Inquirer Story introducing new cooking blog

Blog Image 1005288 - Fitzgerald
Maureen and Sally

  October 20, 2011

 Mother and daughter take to their stovetops and blog on sustenance and savings.

By Maureen Fitzgerald

Inquirer Food Editor

    At age 5, my daughter Sally could make lovely pancakes all by herself.

Perched on a stool at the kitchen counter, she measured ingredients, cracked eggs, mixed the batter, ladled it onto the griddle, flipped the cakes proficiently, and proudly served them to the family.

So, why, after showing such promise, is she saying at age 25 that she doesn't know how to cook?

Somehow, in the years in between, too many other things took precedence. The all-consuming mad dash of studies-sports-friends-etcetera that started in high school continued right through college and then into her working life. Like so many young people, cooking just wasn't a priority.

And with take-out options at every corner, it's become so easy not to cook. Ironically, as the Food Network and celebrity chefs gain popularity, cooking for many has evolved into a spectator sport, something only professionals do.

Which kind of drives me crazy. As does the growing number of people who pronounce with some measure of pride: "I don't cook." Until pretty recently in the annals of human history, you had to cook to survive; our ancestors did not need to go to cooking school in order to eat.

I like to cook; it makes me happy. It gives me pleasure to have a pot of soup simmering on the stove, to roast a chicken, to throw a piece of fish on the grill, to roll the dough for a fruit tart, or even to pull together a nice meal from leftovers. I'm not talking about creating elaborate, photo-ready architectural wonders, worthy of the glossy food magazines. I'm talking basic, healthy, homey meals.

So when my daughter, who shares an apartment with college friends, said she wanted to start cooking more, I jumped at the chance to convince her this was a great idea, that, in fact, she already knew how to cook. That most cooking is quite simple. That even the most daunting techniques become easy with practice, just like the pancakes she perfected at 5.

And, as most people who cook regularly already know, it's much cheaper to cook at home than to eat out, and that even goes for fast food, as Mark Bittman recently wrote in the New York Times. So cooking will save money.

I proposed the idea of chatting each weekend with my daughter, telling her what I was planning for the week, sharing my shopping list and recipes, which I could walk her through.

Her response: "Mom, we could do a blog!"

Thus, "My Daughter's Kitchen," a cooking blog about our shared experiences, was born. Our goal is to cook at least twice a week, each preparing the same recipe in our separate kitchens, as we work through a number of our family's favorites, as well as try new recipes. (And being a food editor does afford me a mother lode of cookbooks, new and legacy.)

The mission is to help her develop a repertoire of simple weeknight dinners, with the idea that those meals will produce leftovers for other dinners or lunches. In addition, we will tackle longer cooking projects on weekends, and even come up with some approachable meals for inviting friends to dinner, or hosting a Sunday brunch.

So, of course, the first request was for me to outfit her kitchen. (I should have known this would cost me.) For her birthday, we bought a few basics: a Lodge cast iron skillet, a couple of carbon steel knives, measuring spoons and cups, a zester/grater, a heavy-duty aluminum sheet pan for roasting vegetables, a stock pot/steamer, a standard 3-quart saucepan with a lid, a colander, a mini-prep Cuisinart, a covered casserole pan, and a trusty Pyrex 9-by-13-inch glass pan (some new, some hand-me-downs, total cost less than $200).

For spices, I recommended kosher or sea salt, pepper and a mill to grind it, basil, oregano, rosemary, parsley thyme, and curry for starters, figuring she can add others as she needs them for recipes.

The hardest part about cooking, as I told her, is being organized. You have to keep the kitchen stocked. If you have everything you need to make a meal after work, it's actually easier to cook than to decide on take-out and pick it up. (And depending on where you live, cooking a quick meal can actually be faster than delivery.)

A few things that should always be on hand: garlic, lemons, chicken stock, olive oil, canola oil, Dijon mustard, vinegar, ketchup, mayonnaise, capers, Tabasco or other hot sauce, soy sauce, canned tuna (I splurge for Italian imported), canned tomatoes, canned garbanzo and white beans, rice, and pasta. And, of course, flour, sugar, milk, and eggs. (Sally is celiac, so will be adapting the recipes to be gluten free; she has been experimenting with gluten-free products and flours). We generally eat cereal with milk and fruit for breakfast, and use the eggs for omelets for dinner, or hard-boiled eggs for lunch. I also buy a handful of Greek yogurts a week. They are good for a quick lunch with fruit, or good to add to smoothies or a sauce.

I suggested that we start by buying two proteins a week. And do not freeze them, because then you have to cook them. In my regular rotation, I might buy a whole chicken, or boneless breasts; pork tenderloin or pork chops; ground beef or ground pork or turkey; a nice piece of salmon or cod or flounder, or scallops. Then add lots of fruits and fresh vegetables. I always have carrots and celery and onions. Each week I buy the best of the seasonal offerings: this week apples, pears, kale, green beans, spinach, and leeks.

For the healthy part, I suggested we shoot for 46 grams of protein a day, the recommendation from USDA guidelines. (A chicken breast is about 25 grams. An egg is 6 grams. A cup of Greek yogurt has 18 grams. So it adds up quickly.) The latest guidelines, just updated in summer, recommend 2 to 21/2 cups of vegetables and 11/2 to 2 cups of fruit for women. (That may sound like a lot, but that could easily be one veggie-rich salad plus one other serving, and two pieces of fruit.) Then aim for about 6 ounces of grains (25 grams of fiber are suggested), at least 3 of those whole grains, and two cups of dairy-rich foods (1,000 mg calcium). Oy. It's a lot to figure, but once you get into a routine, and find the sources of these nutrients that work for you, it really isn't.

For our first meal, we made a roasted chicken. After roasting dozens of chickens over the years, I usually throw a few vegetables in the pot, brush the chicken with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and fresh-ground pepper, and stick it in the oven. There are a million variations, adding herbs and other ingredients in the cavity. But Sally wanted a real recipe to follow, so we went with Ina Garten's basic, with thyme and lemon. Except we didn't have fresh thyme and we did have rosemary, so we used that. (See accompanying recipe.)

That is the beauty of cooking. The recipe is a guideline, to be adapted to your tastes and, often, to what you have available. The chicken roasted up nicely, was simple as could be, and with potatoes and carrots and leeks we had a meal that fed four of us. What most impressed Sally was the price. Even buying an organic 31/2-pound chicken for $12, the meal probably cost $16.

"Wow, that is what I would spend for a nice lunch," she said. At least that got her attention.

And just a quick note to Sally's two brothers, one who is also working and living on his own, the other who is in college: There is no reason you can't join in the cooking fun. I might even buy you a pan or two.



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