The best and easiest cupcakes, and the fluffiest icing.

I know that it’s been a while. I slipped into my old habits of trying to do too much, while feeling convinced that I wasn’t doing enough, which – as was inevitable, I suppose – led to falling prey to the flu. It’s been a while since I felt like eating, much less cooking. BUT the only good thing about getting sick is that you feel SO good when you’re better. And so I emerge full of resolutions to not work so hard, to eat more fruit, to train more, to read more poetry. To play more and to draw, to sing and to dance, as soon as I can breathe properly again.

cupcakes

It’s been so long since I baked, that on Friday I was overcome with a nostalgic longing for that homespun satisfaction that comes from filling the house with a delicious aroma. So I turned into Super-Mom and whizzed up THE most divine cupcakes. Pillowy and delectable, more flavourful than sweet (although they are sweet, as cupcakes should be), and oh-so-pretty lapped with butter icing and coloured sprinkles. I got creative with the sprinkles and put a different combination on each cupcake so we get the exquisite anticipation of “oooo, which one should I choose?”.  Even I like these, and I don’t much like sweet stuff.

After my daughter pronounced the day One of the Best Ever (it’s not often one comes home from school to these), I pulled a bottle of champagne out of the fridge, and convinced my wonderful neighbour to come over and help me drink it. As soon as the bottle was on its last drops, her husband showed up bearing a bottle of gin, and the party went on until the wee hours of the morning. Getting better is a LOT of fun.

cupcakes with sprinkles

Some other time I’ll tell you about the champagne cocktails that we ended up making. And about how creative we got with the bottle of gin. But today, let’s stick with fluffy wholesomeness and talk about cupcakes. These cupcakes. Moist, soft and difficult to put down, they lift spirits and smooth rough edges and add a bit more colour to the world. The original recipe comes from Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, and since I can’t imagine an easier path to greatness and legend, I am grateful.

You need:

125g soft butter
125g self-raising flour
125g sugar
2 eggs
1-2 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ cup milk

Pre-heat oven to 180ºC. Bung everything into the food processor, and blitz.

cupcakes-step-1

cupcake-mixLine a 12-cupcake tray with paper liners, divide the mixture among them…

cupcakes-in-liners

and bake for 15-20 minutes.

cupcakes-antes-del-frostingLet cool completely before frosting. If you’re in a hurry (as in, you suddenly realise that the school bus is due in about 20 minutes), you can put the tray outside on the windowsill to accelerate the process (yay, winter!), or, if you absolutely have to, in the fridge.

Note: I make this in the food processor. It works, it’s fast and it leaves the KitchenAid bowl free for the icing, recipe to follow. You can make this with beaters, just beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs, then the flour and salt. Leave out the extra baking powder. Then some milk, mix, dollop and bake.

The icing is also really easy, and the best butter icing I’ve ever had.

You need:

170g soft butter
1 ½ tbs heavy cream
1 ¼ vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
170g icing sugar

Beat together the butter, cream, vanilla extract and salt for about 2 minutes. Add the icing sugar, and mix on low speed for about 4 minutes, until it no longer threatens to cover your kitchen in a fine layer of white dust.

icing-2

Then increase the speed to medium, and beat. Lots. That’s the secret, beating for about 8-10 minutes. You’ll see the icing get fluffier and whiter and thicker. If you don’t have a KitchenAid, it’s almost worth getting one just for this icing.

icing

Note: the original recipe, from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book, gives double this amount, which is apparently enough for a layer cake. I found that half (= the quantities given here) is just enough for 12 cupcakes.

Another note: you may think that vanilla cupcakes paired with vanilla icing is too much vanilla. To which I respond: are you mad? No such thing as too much vanilla.

Caramel popcorn

What is your go-to snack when you’re stressed or nervous? What do you want to nibble on when you need an energy boost to feed your fretting? Mine is this caramel popcorn, and given the intense couple of weeks around here (work, and a bit more refurbishment being done on the flat, I need my head examined), I have ended up making this a couple of times recently. And today, I’m sharing the recipe with you. Just in case you also have to give a 45-minute long speech without reading from the paper, or just in case you also are having work done on your house, or in case you have people coming around. Everyone loves this. And it is, seriously, addictive.

This recipe makes about 10 cups. Which in our house will last about 2 days.

You need:
200g / 7oz of popped popcorn (I usually use 2 microwave packets)
200ml / 7 fl oz condensed milk
110g / 3.75oz brown sugar
80g / 3oz white sugar
80g / 2.75g butter

Preheat the oven to 170ºC.

Melt together the butter, condensed milk and the two sugars, stirring until the sugar has dissolved.

Let the mixture bubble until it turns a light caramel colour, it should take about 3 minutes. Be careful not to let it burn, and bear in mind that it will keep on cooking for about 30-40 seconds after you take it off the heat.

Spread the popcorn on a large baking tray. Pour the caramel mixture over, and (very carefully! it’s hot! use tongs or large spoons!) mix to coat as much of the popcorn as you can. Don’t worry about getting every kernel coated, a bit of variety in the texture and taste is good.

Bake for about 10-12 minutes. Let cool before eating.

caramel-popcorn-2

Lemon bars, and Happy New Year!

Last night we had a really enjoyable New Years’ Eve at my sister-in-law’s place, a tradition of many years’ standing, and a lot of fun. Good people, good food, good champagne and excellent wine, and my amazing brother-in-law even drove us home in the wee hours of the morning. I’m usually in charge of the desserts, and this year I took three: the gingerbread cake I showed you a few weeks ago, a chocolate-almond cake (recipe to follow) and these lemon bars. It never fails, everyone I serve these to asks for the recipe, which I’m generally reluctant to divulge, simply because it’s so easy that I sort of feel like I’ve cheated them. Yes, this is one of those recipes that looks like it’s so much more work than it is. Cherish it.

For about 16-24 bars, depending on your pan and on how small you cut them, you need:

250g flour
50g icing sugar
225g cold butter
4 eggs
200g sugar
80ml / 1/3 cup lemon juice
30g flour
½ tsp baking powder
icing sugar for sprinkling

Turn the oven on to 180ºC. Grease and line (with wax paper, or foil) a 20x30cm baking pan, or a 24x24cm square cake pan, or whatever you have that’s more or less that size… Avoid a round pan if you can, these bars don’t do well with an elongated triangle shape.

Mix the flour and icing sugar together in the food processor (just a few pulses, to get some air in there). Cut the butter into chunks, add to the food processor, and pulse until you have tiny crumbs (it should take about 1 minute).

Dump the crumbs into the prepared pan, and pat them down with your hand to form a base.

Bake for approximately 20-25 minutes, or until slightly golden on top.

Beat together the eggs, sugar and lemon juice. Add the 30g of flour and the baking powder, mix some more until smooth, and pour over the baked base. You don’t have to wait for it to cool down, but it doesn’t matter if you do.

Bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until the center of the pan doesn’t wobble when you gently shake it. Let the pan cool down before cutting the bars into squares or rectangles.

Sprinkle with icing sugar, and serve. Oh, and hide a couple for yourself, because they disappear fast.

M

The best roast chicken, and a secret recipe for gravy

My husband calls me the Queen of Roast Chicken. Which, let’s face it, is not the sexiest title. Queen of the Sultry Eyes, that’d be flattering. Or Goddess of Soft Skin, I’d be pleased with that (is it getting warm in here, or is it just me?). But for now, Queen of Roast Chicken it is, and I’ll take it. I do a good roast chicken, taught by my mother and tweaked, as one should. It is my family’s favourite lunch, and one of the easiest. Since we just got back from Christmas celebrations in London last night, and since the suitcases have yet to be unpacked*, roast chicken it is.

Roast Chicken

(*Where do you stand on the unpacking-right-away/leaving-it-until-later debate? I confess that I can’t think of a more sure-fire way of spoiling a good homecoming than having to unpack right away. On the other hand, who wants that hanging over them? And there’s Christmas presents to unpack and play with. Ok, ok, I’ll get on it right after dinner.)

Since I’m still in the Christmas spirit, I am going to share with you my roast chicken recipe. The one that I swore I would never divulge to anyone other than my daughter, to perpetuate the legacy. Yes, that one. You’re welcome. And as a special Christmas bonus, I’ll also give you the recipe for my Mystery Gravy. I am even more famous for my gravy. I’ve had guests arrive for lunch declaring that they have dreamt about my gravy. With my family, it’s not so much “would you like some gravy with your chicken?”, as “would you like some chicken with your gravy?”. And I’ll also share with you my recipe (if you can call it that) for baked potatoes, to soak up even more gravy. It’s called Mystery Gravy because I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked which mustard I use to flavour it. I don’t. No mustard. Really. You’ll see.

For the chicken, you’ll need:

1 sturdy roasting pan, big enough for the chicken and some onions
1 chicken
1-2 onions
2 tbs olive oil (a bit more or less won’t matter)
1 tbs red wine vinegar (or you could use lemon juice)
Garlic cloves (optional)
Rosemary sprig (optional), or thyme sprig (optional)
½ tsp salt, approx.

Preheat the oven to 250ºC.

Peel and cut the onions* into quarters.

(*My tip for less painful onion cutting: do this near an ignited gas ring. It doesn’t prevent the eye-stinging completely, but it really does help, I’m not sure why. Or, wear contact lenses, then it doesn’t hurt at all.)

Pour the olive oil into the roasting pan, add the onions, and toss, so that the onions are lightly coated with the oil. Push the onions to the edges, and plonk the chicken in the middle (it doesn’t really matter if the chicken ends up sitting on an onion wedge or two, but you won’t get the delicious charred oniony sweetness).

Roast chicken ready to go in the oven

If you wish (I sometimes do, I sometimes don’t), put a garlic clove and/or one or two herb sprigs in the chicken cavity. You could also put half a lemon, if you feel like it, for a sharper sauce. Splash the vinegar over the chicken, add the salt, and in the oven it goes. Add the potatoes at the same time (see below).

(A note on the appearance of this particular chicken. Normally I just plonk, dress, and put in the oven. But I felt that this particular chicken needed a more demure look, so I crossed its legs with a really nifty bright pink serpentine thingy that my mother gave me for Christmas last year.  Not necessary, because in theory you cut up the chicken before serving. But I felt like it today, so there it garishly is in the pictures.)

food-loops

 

Baked potatoes to accompany roast chicken;

Simply wash some potatoes, dry them (you don’t want steam), and stick them on some metal skewers. This helps them to cook faster, as the metal heats up and cooks the potatoes from inside. Put them on a baking tray and bung them in the oven at the same time as the chicken (or you can just throw the skewers onto the floor of the oven if you don’t feel like pulling out the baking tray – I find the tray easier to handle, and I have no idea what’s on the floor of my oven). Be super-duper careful when sticking the potatoes on the metal skewers, we want to pierce the potatoes, nothing else, ok?

potatoes ready to go in oven

Oh, and as to which potatoes to use, we don’t get much choice here in Spain. We get potatoes for frying, potatoes for boiling, and that’s about it. So I use the ones for frying, and with this method, they turn out nice and soft inside, but not at all floury.

 

Back to the chicken:

Leave it in the oven on high heat for about 15-20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 200ºC. Roast for about another 30 minutes. Your kitchen will smell divine.

When golden and crispy-looking on top, take the pan out of the oven. Make a deep cut near a thigh joint – if the juices run clear, it’s done. Transfer the whole chicken to a large plate (not a cutting board, or the juices will run and you’ll have a big mess on your countertop). Scoop out the onions and put them in a bowl.

roast chicken

 

The most amazing gravy:

You’ll need:

The roasting chicken pan, minus the chicken, onions and any other solids (but do not drain off the liquids!)
Juice of 1 lemon
About 1/3 cup of boiling water
1½ chicken broth cubes (my favourite brand is Knorr, hard to find here in Spain – you can get Knorr meat broth cubes, vegetable broth cubes, I’ve even seen Knorr fish broth cubes, but not chicken, go figure)
2-3 tbs of cream

Tilt the roasting pan so that the juices accumulate in one corner, and spoon out some of the transparent fat that accumulates on top, leaving behind the juices underneath. Don’t worry about getting it all, you don’t even want to, you just want to reduce the amount a bit, to make a less greasy gravy. I often keep the chicken fat that I scoop off to cook potatoes in later in the week.

making gravy

Place the pan over a flame, add the lemon juice, the chicken cubes and the boiling water, and stir. Bring the mixture to the boil, and keep stirring every now and then, for about 8-10 minutes. For extra flavour, you want to dissolve the brown bits on the side of the roasting pan. I do this by splashing some of the bubbling liquid on the sides and scraping. Pour in any juices that have accumulated on the chicken plate.

making gravy

While the gravy is bubbling away, carve the chicken any way you want, stopping every now and then to give the gravy a stir. If any more juices accumulate in the plate, add them to the gravy. If the gravy starts to get too thick before 8 minutes is up, add a bit more water. When it is as thick as you would like it (we prefer our gravy pourable but not runny), add some cream, and bubble a bit more, stirring and scraping. Taste for flavouring, it may need a bit more salt.

That’s it! Easy. I usually serve this with a Ceasar Salad, or roast broccoli. Or both.

And for some musical inspiration, I listened to the Beatles while making this today. It’s impossible not to sing along.

The slippery tale of ice cubes

“The warmest year on record!” scream the headlines. Temperatures are rising, hands are wringing, and experts are scrambling to raise awareness and find solutions. Relax, I’m not going to go into the issues of climate change here, because it’s not the place. Like most of us, I still have a lot to learn about the issue. But two things that I am certain of are that the mainstream media coverage is incomplete, and that the increasingly emotional fear-mongering is puzzling. After a flurry of predictions that warn of floods and droughts, heatwaves and blizzards, last night on the news the reporter gloomily concluded that “the future is uncertain”. Um, yes. Unless I’m mistaken, it always has been.

sunrises and sunsets

Back to today, though, it has been the most glorious autumn so far – crisp, colourful and not too cold. The sunsets and sunrises seem more radioactive than ever (see some examples above)… And my magnificent array of gloves, hats and scarves are as yet unused. Today, finally, the temperature in Madrid is dropping below 0ºC. Which makes it the perfect day to talk about ice.

It turns out that ice was invented by the Americans. Ok, sure, ice has actually been around since the dawn of time (or perhaps even before, depending on where you stand on the the Theories of Relativity and the Big Bang). But no-one thought of using it as a food preserver until 1844, when the Wenham Lake Ice Company opened a shop on the Strand in London and displayed a pristine block of ice in its window. Wenham Lake was a small body of water in Massachussetts, and due to its proximity to Atlantic sea routes, the obvious market was Europe. As always, easier said than done. Technology wasn’t really the problem – it turns out that ice is quite easy to insulate (sawdust, in case you’re wondering). It was human resistance. The first shipment of ice to Britain so puzzled the customs officials that all 300 tonnes of it melted away before it could be moved off the docks. And finding ships willing to carry the cargo was not easy, since ships instinctively spent a lot of time trying to keep water out of their holds.

Once the logistical problems were solved, and the world started to delight in chilled cocktails, ice was for a few decades America’s second largest crop. Fresh meat, ice-cream, cold beer… We have a lot to thank the Wenham Lake Ice Company for. The Norwegians soon muscled in on the European ice trade, since they had quite a lot of it. They even renamed one of their lakes “Wenham”, for the branding. Inexplicably, the British never really warmed to ice (sorry), and even today British pubs ration it out like silver. They’d rather give you potato crisps than ice.

I grew up in Africa, though, and ice is a big part of our evening refreshments. In the summer, our kitchen is actually quite chilly due to the frequent opening of the freezer door to get at the plastic trays. Sure, we could get a fridge with an automatic ice maker, but that involves plumbing, and they seem to break down frequently. The basic, simple plastic moulds never get tired.

And they make good-sized ice cubes. My new Siemens fridge came with an ice maker. Tiny. Little bitty pieces, which melt right away, diluting your drink. So we tore it out and threw it away.

little ice cube trays

Last Christmas we got as a present these amazing ice moulds:

round ice ball moulds

Big, luscious, glistening balls, that nestle in your cocktail glass, gently chilling the drink for ages. Now that’s an ice cube. (But not a cube. You know what I mean.)

cocktail with glistening ice ball

To add to our ice repertoire, my parents have just given us an automatic ice maker, that majestically sits on the counter. We have a big party coming up (birthday! birthday!), and the machine will save us more than a few grazed knuckles and frost-bitten fingers. Making that much ice in the trays would have been an icy nightmare. I have no idea how it works, but it does seem to chill water super-fast, and regurgitate perfectly-formed ice cubes that look like gum drops. The only drawback is that they melt quite quickly, since they’re relatively small and hollow, but they are perfect for the copious ice buckets we will need for all the champagne bottles we plan to empty at the party.

automatic ice maker

But won’t they melt quickly in the buckets, I hear you say? O ho, no, it turns out that if you cover the ice in salt and water, you cause the overall temperature to drop, which delays the melting. I would not recommend trying this technique on the ice you put in your cocktails. It’s up to you, though. It sounds preferable to sawdust.

—- x —-

(I’m sorry, but no article on ice can be complete without a rendition of the 90s anthem “Ice Ice Baby”… Pretty awful, but unforgettable.)

 

Mung bean salad and no time

Hello! I have had no time to post this week, a lot going on for work and at home…

BUT I did make mung beans yesterday for the first time… I don’t think that I’ve ever even had a mung bean before, and couldn’t find a mung bean recipe in any of my favourite cookbooks, so I winged it and made a fresh tomato, onion and herb salsa to dress them up with. I haven’t had time to write out a recipe, but I liked how the photos came out, so I’ll share them with you anyway. (It is SO wonderful not having to spend ages tweaking the white balance on the photos, as I did with pictures taken in the old kitchen! All of these pictures have not been retouched at all, not even a little bit!).

And, if you’re interested, I like mung beans. They’re quite a bit like lentils, only I much prefer them to lentils, the taste is slightly sweeter without being in any way sweet, does that make sense? And this salad is delicious…

chopped tomatoes

Chop some fresh tomatoes finely. Or not finely, whatever you prefer.

mung beans

You have to soak them overnight in cold water, then rinse, then boil in fresh water for 30 minutes. They absorb quite a bit.

making the salsa

Add some chopped spring onion, and some chopped basil or mint or thyme or a combination of the above, whatever you have to hand…

salsa

And then add some red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil, to taste.

salad

Add some mung beans, however much you want… And enjoy!

Gingerbread cake recipe, and welcome autumn!

So it’s getting beautifully autumnal here. Crisp, blue skies. Crunchy leaves underfoot. It’s not that cold, yet. And the Christmas lights are starting to go up… Stunning…

autumn in Madrid

And since autumn means spice, and I found myself craving ginger, I made this ginger spice cake last week. I love ginger anything. Ginger cookies, ginger candy, even those pickled slices you get with sushi… I often make myself fresh ginger tea (you peel and chop up some fresh ginger root, add hot water, and you have a delicious infusion that is excellent for sore throats, sore tummies, sore brains…). My love for ginger is so great that a couple of Christmases ago my mother gave me a big box full of ginger stuff. Heaven. When I left my job last year, my friend Anmol gave me a case of Ginger Beer from her store. For a whole month afterwards my favourite cocktail was the Moscow Mule: add vodka, half a lime, some ice, and enjoy.

I could go on… But today I want to talk about gingerbread cake. This one, specifically. The recipe comes from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book, and is so far the best of the many different recipes I’ve tried. I confess that I tweaked (cough, increased) the amount of ginger and cinnamon. I usually do in any recipe that calls for ginger or cinnamon. The only snag is that the recipe calls for molasses, which is inexplicably hard to find here in Spain, but Anmol yet again came to the rescue, her store (Sabores del Mundo) usually carries it. The last time I tried this recipe I didn’t have any, so I substituted Golden Syrup. It’s better with molasses.

gingerbread cake

yum…

It turns out spicy, fragrant, soft, squishy, and it lasts a good week or so.

You need:

250g/1 ¾ cupsflour
3 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
175 ml/¾ cup light molasses
160g/¾ cup sugar
115g/4 oz butter, melted
1 large egg, room temperature
235ml/1 cup buttermilk (or milk + 1 tbs lemon juice, mixed and left to rest for 10 minutes)

1 cake pan, greased with butter and lined with wax paper – I used a square pan, but round or rectangular would be fine. Don’t use an irregular shaped one here, you’ll end up with some parts harder than others.

Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF, and place an oven rack in the middle.

Whisk the flour, baking soda, salt and spices together in a bowl (with a fork will do), and set aside.

spices

This is just the spices, I added them to the flour later, for no particular reason

In a large bowl, beat together the molasses, sugar and melted butter until mixed. Add the egg, and beat for about 30 seconds. Add the buttermilk, and beat for about another 30 seconds. Mix in the dry ingredients until combined, about 1 minute.

bowl of cake mixture

Somehow the photos of the batter in the bowl just didn’t seem as interesting…

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and tap the pan on the counter to even the batter out. Ask for volunteers to help clean the bowl.

tasting

Every cook needs a cool taster…

Bake for about 35-40 minutes, until a knife or toothpick inserted in the centre comes out with only a few moist crumbs attached. It’s important to not overbake this, a hard, dry gingerbread cake doesn’t sound nearly as appealing, does it?

ginger spice cake

And you would not believe how great it smells…

Follow your nose…

I walked into the kitchen a couple of days ago to see this:

oranges

My beautiful new kitchen table, covered in leafy oranges and mandarins. Lovely! And the smell, or should I say “bouquet”? I can’t begin to describe it, other than to say “citrus”. Delicious, fat oranges, tart mandarins, all delivered in crates direct from Valencia by terrafresca.com. Recommendable.

terra fresca oranges

I suddenly have a craving for freshly squeezed orange juice, ‘bye…

Time for home cooking

I was clearing out a stack of magazines this morning (man, they accumulate fast!), and I came across an old-ish Time Magazine from October, with “Home Cooking” on the cover. Of course that piqued my interest, so I sat down to read it over a cup of coffee.

Time cover

 

Did you know that home cooking is good for you? Oh, you did?

Well then, did you know that it’s good for your family? Oh, you knew that too?

Ok, but surely this is the news flash that justifies the cover story: home cooking is not as hard as it seems. There, I bet that got you sitting up.

Yes, I’m being a bit sarcastic, which I tend to do when I’m irritated. And I found the article very irritating. The tone is condescending. The message is not very useful. And the logic has more holes than the sieve in which I strain my homemade pasta.

Now, I love home cooking, I do it often, and it makes my family happy. But I found myself getting annoyed at the preachy-ness of the implication that if you don’t home cook, you’re not taking good care of yourself and the people you love. My daughter commented the other day that some of her friends’ mothers don’t cook. At all. The families live off of frozen dinners heated in the microwave, pasta with bottled sauce and boiled frankfurter sausages. Obviously that does not sound even remotely appealing to me, personally, but it’s what fits into their lifestyle, their tastes and their priorities. They’re good people, getting by as best they can, and should we all think less of them for not making food a priority?

We’re busier than ever. Work, family, house, exercise and some semblance of a social life eats up pretty much every single available minute of the lives of most parents I know. Unless you are used to cooking, and find it pleasurable and easy, it understandably tends to be the time-consuming task that gets relegated to the “I just can’t” pile.

cooking vegetables

photo by Noelle Acheson

And not everyone knows how to cook. If you grew up in a family that didn’t cook (poor, no-doubt-unhappy you), it’s unlikely that you would know how to. Sure, you can sign up for cooking classes, or learn by working your way through a basic cookbook. Or you can focus on other uses for your scarce time. Working, studying, exercising, volunteering, sleeping, or even catching up on “The Good Wife” in front of the TV… The choice is and should be yours. Cooking is not an obligation. Personal hygiene is, taking care of your health is, and so is working at friendships, they are all necessary for happiness. But cooking isn’t, not in this day and age, with so many alternatives available.

There are some parts of the article that I agree with, such as that the Standard American Diet is SAD (geddit? Initials?), with its emphasis on baked goods and snacks out of bags. And I fully support his attempt to de-mystify cooking for those of us new to the idea. His advice on that front is quite good. My issue is with the assumption that not cooking is a conscious choice for most, and that finding time to cook more is easy.

In Mark Bittman’s utopia:

“Shouldn’t preparing—and consuming—food be a source of comfort, pride, health, well-being, relaxation, sociability? Something that connects us to other humans? Why would we want to outsource this basic task, especially when outsourcing it is so harmful?”

It’s not harmful. I’m out for lunch most days, but not because I hate preparing lunch. I actually really enjoy it, and relish the rare days I get to eat at home. I’m out for lunch because I have people to see, friends to catch up with, business to conduct. I work from home, and yet I usually don’t cook lunch there. I am not preparing food most lunch times, because I am connecting to other humans. What’s more, my pride, health, well-being, etc., are just fine. And most of us don’t work from home. Sure, we could whip something up the night before to take in a plastic box. But let’s get real. We end up heading out to the food court or the local snack bar or an inexpensive restaurant. Practical, efficient, and not necessarily unhealthy.

Bittman hauls out the statistic that 52% of the over 65s prepare food at home regularly, while less than a third of the under-30s do. A question of available time, maybe? I don’t want to assume, but perhaps the over 65s are not quite so swept of their feet by the mountain of other obligations a younger generation is struggling to scale? Sure, there are many extremely busy over 65s (my parents, for example), and many under-30s with not much to do (a bit harder to understand), but I don’t think that the two groups are comparable in terms of available time.

cooking meat

photo by Noelle Acheson

The first section of the article ends with the declaration:

“Because not cooking is a big mistake–and it’s one that’s costing us money, good times, control, serenity and, yes, vastly better health.”

Let’s take this apart by sections:

You save money by eating at home? Yes, definitely. But it’s your money, so you should feel free to spend it on restaurants and take-out should you so choose. And anyone who skims the economic press must realize that saving is a good idea, yes, but spending is what is needed to get the consumer economy going again. Restaurants and take-out producers are businesses, that in turn generate employment, taxes, etc. We should be able to support them if we wish, without feeling bad about it. We’re not talking about tobacco companies, here.

Good times, control and serenity? Absolutely, if you know how to cook, and you enjoy it. And let’s face it, even if you know how to cook, control and then obviously serenity often rapidly go out the window. I don’t know a single competent cook who hasn’t on occasion “lost it” over a burnt pie or a curdled sauce or a missing ingredient. And I know many intelligent people who would be reduced to blubbering wrecks if they had to produce a meal for others. That makes them different from me, but not inferior.  So, Mr. Bittman, not cooking is not actually costing us good times, control or serenity. Cooking is relaxing only for a few of us, and even then, far from always.

Better health? Eating mainly processed foods cannot be good for us, I concede that. But these days not all pre-packaged meals or even snacks are unhealthy. There is an ever-wider range of good options, from wholesome frozen dinners to sugar-conscious baked goods to seaweed chips in a bag (really, I had these in New York a couple of years ago, quite delicious). Convenience food no longer means McDonalds (and have you noticed their menu changes?). My personal prejudice against bought prepared food is that I like to know what I’m eating. But I find cooking easy, so it’s an easy bias for me to have. Over the past few years the packaged food industry has responded to consumer demand with better ingredient disclosure, and a wider selection of nutritious options. So, home cooking leads to better health? Perhaps. Vastly? I doubt it.

Money is a scarce resource for most of us, as is health. But the scarcest resource of all, for everyone, is time. Exhorting us all to cook more without taking into account that constraint is short-sighted and not particularly helpful. The condescending assumption that our lives would be better if only we were more organized shows a limited understanding of what our real concerns are. Time, or the lack of it, is perhaps society’s biggest and unhealthiest problem. Why the magazine of the same name would put such a narrow and elitist point of view on its cover is beyond me.

Was it worth it?

I have a kitchen table!!  It arrived in all its glory earlier this week, and NOW the kitchen is starting to look like a kitchen. NOW I can start to get excited!

kitchen table

Wow, we’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Truthfully, it’s been excruciating.

kitchen refurbishment

Was it worth it? Yes. Yes, now that I have a table, I can say yes.