Sunday, May 6, 2012

Basic Cooking: Burgers and Mashed Potatoes

I was very fortunate to grow up in a family where everybody learns to cook. Not cook, as in, become a gourmet chef, but my siblings and I all know how to feed ourselves. We have experience in "normal" family cooking that includes chocolate chip cookies, breaded and fried walleye, baked chicken pieces, steamed broccoli, sautéed asparagus, baked potatoes...nothing terribly fancy, just knowing how to follow recipes and help out as part of the family. Naïvely I assumed that everybody acquired life skills from their parents like this, but then I went to college and witnessed many kids fumbling to take care of themselves. I understand that learning how to do laundry is not that fun, but cookies? I remember clamoring to help! These people have not experienced the smell of bread baking, for goodness' sake!

When I ask friends if they want me to blog about a particular topic, I repeatedly hear requests for basic, everyday recipes. I am happy to say that it takes little skill to prepare all of your food yourself. It does take more time than popping an expensive boxed meal into a microwave, but it really does not have to take much. I work full-time myself and I completely understand that on many days nobody has the time or energy to spend an hour or more in the kitchen. With basic planning, you do not need to. More on easy planning in another post.

A common meal in my kitchen is burgers with mashed potatoes and a green salad. In my world, burgers do not have buns - they are meat patties. It is much healthier to get your starch from potatoes or rice than store-bought buns. To reduce meal preparation time and effort, I make several pounds of burgers at a time and flash freeze them, bagged into one-meal portions. The day before we eat burgers I move a bag into the refrigerator to thaw. Similarly, I will make about 5 lbs. of mashed potatoes at a time so we can quickly reheat portions for a meal.

Keeping a few basic vegetables around to chop up for salad is not difficult - make including a salad with dinner your default and figure out how much produce to buy so you don't end up with anything rotting in the crisper drawer. Just never buy salad dressings at the store! They are pretty much all filled with horribly unhealthy and nasty-tasting vegetable oils (soybean, canola, cottonseed, safflower, corn), contain surprising amounts of sugar, and are ridiculously expensive when you consider how easy it is to make your own by shaking ingredients in a jar or stirring ingredients with a fork in a small bowl. Alternatively, use cold-pressed 100% extra virgin olive oil (domestic is strongly preferred since imports are often adulterated) and balsamic vinegar to taste.

There are many ways to make basic burgers and 'taters. Here are some quick and easy versions.

For each pound of ground beef, include 1 egg, 1 t. salt, and several shakes of ground pepper.
Additional spices are encouraged: onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, parsley, fennel seeds...

Put all ingredients in a mixing bowl. I am using three pounds of grass-fed beef.

Do not worry about getting spice amounts just right. Try an amount (measure some out if you prefer) and adjust it next time if there was too little or too much. Stir until thoroughly combined.

Divide into equal portions and flatten into patties. I use my handy-dandy large scoop to portion smallish burgers and we eat four or five between us. Cook over medium-low heat on a skillet until done to your liking; if you prefer rare ground beef, play it safe by using beef that has been frozen solid for 14 days first to kill any pathogens.

If you are just starting out with seasonings, I suggest first buying unrefined salt, black pepper, and one additional such as paprika or dried basil. Then get one more each time you go grocery shopping and build up your spice collection gradually so you do not have unfamiliar, unused jars lurking around. I do not find pre-mixed seasonings useful - who wants everything to taste the same? - but if you like them, go for it. To be honest, I started out intimidated by herbs and spices because they seemed difficult to use, but by trying one new one at a time and increasing amounts gradually, I found it was just a question of doing what I liked and trying ideas I saw in others' recipes to make everything more delicious.

Mashed Potatoes
Potatoes, any kind
Unrefined salt
Herbs, as desired; rosemary is lovely in white potatoes, garlic in sweet potatoes

Peel potatoes if you prefer; I never bother. Roughly chop potatoes into approximately equal sizes so they cook evenly. This way they cook much, much faster than plopping in whole potatoes. Cover with water and boil until tender and easily pierced with a fork.

Sweet potatoes floating in the pot
Drain potato pieces and return to the pot or put in a mixing bowl. Add butter and seasonings to taste and mash with a potato masher, wooden spoon, or even a fork. Don't worry if the texture is imperfect. Chunky potatoes are still delicious.

How did you learn to cook everyday foods? Do you have staple foods you learned or want to learn to make yourself?

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