FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Corporate Assault on Cooking

Television commercials and magazine advertisements have always annoyed me, particularly those that send a negative message about food and cooking. One such commercial I saw the other day instructed the viewer to take a vacation this summer, and to "have fun." Well, the vacation they spoke of was not a literal one, but one from your kitchen. Basically they were telling their audience not to cook for themselves, but to eat their crappy pre-fabricated food.

This got me thinking, and it reminded me of an advertisement that I saw some time ago in a food-related magazine, one that affected me greatly. I saved it for a while and even tacked it to the wall in my office, and every so often I think of the social vulgarity of this particular ad.

In this ad was a picture of an "average-looking man" standing next to a stack of cookbooks that was taller than he was, and he was smiling this bazaar smile and holding a package of fully cooked chicken breasts. The text in the ad espoused the virtues of the busy American using this convenience food product.

This in itself isn't what bothered me, I understand living in a busy household and the need for a certain amount of convenience products. What really disturbed me, though, was how it also stated that they have "taken all of the adventure out of cooking," and that their chicken breasts were delicious even "without all of the fun of starting from scratch." And this, I thought to myself, is supposed to be a good thing? It was written in such a way that the words "fun" and "adventure," when connected to cooking, were used in a negative manner.

Cooking, of course, can be extremely fun and adventuresome. Like most advertisements, this was telling the reader to buy their products, but they were also trying to convey the message that cooking was a chore, that it was a nuisance in our hectic lives, and that it was no longer even necessary. In this author's opinion a person should cook as often as they can, but that's easy to say coming from someone who does it for a living.

There are, of course, many reasons a person chooses to cook. Some cook simply to supply themselves with their daily meals, and some cook purely for enjoyment, as a hobby. There are also those who get paid to cook professionally. Obviously some of these reasons meld together and are not entirely distinct. A person, for example, may cook because they need to, but also because it brings them joy and satisfaction.

Though what is truly sad to me is that some people cook very little, or worse yet, not at all. It is, after all, one of the most basic skills in life. When a person cooks they supply themselves with a meal, and also act upon a primal instinct -- the ability to cook foods is one of the distinctions that separates man from beast.

The unfortunate truth is that in this age one needn't have these skills to survive, since a non-cook has endless options for their meals. Cooking is no longer a skill that is passed from one generation to the next. The abundance of restaurants and grocery stores that offer prepared foods is enough to make a person shun the task all together, not to mention the almost infinite heat-and-serve foods that are readily available.

Some choose not to cook because they may view it as drudgery (I've actually met a few "professional" cooks who, believe it or not, don't like to cook), while others, I'm told, find it somewhat intimidating. It's sort of a paradox, actually -- less people cook at home than ever before yet at the same time cookbooks are best sellers, the Food Network never stops, and some American chefs have become veritable celebrities. If you think about it, though, this is actually not that surprising. Many American families have dual incomes, which leaves little time for making dinner (I read a report somewhere -- and I can't remember where -- but it made the prediction that by the year 2025 some new homes will actually be built without kitchens, that they will be an option).

Cooking needn't be complicated to be good. Some of the simplest foods are also the best. And often these are the foods that are the most fun to make. By combining the most basic ingredients, such as flour and water or eggs, you can create something as exquisite as homemade bread or pasta. Like alchemy, combining these few simple ingredients creates something altogether different. And don't fret if things don't always come out the way you had planned, such is life (trust me, even professional cooks make plenty of "flops"). Cooking is a learned and practiced art, and one that gets easier the more often it is done.

As with any task, if cooking is viewed as drudgery it will become so. A person should cook not because they have to, but because they want to. Cooking is an expressive artform and should be treated as such, and -- under the right circumstances -- it can actually be a form of therapy. One should cook, I feel, for it is good for both body and soul.

Roast Red Pepper Pasta Dough Yield: approximately 4 portions
1 large red pepper
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt

Roast the pepper by placing it directly over an open flame, either on stove indoors, or for a smokier flavor, over an outdoor grill. Cook the pepper until the skin is almost entirely black, then place it in a paper bag. After the pepper has been resting in the bag for 5 minutes, remove it from the bag and rinse it under cold running water and rub the charred skin away. Gently tear open the pepper and remove and discard the seeds and stem. Purée the pepper in a blender until it is perfectly smooth, then pour the purée into a measuring cup. The purée should measure 1/2 cup, if it does not, add enough water to compensate. On the other hand, if the purée is greater than 1/2 cup, remove the excess portion and reserve for future use.

Mound the flour on a worktable and make a well in the center. In the well, place the eggs, pepper purée and salt. Using a fork, beat the liquids and slowly incorporate the flour.

When the liquids are fully incorporated into the flour begin to knead the dough. Knead the pasta dough for 15 minutes. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, refrigerate it and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes before using.

Sicilian Meat Sauce Yield: approximately 4 cups
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound dice pork
1 small onion, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 teaspoons basil
1 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups diced fresh plum tomatoes
1/2 cup tomato puree
1 cup chicken broth

Heat the olive oil over high heat in a heavy pot. Add the diced pork and brown it on all sides, drain off any extra fat that may have accumulated. Add the onion and garlic; cook until lightly browned.

Lower the heat and stir in the basil, fennel seed, hot pepper, cinnamon, sugar, salt and pepper. Cook for 3 minutes while stir-ring.

Stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato puree and the stock or water. Bring to a boil then lower the flame to a very low simmer. Allow the sauce to cook for 1 hour. Stir it often to alleviate scorch-ing.

Toss with your favorite pasta and top with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

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