Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How I decide what to cook for dinner, Part I: Basic Principles

I have mentioned that I started learning to cook when I was ten. Those times were pretty fun. When you are ten, basically you make what you want to make, like a zigguraut-shaped cake on which may be used not one but two whole cans of chocolate frosting. From my vantage point now, I'm not even sure how we fit that much frosting ON to the cake, let alone ate it afterwards. Like I say, good times.

When I was fifteen, however, I graduated to cooking for the entire family on a regular basis, and it suddenly got a lot harder. I remember the first time I plunked some French Toast in front of one of my younger sisters: she said, "but I don't LIKE French Toast," and I started in to the well-known "you WILL eat what is set before you" speech, but luckily my dad saved me from it. Meaning, my sister and I quite possibly have a much better relationship today because I was never allowed to make that speech. I do still try to balance the needs of the cook with the needs of the eaters, but I have also come to feel that cooking something to the best of your ability, with an eye to both nourishing and delighting the person(s) who consume the food, is truly and deeply an act of love. It's all a matter of balance.

As with all advice at all times, please take what you need from the following and huck the rest. But, especially, really-- you will see that my methods are particularly particularized for me especially, which I am well aware of, so I'm saying--well, I said it.

The first thing I figured out was which principles I wanted/needed to balance. I tend to apply these to individual recipes which are auditioning for my recipe reperitoire. A good/great recipe maximizes deliciousness and nutritiousness, while minimizing the time and expense involved in making it. Basically, I want recipes which give me good output for what I put in to them.

I am, believe me, WELL aware of how difficult it is to get all of these things in one recipe, but think of it this way: it isn't that hard to imagine a recipe from a mediocre cookbook which takes forever to make, has expensive ingredients, doesn't taste that great once it's done, and isn't even good for you. If THAT is possible, why not the reverse? Well, OK, so lots of reasons, but I'm digressing here.

When I am fixing dinner, I try to average out which categories my recipes fall in to. Here are a couple of examples:

If I am fixing stir-fry, which is mildly expensive (fresh produce) and tends to take forever (chopping-- I just don't have those mad knife skills, but Mom is talking about buying a food processor) but is very healthy and delicious to boot, then I take it easy for the rest of the meal and fix just plain rice for the starch. Or, on days when I fix home-made bread or rolls, the stuff that goes in them is likely to be leftover meat and maybe some lettuce and tomatoes; the bread took long enough to make, already.

The principles of balance also come in to play when I am planning menus and going shopping. Only one example here: at Thanksgiving, when deliciousness is at a premium, I figure out which dishes I want to invest some time in (like curried chicken and lemon meringue pie) and which ones I want to not spend as much time on, but may spend more money on (pre-washed spinach salad with Craisins, or basmati rice).

Whew! Got that? If you don't, I hereby forbid you from reading the next post (coming on Thursday) until your brain has had a chance to absorb. It only took mine about five years.

1 comment:

N said...

Amen, sister! - I was just thinking about this. You've said pretty much all that I was thinking, though. I look forward to reading the rest.
Love you!