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Food Column: Five Lessons about Home Cooking

Do you want to cook from scratch more often, but find the prospect daunting? Keep these five lessons in mind. And then go for it.

When I first started cooking from scratch, I had to start from scratch. I wanted to eat healthy, seasonal meals prepared by my own hands in my own kitchen more often, but I didn’t know quite where to begin. Not only did I need ingredients and skills, I needed confidence.

I could follow the directions on a package of Hamburger Helper, reheat frozen fish sticks, and scramble an egg. But make my own stroganoff sauce? Turn an egg into a vegetable frittata? No way. I feared such daring acts. Didn’t you need a tall white hat and a culinary arts degree for that sort of thing?

It took me a while to realize that home cooking doesn’t need to meet professional standards. I’m not cooking with Food Network cameras rolling, competing on Iron Chef, or serving meals to paying customers. As a busy mom trying to squeeze in a family dinner between karate lessons and bath time, I can cut myself some slack.

Learning the five lessons below liberated me in the kitchen.

 

1. Home cooking doesn’t have to be that hard. 

Today I made pizza from scratch, crust and all. I prepped the crust a day ago, but it took me exactly seven minutes to do so because I used a lazy cook no-knead recipe and let it rise overnight. After browning the crust, I smeared on sauce, added spinach and oregano from my garden, tossed on the cheese I found in the back of the fridge, and baked the pizza briefly. It took less time to make lunch at home than it would have taken to drive over to Chick-fil-A.  

 

2. Frozen leftovers still count as home cooked. 

I sometimes double or triple recipes with the intention of freezing leftovers for a quick dinner later on — my favorite version of fast food. I make large pots of chili, black beans, split-pea soup and chicken Marengo. I freeze both single serving and family-sized portions.

When I made my pizza crust yesterday, I froze half of the dough after it rose. The next time I want a pizza for dinner, I just need to thaw the dough, stretch it onto a pan and brown it in the oven. The next pizza will take me even less time to prep.

 

3. Recipes are not divine commandments.

It took years for me to muster the bravery to leave out or substitute ingredients. I greatly respect the chefs who invent recipes and I’ve spent many weekend hours following their instructions in painstaking detail for fun. But when I’m faced with a hungry family, a tight weeknight time frame, and no sweet onions when the recipe distinctly calls for them, I no longer feel disrespectful for tossing in leeks or chives or whatever I have on hand.

Today, when I made my spinach pizza, I substituted pureed butternut squash for the tomato sauce as a seasonal alternative. My pizza tasted like autumn and my family didn’t even suspect my sneaky chef tactic.  

 

4. Home cooking is not like going sober.

When I made the decision to prepare more home cooked meals from scratch, I didn’t make a commitment to swear off all store-bought and restaurant food for all eternity. On the days that I use a pre-made pizza crust from Publix or just dial the Papa Johns number, I don’t beat myself up.

 

5.    Cooking from scratch is therapeutic.

Some people meditate or scrapbook or play tennis. I cook. (And garden. The two hobbies go hand-in-hand.) Cooking from scratch (or near scratch) fills me with a sense of contentment and accomplishment.

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