Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Conscious Shopper Challenge: Learn to Cook

The next few weeks of the Conscious Shopper Challenge will focus on greening our groceries. Here's the next challenge:


Image by striatic

Since the day my husband and I were married nearly nine years ago, I have cooked probably 90% of our dinners. If you had asked me four years ago, if we ate healthy, I would have said yes. If you had asked me four years ago if I was a good cook, I would have replied, "Not too shabby." We never ate frozen dinners (except for pizza). I only gave my kids 100% juice. Junky snacks like fruit snacks and fruit roll-ups were reserved for special occasions...And yet, pretty much all of our food came from a box, a bag, or a can.

Three and a half years ago, I decided to join a CSA. The day I received my first bag of goodies, I stood in my kitchen surrounded by beautiful local/organic produce and thought to myself, "Now what?"

The only broccoli I had ever cooked came in a bag: I would dump them into a bowl, add a tablespoon of water and some salt, and nuke 'em until they were warm. Easy peasy.

Now here I was with a raw head of broccoli and no idea how to cook the thing. Boil it? Steam it? Fry it? Can we eat the stalk? The leaves?

Not to mention the bag of purslane I'd have to tackle later that week...

In the past three and a half years, I have learned to cook vegetables from Asparagus to Zucchini. Thanks to our CSAs, we have tried veggies I wouldn't in a million years have picked out myself...and discovered that we like them. We eat much healthier because most of our produce is fresh and in season, most of our food is free of preservatives and artificial flavors, and nothing that we eat is a weirdly neon orange color. And I have learned to cook well enough that I'm losing my appetite for eating out.

This month, I'm challenging you to Green Your Groceries, and learning to cook is an important part of that. When you know how to cook from scratch, you can buy basic ingredients like oats, beans, and rice from the bulk bins and cut back on your trash production; use fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, casting a vote for a reformed food system and keeping your family healthier; and save money, making it possible for you to afford those fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients.

I've been sitting here trying to come up with my very best gems of advice to help you cook from scratch, but really the best thing I can say is Dive Right In! Some days will be a total failure in the kitchen, but as I tell my kids, you can't learn to do something unless you practice. But here are a couple other tips I've come up with:


  • Learn to make a roux. A huge portion of recipes start with a roux, and once you can make your own, you'll be free from canned sauces and gravies.


  • Make a list of your family's favorite meals and learn to make them from scratch.
  • Or obtain a good basic cookbook and find some new favorites.


  • Join a CSA. You'll be forced to learn how to cook or let your vegetables/money go to waste.
  • Purchase a good knife and keep it sharp. You know those big wooden blocks that come with a dozen different types of knives? You probably have one sitting on your counter - I used to have one too. But here's the thing about cooking: you really only need one good knife - maybe two - as long as you keep them sharp. Sharpness is key; my knives are on the very blunt side right now, and it's really slowing down my cooking time.
If you're worried about not having enough time to cook from scratch, I've written several posts about saving time in the kitchen:

Do you cook from scratch? What tips do you have for beginners?


Anonymous said...

My best advice? Two words: THE INTERNET. Somewhere online you can find directions for how to make/cook/prepare/harvest pretty much anything. From Youtube videos of Julia Child showing one how to make "the perfect omelette" (what makes it perfect, unfortunately, is the appalling amount of butter you put in the pan to keep the egg from sticking), to blogs by folks who are just learning or too busy to be complicated (er...that would be me), to recipe sites everywhere--google searches for "easy whatever recipe" can be your best friend.

Also I'd second the "get one really good cookbook" suggestion--Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" or The Silver Palate's "The New Basics" are both good--and the traditional standby The Joy of Cooking is nothing to sneeze at.

Great challenge!

LifetimeReader said...

Super challenge!

My 11yo son has been learning to cook from Mollie Katzen's Get Cooking ( The recipes in this book are really written for novices--with steps spelled out that are normally not discussed.

If you are a seasoned (ha..) cook who is just learning to use your CSA box to its fullest, you might enjoy Farmer John's Cookbook ( Or Deborah Madison's Local Flavors (

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@LifeTimeReader - I love Mollie Katzen's books. She also has Pretend Soup and Enchanted Forests, which are written specifically for younger cooks.

Daisy said...

I'm in the middle stage. We haven't signed up for a CSA yet; I think that might be next summer's project.

Green Bean said...

I like the advice, seen once on a cooking show, to learn a technique not a recipe. I'd say I've done that with making sauce and stir fry. Those are my stand-bys and we have them at least once a week, each. I'll throw whatever veggies we have on hand in, wine in the sauce and soy sauce, brown sugar and Thai Chile sauce in the stir fry, and that's that.

I also agree that the Internet is enormously helpful. Just tonight, I perused the contents of my fridge and then checked out my favorite recipe sites for recipes that worked with what I had on had. I ended up with a roasted carrot and tomato soup that was amazing from fresh365.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@Daisy - Have fun with your CSA! We've done two regular CSAs now and one winter CSA, and we've been introduced to so many new vegetables. We actually decided this year not to rejoin, but I still think the experience has been invaluable.

@Green Bean - Love the internet (and fresh365) for help with dinner time!

Anonymous said...

OMG I guess I never thought I'd be a marathon runner! :)) I'm in 2 csa projects *and* have a sharp knife... I only need to learn how to keep it sharp and have been looking for advice/lessons on the topic since a short while.

Anonymous said...

BTW At the end of our first CSA season we got a survey and I was embarrassed to find out I couldn't remember half of the goodies we had received! So, in the second year I decided to (b)log my weekly loot on Graasland ('grazing land')...

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

@gnoegnoe - unfortunately, I can't help you with learning to sharpen your knives since I've been a total slacker in that area. I'm thinking of asking a friend to help me or maybe just take them to a professional.

Anonymous said...

Hi Erin, thanks for your reply! I've been thinking the same thing: first to get my knives sharpened professionally and then ask the ladies on my Kookgrrls mailinglist if one of them can teach me how to keep it sharp!


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