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Monday, January 5, 2009

SOME NEW YEAR'S THOUGHTS ABOUT COOKING

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Vegan Vietnamese "Fisherman's Soup" (UPDATE: the recipe is in my new book World Vegan Feast)

My first blog post of 2009-- didn't think it would be this late! I'm afraid I've been in a bit of a funk, being snowed in etc.. I've been cogitating on the whole business of cooking and writing and the recession and agriculture and global warming......I was thinking about how I started out, as a young mother with four kids, living the "homesteading" life of the 70's, with very little money and alot of good intentions.

I had always cooked, ever since I can remember, and I was lucky to grow up in California, exposed to the foods of many cultures. I could make a good meal with whatever we had around. Although I could not afford to eat in expensive restaurants, I read copiously about food and cooking and experimented as much as possible.

Eventually I started writing newspaper columns and teaching classes, and that led to writing books and doing workshops, even opening a restaurant at one point. Along came the internet and, now a grandmother, I had to learn a whole new way of communicating!

It is easy to get sucked into the so-called "glamour" of the cooking business-- although most of it is hard work, often solitary, and messy at that! Cooks and cookbook writers almost have to be celebrities these days! And we seem to have to find more exotic and rarefied ingredients to keep people interested.

But is that really wise, I wonder, with the global economy slipping, with global warming? I'm not necessarily advocating the "100-mile diet" (which, in my neck of the woods, would leave a vegan with not a heck of alot of choices in the winter!)-- read what Earthsave Canada's David Steele writes on that subject here. (This is a pdf file-- if you want a Word doc version, I can send it to you.) What I am advocating is learning to cook, for one thing, and learning to cook well from a more limited pantry. Great cooks all over the world have done this from time immemorial.

I wrote this in my book "Nonna's Italian Kitchen":

"One of the first things I realized when I began doing research for this book was that you don't have to have a pantry full of exotic ingredients in order to cook Italian. I found that I was using a fairly modest list of ingredients over and over again to create an infinite number of dishes.

With dry pasta, good extra-virgin olive oil, good-quality canned tomatoes, dried chickpeas, lentils, cannellini (white kidney) and romano (or pinto or cranberry) beans, arborio and long-grain rice, cornmeal, red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar, lemons, onions, garlic, celery, a few carrots, some good-quality vegetarian broth cubes, salt and peppercorns, and a few herbs, perhaps some wine, you can be ready for anything. What makes the cusine complex is the use of fine quality ingredients, and the way these ingredients are combined, adding fresh in-season produce and fresh crusty Italian bread.

Italian cooks plan their menus around what vegetables and fruits are in season or available that day, and always have the above-mentioned items on hand. This can be a very liberating concept to North American shoppers-- going to the market without a detailed list!"


About those "fine quality ingredients"-- you don't need to buy mail-ordered [from Italy] "artisan-made" pasta extruded through bronze dies, and "estate-bottled" olive oil and balsamic vinegar at upwards of $60 a bottle!. (It seems to me that as soon as what was once an impossible-to-find ingredient becomes readily available, the "food gurus" introduce a few more rare and expensive ingredients. This keeps so-called gourmet cooking in the realm of the elite.) Buy the best that you can afford, grow your own herbs, buy fresh produce from a good vendor (and grow some of your own, or buy locally). If you have time, make your own pasta, broth and bread, but, if you don't have time, experiment until you find some ready-made that fits both your budget and your taste buds-- it can be done!

And, if we don't always have the "right" ingredient, use what you do have-- in my book "Authentic Chinese Cuisine for the Contemporary Kitchen", I wrote:

"After all, Chinese cooks are nothing if not inventive, and have always worked wonders with whatever ingredients were available to them in the far-off countries to which they have emigrated over the years. The most important ingredients have always been fresh, good-quality vegetables."

I think it's inevitable that we WILL have to cook with a more limited pantry and many of us with a limited budget. For those who don't learn to cook, this will mean poorer health, because they will probably fall even deeper into the fast-food trap. Those of us who love to cook, and those willing to learn to cook, or to cook differently, will fare better. And we can eat wonderful food-- look at the peasant cuisines around the world!

Anyway, I'm rambling, but I'd love to hear your thoughts. Home cooking has always been my strong suit and vegan home cooking has been a real exploration for me. I've also been eager to make delicious home cooking accessible for those of us with little time, and those of us who want to eat more healthfully and without a dependence on fat for flavor. So, I'll keep exploring for the next generation of cooks. (Notice my new subtitle?)

Happy New Year!

9 comments:

aimee said...

Hi Bryanna! Thanks for your insights--very well said! I've always been a baker, but when I became a vegan I knew I was going to have to really start cooking. Although as more vegan convenience foods have become more accessible I find myself relying on the open-a-package-and-heat-it-up type cooking. I made a single resolution this new year to start cooking more (and using what I have in the pantry instead of constantly shopping!) I'm quite certain your newsletters and blog will help me do just that! thanks!

Clare said...

I really appreciated hearing your thoughts there. I have to confess that much as I love trying new flavours and cuisines, at home I probably tend to cook more homely dishes. I have to admit that when I see a cookbook where every dish asks for exotic ingredients I tend to put it down and walk away. It's nice to do these things sometimes and I could buy these ingredients at delicatessens but I certainly couldn't afford to eat like that everyday. Of course, some things I do find sources for and treat myself too and others I learn how to cook and appreciate but it does seem like some chefs are just interested in sourcing and combining more and more rare ingredients. Sorry about the long comment, I just wanted to say that it's good to hear a professional appreciate straightforward dishes with easily available ingredients.

snugglebunny said...

I had no choice but to learn to cook, since eating out has never really been in the budget. Unfortunately, I also have lived in very small apartments and do not even have a pantry to stock. I just learned to cook a few things a week and then eat leftovers that keep getting recreated. And really scary, I learned to cook from FoodTV because my mom never taught me.

Brenda W. said...

Hi Bryanna!

Your comments are MOST timely, given all the economic news today. Any of the personal finance blogs one runs across mentions 'cooking meals at home' as a way to save money.

As someone who has done this for ages (don't ALL vegans who live in rural areas have to??), I forget that this is not a given for most folks. It amazes me the number of folks I work with who honestly do not know how to prepare a meal from scratch.

Thanks for all you provide for us cooks in terms of varied and tasty recipes!

Brenda W. said...

....and PS .. I love your added subtitle! Very appropriate given the content of your postings!!

jessica said...

Exactly.

I was raised on hamburger helper, beans and weenies, and McDonald's. I'm trying to learn how to do just what you said -- cook from the pantry. It's one thing to flip through cookbooks and find recipes and cook them. It's quite another to go to the store, find kale on sale, get home and do something amazing. That's what I want :) Well, what I'm learning to do -- hopefully.

Please keep teaching us! :)

Thank you.

Melody Polakow said...

You bring up GREAT points here.. I know for me, simplifying my recipes is a goal because people often say they are overwhelmed by the ingredients..

I am pretty involved with the Raw food community and the one thing that just rubs me the wrong way is the reliance on "superfoods" or foods from other continents.. I do not believe that it is right to import so much food.. It is not sustainable and really defeats the whole message of raw foods in my opinion.

Alice, Angel Food said...

Hi Bryanna. Nicely put! Here in NZ we're a lot less reliant on packaged food than appears to be the situation in North America, but we're catching up! And I fear for the generation whose pantries contain more convenience food than staples. I read No Impact Man's blog the other day and there was a comment about people buying high-tech 'toys' and 'stuff' in general because they hate their jobs and feel they deserve rewards (rewards which, of course, keep them chained to those jobs!!!). I wonder if the food situation is similar - we are disconnected from the natural source of food and that creates a dissonance - we distract ourselves from that by reaching for ever-more exotic ingredients. I quite like my analogy! And of course food manufacturers (myself included, I admit!) are only too willing to cater to those desires. There, I've outed myself - I always was too honest for my own good!!

Claudia said...

I absolutely agree that today's reality means a more limited pantry and a more limited budget, and I would love to see more simple recipes. A lot of people don't have the time and/or knowledge how to cook, so the easier it is, the more likely they are to try new recipes.

I've recently discovered that I'm gluten-intolerant, so I'm going to have to make even more changes to my diet! An added challenge is that I need to focus on foods with a low GI, since I'm a recovering diabetic. Whew.

Thanks again for your wonderful recipes! Happy 2012!