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Slow Food USA’s $5 Dinner campaign is a very good one. The idea that we can “take back the value meal” by showing people just how far their $5 can go is brilliant: why settle for a Big Mac when you can have so much more? Local food blogger and urban homesteader Rachel Tayse Baillieul has already risen to the challenge with style, and more dinners are on the way (you can sign up to make one or attend if you’d like).
The only problem is the objection we hear whenever we urge people to cook at home: in today’s busy world, who has the time to cook?
The answer is simple. You do.
Most beginning home cooks don’t think they have time to cook because—not to put too fine a point on it—they’re doing it wrong. When I started cooking for myself, I’d begin with a clean kitchen, take out the still-uncut or wrapped ingredients for the recipe one at a time, execute the recipe’s steps one at a time in order, stand there and watch the food cook to make sure that nothing went wrong, serve myself a single course, eat it, and then clean up. And yes, I decided pretty quickly that cooking took a long time.
If there are any professional chefs reading this, or even experienced home chefs, they’re probably smiling to themselves right now… because that’s not how you do it. There are all sorts of ways to cheat time and make home cooking far, far more efficient:
- Shift time. If you find a few spare moments an hour or three earlier in the day, go ahead and put the raw ingredients together early. You’ll be amazed at how much time it saves when you go to cook. In some recipes (like bread), you have to do this.
- Never stand still. If your feet aren’t moving, ask yourself whether they could be. While the food is cooking, start cleaning the dishes that you’ve already used. Cleanup goes a whole lot faster when there’s hardly anything to clean up.
- Cook more than one meal. There’s no law that says that you can’t eat leftovers. Cooking lots of servings at one time means zero prep time for subsequent meals—fast food can’t beat that.
- Do things out of order. Think ahead to when things need to be ready; don’t wait until step 3 to do the things that are required in step 3. For example, if you think you’re going to need to boil water for something, start a pot of it boiling right away—don’t wait until you need it.
- Cook low and slow. Lots of meals don’t even require you to be present for most of the cooking. If you can start a recipe cooking in the morning, leave it unattended all day, and return to cook a quick side dish or two right before dinner, it will seem as though cooking takes hardly any time at all.
Nothing will eliminate the time that’s needed to cook, of course: it’s a simple fact that cutting up a chicken takes time. But it simply doesn’t need to take nearly as much time as beginning home cooks think it does.
So here’s my challenge to you, if you are of the “it takes too much time” school: Find three people you know who do cook on a regular basis, and ask them what their favorite tips are for saving time in the kitchen. I bet you’ll be impressed by the answer… and I bet, in the end, you’ll be more inclined to try cooking yourself.
I’m also curious to hear what they say… or what you have to say yourself, if you have more ideas.
Cleveland chef and author Michael Ruhlman came to town recently to talk about his new book, Ruhlman’s Twenty: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto. Ruhlman (who is called both “Chef” and “Mr.” elsewhere, a fact that may in part explain his Rihannaesque surname-only status) is an unusually thought-provoking author: his slim book Ratio condensed a lot of recipes down into a small set of simple principles—something that’s very hard to do—and Ruhlman’s Twenty does the same for cooking.
I had assumed, therefore, that Ruhlman’s talk at the Best of Fall Home Show would be about those principles, or some of them. But he surprised me.
Ruhlman used some of the techniques in Ruhlman’s Twenty, of course: he cured some salmon and did a basic ceviche, casually demystifying two dishes that most of his audience almost certainly had thought was well beyond its reach. But he actually focused very little on the nuts and bolts of how to do it, a fact that quietly emphasized the simplicity of cooking. Instead, he focused on his main message: “Cook for yourself. It makes life better.”
Obviously, we couldn’t agree more—from the point of view of health, conviviality, family, and pleasure. But what impressed me most was how Ruhlman had once again focused on the forest rather than the trees. It makes little sense to try to teach someone 1,000 recipes when they can learn 20 techniques instead. And by the same token, it makes little sense to talk about the specifics of those techniques when the point of learning them is to cook.
So let’s get out there and cook. It really does make life better.
I guess this shows where our priorities lie. (via Wordle)
When people ask what we do at Slow Food Columbus, one of the things I like to mention is our annual Shake the Hand That Feeds You dinner at Dick Jensen’s Flying J organic farm in Johnstown. The meal embodies the Slow Food ideal along many key dimensions:
- Community. New people often come expecting the sort of sit-down meal they’d get at a restaurant. They soon find themselves picking kale, helping to roast a pig, or making ice cream—and loving it. They cool off with a beer or a glass of wine that’s been provided by a local business here in the community… and may even have a chance to chat with the owners themselves.
- Quality. Chef Caskey and his team from Skillet Rustic Urban Food orchestrate an amazing meal made up of ingredients that couldn’t be fresher—on the vine in the early afternoon, on the plate by dinnertime, all of it held to strict organic standards. We don’t have menus for the event for one simple reason: the chef decided what to make when he arrived.
- Inclusiveness. Thanks to the generosity of Skillet, which closed for a busy weekend without asking for a cent, and of our community partners, and of all of the members and friends who chipped in, we were able to offer the dinner at a price that was competitive even with ordinary restaurant dinners—$40 per person for members—let alone with other farm-to-table dinners (we’re looking at you, Outstanding in the Field). Kids came too—the farm’s donkey in particular seemed to love playing with them.
I awoke this morning to a lot of buzz about Frank Bruni calling out Anthony Bourdain for Mr. Bourdain’s disparaging comments about Paula Deen (“Unsavory Culinary Elitism,” Op-Ed, New York Times, August 24). The nub of the argument is that elitism, not a genuine concern about unhealthiness, is driving Bourdain’s disparaging remarks. “When Deen fries a chicken,” Bruni writes, “many of us balk. When the Manhattan chefs David Chang or Andrew Carmellini do, we grovel for reservations and swoon over the homey exhilaration of it all.”
What bothers me about this characterization is that it’s easy to make and easy to believe. Bourdain is, after all, a foie-nibbling New Yorker, and Deen makes bacon-egg hamburgers with donuts for buns. The problem is, it’s probably too easy: accusing Bourdain of elitism is a great way to rile up a lot of people, but the reality is far more complicated. Read the rest of this entry »
Slow Food USA has rolled out its annual Day of Action, and it is one that’s near and dear to our hearts: the $5 Challenge. On September 17, Slow Food USA is asking its members to rise to the challenge of the value meal by cooking a Slow Food-friendly meal that costs no more than $5. Get together with friends, neighbors, or people you’ve never met over a meal. You can charge $5 at the door, make it a potluck, or donate the meal to Slow Food and take the tax writeoff. Regardless of how you do it, you’ll help us prove that good, clean, and fair food is something everyone can achieve.
And if you are willing to rise to the challenge, we want to meet you. We have a Board, we have senior members who have been with the chapter since the beginning (in some cases, before), we have members who are prominent in the community and have traveled internationally to learn and talk about Slow Food. If you are up to taking this challenge, we will do what we can do ensure that at least one of these people will come to your house and join you for dinner.
So go ahead. Four of you, five of you, ten, twenty… sign up and let’s show Slow Food USA what Central Ohio is made of. If you love the idea but aren’t sure you could make a $5 meal, sign up as a guest at a meal near you and find out how someone else does it. I’ve already signed up to attend the dinner of the first person who volunteered, Kristin K., and I’m looking forward to a great evening—starting with showing up early to help out in the kitchen, if she needs me.
Those of you who weren’t able to make it to Available Light Theater’s Food Play might be interested in a short film that they produced as part of the play on the subject of food deserts in Columbus:
(Hat tip to Todd at Local Matters for the heads-up.)