The Whys and Wherefores of Home Cooking || Home Comforts



The Whys and Wherefores of Home Cooking

Benefits of home cooking … Ease of modern home cooking … Finding time … Oven meals and other meals requiring little preparation time … Rethinking leftovers … Learning not to use cookbooks … Practicing skills … Meals off the shelf … Basic stores you need in refrigerator or pantry … Using convenience foods wisely … Real and spurious convenience … Convenience foods to avoid

Food is so pleasurable and powerful that it plays an essential role in creating a home that works. For your home to feel solid, meaningful, dignified, and warm, you must have the means and skills to produce good, nutritious food, to dream up pleasant menus, and to set the table and serve the food in an attractive manner that is familiar and comfortable to guests.

If you respect the importance of meals in your home, you gain a cornucopia of advantages that are acknowledged so rarely as to count among the best-kept secrets of our day. In addition to saving you money, cooking at home can help you be healthier, happier, and more secure, and it provides a wonderful way for you to be with your family. It takes less time than going out to a nice restaurant; you will enjoy better-tasting food and know much more about its history and preparation. Cooking at home also increases your control over the cleanliness and quality of ingredients and care that go into your food and establishes one more area in life in which you can be independent and knowledgeable.

Good meals at home satisfy emotional hungers as real as hunger in the belly, and nothing else does so in the same way. They promote affection and intimacy among those who share them. Characteristic, familial styles of cooking and dining, foods that “taste like home,” are central to each home’s feelings of security and comfort and to its sense of itself as a unique and valuable place. Cooking at home links your past and future and solidifies your sense of identity and place. When a home gives up its hearth, which in the modern world is its kitchen, it gives up its focus. (The word “focus” is Latin for “hearth.”) And the people who live there lose theirs too.

Home cooking can offer appropriate portion sizes, sophisticated attention to individual nutrition and diet needs, freedom from repetition (because people in their homes know what they have eaten today, yesterday, and last week), menus that reflect likes and dislikes in fat and salt levels as well as flavors, ingredients, and preparation styles. You can make almost anything in the world that you want, and you can make family or ethnic dishes just the way you like them. But commercially prepared foods have to appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste. (Without that, sales would not be high enough to turn a profit.) If you have satisfying, well-designed meals at home, you are going to be less prone to overeating and nibbling, not only because of the kinds of foods you are likely to prepare but because the very emotional satisfactions offered by home-cooked meals help assuage the empty feelings that make some of us eat when we are not really hungry.

These considerations are especially significant when it comes to home meals for children. The emotional comfort of home cooking for children is something every parent discovers. Sharing meals with the children in the privacy of your home, meals that you have prepared, reinforces your authority and beneficence in their eyes and helps increase their trust and pride in you and your abilities. You have the skill and knowledge to offer them good things; you take time and trouble for them. Moreover, if children do not become accustomed to the taste of healthy foods at home, they are an easy target for marketers who want them to buy unhealthy foods away from home—foods with high levels of fat, far too much salt and sugar, hidden ingredients, and, perhaps most harmful of all, textures and tastes that cannot be imitated at home. Once children’s arch-conservative palates have become accustomed to the tastes and styles of fast food and other commercial foods, meals prepared at home that are healthier and better may nonetheless come to taste wrong to them.

Of course there are also times when a meal out is the most fun, most delicious, and easiest thing to do, and times when it would be absurd not to order a pizza. Home and health are at risk only when home cooking and eating are not routine and ordinary pleasures in life.

Then and Now: The Ease of Modern Home Cooking

Despite the clear benefits of living in a home capable of providing good meals, the institution of private cooking has long had its enemies who have insisted that we would be better off if we never bothered to market or cook. More than a century ago, various social critics and feminists, seeking to ease the burdens on women, denounced private cookery and sometimes contended that private homes should not even have kitchens. Because cooking was at the time among the most onerous of the housewife’s many staggering domestic burdens, they believed such reforms essential to her liberation.

Some of these opponents of home cooking proposed that communities be designed with central kitchens that would provide all meals for resident families. Some thought a central dining room would be best. Others suggested that meals be delivered in warming devices to kitchenless homes, or that someone stop by the central kitchen to pick up the day’s dinner. One scheme contemplated the use of vacuum tubes that would whoosh steaming-hot dinners to your dining room in seconds flat. A few dining communities on these models were in fact created, but they were short-lived.

The point of the old criticisms of home cooking is blunted by the fantastic ease of home cooking today compared with the nineteenth century. The labor of cooking has contracted until it now comprises only the last stages of assembly and heating—the creative and pleasurable parts. Refrigeration, commercial canning, and other excellent means of safe storage, superior stoves and ovens, microwaves, automatic cooking appliances, and the other accoutrements of the modern kitchen are only part of the story. You buy your chicken plucked, clean, cut up, and ready for the oven; meat is aged, cut, and trimmed; fruits and vegetables are sorted and washed free of mud; fish are cleaned, scaled, filleted. Important foods and foodstuffs that are often of high quality can be bought and do not have to be made at all. These include bread, breakfast cereals, dried pasta, ice cream, butter, cream cheese, cottage cheese, and all other cheeses, yogurt, sausages, hams, bacon, canned ready-to-eat fish such as tuna, salmon, mackerel, and clams, yeast, nut butters, jams, jellies, preserves, roasted coffee beans, pickles, relishes, and condiments of all sorts—mayonnaise, mustards, ketchup, vinegars, and dozens more.

The supermarket’s rich offerings make possible an unprecedented degree of flexibility in home cooking. How much time you take to make a meal is largely up to you. You can make everything entirely from scratch or you can buy some foods partly or wholly prepared for you. Typical good home cooks today enjoy making long-cooking, all-from-scratch meals on days when they have extra time, but on weeknights after work usually choose meals that are quick to prepare. Often they rely on a combination of fresh, canned, and frozen foodstuffs to produce lovely, quick meals whose success is as much a matter of imagination and insight as of advanced cooking skills or time spent slaving over a hot stove.

Finding Time for Cooking

Some people have a genius for getting something tempting on the table in no time. But before we consider how they do this, it is worth deciding whether your goal, generally speaking, is really to get in and out of the kitchen as fast as possible. If you start out begrudging the time you give to cookery, you are going to create a false contest between cooking and enjoying yourself. Cooking in our day is pleasure, almost unalloyed pleasure, not an unpleasant means to an end. When you get home from work, you can use your time in the kitchen to slow down, re-group, and enjoy being physical—doing things with your hands, letting them get floury or wet, smelling good smells. Whether you cook alone or with others, this becomes a special time of the day that you soon find you cherish and do not want to miss.

Those who are most successful at accommodating the time pressure on the modern home are those who put effort into becoming good intuitive cooks. Many people go out to eat not because they really lack time to cook but because they simply do not know how to cook well enough to make good quick meals. Good cooks have physical skills that let them work quickly, and they have a good repertoire of thought-out, easy-to-prepare meals and dishes that they can turn to when time is short. They can add and subtract from this repertoire over time for the sake of variety, but they do not forget that most of us like a balance of the familiar and the new in our diets.

A few basic tricks can help you become the kind of intuitive cook who throws appealing things together confidently.

Make Oven Meals and Other Low-Preparation-Time Meals. New cooks soon learn the difference between cooking time and preparation time. The former is how long you have to expose foods to heat. The latter is how long you have to be engaged in preparing the food. Often, these two time periods are totally unrelated. I and many people I know often rely on what I call oven meals when we are short on time. This means a meal that cooks for a long time in the oven (usually one and a half to two hours) but takes only ten to twenty minutes to prepare before being put in the oven. A chicken or an appropriate cut of pork, veal, or beef can be roasted with fresh seasonal vegetables; you can bake potatoes in the oven at the same time. Add a salad and good bread, and you have a good, simple meal (along with the delight of a home filled with exquisite aromas while the cooking goes on). As you become more experienced, you can add little touches to oven meals that dress them up and make for variety—putting a mustard sauce on the chicken, or baking the vegetables in an easy casserole. Such simple oven meals are a god-send on evenings when you have to go out after dinner or have so many chores or so much other work to attend to that you do not want to do much in the way of cooking. While your dinner is roasting in the oven, you can do housework, supervise homework, or pay bills.

Some stovetop meals work in much the same way. There are many hearty soups and stews that can form the core of an excellent meal that take little time to prepare and will simmer along for hours with little attention while you busy yourself with other things. Many good cookbooks have recipes for these and will alert you that they are quick to prepare.

Then there are meals that take both short preparation time and short cooking time. Fish broils or poaches in minutes. You need to do nothing to it but place it under the heat or in the broth, and you end up with the healthiest of meals. Such vegetables as carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower steam in minutes. There are a thousand pasta or rice dishes and delicious sauces that are quick and effortless. My family likes various bean-and-rice dishes and bean soups. (There is nothing wrong with using canned beans when you are in a hurry.)

Rethink Leftovers. You can provide for days when you are rushed, and increase the versatility of your kitchen, by cooking extra quantities whenever you have time to do any serious cooking. As you plan your leftovers, the most important thing to keep in mind is your own tastes. People usually eat favorite foods as leftovers more easily than less-well-loved foods. But sometimes even well-loved foods can overstay their welcome. My family does not take to any fish dish the second day, or any leftover dish with cabbage or broccoli, although we otherwise like these foods.

Do not succumb to the widespread prejudice that you are deprived if you are eating leftovers. Leftovers do not really deserve their poor reputation, which is derived from a certain kind of leftovers that used to be common in American households. Until recently, mainstream American cooking was very old-style English, a largely defunct type of domestic cookery that was long subject to scorn for overemphasizing utilitarian factors at the expense of taste and pleasure. It was heavy, bland, greasy, and soggy, said its critics, designed to create lots of leftovers and to be consumed to the last stale crumb. Lest I be accused of anti-English prejudices here, I hasten to point out that my paternal grandmother was of part English ancestry and cooked in this very style.

My father venerated his mother’s cooking, especially her way with leftovers. Any substantial meal she made wielded its influence for many days to come. Out of leftover mashed potatoes she made fried potato cakes, so she never failed to make at least twice the needed quantity at the first meal. Out of leftover meats she made stews, creamed meats, mock chicken, and meat ground up with pickles for sandwich spreads, so she made enormous roasts and birds. (My husband’s mother, who also was very much a cook in this style, especially enjoyed creating disguised foods, such as meatloaf that was “really” something else. “You’d never know, would you?” she would insist triumphantly.) My father’s admiration for his mother’s abilities to stretch any dish out for a week was motivated more by principle than by taste. He had been brought up in the Depression, when a woman who could “make a meal out of nothing” was truly a miracle worker, the salvation of her family. He and others like him ate leftovers with apparent enthusiasm only because they believed this was right and good, not because they liked the tired food.

In Italian cooking there is no tremendous effort expended toward recooking with new ingredients, and in a different style, a food that was served in another style the day before. In my Italian relatives’ homes, not only was the word “leftovers” never used, the whole idea was unknown. If there was soup or pasta, it was expected to last for two or three days. One simply had more soup or ravioli on subsequent days, not leftover soup or ravioli, and no one particularly minded having something again, assuming it was a well-liked food to begin with.

Comparing the two styles early on taught me this rule (which, like all rules, has important exceptions): if I wanted to serve leftovers, I should make Italian food; and if I wanted to cook like my Anglo-American grandmother, I should make no more than we needed for a meal. One reason Anglo-American leftovers were seldom desirable was the emphasis on roasted, broiled, and fried meat and fish. None of these is ever quite the same on reheating; they toughen and get dry, and their taste changes. Thus the cook is inspired to “make something else” of them, creating a dreary culinary netherworld of patties and cakes and croquettes, fish or meat mixed up with crumbs and eggs and onions, mournful shadows of their living selves. On the other hand, soups, stews, chili, tomato-based dishes and tomato sauces, and braised meats—all the long-cooking dishes so popular in many kinds of Italian cookery—usually improve on the second day, and almost all freeze well. If you are making roast chicken or meatloaf, make large ones or make two or three and freeze the extra ones. Make stock out of leftover bones and meat and keep it in the freezer. Freeze half a cake, cookie dough, and other favorites.

Consider the appearance and texture, as well as the taste, of the foods to be served more than once. Yellow vegetables such as squash and sweet potatoes tend to store and recook successfully. But spinach, sugar snap peas, and green beans suffer from deteriorating color and texture. Green beans that could not stand alone, however, might be fine in a soup or stew on the second day, or you might consider adding a vinaigrette and serving them cold as a salad. If the point of a dish is the crunchiness of its vegetables, you are unlikely to have luck serving it again tomorrow. Tossed greens will be too far gone the next day.

Root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, potatoes, and carrots can often be re-served, but how successfully depends upon how they were first prepared. Purees and soups of these forward well. Mashed potatoes will have to be made into something else—for example, shepherd’s pie or patties. Baked potatoes’ taste and texture survive reheating passably well, yet there is much feeling against reheated baked potatoes, which are considered to be on a par with frozen commercial dinners. This attitude is a bit snobbish, but it has a point. Because there is nothing in the world easier to make than a baked potato for anyone with a potato, an oven, and the ability to think ahead for an hour, why not just make a new baked potato? There is occasionally a good answer to this rhetorical question—for example, because you have three of them unexpectedly left over and it is already lunchtime. However, I vote with those who think that it makes little sense to create extra leftover baked potatoes on purpose.

Learn How to Make a Meal Without Looking at a Cookbook. Good cooks know how to cook without looking at recipes. Of course they often use recipes too—for example, when they want to learn how to make new dishes, to be reminded of how to make old ones, to figure out why something never works well, to learn how to alter a dish, and to get inspiration. But they do not usually first think of dishes, consult recipes, and then collect ingredients to cook them. That is a laborious and time-consuming way to cook. If you are a cook who cooks only from recipes, you probably think it is hard to find enough time for cooking.

Intuitive cooks have learned basic cooking facts and techniques. For day-to-day cooking, far more important than memorizing a complicated recipe is knowing without thinking how much heat cooks a soft-boiled, hard-boiled, scrambled, or fried egg; the approximate cooking times of fruits and vegetables, whether chopped, whole, roasted, sautéed, or steamed; the effects of poaching, broiling, braising, roasting, sautéing, and frying on meat, poultry, and fish; when you can substitute parsley or celery leaves for basil, or cook a dish on top of the stove rather than in the oven; what combinations enhance the taste of ingredients; what garlic or cumin or rosemary is good with—all this an average competent cook knows without cracking a book. It may take a while to get to this point, but before long everyone who loves food and regularly spends time in the kitchen learning from his or her own mistakes will end up with these skills and many more.

Practice Skills. My Italian grandmother taught me that speed and physical dexterity in cooking techniques (and in all housework) are important; her hands moved faster than the eye could follow when they chopped and peeled. If you chop the celery in slow motion, you won’t want to chop it very often. True skill involves not only producing the right result but being able to do so in a reasonable time, and the only way to learn speed is to practice, practice, practice. (But be safe! Do not go faster than you can without cutting yourself.)

The best way to learn all the skills of good cooking is to watch those who know how and imitate them. Adults are not too old to learn from their parents or grandparents. The learning aids available are superb, ranging from excellent classes in schools and on television and wonderful books that teach the fundamentals in ways that few cookbooks attempted before to videos that you can rewind and replay over and over. When you choose your sources, remember that different techniques are used in different cuisines and choose those that will help you acquire the skills needed for the type of cooking you prefer.

Be Prepared to Make Meals off the Shelf. It is always best to cook with fresh ingredients in season. But there are days when you cannot get to the market, or when at the last minute you find yourself missing something fresh that you need for the menu you planned. My husband once went to dinner at the home of a friend—a remarkable cook—whose plans for the evening were wrecked when she discovered that the package her butcher had given her contained venison liver, not venison steaks. In half an hour or so, after some hand-wringing, she produced instead one of the best plates of pasta he had ever tasted.

To be like my husband’s friend and all other good home cooks, store a variety of foods that keep well and can quickly be turned into a meal without needing anything from the market, and develop a repertoire of meals or dishes that can be made from them. Restock these basic foods as soon as supplies are low. If you are a beginner, in time you will dream up your own off-the-shelf meals—“cabinet meals,” a friend calls them. Meals I make this way include several pasta and rice dishes, bean dishes, egg dishes, and several canned tuna and salmon concoctions. The following foods are standbys that many people rely on when they cannot get to the market:

Relatively long-lasting fresh foods

Potatoes Onions Garlic Ginger Carrots Celery Apples Oranges Lemons Eggs Miscellaneous cheeses

Frozen foods

Selected fruits and vegetables Stock Meats or sausages that thaw well in the microwave Ice cream

Canned or bottled goods

Tomatoes, whole or chopped Tomato paste Beans of all sorts: kidney, garbanzo, pinto, northern, etc. Tuna fish or other canned fish (clams, salmon, etc.) Selected fruits and vegetables Olive oil Vinegar UHT milk or condensed milk Pickles, olives, salsa, and other relishes Miscellaneous condiments: mustard, soy sauce, etc. Jams and jellies Syrups Canned broth

Packaged and dried foods

Favorite types of pasta Rice Cornmeal Breakfast cereals Flour Salt Pepper or peppercorns Dried herbs and spices: cinnamon, basil, cumin, mint, red pepper, rosemary, thyme, etc. Sugar: white granulated, brown, powdered Cornstarch Baking soda Baking powder Coffee Tea Dried fruits: raisins, dates, figs, prunes, apricots, etc.

Add to or subtract from these lists in accordance with your own tastes. I know that I must always keep olives for various foods we enjoy, but a friend who detests olives always keeps anchovies, and another relies on a jar of capers.

Using these stocks, without marketing or spending much time cooking, you can quickly serve, for example, a light soup, followed by polenta with sausages; an omelette with vegetable filling and a baked potato; pasta e fagioli, or pasta and peas with ricotta or other cheeses. If you have some greens or green beans, you can make a hearty salad with the canned tuna. Italian and French cookbooks will suggest many tasty ideas for various “tuna and” dishes—pasta, tomatoes, white beans, garlic, fresh greens all go well. You can follow up any of these meals with fresh fruit, or, if you like a warm, sweet dessert, you could make apple tarts or stewed apples with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a little lemon juice. Dried fruits can be used for quick breads, cakes, or cookies, on ice cream, in puddings, or as they are with some cheese.

Use Convenience Foods Wisely. Practically all foodstuffs used in the modern home would have been regarded as miraculous conveniences by our great-grandmothers. This truth has generally been forgotten, to the point that people commonly use the term “raw ingredients” to refer to foods that have undergone elaborate processing and preparation prior to sale: butter, pasteurized and homogenized milk, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, a package of skinned and boned chicken breasts, a bag of roasted coffee beans, a bottle of olive oil, or a jar of mayonnaise. To keep things in perspective, it may help to consider the recipe for roast beef in one of my great-grandmother’s cookbooks, which called for, among other things, a cow.

It is pointless to spurn convenience foods, and few people—the Amish, for example—really do. Many people enjoy making homemade yogurt, jam, or sausages. Many bake bread; this is fun and the bread is a heavenly delight. There is even a mini-fad of milling grains in a tiny home-milling machine. Some of us like to roll out our own pasta on special occasions. But most of us are glad to rely on convenience foods to increase variety and reduce drudgery in home cooking.

Real Convenience. Be alert, however, to whether a “convenience” is really there for your benefit or the store’s. Sometimes it seems easier to buy a preselected bag of apples or package of green beans, but you are usually better off picking out your own so you can get exactly the amount you need and make sure none are bruised or broken. Grocers seem to pack one or two bad apples or strawberries into every package, which means that they have much less waste and you have much more. But if you know and trust your grocer, there is nothing wrong with buying a five-pound bag of onions or potatoes. It saves you a few minutes selecting and weighing at the market. Sometimes there is no choice, but, if you can, it is best to patronize a market that offers you the choice.

Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are a real convenience. They take no washing, chopping, or cooking beyond heating. Of course, good fresh fruits and vegetables, in season, have much better taste and texture and offer better nutrition. But you are better off buying canned or frozen produce than produce that has traveled so far or been stored so long that it is nutritionally inferior to its canned or frozen counterparts. Discriminate among the brands and types, for not all taste the same, and buy unsalted and unsauced versions so that you can control flavor and healthfullness.

There are foods most people enjoy in their canned state, for this, after all, is a mode of preparation that can produce a tasty product. When I was a little girl, people in the country canned the products of their gardens. Canning was done with prized recipes, and often you could not wait for winter to sample the delicacies—relishes, vegetable salads, fruit preserves and jams. Supermarket canned goods contain some favorites, too, including canned tuna, tomatoes, some salsas, pumpkin and squash, all sorts of beans, and pickles. Others are a matter of taste, and what you like depends very much on what you are used to. For example, it is possible to develop a taste for canned evaporated milk. Where I grew up, people put it in their tea (but not, for some reason, coffee), and that combination tastes good to me to this day, although I could never bring myself to drink the stuff straight. Canned or bottled artichoke hearts are not at all like fresh artichokes but can be loved for their own sakes. The kind packed in water instead of oil leaves you more options for preparation.

Although it does not taste particularly like the fresh, canned corn tastes good and offers fairly good crunch. You would not use it in dishes that you prepare to show off fresh flavor—corn chowders, for example—but you can put some in a vegetable soup when fresh corn is out of season. Canned green beans, peas, and asparagus are inferior to frozen, but neither canned nor frozen are particularly good. Bottled garlic is not a good substitute for raw, which is always available. Not everyone agrees with me, but I would rather have no broccoli than frozen broccoli, and I can think of nothing that could induce me to use canned potatoes.


Ingredients for homemade pancakes from scratch:Ingredients for pancakes using one famous pancake mix:
baking powder 

So the great convenience of the mix is that it saves you the trouble of measuring salt and baking powder.

My young son would not eat bottled applesauce and loved our homemade applesauce. (Check your cookbook; this is quick and easy to make.) One day he came home from nursery school to report that they had yellow peaches with “good juice” and asked why we couldn’t have that. I tried him on my own stewed peaches with syrup, but these were voted inferior—not at all what he wanted. So I sighed and bought some canned peaches packed in light syrup, which made him happy, and I admit that the grownups, too, thought they were pleasant, even if inferior to homemade and tasting of can. I suspect that the pretty color of the canned ones and the texture were factors in his preference. I decided not to oppose him on this because, nutritionally speaking, canned peaches are a reasonable dessert. The lesson here is not “Buy canned peaches” but “Don’t be irrational out of food snobbery.” When health considerations cut the other way, of course, you have to stand your ground.

For health reasons, many people now eat fewer processed meats, especially ones with nitrates and nitrites, such as luncheon meats, bacon, ham, salami, and some sausages. Quite apart from questions about the healthfulness of such chemicals, these foods tend to be extremely high in sodium and often high in saturated fat. Still, sliced into a sauce or a dish of pasta with vegetables, sausages and cured meats can be an easy and flavorful means of filling out a quick meal. If you do not eat too much of these or serve them too often, they can be a real boon to the home on rushed days. Soy-based or other vegetarian sausages are also useful.

Mixes are sometimes a reasonable alternative and sometimes not. Often it is just as simple to cook from scratch. Cookbooks are full of simple recipes for cakes that will taste better than a mix and have a more interesting texture. (Of course, there are also some spectacularly difficult cakes in those books.) Those who are not accustomed to what homemade cakes taste or feel like in the mouth may not be pleased at first, for the mixes produce results that are invariably light, moist, and airy. Pancake mixes often offer no advantages at all.

Nonetheless, there are times when you would be foolish not to use a mix. Perhaps a domestic emergency occurs. Perhaps cupcakes must be brought to school tomorrow morning, but when you stop at the market on your way home from work, you cannot remember whether you have baking powder, cream of tartar, baking soda, nutmeg, cake flour, chocolate, or vanilla on your shelf, or you want to go through the “five items or fewer” line. So you buy the mix. Only a glutton for punishment would do otherwise. I have a hard time imagining emergency pancakes, but stranger things have happened.

Bread, yogurt and pasta are time-saving convenience foods. But if you enjoy cooking and have time, go ahead and try making some such things now and then. It is fun and gives your palate an education. Even people who know how to roll out their own pasta do so infrequently because it takes considerable time and muscle power. Premade pastas and pasta-making machines are a major convenience for pasta lovers. By and large, fresh pasta is better than frozen, and frozen is better than dried. But there is huge variation among brands, and dried pasta can be good. There is no reason to pay the high premium on fresh pasta if it strains your budget. When buying dried pasta, imported Italian brands are most reliably good. If you are buying fresh, try to get the recommendation of someone you trust or buy from a maker who specializes in Italian foods, for fresh pasta is costly and sometimes can be disappointing. Delicious filled pasta, such as ravioli and tortellini, can be bought fresh or frozen at fancy delicatessens, food specialty shops, and good supermarkets. You can make your own sauce for these easily and create a good meal in little time.

Spurious Convenience. Many foods that are marketed as convenience foods are not really convenient, do not taste particularly good, are not good for you, and are ridiculously expensive. When choosing convenience foods, consider flavor, read ingredient lists, check labels for fat, salt, sugar, and nutrient levels, and consider whether making it yourself would really take so much time. Everyone will have his or her own opinions as to which food should stay on the supermarket shelf, and these opinions will be as complicated as their lives. Rarely have I heard open discussion of the byzantine calculations that people today make routinely when they decide to buy, say, bottled tomato sauce rather than make it, but they would tax the brain of a mathematician. Who likes this and who does not; is there any basil at the market; can I work at home for an hour while something roasts or will I not get home until twenty minutes before dinner should be ready; did I remember to take something out of the freezer; is the brand with low-sodium on the shelf today; have we had this too often lately; if I make a big effort to try to buy and chop fresh tomatoes will that be the bit of extra pressure that wrecks my cheerfulness and makes me irritable with children or mate; is there a reason to serve something that the children especially love today? Given our complicated motivations, tastes, and goals, everyone is likely to have a list of foods not to buy that is different from other people’s.

But most of us will be better off to resist buying, most of the time, some foods or types of food for reasons of health or taste—for example, highly sweetened and colored breakfast cereals, toaster pastries, frozen vegetable dishes with sauces, frozen dinners and entrees, canned spaghetti, or instant mashed potatoes. Some foods offer so little time savings that most of us usually have no reason to get them except in special circumstances, such as for office lunches or as a superior type of fast food. Precut and preselected salad greens and fruits are a case in point. It takes only a minute or two to pull a few leaves off a head of lettuce or cut the roots off some leaves of arugula. If you buy greens prepackaged, you deprive yourself of the choice of which greens you will use as well as any choice about their condition (which is hard to observe anyway in the closed package), and you actually pay a premium in price for this loss. (And, by the way, sometimes it is probably best to wash even prepackaged salad greens. “Safe Food,”) It takes seconds to cut a melon and scoop out the seeds. Precut fruit is necessarily going to be less fresh, more prone to bruising, and more easily infected with pathogens.


“Convenience” foods sometimes offer spurious inconvenience. The first cake mixes offered on the market were formulated so that the cook needed to do nothing more than add water and bake—and many buyers refused to use them because doing so made them feel useless. The manufacturers then reformulated the mixes to require the addition of an egg and milk just so that the cook could feel useful and creative.

If you buy cottage cheese without added fruits and vegetables, you can add your own when you serve it. This tastes better and leaves you the option of eating something different with it the next time: apple butter today; scallions, sweet red peppers, and cucumbers with fresh black pepper tomorrow. Sometimes you cannot find plain yogurt at the market, but it is worth looking for because flavored yogurts and milks are over-sweetened and, unless sweetened artificially, have too many calories. You can add accompaniments to plain yogurt at home, if you wish, using only moments of your time to make your own low-calorie yogurt desserts: a spoonful of jam, apple butter, slices of banana, applesauce and cinnamon, sweetener plus a drop of vanilla or a little lime juice. Noodles and rice can be dressed up at home in seconds. Get suggestions from friends and cookbooks.

Canned chicken, stew, spaghetti, hash, chili, and similar canned dishes simply taste dreary to people accustomed to good cooking. Canned versions tend to be too soft or mushy, and are much less good for you than what you can easily and quickly make for yourself, as they are usually oversalted and contain too much saturated fat. Canned refried beans offer no particular advantage. You can make refried beans out of canned beans or cooked dried beans and enjoy better flavor, in about the same time it takes to open and warm a can of refried beans.

It is almost always a mistake to buy “flavored” foods. It takes only a few minutes with a cookbook to learn how to add your own spices, herbs, marinade, or breading. Bottled salad dressings are expensive, and few taste good. They are a prime example of how people are too often led to pay premium prices for spurious convenience. Homemade dressings not only taste better and cost less; the best of them are “instant” too. Many of us think that good olive oil and vinegar make the best-tasting salad dressing possible, and probably the healthiest. The substances added to flavored olive oils render the oil inappropriate for general use, and thus these oils, which are often costly, tend to go bad long before they are used up. See the discussion of the danger of botulism in flavored oils in the Guide to Common Food Pathogens, page 181. Flavored vinegars, too, are far less versatile. It is easy to add your own herbs or garlic to small amounts of oil or vinegar when you want herb flavors. Flavored creamy “gourmet” coffees contain partially hydrogenated vegetable fats and thus “trans fats,” which are unhealthy. You can make a flavored coffee by adding cinnamon, cardamom (grind up one seed with your coffee beans), chocolate, or vanilla to an ordinary cup, and cookbooks offer more suggestions. Instant coffee simply doesn’t taste as good as coffee made from freshly ground beans.

You might argue that if you want to eat such a silly food as flavored, sweetened, food-colored gelatin, as I occasionally do, you might as well buy it in individually packaged four-ounce premade servings as buy a box of Jell-O and mix it with hot water at home. But the premade stuff costs a great deal more. Moreover, many people are offended at the wastefulness of the elaborate, expensive packaging used for this playful, inexpensive food. The same goes for prepackaged puddings. Homemade pudding, custards, and “creme,” made without mixes, are fast, easy, and good too, and you can make them as sweet, flavorful, and thick as you wish.



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