Sunday, January 25, 2015

Five great reasons to get cooking

Now, don’t get me wrong, I like — no, love — restaurants. I like trying the new restaurants everyone’s talking about, going to old restaurants where everyone knows my name and what I like to eat. I like the dim lights that give me rosy cheeks and high cheekbones, and the hot, crusty bread served with ice-cold flower-shaped butter.

I also like satisfying specific cravings at fast-food joints or neighborhood haunts with the special dishes they make so well that I just don’t see the point of trying to make them myself.

What I don’t like, however, is settling for fast food, greasy takeout or mediocre and overpriced meals mainly because I’m too tired, lazy or ill-equipped to make something so much better (and better for me) at home.

Sure, it’s easier, and sometimes easy is just what you need. But a constant diet of takeout and restaurant meals eventually takes its toll on your waistline and your wallet.

There’s a lot to be said for eating in, and even if the only things you’ve ever done in your kitchen before were make coffee and microwave leftover pizza, I’m hoping the following reasons can convince you to cross over to the wonderful world of home-cooked meals.

1. Home-cooked is healthier. Seriously, just the fact that you’re making it yourself puts you way ahead of the game, health-wise. Even if you aren’t going out of our way to make “diet” food, you’re generally using a lot less salt, grease, and processed ingredients than commercial establishments to make your food taste good.
Lifestyle Feature ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: You also control the kind of oil you use and how many times you use it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been put off by the flavors of or even made sick by food that was cooked with oil that’s been reused too often or gone rancid.

2. It’s cheaper. Yes, fast food is cheap. But you need to compare apples with apples (versus oranges. Or fried chicken). When you’re buying quality ingredients to come up with something fancy, that’ll always be cheaper than getting it at a fine dining restaurant. And simpler dishes will almost always be more affordable, taste better and be healthier when you make them at home.

3. You’re the boss. You want lasagna at 9 a.m. or pancakes at midnight? Who’s to tell you the kitchen is closed? And you’ll get what you want, how you want it, and exactly how much of it you want with no one to tell you that you can only have your meatballs with spaghetti instead of rice or that there’s only gravy with your chicken instead of Thai sweet chili sauce (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it).

4. You’ll feel like a rock star. Because everyone loves it when you cook for them. So much so, that even if your concoctions don’t come out perfect, they’ll still love them better than anything they could get outside. Nearly everyone appreciates it when you serve food that’s made with love. And call me crazy, but I’m convinced that lovingly prepared food always tastes better. Always.

5. It’s fun. No, really, it is. Put on some music while you’re working, maybe have a glass of wine and dance around your kitchen like a crazy person while the pasta boils. Listen, if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong. There’s no need for fear here; it’s not like you’re performing open-heart surgery. 

Worst-case scenario, your dish is a bust, and then you order takeout. More often than not, however, you’ll end up so proud of yourself and your culinary masterpiece. And as your skill and confidence grow, you’ll start making bolder choices and taking on more ambitious projects.

Check out your Gordon Ramsey/Ina Garten-channeling bad self six months down the line, confidently whipping up fancy soufflés and beef bourguignon for your worshipful friends and family.
For now, however, stick with simple stuff so you don’t find yourself scarred for life the first time around and breaking out into a cold sweat every time you see a frying pan.
Here, for example, is a recipe for grilled cheese sandwiches, the kind you pay a small fortune for when you’re dining at Manila’s fancy-schmancy bistros du jour.
Keep in mind that these are fairly loose guidelines, because the variables of bread, cheese and accompaniments are entirely up to you. Let me tell you, though, even the simplest homemade grilled cheese sammy is just a plateful of sumptuous, melty love that you and anyone you make it for will adore.

Happy cooking!


Makes 2 sandwiches

4 slices, bacon
4 slices, country-style bread ( I like sourdough, ciabatta or a baguette, but thickly sliced white or wheat bread is great, too).
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, mozzarella, Gruyere or other cheese of your choice. I like a combination of the above.

4 thick tomato slices, drained on paper towels
2 tablespoons room temperature butter 

Cook the bacon in a heavy skillet (I like a cast-iron pan) over medium heat until crisp, about 10 minutes, then drain on paper towels. 

Press 1/4 cup grated cheese onto 2 slices of bread. Top each with 2 tomato slices and sprinkle with some black pepper. 

Place 2 bacon slices on the bread. Press another 1/4 cup of cheese over the bacon. 

Top sandwiches with the remaining bread slices, then spread half a tablespoon of butter over top of each sandwich. 

Wipe out your skillet and reheat on medium heat. Add  the sandwiches, buttered side down, to the skillet. Place a plate (or another smaller pan) on top of both sandwiches to weigh them down. 

Cook the sandwiches until their bottoms are golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Spread the top of each sandwich with the remaining butter,  and turn sandwiches over.  Top with the plate again and cook until that side is golden brown and your cheese is starting to ooze out of the sides. 

Cut sandwiches crosswise in half and serve immediately.

I like this particular combination for when I don’t have any tomato soup on hand. When I do, however, I like to leave the tomatoes out (and sometimes the bacon, too), and add some mustard and mango chutney.  Other things I’ve added to grilled cheese sammies include caramelized onions, fig spread, mushrooms, cooked apple slices, and cranberry sauce. The possibilities are endless, so don’t be afraid to play around.
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This entry first appeared as a column in the Philippine Star on November 20, 2014. 

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