The last indictment in the "Junked Food" article was one that probably applies the least around here: "We lack confidence in the kitchen to make meals out of what's available." I've always loved putting the bits and pieces together and rescuing leftovers, to the occasional horror of the Squirrelings (but usually only after they found out what was in it). I'm not over-confident in some of my kitchen abilities; I season according to the recipe or by guess, not by a "this needs two more grains of salt" taste mechanism; I have never been much of a meat cooker (I ask Mr. Fixit if I'm not sure), and there are many many many things that I have never cooked and never will. A chef I am not.
But I know that this larger under-confidence they're talking about is a real problem for some people--in the kitchen and in many other areas. If you can't function without a recipe, you are going to waste food. If you have to measure everything, you are going to waste time. If you can't cook anything outside a can, you are going to waste money.
The Squirrelings are always asking me how I learned to cook, and I've blogged before about some of the answers: I cooked a bit with my mom, I used to cut out recipes from women's magazines before I was really old enough to cook, I worked several summers in camp kitchens, I read cookbooks from the library--James Kardon's The Peoples' Cookbook, something called the Save-Your Husband Cookbook, Peg Bracken, Edna Staebler, More-with-Less, Laurel's Kitchen, the late James Barber's first funky little cookbooks (Fear of Frying), Louise Newton's Good Recipes for Hard Times, the Goldbecks' Short-Order Cookbook...
I watched an occasional cooking show, I made a lot of family dinners during high school, I fooled around with vegetarian food while I lived on my own--vegetarian cooking is a great way to learn to improvise and adapt in the kitchen. Typical of most people my generation, I thought; and, as I said, I didn't think I knew a whole lot.
Then I got married (to someone who grew up watching his mom and grandma cook from scratch), had a little one and started going to daytime programs at a local community centre. One of the groups was run by the community nutrition worker and was a combination of cooking class, nutrition and shopping awareness (we talked about frugal tips and went on a supermarket tour), and recipe-sharing club. Those who came regularly got recipes to take home--but they also gained confidence, and insight into how food is handled in different parts of the world. The Eastern European woman who showed us how to make an apple dessert explained that it would be served after a very simple soup dinner--her family wouldn't expect both a heavy main course and a fancy dessert. The German-born nutrition worker showed us things like spelt, and talked about how she tried to provide healthy alternatives for her young children, such as an evening veggie-plate ritual.
And I continued to improvise, do the seat-of-the-pants thing, which isn't the same as just flying blind--it's about using what you know and continuing to practice and learn. Which brings us back where we started: one of the problems in our culture is that a lot of people just don't have that experience and so don't have that confidence. I have always hoped that our off-hand recipes and food posts here would maybe help somebody out (especially if they realize how little formal training I've had); but the confidence to mix ingredients, leave out, try this or that isn't something you can just hand somebody. I think Edward Espe Brown and James Barber both described good cooking as being a generous thing, both in the sharing of the meal and in the sharing of ideas--that's what was working for us at the community centre.
If you're reading this and want more cooking confidence without reading a hundred books, there's one book I just got from the library that I think would really help out a kitchen beginner: The Complete Idiot's Guide to 20-Minute Meals. It reminds me of an updated version of The I-Hate-to-Cook Book--as Peg Bracken said, the recipes we swear by instead of at.
And if you're lacking friends to show you how to do things, there are videos all over the Internet that can help you out, really show you how you chop an onion or fry things or what the rolls should look like when they're done. Try You-Tube, try the Betty Crocker site (Ponytails loves watching these).
Finally--just to show you how a more-cooking-less-recipes approach works, this is the soup I made for lunch today. Amounts are deliberately vague (this is about thinking).
1 good spoonful margarine (could have been olive oil)
1 chopped onion (could have been celery too but our celery turned out to be unfortunately unsalvageable; I could have added chopped carrots but I didn't feel like chopping anything else)
1 clove garlic, chopped small (could have been garlic powder)
1 box chicken broth (could have been a can, or bouillon powder plus water, or homemade stock, or just water if that's all you have)
About a cupful of leftover pasta sauce (could have been tomato sauce, or canned tomatoes, or fresh tomatoes, or tomato juice, plus extra seasonings)
About a cupful of grape tomatoes leftover from the weekend's vegetable plate (completely optional)
1 can lentils (could have been dry lentils, or other canned beans)
A couple handfuls of small soup pasta (ditalini) (could have been rice or barley; rice would have made it gluten-free, but I really wanted the pasta effect because the soup was so obviously going to be more of a minestrone than anything else)
A bit of salt (could have been pepper too if we liked pepper better)
As much extra water as you think you might need to keep it from becoming "stewp" instead of "soup"
In the biggest pot you have, melt the margarine or heat the oil. Fry, saute or otherwise cook and soften the onion and garlic. Add everything else except the pasta, bring it to a boil, add the pasta, and cook slowly for about an hour, stirring as needed to make sure the pasta is cooking properly and not sticking to the bottom. Add a cupful of water partway on if it's getting too thick. How thick is too thick? You decide. Have confidence--it's your soup.