|Graphic / Heads of State|Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or 6 Billion
By Mark Bittman
“Revolutionary” diet books flood the market this time of year, promising a life changed permanently and for the better — yes, in just 10 to 30 days! — but, as everyone knows, the key to eating better begins with a diet of real food.
The problem is, real food is cooked by real people — you! — and real people are cooking less than ever before.We know why people don’t cook, or at least we think we do: they’re busy; they find “convenience” and restaurant foods more accessible than foods they cook themselves; they (incorrectly) believe that ready-to-eat foods are less expensive than those they cook themselves; they live in so-called food deserts and lack access to real food; and they were never taught to cook by their parents, making the trend self-perpetuating.
Yet Americans watch 35 hours of television a week, according to a Nielsen survey. (Increasing amounts of that time are spent watching other people cook). And although there certainly are urban and rural pockets where people have little access to fresh food, about 90 percent of American households own cars, and anyone who can drive to McDonald’s can drive to a supermarket.
But perhaps most important, a cooking repertoire of three basic recipes can get anyone into the kitchen and beyond the realm of takeout food, microwaved popcorn and bologna sandwiches in a few days.
One could set off a heated argument with a question like, “What are the three best basic recipes?” but I stand behind these: a stir-fry, a chopped salad, and the basic combination of rice and lentils, all of which are easy enough to learn in one lesson. (“Lessons” might be called “recipes,” and need no “teacher” beyond the written word.) Each can be varied in countless ways. Each is produced from basic building blocks that contain no additives, preservatives, trans fats, artificial flavorings or ingredients of any kind, or outrageous calorie counts; they are, in other words, made from actual food. The salad requires no cooking; the stir-fry is lightning fast; the rice-and-lentils, though cooked more slowly, requires minimal attention. The same can be said for other recipes, of course, but not for all of them, and certainly not for the food that most Americans rely upon most of the time.
These recipes offer other benefits: They’re nutritionally sound and environmentally friendly. They’ve sustained scores of generations of societies worldwide, using traditional farming methods and producing little negative impact on the earth. (Almost without exception, your ancestors relied on something like one or more of these dishes.) All of them can be made with meat, poultry or fish, but they can be satisfying and delicious when made vegetarian or even vegan. In fact, if you cooked only variations on these three dishes you’d be well on your way to becoming an intuitive, fluid cook (the fanciest pilaf is essentially a rice-and-bean variation), eating more healthfully and with a lighter carbon footprint.
There is one notable thing these recipes are not: magic. You cannot produce them without having a functioning kitchen (a sink, a refrigerator and a stove will do it); some minimal equipment, including a pot, a skillet and a bowl (though in a pinch, the salad could be made in the pot); a couple of knives; some utensils; a strainer and a cutting board; and the ability (and money) to stock a pantry and at least occasionally supplement it with fresh food. These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.
(It’s worth noting, furthermore, that the stir-fry and the rice-and-lentils can be made entirely from the pantry, if you allow for the fact that frozen vegetables are a completely acceptable substitute for fresh, especially in winter, when “fresh” may mean “flown in from Peru.”) This pantry list can be as simple as oil, vinegar, grains, legumes and a few other things, but as people learn to cook it inevitably grows.
Given ingredients, a kitchen and equipment, all that is left is some time, and with a well-stocked pantry that time can be about the same as driving to Burger King and back. You can make a chopped salad in 15 or 20 minutes, practicing knife skills and producing a vegetable-heavy dish quickly and easily. Anyone who can boil water can whip up a batch of rice and lentils in just over half an hour, providing fiber, protein and one of humankind’s classic comfort foods. And anyone who’s learned how to chop (primitively is fine), apply heat to a pan and stir can produce a stir-fry — really the epitome of a traditional dish based mostly on plants with just enough meat or other protein-dense food to contribute additional interest, flavor and nutrition — in less than half an hour.
Make these three things and you’re a cook. And with luck and perseverance, these foods will crowd out things like (to single out one egregious example from hundreds of its competitors) KFC’s Chicken Pot Pie, which costs about $5 (so much for the myth of cheap fast food; a terrific meal for four can be put together for $10); contains nearly 700 calories, more than half of which come from fat; and has well over 50 ingredients — most of which cannot be purchased by normal consumers anywhere — including things like “chicken pot pie flavor” and MSG.
By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better-tasting food that requires less energy, water and land per calorie and reduces our carbon footprint. Not a bad result for us — or the planet.