Saturday, October 09, 2010

Against home cooking

Last night, it was going to be a stirfry. Vegan, even - broccoli, bell pepper, tofu, the first two from the farmers' market. Health! Local! Seasonal! Cooked with care at home, without the extra grease/MSG/chef-spat-in-the-food-or-worse/$20-for-two-for-that? of a takeout meal!

By the time evening came around, I was far too tired to start on something along these lines, but I had the ingredients and figured it must be done. Although I've made this (most tasty, if I may say so) dish a million times before, this time a combination of a different pan, too much pan pre-heating, too much peanut oil, and some poorly-thought-out tofu maneuvering ended up searing not just the tofu, but also my left wrist and hand. Vegan, not so much.

I cook most every night, and rarely does it lead to something along these lines. I mean, cuts and burns are inevitable, but the main obstacle isn't injury, but hassle and mess. Take the stirfry. When it goes well, this is what must be done:

-Have all ingredients in the house. Shop in time to make the dish, but not too soon, or else the broccoli goes bad.
-Peel and chop the garlic and ginger.
-Drain, pat dry, and cut up tofu.
-Preheat pan, put oil in pan, and get tofu into pan without causing major injury (possible) and without coating the floor with oil (impossible).
-Cut up two bell peppers, without getting the seeds all over the place. (I have a technique for this, but it's not 100%.)
-Cut up broccoli into a bowl, wash broccoli, and dry it so as not to have mushy broccoli/coat the kitchen in yet another layer of peanut oil. The salad spinner works for this.
-Put the vegetables (including, if they've been lost in the mix, the garlic and ginger) into the pan with the tofu.
-Pour soy sauce and sesame oil over the whole thing.
-Cover for a few moments to make sure the broccoli's kind of evenly done, but not so long as to make it mushy.
-Let cook for just long enough that the vegetables no longer seem raw.
-Serve with rice that's been timed just right, and stirred periodically. Serve with hot sauce - that's in the house, too, right? Wait, they don't sell any decent hot sauce at any decent supermarket nearby? Better track that down somewhere out-of-the-way.
-Set the table - beverages and cutlery don't come in the takeout bag if you haven't ordered in.


-Load dirty dishes into dishwasher.
-Soak pot the rice cooked in overnight, because the dishwasher, bless its heart, has its limits.
-Remove layer of oil and soy sauce from kitchen. (Do splatter-guards work, and are they worth $9.99 or whatever they cost?)
-Take out the saucy trash.

Division of household labor improves the above-described scenario, but this is a whole lot of time and fuss. Note the difference between the "recipe" above and how putting together a "simple" stirfry is described by a professional. I've said this before and, in that I can't come up with infinite new things to say, I'll say it again: because food and health writers whose topic of choice is home cooking do this for a living, their entire concept of how much cooking interferes with the life of someone whose life doesn't revolve around cooking is warped, warped, warped. I say this as someone who likes to cook, albeit someone whose "cooking" in the near future will probably be limited to blender pancakes.


Britta said...

A rice cooker is definitely worth the investment. A cheap small one is $20 or so, and it makes perfect rice whenever you want it with minimal cleanup. It has a warm setting, so if you need to you can do the rice before the rest of the meal and it will warm for several hours without burning the bottom of the pan or getting dried out. It doesn't stick to the bottom the way it does to a pot, so once you eat all the rice you don't even have to wash the pot if you don't want to.

Britta said...

p.s. I find meat way less hassle to cook than tofu, even if tofu is supposedly better for the environment and cheaper (I don't know if that is the case because I haven't done a total cost comparison). At least with meat you don't have to drain and dry it before cooking it, or need to deep fry it to get it to taste good. Once you get over the grossness of handling raw meat, it's really pretty simple.

PG said...

I endorse Britta's suggestion of the rice cooker. My mom sent me to college with one, along with a sack of jasmine rice.

If you like a more detailed description of the cooking process, I recommend The Pioneer Woman, though it's not pretty and fancy like Smitten Kitchen.

Phoebe said...

Britta and PG,

A rice cooker sounds great - another thing for the first post-grad-school kitchen.


Re: tofu, I just prefer the taste of it in stirfry for some reason. I also cook meat, so it's not a squeamishness/vegetarianism issue. But vegetarian Thai or similar food isn't really a thing in Paris, so I ended having meat stirfries enough to remind myself of this preference. That said, if it meant not coating the kitchen in an oil slick, I might come around to chicken.


That site looks good, but it doesn't bother me at all to use simplified recipes and fill in the rest myself. What I object to is when the commentary surrounding the recipe is "see, it only takes 10 minutes!," as though the time it takes to get the groceries, chop the garlic, onion, etc, and clean up from the meal doesn't count, only the time the dish is in the oven or on the stove. This happens with food writing, but also with "health" articles about Eating Your Vegetables. I tend to think the effort is worth it - or will, if this burn heals properly - but the 'you're lazy if you consider 10 minutes in the kitchen to be effort' message is, I think, counterproductive.

dance said...

I have this argument with my sister (vegan super-healthy eater) all the time. She insists cooking is easy. I point out that every step on your list is a barrier that needs to be crossed, and it's really easy not to make that happen.

So I have to get the list as short as possible--prewashed veggies, rice cooker, premade sauces, etc.

I do polenta and quinoa in my rice cooker all the time, and just added israeli couscous. Unfortunately, I do have to scrub the pot, which means the pot being dirty from the last time is another barrier. I need two pots.

dance said...

PS. I don't know if splatter guards work, but I just picked one up at the dollar store, not for $10.

Phoebe said...


I've had luck with a dollar (plastic) pasta strainer, but often anything metal (esp mesh) that's that cheap isn't dishwasher-safe and rusts upon first washing. (Learned, as you might guess, the hard way.) I'd be curious to know if these are the exception.

Re: the need to scrub part of a rice cooker - this is disappointing.

PG said...

When people refer to scrubbing part of a rice cooker, which part are they talking about? The rice cookers my mom always gets have the unit that plugs into the wall and a metal coil to do the cooking, and then you put a little pot in there that has the rice and water, put a top on that pot and that's where the rice cooks. You have to clean the inside of the pot (but not the outside, and not the cooking unit) to the extent you don't want bits of the last lot of rice to be in the next lot.

There are several fast, capable cooks in my family, so I find it plausible that if you cook almost every meal and aren't as terrified as I am of cuts and burns, cooking eventually doesn't take that much time. The women who cook a lot in my family have an array of scars on their hands (in my mom's case, also one on her collarbone) from slipped knives and sprays of boiling oil. Cook enough meals and accidents will happen, even if you're really good at it. I'm a total physical coward, however, so I use knives with extreme slowness and care, and try to stand on the other side of the room when I'm going to be pitching things into hot oil.

I figure gaining these skills is a matter of much mandatory repetition, as my mother didn't know anything about shopping for food or cooking until she got married -- her family was well-off enough to have servants, whereas my dad's was poor -- at which point she was forced to learn very quickly. There were reportedly many nights of burned rice early on.

As for the American failure to eat vegetables, I gotta say, it's a lot easier to eat veggies in the U.S. than I've found it to be in South America. In Ecuador I was offered a meal that was pork, potatoes and plantains all cooked together in the same pan simultaneously (plantains in pork fat actually didn't taste as bad it may sound). Even in Buenos Aires, the most Europeanized city on the continent, non-iceberg salads are hard to come by in restaurants, and the grocery stores don't sell those pre-packaged baby carrots of which Brody speaks.

However, I didn't think Brody was saying anything about how Americans needed to be less lazy about time in the kitchen. She doesn't diss the McD's salads, and the whole "eat veggies" crusade generally prefers people to eat raw vegetables: more fiber and water to fill you up, and no added fat or calories from cooking. It's certainly faster to throw a salad together than to produce a well-done steak (salmonella is another of my time-consuming kitchen terrors).

dance said...

Oh, yes, I kinda expect it to rust, though I'd like to get a *few* washes. But the dollar store is a good way to figure out if something works and if you'll remember to use it and whether washing and storing the splatter screen will be more annoying than the oil. I mean, if it works, then YES, based on your list, $10 is a cheap price to eliminate a substantial degree of irritation from your life.

I haven't tested it yet so can't report on quality. Though some things, especially kitchen items, I prefer to buy cheap and replace frequently.

Yes, I'm only scrubbing the inside removable part of the rice cooker---mine is old and sticks on the bottom, and if I soak it immediately, it's a 30-second wash job which I tend to put off until the next day nevertheless.

Britta said...

In my experience, a rice cooker where you only cook rice doesn't need to be washed every time, only if there is a bit left over, or maybe once a week to eliminate any rice residue build up. Again, as PG pointed out, it's only a metal pot that you would have to wash, not the whole cooker.
If you are cooking porridges and other grains in there, it can get messy, and you might want to wash after every time. Of course, I lived with a woman in China who only cooked corn or millet porridge in her rice cooker and never washed it. It was extremely crusty, but the food was still tasty and no one got sick, so I'd imagine it would be more an issue of personal cleanliness rather than actual necessity to clean it out.
As for rusting, I'm not sure how you would get it to rust--maybe in a dishwasher? But I have used expensive and cheap rice cookers, and found they should last for years and years if not totally abused.

Phoebe said...


I'm mostly convinced re: the rice cooker, but not looking to get one just yet, given kitchen-space and likely-to-move-soon restraints, so the full report must wait. A splatter guard - cheap or marginally less so - will have to happen before then.


I'm about as far as it gets from Old World matriarch, but I've been cooking most dinners and many other meals since high school, with a freshman-year break. Probably every other day I slice or burn myself while doing so, but it's usually not quite so... dramatic. (Glad my father's worked as an ER doc and was able to help out with the not un-gruesome situation.) I wish I did, but I don't anticipate reaching a point at which practice makes dinner prep effortless. It's certainly easier for me to prepare a stirfry than someone who can't do it in their sleep, but the steps still need to take place.

But I think the issue, as much as practice, is expectation. If you're a woman who's either always-always cooked, or who grew up knowing that was coming, and you don't think of not cooking all the time as a possibility, a meal like the one I describe is low-maintenance and not a big deal. The food-movement 'see, it's easy' message is being directed at people who'd have a steep learning curve to even get to the point where a stirfry is the kind of meal that wouldn't require a recipe. If I don't find it easy as pie, as it were, then how will that audience? A better message is, it's not easy but it's worth it.

Re: Brody, who knows what she was getting at. The article was supposed to be about why Americans don't eat more vegetables, but was mostly a same-old, same-old list of which vitamins have which nutrients. If anything, her remarks about how great vegetables are... provided you don't add much fat, goes against what's normally advised these days (i.e. that you need a good amount of fat to get the nutrients in the first place) and what allows traditional diets and modern "real food" ones (Alice Waters, etc.) to make vegetables palatable and often delicious. The brown-around-the-edges prepackaged Here Are Your Vegetables might be at-the-ready but they explain why chicken nuggets look so appetizing to so many people. I'm not saying, to paraphrase "Seinfeld," they need to be deep fried in chocolate sauce (Newman's alleged preferred method for broccoli), but the addition of olive oil or butter (or, my favorite: both!) to many vegetable dishes is pretty indispensable.

Matt said...

Though you're already convinced, I'll also say a rice cooker is wonderful. Btw, lots of models have excellent nonstick surfaces. Actually, if you cook rice quite often, you ought to at least consider going to Koreatown or a Japanese market and getting a really nice one. Ours has a bunch of settings for different types of rice and even a timer so you can set it up in the morning and have it just ready when you get home (or at night and have it ready for breakfast). It takes longer to cook rice, and it takes up more space in the kitchen, but we eat rice often enough that it's worth it for better rice.

In the meantime, you probably don't really want to stir your rice. It brings whatever is sticky (starch, maybe?) in the rice out into the water and makes the whole thing mushier. If you want sticky rice, get Asian short-grain rice. If you don't overcook or use too-high heat, it shouldn't stick to the pot.

Splatter guards work, but not perfectly, and cleaning them (by hand, anyway) is obnoxious. They make cooking safer, though.

Sigivald said...

I don't know what your bell pepper technique is, but I have one to suggest!

Chop off top and bottom caps. Slice in half vertically through the rings, avoiding the seed-bearing pulp (I know there's a better word for the soft white bits inside, but it's eluding me, so "pulp" will do).

Trim the pulpy bits off over the sink, and the seeds will go with. A quick rinse, at most, gets the rest gone.

Then the bits you have left are clean, seeeded, pulp-free, and easy to dice or slice.

(And if you only need part of a pepper, the remaining bit is easy to store for later use...)

Phoebe said...




Yes, something along these lines is needed for a pepper. I've done it precisely one trillion times, and it remains one of the many, many steps of a "simple, easy" home-cooked meal.