As with many women of Boomer age, I spent many years as the chef in the family. Even though I’m a Cancer sun sign and supposed to be a mega nurturer (who makes this up anyway?), it was always a struggle to come up with a daily menu. It’s not as if I didn’t know how to cook. My mom whipped up delicious, nutritious meals for me and my six siblings after a hard day at work. Many is the time I came home from school to the sweet fragrance of fresh-baked bread or a succulent roast beef. She would often be found singing in the kitchen while rolling out dough for one of her mile-high apple, raisin or banana cream pies; or out on the back porch step shucking peas and telling stories and laughing so hard tears were rolling down her cheeks.
So I had a great example to follow. But I didn’t inherit the gene. I did the best I could while my children were growing up, but I never really learned the art of inspired daily delectables and the family learned to like leftovers. The one redeeming factor was that I did enjoy baking. I found baking creative and we always had cookies or squares or cakes for dessert. The family loved that but in retrospect maybe that wasn’t such a good thing: we’ve all got a hearty sweet tooth. And I never did successfully learn to make bread or a pie crust that came close to my mom’s.
Later I met my second dh and was taken with his cooking abilities. He was a very good cook, always learning about untried spices and exotic dishes. We both had some kind of romantic notion about how much fun it would be cooking together each evening. I don’t think it took even a week for me to discover he did not share the kitchen very well, and was proprietorial about his recipes. I looked him in the eye one day and told him so and that henceforth I would not join him in the kitchen. He appeared hurt for a moment or two and then agreed that might be best. And it was. He had the run of the kitchen in the evening and when I had a whim to bake, used it in the daytime. I became a master cake-maker and decorator, I had a handful of cheesecake recipes that were always a hit, and our cookie jar was always full.
When years later I found myself on my own, I determined that I would learn to like cooking. I discovered that perhaps it wasn’t so much that I didn’t enjoy cooking or even that I could not cook; I am plain and simply a lazy cook. The best chefs find cooking a creative endeavour. I do too if I am cooking something grand for company. Otherwise I would rather spend my time with my nose in a book or writing… or watching paint dry.
Part of it too, I must confess here, is that I am not a foodie. I don’t live to eat; I eat to live. But I still need to feed myself and I’ve always taken care to eat healthy (well, except for the aforementioned sweet tooth). I like a balanced meal, with meat, a carb such as rice, potatoes or pasta, and veggies. So I devised a way to eat healthy without it feeling like a burden.
Once or twice a week, often on a Sunday, I spend an evening cooking up a batch or two of meat. I make patties from lean ground beef that can be used for hamburgers, in pasta sauces or simply as the meat dish. I may cook up a package of chicken breast, or pre-boil a large rack of ribs in vinegar. Sometimes I roast a pork shoulder or butt. Many years ago I read an article about how women should take care of their heart, and learned the value of reducing our intake of salt. I was also shocked to discover that supermarkets had begun ‘seasoning’ our ‘fresh’ meat, so I always make certain these meats are indeed the fresh they are presented as. Almost every supermarket or butcher offers slow roasted rotisserie chicken that is less expensive than cooking from scratch. I pick one up every so often, remove the skin and tear it into pieces. Every now and again I slow-cook a pork roast for pulled-pork dishes. Not being a great cook, I always follow a recipe I have developed for this that is delicious and can be used in dishes such as tacos, salads and flat bread recipes. And I cook up quality sausages to have around for breakfast.
In this way, I accumulate a variety of meats that form the basis of my meal. I keep two or three pieces each of whatever meat I am cooking in the refrigerator and store the rest in the (very tiny) freezer section. The key to this, of course, is that I don’t mind leftovers. Every few days I make sure there is enough meat out or available for the next few days.
At the same time I am cooking the meat, I might roast up some of those fabulous red, yellow and purple baby potatoes or make a pot of rice. The rice I make in the microwave (one cup white jasmine or basmati rice, two cups no or low-salt chicken broth, cook on high, uncovered 14 minutes – easiest and best way to cook rice. In point of fact for myself I prefer brown rice for which I use a two-step microwave method). I add onion and garlic – granules not salt – and saffron (which I picked up in Thailand for pennies a bag but can be found relatively inexpensively in Persian stores). The rice can simply be re-heated in the microwave or one can add a bit of chopped green onion, carrots and celery or whatever suits their fancy, for fried rice. Add some frozen shrimp or chicken and it can be a meal unto itself. Some supermarkets sell diced or chopped fresh veggies, including peas, by weight in the deli, and these are great for a lazy cook too.
The secret to all this is slightly under-cooking the meat and re-heating it in a toaster oven. Of course, a regular oven will do, but the toaster oven is my favourite appliance. I also season potatoes and roast them in foil with plenty of olive oil in the toaster oven.
The second appliance that is a must for a lazy cook is a slow-cooker. Like toaster ovens, these are inexpensive to purchase. Many delicious dishes such as soups and stews can be made overnight or early in the day, and the same lazy ways with pre-cut up meats, pre-prepared veggies and tiny potatoes can be applied.
I am not against using a microwave to re-heat, either. I believe the jury is out about microwaves. There have been plenty of studies that thus far have only proved one thing: cooking fresh food in the appliance diminishes its nutrient value – but so does any type of cooking.
A word about taste: I do not believe everyone must be as stringent as I am about salt, and if you like things spicier, by all means have hot peppers available to spice things up a bit. There are now several choices for seasoning mixes such as Mrs Dash that don’t contain salt for those who don’t have a well-stocked spice rack. But if you do want to eat healthy, it is good to keep in mind that packaged sauces often have ingredients and calories that can negate all your other efforts. Thai sweet chili is one I have found that fits the bill. It does wonders for plain rice and to dress up ribs. And there are a couple of pretty good pasta sauces now being offered as well.