I shopped at the farmers market, switched to organic foods and read food labels. I chose grass-fed beef and free-range chicken. I packed my daughter’s lunchbox with tofu and locally grown blueberries.
Earth-friendly choices made me feel better about what my family was eating, but getting dinner on the table remained a chore. Cooking, for me, is more laborious than rewarding. And when I incorporated the constant chopping and dicing that green cooking requires, the innocent query, “What’s for dinner?” sounded like an interrogation.
I thought cooking fresh, organic foods would help me find the joy in feeding my family. Instead, I felt like a failure. One night after serving seriously undercooked fish, my husband, Jason, suggested I work on my basic kitchen skills and enroll in some classes. He also promised to help with the cooking.
My mom taught me to cook when I was a child. But we relied on staples from the Charlie’s Angels era such as Bisquick, frozen chicken pot pies and SpaghettiOs. Now that I’m trying to cook real food, there’s a lot I don’t know.
My first cooking class focused on pizza. Barbara Kingsolver makes pizza weekly for her family and includes her recipe in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When I tried Kingsolver’s recipe, I ended up with a couple of durable Frisbees.
Our chef instructors shared their secrets, such as high-gluten flour and punching out the dough with your fingers instead of rolling it out. They don’t cook their sauce before ladling it on the crust, and they sprinkle the cheese generously around the edges so it doesn’t pool in the center.
In my first attempt, the dough was freakishly non-sticky. It refused to flatten out and was destined for the garbage. After a few days of obsessing, I discovered I used pure gluten rather than high-gluten flour.
Our next effort was much better. Not as yummy as the pies the chefs prepared in class, but I now have a starting point and can only improve. I consider homemade pizza eco-friendly because it can be made with organic ingredients and adapted depending on what’s in season. And leftovers always get eaten.
Next, Jason and I signed up for a class on vegetarian fare. Jason is a fish-eating vegetarian. I eat meat occasionally, but I don’t like fish. Our 2-year-old would just like a Popsicle, please. On the menu: a black bean dish, sweet potato salad and something called tartiflette.
Our teacher insisted these meals were quick to prepare, but her definition of quick differed from mine. She used some obscure ingredients, such reblochon cheese and pomegranate molasses that I’m loath to buy if I’m not going to use very much. Still, she had some useful tips. She believes in incorporating flavor throughout the cooking process, rather than adding salt and other spices at the end.
She demonstrated a nifty technique for chopping onions and shared the importance of an emulsifier when making vinaigrette. (Though not a self-described eco-chef, her goal of ridding kitchens of bottled salad dressings is green-worthy.) Her meals were scrumptious and healthy, if not low-calorie.
At home, I’ve made the delicious black bean dish a couple of times. I plan to make the tartiflette, a French potato dish, for a special occasion and the sweet potato salad for a pool picnic. I am weaning myself off bottled salad dressing. The vinaigrette whips up fast, but I’m struggling to minimize tartness to my liking.
Jason delivered on his promise to help, baking a loaf of pumpernickel that I used to make sandwiches good enough to count as dinner. More cooking classes are not in our budget, but I’m scouring cookbooks and watching Internet videos. When we have more cash, I’ll take a knife skills class.
I’m struck by how important cooking skills are for a green lifestyle, especially when the budget is tight. Eating out, picking up takeout and relying on convenience foods are hard to justify. Yet when you’re a lousy cook, trying to turn produce and pantry staples into meals every day can be spirit-crushing.
A green-mom confession: We bought a KitchenAid stand-up mixer, a budget buster and non-essential purchase. (At least I recycled the box.) It makes cooking fun, and we expect it to last forever.
I have lots more to learn, but I’m already proud of myself. Just a few months ago, you would not have heard me telling Jason, “Hurry home, honey … I’m making tartiflette with locally grown potatoes for dinner.”
Okay, so I haven’t said that yet. But I might, soon.
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