Thursday, March 13, 2014

I heart cooking

So much.

Like, seriously. SO. MUCH.

And it always totally bums me out when I hear that people don't like to cook. It's the same way I feel when people say they hate history. WAT. My mind just cannot comprehend. I just feel so sad for them. Because cooking and history are AWESOME. Trust me on this. Both counts.

Cooking in particular (because this post is about cooking, not history--much to your insane disappointment, I'm sure) is super freaking awesome mostly because it's so damn rewarding. And it can be such a fantastic creative outlet, especially once you're beyond the stage of needing to follow recipes for every meal. Once you learn what goes with what and which flavours complement each other, and how to turn the randomness in your fridge, freezer, and pantry into a scrumptious meal, the possibilities are endless--as is the boost in confidence and self-esteem with every contented sigh erupting around the dinner table. (Do sighs technically erupt? Hmmm.)

We all have to start somewhere, though, and I was more than halfway through my twenties before my cooking journey really began. I had had a penchant for baking since I was a young girl, and I could cook basic things pretty well and follow recipes just fine. But both my mom and my sister COOK. And bake, man. Those two are ridiculous in the kitchen. And I was not of that caliber for a long time. And honestly, I worked full-time and ate out very regularly. I think back to how much I ate out when I worked, and it's astonishing compared to how much we eat out now. But really, that's the thing with making more money, right? You make more, you spend more. You make less, you do with less. This is not, of course, to say that some don't actually make enough money to comfortably live on. This is the States. A LOT of people are currently, depressingly in that position. But for those of us existing in that shifty, multi-defined (but undeniably shrinking) realm that is the "middle class," it's truly phenomenal how much you can cut expenditures and still live comfortably, and ultimately, happily.

It took us a loooooong time before we felt we could handle the transition to one income, but we've been living quite well on one for a few years now. And a large part of that success is indeed the choices ("sacrifices," some might call them, but please--we're not talking foregoing entire meals so our children can eat, like more people than we like to think about are doing in this world) we've made in terms of our priorities. Do we enjoy letting other people cook and serve us our food? HELLS YES, WE DO. But is it worth me working and letting someone else raise our kids so we can do that regularly? Ummmm, no. No, it isn't. Not at all. But we're lucky. I get that. Not everyone can make it work, but I have to say that I know quite a few families our age who are making that work--in California, of all places. And that makes me very, very happy.

So, right. Cooking. If I was someone who professed to hate cooking, this would never work. Buying prepared and convenience foods is freaking expensive compared to the cost of buying basic ingredients and going from there. But luckily I found myself, in my mid-twenties, with the time and inclination to devote to learning to cook. I started with one food blog I stumbled across and really liked (and whose author was based not far from my home, in the capital of my home state, something that made my living-over-4700-miles-away-in-another-country self happy) and lots and lots of phone calls to my mama. But I slowly built my repertoire (and my herb and spice collection), and within a year, I was ALL ABOUT COOKING. And it really didn't take long before I was ready to ditch the recipes all the time and just do my own thing, my preferred method to this day. I get a bit nervous when people ask for my recipes, because I'm all, oh, ummmmm, sure... Are you okay with weird, approximate measurements and rambling directions...? No?

And while I do like and appreciate fancy, involved recipes and meals, I find myself marveling over the super simple, easy ones we rely on as staples week after week, and wondering that everyone doesn't cook like this most every night. I realize that when you've been doing it for a while, you make it look easy to someone intimidated just by the very idea of cooking from scratch. But I think the basics of cooking delicious, wholesome meals for yourself and your family is way easier than most people in that position imagine. In fact, I know it is.

The Barbarian and I were discussing this the other night after one of our weekly go-to meals--baked chicken with quinoa and some random veggie I'm not remembering at the moment (the days run together around these parts--hard to believe, I'm sure, but so very true). Yes, I realize to the uninitiated, that meal may sound supremely boring, but I assure you, it is scrumptious. AND SO EASY.

One of the easiest ways to prepare food, in my opinion, is to fancy it up a bit and throw it in the oven. We do this A LOT. It's especially great for meats/fish and hearty veggies. And the method is the same for both: Place in a baking dish, drizzle or toss with some oil or butter, sprinkle with some mixture of salt/pepper/seasonings, put it in the oven, set the timer, and walk away. (...bwahahahahahahahaaaa!! Makes it sound like I just waltz off and kick my feet up on the couch with a cocktail or some shit while dinner cooks. I kill me.)

But truly, that's it. Have a grain simmering away on the stove and call it done. Or dinner. You can call it what it is. Transparency in the kitchen is not a bad thing, per se.

So, specifics, for those interested. Because I am seriously on a mission to make this whole thing less scary, people. OKAY? (And if you're like me, you're hearing Sigourney Weaver's voice in your head... "Look, I have ONE job on this lousy ship, it's STUPID, but I'm gonna do it. OKAY?")

Also, yes, I'm a big, fat nerd.

But speaking of fats! Fats are important. Don't forget. They make everything tasty. We eat quite a bit of butter because we don't think saturated fat is the devil--and because it's RIDICULOUS in the yum factor department. I mean, am I wrong? But I do cook with oils a lot and my go-to is grapeseed. It has a fairly high smoke point and a mild taste that lends itself well to just about anything. Avocado is another favourite. It has an even higher smoke point and deliciously mild flavour. We use it as a topping in place of butter on things like quinoa, too. The wee folk love it like this. And of course I use olive oil as well, but really not as much as I used to. Mostly just when I want that specific flavour, so for salads and dipping bread and sautéing at low heat, etc.

Seasonings can be a place where one's eyes glaze over a bit and a cold sweat breaks out on said one's forehead. I get that. There are so. many. But what's key is to learn a few flavour combos and go from there, as they can be added to or tweaked for many other things. One of the very first combinations I tried and realized was a fantastic base for so many things is garlic salt and lemon pepper. Seriously, just topping something with those two is a win. The other go-to I use is herbs de Provence, as it's delicious on just about anything. Put those three together and you are well on your way to amazingness in the oven. Add a few other things, and magic begins to happen.

So, for chicken, atop my drizzled fat of choice, I am currently often doing:

-garlic salt (or just granulated garlic and salt, as I'm out of garlic salt and have a huge thing of granulated)
-lemon pepper (or, again, this Flower Pepper blend from TJ's because I am out of their lemon pepper, and their pepper blends are the best and should most definitely be explored)
-herbs de Provence
-a little extra parsley (because I. love. parsley.)
-dry mustard (I use this for a lot of meat and poultry dishes)
-and a splash of fresh lemon juice (fresh lemon and lime juice make everything better)

I bake it at 425 for half an hour or so, and voila.

For fish (salmon, tilapia, etc.), which I almost always use butter for:

-garlic salt
-lemon pepper
-red pepper flakes
-fresh lemon

I bake it at 500 for 8-10min, and finish it off out of the oven, covered in foil. So, so good. Oh, and for an easy homemade tartar sauce, I mix mayo with a spicy/flavourful mustard (The Barbarian is partial to Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale mustard), fresh lemon juice, parsley, and dill. I don't eat the stuff, but The Barbarian loves it and swears this version I randomly concocted one night is bomb. I wouldn't know, but there you have it.

For veggies like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, etc.:

-garlic salt
-lemon pepper
-herbs de Provence

Bake at 400 for half an hour or so--you want the outer bits basically burnt, as that adds amazing flavour. Oh, and as an aside, this was the exact preparation used when The Goblin Queen gobbled up all that broccoli the other night. Now you know.

And like I mentioned, we eat grains or potatoes with just butter or avocado oil and some salt/pepper, or I'll sometimes dress them up beforehand. Couscous is delicious with some olive oil or butter, salt, toasted pine nuts, and golden raisins (add the oil/butter and salt in with the water to boil and the rest with the couscous). Pilafs are also easy and fabulous. For quinoa, I'll sauté/brown the dried quinoa with some shallots and garlic and maybe pine nuts (I love pine nuts...a lot...the best, maybe?) first, then add broth and cover and simmer like normal. Mmmmmm.

Also, I'm not gonna lie--we do frozen veggies like corn and peas regularly because why the hell not? They are not expensive (Trader Joe's seriously wins here), have most of their nutrient profile intact (I think frozen green beans actually have an increase in nutrients?), and they keep. Oh, AND. I normally cook them in the microwave. GASP. I know. Killing my family. Or something.

There, then, is a rather long, rambling explanation of why I love cooking and how you, too, can take part in this epic adventure happening in kitchens everywhere with minimal stress and work.

So please join us. We have cookies.


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