by John Ryan
Hello again. I've been out of the food loop for a few months. I think it was a mid-life crisis kind of thing. I've gotten to that age when I don't like to think how long it's been, how long anything has been. How long I've known someone, when I graduated from high school, or how long it's been since I stayed out till daylight drinking and having fun.
The only thing worse than owning up to how long you've been doing something is realizing that maybe you've been wrong.
All these years I've believed that I, along with every home cook, should and could (with a little effort) be eating restaurant quality meals every day. It was half "because I could" and half an eating-well-is-the-best-revenge thing.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
I've got the equipment to show for it: all manner of tart pans, springform pans, even a special rolling pin to make puff pastry. I've got heavy ceramic loaf pans for making pate, and drawers full of special gadgets.
But last year I left the ranks of food writers and got a job where I commute by train, work in an office, and get home around seven. Was that ever a wake up call! Like the rest of the world I discovered that the last thing I want to do after a long day at work is screw around with hollandaise sauce or roll out puff pastry.
Besides, I don't need the calories.
I should have seen it all much sooner. Early on in my career as a chef I realized that haute cuisine is largely a matter of making massive amounts of butter look appetizing. Take hollandaise. A really skillful cook can tease a cup of melted butter into one egg yolk. Add a toasted English muffin, a couple slices of Canadian bacon and voila—Eggs Benedict! Or puff pastry. The trick here is putting a slab of butter inside an envelope of pie dough and rolling it out and folding it over. and over. and over another four times. When it's done correctly, the result is heavenly. It's the flakiest crust imaginable. But it is still massive amounts of butter we're talking about. And, like a lot of fine food, massive amounts of time.
Consider Beurre Blanc. It's utterly delicious until you realize that it translates as White Wine Butter Sauce. If your voice were to accurately convey the translation, you'd whisper "White Wine" and scream at the top of your lungs "Butter Sauce."
As a chef I loved making these things. Later, as a food writer, I saw my mission as explaining to home cooks how to make restaurant food at home. My particular desire was to present these recipes without the pretense that often accompanies them. My newsletter's motto was "The newsletter for people who love food, but have a life. " Then last winter I started dreaming of home cooking that was just that: good cooking done at home, recipes that suited my appetite and habits—not a TV chef's appetite and habits, but mine. So one weekend I put all those pans and gadgets into the attic and started focusing on recipes that didn't give me heartburn. Recipes I might want to make after a long day at work.
I am not looking for pre-fab shortcuts like no-fail hollandaise mix in a box or the latest chicken-breast-can-of-soup recipe. Nor am I one of those cooks who use cooking spray or get excited about the latest sugar or fat substitute. I just want to feed myself and my wife something we look forward to eating, something one of us can make fairly quickly, and something we can clean up even faster.
I'm not against cooking as a hobby. I think the pursuit of a great loaf of bread is great. Likewise for barbecue, pastry, or beer. Hobbies are good. and if you can eat (or drink) your hobby, that's even better. But for my everyday home cooking, I wanted a set of recipes I could grab off the shelf. Rather than rifle through cookbooks to find a suitable recipe, I wanted a booklet of my recipes, everything from Waffles to Biscotti in one little booklet I could keep on the shelf next to the measuring spoons.
So I guess I return to food with the same motto but an entirely different attitude: "Recipes for people who love food, but have a life."
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified March 2001