Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Finding My Cooking Mojo

I was thinking yesterday about people who don't like to cook, wondering what potential there might be for them to love creating food. At least to some small extent I can relate to these people; even though I have a serious passion for cooking, I don't always enjoy the process. Imagine the way Anne Shirley loves lakes of shining waters and puff sleeves. If she were to come across a murky pond or deflated sleeves, she'd feel pretty uninspired. That's how I feel when I come across a throw-together recipe or a counter of dirty dishes: completely uninspired.

I don't just want to cook for the sake of having something to eat. I want there to be some romance to it! When I step into the kitchen I want to be wooed by a new man or rendezvous with an old favorite depending on my mood. Then I want to tie on my apron, take Gerard (Dutch cocoa,) Alejandro (poblano peppers,) or Tom (applewood-smoked cheddar) in my grips and show them what I've got.

Ya hear??

So, for those of you seeking inspiration, here are some of my favorite practices that keep me passionate:

  • Handsy recipes. Merely assembling food is no fun. Chopping, grating, massaging, flipping, kneading, squeezing, folding, sprinkling, sifting, punching, pulling, pounding, tossing, rolling, cracking, crumbling, mashing, fluffing, whipping, zesting, shredding: these are the movements that get the blood flowing. Roll up your sleeves. No gloves. No prisoners.
  • Variety. However you keep yourself organized in terms of meal-planning, make sure your plan allows for new recipes and new flavors! Learning to work with a new ingredient sparks excitement and builds confidence, both powerful motivators. You can do more than you think, so do it!
  • A carefully-designed product. Speaking of variety, have you ever heard professionals talk about food "hitting all the right notes"? What they're referring to are the balances and contrasts that make a dish exceptional. Excellent food won't just have excellent flavor. There will be balances and contrasts of temperature, textures, flavors, and color so that eating the food won't be merely an experience for the tongue and nose, but for the eyes, ears, and teeth as well. An perfect example of this is a classic cheese platter which will include elements that are nutty, funky, zingy, juicy, creamy, crunchy, crispy, soft, chewy, salty, sweet, etc. For you creative or sensual types, read through recipes that offer these kinds of balances and contrasts, and see if you can't redirect your inherent passions toward creating food!
  • A spotless kitchen. My dad can't work in chaos. That's usually not the case for me, but I can't stand having to push stuff aside or wash the tools I need before cooking. Gross. I want a polished surface and everything ready and in its place.
This is me about 4 years ago cooking in one of those messes I told you I can't stand. Our kitchen was in the middle of being remodeled and nothing was in its place. But my family was in town and they were going to eat tortellini soup or else!
  • The ability to focus. As a stay-at-home mom, this is a rarity. But I've found a few ways to keep the girls entertained while I cook. Sometimes I give them kitchen tools or ingredients like pizza dough to play with. Sometimes I open the tupperware drawer and let them have at. Sometimes I put on music so they can dance together. Something as simple as a big blanket to play under can do the trick. Often, I'll employ a few of these things in the same hour. OR if I'm making something like a roast, soup, or a loaf of bread, I simply do it earlier in the day while they're napping!
  • Music. Find a favorite album or collection of songs, preferably something that reflects your mood or the theme of what you're cooking. You can bet your arse that when I'm making Italian food, I'm playing my "Il Viaggio" mix. That Gianmaria Testa makes my cheeks flush and my food taste better. Your music should help transform your kitchen into a creative space.
  • Cookbooks. I admit that I do a lot of my cooking with a laptop in front of me, but something about flour on paper makes me feel safe and snug and connected to history. My mother's collection of recipes (aka "The Cow Book," aptly named for the cows on the front cover,) is tattered and stained from years of use. There's hardly a spare inch in the margins because of all her notes. On the back pages you can find lists of all the appetizers and side dishes she serves at each of the holidays because she knew how much we looked forward to our family's traditional foods. A good cookbook doesn't just have great recipes, but LIFE as well, and that life likely will be inspiring to you.
  • An appreciative diner. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING fuels my kitchen fire more consistently than this. Being able to watch someone's eyes roll back into their head while they moan their way through a meal that I cooked is so thoroughly satisfying. If you don't have such a person to eat with on any given night, drop by with a small portion of your leftovers the next day. 
  • The passion of others. A foodie movie, a fantastic restaurant, or other blogs usually get me going. "Julie & Julia," "No Reservations," "Chocolat," "Ratatouille," as well as documentaries like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" and "Three Stars" are all great. For those of you in the DC area, L'Auberge Chez Francois and Black Market Bistro are musts. Any blog on Saveur's list of "Sites We Love" should do the trick.

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