Musings: Cooking Style

So I found an interesting article at Lifehacker about the Four Stages of Teaching Yourself to Cook.  Since Real Food involves a lot of cooking at home, I thought it was an interesting topic.  I don’t exactly agree with the Four Stages as presented there.  In fact, I’d probably cut it back to three.

  1. Following recipes meticulously.  Never a deviation, and never a substitution.  Never throwing a dish together on the fly.
  2. Following recipes as guidelines, or following recipes for some dishes and throwing a dish together for others.
  3. Coming up with your own recipes without using someone else’s as a guideline, or always throwing a dish together.
I’m pretty sure that I am solidly in Stage 2 now, but I used to be very much in Stage 1.  You see, I left for a boarding school at 16, and I didn’t get a chance to practice cooking at home much.  I mean, I helped bake from when I was  little kid, in exchange for licking the spoon.  I helped with the chaos that was Thanksgiving dinner.  But as for cooking on my own, every day, planning meals, and such, I didn’t really start doing that until my second year of college.
I had a few cookbooks to start with, and copies of my grandmother’s recipes.  I also picked up a few of the things that weren’t written down, like my mom’s chili recipe, which is never the same way twice.  And for the longest time, I was in Stage 1.  I had to measure everything, never cut corners, and followed cooking times exactly.  This is great for baking, but gets tedious for making everyday meals.
I’ve gradually gotten to the point where I know what a tablespoon of spices looks like in my hand, that oregano and marjoram have similar flavor profiles, and that it really is ok to leave out or add ingredients to a recipe.  Occasionally I’ll just look in the pantry and throw something together.
Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get to Stage 3.  I don’t feel like I’m creative enough in the kitchen to be able to come up with my own recipes.  I know some people can be, I follow the blogs of several of them.  But I don’t think it will be me.
What about you?  Which stage are you in?  Do you think you will get to one of the later stages?  Do you even want to?

Real Food: Resources

So, I said in an earlier post, I was going to point you to some resources about Real Food.  Some of these are things that I found early on, some later.  Some are only tangential to Real Food.  But they all gave me good ideas and were part of my motivation for going on this journey.


Food Renegade – This was the first website that I came across.  I was linked to it from a Paleo/Primal blog.  The writer, Kristen, posts news articles, recipes, and information on different ingredients.

GNOWFGLINS – Wardeh here has a complicated name for her blog, but it is full of lots of useful information.  In fact, my journey is starting by enrolling in her online courses.  I’m really looking forward to it, and out of respect for her courses, I won’t repost any info from there.  The basic membership is about $10/month, so there’s really no excuse.  Warning: Wardeh is Christian and does talk about her faith in some of her writing.  I’m not bothered by it, but if you are, you were warned.

Keeper of the Home – This blog has several writers.  The focus is on raising families, which doesn’t apply to me, but they do post some neat things on Real Food and living green.  This blog also tends to have a Christian focus sometimes, so you were warned.  The writers have also produced a book: Real Food on a Real Budget.

You can also check out the Weston A. Price Foundation.  They promote old traditional diets as well, but I’ve found the above blogs much more helpful.


The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – Michael Pollan has written multiple books on the topic of food.  I recommend reading only one of these, as he sort of repeats the same arguments.  Very eye-opening if you aren’t aware of some of the less savory aspects of our food system.

Real Food: What to Eat and Why – Nina Planck’s book is a very easy read.  She makes everything clear, and is very reasonable in her arguments.  I also like that she uses citations, and even has a bibliography!  It makes me feel like she really did her work researching the topic.  It’s difficult with all the information out there to tell everything apart.

How to Cook Everything – Mark Bittman’s amazing cookbook.  While not specifically about Real Food, Bittman has a preference for using whole ingredients without a lot of shortcut processed foods.  He has how-tos for things like separating a whole chicken into parts, so you can buy the whole bird (cheaper than buying boneless chicken breasts).  This makes it a great addition if you’re trying to learn to make things from scratch.  It’s my kitchen bible now.


Of course, there’s always other media about the Real Food battle.  I haven’t seen the movie Food, Inc myself, mainly because I suspected I’d been exposed to most of the information in it already.  I know I’ve seen glimpses of factory farms on some cooking/travel shows.  And of course, there’s always Peta, but I think they’re a bunch of fanatics.  (Hence why I’m not linking to their website.)

I’m sure there are many more blogs, websites, books, and other things out there.  But these are the things I’ve been exposed to.  These are the ones I follow and watch for neat info and ideas of how to make Real Food a real option in my life.  I hope some of you find them useful or, at least, interesting reading.

Real Food: Secrets in Labels

Two Butters
Photo by Ulterior Epicure on Flickr

So, in my previous post, I made a lot of comments about the government and how it interferes with the goals of Real Food, and I didn’t exactly include citations to back me up.  I hope to make a future post with citations and links to where I got the info from, but today is July 4th, Independence Day, and I wanted to focus on one of the things the government got right.  Labels.

Now, I’m not talking about the “Nutrition Facts” they stick on the side of every container.  I don’t count calories anymore, or carbs, or fats.  Sometimes I’ll pay attention to sodium and potassium, but that’s because I tend to eat a lot of salt anyway.  No, the part of the label that I pay attention to is the “Ingredients List”.

In some ways, the ingredients list seems stupid.  I don’t need a label to tell me that milk is in my milk carton or eggs in my egg carton.  Milk is milk and eggs are eggs, right?  Well, sure, but what about other things?  Like butter, for example?  You wouldn’t think so, but yes, you need a label.  Why?

Let me tell you a little story first.  Way back in the early 1990s, I was in kindergarten.  In kindergarten, we did little parties for every national holiday.  For Thanksgiving, my teacher thought it would be a good idea to show us how butter was made, since we had talked about the pilgrims making their own food.  I don’t remember all the ingredients exactly, but our teacher basically filled a jar with milk or cream, and maybe a little salt, and had us shake that thing to our heart’s content.  We all had to take turns, because it was a hard thing for 5 year olds to do.  In the end, we ended up with maybe a couple tablespoons of “butter”.

My point here is that my 5 year old self “knew” what butter was.  She knew it involved milk, and a lot of work, and not much else.  So, theoretically, we all know what butter is.  Butter is butter, just like milk is milk, right?

So why does a package of generic butter at Wal-mart list the ingredients as “Pasteurized Cream, Natural Flavorings.” ? What on earth are “natural flavorings” and why does my butter need them?  Welcome, my friends, to the world of industrial foods, where no basic item is sacred.  The thing is, that much like “fragrance” in cosmetics, natural flavorings could mean anything.  What’s really sad to me is that they feel the need to add these in to something that should just be cream and salt.  What did they do wrong that they need to add flavor to their butter?

Now, butter is actually one of the nicer examples.  Let’s take something a little more complex.  I like cottage cheese.  I eat it over applesauce or on toast for breakfast.  I, like most people, don’t like to pay a lot for my food, so I used to reach for the generic Wal-mart brand.  Cottage cheese is cottage cheese, right?  All the packages say cottage cheese, so they must be the same product, right?  Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if that was true.

Ingredients for Wal-mart brand cottage cheese: Cultured Nonfat Milk, Nonfat Milk, Cream, Whey, Salt, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Cultured Dextrose, Locust Bean Gum, Citric Acid, Polysorbate 80, Acetylated Monoglycerides, Natural Flavor, Enzymes, Carbon Dioxide (To Help Protect Flavor).

I had a problem with natural flavor, but this…mess is something completely different.  I’ve gotten used to reading ingredient labels, so I know what some of these are.  The guar gum and locust bean gum are likely thickeners.  But most of the other stuff, I have no idea what it is or what it does.  Or why I would want to eat it.  To contrast:

Ingredients for Daisy brand cottage cheese: Cultured Skim Milk, Cream, Salt.

See the difference?  You’d never know it looking on the shelf.  You have to look at the ingredients label.  And before you go saying “Shay, you have to know that Wal-mart only makes crap”, Wal-mart isn’t the only offender.  Even my local dairy brand has added crap in their cottage cheese.  The brand that has a factory right here in the middle of town and buys the milk of local farmers.  Can’t get more local than that.  But they put extra stuff in their products, and so I don’t buy them.

I’ve been reading labels judiciously for a while now, starting from when I was dieting.  And the more complex or processed the food, the more difficult the ingredients list gets.  In general, if the list has an ingredient that you don’t know what it is or what it does, then I’d avoid that food.  (Chemists would obviously have to modify that rule a bit. 😛 )  I haven’t completely given up all my processed foods yet, but I try to make sure that it has as short and readable an ingredients list as possible.  And you can bet that if the government didn’t require that label, they wouldn’t put any of it on that container.  We’d all have no idea what was in our food, and we’d be eating crap without knowing it.

So thank you, U.S. Government.  Thank you for getting at least one small thing right for the battle of Real Food.

Goals Update: Time for Real Food

Vegetable stand
Photo by Michael Cannon

So, as usual, my exercise goal for May/June has not exactly taken off.  I’m still picking it up off and on, but with the summer heat, it is very difficult.  I wilt like a flower after 10 minutes.  I do have a plan to try and get something done at the university gym in the mornings before class, but I’m afraid of burnout.  I’ll have to see what it’s like come August.

Anyway, instead of wasting another two months trying to pick that up, I’m going to move on to the next goal.  For July/August, I will be focusing on moving my eating habits to Real Food.  Now, you might say, what is Real Food, and why does it get capital letters?  Is it opposed to imaginary food?

In a sentence, Real Food is traditional foods, prepared in traditional ways, from whole ingredients, with no processing.  I think we can all agree that the American food system is full of errors and fallacies.  Boxes labeled with various advertisements trying to tell us they’re healthy, and laws created under the guise of “protecting Americans” when they’re really in place to increase the profits of Big Agriculture.  Pesticides, chemicals, and genetically modified foods.  A government recommended eating plan that makes us fatter, not healthier.  When there is arsenic in our chicken and our cows are fed corn instead of grass, there is something very wrong.  Our great-grandmothers probably wouldn’t recognize half the stuff we eat as food.  Some people aren’t even able to cook things that don’t come out of a box.

There’s also the issues that we eat things out of season.  Strawberries are not supposed to be eaten in winter, pumpkins aren’t supposed to be eaten in spring.  A lot of our food is picked before it is ripe, so that it can survive shipment across hundreds, and even thousands of miles.  So, hand in hand with eating Real Food is also eating Local Real Food, as much as possible.

Switching to Real Food means paying more attention to where my food comes from, what it’s made with, and what it’s been fed (in the case of meat).  It means making more things from scratch, focusing on making traditional foods like homemade broths and fermented foods.  It means using more whole ingredients, fewer things out of a box or a can.

Now, this process has been a long time coming for me.  I’ve been reading books and blogs, and testing out small changes in the way we eat.  I’ve been buying more local foods, reading the ingredients on things that I buy, and making homemade bread and broth.  These next two months, I want to take it to the next level.  For example, I haven’t seriously considered getting grass-fed beef or pastured chicken.  The cost, I must admit, is a bit prohibitive.  Also, there are traditional ways of preparing grains with something acidic, or sprouting the whole grains, neither of which I have really attempted.

Now, there are certain other movements that are attached to Real Food, such as Paleo or Primal diets.  I’m not going to promote any of those.  My own attempt at Paleo ended after about 4 days, and I honestly believe that the human race thrived after the development of agriculture for a reason.  That’s why there are soaking and sprouting techniques, ways of making grains better for our digestion than eating them just straight.  If you’re interested in those, or if they’ve worked for you, feel free to provide links.  I don’t mind, it’s just my personal experiences haven’t been good.

So, to summarize, the next two months will focus on whole foods, traditional foods, real foods, moving away from processed junk, and even more home cooking.  I’ll let you know how I’m doing it, what my resources are, and recommended reading in future posts, as well as some more recipes, especially for homemade foods.