Cures For A Cooking Hangover
I have a cooking hangover. Not a food hangover. While I certainly had a few holiday treats I did none of that "It's Christmas so over-eating doesn't count" stuff. I put that in the same myth category as believing that if you eat a cookie when you're standing up it hasn't any calories.
But between the media ramp-up to Christmas with weeks of glittering magazine covers and TV holiday specials, plus newspapers summing up the best eating of the year past, whether cooked at home or eaten out, it was hard to avoid the all-cooking-all-the-time enthusiasm. It ended with a hair shirt prescription from Mark Bittman's depressing January 2 piece in The Times' "Sustainable Life" Week In Review (see our link below). He began with a lament about how no one cooks any more and ended with three recipes that after the abundance of holiday eating probably inspired few with its message of cook-for-yourself-because-it's-cheaper-healthier-and-good-for-the-planet-dammit. Maybe he had a cooking hangover, too.
Then there was real life. I had a few John Boehner weeping moments in which I became close to tears while grocery shopping for holiday meals. Even before entering the store I knew it was a mistake to go to Zabar's on Christmas Eve Day but I had to have my favorite Norwegian style smoked salmon and I wanted it freshly sliced. Despite having what I thought was a shrewd strategy (go early, grab a number, find a corner and wait out of the line of fire) I couldn't avoid ankles bruised from shopping carts wielded as weapons. No matter how tough you may think you are, until you've survived Zabar's or Fairway on the day before a holiday you are a wuss.
Still, I happily cooked for three holiday dinner parties, ending with a Christmas dinner of confit de canard and a tart tatin. Plus that hard-won Norwegian smoked salmon.
Last week I concluded my holiday cooking marathon by handing my husband a stack of cookbooks as if they were menus and asked him to choose dinner. This resulted in my taking on -- over several days, not all at once, please -- new recipes for fish cooked Provençal (with tomatoes and black olives), stuffed shrimp, pasta with braised garlic and balsamic vinegar, lamb chops pounded thin and dipped in a Parmesan batter and pan fried (from Marcella Hazan's first cookbook), salmon rillettes, spinach with chickpeas and lemon, winter panzanella salad (see our recipe), and a lemon curd pie. Before the week ended, our appetites had numbed to only wanting a tuna salad and I lost any interest in turning on the stove. We ended the year happily eating leftovers.
Then there's the obligatory New Year's diet industry marketing. Before the ball had dropped on 2011, the Nutrisystem-Slim Fast-Weight Watchers-Jenny Craig campaigns had already begun. Whenever I hear the expression "new year, new you" I get discouraged. Not only because I kinda like the old me, but also because it can make you feel like you begin the year already behind.
Developing A Recipe Repertoire
So how can we get back to normal cooking?
In the last chapter of my new book (The City Cook: Big City, Small Kitchen, Limitless Ingredients, No Time) I write about having your own recipe repertoire. By this I mean having a core collection of recipes that we love to eat, suit our nutrition and calorie goals, and fit into both our small kitchens and busy lives. I think this concept is just what we need to cure a cooking hangover.
This idea isn't original. I mean, restaurants have been doing this forever. It's called a menu. This is also how you develop a collection of signature dishes that friends and family start to clamor for and also give you control over your kitchen.
The idea is very simple -- to have five to ten meals that we cook all the time to the point that we no longer need the recipe in front of us, we can buy groceries without an ingredient list, and the meal turns out successfully and stress-free every time we make it.
I do this for both weekday cooking as well as what I make for company. In any typical week I will cook about five dinners. The other nights we might eat out, have dinner at friends', or have leftovers. Those five dinners will almost always feature a protein -- meat, chicken or fish -- a vegetable and a salad. Sometimes I'll replace the salad with pasta, a grain, or a second vegetable.
I'll vary the vegetables depending upon what's in season, what's on sale, and what we're in the mood to eat. And the protein will mostly be chicken and fish, with red meat only once or twice a week. Whenever possible I'll double up recipes to have instant leftovers for lunch or the next day's dinner. For example, if I roast pieces of chicken I'll do twice what we need for dinner because leftover chicken is really versatile. Same thing for a pan cooked flank or hanger steak that is wonderful when just cooked but also sliced cold on a salad for lunch. If I'm cleaning shrimp to broil with a teriyaki sauce, I'll do twice what I need and quickly boil the rest to become shrimp salad in another day or two.
Planning meals this way lets me buy certain ingredients in advance, like frozen shrimp or chicken on sale that I then pack into dinner-sized portions. In the morning I can gauge if we're eating at home and take what I need out of the freezer. The rest of my pantry should have all the ingredients I need for dinner except for fresh produce, which I can buy that day. But I can only be this facile with dinner planning if I know I'm working off of a controlled and familiar list of recipes, i.e., my repertoire.
Besides the practical aspects of this approach, it's also comforting to know that dinner will be a meal I can cook without lots of stress -- who needs to face a new recipe at the end of a busy day? -- and that we will enjoy its flavor. Does it get boring? Not really because I regularly add new dishes to the selection. A couple of times a month I'll try something new and every so often it will be, as my husband calls it, a "keeper" and it gets added to the repertoire. As happened this past week when I made salmon rillettes, a splendid combination of cooked and smoked salmon that becomes a kind of rough paté (see our recipes).
The Winter Cooking Season With CSAs On the Horizon
So we will head back to our kitchens where "to every thing there is a season…" also applies. We may miss the bounty of late summer local crops, but our winter cooking has the huge pleasure of stews and braises, vegetable daubes, soups, citrus, chili, and foods cooked at low temperatures for hours and hours whether it's roasted tomatoes or an eight-hour brisket. I've been inspired by my friend Gayle who spent New Year's Day making a huge pot of her grandmother's chicken soup recipe, each fresh batch retaining a kind of soup DNA as she always starts a new pot with the end of the last batch that was frozen.
As with many things in our city kitchens, the seasons mean we should get it while we can.
Which leads me to an early alert -- some of New York's CSAs are already sending sign-up notices and have opened registration. It's not too soon to be thinking about whether you'll be joining one for the full planting and harvest season. Remember that urban CSAs have become hugely popular and the peak of registration will be in February and March; when the shares are completely sold, that's it.
For more information about CSAs in New York visit JustFood.org/csa. For information about CSAs across the rest of the country visit Local Harvest.org/csa.