How to ditch the can opener and experience good food in the safety of your homes
Julia Child started cooking in her 50s, Julia Child started cooking in her 50s, Julia Child started cooking in her 50s, I remember muttering to myself as I stared helplessly at the kitchen. This was my version of a pep talk to myself.
It has nearly been a month since quarantine began, and although our helper could whip up fairly decent basic dishes, I’ve been having cravings that were beyond her capabilities. She couldn’t make pizza, for example, and didn’t know how to maximize my stash of cheese and oils and creams and pantry staples.
There’s also the little, inconvenient fact that I was getting fat on processed food. I’ve gained nearly five kilos, because I was eating everything like there was no tomorrow—which, to be fair, seemed really probable in those early times.
So, like many others, I felt that I needed to eat healthier.
And so, I buckled down to create masterpieces (okay, a little exaggeration) straight out of my once barely used kitchen. Here’s how I improved: Two months ago, I made pizza using sliced bread, smeared with tomato sauce and with random toppings on it. Now, I (with the help of kitchen assistants), am able to make my own dough from scratch. Doable? Yes. Here’s how you can star tap into your inner kitchen diva.
Make sure your ingredients are of good quality.
Good cooking starts with great ingredients. There’s just no way you can whip up fabulous, healthy meals with lousy ingredients. Our go-to cuisine, in our drive to eat healthy, was Mediterranean. Influenced by the region—Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Morocco, and Lebanon—and its climate and environs, the cuisine is based on simple foods and cooking methods (perfect for starters like me.) Your core ingredients are vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, and olive oil. Dried and fresh herbs and spices like basil, parsley, mint, coriander, thyme, and oregano (plus the powerhouse garlic powder) lend a full bodied flavour in any dish—flavor enhancers in the form of bouillon cubes scare me, so I choose to buy and stock up on herbs.
I’m also a big believer in olive oils as the only oil to use in the kitchen (whether I prep Mediterranean dishes or not), and I appreciate not just its fresh natural taste but its unique health benefits. I use the Doña Elena brand for my olive oils. Doña Elena Olive Oil has high levels of good fats essential for your heart, which helps lower your cholesterol and improve your overall health. Covid-19 fast tracked people’s desire to eat healthy (everyone wanted to boost their immunity) and cook at home, which was safer and more affordable.
And Doña Elena Olive Oils really bring out the flavors of your home-cooked meals vs. using ordinary oils. As a self-proclaimed expert on olive oils—I’d like to stress that not all olive oils in the market are created equal, and that not all olive oils are made the same way for the same cooking process. Doña Elena Olive oils are incredibly versatile and can be used in several recipes which make it more perfect for everyday cooking. Just be sure to choose the right variety to make the dish come out at its most flavorful and aromatic taste: Extra Virgin for salad dressing, bread dip, and to drizzle on cooked food; Pure Olive Oil is best for pasta and everyday cooking; and Pomace both for roasting and frying.
I once visited the best olive farm in Andalucia, Spain where Doña Elena Olive Oils are made and so now have an illusion of being an expert—so I drop tidbits like, “please know that a little bitterness with a peppery aftertaste indicates that an extra virgin oil is fresh.”
I once used vegetable oil as dressing for the pizza I was making (as I ran out of olive oil), and it turned out bad, greasy, and soggy. Can’t stress this enough: Olive oil is irreplaceable—it is fresh, healthy, flavorful, and most of all, versatile. I’ve made naan bread from scratch, with extra virgin olive oil and vinaigrette dip. I’ve also made siopao dough with olive oil, as I didn’t have lard. It turned out better than if I did use lard.
You don’t have to be the Barefoot Contessa to know that a meal is defined by its ingredients. (Or crudely: What I lack in talent, I’ll make up for in good ingredients.)
Watch a lot of YouTube and Netflix videos to get inspired.
Nadiya’s Time to Eat was one of my early favorite Netflix shows. Nadiya is practical, used easy-to-source ingredients, and all her prep took under 30 minutes. On Youtube, I searched for chefs according to cuisine I’m hankering for, or I just type in the dishes I crave for.I was pining for Filipino-style beef tenderloin with mushroom sauce—a childhood favorite—and Youtube led me to the cooking video of actress Marjorie Barretto. I’ve clicked Subscribe—her recipes are easy, inexpensive, and utilizes ingredients already in my pantry (she also uses olive oils, which I am a stickler for.)
I also have “old faithfuls,” including recipes handed down by my mom, who’s a great cook, and a wide variety of cookbooks gifted to me from years back. Just keep scrolling—you’ll soon find a mentor whose cooking style and voice will mirror your own.
Nag experienced cooks and nutritionists for tips.
Manila Bulletin Lifestyle’s resident nutritionist Cheshire Que is only a text or call away—and her advice proves helpful as I prep healthy meals. “Lightly spray or brush meats with olive oil instead of pouring oil into the baking pan,” she’d say. “Roast the meat on a rack in the pan so the fat drips away.” Mediterranean cooking’s hallmark is keeping the fat content of your dishes low. The common cooking methods that are healthy include braising, barbecuing, grilling, and roasting. My mom, who became a health freak after her numerous illnesses, always oven-roasted our fish and meat. Use lemon juice, herbs (I personally like rosemary, oregano, cilantro, black pepper), and a little olive oil to baste fish or meats as they roast, keeping them juicy and tasty.
Adhering to the Mediterranean diet means using ingredients that emphasize healthy fats from olive oil, as well as Omega3 fatty acid sources from oily fish. Doña Elena Olive Oil has high levels of antioxidants like polyphenols and oleic acids. It is also rich in vitamins E, K, and A that helps lower bad cholesterols and acts as an agent to help prevent some cardiovascular disease.
List everything you need, and then either order them online in one go or make sure you stock up to limit your trips out.
Gone are the days when grocery trips used to be a fun destresser. Now it feels like an activity to risk life or limb. To minimize my exposure to the outside world, I take advantage of the “pabili” service of enterprising netizens who offer their services on the buy and sell pages of my city, as well as ordering my grocery items online. Another tip: Buy at cheaper distributor price by ordering wholesale. I order my pantry staples and oft-used ingredients like tomato sauces and paste, mushrooms, and olive oils by the case at www.flyacecorp.com.
And lastly, don’t forget to have fun. Cooking good food is as much for your mental health as your physical health. You may not get it right the first time—and some of your dishes may even look (excuse the pun) half baked—but great food all boils down to pouring your heart into it.