Aspen Times Weekly: Cook, why don’t you?
A CONVENIENT TRUTH
Make food prep a breeze with these handy tips from Epicurious editor David Tamarkin of The #Cook90 Challenge.
•Do a “big shop” every week. Attempting to buy ingredients à la carte — on weeknights after work or when hungry — is recipe for failure.
• Stay stocked on staples: washed greens, frozen fish or shrimp, bread. Toast may be topped with virtually anything to create a meal.
• Batch it. Cook a large quantity of grains such as quinoa, rice, and farro — those that take a while to cook, especially — to store in the freezer.
• Get creative with leftovers. Tamarkin turns everything into soup. Whiz leftover roasted vegetables, cooked beans, and meat with broth for a quick, hot dish.
• When in doubt, put an egg on it. Instant protein upgrade.
• Don’t let the voice in your head get to you. You’re more skilled than you think. Plan and focus. And remember that even food editors like Tamarkin struggle with walking the talk.
LAST NOVEMBER, before I moved to a new apartment, I made a strong effort to clean out my pantry. A fresh start seemed appropriate. It worked, mostly: I ended up packing just a couple of egg boxes, one full of spices, oils, vinegars, and other shelf-stable condiments that tend to go the distance.
But now, every time I open the cabinet where these kinds of ingredients live in my new place, I’m reminded of a past shortcoming. A slender figure the shape of an old soda bottle stands at the front corner, clear of the Lazy Susan that holds frequently used items. It’s wrapped in a bright blue label with Arabic lettering: pomegranate molasses.
I ordered the tangy, sanguine syrup online, one day inspired to prepare fesenjan, an Iranian chicken stew made with a thick gravy of onion, ground walnuts, and this special sweet-tart ingredient. I even printed the recipe from the New York Times Cooking website in anticipation of making it during the winter solstice, as is customary. This was two and a half years ago.
What happened to my motivation to tackle this exotic dish for the last 30 months? This bottle of pomegranate molasses had become a relic of my own kitchen inadequacy.
The fesenjan procedure isn’t daunting. Hands-on time maxes out around half an hour, mostly the dish bubbles away in a Dutch oven by itself. Rarely do I have four cups of walnuts, two pounds of chicken, and a half-cup of grated butternut squash lying around, but I could go buy it if I really wanted to. The flavor could be a crapshoot — possibly sour and cloying at the same time. Even if I halved the recipe, the leftovers! Ugh.
David Tamarkin knows all about this — he calls it, “the barriers to home cooking.” In January, the editor of online recipe encyclopedia Epicurious endeavored to cook every meal he ate for the entire month. He allowed himself three cheat meals out of 90 — he’s human, after all — otherwise, he’d prep all food himself. The original impetus was financial — daily $4 breakfasts of pre-peeled hardboiled eggs, plus multiple coffee breaks, in the Condé Nast cafeteria, followed by dinners in Manhattan, added up to an obscene amount of discretionary income.
During the last week of his #Cook90 challenge, Tamarkin explains via the Food52 “Burnt Toast” podcast that many common obstacles to cooking — lack of money or access to grocery stores; an uncompromising work schedule; children or a partner with different tastes; time and desire to scout new recipes to break out of a rut — don’t apply to him. Yet while he feels confident in his skills and calm in the kitchen, he isn’t the kind of person to find “magic…in chopping tomatoes.”
So, Tamarkin says, “If I could cook every day and see what my barriers were, I would understand the barriers my readers have.” He wanted to become a better cook, too. One rule: he must attempt three new cuisines each week.
Tamarkin discovered that organization was his most crucial excuse. “If I don’t meal plan and do a big weekly shop, I’m not gonna be a good cook that week because I’m having a panic attack at 3 p.m….about dinner,” he says. (See more of his tips, opposite page.)
Despite being a food editor, Tamarkin also struggled with motivation. He lamented feeling like he spent a lot of time indoors, cooking. (That might be a biggie for Aspenites who would rather grab a granola bar and get outside than spend daylight hours in the kitchen.) He drank more wine—alone. He missed the social interaction of dining out; on Day 24 he broke down and used his first cheat meal. He suffered critiques on social media, such as the Instagram naysayer who questioned his choice of grilled cheese for breakfast.
The challenge begs the question: What constitutes cooking, anyway? Do morning smoothies count? What about toast? Assembling a salad? Are we not home cooks if we eat eggs for dinner every night?
“If I’ve used my skills in the kitchen to feed myself, that’s cooking,” Tamarkin concluded on an Epicurious blog documenting his #Cook90 experience.
Then there are the chestnuts of drive and inspiration — often hard to summon, especially when actively sought after.
Witness a listener calling in for advice to The Splendid Table, NPR’s popular culinary podcast: “One of my goals in 2016 is to try 12 new dishes from 12 different countries this year,” she says. “Suggestions on cuisines, cultures to not miss?”
It’s personal, host David Leite replies. He suggests the woman take a radical, adventurous approach.
“Buy a map of the world, tape it to your kitchen wall,” Leite says. “Blindfold your husband and play pin the tail on the country. Wherever that pin lands is where you’ll cook from. It’s culinary travel—you can research and learn about it, and guess who becomes the expert on Yemen cooking or South African cooking? You! And your circle of friends.”
How’s that for a personal dare or supper club theme?
Cathy Erway of Not Eating Out in New York—a 10-year-old blog chronicling her home-cooking adventures since she began boycotting pricey restaurants, which led her to write a book, “The Art of Eating In” — approaches inspiration from another angle. Among her “Reasons for Not Eating Out”: #1 Gimmicks, #22 Your Health, #52 To Better Experience the Seasons, #30 This is Why You’re Not Fat, and #39 Because the Hair in My Food is Always Mine. Ha!
So, after watching Michael Pollan’s call-to-action Netflix series, “Cooked,” last week, I stared down that bottle of pomegranate molasses for the last time. I plucked it from the cabinet and picked up the other ingredients during my Sunday evening food haul. Finally, I made fesenjan.
As expected, Erway was right about the “adrenaline rush once you start [cooking],” the momentum of which “is much like a domino effect.” In fact, I prepared chelo (steamed Persian basmati rice) with crispy tadig crust to go with it.
Iran, check. Only 10 more countries to go….
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