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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: Habit

The blog has really gotten away from me. I’m having trouble both finding time to write and figuring out what to write about.

It’s the middle and I hate the middle. One of my goals for grad school was to learn to get past the middle. I’m always excited at the beginning of a project. I can marshal fantastic energy to get something started. But then, when the dream of what I want to create runs into the reality of the faults with my creation, I have a horrible habit: I give up.

In order to prepare myself for my middle problem, I did something silly before grad school. I grew my hair out. It was about 2″ long and I wanted it to be almost to my elbows. When I was younger I had long, wild, curly hair. I thought maybe, for a woman starting over in middle age, it might be fun to recapture some of the spirit of my romantic youth. Growing my hair out required patience through long stretches of middle where I looked like – there is no other word for it – a soccer mom. Coming, as it did, in my mid-40’s it was painful. But I made it through, and now (with the help of some Clairol Natural Instincts #12) I have the hair of my youth.

But here’s what I’ve realized. Discipline is only 1/2 the battle. I have taught myself the discipline of sticking with a difficult project, of writing every day, of finishing a draft I’m struggling with. But creative discipline requires a flexibility to change the original idea to fit the reality of the outcome and I’m struggling with that in both my writing and the blog.

I’m afraid to stop posting every meal, every day, because I’m afraid if I give up on the original conception, I’ll lose the lesson of whatever it had to teach me. But I’m also afraid that if I’m unwilling to change the idea of the project I might be missing out in a different way.

I don’t know how to resolve the conflict. I also don’t know how to get this back to meatballs and spaghetti. Except to say that meatballs and spaghetti was one of the first meals that made me realize that I am more relaxed when I’m not using a recipe which was my first inkling that although I took pride in my Unnatural Cook status, it wasn’t necessarily serving me. I might, in fact, be happier as a Natural Cook. My suspicion is the thing that you don’t know you need to learn is more important than the thing you set out to learn. Which would mean that someday, I might have to be willing to be flexible and change my m.o. with the blog…..

 

 

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I am at least wise enough not to have photographed the peanut butter and jelly I ate for dinner during class.

And yet, I am not wise enough to let a day pass unremarked upon. I have set myself the task of writing every day and am not ready to abandon it. Although I cannot see how the ends will justify the means I am trying to learn to live comfortably with the unknown. It seems an essential part of the creative process. Dedicating a year to a bad idea seems at least a step toward understanding what a good idea might be.

The blog has already forced me to question my assumptions about how I like to cook; it is showing me how to be more creative and free in the kitchen. But the initial impulse for the blog was actually the very disciplined act of making a meal plan. I hope the same will happen with the writing: that habit and discipline will have unanticipated creative consequences.

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My daughter doesn’t accept the idea that I am an unnatural cook. She keeps trying to prove me wrong. When she is a teenager this desire to prove me wrong will be very annoying, but right now it is incredibly sweet. She refuses to allow me to speak ill of my talents and she thinks “unnatural” is an insult. Yesterday, she gave me a challenge: make dinner from what was in the house. At first I refused. No way. It made me incredibly nervous. Then she gave my husband a challenge – he should make a meal plan! He balked too! I realized how much I’d love it if he did make a meal plan and so I reconsidered the challenge. Why not?

Turns out that making dinner from what’s in the house is a great way to clear out the fridge. Duh. I know lots of people do this I’m just not those people. I made pasta with pink sauce. It should have been pinker than it was but one of the creams wandering around in the fridge turned out to be rock solid. I used bacon, leftover shallot, parsley and 1/2 a red onion, sun dried tomatoes (which must have been at least a year old), garlic, chicken stock, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. It tasted good and was on the table fast.

So I have a confession: I think it might be more relaxing to cook without a recipe. Now what am I supposed to do? I didn’t start this thing so I could change my habits. I started it to…well, I don’t know why the hell I started it. I certainly did not mean give up my recipe following ways. But what did I expect? The blog is a way to make the daily habit of cooking into a creative endeavor. A decent artist allows herself to be changed by the process of art making, doesn’t she? Otherwise, what’s the point?

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I was going to write a really nice post about the romantic associations I have with tonight’s meal, Pepperoncini Pasta  – and then I burnt it. Playing scrabble. There was an incident over an ‘x’ that involved crying. There are so many ways to get distracted in the kitchen. I like to blame my children and they are a constant distraction, but really, I’m so easily distracted by my own thoughts that I can’t blame them for most of my mistakes in the kitchen. I think cooking well, like anything else, takes focus and I find the kitchen an incredibly difficult place to do that. My mind is always on the next thing I want to do, or the thing I stopped doing in order to cook, or what I wish I was doing instead of cooking. It is rarely completely on the task at hand and this evening was no exception: my beautiful bacon and onions turned black. Not all of them, not irretrievably black, but annoyingly so. I am curious if writing about cooking will help the problem or exacerbate it. Yesterday I didn’t hear the timer buzz for the zucchini bread – I have a sneaking suspicion it was because I was writing about it…

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Tostadas are one of our standby meals. We make the tostadas ourselves because it’s cheap and easy. We just brush both sides of a corn tortilla with olive oil and bake it at 375° for about 10 minutes. The we top them with canned refried beans, chicken or fried egg, jack cheese, scallions, jalapeño, tomato and avocado. I enjoyed making dinner tonight because I didn’t have to think about it (except the part where I poached the chicken breast – I can never remember how long it takes and I always have to look it up.) But it did occur to me that the two meals I’ve enjoyed making most since I started this endeavor were the meatballs & spaghetti and the tostadas. In other words, I was most relaxed when I wasn’t using a recipe. Which sort of goes against everything I think about the way I know how to cook. Does this mean that I really do need to learn technique? It would be weird if the blog ended up changing the very habits that created it….

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I didn’t feel like posting tonight, but I did anyway. That’s how I feel every time I sit down to write a meal plan. I don’t feel like it, but I do it anyway. In fact, the whole act of creating meal plans taught me that I possessed this discipline. It took me three years before I was confident I wouldn’t give up. I decided that three years was the time it takes to form a new habit.

The blessing of forming a new habit, a good habit, is that it suggests that other new habits can be formed. Like, writing shall we say? It seems unrelated but it’s not, quite. In order to write successfully, I have to be able to sit at the computer, every day, whether I want to or not. A few years ago I would not have believed myself capable. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that I can sit down, write this post without a clear understanding of what the hell it’s all for, but with the faith that given enough time, I’ll figure it out. Well, it’s only week two. That’s the working premise anyway.

Tonight I tried something new, mac and cheese from the Barefoot Contessa. I’ve had good luck with her recipes: gazpacho, penne vodka, pecan shortbread cookies. This one had a video of her making it so I could watch it before I tried it. I definitely like to learn that way. The comments of people who’d tried it led me to make some adjustments: switching the amounts of the cheddar (cheaper cheese) and gruyere to save money and decreasing the amount of nutmeg and salt. We all liked it but I have some questions. Like, is it really necessary to dirty an extra pot by heating the milk before it gets added to the butter and flour? And, how am I supposed to know how many quarts a baking dish holds? I got myself into some trouble trying to split the recipe into two dishes so I could put half in the freezer to save for another night.

Next time I think I’ll skip the gruyere altogether and opt for something less fancy, like jack cheese to go with the cheddar. And maybe even use a less sharp cheddar. My mac and cheese tastes tend toward old-fashioned comfort food versions. I don’t really want a grown up version. I still don’t think I’ve found the perfect recipe but at least I’ve learned a little bit about what I’m looking for.

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