I like to cook. I like to experiment in the kitchen, to create my own recipes and throw things together without worrying too much about following a recipe. This means I rarely make the same dish twice, as each time it comes out slightly differently depending on my whim and the availability of ingredients in my kitchen.
Occasionally I will consult a recipe if I’m not sure of the ingredients or maybe the exact method of preparing something. I don’t own any recipe books, so my usual method is to just do a Google search.
The typical online recipe is a curious thing. Rather than simply cutting to the chase, most of these sites post an entire essay for each recipe. First comes 500 words about the author/chef’s grandmother, and how much his/her family enjoys this dish, followed by another 500 words about the culinary history of the country of origin of the dish, followed by yet another 500 words about possible variations on this dish (i.e. “My family prefers less spicy dishes, so rather than cayenne pepper I substitute used dishwater.”).
Eventually, after scrolling through two thousand words of preliminary useless information, we finally come to the ingredients and the prep. And here’s the interesting thing I’ve noticed: most recipes from the US or UK don’t feature any fresh ingredients at all! Everything is frozen, canned or pre-packaged.
For example, I recently ran across a recipe for red beans and rice. The recipe literally said, “open a can of beans, dump into a pot,” and “open a can of stewed tomatoes and dump into the beans” and most egregiously “open a packet of pre-cooked rice.” WTF is pre-cooked rice? Cooking rice is the simplest and most basic thing anyone can learn. A pot, some water, a stove and 20 minutes is all it takes. Every ingredient in the recipe came from a can or packet. A recipe for chili will say, “open a packet of chili seasoning,” as if everyone in the world has access to packets of chili season and canned beans.
Here in Kenya the only canned food I routinely buy is tuna. I’ve never bought beans or tomatoes in a can. Being an equatorial country we enjoy the luxury of a nearly-continuous growing season, and fresh fruits and veggies are abundant year round. You can never miss finding fresh tomatoes. Cleverly, however, we do have frozen beans available that have been pre-cooked, just to save time. Cooking dried beans requires premeditation that my spontaneous cooking habit doesn’t allow for. But the frozen beans we have aren’t full of sugar and preservatives. They are simply beans that have been boiled, drained and frozen to make preparing them less time consuming. Every time I’ve opened a can of beans I’m taken aback by the accompanying slurry of sugary/salty gloop they’re preserved in. To put it simply, I don’t have a great deal of trust in most food that comes from a can.
Cooking with fresh ingredients isn’t more difficult or time-consuming (and I actually find it more enjoyable!). There’s something zen-like about dicing onions and mincing garlic. There’s really no logical reason to open a can of beans and dump it in a pan other than laziness. Cooking chili from scratch with ground beef and beans doesn’t take much longer, and tastes so much better, with about ten thousand percent less salt and preservatives. I don’t know what “chili powder mix” actually contains, but I assume it’s an alphabet soup of preservative chemicals that I can’t pronounce, with the main ingredient being salt and MSG. It’s pretty easy to season chili with nothing more complicated than garlic, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin and salt to taste.
It’s well documented that America and many other nations face alarming rates of obesity and related dietary health issues like diabetes. And really, is it any wonder? When the vast majority of one’s diet is composed of processed, pre-prepared, and pre-packaged foods that are chock full of preservatives and sugar, why would anyone be surprised that this diet is unhealthy? You don’t have to go vegan or eat only organic foods to be healthy. Just try cooking with fresh ingredients once in awhile and let your mouth enjoy the resulting flavor explosion. Next time you see a recipe that instructs you to open a can, just say nope, I can’t.