I was in Costco and for some reason I was looking at Jamie Oliver’s new book. Jamie Oliver has made a campaign out of getting people to cook healthy foods so they will EAT healthy foods.
One of his recipes was for curry.
More importantly, one of his several recipes for curry referred to making your own curry paste if you didn’t feel like buying Patak. Since I am a pathetic Patak fangirl, he had my attention. So, I checked the internet and lo and behold, his recipe for a number of curry pastes was there.
While I was researching all this, there were a number of discussions about the poor and cooking from scratch. The argument tended to be that cooking is an awful lot of work/time, is expensive compared to processed foods, and requires knowledge that is less common. I was thinking about all this.
I’ve been doing a lot of scratch cooking. Right now I have the time, but it turns out for me cooking properly is less time intensive than I expected. On the other hand, I more or less know what I am doing. I also have the right tools. One thing I won’t put up with is crap kitchen tools and for my budget level my tool array isn’t bad. I have a mandolin, which isn’t found in every kitchen. I don’t have a stand mixer or a food processor. I do have microplaners, a blender and quality measuring cups/spoons and Henkel knives. I have four major cookware pieces; an omelet pan, saucepan, a VERY large saute pan and a large pot for pasta. So, I am better equipped than a lot of home cooks, although not much more so. Quality tools make a huge difference.
So, today I am making two curries. The shopping took forever because I needed to get spices. I recently did a cleaning of the cupboards and threw out a lot of the stuff that had been sitting there for years. (Spices do age and lose potency). And curry requires a LOT of spices. If I made this sort of thing on a semi-regular basis, I would have most of it already and could probably be done fairly quickly.
Now, my bill for most of the meal (minus the chicken and a few spices I did have) ran to $11.00. This is doable for a lot of stuff that will get used over the next few weeks or months. But I had access to bulk spices. Multiply what I paid by 10x if you don’t have access to bulk spices. Patak does sell excellent curry pastes for $5-6, if you can find them. But I could see an inexperienced cook being thrown by all this.
Making the curry paste itself was easy. For me. I have the omelet pan, which does a really nice job of toasting the spices. And Oliver does a good job of explaining exactly what to do for the toasting part at least. I almost browned the ginger and garlic, too though, so minus points for not making that part more clear. Then I threw everything into a spice blender. And again I think about the inexperienced cook. Why would someone who doesn’t cook have a spare, clean coffee grinder? Assuming a) they have a coffee grinder in the first place and b) they realize you can use a cheap coffee grinder for spices. (Mine has labels on it threatening death to anyone thinking of using it for coffee). Suggesting they use a mortar and pestle isn’t any better. I’m not sure that’s something just anyone would have enough proficiency at. Once again, the inexperienced cook gets frustrated. The fresh ginger he asks for? I use my microplaner. It would be a nightmare job without a food processor or decent planer. I certainly wouldn’t want to do it with a mortar and pestle.
Once I get past that, though, actually cooking the food shouldn’t be that hard. Throw it all in a pan and cook. And I don’t think that part takes more than 20 mins or so. Once you have everything chopped. In Jamie’s favor, he does say you can use premade paste. Still, this project did make me think about what hurdles do have to be climbed to cook proficiently. I think it does oversimplify to just claim people are being lazy. Using shortcuts is a lot easier, if you take into account shopping and the equipment that speeds up the process. It would have taken me twice as long to mash up everything by hand, even if I did have the right tool (which I don’t). I also would have spent a lot more time chopping up the chilis instead of letting the coffee grinder do the work.
And I do have access to bulk spices. It makes a HUGE difference in costs. I was lucky my recipe called for fresh cilantro. A bunch of basil is much more expensive. I got off pretty easy on this recipe, but having to start from an empty kitchen gets expensive. A takeout hamburger starts looking a lot more cost effective.
On the other hand, my coffee grinder was less than $20. Good knives can be had relatively cheap if you buy only a few good ones (a paring knife and an 8″ chef’s knife, santuku nice but optional). I got by with an 8″ knife and a paring knife for years. In fact, part of the time it may have only been the chef’s knife. The four pieces of cookware I have are usually adequate for 90% of what I do. Out of $11, I got enough stuff for the better part of two dishes and meals in the future. It is cheaper to cook at home than to get comparable takeout. I can make really good hamburgers for less than McDonald’s charges for their premium ones.
And, once set up, cooking from scratch (or mostly scratch) is frequently faster than leaving the house. A quick stirfry can be had in a half hour and is full of vitamins. It’s just that the learning curve and initial equipment costs put off many people.
I did see one interesting comment. It used to be that cooking shows were about demonstrating how to cook. Much less so now (especially since half of Food Network’s programming are travel shows). I do love Good Eats on that score; Alton Brown does a great job about explaining the why’s of cooking, even if I think his recipes are a bit fussy and he uses too much equipment. But Julia Child was a legend for a reason.
In total, I think I am with Jamie Oliver on this one, even though he put me off a bit in the beginning. (And no, my new respect wasn’t just the curry paste recipes on his website. Available for free). Anyone can cook. I just think many of us could use a little more help getting to the point where it makes more sense to buy ingredients than prepared food. And subsidize vegetables instead of corn. So, go watch Ratatouille again, and get inspired. Make someone you love real food.