Cooking has always been a treasured hobby for me. For more than a decade, I have subscribed to nearly every culinary magazine in print, and my Instagram feed definitely holds more brightly colored portraits of artfully plated meals than snapshots of human beings. My favorite weekend activity is curling up with a stack of new recipes and a cup of coffee to sketch out my weekly meal plan. I even invested in this beautiful notepad, so that I can scotch-tape my blueprints to my kitchen wall beside my kids’ artwork. Given that the majority of my kids’ favorite activities have been canceled, I feel fortunate that my hobby is wholly uninterrupted by the limits of social distancing and quarantine. In fact, during these strange and challenging times, I have found that cooking has been elevated from a mere leisure activity to a daily ritual that helps me reset and brings me a great sense of calm.
Cooking brings you calm? I know by this point, many of you probably think I’m insane. I have plenty of mama friends who have expressed their disdain for the daily drudgery of cooking meals and the absolute chaos that can pervade the dinner hour. Trust me, there are certainly days when I wish we could skip over the hours of 4:00-7:00 p.m. and mandate an early bedtime. But most days, I truly look forward to 5:00 p.m.– not so I can begin happy hour (although a glass of wine while cooking is never a bad idea)–but because that dinner prep hour is designated “me-time” when I send my kids upstairs to watch their daily TV show, and I get to be alone in the kitchen. Sometimes I put on music; sometimes I just revel in the silence.
Like a daily yoga ritual, the methodical chopping, stirring, salt-showering, and citrus-squeezing allows me to meditate on the day’s ups and downs and enter a sort of creative flow as I make edible art that will nourish my family. It’s an hour where I usually don’t have to make any big decisions (see meal plan notepad), I get to stimulate my brain (new recipes demand new techniques), and I can focus my attention on just one thing (note the strategic placement of daily screen time). This daily practice also provides much-needed structure to these long shapeless summer days that often linger in the absence of swim team practice or summer camp. The COVID calendar clearing means we now have time for a family meal every night, and cooking dinner is often the most exciting thing on my schedule!
When it comes to new recipes, my best advice is to stick to reputable sources. Cooking takes way too much time, energy, and often costly ingredients to end up with a finished dish that is just okay. Every now and then, I find a recipe on someone’s blog from a random Google search that turns out great, but more often than not, I’m left feeling underwhelmed. Not to mention, the sheer number of recipes for “enchiladas” on the World Wide Web is mind-boggling.
When I search for a recipe online, I stick to sources that I trust with recipes that have been deliberately crafted, tested, and reviewed. My absolute favorite source is the New York Times Cooking app (not free, but for me, it is worth the yearly subscription fee ten times over). I also love no cost sources, including Epicurious, Food and Wine online, Cooking Light (also known as AllRecipes), and Food 52. While I generally stick to the convenience of digital recipes, the extra time at home these days has led me to a cookbook revival. A fantastic way to try on a cookbook for size is to check it out from the library. It usually only takes a skim through the book or trying out one or two recipes to know whether it would be a worthy investment. My favorite discovery of the summer is Milk Street: Tuesday Nights. It’s a rare occasion when I flip through a cookbook and flag every single recipe, and the theme of this book is “weeknight cooking,” so all the recipes are quick and straightforward. I’ve already made at least five recipes from this book, and our family has loved every one of them.
Summer is the best time to cook because fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables are abundant. I am in love with our weekly CSA that keeps us in constant stock of local produce, plus the weekly “mystery box” assigns me a challenge. What can I make with kohlrabi? This summer, I even treated our family to a Georgia peach subscription that we are loving; my kids think they are better than candy. And I often grab artisanal spices, jelly, bread, meat, and wine via curbside pickup to support my favorite St. Louis small businesses. High quality, interesting ingredients make the daily dinner grind delicious and fun.
While I generally enjoy being alone in the kitchen, my passion for cooking has definitely trickled down to my kids. Experimenting in the kitchen is one of their favorite pastimes and has promoted self-sufficiency, creativity, and essential learning about nutrition, cultural cuisine, and even food sustainability. My son just used some of his savings to buy edible crickets! My boys have their own cookbooks (these cooking and baking ones are their favorites) and love picking out new recipes to try for breakfasts, snacks, and dessert. (I’m not willing to hand over my sacred dinner prep yet.)
Perhaps not everyone can find calm in this daily chore, but reframing “the daily feed” into an artful family activity might at least make it more tolerable and add a little spice to your summer routine.