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Rediscovering the art of eating in

No breakfast tacos on the way to work, no frozen lasagna, no junior cheeseburgers to abate that biting afternoon hunger.

Staff Writer
Austin 360

It used to be no great feat of endurance or skill to cook for yourself and your family for a week straight.

But now, almost half the meals we eat are prepared by someone else, which means Americans spend twice as much at restaurants as they do on groceries, a figure that has flipped in just 30 years.

In 2006, with saving money on her mind, New Yorker Cathy Erway set a challenge for herself: to forgo eating out in one of the greatest restaurant cities in the world. She turned her blog about the experience into a book, "The Art of Eating In" (Gotham Books, $22), which was published last month.

To encourage others to challenge their own eating-out habits, she invited a handful of bloggers and writers, including myself, to embark on a week of eating in. No breakfast tacos on the way to work, no frozen lasagna, no junior cheeseburgers to abate that biting afternoon hunger.

I quickly learned what Erway did during her two years of eating in: Saving money is only the most superficial change, and it gets easier as you go.

Restaurant culture erodes skills

As our knives lie idle, our kitchen skills dull, and as a culture, we pass along less and less knowledge to the next generation. "(Americans) are halfway down the road to forgetting how to cook," Erway writes. Our pantries become clutter-filled closets of cans and dried goods that we take with us each time we move, and our fridges are science experiments with moldy leftovers and expired salad dressing. In a house with young kids, like mine, every meal prepared outside the kitchen is one less opportunity to pass down the skills that our parents and grandparents took for granted.

Even though many restaurants have added foods - salads, wraps, soups and sandwiches stuffed with something other than fried meat patties - that won't exceed your day's fill of saturated fat in a single sitting, Erway argues that the physical effects of eating prepared food are a greater threat than a collective loss of culinary skill. (And before assuming that eating out is restricted to the middle and upper classes, Erway points out that more than three-quarters of restaurant meals are eaten at fast-food establishments.)

She writes: "Restaurants ... are founded on the idea of making something that tastes better than what you could cook at home. Therefore, chefs add much more fat, salt and sugars to their dishes than one would likely reach for at home, hoping to gain repeat customers hungry for another taste."

I enjoy, of course, being served a fancy salad in a perfectly lighted restaurant without having to touch a refrigerator handle or wash a dirty dish. What a contrast to the desk-side salad I ate last week that I made from lettuce I'd picked earlier in the day from my backyard garden. No $12 salad can satisfy like one made from lettuce that grew from seeds I planted just six weeks before. The raisins-to-nuts ratio was exactly to my liking, as was the vinaigrette. It wasn't bites of sustenance squeezed between sound bites of a lunchtime interview.

But we'll never turn our backs on restaurants. And why should we? Restaurants are where we do business, go on dates and celebrate personal triumphs. Coming from the root word "restore," restaurants can be a place to catch our breath and take a break from the responsibility of cooking food for ourselves and those in our care three times a day.

Eating out has irreversibly expanded our palates and our culinary curiosity. Ethnic restaurants, and the cooking classes they spawn, have inspired me to keep a bevy of spices in my cabinet - fenugreek seeds, star anise, ancho chile powder - that my grandmother wouldn't recognize. But the reality is that I don't cook Southern Indian food enough to be able to produce anything close to what I can buy for $10 on my next lunch date.

Entertaining, family style

Erway's restaurant fast lasted far longer than the 40-day Lenten period, but its purpose was the same: to sacrifice one thing to allow new things to set in. She learned how to forage wild edibles in Brooklyn and make ice cream from scratch. In just one short week, I revisited some of my favorite kitchen projects that I don't usually make the time to do, such as making bread and sprouting seeds.

One of the biggest changes for Erway was learning how to host friends for dinner. Because eating out is one of our most beloved forms of social entertainment, Erway knew she'd lose touch with her restaurant-faring friends if she opted out for two years. Rather than re-create an elaborate restaurant experience in her home, she developed her own laid-back style of hosting, which usually meant just preparing extra portions of a dish that she would have made for herself.

The fear of unmet expectations and extra work causes many of us to choose dining out over dining in when friends are involved, but with practice, dinner parties can feel like an extension of family dinner.

We're lucky to live next to Buzz and Michelle Bakker, veterans of the hospitality industry who like to spend their days off on Mondays cooking up delicious meals. We've started a Monday night tradition of eating together, and it's always a more relaxed and enjoyable, not to mention less expensive, night than ordering Chinese takeout or going out to eat, no matter what's on the menu. Last week, Buzz taught me how to make croissants based on a recipe he'd developed during his 10 years as a bakery owner. Not only did we eat well, he passed on a skill that I passed on to readers of my blog, Relish Austin. (You can find the recipe, as well as step-by-step photos at www.austin360.com/relishaustin.)

When we host friends, our dinners aren't nearly as elaborate as the Bakkers', but our guests are almost always happy just to have their own break from cooking.

Like episodes of "Lost" or even holiday feasts with our extended families, not every meal will be worth remembering or repeating. Few of us have time or energy to pull out a 30-minute weeknight meal with the same enthusiasm as Rachael Ray, but there are many weeks in a year when I, for one, could certainly try harder than a frozen pizza or macaroni and cheese in a box. On some days, it means making pancakes from a mix, but serving them with a homemade blueberry syrup. On others, I'll pick up a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work and use the meat for three meals and turn the carcass into a soup. The point is to make the effort to be invested in what you eat.

Feeding off other people's ideas

Just like any activity, the more you practice cooking, the more efficient you will become in the kitchen. You discover how easy it is to turn one cooking session into two or three meals by making extra beans, rice, meat or vegetables, or making extra portions to set aside for lunch the next day.

It's often not time but inspiration that we find ourselves lacking in the kitchen. A shelf of cookbooks or episode of "Barefoot Contessa" on the Food Network can help lift you out of a cooking slump, but one of my key sources for new ideas is the dynamic, evolving and nearly encyclopedic online cookbook that is the world of food blogs. At our floured fingertips are thousands of talented cooks of all abilities and background who feed off each other's creativity to find new ways to use old ingredients or put new spins on classic dishes. It feels like a conversation in the middle of a grocery store aisle: "So, how long do you cook this quinoa?" "Here's what I do with stale bread." "Have you tried baking kale chips?"

Find the joy in cooking

These days, we have to consciously push ourselves to be better cooks. Just like you have to form exercise habits or carve time out of the day to read books or volunteer at your kid's school, you have to decide that crafting a meal from whole ingredients is a priority. It's not for everyone, of course. For some, the "Joy of Cooking" is not an outlook on food but a dusty cookbook they bought at a secondhand shop 30 years ago. For them, preparing a meal for the family five times a week or even once a month is and will always be just another household task, like mopping the floor or folding laundry.

But for the majority of us, there is still joy in pulling a hot loaf of bread out of the oven or ladling homemade chicken noodle soup into a bowl, and if you're lucky, you have a table of wide-eyed eaters grateful for your effort.

With respect for the art of cooking, your kitchen can be a place for you and your family to restore.

As long as you can find the zen in washing dishes.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

Peppercorn, Potato and Parmesan No-Knead Bread

This recipe is based on Jim Lahey's highly adaptable no-knead bread recipe, which uses the same amounts of flour, yeast, salt and water and technique.

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

1/4 tsp. active dry yeast

11/2 tsp. salt

About 3 Tbsp. black peppercorns, cracked

15/8 cups water that was used to boil a potato, slightly cooled

Parmesan for topping

In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast, salt and peppercorns. Add the water and stir until blended; the dough will be shaggy and sticky.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest at least 12 hours (preferably about 18 hours or two days) at warm room temperature (about 70 degrees). The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles.

Lightly flour a work surface and place the dough on it; sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover the dough loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or your fingers, gently and quickly shape the dough into a ball, tucking the folded parts underneath. Sprinkle and gently pat the grated Parmesan across the top of the loaf.

Generously coat a clean cotton dishtowel (not terrycloth) with flour, semolina or cornmeal, and place the loaf seam-side down on it. Coat another cotton towel with flour, cover the loaf and let the dough rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, the dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least half an hour before the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enameled cast iron or ceramic) in the oven while the oven is preheating.

When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven. Slide your hand under the towel and place the dough, Parmesan side up, in the pot. Cover with the lid and bake 20 minutes, then remove the lid and bake another 15 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. Remove from the pan and cool completely on a rack.

- Cathy Erway, 'The Art of Eating In'

Smoky Black Bean and Spinach Chilaquiles

This is a savory vegetarian version of chilaquiles, but you could swap cooked or leftover shredded chicken, pork or any other meat in place of the beans.

1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed

About 3 medium-sized dried ancho chiles

3 cups water

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 large shallot, finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. oregano

2 tsp. brown sugar

2 tsp. cider vinegar

1/4 cup chopped onion

About 5 oz. fried salted corn tortilla strips or stale tortilla chips

2 cups packed fresh spinach, chopped

12 oz. smoked Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

Small handful of grape tomatoes, halved

Sprinkle of finely sliced red onion for garnish

Place beans in a medium pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Tear off the stems of the ancho chiles and pour out the seeds. Break each one into a few pieces. Place into a covered pot with 3 cups of water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat, and let sit, covered, for 15 minutes.

In a large pan, heat up the vegetable oil and sauté the shallot, jalapeño and 2/3 of the garlic on medium heat for about five minutes, until softened. Add the ancho chiles with their soaking water and bring to a low simmer. Add salt, oregano, brown sugar and vinegar. Turn off heat and let cool for at least 15 minutes. Transfer chili mixture to a food processor. Add onion and remaining 1/3 chopped garlic. Pulse until liquefied into a smooth sauce. Taste for seasoning. Sauce may taste very bitter at this point, which is fine.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a 9-inch-by-9-inch baking dish at least 2 inches deep, begin layering the chilaquiles. Scatter a somewhat even layer of half the tortilla strips on the bottom. Add about 1/3 of the sauce evenly on top. Add a layer of half the spinach. Add about 1/3 of the sauce evenly on top. Add a layer of half the spinach. Add about half of the shredded cheese, then about half of the black beans. Add another layer of tortillas, more sauce, more cheese and the rest of the beans. Top with the rest of the sauce, then the rest of the cheese. Scatter the halved grape tomatoes on top. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter sliced onion on top. Let cool a moment before serving.

- Cathy Erway, 'The Art of Eating In'

Pear Ginger Crisp

For streusel:

2/3 cup flour

3 Tbsp. granulated sugar

1/3 cup packed light brown sugar

1/2 cup regular rolled oats

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg, preferably freshly ground

1/8 tsp. salt

6 Tbsp. butter, softened

For fruit filling:

21/2 lb. firm-ripe Bartlett pears

Juice of 1 lemon

1/2 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. water

1/4 Marsala or sweet white wine

1/4 cup chopped crystallized ginger or 2 tsp. freshly grated

1/3 cup raisins

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. butter

To make streusel, heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment. In a bowl, mix dry ingredients. Add butter; mix on low speed with a hand blender or by hand until crumbly. Spread in pan. Bake until golden at edges, 8 to 10 minutes; stir. Bake until golden all over, 3 to 5 minutes. Let streusel cool. Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees.

To make pear filling, peel and core fruit, cut into 1-inch chunks and mix gently in a large bowl with lemon juice. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish and set aside.

Combine sugar and 2 Tbsp. of water in a 3- to 4-quart pan. Cook over medium-high heat until sugar begins to brown, 4 to 7 minutes. Swirling pan occasionally, boil until sugar is golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes more.

Remove from heat, let cool about 30 seconds, then gently stir in pears (sugar will seize up in spots). Return pan to heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until sugar melts again, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add Marsala, ginger, raisins, vanilla and salt. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until pears are just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer pears to prepared dish.

Add butter to pan and cook until melted. Spoon mixture over pears.

Scatter streusel over pears, then bake until fruit is bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool about 10 minutes. Serve warm, with vanilla ice cream, crème fraîche, Greek yogurt or crema. Make up to three hours ahead and reheat in a 350-degree oven until warm, about 20 minutes.

- Adapted from a recipe on the blog He Cooks, She Cooks (www.hecooksshecooks.net), written by Brittany Darwell

Blueberry syrup

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1 cup blueberries (or other berries)

1 1-inch piece of cinnamon stick

1/2 tsp. grated lemon zest

1 Tbsp. dark rum or port wine (optional)

Bring water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan. Add blueberries, cinnamon stick, lemon zest and port or rum. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 10 minutes until thickened.

- 'Joy of Cooking,' by Irma Rombauer