It was nary a fortnight ago that a colleague here at the Houston Press divulged that he, big gasp here, has been living without gas. Not the type that expunges itself from the bowels after you eat bean burritos, but the type that powers the burner so you can actually heat the tortilla in the first place. A month earlier I'd been having a conversation with a friend who also brought up the fact that he, second gasp, only paid for electricity, because he'd cancelled his gas years before, having never cooked a meal at home.
"What do you do to eat then?" I asked.
"I eat out."
It seems to be a common sentiment, and much has been written about the decline of the home cook over the past decade. It prompted Michael Pollan to create that Netflix series called Cooked anyway, which aimed to inspire people to cook at home more often, albeit in a new-wave, socially conscious way that you'd expect from the author of the Omnivore's Dilemma.
Millennials, for instance, reportedly like to cook; they're just not very good at it. That could explain the rise of meal kits, venture capitalist-backed online companies such as Blue Apron that deliver meal kits and recipes to your door, according to Money.com. Mark Bittman, one of the co-owners of vegan meal kit company Purple Carrot, told The New York Times in 2016, "It’s not shopping and it’s not planning and in a way it’s not thinking, but it is cooking.” But, again, only 19 percent of Americans have ever used them.
With all this in mind, along with the fact that for the past month in Houston, restaurants have reported a major dip in business. Many people may be sticking close to home to save money or because they're too guilty or tired to dine out. Thousands of people are displaced, or living in hotels right now too. Whatever the case, for those who are trying to cook, and mainly relying on microwaves or toaster ovens or a hot plate, here now are some tips for feeding yourself and getting proper nutrition, even when circumstances aren't looking so hot.
Keep Your Cooking Area Clean
Nobody wants to cook in a kitchen that looks and smells stank nasty. If your microwave looks like roadkill exploded in it, use a sponge or rag soaked in extremely hot water to help get that icky gunk uncaked from the inside. You will obviously want to wear gloves for this process, unless you want to look like Guy Pearce during the bear trap scene in Ravenous. It's always best to just go ahead and clean up right after cooking and eating a meal and get in the habit, because dirty dishes and trash attract pests.
Learn the Basics
Do you know how to hold a chef's knife? Do you know how to cook pasta and rice? A great starting place for kitchen newbies is actually Martha Stewart's Cooking School. No joke, there are some great tips and recipes in there, along with guides to fruit, vegetables, meat and all that stuff. If the thought of reading a book about cooking bores you to death, turning to the Internet can help avert disasters.
Bon Appétit's 20 cooking basics can help you roast a bird or make a simple marinade, but some of it — blanching, making fresh whipped cream or aioli — will be laughable to most people who cook at the Steak-umms level. This BBC guide to cooking basics is pretty handy, though.
Frozen Foods Are Your Best Friend
Vegetables, pizza, entire meals can be found in the frozen food section. The only thing you have to do is flip over the package and make sure you're not consuming a 40,000-calorie meal and that your innards aren't going to explode like a seagull-on-Alka-Seltzer because you've just consumed enough sodium to kill off the world's slug population. Stock up on frozen meals for when you know you'll be strained for time. That being said, it's time to accept that cooking actually does take time. Try to set aside 30 minutes to an hour to pull the meal together. Put on tunes to make this your zen task of the day. If you have extra time on a Sunday, prepare as much food for your week as possible.
Embrace the Microwave Arts
Did you know you can make chocolate lava cake in the microwave? And macaroni and cheese? Like, without a mix or boxed, ready-to-heat packaging? Actually, it was a molecular gastronomy genius, chef Ferran Adrià, who popularized the 40-second microwaved sponge cake at elBulli. Granted, trying to follow that recipe would be like learning your ABCs by picking up Infinite Jest. Instead, go for a hella simple chocolate mug cake, or behold these 39 dishes via greatist.com you probably didn't know you could make in a microwave, ranging from crispy bacon to vegetarian quiche.
Buy a Crock-Pot
Frequent Press contributor and chef Cuc Lam says, "Crock-Pot recipes are the best for 'sucky' or lazy home cooks" because all you have to do is plug the thing in, dump in a bunch of ingredients (follow a recipe, duh) and then wait for that hot mess to cook up into something spectacular.
Follow her killer Frito chili pie recipe:
1 pound of ground beef
1 pound of ground pork
1 can of Ro-Tel tomatoes and green chilies
1 cup diced onions
1 can fire roasted tomatoes
1 tbsp Adobo powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
Sauté meat in pan till browned, add all ingredients, transfer to Crock-Pot, cook on low for 2 hours. Open a bag of Fritos and voilà. Be fancy with a dollop of sour cream and some scallions. Also cool.
It serves a buttload of hungry football fans, and you can create a condiment bar for people to enjoy and eventually use as a place to put their empty beer bottles while the garbage can overflows and you ignore it.
Transform Your Leftovers
Lam also suggests turning leftovers into soups. You can even use Chinese stir-fry leftovers like chicken and veggies or beef and broccoli, add chicken stock to pot, add leftover entrées, and season with 1 teaspoon soy sauce, salt, pepper. Make a thickener with 1 part cornstarch and 2 parts cold water in a separate bowl, add the slurry to the pot and stir to thicken. Serve over rice like an Asian gumbo, or use day-old rice to make fried rice.
Leftover tamales? Try making a casserole.
"I always have a batch of frozen tamales in the freezer," Lam says. "Defrost, pre-heat oven to 375, start with a layer of tamales, then add a layer of queso blanco and/or cheddar, then a layer of green enchilada sauce, then repress layers finishing with a top layer of cheese." Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes, uncover and bake another 5 minutes to crisp the top layer.
This extremely handy list has numerous ideas for what to do with everything from leftover pizza to tortilla chips and bananas. The Kitchn also recommends cooking dishes that turn into great leftovers — stews, lasagna, curries and more foods that taste better when reheated the next day.
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- Spend 20 minutes each week sharpening your knives; this will reduce your chances of slicing a finger off.
- Do all mis en place — that means prep work — before you start to cook.
- Use a specific color of cutting board for chicken every time to reduce cross-contamination.
- Boil water for pasta in a large pan versus a deep pot to increase heated surface area, and cover if possible to bring to boil faster.
- Heat lemons and limes in the microwave for ten seconds to make them juicier.
- Similarly, pop your container of store-bought frosting in the microwave for ten seconds and it will make icing a cake (or cookie) much easier.
- Check thrift stores for gently used, quality cookware.
Got a tip for a budding cook, or for somebody dealing with a less than stellar kitchen situation? Leave a comment and we'll add the good ones to the list.