Last time I posted on this issue, I had a revelation when a number of people popped up in comments and elsewhere, begging me for the recipe for the dish I posted. I will confess that this threw me for a loop, in part because I had just found the picture online, but mostly because you can tell by looking at it that it’s rice and beans with avocado on top. To my mind, this barely counts as “recipe”, at least not the kind you have to ask someone for. It’s an idea, sure. But rice and beans is a matter of cooking rice and beans, putting some stuff that tastes good in it, like cumin and chili and onions and garlic, and then putting some avocado on it. What was obvious to me is obviously not obvious to everyone.
Data point #2: This article bemoaning how hard it is to find recipes for all the vegetables that the CSA gives you. I expected, when I opened it, for it to be all about turnips and beets, but no. The woman struggled with greens and parsley, the two easiest foods in the world to cook with, as they go in anything. Seriously, anything. Whatever you think they don’t go with, just toss them in. It took me a little while to figure it out when the CSA kept dishing out more greens than I knew what to do with, but I realized that if I sauteed them with garlic and onions and then stored them in the fridge with a little lemon juice, I could just scoop and add to pretty much anything I was making. Toss them with eggs or on toast. Eat them with pasta or rice. You can even do them up with beans. Since parsley goes into everything, just double this.
What I realized is that one reason Americans don’t cook as much as we should for our health—one reason that cooking really is hard—is that the model on how to cook is so recipe-oriented. We think that “cooking” means planning a recipe, shopping for ingredients, and following the recipe closely. You really see this attitude in the CSA article. The writer is actually a little thrown initially by Mark Bittman’s more organic way of cooking, which is just to do things up simply and serve them together. She even jokes about how she’s so drawn to words like “gratin”, and that causes her to overthink stuff. I think her problem is endemic.
Not that there’s anything wrong with following recipes, of course. But the people who cook the most, I suspect, are the ones who do that only 10-20% of the time. The reason is that recipe-based cooking takes a lot more time and mental space that you need for other things, it creates leftovers, and it also often means buying more of certain ingredients than you need for the recipe. And then a lot of people don’t know how to use the extra ingredients into the future, so they get caught in this cycle of always having to buy everything for recipes, and then their cabinets get overfull and that can be overwhelming. I know, because I used to be that person.
What we need, in part, is a national move away from thinking of cooking in this orderly, painstaking fashion. Mark Bittman’s books are actually a good start. In his vegetarian cookbook, at least, he organizes a huge chunk of it simply by ingredients and goes over the basic cooking techniques for each. And then he has charts that show various ways to pay those techniques forward into actual meals. Work with it long enough, and you get way better at just grabbing what’s on sale or what’s in the CSA and creating a meal from it. (But it takes practice.) Of course, sometimes his books use words that aren’t immediately apparent. Many people of all social classes are way behind the curve on knowing even the basic concepts of cooking. The question at this point is how to fix that problem?