Chop chop chop. Mince mince mince. Grate grate grate. I first discovered my love for cooking when I was living in France many years ago. It was by immersion, really—the same way I was able to master French. We must eat to survive, and pasta with red sauce was getting boring fast. Sure, my parents made sure to teach me how to make scrambled eggs, pancakes, and grilled cheese sandwiches, but those get old, too! So I set out to cook.
I didn't pick up a copy of The Joy of Cooking and I didn't take any culinary courses. I started with what I knew, then moved into embellishing or substituting to make the meals better. Pasta was still the staple, so it was the sauces that needed variation. I cobbled together my own alfredo-esque cream sauce and even dabbled with a "sweet" sauce which involved lardons, cream, Laughing Cow cheese, and, believe it or not, brown sugar. Ugh. Looking back now I shake my head, but what I found in my experimentation in the moment was a respect for the kitchen and a love for trying something new. My crown achievement in the low-budget pasta world made me incredibly proud—sautéed garlic zucchini tossed with al dente pasta and then pan-fried to add a little crispiness and bite to it. (Note to self: you should try and make that again… but it's been six years, so don't get your hopes up!)
In came recipes. I started pulling them together from all over the place—the people I was living with, the French and Belgian people I was meeting, and I begged my mom to send me more in my next care package. I was also given a couple little cookbooks, one of which identified all the common herbs and spices and detailed why they're used, what flavors they give, and how they can be combined with different foods for regional flavors. Suddenly I realized that knowing the reasoning behind the seasoning and the cooking methods helped me understand how they reacted in the pan or the oven.
Once I was back stateside, the single most educational cookbook I found was The New Best Recipe from the editors of Cook's Illustrated. Each recipe was experimented, tweaked, and reviewed thoroughly in America's Test Kitchen, and each recipe came with detailed notes on what worked, what didn't, and, most importantly, why. Logic and analysis applied to the culinary art.
With new recipes I learned new techniques, and over the last eight years I've amassed a kitchen of mid-range appliances, cookware, and implements. I still see myself as largely a recipe guy with a healthy skill for tweaking. What have come to be known as my specialties—Cashew Chicken Stir Fry, Spring Asparagus and Shiitake over Quinoa, Steak and Avocado Fajitas, and Apricot Chicken Tajine to name a few—are really the result of stellar recipe hunting and some adjustments and substitutions over time. And don't get me started on desserts! Red Velvet Cake (whose match I have yet to find), Accidentally Vegan Pumpkin Cookies, La Bête Noire, and the winner of the best title ever, "Who Are Those Angels, and Why Are They Singing in my Kitchen?" (aka Fudge Brownies) all came from elsewhere.
Okay, I'm officially hungry.
The Joy of Cooking
Honestly, it doesn't really matter what I'm good at cooking or how I learned what skills I have. What I find most fascinating is how much fun I have doing it. In fact, cooking for me is the perfect activity for the Ambidextrous Brain. I can have a super-stressful day at work, but when I come home and start mincing garlic or chopping up vegetables, all the stress breaks down and feeds out through my hands, into the blade of my seven-inch santoku knife, and then dissolves into the food I'm preparing. Then that pent-up energy slides into my favorite cast-iron skillet and crackles and pops into oblivion thanks to hot oil, heat, and the Maillard effect.
Whether it's prep-work or active cooking time, my brain can release itself, and while it's focused on the analysis of doneness or the art of seasoning, it wanders and relaxes.
Cooking, for me, is therapeutic.
And when it's all said and done, when the dishes are served and we're gathered around the table (or the TV, as the case may be), I feel that sense of accomplishment. I made this. I can share this with my friends and my family. I can see the delight on their faces, and I can marvel that so much work can be undone in a few short minutes of consumption. It may seem unbalanced, but it's a cycle worth playing out.
Finding the Joy
"I hate cooking," you might be saying to your computer screen right now. That's okay. It's certainly not for everyone, but I see four basic steps that can help you embrace the benefits of cooking.
Knowledge empowers, and the more I learned about the whys and the hows of cooking, the more I respected the chemical processes involved. What is the difference between butter, margarine, and olive oil? How do different stove temperatures affect the foods I'm preparing? How do I chop, mince, dice, or julienne something? With the Internet at our fingertips, there's no stopping the input of answers.
If I don't plan out meals a week in advance, I have a hard time coming up with things on the fly. I typically restrict myself to trying no more than two new recipes per week. Shopping ahead of time puts you in tune with what's in your refrigerator and mentally prepares you to put your energy into your meals. Know your prep and cooking times, and keep your kitchen clean and at the ready.
3. Seek Improvement
You will fail, so fail spectacularly (short of starting a kitchen fire—that's just uncalled for). Then fail better. Figure out what went wrong and try something different the next time around. Ask for honest feedback about your work and jot down notes on your recipes. When I first made the asparagus and shiitake recipe, it was bland, gluey, and boring. The next time around, it was ten times better just by substituting chicken broth for vegetable broth, adding salt, a dash of cayenne, some lemon juice, and serving it over quinoa instead of mixing it in like a pilaf. On the flip side, I've also learned that I'm terrible at pan-toasting nuts. Above all, be patient. Even Julia Child took a long time to get where she was.
4. Savor the Successes
When you succeed, relish in it. Celebrate the victories and pat yourself on the back. Share the recipes you're most proud of with your colleagues and share that food porn on your favorite social network. Just like anything else, take pride in what you've created. Find a friend in your culinary adventures and swap stories, techniques, and lessons.
Your Brain Where Your Mouth Is
Whether chopping onions, folding blueberries into buckle batter, or sautéing brussels sprouts until their golden brown, your mind benefits from technical measurement and analysis combined with artistic culinary license. It activates all your cognitive abilities, requires all five of your senses, and allows your focus to let go of the day's stresses and focus on the power of creation. Once the food's on the table you reap the rewards of your labors as you consume what you produced and share your creation with those around you.
I love cooking, from prep work all the way to putting it on the table and sitting down ready to eat. It centers me and channels my efforts into something productive and healthy. It allows me to decompress and take my mind off things. And when all is said and done, I'm providing for myself and my loved ones.