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Michael Ruhlman: Why I Cook

michael ruhlman

I heard the fabulous Michael Ruhlman speak at Blogher Food 2010 in San Francisco last year.  He was inspiring, honest and accessible.  His love of, and knowledge of, food is vast.  A couple years ago, Ruhlman wrote a piece on his blog outlining all of the reasons he cooks.  He encouraged others to do so as well.  Here’s my go at it.

Why do I cook?  Well, as Ruhlman stated, in this day and age, it is self-defense.  Goodness only knows what is added to our food these days.  I’m a control freak.  I like to know what I’m putting into my body.  That’s a great reason to cook.

Like Ruhlman (he states he began cooking at age 9), I began cooking as a child.  When I was in the 4th grade, I recall coming home everyday for lunch, turning on the electric pullout stove in our kitchen and frying up a kosher beef frank –that would be called a hotdog nowadays.  My parents both worked full time and I learned to take care of myself early on.

By 5th grade we had moved to a new house around the corner.  We had a yellow enamel gas stove.  I came home from school for lunch almost every day and opened up a can of re-fried beans, heated them, then grated orange cheddar cheese on top.  By high school, all of my friends came over for lunch just about everyday.  I made them brown rice with refried beans, salsa and cheese.  I also loved to bake cookies (they were not the gluten free kind in those days, prior to my celiac diagnosis).  By the time I was a junior in high school I baked chocolate chip cookies and sold them at the tennis club where I taught tennis lessons.  I was a busy girl back then!

I still love to cook.  My two sons, as well as all of the boys in our neighborhood come to my house when they want to create a special baked good.  Last week it was gluten free organic ice cream cake that the gang and I made from scratch.  Sometimes it’s cookies, chocolate bark or cupcakes.  Other days it’s salad.  The gang loves my gluten free Asian Salad Dressing and gobbles down all of their salad when I serve this dressing over greens.  I love baking with the boys, and feeding them, it is so much fun!

Like Ruhlman, I cook now because:

-I find it relaxing and meditative
-Cooking is great physical activity after hours of reading, researching, and writing
-I like to eat fresh, wholesome food
-It’s a way for me to give to family and friends
-I’m a Jewish mother so it is impossible not to (we like to feed people)
-It reminds me of good times in the kitchen with my mother and my bubby


Some reasons not to cook:

-I don’t have time
-I don’t know how
-I’m tired


According to Ruhlman:

All of these are perfectly adequate reasons not to cook.  I sometime use them myself.  But they’re not reasons to never cook.  The only good reasons never to cook are these: cooking gives me no pleasure, and eating doesn’t either.  (This is genuinely the case for some people, and I’ll lay odds they’re not reading this post). Fast food is cheaper than fresh food and, as I am at the poverty level, I have little choice.  (The saddest reason of all, and yet another reason for those who can cook, to cook.  The more people who buy good food help to lower the price of that food through demand.)

First, so many thanks go to Michael Ruhlman for all of his wisdom and inspiration –he’s a great teacher when it comes to food and cooking.

Now it’s time for me to get back to the kitchen.  I’m going to be making a yummy chicken stew since it’s so cold outside, and some delicious gluten free cake pops since the Super Bowl is coming up!  What are you going to make?


posted on January 8, 2011, 34 comments

  1. The Teenie Foodie @ theteeniefoodie.blogspot.com

    This is such an inspiring post Elana, and is encouraging to cook even more now! It’s great that you started so young. I agree with what Ruhlman says about never cooking, my brother is just like that.. too lazy to cook, but I think also a reason is that some are a little scared if they have never cooked before and can’t be bothered to clean up the mess!

    I also cook to relax and have fun, but also because I like to know what I put into my food, and ensure that it is all natural and organic. Also I think when you cook yourself, you put the love into it… sounds corny but I hate buying food from big chains where I don’t know who/how they made it!

    Post up the cake pops please!

    Teenie Foodie

  2. Marie

    Why do I cook? My reasons would be the same as yours, Elana. It’s for health, food safety, social times, and even to save money. I live in a town where a meal out with any “extras” like coffee, dessert, appetizer can run up a huge bill. I can do all that at home for much less.

    Inviting people in to share a visit around food is so rewarding as you meld friendships and share from the heart. I don’t cook elaborate meals, but I try to make them, for adults, almost like a restaurant experience with soup, salad, entree, fruit dessert, and coffee. Maybe even a very light wine. Everything is simple and make ahead. For kids, I serve buffet style in rectangular dishes that go from oven to table.

    And, I treat my own body well. I never eat sloppily, a lesson I learned from reading about French culture. I know the nutritional value of food, and nourish my body well. And that pays huge dividends. One of my little secrets is to never bring into the house a food I know is over processed, full of chemicals, or just not full of goodness.

    Thanks again for all you do for us.

  3. I liked this post. It made me think of a stupid question… do you speak any Yiddish?

  4. AnneKD

    I’m so thankful that my mom cooks from scratch and passed along that interest to me. It’s something we share now, we’ll talk about menus and stuff. I like not having to depend on some big company’s idea of what tastes good. I know what’s in our meals, my vegetarian husband doesn’t worry about whether something is ‘contaminated’ with meat, I don’t worry about whether something is contaminated with gluten. I don’t have to eat chemicals that I can pronounce only because I took organic chemistry in college. Cooking is relaxing for me also and makes my brain work along with my hands- an important part of how my creativity works.

    We’re not doing anything special for the Super Bowl, but I have been baking more lately. When it snows our neighbor plows us out, and I bake cookies or muffins or whatever for him to pay him back. Works out well for both of us.

  5. Hilary Day

    I like your story about the beef franks. Those are a lot different than regular hot dogs because of the red dye in many brands of hotdogs. As a child I would come home sick every time my older brother and I went to the movies. It took years before we realized it was the hotdogs! – not the movies.

  6. Laura

    Today, I’m slow cooking beef ribs. They’re going into my oven soon and we’ll have them for dinner. I cooked beef ribs last week, too, and then made a wonderful stew with the leftover rib meat and bone broth. So nice this time of year with the darkness ( no sunlight) at dinnertime and the cold temps to have a hearty stew. I plan to make some nice GF bread to go along with it. I cook mainly out of necessity. My daughter and I are both gluten intolerant and my daughter also has corn and milk allergies. I have to cook. At first, I didn’t like it, and even resented it a little, but now I really enjoy getting in the kitchen and coming up with ways to make a ‘normal’ meal gluten free. By the way, I did this with Dorie Greenspans recipe posted on her website for “French” apple pie. I substitued regular flour for almond flour and it was fantastic! Because we were having company over, I left the high amount of sugar in the recipe, but next time I make it I’ll use stevia. I’ve made apple pies with stevia and you can’t even tell the difference! Thanks, Elana, for this great website and all the time you put into it. Much appreciated!

  7. Kate

    I’ve never understood the excuse that poverty is a reason not to cook. I’m impoverished and if I didn’t cook from scratch we wouldn’t have enough to eat! My daughter and I cannot have gluten or dairy, and the store bought things are SO expensive, so we make our own…which taste better anyway. I feed three people on $363 a month in food stamps by cooking every day. We do not even partake in the school lunch program, as I have invested in a 3-tier tiffin and stuff it with healthy foods. Where there is a will, there’s a way!
    And I love to cook- because I know I’m giving my family a fair shot at a healthy lifestyle <3

  8. sas

    today I’m making a pumpkin soup as well as Cat Cora’s Spinach Paella (I’ve never made paella before so this might be interesting…).

  9. AndreAnna from Liife as A Plate @ lifeasaplate.com

    I cook for a lot of the same reasons as well. For me, as an editor, I deal with clean-cut answers/grammar every day and cooking and creating new recipes is my creative outlet, my art.

    Plus, like you, I like knowing each ingredient going in my body and nourishing my family with wholesome food.

  10. Gail

    I love to cook as I, like most of you, want to control what I am putting into my body.

    I would like to learn more about exchanging flours/recipe writing and being able to exchange some of the items in my old non gluten-free recipes to make them gluten-free recipes.

    Can you provide some references on where I can go to start to learn how you bloggers do this kind of thing?

    This could be a new book idea for you Elana.

    Thanks again.

  11. Michelle

    “Self defense” sums it up.

    I stumbled upon the connection between eating wheat and my ill health, about 10 years ago, before I had access to the idea of “celiac.”

    I did not know how to cook or bake. I did know that my wheat issues were connected somehow to blood sugar/ sugar sensitivity issues. My ancestors were Italian – life without pasta and bread left me floundering. I tried to teach myself how to cook, but was frustrated by how many “wheat free” baking recipes were full of simple starches.

    I eventually figured out enough to make due by adapting some whole foods recipes – Heidi’s blog at 101cookbooks was my best bet, so long as I avoided the baked goods, which rely a lot on sugar. I am eternally grateful to her for recommending your blog.

    In addition to being entirely gluten free, all of your baked goods have relatively high protein and fat content, to help slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Your use of few ingredients makes it easy for me to figure out the function of each ingredient, which helps me learn more about cooking and also makes it easier for me to figure out what to substitute, if I need to. Best of all, I now use your recipes to take care of the people I love.

    One of my family members had a heart attack. She was physically fit, very active, had normal cholesterol and there was no plaque on the arterial walls. They traced her heart attack to cracks in one of the valves of her heart – cracks that can be prevented with adequate intake of medium chain fatty acids – the fat found in coconut oil.

    On the other side of my family, one of my family members had a stress-related stroke soon after the death of his spouse of over 50 years. He lost his best friend – and a phenomenal cook. He’s a runner, and a big guy, and can’t keep on the weight. When people complain that “sugar is bad” I usually point out that a batch of cookies is not meant to be a single serving size for an adult. But I’m happy to hand to this guy a batch of cookies made from an ElanasPantry recipe, because I know it will have the protein, fat, sugar, and calories he truly needs.

    I insisted on making desserts for our traditional Italian Christmas Eve dinner. The chocolate pistachio bark and the peppermint patties were favorites. Readers comments prepared me for the possibility of chocolate-that-wouldn’t-stick, and I new just what to do when that happened. I have the green light to make desserts again next year.

    Tonight I’m hosting dinner for eight, and have been appointed to provide desserts. I just took the second batch of your macaroons out of the oven – they look like clouds with sun tans. Chocolate pistachio bark is also on the menu, by request. From Heidi’s blog, I’m making the Nikki’s cookies (gluten free oatmeal, chocolate, banana) and the triple ginger cookies, with a gluten free flour mix – though next time, I might simply use almond flour.

    Thanks again for the recipes, but most of all for the education, inspiration, and affirmation.

  12. Sharon

    Hi Elena,

    Do you have the recipe for the chicken stew and cake pops that you’re going to make?

  13. Kathleen Ayers

    Yes, it absolutely is self defense! It’s also because we can get exactly what we want, without having to compromise. It’s also about control–we can determine exactly what we want to add to our food. It’s especially important to me as I confront a shrinking list of what I can order when I eat out. Thanks for the inspiring post and Ruhlman’s comments. I’m going to share this with some members of my local celiac chapter!

  14. Debbie Patrick @ visionrun.com

    I hadn’t thought about cooking being such a nice counterpoint to reading, editing and computing all day, but as I help others self publish books, yes, that’s one of the reasons I cook, too.

    It started with my grandmother and her passion for cooking (she used to take in boarders during the great Depression, and they raved about her dishes), along with my mother’s patience while I learned! I used to make homemade bread and sweetrolls at about 13 to make extra money because I didn’t like to babysit. Self defense is a large part of it now, too, with health concerns.

    Today I’m making soup (because of the cold outside), along with napa cabbage salad and meatloaf.

  15. Rebecca

    I cook for the self defense reason as well. I also enjoy it most of the time. This post is a great motivational reminder for those times when I feel too tired to cook.

  16. Emily

    Love this Elana!! I’m the same for why I cook (I especially like the control freak part :) And also, it is so meditative. I love your stories about cooking with your boys, they will be forever grateful to have learned from such a young age. Unlike you, I was not taught to cook at a young age and just ate what I was fed, even if my intuition told me not to. It took many years for me to figure out I had a choice about what was going in my body. It’s such an important skill to learn early, you boys will be able to take care of them selves for the rest of their lives. Love this! Oh- and I’m going to cook green beans and chicken now for breakfast….. not exactly yum, but you know why!

  17. My favourite reason NOT to cook is that I just woke up, caffeine hasn’t kicked in, I’m already starving, and I think a giant plate of breakfast should just magically appear in front of me. I think already being too hungry is my main reason to not cook… blood sugar has crashed and I feel like I might die and cooking will simply take too long. Of course usually, I do cook, and being gluten-intolerant really sort of forces that ; )

  18. Joanne

    I cook for the same reason most with gluten issues cook. It is necessary for staying healthy

    I cook because I enjoy cooking and eating healthy foods.

    My sons cook, because I told them early on that cooking is a survival skill, and that is when they started learning. And bless them, they are both excellent cooks today. And their ladies love that.

  19. Audra Taylor

    Why do I cook? Well at first it was because everything I didn’t cook made me sick. I remember when some friends gave me something they thought was dairy-free and wasn’t. Not being able the breath is a definate motivator for cooking your own food. It was SO frustrating at first. But today is different, I have recipes I love and rely on week after week. Today I am baking Coconut-flax seed bread and sunrise muffins. I also love to splurge with Elena’s choc chip cookies.
    Thanks,
    Audra

  20. I too have been cooking since I was young. I love to eat different ethnic foods, and have found the only way to experience this without going too far is to make it myself. I also want to know what’s going into the food I feed my family, and the only way to ensure that is to make it myself. My kids have been exposed to so many different foods because I experiment a lot (not to say they like everything I’ve made), and know the difference between “real” food and processed foods. Recently, I found out one of my kids has lots of allergies (including gluten), so I am so grateful that I do know how and find enjoyment in cooking. I will be referring to your gluten free recipes a lot, so thank you!

  21. Roberta Thomas

    I, like yourself, find it very satisfying to cook and bake for my family. My bananas were going bad so I decided to make some gluten free banana bread with chocolate chips.

  22. Cooking is an excellent outlet for me and one that you can share with others. I have a very stressful day job, and I find it relaxing to come home and prepare a meal to share. It’s a great way to unwind.

  23. Cathy

    Oh, Elana, thanks as always for the time you put into sharing. I also began cooking early and loved the freedom and control of preparing my own food, as well as sharing with others. For me, it is the ultimate expression of love to feed people. Most of all, I cook and bake because I can’t NOT do it!

  24. I love to cook and bake because it’s very satisfying to be able to make something that turns out well and that my husband and I can enjoy. When we can, we also cook together and it’s really nice to be able to do something that we both find relaxing and enjoy together! Plus, I LOVE food, so it would be a shame if I didn’t cook!

  25. Cassi Friz @ cassifriz.com

    i can’t remember NOT cooking- i remember being 5 or six and mixing meatloaf for my mother. and by seven, i was making pizza from scratch excepting for my mother’s homemade sauce. after that- no food intimidated me.

    by middle school and high school my sisters and i would plan elaborate multi-course meals where it became apparent that i would do the meat/veggie dishes, and my sister would bake. i did not love baking like i loved other forms of cooking.

    i was also a total foodie from a kid, and when given packaged cake at a birthday party, spat it out and declared “it tastes like plastic. this is not cake.” oy- my poor mother.

    but of course, when it came to going gluten-free in 2001, i at least had the very great advantage of cooking all my food and truly understanding gluten-free and how to translate that into delicious, wholesome and nourishing foods.

    now, as a mother of 3 with number 4 on the way, with a gluten-free, whole foods, raw milk, nothing from a package family- my 4 year old son will stir the grass-fed beef taco meat, browning the onions, mixing in the garlic, and then monitoring the meat. i hope to pass on this gift of cooking- for his and his own family’s health. and i’m thrilled to be passing on the gift of good health to my own family in a way that only a greek-american mother with a fanatical bent for good-tasting healthy food can!

    Thanks for making me think about why i do what i do!

  26. Holly

    I was really not liking to cook or bake because of gluten free ….until I came upon your website Elana! I want to know what I am eating and also to be able to eat baked goods and great breakfasts, lunches, and dinners( suppers)! THANK YOU ELANA!

  27. Alisa Fleming @ alisacooks.com

    Fantastic post Elana, thanks for sharing this! My cooking was about like yours (we even had an electric pull out stove!) and for much the same reason at a young age. But I didn’t truly start learning how to cook until ten years ago … more out of necessity. Now I realize you can’t truly love food, until you know how to make it and what goes into it.

    I love Ruleman’s point about supporting good food so that the prices go down and the demand goes up. I couldn’t agree more with this. Thanks again.

  28. I had a think about this too and did a similar post on my blog, crediting you for the idea obviously! Not the first time I have credited you, the Jam Doughnut Cupcakes come to mind, they were very popular with ‘free froms’ and ‘normals’ alike!

    http://clairesspecialkitchen.blogspot.com/2011/01/why-i-cook-and-why-i-blog-about-it.html

  29. I read this post of Michael’s last year and found it so thought-provoking. I took some time to think about it, and I wrote a post myself. I love yours as well – and I love how you sum it up with a list. :) I’m a list person naturally.

  30. Beverly Willman

    I don’t especially like to cook, but I love to bake. I keep that at a minimum now because I need to eat healthy foods and limit the sugar intake. I enjoy cooking more when I’m cooking with my husband. We have such a good time in the kitchen working together. This usually happens when we have dinner guests. Then it’s fun to get creative. Elena’s cookbook and website are my favorite places to find quick, easy, and healthy recipes. Thanks Elana!:)

  31. Nora

    I’m having difficulty getting your bread recipe to rise up enough to be called “sandwich ” bread. I bought the Magic Line pan and it made no difference. The bread is dense, but delicious. I would just like for it to be litter and sandwich size. What am I doing wrong? HELP FROM TEXAS

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