Thursday, November 26, 2009

Noms. We like noms.

In keeping with the whole Thanksgiving thing, I thought I'd talk about food for a bit. Well, specifically dinner. The dinner we'll be eating tonight.

I'm a pretty instinctual cook; when I was little I followed recipes, but had no compunction about discretionary adding of things I liked, or preferentially altering the proportions of some ingredients. So our rock cakes always had more currants than normal, and our anzac biscuits were a little more sticky-soft than crunchy. I've been using the same basic cake recipe, with various additions, since I first cooked it from the Common Sense Cookery Book, which my Auntie Jan gave Mum as a wedding present (I think). The pages of that book (particularly pikelets, anzac biccies, cake...) wound up stained with the evidence of my messiness.

So I cook with very little regard for anything but aiming at something tasty, especially when it comes to everyday dinners. It's always been a bit of a mystery to me when people say they can't cook, 'cause it's been such a normal part of my life for so long. Growing up we always cooked from scratch, because it's cheaper, and I did a lot of the family cooking, which meant that I not only learnt to cook, but also to shop for groceries.

When I left home for university, I discovered how weird that actually was. Most of my peers had no real idea of what they would eat over the course of a week, or how to cook filling meals, let alone relatively healthy ones.

Anyways, seeing as most people seem to have missed out on the organic process of learning to cook that I was lucky enough to have had, I thought I'd post some of the stuff I cook for our household. I'm not a spectacular cook, but I turn out some pretty tasty everyday food on a regular basis, without spending all that much money, even though we do our shopping at a normal supermarket. Be warned, though, that I very rarely pay attention to such niceties as measurements.

So: dinner tonight is a nameless variation on chicken and veggies.

Ingredients: *as closely as I can remember*

about 1.5kg of skinless chicken (thigh fillets, $12), 4 potatoes, 2 tins of tomatoes, 3 carrots, 1 mediumish sweet potato, 2 smallish onions, powdered chicken stock, various herbs.

I roughly chopped the veggies & put them in a deep baking dish (an oven-proof casserole dish would work just as well), then chopped the thighs into chunks (not too small). I then added the stock powder, basil, thyme, rosemary (dried) and lots of garlic, and smooshed it all around a bit, til everything had a good coating of herbs. It didn't look like quite enough, so I dumped some more herbs on and added the tomato, mixed it through a little, then added water so the dish was about 3/4 full. It went into the oven covered with foil, at 200 degrees Celsius for 45 minutes. The foil then came off, the temperature came down to 180 degrees, and it was left to finish cooking. (The chicken will be cooked at the 45 min mark, even if it's partially frozen to start with, as mine was, but the veggies will still be pretty hard, especially if you prefer them in larger chunks. You can cut them smaller to speed up the cooking time, especially if you're using waxy potatoes, which hold together more in liquid)

You could reduce the water content to end up with a thicker, more sauce-like concoction, but I like the liquid to be thin. If there's wine in the house, I tend to put some in, red or white doesn't really matter. If there isn't, I'll add a little verjuice, or lemon/lime juice, or even a little apple cider vinegar to add depth to the flavour. I also taste test, because the way I cook is very much in the 'add to taste' line - I don't use much salt or pepper to start with, taste part way through, and add to finish the dish. When you guesstimate about stuff, it's the easiest way to make sure you end up with something palatable.

I also tend to leave a lot of room for people to season the food while they eat - I've never used salt much, so my taste for it is pretty low, and I often find that people want to add salt to the finished product (which I don't mind at all, since it means everyone's tastes are catered to).

All together, this costs no more than $20, maybe a little more if you're using wine, etc. You can use whatever cut of meat is cheapest, and it'd cost less if you do your veggie shopping at a farmer's market, instead of paying supermarket prices for things. In our 3-person household, it leaves enough leftovers for plenty of lunches. If you wanted to stretch it a little further, it goes well with rice, and you can also add chickpeas, etc. It's also a theme that's very open to variation: I've made this with pork, and frequently substitute other vegetables, especially parsnip and pumpkin.

One of the most awesome aspects of cooking like this is how easy it is. Chop stuff up, stick it in the oven, set the timer, walk away. Cleanup is pretty much a knife, chopping board, baking dish, crockery, and whatever mess I made on the benches throwing it together - so it's low-cost in every way.

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