August 23, 2011

The Laziness of Food

One can always tell if someone is lazy or just a plain bad cook when what they prepare comes out of the freezer section of the supermarket, a can, or is something that would be served to children at a family get-together outdoors like hot dogs or hamburgers. I realize some people never learned to cook and had to fend for themselves or always had someone to do it for them, but such circumstances are no excuse for the pitiful attempts seen on today's tables. Even with all of this "foodie" bullshit running rampant and the annoyance of every Tom, Dick, and Harry thinking he is a connoisseur of all things food related, people still cook crap.

I grew up with a stay-at-home mom and at the time they were called "homemakers," but we can't say that anymore because it is "politically incorrect." To the liberals and the perpetuators of stupidity, I say "Shove it." (As an aside, I find is quite disconcerting that my Firefox spell check doesn't think "perpetuators" is a word. Anyhow...) My mom was a great cook. She could make anything I knew of at the time and was never afraid to try new things. At one point, she even had a catering business that did quite well until we moved to another city and she sold it. She would make great things like meatloaf and everyone's favorite spaghetti sauce. Mind you, this isn't rag├╣ alla bolognese, it's that Americanized version that has been bastardized over the years that everyone's mom has a recipe for. I know it's not authentic Italian, considering my mother hates al dente pasta, but I grew up with it and it's comfort food to me. She would make so many great dishes and we were fed well. Both of my grandmothers could cook fantastically, as well. The only thing I hated out of all of my mother's cooking was something she called "goulash." Now, if you are of Hungarian decent, the following will make you cringe: my mother's "goulash" was ground beef with onions and celery and a can of red kidney beans all cooked in a frying pan. It still disgusts me to this day. I refuse to eat it. I remember coming home from school to a house that smelled like baked goods, whether it was cake, cookies, squares, or the like, it was all good. For some reason my mother could make tarts but never pie. That was the one thing my father has never been able to get out of her is a good pie. And pie is his favorite, peach pie, to be exact.

Not too many years ago, about ten, if my memory serves me, my mother had a mental breakdown. She stopped cleaning and cooking well and started drinking incessantly. As I said in one of my previous posts, my mother can drink you under the table, unless you’re a communist era Russian grandmother. She has an extremely high alcohol tolerance, which I have managed to inherit. Being able to put away a bottle of vodka by herself and still walk straight is a magnificent feat for a female, especially since the running average for the intoxication of women nowadays seems to be about two coolers or beers or a jigger of hard liquor. I’ve sat many a night watching my mother polish off six bottles of hard cider, two shots of vodka and two bottles of wine, but she does know her alcohol.

The result of mental breakdown was neither I nor my father was being fed anything of value and my mother had pretty well zoned out. Up until this point, I was never allowed to touch the stove as my mother has a pathological fear of the house burning down since a family who lived across the street from her during her childhood had all burned to death in their residential blaze to which she was a witness to seeing the charred bodies being removed at the age of seven or so. Now, I was allowed to have a blow torch at the age of twelve, but I was not allowed to use the stove. The lack of logic astounds me. At this point I was sixteen or so and had been watching cooking shows for most of my life such as the Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child back when I was about four and Cooking with Caprial, Biba’s Italian Kitchen and all of those good shows on PBS and TLC when those channels were still about bettering one’s mind. It’s called “The Learning Channel,” not “John and Kate Plus Eight because we have stooped to the level of the rest of the idiots and have embraced the idiocy of reality television.” Then Food Network came along and they had great shows with great formats that taught you how to cook. It was about learning and embracing food, not about being entertained with the Great Food Truck Race or Kitchen Impossible. I must admit, thought, that the original Iron Chef from Japan was awesome in its own right. The American one is just a cheap knock off. I loved watching Malto Mario, The Essence of Emeril (I never cared for Emeril Live as I thought it was stupid because it was catering to showmanship, not good food), East Meets West, The Two Fat Ladies (a British import initially used to fill space since they were lacking in original material), The Best Of, Calling All Cooks, A Cook’s Tour (Anthony Bourdain is my favorite “celebrity” chef), Tyler’s Ultimate and my all-time favorite Good Eats with Alton Brown. Alton Brown is the hero of food in North America today. That is what I watched and I learned to cook and I am a damn fine cook. Yes, I’m conceited, but you’ll get over it when you taste my food, especially in comparison to the crap that’s being passed off out there.

This brings me back to what you can learn from someone by what or how they cook. For instance, my mother’s staple meals now are hot dogs, smokies, or sausage in a bun. I’m sorry, but that tells me you’re lazy as hell since you can’t be bothered to make something decent that takes more than fifteen minutes. The really funny thing is she usually makes someone else cook it for her. It’s not like she does anything around the house besides laundry.

Staple number two is hamburgers. Neither my mother nor father can make these properly to save their lives. For some reason my dad thinks he’s a great griller—notice how I didn’t use the word barbeque. Barbeque is done with a wood fire in a separate box and is essentially hot smoking. That Webber charcoal thing you have in the backyard is not a barbeque—but he’s not. He burns everything. You’re not supposed to convert the carbon-based life form product into something resembling or even remotely tasting like charcoal. It’s disgusting, a waste of food and money, and shows the world you’re a bad cook and haven’t taken the time to learn to do it properly. If you can’t do it right, don’t do it for someone else and expect them to eat it. And barbeque sauce does not go on everything you put on the grill.

Staple three happens to be cauliflower and rice, which makes me gag. It must be easy to prepare or something because that’s what’s on the table all too often for no apparent reason.

Staple four happens to be going to one of the local bars because someone is either too lazy or forgetful to get something out of the freezer the night before so it can be cooked and ingested for sustenance the following day.

Staple number five is booze, whether it be wine or beer (for my dad) or vodka or a mixed drink, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not that booze doesn’t accompany almost everything done after 3pm at my parents', but on an increasing regular basis, this became a mainstay of the term “dinner.”

Everyone should be able to cook decently something one would serve friends or a significant other, firstly, to show them one’s not totally useless and, secondly, to better oneself. If one is stuck without means of securing a meal other than preparing it oneself, one should be able to do so in a competent manner and have something tasty to eat in the end.

In order to accomplish this, I would suggest watching the old episodes of Good Eats on Youtube before they are taken down due to the asininity of the mother corporation of Food Network. If those are unavailable, the next best thing to do is to get yourself a really good cookbook like that huge hard cover one from Good Housekeeping that shows you how to do things step-by-step. I would not suggest buying Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child as it assumes you have basic cooking skills in the first place, and don't even try the French Laundry Cookbook until you have at least basic skills and an obsession for food. That would be something you work towards. The next thing to do is to pick a recipe and buy the ingredients. If you get really good, you’ll find yourself going to the store almost every day so you can cook something. If you get to this stage, start planning your meals a week at a time in order to save time, money, gasoline, et cetera.

Now it’s just down to trail and error. You might have to cook something two or three times of maybe even ten to get it right. And you better have a pepper grinder with peppercorns less than six months old in it. If you’re using that powdered crap, throw it out and get the real stuff that has flavor. Make sure you master the basics. It took my mom forty years for her to steam a vegetable properly and that’s only because I showed her how twenty times. Learn to poach and egg so the middle is runny yet the white is fully cooked. I don’t care if you don’t like runny egg yolks, most people do. Learn to cook the egg properly for someone else so they don’t have to eat things the way you like them. The same goes for sunny side up.

You should be able to cook a steak to medium-rare. You needn’t have a grill or a salamander to do this. You can do it on a grill if you wish, but the fact is, most people’s grills are finicky and the temperature is not consistent over the entire surface. I suggest doing it under your oven broiler. Yes, it will make a mess and you will need to clean it after you cook the steak, but it is worth it. The steak you get should be at least one inch thick, preferable one and a half or two. This way you don’t over cook it. If you can’t afford a huge thick steak, opt for a thick, smaller one. Sometimes they are referred to as baseball cut or something. If you can afford a good steak, always get a bone-in rib eye. They have a large amount of fat throughout the meat and the bone makes them extra tasty. It might run you fifteen dollars for one, but it’s worth it. The porterhouse is my second choice, if you can get one thick enough, but part will be overcooked while the other part is just right. That’s because there are two different muscles in the porterhouse. Please stay away from beef tenderloin, otherwise known as filet mignon, steaks as they are extremely overpriced and don’t offer as much flavor as rib eyes do. The filet mignon is about tenderness and the reason they push tenderness is because most people and places can't cook steak properly.

So you can cook eggs and a steak. Well, that’s a pretty fancy breakfast, but it’s not going to cut it. You should be able to make a salad, too. You can even buy the greens in a box at the supermarket instead of having to tear up your own. That’s not a sin. The thing that’s going to send you straight to hell, though, is not making your own dressing. Vinaigrette's are not hard to make. The oil to vinegar ratio is two to one. Use olive oil and a decent vinegar, not the white vinegar that’s used for cleaning; try cider, wine or balsamic vinegar. Add some salt and pepper and you’re good to go. That is the most basic one to start with. There are a myriad of salad dressing recipes to choose from, but never settle for that crap in the bottle. When you know what you’re doing, you can move onto cream-type dressings, which are also good.

Now you’re at eggs, steak, steamed vegetables, and salad with dressing. Cooking a chicken breast properly is always good and so is fish, but fish is a little trickier. Probably ninety-eight percent of the fish I have eaten prepared by someone in their home was overcooked. A rice pilaf is a staple that should be used when necessary along with good mashed potatoes. I would not suggest pork as something for a beginner either as even people who have been doing it for decades still overcook pork. That should be fine for now.

The bottom line is you should know how to cook well enough to make a tasty meal for someone other than yourself. Don’t serve people shit.

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