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Cooking at home is easier than you think

Home fries with egg (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

So, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and restaurants are closed — or only doing takeout. The Adult Center, which served cooked meals five days a week, is closed. Schools, where many children got lunch or breakfast, are closed. Wednesday night Community Suppers at the First United Methodist Church have been canceled. Community Lunchbox, which serves hot meals twice a week, will be serving takeout.

Many people rely on these community meals both for food and fellowship. Families rely on schools to feed their children. We have come to rely on professional chefs to cook for us. An entire generation no longer cooks unless they can open a box; they don’t know what to do with fresh ingredients. Many folks have no idea how to put a meal together.

We have come to depend on restaurants and the food industry to provide our food. Cooking the way our grandmothers did has become a lost skill in the 21st Century. Also lost are the joys of creating and the pleasures of sharing those creations with family and friends.

Industrial food is advertised as cheap. But feeding your family at McDonald’s can cost double what you’d spend on healthy ingredients cooked at home. Although 3/4 of Americans understand that fast food is not a healthy choice, 19% still eat fast food more than once a week.

Even the food we eat at home is often made in a factory, then reheated in a microwave. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Julia Child wrote: “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude. You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces — just good food from fresh ingredients.”

Rice and veggie casserole with salad (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

The food industry spends billions each year to convince us that cooking at home is difficult, time consuming and expensive. Even more money is spent on research geared to manipulate our taste buds so that we eat more junk and become addicted to their products.

Modern writers like Michael Pollan and Frances Moore Lappe have exposed industrial food for what it is: full of unhealthy chemicals and toxins. Modern industrial farms exploit workers, house animals in unsanitary, inhumane conditions, destroy the soil and contribute to climate change. Michael Pollan explains that corporations use tremendous amounts of salt, fat and sugar — 3 ingredients that are attractive, cheap and addictive –resulting in harmful food cravings.

Food cooked at home is healthier than fast food. It is more likely to include vegetables, fruit, beans and grains. It has fewer calories and more nutrients than engineered foods; it’s a well-documented fact that when we eat out, we consume 50% more calories than when we eat at home.

The myth that cooking takes too much time is a lie created by the food industry to get us to buy their cheap, unhealthy, processed food. In fact, many meals can be prepared, consumed and cleaned up faster than driving to a restaurant and waiting to be served. By involving family members in the process, you can save additional time. During this pandemic when we’re asked to isolate at home, cooking together can be a fun way to spend time with family. When children help prepare meals, they learn to be adventurous and try new tastes.

When you are busy, some of the meal prep can be done early in the day or the night before. For example, when cooking rice or other grains, you can turn off the heat and it will continue cooking for a while. If it’s not quite done, put it back on to simmer.

Rice and veggie casserole (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

Use a slow cooker to create a hot, healthy meal that’s waiting to be served when you come home at dinner time. Cook double the amount you need, and freeze half. On your busiest days, you will have frozen meals you can take out when you most need them.

The best way to learn is by doing. You’d be amazed at how many different meals can be concocted out of a short list of staple ingredients and some fresh vegetables. Pasta, grains and potatoes are staples that can be mixed with veggies, proteins and sauces in a myriad of ways.

When I was in my 20s, I had a friend Ruth who was a single mom with three little kids. I learned how to cook many things while hanging out at her house. Later I wrote this poem about her:

Ruth’s Taters

Fried potatoes (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

She pushes the stroller

with ten pounds of taters and Caleb

down the narrow street.

Leah hangs on her left arm,

Potatoes with onions and peppers (Provided photo — Yvona Fast)

clutching a doll and bag of groceries.

John pulls on her right hand,

grasping shopping bag and toy truck.

At home

she will cook fried potatoes for supper

as she does often.

Peeling optional.

Chopping onions,

thoughts mingle with fumes

bringing tears.

Will her children have more than taters?

What will she add?

Colorful peppers?

Flavorful mushrooms?

What does she have?

Light green, white celery?

Dark greens like chard or spinach?

Bright orange carrots?

Will she season with a bit of garlic?

Paprika? Or curry?

Maybe a little ground meat

or ham

or chicken

or eggs.

Maybe a sprinkling

of cheese

or vibrant parsley.

What can brighten dull, dreary days?

Smiles bring joy.

Potatoes

feed hungry mouths

many different ways.

Ruth made many meals from those potatoes. She would fry them in skillet with just a bit of fat, and add whatever she had on hand: meat, or cheese, or eggs. Different veggies — beans, peas, broccoli, carrots, asparagus. The simple potato dish lent itself to many variations, so it was never boring.

Rice or pasta can be used the same way: as a base that you can mix with other ingredients for a variety of tastes and textures. With fresh ingredients, basic pantry staples, a few simple tools and just a little time, anyone can create meals that taste better and cost less than industrial or commercial fare.

Rice and Vegetable Casserole

I have made this with Swiss chard and with broccoli. You can also use other greens like kale or collards. Frozen chopped spinach or frozen chopped broccoli that you have thawed first are good when fresh are not available.

Ingredients:

1/3 – 1/2 cup rice (I used brown rice)

1 – 1 1/2 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

A little fat for the pan (you can use olive oil, any cooking oil or butter). If you have a nonstick skillet you only need about a teaspoon of fat).

1/2 – 1 onion

A few mushrooms or peppers, optional

A bunch of greens –Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, spinach

1 clove garlic

1 egg

2/3 cup cottage cheese

1/4 cup sharp or extra sharp Chedda R cheese, or another sharp cheese like Parmesan (reserve a tablespoon for topping)

1/2 – 1 cup diced ham, or other diced cooked meat, optional

Directions:

Combine rice, water and salt in saucepan. Bring to a boil; lower heat to a simmer. Cook until liquid is absorbed, 30 – 40 minutes. (Different types of rice take longer; I used brown rice which takes about 40 minutes to cook). You can do this early in the day; or you can prepare the vegetables while your rice is cooking.

Peel and dice the onion. Chop the mushrooms.

Coat skillet with oil and place on low heat. Add onions and mushrooms to skillet, sprinkle lightly with salt, cover and cook 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.

Wash the greens and chop. Add to skillet, along with minced garlic. Cook until wilted, or desired tenderness.

When rice is cooked, cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, egg, any herbs or spices (I added a little turmeric and black pepper), and sauted vegetables.

Preheat oven to 350F. Oil or butter a 2-quart casserole dish. Turn rice-veggie mixture into casserole, and bake about 40 minutes.

If you wish, you can sprinkle the top with a tablespoon or cheese and a tablespoon of bread crumbs for a nice, brown crust.

Cover (with a lid or foil) for the first 20 minutes, then uncover to brown the top.

Serves 3 – 4. I like to serve it with a salad of fresh greens.

Options: use other grains (like buckwheat or quinoa) in place of rice. Try this with different vegetables. You may want to add cooked beans, like black beans or garbanzo beans, or peas.

Ruth’s Taters

Ingredients:

2 teaspoons butter or oil

2 potatoes

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 onion

1/2 green pepper

1/2 – 1 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon turmeric (optional) and a little black pepper

Directions:

Melt butter in small skillet. Scrub potatoes, and peel (if desired). Slice in half lengthwise, then slice in 1/8” or 1/4″ slices. Add to skillet, stir to coat with butter, and sprinkle with salt. Cover, and cook on low heat 5 – 7 minutes.

Peel and dice the onion, stir in, and cook 5 minutes more. Stir in green pepper, sprinkle with spices, and cook 3-5 minutes or until all the vegetables are sufficiently tender. Serve as a side with an egg dish like a frittata, or with meat.

For a main dish, add sausage or ground meat when adding the potatoes, or add diced cooked ham with the green peppers. And consider additional veggies, like peas or green beans.

Experiment with seasonings. For a Cajun flavor, add cumin, ground red pepper, oregano, thyme, salt and black pepper. For an Italian twist, add garlic, a little rosemary and fresh minced parsley. Or try combining red and blue potatoes with the white ones for a different color combination.

Vegetables (mushrooms, green beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower) — add these when you add the onions so they cook; you may wish to add a couple tablespoons of liquid (broth or water)

Meat (ground beef, sausage, chicken or pork strips, cubed ham) — add ground beef or sausage together with onions; cook to brown. Add cubed ham at the end, with the peppers. Experiment!

Pasta with Greens and Apples

Like potatoes or grains, pasta can also serve as a blank slate that can be customized any way you want.

Ingredients:

8 oz. pasta of your choice

A little bacon (or a little olive oil)

1 onion

Few mushrooms

1 or 2 cloves garlic

1 or 2 apples

1 bunch greens of your choice (spinach, arugula, kale, beet greens, etc.)

Directions:

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving a little pasta water.

Cook bacon to render fat; remove to paper towel to drain.

Add onions, mushrooms, to bacon drippings; cook 10 minutes. Add chopped, cored apples and garlic. Toss in the greens and a little pasta cooking water. Cook until wilted and tender, just a few minutes.

Add cooked pasta, feta and crumbled bacon to the skillet with the veggies. Stir to combine.

Serves 4.

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