I made a cassoulet last night.
Per Mark Bittman's instructions, I started by browning a length of sausage in olive oil, then set the meat aside. Into the pan went onions and zuchinni and celery, cooked a few minutes until they softened a bit. Then tomatoes and herbs, along with the sausage again, brought to a boil. Then I added cooked white beans—Jo did the prep work there. Then a simmer for 20 minutes. I pulled the sausage out, chopped it up, threw it back in the pan with some cayenne, and let it simmer a few more minutes. It was served with a side of warm multigrain bread purchased from the farmer's market (as were most of the ingredients mentioned above). There was wine.
Saturday's cassoulet was the result of a cooking kick I've been on in recent weeks. Part of the inspiration has been fall—often when I get adventurous in the kitchen—and part of it Bittman's new Kindle Single advocating the practice of cooking at home.
His argument is the same one you almost always hear him make: That home cooking is usually cheaper—and often faster—than ordering from restaurants. That it's usually cheaper and almost always more healthful than the processed foods we so often rely on. And that a meal well-made creates opportunties for community and bonding.
To his credit—and my benefit—Bittman isn't a "foodie," at least not in the sense that such folks attempt to dazzle you with the complexity and fanciness of their efforts. He doesn't require you to have stainless steel kitchen appliances, or spend a day laborer's weekly pay on a bottle of truffle oil. He wants to get you into the kitchen and cooking, and he offers simple-but-tasty recipes to provide you with easy entry into the world of real food. He sets the bar so low that I can leap over it.
Heretofore, my repertoire in the kitchen has (outside of a pretty mean breakfast sandwich) been largely limited to three dishes: Chili, spaghetti, and what we call "Tex-Mex"—a meat, bean, and Rotel concoction that can be wrapped in a tortilla or dumped on top of corn chips. Tasty, I guess, but limited. So with Bittman's guidance, I'm taking what I hope are my first steps into a larger world.
There's another element to all of this for me. In may, I had an emergency colostomy. In July, I had a second surgery, to remove a chunk of diseased colon that had wrapped itself around my bladder. I have diverticulitis. Sometime soon, hopefully, I will have a third surgery to reverse the colostomy and finally end the long season of what my son has called "poop belly." I'll be able to restart my life, which has felt mostly on hold for many months now.
Now: My surgeon has never told me that 38 years of lazy, irresponsible eating created my medical condition. It could be genetics. But it could also be my 38 years of lazy, irresponsible eating. Making a real effort to cook—aside from actually being cheaper and faster than ordering from my beloved GrubHub.com—seems to be a real investment in my future health.
More to the current point, I am a stay-at-home dad and freelance writer. My surgical recovery has depleted my energy—and, at times, my spirits—to the point that I often feel I do neither job very well. Making a new meal, as I've done several times in recent weeks, gives me a sense of accomplishment that's pretty much been missing from my life lately. I browned the sausage. I chopped the vegetables. I stood over the stove. And I made something that wouldn't have existed without my initiative or efforts. This is, I imagine how amateur woodworkers feel, and with roughly the same odds of losing a finger to blade mishap. This is, I imagine, why my wife knits.
So much of my day, every day, is spent in front of a computer. To make something tangible and useful—not that the manufacture of words can't be useful—is a good and necessary thing. My next Bittman recipe combines just three building blocks: Noodles, butter, and parmesan cheese. It won't be difficult. But it will be something I made.