I Hate To Cook

January 13, 2023

Half a century ago as the women’s movement was becoming really influential, Peg Bracken, a Portlandian, published a funny, cynical book she called The I-Hate-to-Cookbook.  It contained some good recipes, some not so good, and some wisdom.   This book was published at a time when a lot of people, mostly men, still thought that a woman’s place was in the kitchen.  Men ruled restaurant kitchens and husbands grilled in the back yards of their homes; but they rarely entered their home kitchens, not even to grill.  Kitchens belonged to women.

So of course, it was women who, yearning to spend less time in the kitchens to which tradition had tied them, began looking for cooking short-cuts.  Frozen orange juice, TV dinners, new kitchen gadgets; in the Fifties and Sixties we began inventing ways to make kitchen shortcuts trendy.   

The passion for spending less time in the kitchen has continued.  It has prevailed even though interrupted in the Seventies and Eighties when some of us were willing, with Julia Child and The Silver Palate propped on our counters, to devote entire weekends to making quiche Lorraine, boeuf bourguignon, and baguettes.  But that enthusiasm was limited to certain kinds of people, those who were shopping at Dean and Deluca and Sutton Place Gourmet, discovering foods not yet at that time generally embraced.

I have enjoyed cooking all my life and I am not a woman.  Those facts color my views about cooking shortcuts.  Even now, even though I spend my days looking at food, cooking food, talking about food, I still look forward to the end of the day when I can imagine on the way to my home what is in my refrigerator and how I can put together something I’d like to eat for dinner

I acknowledge that most people are not food crazed – although nearly everyone I know is.

I find it hard to understand why many other food-crazed people spend time inventing cooking shortcuts.   Here: 

“Good Morning.  The punishing heat continues where I stay.  While I’m turning on the stove occasionally, my meals are running no-cook and salad-adjacent: say, marinated celery salad with chickpeas and Parmesan…Who wants to labor over a burner when you could eat delicious cooling food instead?” 

That’s Sam Sifton who writes about food for The New York Times and who evidently does not have air conditioning in his home.

Or this: 

“People love avocados but preparing them can take forever. With Wholly Avocado, you can now serve fresh 100% pure, perfectly ripe Hass avocados every time without having to slice, pit, or scoop them yourself.”

Dicing an avocado can take “forever?”  Really?

Is that tool really needed?

Some recipes do take “forever.”  It’s true.  Beef Wellington, Turducken, ratatouille – some recipes are complicated, and some require a lot of prep work and a lot of cooking steps.  But that is not true of most cooking.  It is real disservice to overcomplicate cooking when so many people these days are so quickly discouraged when they imagine embarking on it.

I don’t like the culinary laziness that is being encouraged so often by professionals who, instead of promoting the virtues of corner-cutting, could be helping others to learn to enjoy the rewards of being organized, feeling competent, and having fun in the kitchen.

I was surprised to read a recent email from Mark Bittman whom I admire arguing that mis en place, getting everything ready before beginning actually to cook, is “a fraud,” available only to those of us who have staffs to prepare ingredients required for cooking. 

It’s wonderful to have staff to do the peeling and chopping; but being organized in the kitchen is a skill available to everyone.   I am afraid that kitchen gimmicks often are sold to us as ways of making us feel more organized, something we can do with nothing more than a vegetable peeler, a little knife and a big one, and a cutting board.      

But gimmicky kitchen appliances did not start with Instapots and immersion circulators, even with microwave ovens.  Those were preceded by egg cookers, rice cookers, and the George Foreman grill, many briefly trendy appliances that promised to make cooking easier or less messy.  Most of them fade pretty quickly from the market, left behind to clutter our counters and the offerings of eBay.

Currently, the most popular fad is sheet pan cooking.  I see it advocated everywhere I look.  The queen of this non-cooking is Melissa Clark and, like Mark Bittman, she really knows better because the recipes she writes and tests for the New York Times day to day – sheet pan claptrap aside – are really good.  

But in her advocacy of sheet pans she says, in effect, that because it’s so hard to stand at the stove stirring and sautéing and then have to wash pots and pans, why not just dump all the ingredients for a dinner onto a sheet pan and let your oven do the work? 

Because it’s a bad idea. 

Here’s a sheet pan recipe: 

Start by roasting sliced oranges, red onion and chopped fennel on a sheet pan. Rest salmon fillets, seasoned with salt, pepper and orange zest, on top, and return the pan to the oven to cook the salmon. (If you like your salmon well-done, roast the vegetables and fish together from the start.) A few minutes before the fish is done, pour on a bag of frozen or fresh spring peas, and return the pan to the oven. A few minutes later, once the peas turn bright green, the dish is done. Sprinkle it with torn mint and serve.

But foods don’t cook at the same rate.  So in this recipe, the sheet pan with fruit and vegetables is put into the oven to roast before the salmon is added.  Otherwise, the salmon will surely overcook.  But without adding oil or butter or liquid to the vegetables, they are simply going to shrivel.  And when the fish is put onto the fruit and vegetables, it will drip fish flavors and make everything taste fishy.

Why do it this way?  Why roast those vegetables in the oven when in five minutes you can sauté them in a pan with a few drops olive oil and have control over the ingredients that sheet pan cooking does not allow?  And why not sauté the salmon separately in a pan that you can watch? 

Just to avoid a second skillet?  It’s far easier to clean a round frying pan than it is to wash a rectangular sheet pan with it’s four corners too little for anyone’s fingers.

Simple as they are, there’s a certain alchemy that happens when food hits the metal surface (f a sheet pan), arguably making these humble kitchen staples the most important tool in your arsenal. 

That is nonsense.  What alchemy?  Is there no alchemy when food hits a hot frying pan? 

Of course, roasting in the oven makes sense if you’re roasting because you want to produce crusty, caramelized foods.  But on the whole, sautéing foods gives better results than baking them. 

And what about frying, a cooking technique so much easier and so much more controllable than cooking in the oven? 

I have read so many sheet pan recipes that would, if followed literally, produce bland food, unevenly cooked food.  Why do we take those recipes seriously?  I think it’s because food writers who advocate sheet pan cooking are afraid to tell their readers that they ought to cook.   Instead, they tell their readers how hard cooking is and how easy it is to throw ingredients on a sheet pan.

It’s an irony.  The Post has a food section.  The Times has a food section.  So do most metropolitan newspapers.  Bon Appetit and Food and Wine Magazine print in their food sections practically nothing other than recipes.  I get a daily email from the Times telling me how to cook, sometimes two a day.  There has never been more information and advice about cooking than there is now.  So how can it be that so many food writers – the same ones who send recipes to us – are telling us at the same time how to avoid cooking because it is so hard to do it?

I wish they would stop telling us that we hate to cook.  Stop telling us that cooking is drudgery, that we don’t want to get our kitchens hot, use too many ingredients, keep our cooking time under 30 minutes, and use only one pot, preferably none.

Do they really think we can prepare good food using no pans, no pots, no ingredients, no time, and no work?

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