Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cooking as part of a simple, healthful life

For us, the simple life has done even more than make our lives more peaceful, less cluttered, and more purposeful.

It’s also improved our health.

Learning to cook is one of many on the list of things to do when you decide to simplify your lifestyle.  Everyone has their own path and makes their own way to simplicity, and simplicity is different for each of us.  So, what works for the Mister and I may not be the same for you, and I know that what works for others doesn’t always work for us.  Still, I would be inclined to say that learning to cook might be at the top of the list for many.

Most of us know how to cook something, don’t we?  Whether it’s macaroni and cheese from a box, or boiling a hotdog.  Or, it might be more extravagant -- spaghetti, macaroni and cheese from scratch, shepherd’s pie -- but your repertoire is limited.  Wherever you’re at, I want to encourage you to take some new steps in your adventure.

I really believe that cooking is life changing.

It's such a seemingly simple thing that you do for yourself, your children, your friends and family.  But it’s a gift you give the people who eat from your table, and a gift you give yourself as well.  It will give you a sense of satisfaction that you can’t get from other areas of your life, because you will be able look at your table and think, I made that, from practically nothing, with my own two hands.  And you will be able to look at your once lanky, bony husband, who you’ve fattened to a healthy physique and think, I made a difference for the person I love.  It’s often the small things that make the biggest difference.  And a hot, home cooked meal is one of those, I think.

Because the journey is, and will be, different for each one of us, there are no real important points for where to start or what to do.  

This can make the job feel more overwhelming, can’t it?

If that’s the case for you, try making your own list of things you’d like to accomplish.    You might add to it, things like:

  • Figure out how to eliminate one store bought item from your pantry (i.e. cream of mushroom soup, canned chili, salsa, canned beans)
  • Learn to make your own meat bone stock (broth) from scratch
  • Learn to make a version of your favorite restaurant meal (a particular cheeseburger or pasta dish) - to do this, you can google, and use your own tastebuds to figure out what’s in the meal you love.  If you have the guts you can even call the restaurant and just ask them for their recipe!  I’ve seen people do it before and it worked for them.

Also, please don’t be fooled.  You will hear from everybody else that you need this, and you need that in order to cook.  But you don’t need a kitchen full of utensils to get your cooking life on the road.  In our case, we didn’t have much variety to start with, so I started with what I had: two peeling, non-stick skillets, a really old toaster oven, a leaky tea kettle, a pancake turner, a wooden spoon, a two burner gas stove top and more metal chopsticks than you could shake a stick at.  We didn’t have a cheese grater (at first, we didn’t even have cheese), a rubber spatula, a mixing bowl, a saucepan, or forks, although we had a couple Korean rice spoons.  We didn’t have a garlic press or whisk, or anything to cut with but one dull paring knife and a bent steak knife.  Even still, there was a lot I could do with just those few things in my kitchen (I didn’t even have a full size oven!), and so I encourage you to try it out at whatever place in life you are.  

Be creative!

Some of the first things I made were things I already knew how to make: spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, and shepherd’s pie.  It was quickly discovered that the Mister hated shepherd’s pie, so that was nixed.  But spaghetti and macaroni and cheese remain favorites around here.

Once I’d made the things that I knew well several times, and had gotten a feel for our oddly arranged (and sparsely stocked) Korean kitchen, I started using other simple recipes, using simple ingredients we had on hand.  Pesto spaghetti with fresh vegetables and chicken, bread pudding, King Ranch Chicken (we love our Tex-Mex), and meatloaf.

One of our favorites (and a very easy meal) for a while, was roast chicken with potatoes, carrots and onions.

It was difficult to fit a chicken into our oven, even once we’d purchased a larger, more accommodating toaster oven, so we bought a crock-pot.  It wasn’t a big one, we couldn’t find one of those.  It was just a normal, maybe 4 quart, crock pot that cost an *arm and a leg*.  It was worth it for us, though, and we saved for it and gave up other things in order to get it.  I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when we got that thing.  And with how much even a small toaster oven and two burner stop top can heat a small apartment in the summer, we were very grateful for the ability to cook without heating up the whole entire house.

I would go down to the open air market that was just down the street from our house and pick up a chicken from our favorite vender: a husband and wife duo, who were sometimes accompanied by their small children and parents.  I’d point to the chicken I wanted (a small fryer sort of thing), and right there in front of us, they would drag the plucked chicken by one leg, off the ice in the cold case, throw it down hard on the cutting board in front of them and ask us if we wanted it quartered.  Most often (unless I was going to use it for making stock), I would say no and then they’d just chop off the skin around the neck and the wing tips, throw in a handful of gizzards, and put the whole thing -- raw and uncovered -- into a plastic grocery sack, then another plastic grocery sack, tie it in a knot and hand it to me, a little sticky on the outside with chicken juice.  But Korean moms and grandmothers aren’t scared of a little chicken juice like we are here, in the US.

To an American, accustomed to being somewhat more detached from the butchering process than that, it was a little alarming at first.  Especially since the market didn’t seem particularly sanitary what with my chicken being chopped in the open air, on an old wooden table, with a giant cleaver that didn’t seem to have been washed well since the last chicken customer came by... but I got used to it and after a while, it became nice to be slightly more connected to my chicken dinner.  I saw, and communicated with, the people who butchered it.  I trusted them to take the precautions that were normal for Korea.  And we never got sick, not once.  Those chickens were good, too.

Anyway, long digressions aside...

Cooking is a very powerful tool in the arsenal of a simple life.  

When you can cook, you’re more inclined to have a garden, and with your own garden, you get your own organic produce, virtually for free!  You’re also not contributing to as many petrochemicals being used to produce and get your food to you.  Also, when you cook, you know what’s going into your food.  You know what you’re feeding that lanky, bony husband of yours, and what he thrives on, versus what tends to make his allergies worse.

At our house:
Just through cooking and learning more about food and nutrition, we have significantly reduced both or our incidences of allergies and asthma.  My acid reflux has completely gone away and we both sleep a lot better (not waking up as much throughout the night, sleeping more soundly, falling asleep more easily).  Oddly, we also get hungry less often, which means we are eating less food, which equals less money, less time, etc...  And best of all, guess what?  It is February and neither of has been sick this winter -- not once!

Cooking is powerful.  Real food is powerful.  And living a simple life is powerful.  

So, don’t underestimate yourself!  Be brave.  It’s so fun to branch out, get your hands dirty, and mess around with a whole, slimy chicken.

And it really is worth it.

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