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Home-cooking hurdles

(article, Caroline Cummins)

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I have a good friend who's a slave to his job — in his case, political campaigning. September and October were, obviously, busy months for him, culminating in 14-hour days, seven days a week. He thrives on the thrill of elections but, as he mentioned over dinner the other night, his health doesn't. 

"The night before the election, the Pizza Hut delivery guy called me up to wish me luck," he confessed. 

My pal, it turns out, had become the local Pizza Hut franchise's number-one customer, ordering at least two pizzas a week — size large, pan crust, toppings varying between pepperoni and just plain cheese. Two pizzas meant four dinners for him, and, heck, they came right to his office door.

But now that he has more free time, my friend has decided upon an early New Year's resolution: he's going to eat a better diet. (And train for a marathon, and start volunteering with kids, and all those other things some of us do and more of us wish we did.) To that end, he headed down to Powell's Books to buy a book on better eating, and walked out with [%bookLink code=1933102195 "Savvy Eating for the Whole Family"]. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="How homemade is your pizza?"]

I congratulated him and then said, "OK, now you've got a cookbook. But how are you going to change your life so that you actually have the time to shop, and the savvy to know what to buy?"

He admitted that those were the next steps: figuring out how to work shopping for groceries into his still-busy schedule, and learning how to shop for foods that didn't require peeling off the plastic and tossing into the microwave.

We were eating pizza that night, pizza that had taken 10 minutes to cook but several hours of prior preparation: cooking and canning the sauce the weekend before, shopping for toppings that morning, making and rolling out the dough a few hours ahead of dinnertime. On top of that, my husband had grown the tomatoes that went into the sauce, and because we know how to stock our pantry, we had all the ingredients on hand necessary for throwing together pizza dough.

In other words, "starting from scratch" is a seriously daunting endeavor if you don't already know how to do it.

So here's my cheat sheet for folks who, like my friend, are truly starting from scratch in the eat-better department.

# Make time in your schedule to shop. Health magazines and doctors are always telling you that "just 30 minutes a day of brisk exercise is all you need!" If your schedule is already built around this practice, great. If not, it's really, really tough to figure out how to make it happen. Fortunately, shopping for groceries isn't quite the same as getting regular exercise. Yes, you need to eat regularly, but the shopping part doesn't have to be a daily task. Figure out which stores are closest to where you live and work, then shop there when they're least crowded (say, early in the morning or late at night) to avoid the frazzle of rush-hour or busy-weekend shopping. And if you really don't have the time to shop? Consider a grocery-delivery service; many supermarket chains offer online ordering and local delivery. You'll pay more and can't pick things out yourself, but for some folks, the trade-off is worth it.
# Shop efficiently and buy mostly whole foods. Check out our list of shopping tips for ideas on how to figure out where and how to shop. Long-shelf-life foods should be things like beans and pasta, not Doritos and Twinkies. Short-shelf-life foods should be bought in small quantities, so they don't go bad in your fridge. (If you're eyeballing those bulk cranberries and thinking about freezing them, go for it. But home preservation might be a few better-eating steps further than you're ready to go.) Buy what's on sale and local and seasonal; buy dry goods in bulk. And if you feel like hitting the farmers' market on a weekend, apply the same budget-shopping principles there, too.
# Know what to do with those whole foods once you get them home. If you don't have any basic cookbooks, like How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition) or one of the many Joy of Cooking books, pick one up. If even these seem too daunting, get one of Rachael Ray's many 30-minute-meal cookbooks; the recipes in these books are quick in part because they often call for prepackaged whole foods, like broccoli florets. When you don't have a decent knife or cutting board on hand, or can't tell which end of a head of broccoli is up, the pre-sliced stuff sure comes in handy.
# Stock your kitchen with basic tools and storage equipment. We've written about great kitchen tools before, but really, all you need to start out with are a couple of saucepans, skillets, mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and baking pans and sheets, as well as a cutting board, a dependable chef's knife, and some wooden spoons. Seriously. Yes, you'll eventually want other things, too, like a colander, a spatula, a whisk, etc. (Mark Bittman also has a nice list for moderately ambitious cooks looking to outfit a kitchen from scratch for less than $300.) But if you've got nothing, it's easier to start with just a few things. Don't forget cutlery and plates and glasses, too; you want to enjoy your efforts without having to scrape food out of a saucepan. 

Finally, here are my tips for easing yourself away from Pizza Hut and toward the 100-Percent Scratch Pizza: Buy premade pizza dough or, in a pinch, a parbaked crust. Simmer a can of tomato sauce or tomatoes with some dried oregano, basil, fresh garlic, etc. until the sauce has thickened nicely. Jazz up your chosen toppings by making sure they're going to taste good on the final product — caramelize those onions and sauté those mushrooms before you put them on the pizza, for example, so they aren't crunchy and raw, and serve freshly chopped basil at the table instead of sizzling it to death in the oven. Assemble everything and bake it briefly in a really hot oven. Then enjoy your version of Domino's Bacon-Jalapeño Pizza, for example, and bask in a well-deserved, self-satisfied, sated glow.

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

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