11 March 2015

The Cooking-From-Scratch Scam

A comment about organic boxed macaroni and cheese being virtually identical to the regular kind crossed my radar the other day and got me thinking about how the food industry has taught us that we don't know how to cook.

I do almost all of my cooking from scratch, because I'm dealing with a variety of different food allergies and intolerances that make much of what's available in a box inedible, but also because it's how I learned to cook.

The food industry has created all kinds of boxed products and has taught us that we don't know how to cook. But it's not actually that hard to get all kinds of basic meals on the table.

You can make a basic mac and cheese with milk, flour, butter, and cheese. Maybe a little mustard or cayenne, if that's how you roll.  You heat those ingredients while the pasta is cooking in a separate pan, mix the two together, and bingo, mac'n'cheese.

The same dish, out of a box? While you cook up some pasta, you mix milk and butter and cheese powder in a separate pan, and after the pasta is cooked, you mix them together. One ingredient less than from scratch. It takes a minute or two to grate real cheese, or to cut it up in little pieces with a knife if you don't have a grater, but you're waiting for pasta to boil anyway.

Pancakes, ditto. Egg, milk, flour, baking soda maybe a little sugar and salt, cinnamon or vanilla, chocolate chips or blueberries if you want to go all out.  Or in my case, gluten-free flour, ground flax seeds, and soy milk. And it doesn't even require measuring cups; I eyeball it all.

Spaghetti sauce. It doesn't take that much longer to saute an onion and a little garlic and some celery with some dried herbs and then add tomatoes and cook down for a few minutes than it does to open a jar of prepared sauce.

Mashed potatoes? Yes, it takes longer to clean potatoes, cut them up, steam them, and then mash them with butter and milk (or olive oil and almond milk) than to shake some flakes into a pan of boiling water. But it's not rocket science.

If you're juggling jobs, kids, commutes, maybe caring for an elderly or ill family member, finding the time to scrub potatoes can seem impossible. And it takes some planning: you have to shop, you have to be able to store perishables until you can use them. The Mate and I do a lot of cooking on weekends, and make enough for lots of leftovers. Some get eaten right away, others go in the freezer for next week or next month or next year.

Which is not to say that we never eat beans from a can, tomato sauce from a jar, vegetables from the freezer, or a whole meal of Chinese take-out.

Cooking basic foods from scratch avoids a lot of the carbon footprint of shipping and production, particularly if you buy local products in season. And you get to avoid the excessive salt and sugar and chemicals that go into the bottled and boxed products. And you avoid a lot of plastic packaging.

Want to try? Pick one dish, google some recipes, pick the simplest one, and make it on three occasions. Then you'll know it well enough to throw the ingredients together without worrying about measuring precisely, to improvise if you're out of something, or to experiment with different flavors.