of wasted time and money. So, you’re bound to the directions and follow them to the letter. Every ingredient is accounted for, every pan is properly used, the finer details of prep and serving are strictly adhered to. Ingredients had better be widely available at an affordable price, and prepping those ingredients had better be simple, (dicing? Great. Chiffonade? WTH?), and the fewer dishes to cook in, the better.

I think the reason more people DON’T cook at home is a combination of affordability and time. I mean, yes, I think we’re all aware that cooking at home is much healthier than that dollar-burger, but when you only have $20 budgeted for a family of four, your options become much more limited. Plus, we are not a society which allows for many open windows of time. Gone are the days where you could cook a leisurely dinner for your family while the kids played ball in the yard and hubby enjoyed a pipe and his paper in the easy chair. Now, our days are filled with school, music lessons, soccer practice, PTA meetings, prayer groups, and maybe, just maybe, a returned phone call to grandma before bed.

So, we go through the drive-thrus, and phone in our orders from the stack of paper menus that we have stuck to the refrigerator, all the while lamenting that “man, we really should just cook at home more often.” Because, while we know that it’s healthier, and in the long run, cheaper, we simply lack the resources to do it.

Tell me, my friends. What’s YOUR excuse? What’s the reason that you don’t cook at home as often as you should? Or, if you’re one of the lucky ones that do, what are some of the challenges that you’ve run into along the way?

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