Monday, February 11, 2008

Home Cooking: Sometimes a Necessity and Always a Virtue

Daily, we endure pundits proferring wheel-spinning arguments about whether or not we are falling or will fall into a recession. The answer won't be known until after the fact, which means that efforts to forestall a recession are a shot in the dark, aimed at preventing something that might or might not happen anyway. Be that as it may, an economic malaise is settling over the land. We rummage around for old sweaters while setting thermostats lower. Vacations are shortened or canceled. Five dollars begins to look kind of expensive for a cup of coffee. Budgets are scrutinized. Lips are pursed. Things begin to look a little grim.

One way to save money while taking some joy in life is to cook at home. The ritual of breaking bread together in the old homestead binds families together, even when the rest of their lives are spent going off in different directions. And the meals, however humble, have a special quality when they're made with your own hands.

The economics of cooking at home are simple. There's about a $10 per meal differential in cost between preparing a dinner at home versus going to an inexpensive restaurant. This differential increases if you like to have a couple of glasses of wine or a couple of beers. But we'll use $10 for the sake of simplicity. If there are two of you, and you have dinner at home 6 nights a week, you'll save about $60 per person times two, or $120 a week. That's equal to about $6,240 a year. Over the course of say, 50 years of adulthood, $6,240 a year totals over $300,000. Save and invest that money, and you could have much more.

If you're not a cook, how do you get started? Today, many people grow up in households where home cooking is more the exception than the rule, and don't get a grasp of the basics. And most boys learn little more than a few hints about grilling steaks and burgers. Cooking seems intimidating if the only vegetable dishes you know how to prepare are ketchup and mustard. Here are a few ideas for getting started.

Begin With Comfort Foods. You'll do best if you begin by trying to cook something that you want to eat often. Comfort foods are usually pretty simple. And you know what the end goal should taste like, so you'll have a much better chance of getting there. This may mean that you start by making mac and cheese, burgers, spaghetti, and omelettes. That's fine. Maybe the nutrition police will scream, but starting off with simple dishes you enjoy is how to build confidence in the kitchen.

Apply the 30-Minute Rule. Don't cook anything that takes longer than 30 minutes. This will keep your ambitions under control. You'll learn simple, basic dishes first. The skills you learn putting spaghetti and salad on the table will get you on your feet as a chef. Then, you can gradually transition to nouvelle this and that.

Choose an Ethnic Tradition. The best dishes are the ones that have been around for many years. Longevity leads to refinement. These dishes tend to come from one ethnic tradition or another. If you have a particular ethnic heritage, look to it for inspiration. You already know how the dishes are supposed to taste. And that's half the game in cooking. Cooking from a recipe is difficult because you're not really sure what you're trying to achieve. But if you grew up eating Mom's goulash, you know what you want. If you don't have any particular ethnic tradition, choose one whose food you like. Ethnic traditions often have a few basic concepts, and build a variety of dishes around the basics. Italian cuisine is based on pasta. Asian cuisines are built around rice and noodles. Northern European cuisines rely on bread and potatoes. Latin American cuisine is based on corn tortillas and potatoes. These basics make cooking, especially under the 30-minute rule, much easier.

Home cooking allows you to indulge in your creative impulses and gives you the satisfaction of feeding friends and family from your own hand. It's more than a way to economize. It's a way of life.

Food News: pancake eating record.

1 comment:

Sheila Simmons - Great American Cookbooks said...

Your article about cooking at home as a way to combat a slow economy is right on the money! As a cookbook publisher, our business actually increases when gas prices go up and the economy slows down. Espcially because our cookbooks feature recipes that are easy to cook and use ingredients most people already have in their own kitchen. Great article!

Sheila Simmons, Great American Publishers,