“Ease” in the kitchen

14 May

I loved this piece I read this weekend from the chef Yotam Ottolenghi about the fine line between “ease” and “easy” in cooking. I just came off a weekend full of food prep, baking, and cooking that completely exhausted me. Nothing I did was particularly difficult or strenuous – I used a cupcake recipe that called for doctoring boxed cake mix; I did a grilled luau skewer that I have done a handful of times before; and I made a warm green bean and potato salad that is the essence of easy. But the experience felt anything but easy.

There were some extenuating circumstances – an afternoon beer with friends quickly turned into an entire evening and then dinner out. Suddenly we were grocery shopping at 9pm – I finished the cupcakes sometime close to midnight on Saturday. Sunday’s cooking experience suffered from overly-optimistic estimations of time-needed, as well as a kitchen that, due to a sudden heat wave and no a/c, felt approximately as hot as the surface of the sun. Sweaty, stressed, and exhausted is no way to show up to a family dinner.

When planning my cooking this weekend, I didn’t foresee quite this experience. I picked recipes that were simple, mostly recipes I’d made before. I was careful not to take on too much (I thought), leaving Kendall and his brother to prep the entire brunch for their mother’s day event (save those cupcakes). I even anticipated the heat wave somewhat – seeing the temperature for the weekend, I decided to bake at night and to use the grill for the entrée. But I still needed to use the stove top for 20 or 30 minutes Sunday afternoon, and that was more torturous than I anticipated.

Even though the recipes were easy and mostly familiar, there was still a lot of time involved, and a lot of chopping and mincing and other prep. And although I had made these before, I hadn’t made them enough to be free from referencing the recipe again and again. Lastly, they weren’t timed terribly well.

Having that experience this weekend and then reading this article got me thinking about what cooking with ease means to me.

It means:

  • Cooking from memory or by taste
    • This is one of the reasons I love cooking pasta dishes. It’s a basic recipe structure – boil noodles, make sauce, possibly bake – that is endlessly variable and often involves ingredients I always have on hand: onion, garlic, olive oil, broth, flour, cheese, wine, etc. It is also usually on the table in under an hour (often within 20-30 minutes).
    • This is also why, time-intensive as it is, making our family recipe for enchiladas always feels easy to me. I know it by heart and, so, can get right into the nitty-gritty of it. I also trust myself with this recipe – I know exactly what needs to happen and in what order – and that goes a long way toward being comfortable in the kitchen.
  • Cooking with confidence
    • This often comes from that above-referenced deep familiarity with a particular dish or recipe, but sometimes I feel like it is also just a state of mind that you are sometimes in and sometimes out of. I can cook confidently with even unfamiliar and jargon-y recipes if I’m in the right head space – if, for example, I am relishing the chance to explore in that moment, or if I am savoring the novelty of the experience.
    • Along the same lines, cooking with familiar ingredients or techniques – even if it’s an unfamiliar recipe – can help keep me at ease. That’s part of the beauty of learning to cook – it’s a skill that keeps giving because everything stacks and builds and transfers. Once you learn a technique, there are any number of completely different recipes to apply it to.
  • Cooking in a vacuum
    • Any time I have to cook on a schedule, for an event, because people will be there at 6pm – I’m stressed, no matter how simple the food. Having to work within a finite amount of time compounded with wanting to impress with my cooking can be an awful combination for me. I suspect this is somewhat of a learning curve and may yet get better as I learn to time the cooking of my various dishes better, and learn which dishes are reliably great (for me to cook) for these kinds of gatherings.
    • My favorite way to cook is on a whim, when I’m in the mood, when no commitments are pressing. I love to start cooking with no agenda as to when dinner will be on the table, nothing to dictate that other than my own hunger (which can be temporarily appeased with bites of cheese or other ingredients here and there while I cook). I like getting off work, going to the store, and wandering around with the vaguest idea of what I want to cook – what meat looks good right now or is on sale? Do I have garlic or should I buy some? (Answer: you always have garlic, stop buying more garlic). But I also like getting the yen to cook something new, finding a recipe online or in one of my cookbooks, and then making my list.
  • Knowing when to get weird and knowing your limits
    • Similarly, I try not to get too weird unless I have time. And energy. And the right general mindset to where, if everything goes to shit, I will be ok.
    • I love to bake, but I’m a pretty basic baker. There are a lot of more advanced techniques that I have either tried and decided to never attempt again, or have just not yet tried. A long time ago I decided making puff pastry from scratch was not worth it to me personally – I will just buy it. I haven’t delved into 3+ layered or tiered cakes yet (and may never). I am still a sub par frost-er. Knowing all this impacts which recipes I choose to bake from, when.
    • Likewise, I often have limits specific to that day, to that mindset, to that situation. Am I normally totally willing and able to make a from-scratch cheese sauce for my mac n cheese? Yes. But do I also have a simpler recipe in my back pocket for when I don’t feel up to that for whatever reason? Also yes.

Bottom-line, when I want to be cooking I love cooking. Inevitably, there are times when you’re cooking and it seemed like a good idea yesterday but now that you’re in it, you’d rather not be. There are times when you just have to feed yourself and cooking becomes more of a chore than an entertainment. There are times when you bite off more than you can chew (pardon the pun) and cooking that you had been looking forward to becomes such a challenge that it’s no longer fun. I don’t think all fun cooking is necessarily easy – it’s more about whether your expectations match up with reality. If you expect it to be difficult and it is that’s not as much of a problem as when you expect it to be simple and it isn’t.

Cooking and writing are the only two areas where I reliably experience flow and output often (but not always!) matches effort. So, although both can be arduous and even frustrating, I love them dearly nonetheless. Sometimes the simplest stuff isn’t the easiest, nor the most beloved.

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