For many of us, cooking is just something we do to make sure our family is fed. And while it is arguably the most important task of the day, we often rush through it, trying to decide what to put on the table the fastest so we can get on to whatever else we have to do that evening.
Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending "An Evening with Michael Pollan" at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland. David Miller, a local radio host, spoke with Pollan about his latest book, “Cooked,” where he explores the idea that cooking at home is the single most important way we can improve our health.
Pollan said that he was inspired to write his book, in part at least, by the idea that he has finally figured out how to cook. But not in the sense that you think – as one of the most influential food writers in the country, Pollan knows how to cook. Instead, he learned how to approach cooking by obeying three simple words: patience, practice and presence. And by doing this, cooking went from being a chore to a task he enjoyed. And for the most part, I've followed this too. After all, if I make a point to buy local, high quality (and sometimes expensive) ingredients, don’t I owe it to myself to prepare them properly? So now, instead of figuring out how to cook and get dinner on the table as quickly as possible, I try really hard to take my time.
Unfortunately, this doesn't always work. Take last night for example. I got home at 5:45, was starving and only had an hour to get dinner on the table before I had to leave (ironically, to go see Michael Pollan talk). When I got home, I wasn't sure what I was going to make, but I started pulling ingredients out of the fridge and cupboard anyway, hastily putting the meal together in my mind. I knew I didn't have long and wanted to relax before I left, so I turned on a recording of The Voice and quickly started chopping up carrots and bok choy to make a stir fry while I listened, dashing back and forth between the counter and the couch to watch periodically. However, I didn't pay attention and before I knew it, the carrots were cut up into uneven chunks and I had failed to pick out the slimy, gross parts of the bok choy before throwing them in with the good parts.
But I didn't have time to go back and cut the carrots again, nor did I have time to sort the bok choy, so I decided to throw the veggies in together anyway. Then I realized we were nearly out of soy sauce so I scrambled for some alternatives in the cupboard and started pouring them over the veggies, hoping the results would be palatable.
I’ll spare you the rest of the details, but despite my attempt to get a quick, healthy dinner on the table before I left, I ended up eating cold rice noodles with a splash of toasted sesame oil before cleaning up the kitchen and running out the door. I was completely frustrated that I didn't take more time to think through my meal to make sure I had the right ingredients, the time to make it, the time to eat it or time to enjoy it. Plus, I had made such a mess that I had no time to relax!
Then I went to hear Michael speak.
The great thing about Pollan is that he doesn't guilt you into cooking or even guilt you into what you should be cooking (but he does have some great advice on that topic), despite the fact that his book is all about the importance of cooking. But it still made me realize that I need to have realistic cooking expectations. Making stir fry was actually a very easy meal to make in under an hour, so I should have slowed down to enjoy the process of cooking, rather than rushing through it so quickly.
Cooking shouldn't be stressful, but because I threw my practice, patience and presence out the window, it was exactly that.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only night where this will happen, so I am going to start obeying Pollan’s three “P’s” of cooking to try and take the stress out of cooking.
First, I am going to be patient when cooking. I wanted to get dinner ready so quickly that I threw too much in the skillet at once, which actually made it cook slower.
Second, I am going to practice some great advice a cooking instructor once told me – “mise en place,” which means having all of your ingredients gathered, measured and cut before you start cooking. I know that makes the process of cooking easier, so I’m going to practice that skill.
Third, I am going to be present when cooking dinner. No more trying to watch TV as I chop up my vegetables. Cooking dinner should be the only task I am working on at any given moment. No more chopping up my vegetables in uneven pieces that will cook unevenly. I want to enjoy the process and use it as a time to slow the pace of my day down.
I am also going to add another “P” to Pollan’s list: please. Specifically by asking “Josh, will you please help me make dinner tonight?” Usually I just make dinner by myself by choice, but hopefully I will get better at being patient and present by inviting him to help me, because if he is there, things will go faster and maybe I will enjoy it more.
How about you? Do you enjoy cooking? Or do you find yourself rushing through it just to get on to the next item on your 'to do' list?