Our society is experiencing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes with the root cause of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance develops when we bombard our body all day long with sugar-containing substances. It’s hard to find processed foods that don’t have sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in the ingredient list. If we wish to address the root cause of this epidemic, rather than just medicating the resulting illness, we must take control of what we put into our mouths and cook our own food from scratch.
After World War II, food companies that prepared meals (K-rations) for the troops found how profitable instant processed convenience foods could be and sought new post-war markets for their products. Aggressive marketing and agricultural subsidies have successfully transformed our food culture and diets ever since.
In his book and companion Netflix series Cooked, Michael Pollan states that Americans cook less than people anywhere else in the world, and that the average amount of time we spend in the kitchen preparing food has decreased from 60 minutes a day in 1965 to our present day average of 27 minutes.
We are now so dependent on convenience foods that 61 percent of the food Americans buy is now highly processed, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. According to Pollan: “People are starting to realize that unless you cook, you can’t control your diet, and you’re ceding control of the important elements of your life to corporations that really don’t care about your health.”
Cooking skills were once passed down through the generations through time spent together in the family kitchen. The wisdom of our elders has now been supplanted by alreadyprepared foods that just need a quick warm-up in a microwave or toaster oven. Many of us can follow a recipe and achieve an acceptable result without really understanding the art and science of cooking. However, as renowned chef Jacques Pepin once stated: “When writing a recipe, one records a moment in time which can never be duplicated exactly again. The paradox is that the recipe tells the reader, this must be done this way, when, in fact, to get the result you’re looking for, the recipe has to be modified each time. The exact reproduction of a taste, which is what the making of a dish is, only works when the processes, timing and ingredients are adjusted and changed to fit each particular situation.” One does not acquire this intuitive knowledge from reading the backs of microwave meal packages.
I have recently discovered two books that really have helped me understand the fundamentals of cooking and have given me intellectual tools to allow my ingredients to guide me in designing a suitable recipe. Interestingly, both authors are alumni of the kitchen of Alice Waters at her renowned Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse.
Rather than being a recipe book, Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, is a holistic approach to meal preparation which feels much like learning to cook from your grandmother – long, caring conversations leading to simple instructions on how to make a comforting stew. There are no pictures and not many actual recipes. Adler’s tone is laid-back and warm, and encourages the reader to design dishes with ingredients on hand. It is a book about eating affordably, responsibly and well, and doing so relies on cooking your own food.
Adler’s book doesn’t contain “perfect” or “professional” ways to do anything. We don’t need to be professionals to cook well. Throughout the narrative she gives many fresh ideas for leftovers – hence how to cook with economy.
Tamar Adler expresses a simple concept: cooking well isn’t about special equipment or unusual ingredients. It’s about learning some basics, respecting the ingredients and developing a little culinary intuition or common sense. A book can’t necessarily teach you how to do that, but An Everlasting Meal attempts to teach you to look at cooking differently and teach yourself.
Samin Norsat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat:
Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking is also a book about cooking, without many recipes. Unlike the pictureless An Everlasting Meal, this book is illustrated like a graphic novel, featuring the work of renowned illustrator Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton has translated Nosrat’s vision into lush watercolored line drawings.
Norsat claims that if you learn to control the four elements of cooking that make up her book’s title, you will always be able to make delicious food without recipes. “Recipes are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it. My dream is you’ll read the book, and cook with it, and then no longer need it.” She goes on: “Recipes are like training wheels. Cooking is all about using your senses to guide you, but mostly it’s common sense. I want you to be able to see what’s fresh in the market, and to develop the confidence to make something good of it, or, if you haven’t shopped, to look at what you have in the fridge and to throw something together.” She says she included a few recipes because the publisher insisted.
In her two-part book, Nosrat spends the first chapters focusing on each of the four elements, and then fills the second half with recipes, recommendations and lessons that build on the knowledge she opens with. By mastering the use of just four elements – salt, which enhances flavor; fat, which delivers flavor and generates texture; acid, which balances flavor; and heat, which ultimately determines the texture of food – anything you cook should taste good. By explaining the hows and whys of good cooking, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat will teach and inspire both new and seasoned cooks how to confidently make better decisions in the kitchen and cook delicious meals with any ingredients.
Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Start taking responsibility for your own health and well-being by controlling what you eat and how it’s prepared. These two books will get you on the right path and show you how.