Zen Cooking When Times Improve

One good thing that’s come out of the Great Recession is that people are eating at home more. That’s a big step toward eating healthier. As I have said, even if what you make at home from scratch isn’t all that good for you, at least you know what’s in it. Right there, that’s a great improvement over just shoveling food into your mouth.

And researchers have found that about 90% of Americans have said they plan on eating and cooking more at home once the economy improves. That’s great news for people like me who are trying to get us all to eat a little better.

Have you ever gone to the gym for the first time in a while and got so sore from over-doing it you didn’t go back? The same thing can happen in cooking. Some people are either too timid or too brave. They either make something that’s so easy it’s barely cooking at all. Or they try to make a standing rib roast with all the fixings first time out and become overwhelmed. The key is a balance. The key is Zen.

Zen is about using meditation to tune in to your own intuition and instincts. The same thing can happen when contemplating cooking. Cooking can be a form of meditation and it can bring you insights into yourself and the nature of food. Looking through a cookbook, we see the gorgeous pictures of shining food. We practically drool over the descriptions of gourmet dishes and meals. In a moment of hubris, we say, “I can do that,” only to find that the clock begins approaching midnight before we have a single thing on the table.

We must resist the urge to run before we can walk. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to make that fancy dish. I’m saying, work your way up to it. You can make great food without getting complicated, spending a ton of money on specialized equipment or stepping out of the kitchen in the middle of the night exhausted and disappointed. That will make picking up the phone and ordering a pizza too appealing.

I’m a simple cook. I get just as much pleasure out of a good pot of beans, rice that comes out delicious or a nice pan of cornbread as I would get out of a lobster that’s not overcooked or a dish of escargot in a butter sauce topped with puff pastry. Cooking that’s overly complicated will give you the same reaction as overdoing it at the gym. It’s painful to throw away food that didn’t turn out right.

We need to evaluate recipes the same way we would judge an athletic event. Are our skills a match for the necessary technique? Can we easily get those exotic ingredients?  Will we use all of that jar of pesto sauce? Can we afford to throw away a failure?

And failure there will be. We all make a mess out of something we’re trying to make sometimes. It happens to the best of us. Even great chefs have stories about dishes that just didn’t turn out right and was nearly inedible.

The answer is to contemplate your recipe. Follow your instincts. Does this require a technique you’re unfamiliar with? Do you have the necessary equipment and tools? Are you certain your store will have those ingredients? Are the leftover ingredients something you will use later? Are there substitutions in either equipment or ingredients that will make it come out okay if not better? Those chefs you see on TV are trained professionals. They’ve been to culinary school. They worked their way up the kitchen ladder. They make it look so easy. They’ve also practiced for hours, days, weeks, months even. You might not be able to do things the way they do. Your stove is far less powerful than what they use in a restaurant kitchen. Your budget is more limited. Be realistic about what you do.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do fancy dishes from time to time. But if you’re planning to make an impressive dish for a dinner party, you probably should have a trial run first. Family and friends can make great guinea pigs. So much of what works in the kitchen is all about confidence.

So, how do you judge? Start with the ingredient list. Anything there you never heard of? I don’t mean that you should skip a recipe just because it calls for something you might have to go to a special, ethnic store to get. Just keep that in mind. Maybe do a little research on the internet or at the library.

Review the equipment cited in the recipe. Does it call for a food processor when you don’t have one. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but it may take more time or come out a bit more rustic than the picture.

Read through all the steps. Make sure you understand exactly what you will need to do. If you don’t, set that one aside for now and find something you’re sure you can do. Come back to the first recipe later when your skills have improved.

Look at the time estimates. I’m not fast at doing much of anything. I know that if the prep time in the recipe is 15 minutes, it may take me a half-hour. Too often, recipes underestimate how much time it will take to prepare the ingredients. They usually don’t take into account resting time. Once you understand the steps, you will better be able to judge how much time these things will take.

If you decide to go ahead, remember to do mise en place. That’s preparing and laying out all the ingredients before you begin. Even if there is a lull between steps, don’t assume you’ll have enough time to prepare the next set of ingredients. Unless the time between preparation and use is up to an hour, you’re probably safe to leave them out of refrigerator. Besides, room temperature ingredients usually work better than cold ones. If you get a break, sit down, have a glass of wine and preserve your strength for the next step.

Finally, don’t get too upset if things don’t come out exactly as you planned. Like I said, you will have failures from time to time. Look at it as a lesson learned, take out the trash and remember. You’ll do better next time.

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