A little bit ago, there was a kerfluffle in the media about Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray. Apparently, Martha said something about Rachel's kitchen skills, and how they were lacking. This quickly morphed into a food blog personality test. Who ya got? Who are you as a cook, Rachel or Martha? Are you Rachel Ray, as in 30-Minute Meals, using shortcuts and prepared ingredients and bagged, pre-cut vegetables to get the meal on the table as quickly as possible? Or are you Martha Stewart, as in Martha Stewart Entertaining, do it The Right Way, have a large garden so you can have fresh greens, raise your own chickens, and have dinner linens that match the seasons?
I started in the Martha camp. Or, in my case, the Cooks Illustrated's Best Recipe camp. I cooked elaborate meals on the weekends, got really deep into multiple day barbecues, and would take forever just to get dinner on the table. Then I set out to learn the Rachel, get a dinner on the table on a weeknight side of cooking. Except...her show hadn't come on the air yet. In my case, it was Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book. For a while, all my cooking was simple and direct, as I learned basic techniques.
Now my cooking is bipolar.* I love cooking, so doing things The Right Way appeals to me. On weekends, for dinner parties, when I have the time, I'm going for it. I love to find out the Right Way, the ultimate recipe, and do it that way (at least once). But, on weeknights, I have to use the 30 minutes or less style. Life gets in the way; if taking a few shortcuts lets you get dinner on the table, then it's the right thing to do. What's wrong with tailoring your cooking to the time you have available?
*As readers of this blog already know. My posts veer between recipes that are "done in 30 minutes" and recipes that start with the words "2 to 3 days before you want to cook, salt the meat..."
As I've improved my cooking technique, I've had the two styles bleed together. There are shortcuts that I won't use any more with my weeknight dinners, and complicated techniques that I skip when making elaborate dinners. I can't just follow a recipe any more; I have to use my intelligence and experience to make it fit my cooking style. I use homemade stock, or I'll use water - no canned broth. I make my own vinaigrettes, because bottled dressing tastes like its stabilizing chemicals to me. I dry brine everything I possibly can, because it adds so much to the flavor. But...I use canned tomatoes and mayonnaise all the time. Bagged salad gives me a quick vegetable side. And I always have some frozen corn and peas in the back of the freezer, just in case.
*And, at my best, I can use the elaborate style to help the everday meals. I make pressure cooker chicken stock on the weekends, after a roast chicken dinner. The result is stock that makes a quick weeknight soup or sauce taste like I slaved away on it. And I did slave away...when I had a little free time.
It's about a mindset. I think: am I cooking a Pam Anderson, How to Cook without a Book meal or a Cooks Illustrated, Best Recipe meal? Is it Mark Bittman's simple side of Simple to Spectacular, or is it Jean-Georges Vongerichten's spectacular version? Rick Bayless from Mexican Everyday, or Rick Bayless from Fiesta at Rick's? And, does it all have to be one way or the other? Can I short-cut a few of the sides, and do the main dish in an elaborate fashion on a weekday? Can I make a hearty, homey stew that doesn't need a lot of fussing while my guests arrive for a dinner party?
I think the problem comes in when you try to do a Martha recipe in a Rachel way. Or vice versa. Paella is not a weeknight dish, and the compromises to make it in 30 minutes are too great. You might make a good rice dish, but it's not Paella. A weeknight dinner is about feeding your family simple, good food, and making every dinner into a multi-course showcase is overkill. But for a family gathering, a party, or a holiday? Stand back - I'm going all out.
*Rick Bayless hits the nail on the head in the opening of Mexican Everyday. Cooking an everyday meal for your family should be simple, healthy cooking. Cooking a meal for a party (Fiesta!) is completely different, and should be about celebration and excess. And we need both kinds of meals in our lives.
What do you think? What are your cooking personalities? Are you a Rachel kind of cook, or are you a Martha kind of cook? Let me know in the comments below.
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