Cathy Erway writes the blog Not Eating Out in New York and the recently published memoir The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She has written about food, green living and agriculture for The Huffington Post, Saveur and Edible Brooklyn and hosts the weekly podcast, Let’s Eat In on Heritage Radio Network. Her next book project will incorporate urban gardening as well as cooking. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.
“Consuming Less, Eating More” is the tagline I chose when I launched my blog, Not Eating Out in New York. It was an innocuous, hardly life-changing idea at first: to only eat home-cooked food for an extended period of time. Over the next two years, I declined restaurant invitations and went without take-out deliveries and eaten-out delights. But while I was eating, okay, probably “more” than before since there is no end to seconds, especially at potlucks and parties, a better way to put it might have been, “consuming less, learning more.”
As you probably know, there is a lot more to making something than the end product. The creative process is filled with personal revelations and a rewarding series of milestones. One of the first breakthroughs was bread. Made with live, active yeast, which generates amino acids when they ferment, giving your bread that tangy, satisfying flavor and hardy nutrition not found in quickbreads like banana loaf and cake. Then it was ice cream, pint after pint of creamy, custardy homemade flavors involving everything from coffee to fresh corn. Before, I might have tried to find the easiest path to dinner. But cooking became a gateway to understanding basic, natural sciences that was so fascinating — and delicious.
A home-cooked meal is often a healthier one, a much cheaper one, and one that involves far less waste than take-out. These three benefits proved themselves time and again as I cooked my way to a greater food awareness. About two months into my nightly cooking ritual I began wondering what happened to all the trash. The stuff I’d throw out — a produce bag, peels of garlic — barely piled up enough to take out the garbage in a week. Beforehand, one delivery order of tacos and chips from the place (admittedly just on the corner) would fill it to the rim in one pop. Bringing my bagged lunch to work, I’d often leave the office with the wastebasket beneath my desk completely empty, save for a Kleenex or two. Weighing the differences in waste between individually wrapped, packaged, one-person meals and that of bulk ingredients designed to make many found in my kitchen brought me to an unforeseen eco-benefit of eating in.
Because whole, fresh foods were often the quickest and easiest to prepare, a healthier diet I’d consume by default. A snack of raw carrots or a single roasted beet was common. Pastas with quickly sauteed vegetables like summer squash and a clove of garlic, too; and I didn’t feel the need to heap them with butter and oil like you’d see at most restaurants. Instead, my palate was conditioned toward less rich, less sweet, and less salty over time. It’s a good thing, for sure. So is being more in control of my food and where it was coming from, having to shop for it raw myself. Ingredients are everything, and taking a closer look at these has led me on a path of furthering the local, sustainable, good food movement as much as I can. Once you begin to educate yourself about what you’re cooking with — not to mention, feel, taste and see the differences in various types — there’s really no turning back to industrial agriculture’s monoculture-cloned produce and meats. DaVinci didn’t use tempera paints.
What was even more interesting (and unexpected) was learning other sides of the people around me (and, eventually, about myself). Unlike some trades, cooking can be done in groups, and working together can be like a contact sport, or an effortlessly choreographed dance. There are elements of danger — flames and heat to name some — and there’s a definite goal of getting a meal together and on the table. For the sole reason that I was going to have to figure out ways to socialize over food, and that meant home-cooked kinds only, I threw more picnics, potlucks and dinners — both casual and elaborate — outside of restaurant walls. I also joined supper clubs and formed my own, and hosted and participated in more amateur cook-offs than anyone should stomach. My friends who I’ve met at these experiences remain my closest, and knowing how they handle food is an eerily intimate knowledge because it reflects, as the Chinese proverb goes, their life.
The discoveries go on. I don’t think any of this is unusual for anyone who’s taken up a craft that they want to make their own. If it was sewing or stamp-making then unique rites of passage would occur over the learning curve, but the fact that you’re in it to do something active, rather than passively buying our needs and wants, remains the same. And that activity is how we grow. We don’t even necessarily have to love eating to enjoy cooking (but still, everyone’s got to eat) or love scarves to get something worthwhile out of knitting. Consuming more, you just don’t know what you’re missing.
Here’s a mouth-watering recipe that will inspire you to eat in:
Breadcrumb-Crusted Zucchini with Rainbow Chard
(Makes 2-3 servings)
1 large zucchini, sliced lengthwise about 1/2″ thick
1/2 cup fresh breadcrumbs
About 8 large rainbow chard leaves, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, sliced or chopped
1-2 teaspoons finely chopped sundried tomatoes
1 teaspoon capers, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon (or so) salt
Black pepper to taste
In a wide bowl or plate, combine the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper and thyme. Pat firmly onto sliced zucchini on each side. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Place zucchini down carefully and quickly to retain as many breadcrumbs as possible on the bottom side. Pat some more breadcrumbs on the top side if it lost too many in the process and flip after about 1 minute of cooking, or until lightly browned on the bottom. Cook another minute or two on the other side, remove carefully with tongs and set aside.
Turn off heat if pan is thick enough on the bottom to retain heat and wipe skillet clean with a paper towel. Add the chard and garlic and let wilt, stirring, for about 2 minutes (adding a little more olive oil if it begins to slightly burn). Divide equally among serving plates. Add the remaining breadcrumbs to the skillet and toast, over medium heat, for 1-2 minutes or until slightly darker in color. Top chard with the zucchini, and sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, sundried tomatoes and capers. Serve immediately.