Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Guerrila Gourmet, A Manifesto (Part Two)

Warning: This post rambles on a bit. so I've posted several pictures of Fergus, our impossibly-cute adopted Russell terrier-mix, and hope you keep reading.

As I said in my earlier post, Tiffany and I muddled along nicely for about a year eating decent food that didn't require much effort. It was a pretty good time, and easy. Spend fifteen minutes at Trader Joe's and you can put together a decent little weekly menu! Consider:

Monday: Breaded halibut served with roast-pepper potatoes, and arugula salad.
Tuesday: Lemon-pepper papardelle, calimari alla marinara, and arugula salad (a bag is good for two meals).
Wednesday: Chicken tacos with mexican rice and carribean-style black beans.
Thursday: Cilantro-habanero chicken sausages, with chipotle-ranch fries, and refried beans.
Friday: Turkey burgers with chipotle-ranch fries and cole slaw.
Saturday: Pot roast with green beans and wild-rice pilaf.
Sunday: My parents' house (they live pretty close).

Nothing on this weekly menu took more than an hour to make or cost more than $10 or $15. The secret? The vast majority of what we ate came in a box, bag, can or jar, and needed just a bit of time in the oven. The pot roast just needed three minutes in the microwave! Now, I'm not a health freak or a snob, but, as I said in my earlier post, I became restless. My belly was full but it was not satisfied. I worried about preservatives. I felt guilty, like I was giving up. Being a recent liberal arts graduate, I did the obvious thing and turned to books. I ransacked the cooking sections at the bookstore where I worked, desperate for a solution to my plight.
There is no shortage of cookbooks on the shelves of America's bookstores. This country is perhaps more interested in food than it has ever been before, and the shelves of the cooking section, groaning under explosively colorful, lavishly produced volumes of near-pornographic proportions, could be easily be mistaken for the art and photography section. I felt confident that I could find an answer to my plight. In my admittedly haphazard research, cookbooks and cooking literature seemed to fall into two camps.

The first camp says "cooking is harder than it looks". You've all seen these books, crammed with full-page, four-color pictures of obscure dead animals draped asymmetrically over vegetables you've never seen at Safeway and drizzled with neon gastrique. The chef (usually in impeccable white jacket) may be casually sipping a glass of wine or lounging around with a basket of carrots, but the message is clear. Unless you live around the corner from Dean & Delucca, have an eight-burner, 5,000 BTU Viking range in your apartment, and keep your Berlitz French-English dictionary handy, you should think of food as a spectator sport. Next time you have guests over, just pass your favorite cookbook around the table and let everybody get a good, long, drooly look at that green curry sea bass risotto. Then order a pizza or something.

But do not despair; if the expectations of gourmet food are too high, simply lower them! This church of "cooking is easier than it looks" is here to save you, and Rachel Ray is its prophet! These books still have lots of close-up photos of arty presentations, but with turkey burgers and bacon. They patiently explain in clear, slow, plain English 100 things you can do with a boneless, skinless chicken breasts and corn flakes in the 15 minutes you have between Jack's soccer practice and Jill's ballet lessons. The cover invariably displays an amply-bosomed "regular mom" surrounded by prominently-branded pots, pans, and boxed chicken stock. The message here is equally clear. Grab whatever is under plastic wrap at Safeway, push it around a pan with some EVOO, give it a cute name, and you can have your kids fed and packed off to bed in time for you to curl up on the couch with a bottle of chardonnay and Desperate Housewives. This school of cooking frankly doesn't offer much more than the the frozen stuff I was eating before.

Again, I had reached a dead end. Tomorrow, the great breakthrough...