As my great-aunt June used to tell me, “Your grandfather was a bum. Your father was a bum, and you’re a bum. Get outta my house!” Reading between the lines, what I think she was trying to say, in her own, frothing fashion, was, “Don’t let the good be the enemy of the perfect.”
(You got that, too, right?)
In other words, Auntie June was reminding me that, when it comes to self-improvement, don’t stop trying just because you can’t achieve 100 percent of your goals. After all, Lord willin’ and the crik don’t rise and Kim Jong Un don’t drop no nucular bombs this year, we could all do with making ourselves and the world a little bit better.
And what better way than with the foodly portions of our world?
Why you need to learn this
The “this,” by the way, is the following general truth: Making your own food, cooking for yourself and others, makes you healthier, and it contributes to the greater good for all. Even if it’s not every godblasted meal, every time we cook, we have the opportunity to improve our bodies, our minds, our mouths and our world. Read on, shouldst thou dast.
The more processed your food is, the less healthy it is. Hard to believe, I know, that that bowl of Choco-Frosted Fatty O’s isn’t quite as good for you as a fresh garden salad. Or that frozen triple cheese, sausage and cigarette pizza might not pack the same nutritional punch per calorie as a lean and steamy bowl of rice and beans. For many of us, though, processed pizzas and Fatty O’s it is.
It’s no wonder, then, that when you line up the countries of the world in order of fattest to skinniest, the U.S. weighs in (see what I did there?) at No. 12. This is according to the World Factbook compiled by our spooky pals over at the Central Intelligence Agency. (I guess they really are looking in my fridge.) And if 12th doesn’t sound so bad, well, consider two things: First, that list has 192 countries. And second, the top 10 includes such global superpowers as Nauru, The Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Niue. The entire population of those countries could probably fit inside the men’s room at the Billy Goat Tavern.
If they weren’t so fat, that is.
Now, part of the reason we’re so tubbular is that we eat so much, for lack of a better word, crap. Here’s my advice: Start making your own meals — cook some vegetables for the love of Pete — and you’ll be on your way to a healthier lifestyle. Guaranteed.
Back in the 1970s, steamed vegetables became all the rage because word got out that boiling them leached out some of the nutrients. Look: While that’s certainly true, it’s also true that, if you’re cooking your own fresh vegetables — pretty much regardless of the method — you’re already a mile or two farther down the road of healthy eating than if you’re snarfing ketchup-covered microwaved corn dogs.
Studies have shown that working with our hands keeps our brains active and healthy and makes us happy. And that’s why you never see chefs in a home for the criminally insane. Cooking our own food forces us to concentrate and use our brains, unlike microwaving a frozen TV dinner to eat in front of reruns of “Match Game ’74.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve eaten humdrum restaurant meals and thought, “I could have made this at home, and it would have tasted twice as good and cost me a quarter of the price.”
Cook for yourself, and you’ll eat just what you want, just the way you like it.
First off, cooking for people is a wonderful way to share our common humanity and show them that you love them. If someone takes the time to prepare a meal for you, chances are, you’re not just some faceless jamoke; you mean something to that person, for one reason or another.
Second, cooking your own food supports the local economy, particularly if you’re shopping at farmers markets and local establishments. If the man wants you to eat at McWendee’s Chicken Bell, stick it to the man by going local. And nothing’s more local than your own kitchen.
Plus, there’s all that garbage those soup cans and fast food wrappers produce.
To conclude: If you already cook at home, cook more often. If you don’t, fear not, because, look, you have to eat anyway, right? Why not make this the year you start feeding yourself? And here’s the good news:
As I’ve mentioned in the past, the rules of cooking follow the laws of the universe. And seeing as how pert near the whole of human history has been the story of us trying to control and manipulate the natural world, it’s within your grasp to be able to cook. It’s your human birthright to wrestle, metaphorically, the mighty mastodon and feed upon its entrails.
If you’re nervous about striking out on your own, get some help. There are all these books out there that tell you how to cook. They’re called “cookbooks.”
Finally, remember that practice is essential. Sure, you can always follow a recipe and, if you’re lucky, end up with something fantastic. Still, the more you do something, the more you’ll understand it. Roast some vegetables once, and they may or may not come out the way you like. Roast vegetables 10 times, and with each successive attempt you’ll see more and more how they react to heat.
What do you think? Have I convinced you?
Good. Now, go out there, and make me some toast!
Roasted Winter Vegetables
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes
- 2 to 3 pounds winter vegetables (carrots, parsnips, winter squash, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, etc.), peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice
- 2 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper as needed
- Fresh or dried herbs (optional) as needed
Toss all ingredients in a large bowl until evenly coated. Spread in a single layer on a parchment- or foil-covered baking sheet.
Roast in a 425-degree oven until done, 20 to 30 minutes, stirring and turning vegetables halfway through cooking. Serve immediately.
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Prep School is a Tribune News Service column by James P. DeWan, an award-winning food writer, chef and culinary instructor who teaches at Kendall College in Chicago. He is the author of “Prep School: How to Improve Your Kitchen Skills and Cooking Techniques,” a collection of his columns.