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Cooking is not a game

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I read a sensible article on the Huffington Post last week. Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, an award-winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He does not discourage anyone from setting up a beautiful kitchen, but his philosophy for a cook is slightly different.

"Speaking of instruments," he writes in the Huffington Post, "I see so many rich, beautiful kitchens with amazing pots and pans and appliances--but they never get used. Who cares if you have the latest kitchen technology if you never actually cook anything? In order to be a successful cook you need just five things. That's right, five. And here they are: 1) a cutting board, 2) a good, sharp knife, 3) a saucepan, 4) a roasting pan, 5) a blender. That's it. Why just those four? Because most of us are not going to make an elaborate meal every day. Instead, all you need to do is use these four implements to cook once--once--per week, perhaps on Sunday afternoon, and spread the food out through the week."

I feel that a slight variation on this program is called for. One thing I enjoyed when I was working full-time was the weekend. It seems to me that setting up a Saturday or Sunday for cooking all day makes it a chore. In fact, it is hard to maintain over time. When I watched many episodes of Week in a Day from host Rachael Ray, it only reinforced my resistance. Later I read a criticism of the show that rang true: Ray could not in fact whip up all those dishes in the time allotted for the program. It is always enjoyable for me to watch a chef in action, but it is true: you will need a lot more time on your feet in a kitchen, standing over pots and pans, prepping and storing, to create those dishes that included twelve or fifteen ingredients.

Of course you can put together a beef stew quickly if you keep the ingredients simple. That is the way you put together the Monday-through-Friday menu--that is, if you don't have to worry about breakfast and lunch, kids in school or whatever. No matter what a chef says, it isn't possible to condense your cooking time into a weekend.

If you look at the Villacorta kitchen list, or the Week in a Day menus, you will see little or no baking. That is a problem. Healthful cookies and muffins are a standby for busy mothers in the morning; in fact, oatmeal-raisin cookies, a hard-boiled egg and applesauce have gotten many people, children and adults, out the door every morning, ever since Peg Bracken suggested it in one of her books back in the Sixties.

I also don't allow kitchen gurus to dismiss baked goods as "carbs" and put them down. The anti-carb frenzy has gone much too far; we need to look backwards at bread as the staff of life and remember that it was the substance of survival for millennia. It was the development of hybrid high-gluten wheat that has kicked in gluten allergies, not bread itself. This gives us incentive to support American artisanal farmers who produce wheat from centuries past, such as the Arizona Rose flour that you can buy at Native Seeds on Campbell in Tucson, just south of Fort Lowell.

There are several artisanal farms offering normal, non-hybrid wheat such as the Red Turkey strain on the Internet now, and I do believe that some of the definitive companies like the King Arthur Flour Company are going to break into artisanal flour very soon in a big way.

If I were cooking for my family in the years when my three children were growing up, I would be making the oatmeal-raisin cookies and boiling a couple of dozen eggs every weekend. Today we have single-serve cups of very good applesauce to take on the bus for either breakfast or lunch, not to mention snacks that can be packed along with whatever you serve for lunch.

I also cannot deny--and I am glad to see--that school lunches are better than they used to be. When I was teaching in the Seventies I remember crusading school nurses who had soda machines trucked out of the schools where I worked, braving the complaints of students and teachers who were wrecking their health with high-fructose corn syrup (I came close to it myself in later years).

If you are going to make the effort to find healthy soups or make your own with organic broth and vitamin-packed vegetables, your good saucepan will serve you well as you prep with your good, sharp knife. I tested the famous Victorinox chef knife that costs about thirty dollars and I can vouch for its quality. You can't do much better than that knife, which you can order from Amazon.com, among other places.

Your blender, food processor of some kitchen whiz-bang tool such as the Kitchen Ninja can make you wonderful all-fruit smoothies as well as what amount to liquid salads. If you start the day with a juicy fruit smoothie, you won't need anything else until lunch, and a smoothie is perfect for the morning commute or the school bus. To make a smoothie I take the one-serving attachment for my Kitchen Ninja and fill it with two kinds of fruit--this morning it was a few organic strawberries and a handful of blueberries. I add some yogurt or soy powder, and then fill the jar to the fill line with juice such as cranberry or whatever goes well with the fruit. If it is going to be too tart for me I add some powdered stevia. Then I blitz it with the blender/processor. In the case of the Kitchen Ninja I can drink it straight from the container--which is what the manufacturer intends--while I fire up my computer and take in the news of the day. I don't need coffee anymore, by the way, because I have much more energy than I used to have, but because I like it I usually make it with lunch.

Bottom line: I try to strike a balance between a day of mass production when I have finally arrived at a Saturday, and throwing things together in a dash for the door during the week. If my kitchen is ready for the week, I have these things on hand:

Enough bread to last until the weekend. Part of it can be frozen, ready to use. It will thaw by lunchtime.

A couple of casseroles, portioned out and stored safely.

Sandwich meat, peanut butter, jelly, mayo and other necessities for sandwiches depending on your preferences.

Plenty of bottled, filtered water for coffee and tea. Living as I do in the desert Southwest, I buy water for cooking. The only water I take from the tap is for washing.

Lunch and breakfast foods like hard-boiled eggs and muffins/cookies.

This may bring me to some baking over the weekend, and shopping of course. I am used to shopping on my way home in the afternoons, though. Making some soup or casseroles isn't too demanding, and I can enjoy my weekends instead of being in the cooking mode, shouting orders at anyone who falls afoul of my projects.

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