The Practice of Cooking

Banana Oat Bran MuffinsIf you’ve been reading my blog for a while or have perused my website, you know the drill: I love cooking, I own more than 200 cookbooks, blah, blah, blah. That’s all true, except sometimes cooking’s the last thing I want to do. When I’m tired at the end of a long day, and know I need to spend a chunk of my evening working on an article or blog post, then, quite honestly, all I want to do is eat something delicious and nourishing before getting on with the rest of my agenda.

That’s why my latest article in The Seattle Times, “Batch cooking: Cook once, eat for days” is not just an idle exercise in advice giving. I live and breathe those words. A week in which I’ve spent time on the weekend doing some cooking for the week ahead is a much happier week than one in which I haven’t.

I eat breakfast and lunch away from home four days a week, so when I don’t have brown-bag meals ready to grab and go, I’m left scrambling in the morning, which is not a nice way to start the day. And while there are some reasonably healthy lunch options near my office, they aren’t as tasty (and are far more expensive) than what I would bring from home.

When I don’t have to worry about breakfast and lunch, and have a few dinners taken care of, this frees me up to enjoy cooking from scratch on a few weekday evenings. Which is good, because I really do love cooking.

I’ve noticed the difference that batch cooking makes in my life, and I see the difference in my patients. My patients who batch cook tend to be less stressed and better nourished as a result (especially when they don’t set the bar too high and attempt to cook several complicated dishes on the weekend…as I mention in the article, it’s usually best to keep some of the cooking super simple). I was just talking to my sister yesterday, who had a crazy week (a new job and three young kids with school activities) and didn’t do her usual advance meal prep. By the end of the week, she was just not feeling her normal self because she was playing catch-as-catch-can with her meals. Yes, batch cooking matters.

On a semi-related note, I took another great cooking class from PCC Natural Markets Friday evening. The topic was “Soups and Stocks,” but Chef Darin Gagner always weaves general cooking advice in among the topic-specific conversation. Ever handy with my pen and notepad, I managed to get down a perfect quote:

“Cooking is about continually doing it until you get it right. It’s about not being afraid to screw up, because you will screw up.”

Amen to that. He also offered these two fundamental cooking tips:

  1. Don’t make a recipe for the first time when you are having people over.
  2. Don’t trust the recipe. Specifically, he said to always taste and adjust the seasonings based you your palate and the palate of whoever you are cooking for, and to use time in recipes as a suggestion, not a rule (like, if a recipe says cook chicken thighs for 35 minutes or until tender, if the chicken isn’t tender at 35 minutes, cook it longer).

I think both of those points are obvious to experienced cooks, but are definite pitfalls for newbie cooks. I’ve fallen into those bear traps myself.

In case anyone in the class thought that working in a kitchen was quick route to riches, Chef Gagner disabused that notion (!), mentioning that in times when he was a little down and disillusioned about working so hard and earning little, that he would go home and pick up Judy Rogers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook and remember why he loved cooking so much. He said every chef has a copy of that book, and that when Rogers died a few years ago, it was a tough, tough day for professional cooks everywhere.

Guess what cookbook will soon be fighting for a space on my overcrowded shelves?

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