Much of my adult non-professional life has been spent in kitchens. This has been entirely by choice, because I have a deep and passionate love of both cooking and good food. Such was not always the case, however. My mother was one of those housewives who never really enjoyed cooking and was therefore not particularly good at it. In addition, my father was a product of the depression. He felt that paying restaurants to make your food for you was a foolish waste of money that could just as easily be put into savings accounts, so we almost never went out. And so I started out life as an adult knowing little about good food and less about cooking, aside from the rather vague notion that heat was usually involved.
When I learned how to cook, it was out of necessity.
I was in my sophomore year of college, and had escaped dorm life to live in my very first apartment. This escape was largely driven by my hatred of dorm food, so as soon as my freshman year was over I put a holding-deposit on a place near campus that had a full kitchen. I spent that summer going to garage sales with my friend Melissa, trying to cobble together enough under-a-dollar glasses, plates, silverware, utensils and cookware to get me by. The thought that I might make the food I wanted to eat for myself and — dare I dream? — women I might ask over to my apartment thrilled me.
I’m not sure why, but it never occurred to me then that my having no idea how to cook might eventually become an issue.
Once in my apartment, not knowing how to cook led to two inevitable outcomes. The first and most obvious was that most of what I made was terrible. But there is another inevitable byproduct of not knowing how to cook that rarely gets mentioned: it’s really expensive. When you’re poor and you don’t know how to cook you go out to McDonalds a lot. Or you rely on “convenient” processed foods you buy at the store: cans of chili, or Alfredo noodle packages where you add milk and butter and perhaps already cooked chicken pieces. You buy these things on sale because they look inexpensive, and in a relative way they are: that Rice-a-Roni Pasta box is certainly less expensive than going to Applebee’s and ordering Fettuccini Alfredo with Chicken. But when you take a step back, you inevitably see that eating this way costs a small (albeit hidden) fortune.
For example, in my sophomore year I “invented” a chicken dish that was more than passable, and I made it for dates all the time. I called it Chicken Ford, after Harrison Ford, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom so many years later. The recipe for Chicken Ford was simple: chicken breasts covered first in a can of Ragu spaghetti sauce and then a healthy dose of Kraft parmesan cheese, baked at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Chicken Ford was also not very original: it turns out it existed long before I thought I had made it up, and it’s called Chicken Parmesan. It was still a hit, though — and by “hit” I mean “not such an inedible clusterf**k that it completely negated any bonus points I might have won from dates I wanted to impress for at least trying to cook for them.”
Still, Chicken Ford was relegated to special date-night status, because even though it was cheaper than, say, a filet mignon, it was still more than I could regularly afford to eat on my measly student’s budget. After all, two chicken breasts, an entire can of sauce, and a handful of that Kraft attic insulation (with real parmesan flavor!) for one dish of one meal is actually pretty expensive when you’re poor.
My sister was the one who eventually saved me. I was having a hard time making ends meet, and asked her if I could borrow some money so that I wouldn’t have to ask my parents. She agreed, and when we were talking over the phone she asked me how I spent my money. I ran through my budget and afterwards she said, “If you want to live on the money you have, you are going to have to learn how to cook.” I got huffy and told her I knew how to cook, thank you very much. I was the man who invented Chicken Ford!
“No you don’t,” she replied, “you know how to heat things up. I’m going to teach you how to cook — how to really cook.”
And so for the next few months, through letters and phone calls, my sister started me down the path of learning how to really cook and not just “heat things up.” And my life has never really been the same since.
A while ago, Balloon Juice’s John Cole posted an idea: why not teach people who didn’t have a ton of money how to cook, so that they might be able to better afford to eat? It was right about the same time that I had started to post some of my first Cheap-Ass Gourmet posts, so I reached out and said that I would love to contribute whatever I could. There was much love and patting on backs. And then like most great ideas, everyone involved quickly forgot about it.
I do remember, though, the responses of some of BJ’s commenters on my Cheap-Ass Gourmet series. They didn’t like them, and the main reason was my encouraging of readers to look for opportunities when they could afford it to spend a little more on certain things like higher quality olive oil and sea salt, or — if they were in a position to splurge — getting a free-range chicken instead of the cheapest one they could find at Winco. That, the BJ folk figured, was a sign that I was coming from a place of privilege. This, of course, is absolutely true. But one of the things I know thanks to my privilege is that buying a free-range chicken actually costs less than the cheapest chicken you can find at Winco — but it’s only cheaper if you actually know how to cook.
If 20-year-old-me were to make Chicken Ford, for example, there is no doubt that free range would be more expensive. After all, you’re just buying two breasts, eating them, and then throwing away the bones when you do the dishes. (What else would you do with the bones?) But once you know how to cook, the equation shifts and the Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice kicks in. Because once you know how to cook, you can take advantage of food that is more flavorful rather than food that has no flavor at all. A whole free-range chicken might cost me a dollar or two more than a Foster Farms roaster, but I can use the free-range to get twice the broth with the carcass; I use a fraction the amount of leftover meat in food-stretch dishes like chicken enchiladas because I don’t need nearly as much to make them taste like chicken enchiladas. When you know how to cook, that free-range chicken saves you money — and it’s better tasting and healthier for you and your family to boot.
I’ve been thinking about this dynamic a lot recently, and so I’ve decided to write something on my own for people who need to learn how to cook on a budget. I’ll post them here first, and then if I can find someone who is willing to distribute them (say, a group of social service workers, churches, or whoever) I’ll put it all together in a free eBook.
I’ll start next week, and for the next seven weeks I will have a post each Sunday that focuses on what I believe are the seven essential skills that someone needs to know in order to cook delicious, healthy food on a budget. There will be basic instructions, of course, as well as recipes. But I’ll also try to zoom out and explain the science of each cooking method, as well as its history, what types of cuisine lean heavily upon it, and what other types of similar cooking methods you can branch out and try once you feel comfortable.
The seven skills we will look at will be these:
Once you know those seven, I would argue, you can do just about anything in the kitchen — and you can do it without the use of expensive specialty equipment and appliances. (Which, once you save enough money, you might want to buy anyway. Because truth be told, once you know how to cook those specialty appliances and cookbooks are too much fun.)
And with as many cooks as we have here, I of course look forward to the comments sections of each.
Update: On the subject of roasting vs. baking.
I was planning on dealing with this in next Sunday’s post (which will be on roasting), but since it seems to be an ongoing argument in the threads I’ll address it now:
From a cooking method standpoint, there is no difference between roasting and baking. Each method cooks food with dry, indirect heat in an enclosed space. So what, really, is the difference between roasting and baking? As it turns out, there are actually two separate differences: culinary and cultural.
Historically speaking, the culinary distinction between roasting and baking has nothing to do with the cooking; it has to do with the chemical change of the food. The purpose of roasting is to take an overly solid piece of food (such as piece of meat, or a hard root vegetables) and at least partially break it down at a cellular level to make it more tender and easier to eat. The purpose of baking is entirely the opposite: to take a non-solid food substance (such as bread dough, or a pot full of casserole ingredients) and to a certain degree make it more solid.
Culturally, however, the difference is muddier and less precise, mostly because when it is released into the wilds of popular vernacular language has a tendency to do that. So we now often say “baked chicken” (when cooking singular pieces) or “baked salmon,” but in fact based upon the historical definitions we do in fact roast them.
For the purposes of this series, however, learning the skills of roasting will (I hope) be enough to help you feel comfortable enough to try baking — or for that matter, barbecuing.