Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Girl's Best Friend Is Her Crock Pot

Nope, still haven’t been on the scale in a couple of days. Deal with it.

To the “gentleman” following me around on the circuit today: grunting and wheezing like an asthmatic water buffalo is not appealing. Neither is smelling like one. Please have the courtesy to at least rub a dryer sheet on yourself or hang a pine tree air freshener around your neck  if you’re allergic to bathing/laundry. For the good of mankind.

I think we can all agree that ads for food are coming at us from all angles all the time. TV, the sides of buses, signs along the road, radio, pretty much anywhere you can fit the message. Mostly, it is for processed food and I include fast food in that category (it’s been processed when you get to it). The ads that bug me are ones for frozen or “just add water and some meat” dinners or takeout that basically promise to heal your fractured family just by all of you sitting down over a steaming hot dish of hydrogenated oil, chemical preservatives, modified food starch and high fructose corn syrup.  And sodium. LOTS of sodium.

There’s also an ad for car insurance where the announcer describes a young woman driving a new car (and checking herself out in the rear view mirror) as being on a “ramen noodle every night budget.” You know, if you have to cut your food budget like that to accommodate the costs of maintaining a car, you can’t afford the car. Do yourself a favor: turn in the car, get yourself sneakers and a bus pass and stop poisoning yourself with the crappy food. You can always make more money, but it’s a long, hard, rocky road to rebuild ruined health. You can trust me:  I’m doing the legwork.

On the “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” DVD, there is an “extra” called the “10 Minute Cooking School” where Robert Rodriguez demonstrates making coquinita pibil, a slow cooked pork dish that Johnny Depp’s character loved. Mr. Rodriguez makes the point that you are going to be eating the rest of your life; it makes sense to learn how to cook so you can feed yourself.

By the time I was 13, I could prepare baked chicken, a salad (Mom made the homemade French dressing) and dump frozen vegetables into water to reheat them for dinner (hence my lifelong aversion to mushy broccoli).

We live in challenging times and while we’re overworked, overscheduled and stressed, the smart play is to prepare meals at home. “But,” you say, “I don’t have time.  I’m too tired when I get home, I can’t even think.” And, just because you think you have me stumped, “I don’t know how to cook.”

Oh, really? Can’t cook. Hmm. Wouldn’t it be great if there were resources available to walk you through the process? Those big, paper things called “books” or websites that had recipes or…  Tony Rocco Spatafora (I love the fact that his middle name is Rocco) can show you how to make easy, great food. In fact, he’s got a series of videos on YouTube (that you can get to through the upper right hand side of his blog) that teach you how to prepare fish, lamb (with special guest star Charlene Tilton) and working with garlic (I am one of garlic’s biggest fans). He’ll  also entertain you in the process.                

“Okay, great for the weekends,” you say. “But what about the rest of the week?”

If you can measure ingredients, you can make soup. And with a Crock Pot (what so proudly I hail), you can SAFELY start your dinner before you leave for work and have it ready when you come home brain dead. Don’t like soup? How about chili? Spaghetti sauce? Chicken cacciatore (the little booklet that comes with a Rival crock pot has great recipes in it)? Pot roast?  I have made that coquinita pibil in the crock pot (once, not  completely successfully, but now that I know where to get sour orange juice, I may have another go at it). The beauty part is that you can make enough to have leftovers for a couple of days or even take a really good lunch (pretty much every workplace has a kitchenette with a microwave or two. Have Lysol wipes handy because, for some reason I’ve yet to discover, American workers seem to think their moms have followed them to work and are on hand to clean up after them) and SAVE MONEY. Crock Pots were introduced during the 1970s and part of the initial pitch, during a time of inflation and energy crisis, was that it only cost “pennies a day” to make meals with a Crock Pot (in terms of the electricity they use).  So you have to chop up some vegetables (unless you cheat and use the frozen mixed vegetables – carrots, peas, lima beans, corn – that every grocery store carries in the Green Giant and Birdseye brands as well as their house label. And more and more places have the aromatic veggies: carrots, celery and onions, pre-diced so you don’t even have to do that) and open a couple of cans of tomatoes to dump in the pot. Cost benefit analysis? For the “cost” (a little planning, some chopping, remembering to plug in the Crock Pot – don’t laugh), the benefit is off the hook: healthy food, seasoned to your taste and enough of it to stretch over a couple of meals if you share, or days if you don’t . You can’t amortize a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese like that ($1.69 for powdered chemicals and “processed cheese food.” What IS that?) like that and the mac & cheese doesn’t have the same spectrum of nutrients that a pot of homemade soup would (Beef, veggies, seasonings or chicken, veggies, beans, seasoning).

You could roast a chicken on Sunday and stretch that into sandwiches, chicken salad and have a carcass to make chicken stock (which freezes BEAUTIFULLY and is so useful to have in the kitchen. Save the $2.99 it costs for a container of Swanson’s chicken stock). Here’s your first cooking lesson: stock comes from bones, broth comes from meat.  Make a note.

Lasagne: again a “make on Sunday and have leftovers” dish. Put it to you this way: would you rather  shell out  $7 or $8 for a pan of Stouffer’s lasagne or would you rather warm up something that you made with your own hands from fresh ingredients, no weird unpronounceable chemicals and it’s shaded to your tastes? (Lasagna is a single noodle. Lasagne is the whole pan. Make a note).

What you get from preparing your own food, besides better food and more money in your pocket, is a sense of accomplishment that you don’t get from browning beef, dumping a packet of “flavoring” on it, adding dehydrated potatoes and water and simmering for 20 minutes. Losing yourself in the preparation of a dish can actually be a great stress reliever and a great opportunity to bond if you’re working with someone else. That’s what the instant meals are promising, but not quite delivering: the shared experience of fulfilling a basic need as a team.

In my current living situation, I don’t have a full-on kitchen. I have a microwave, two burner stovetop (for Brussels Sprouts because I can only eat those fuckers if I’ve pan roasted them with bacon), Crock Pot and George Foreman grill. (Luckily, I have a full-sized fridge). I just baked a couple of sweet potatoes in the microwave: you pierce them all over with a fork or a knife (take out some of the anger that your idiot boss caused you. For the record, I do not have an idiot boss on my present job. Previously, though, I could tell you a tale…) and toss them in the microwave for 10 minutes. They will be cooked all the way through and internally fluffy (You heard me: “fluffy”) and you can then dress them up as you wish and eat. The only effort was punching holes in them.  Low glycemic food, healthy flavonoids, high fiber and in the yellow spectrum of vegetables. Throw some pumpkin pie spice on them and you get the added benefits from cinnamon (blood sugar control). Actually, if you’re making coffee, throw some pumpkin pie spice in with the grounds before brewing. You’re welcome.

If you can master a few basic techniques: roasting, chopping, sautéing , grilling for example, you have opened up a world of possibilities to not only feed yourself to your satisfaction, but to also impress other people. Think about it: your office is throwing a potluck. What gets the better reception: the sandwiches that someone picked up from the deli or the pot of homemade chili that someone brought in? Or having your friends over for a backyard grilling fest? (I did not say barbecue as there are pros who have worked hard to teach me the difference between grilling and barbecue)

You’ve begun dating someone; it’s always VERY impressive if you prepare a meal for the two of you (and it’s certainly cheaper than dining out. Think government is too big? How deeply does it reach into your pocket every time you dine out? Restaurant taxes tend to be higher than sales tax), especially if it’s your sweetie’s favorite. Let’s say things progress to meeting families: if you can prove to potential in-laws that you are capable of feeding your significant other (and willing to do so), it goes a long way towards acceptance.

So, check out “Dish It Out!” I don’t know if Tony takes requests (“Hey, Spats, can you teach us how to…?”) but it certainly can’t hurt to ask.

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