Ramblings
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Cooking Authentic or Cooking Everyday?

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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Hi! I’m Mike Vrobel. I’m a dad and an enthusiastic home cook; an indie cookbook author and food blogger with a day job, a patient spouse, and three kids who would rather have hamburgers for dinner.

12 Comments

  1. growmyown says

    I agree about being a little bit of both. I try to cook in-season and local by using my own garden or canned items, so no bagged salads for me. But, I also can or freeze my own convenience foods such as vegetable soup or frozen ahead entrees. I even can my own deer meat which makes for extremely fast meals on busy nights. I love one pot meals that can cook all day on busy weekends. These can also be okay to serve company because friends don’t always take time to cook from scratch. I do like Martha’s style and have been a long-time fan. Her show is like watching Mr. Rogers to me. Her world is so calm, tidy and in control. Rachel, not so much.

  2. I have a friend who makes the most amazing mac and cheese (yeah, that’s right). She gave me her recipe, and I made it myself.

    She asked me how it turned out. Not as good as hers, I said, very truthfully.

    Turns out the recipe calls for a pound of Velveeta – and I simply won’t buy/use/accept the existence of Velveeta. I didn’t even know where to look for it in the store. It’s not in the dairy case, it’s certainly not among the cheeses. If it’s on a shelf somewhere, then that’s where it should live out it’s lonely, 12-year existence.

    The way I see it is that I can make the disgusting boxed mac and cheese, or I can take an honest-to-goodness recipe and make mac and cheese from scratch. If I eliminate the FDA-approval-required ingredients (VELVEETA) it is both a weekday dinner and real cooking.

    My friend now thinks that I must be the worst kind of cooking snob. What can I say?

    Yes, yes I am.

  3. @growmyown:
    Wow…canning your own deer meat? That’s hardcore.

    @Pam:
    I’m with you on the Velveeta…except…it melts so well. Kenji Alt did his thing (heavy on the geeky science and even geekier humor) to figure out cheese sauce: Cheese Sauce, and it comes down to adding milk protein so the cheese won’t separate. My current favorite mac and cheese recipe, from Pam Anderson’s Perfect Recipe cookbook, uses this trick – it is made with Evaporated Milk, so it is heavy on the milk protein. The result is so creamy and smooth, even if you use a good hard cheddar in it. Yum!

  4. To me, it’s just great that there even exists this spectrum of how to cook. It just goes to show that nobody has an excuse not to take out time to prepare great food at home. You can take a little bit of time (the Rachel Ray/Pam Anderson side of the spectrum) or you can take a lot (The Martha Stewart/Mike’s “salt the meat two days beforehand” side of the spectrum).

    Both will have their adherents, and from time to time we’ll call each other names and fight each other, but at the end of the day, there’s something for everybody when cooking at home.

    Dan
    Casual Kitchen

  5. I get a real satisfaction from putting a Martha-type meal on the table. The oohs-and-ahs, the amazed look on my (non-cooking) guests are so-o-o satisfying. Ok, I’ll be honest–ego-gratifying.

    I don’t get the same ego-rewards from cooking Rachel style, every day, although I do that too. (My home cooking is so much better than anything I can get at the kind of restaurants I can afford on a weeknight basis.) But it’s not quite as, well, flashy or awe-inspiring. No one oohs-and-aws over a simple pork chop. Yet it takes as much (or more) skill to cook something simply and to do it well, and it takes way more stamina to do it every day, day in and day out.

    Martha-style is great. But my true heroes are working Moms and Dads that put good food on the table every night, whether it’s beans-‘n’-wienies with corn (one of your go-tos, Mike) or perfect mac and cheese (with or without Velveeta).

    So long live Martha and Rachael! We need them both–and everyone in between.

  6. @Lynn:

    I agree – I find weeknight cooking to be more challenging. Coming up with something good that isn’t complex night after night…like you said, stamina is almost as important as cooking ability.

  7. Marcia says

    I have exactly your personality for cooking. On weekends, when I have time, I like to try new recipes. Making bread, roasting a chicken, something that takes time and thought and new skills. Like grilling.

    I love Cooks Illustrated for those efforts.

    But on weekends, I am also cooking in bulk for weekdays. And weekdays? It’s gotta be fast and easy.

    I’m with Pam on the velveeta, but I ate that stuff as a kid. And I have an ex-boyfriend whose mom made the BEST mac and cheese, and it used velveeta.

  8. twohundred says

    I love to cook but find Cook’s Illustrated a bit fussy. That said, I adore Cook’s Country. I love the recipes. The ingredients are easy to find at good old Acme. Last issue, they rated slow cookers. Any quality cooking magazine that will rate slow cookers and isn’t snooty about it is alright by me. They have a plethora of easy 30 minute meals.

    I also stock up on Market Day vegetable blends from my son’s school. The Kyoto, Nantucket and Baja blends are great quick sides. I have no problem with quality frozen vegetables and these are great.

  9. @marcia:
    Thanks – I agree, I love a cooking project on the weekend. I’m starting up some apple butter as soon as I’m done typing.

    @twohundred:
    I love Cooks Country as well. I still enjoy reading Cooks Illustrated, but I don’t cook from it as much. That is, unless they have developed a new cooking technique that I just have to try out.

  10. I guess I’m martha on the weekends (even though I can’t STAND her personally) and Rachel during the week, dealing with “martha’s” leftovers

    I think that’s my biggest difficulty, cooking for the pure love and enjoyment when I have the time, and winding up with a mishmash of leftovers (which are great but not always enough for a full meal) to deal with during the week. Right now I’m looking at some lamb chops, mint chimichurri, chicken onion taco blend meat mix (was for quesadiallas) wild rice, and apple curried lentils.

  11. @Autumn609:

    I’m with you on the leftovers. I try to plan them out, and the things that work best are one-pot type meals like stews and chilis, but I’ll wind up with a fridge full of three types of rice, or chicken, but rarely do I have both at the same time.

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