Eating as a locavore (a person who eats only locally grown food, as much as possible) almost always means cooking meals at home most of the time. The reason is simple–local food is fresh and raw, not processed or prepared food.
Many people say they don’t cook because they don’t know how. If you’re one of those people, I have good news: no matter how complicated it may look, cooking isn’t rocket science. There are only a handful of cooking skills necessary to begin preparing tasty, healthy meals. These few simple techniques can be used across a wide variety of ingredients.
Non-cooks often use the cliche, “I can’t even boil water!” Let’s start there. You can actually cook quite a few things by just boiling water.
This is literally how you do it. Take a saucepan and put water in it, enough to cover whatever you want to cook. Set it on a burner on your stovetop. Turn up the burner to its highest heat setting. Wait.
Another cliche is, “A watched pot never boils.” However, I’m going to ask you to watch your saucepan as it heats, just for this first time. Here’s why.
This basic technique of boiling water can be used to cook foods in three ways. The only difference between the three ways is the water temperature. If you observe how the water behaves as it heats, you’ll be able to tell when the temperature is right for adding food for each technique.
1. The first change you’ll see as the water heats is small bubbles starting to form on the bottom and sides of the pan. When the bubbles cover the bottom and sides, the water is at the proper temperature for “poaching” food.
2. The next change you’ll notice is that the surface of the water just begins to “roll.” It looks like the water is getting agitated. The surface is moving gently up and down. Now the water is at the proper temperature for “simmering” food.
3. Finally, the water will be moving vigorously all over the place, perhaps even splashing a little outside the pan. This is what’s called a “rolling boil.” Water won’t get any hotter than this. After this point, more heat turns water into a gas instead of a liquid, and it evaporates as steam.
Each of these temperatures is useful for cooking different kinds of food. Recipes, like this one for poached pears, will tell you which is required. When the water gets to the right temperature, you simply turn down the heat on the burner to a place where it will maintain that temperature. Then add your food to the pot.
For boiling, you leave the temperature set on high. For simmering, you’ll probably turn it down to medium. For poaching, it will be somewhere between low and medium. Experiment with your own burners to find out what works for you. This is something you can practice with water alone–no food necessary.
Boiling is used to cook things like hard boiled eggs, or very firm root vegetables like potatoes or carrots. It takes a lot of heat to soften root vegetables. Chop them into half inch chunks while the water comes to a rolling boil, then put in the vegetables for about 10 minutes. Drain off the hot water, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and eat. Nothing more required.
Simmering is used for slowly pulling the flavor out of vegetables or meats and blending them to make things like soups or stews. Crockpots offer an easy way to simmer. Put a pound of local grassfed stew beef into a crockpot, and add about four potatoes and as many carrots cut into chunks. Peel an onion, chop it into chunks, and spread the chunks over everything. Add a shake or two of salt and pepper. Pour one cup of water over everything. Set the crockpot on low in the morning and come back 8-10 hours later to four fabulous simmering servings of stew. Simple!
Poaching is used for things which need to be cooked gently, either because they are very tender or because they cook really quickly. Fish can be poached, for example. Fish cooks very quickly compared to most proteins, so poaching allows you to cook it more slowly to avoid overcooking (perhaps 10 minutes poached instead of 3 minutes fried). It also helps keep the fish moist. Put a tablespoon of local apple cider vinegar and a sprig of an herb like rosemary in the water, and the poached fish will be infused with flavor as it cooks.
Tree fruits are also good poached. The low heat of poaching allows you to cook them slowly so you can determine when they are just soft enough to pierce with a fork, but not so soft that they begin to fall apart.
So–now you know how to boil water! With this single skill, you can fix an appetizer (hard-boiled eggs), a main dish with side vegetables (crock pot beef stew), and a dessert (poached pears). I hope you’ll relax, take a deep breath, and give it a try!
P.S. Would you be interested in some very basic home cooking classes? Please leave me a comment below about what you’d be interested in learning and why.