Fries with that?


A pot of posole simmering at Chez Dog. Soups and stews were the first dishes I ever tackled, and they remain a favorite because of their relative simplicity of preparation and quantity of leftovers.

Mark Bittman of The New York Times takes issue with the conventional lefty wisdom that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked meals for cash-strapped families. Meanwhile, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones takes issue with Bittman’s taking issue, noting that he failed to consider the cost of labor in planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning up after a meal for four.

And labor it is, as any amateur hash-slinger will tell you. Cooking is something you must want to do in a society where underpaid people in paper hats hurl greasy feedlot meat and potatoes at you as you drive past from home to work and back again. We have TV to watch, goddamnit — we don’t have time for all that grub-rasslin’. Chaz Bono is on “Dancing With the Stars,” f’chrissakes!

I mostly want to cook, but I also have plenty of free time, being a professional unemployable whose tenuous grip on three part-time jobs depends upon my co-workers rarely having to deal with me in person.

And there was a time when I didn’t want to cook, mostly because I didn’t know how — nobody had ever taught me. When I was a kid, food showed up three times daily as if by magic. In college there were cafeterias. As a young journo’ I patronized restaurants, cadged meals from married colleagues or reheated ghastly frozen dinners.

I don’t recall the impetus, but eventually I taught myself to cook a few basic dishes — mostly soups and stews, one-pot meals that would have plenty of leftovers. I’ve branched out a bit over the years, tackling American, Asian, Italian, French and Mexican dishes, but my cookery remains fairly simple.

And yet even I sometimes find the process too laborious for words.

Now, granted, I tend to overdo. I roam all around town collecting mostly organic ingredients from Whole Foods, Ranch Foods Direct, Mountain Mama and Savory Spice Shop, occasionally scoring specialty items from the Santa Fe School of Cooking, Asia Pacific Market, the Colorado Farm & Art Market or Spencer’s Gardens.

I’ve acquired enough stainless pots and pans, cast-iron Dutch ovens, rice cookers, food processors, knives and cookbooks to open a very small and ultimately unsuccessful restaurant.

And I spend hours scouring the Innertubes for tasty treats like those served up in Martha Rose Shulman‘s New York Times column, Recipes for Health.

Thus, when sloth overcame me last evening I didn’t waddle out to the car for a quick trip to Mickey D’s. Instead, I consulted my refrigerator and pantry, then whipped up a simple Shulman dish — sautéed spinach with mushrooms — poured it over some al dente fusilli and sprinkled the lot with Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Now there’s a happy meal for you.

24 Responses to “Fries with that?”

  1. Larry Brown Says:

    Beats riding a bicycle in the rain, (2 inches in Eureka, Ca.)

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Yow … that’s a ton of water, Larry. The weather wizards are talking about a foot of snow in the southwestern mountains, but we’ll be lucky to get a little rain here in Bibleburg, where lately it has been drier than a popcorn fart.

  2. High Plains Drifters Says:

    Not only do you need to calculate labor into the preparation of said foodstuffs but also the labor to clean up afterwards. Again, some poor kid trying to earn gas money so he can do the circuit with Suzie May on his shoulder next Friday night will do the grease traps and wipe the tables for minimum wage. And he’s not all that concerned that the pots, pans, and knives are handled properly. Steel wool on that nonstick pan? Why not?

  3. BenS Says:

    “Now, granted, I tend to overdo. I roam all around town collecting mostly organic ingredients ”

    Which is, as much as I admire your cooking, I just don’t do much cooking. The planing and prep just grinds the project to a halt.

    As newly unemployed I’ve got the time (and still the money) to follow your example. But things I already like – building things for friends, fixing bikes, serving on the library board – have expanded to fill the time.

    So I look around and see my friend who’s a great cook, fluent in French and a fast rider who couldn’t change a flat to save her life. Other friends have useful skills but lack others and the thought grows that throw a few if us together and we make a decent self supporting village (a couple of us are medics).

    Communes for the 58-90 set?

    But damn keep posting those food stories. Who knows the bug may bite.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ben, you may be onto something there. My friend Hal and I have discussed something similar — a community of like-minded types going in on a big land purchase, building houses, gardens/greenhouses, etc., et al. and so on and so forth. All for one, one for all.

      Trouble is, I don’t know how to do much of anything beyond making bad noise for fun and profit, and after a while of that my fellow communards would be erecting a scaffold and weaving a rope.

      • BenS Says:

        Patrick well get everyone to agree no rope weavers as part if the community. Every stable community needs a jester/social commentator as much as any other skill.

        We’ve been thinking 14 or so acres for four or five families. Set up near enough to emergency care ( we are all cyclists/runner and crashes happen) but far enough not to be too bothered. Wisconsin and Michigan are possibilities. So is Vermont.

  4. Ryan Says:

    Thanks alot Patrick, now I have drool on my shirt from the salivating!

  5. Boz Says:

    I was very lucky to have worked a few restaurants as a lad under some very good chefs. They spent time with me because they thought I’d make a good chef/alcoholic. Which many were. So I do know how to sling around the hash a bit. Impresses my wife daily and we never go hungry wondering what’s for dinner.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Boz, my one stint in food service was as a pearl diver in a pizza joint in Winooski, Vermont (I delivered pizzas, too). The best part, aside from the occasional reefer offered as a tip, was filling up a pitcher with ice-cold beer and swigging from it after closing as I washed the mountains of dirty dishes, cutlery and pots and pans.

  6. md anderson Says:

    Excuse me? The cost of labor of cooking and cleaning? Jeepers, we don’t churn the butter anymore ya’ know. (Though my sister does make her own butter from organic raw cream. Put it in a quart Mason jar and shake, takes about 20 minutes.) Turn off the g-d TV and folks would find plenty of time. And ferchrissakes the kids can do the dishes at a pretty young age. I did and so did mine. One had even days, one had odd days so no quibbling about who did what when. Of course either of them could always get a pass if they cooked dinner that night. And they both learned to cook at an early age.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      MD, good on you for teaching the sprouts how to cook. I wish my mom would have done likewise for me. I’d have eaten a ton less crap in my teens and 20s.

      I think Philpott is onto something when he suggests that home economics, aimed at teaching basic kitchen skills, should be returned to the public-school curriculum alongside reading and math. Good luck with that, though, seeing as how art and music classes are dropping like flies as schools become factories churning out robots for the workforce.

      Shoot, I wish I’d taken home ec and shop/auto shop in high school. But I thought the first was for girls and the latter for boneheads. I could have another four decades’ worth of cooking practice under my belt and be able to handle some simple handyman chores around Chez Dog. But nooooooo … I had to be a sexist, elitist turd. Live and learn, as they say.

      • md anderson Says:

        It wasn’t so much a deliberate effort to teach them to cook, as just something we did together. My daughter could peel carrots and scrub potatoes by age 3. I was a “work-at-home” mom and just not willing to be everyone’s maid, chauffeur and personal chef. In our house it was a “we’re all in this together” atmosphere.

        Meals don’t need to be Cordon Bleu affairs and kid decorated cookies taste just as good as the fancy Martha Stewart Magazine variety.

        My son now has a nice repertoire of menus with which to impress young women. Something not many other 22 year old males have I would guess.

  7. Charley Says:

    Patrick, where I went to high school several of us signed up for home Economics and it turned out that boys were not allowed (yes it was to be closer to girls). Cooking is good, simple recipes that are good exist in many places.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Hah — you were smarter than I was, Charley. The upside of taking a class full of girls never dawned on me. I blame the ditch weed I was using to treat my asthma in those dark days.

      Simple recipes are often the best. I have an old Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that I turn to from time to time. Right now I’m making a version of its vegetable beef soup as the snow lashes Pikes Peak. My take uses less salt and more chile, plus cumin, Mexican oregano and pinto beans.

  8. Khal Spencer Says:

    We both work, thankfully. Coming home and cooking up dinner while consuming the House White, munching out, and then walking the hounds is our way of decompressing and spending quality time together. It beats the hell out of turning on the Idiot Box and turning into mental and physical pablum.

    Its not clear to me when exactly I learned to cook food if one means going beyond calculating when to throw the meat in the oven to synchronize it with the potatoes. Sometime after my first mate threw me overboard, I started eating real food of my own creation and reading about nutrition. To some degree it was a matter of mental damage control and mental re-tooling after the divorce, and to some degree it was figuring out what a guy suddenly doing 150-200 miles per week on a bike and running (while working on a dissertation) really needed to eat to balance the fermented grain. Food for us grad school lab rats was also a way of getting together and communing with Dionysus to ward off the stress of grad life. Food was valued not only for its nutritional value, but because of its place in the life of the soul. Kinda like growing up in an Italian household. That has not changed over the decades.

    Can’t say that my current professional talents would be appreciated at a commune, Ben/Patrick.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      K, I was astounded to learn in college that guys actually cooked. The old man would grill a steak or some burgers from time to time, but Mom was the chef de cuisine.

      In college I became pals with some Chicanos from the San Luis Valley and they could really churn out the grub — green chile sauce, homemade flour tortillas, the works. Once I met their mom I understood where they learned their skills. She could crank out a Pyrex dish full of enchiladas smothered in green in less time than it took me to crack a beer and open a bag of chips.

  9. Charley Says:

    The mushrooms and spinach will be a dinner before the week is over, sounds very good. I have a similar recipe with just mushrooms.

  10. Larry T. Says:

    Ciao from Italia. The wife plans to include some cooking lessons in her upcoming study abroad program. As to having enough time, others have pointed it out, the advertisers on TV want you to buy their overprocessed crap so you’ll have time to watch more ads on the tube! Even the TV food channels run ads by crap food operations in between the segments showing the real chefs making real food – there’s just not enough profit in basic staples used to create tasty, healthy meals for Cargill and the like to bother — the profit’s in the processing and packaging.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ciao, Larry and Heather — cooking classes sound like fun. Though I’ve never taken one because I can’t bear public humiliation (with the public standing right there, anyway). I do all my screwing up in private, in my own kitchen, with only Herself as judge, jury and executioner.

      Once she derided a new recipe as “catfood.” Oh, the humanity!

  11. Libby Says:

    Patrick, thanks for your his-story and the Philpott link.

  12. art Says:

    The thing about calculating the labor for cooking is that it’s all opportunity cost. It’s not like when I’m cooking, people are lining up to hand me cash money to do something else in that block of time. It’s pretty much cook or internet, and I can do both while drinking.

  13. Randolph Says:

    Simple cooking is nice. Had a counter full of gifted eggplant. Chopped it into a good size pieces and put in a large pot, poured a can of diced tomatoes over it, set the heat to medium and put a lid on it. Tossed some peppers and onions into a pan with plenty of olive oil till they were soft, added them to the eggplant with a generous amount of mixed Italian spices. When the eggplant was nice and soft spooned it into bowls with mozzarella on the bottom, sliced some raw garlic over it, topped with Pecorino Romano. Delicious. The whole mess took maybe 45 minutes. And we have leftovers. No recipe, just look at what you’ve got on hand and go for it.

    Learned to cook when my mom got sick, no sisters so I got the gig. She’d sit in the kitchen and coach me, she even taught me to bake pies, crust from scratch. It brought some good to a crappy time.

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