Cooking Fear? Part 4

Prescription for Perfectionism: Limiting Exposure and Sticking to a Comfortable Creative Zone

Yesterday’s post talked about relaxing our expectations. That can be hard to do on a jam-packed schedule. One thing that can help: Limiting our exposure to things that fan the flames of panic. Seeing a whole pile of recipes clipped from the newspaper, for example, can easily get us whipped into a frenzy of disappointment. “Why haven’t I made any of those?!” we moan in despair.

That’s where limiting our exposure comes in. In other words: Turn off the TV (or at least the ads) if that fuels preconceived notions about what your meals should look like. When reading magazines, stick to the articles and don’t dawdle over the lovely pictures of homemade butternut squash and Gorgonzola ravioli or the shots of some professional chef preparing an apricot stuffed rack of lamb. While on the Internet, don’t follow the yellow brick road into a land of infinite recipe possibilities. Don’t linger over mailers showing all the cool new kitchen gadgets on sale at your local department store.

Instead, spend your time actually cooking, not being convinced that you could be doing a better job cooking.

Less is indeed more, as I repeatedly stress in my book. And that’s why de-cluttering, winnowing the chaff, and otherwise limiting our kitchen stuff is one of the most important KitchenSmart steps we can take.

So are we stuck with hamburgers and spaghetti for dinner? Is there any place for creativity?

Of course we’re not stuck with the same old thing for dinner every night and of course there is a place for creativity in our cooking, as long as it doesn’t stress you out! In other words, it’s a balancing act between too much and too little: Do stretch a little in the kitchen, but not to the point of stressing out.

Not surprisingly, balance points differ. Like an adrenalin junkie, I thrive on culinary challenge. Finding new uses for tomatillas, experimenting with totsoi greens and taking a flying leap with a completely unusual recipe don’t leave me feeling anxious.

Figure out where your stress point is, then be mindful about staying close to it. (Note that “staying close” includes stretching a little beyond it at times.) And once you know where your comfort territory lies, limit your exposure and keep your expectations in the same zone. This leaves you free to take on a little creativity now and then, but as a fun adventure rather than a daunting cross to drag around the kitchen.

Tomorrow, the final solution: “Dispense with the nay saying.” In the meantime, share your ideas for facing down our kitchen fears. . .

Cooking Fear? Part 3

Prescription for Perfectionism–Relax

Previous posts opened the subject of cooking fears and where they might have come from. My theory: Blame the Olympics! In fairness, however, the Olympics aren’t really to blame. They are just a symptom. The perfectionism, complexity and audience intolerance they encourage are just where we find ourselves at the dawn of the 21st century.

The bigger question is: What can we do to avoid the pitfalls of this trio? How can we ease our fears and make cooking a more pleasant experience, as it should be. After all, food is a pretty nice part of our lives.

Here are four solutions I see, all maddeningly simple: Relax. Limit your exposure. Have fun. Dispense with naysaying.

Start with the first prescription: Relax. Relax the expectations. Relax as we cook. Relax at the store.

Of course that’s what the experts say about all our stress-related maladies. Just relax. I’ve been tempted to wring some necks when given that advice. “Give me a specific remedy, a list of things I can do,” I wanted to shout.

There are indeed specific things we can do to make mealtimes more manageable and enjoyable. That is what my book is all about. But to begin with, we’ve got to feel good about heading to the kitchen, and that takes relaxing our expectations.

No doubt about it, that is hard work. Imagine putting a plate of black beans and rice on the table with a simple zucchini sauté on the side and being completely at ease. No garnish. No MSG-hyped flavor. No exotic ingredients. No designer dinnerware. Just reason to sit down, slow down for 15 minutes, relax and savor.

In the section of my book on “Deadly Expectations,” I tell the story of a friend who is both a cookbook author and experienced dietician, i.e., the last person on earth you’d expect to have problems cooking. Nevertheless, she was distressed one day about the sorry state of her meals. From the way she talked, it sounded like she and her husband were living on fast food burgers and take out pizza. Actually their meals were not so bad at all: vegetables every night, lots of fruit, balanced meals, and whole foods without a lot of excess fat or sugar. The distress she felt was just because her meals were a little less interesting than usual, and with good reason,since she was busy finalizing a book and had little time for cooking. So there you have it: unrealistic expectations robbing us of mealtime pleasure.

One of the participants in my KitchenSmart series came back after the first class having discovered a great antidote for unrealistic expectations: a glass of wine while making dinner! It put everything in just the right perspective, she informed us.

Tomorrow, how limiting exposure can help. . . .

Cooking Fear? Part 2

Yesterday’s post raised the topic of cooking fears and whether Olympic-inspired perfectionism, complexity and audience intolerance were at least partly at fault. Let me connect some dots to make sense of that claim.

There’s good evidence that the food world is spiraling into the stratosphere of perfectionism and complexity: Consider the sheer amount of cooking information we’re exposed to: dozens of food shows and entire food networks, hundreds of internet sites devoted to cooking and recipes, food sections in practically every newspapers and scores of magazines, cooking videos all over YouTube, live cooking classes available in dozens of venues, huge cooking stores and cooking catalogues, and of course, thousands upon thousands of cookbooks.

Each week, in cooking shows and classes, chefs (me included!) excitedly share hundreds of new recipes, all manner of exotic new foods, unique spice combinations, ever-better knives and pans and the latest must-have gadgets.

Meanwhile, we’re all exposed regularly to professionally prepared restaurant foods and to pictures of perfectly styled foods on TV and the internet, in magazines and newspapers and all over food packaging.

Not that all this is all bad! On the one hand, it has fueled a wonderful interest in food and cooking and has undoubtedly eased a lot of cooking fears. After all, if we suffer from a lack of fundamental cooking skills, there’s no better remedy than attending a cooking class. Seeing fish properly prepared goes a long way towards easing the fear of cooking fish.

On the other hand, courtesy of the law of tradeoffs, everything—even good things—come with both helpful and not-so-helpful consequences. In this case, there has been almost too much of a good thing. There has come to be so much cooking stuff, that is so perfect and fairly complex, that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by unrealistic expectations–and fear of not living up to those expectations. Think about it:

  • With magazine covers graced by picture-perfect entrees, the un-garnished, un-styled plates we rush to the table at 6:30 or 7:00 after a full day of work undoubtedly do look a little dumpy.
  • Did you know that multinational chains spend millions of dollars over many years to develop the artificial flavors that go in their food products? Once our taste buds are warped by these test-tube flavors, how can we possibly compete with just the simple, unadorned flavors of real foods?
  • Do you ever see a TV chef subject their creations to the critical eye of a picky child or spouse—and then have to endure that most defeating phrase of all: “Yuck!”
  • When professional TV chefs prepare meals of perfection in just 25 minutes, what’s wrong with us that it takes more like 45 minutes or an hour?
  • Speaking of perfection, how can we poor, multi-tasking home cooks possibly make meals that compare to the ones slaved over by a professionally trained, full-time chef in a fancy restaurant?
  • What about those Iron Chefs, creating fabulous concoctions on the fly—when it’s such a struggle to just follow one of the “quick and easy,” 29-minute recipes from the newspaper?
  • For those intimidated by deep-frying or immersion blenders, it’s understandable when every shopping season brings a new must-have appliance or gadget to buy and master: Besides the standard food processors, microwaves and blenders we have yet to figure out, there are multi-tasking stand mixers, clay pots, cast iron skillets, panani presses, flip waffle-makers, rocket blenders, mini-slow cookers, electric grills and sandwich makers.
  • And to prove that I may be as guilty as anyone: where once it was just great to make a potato and carrot beef stew, now it takes a Beef Stew with Mediterranean Spices (see my blog of last week!), containing eggplant that has to be salted for 30 minutes for some reason I can’t quite remember and with exotic spices I’m not sure I have and am less certain I’ll like.

So all in all, maybe it’s not hard to see why we’re feeling just a little intimidated in the kitchen.

What do you think? What’s behind our cooking fears? More importantly, what should we do about it?

Tomorrow’s Post:  Prescription for Perfectionism

Cooking Fear? Blame It on the Olympics

Do you have any cooking fears? Maybe cooking fish? Making yeast work? What about canning vegetables—isn’t there something about botulism you’re supposed to watch for?

As a kitchen coach, I’ve certainly seen cooking fear at work, our best eating intentions waylaid by fear of failure at the stove top. And in my mind, anything that keeps us from the pleasures and riches of the kitchen is something worth exploring.

To begin with, here is some reassuring news for mere cooking mortals: even the experts suffer from cooking fears! Former Denver Post food editor Kristen Browning-Blas canvassed her fellow food reporters and, in a recent article, revealed cooking fears ranging from deep-frying and pressure cooking to immersion blenders and shellfish.

Browning-Blas concluded her article with a call to tackle our fears. As she reasoned, fear governs too much of daily life, we owe it to ourselves to eliminate a little, and the kitchen is an easy place to start. Excellent advice, yet maybe we need to understand where those pesky fears come from.

I say the Olympics are to blame, but before we get to that theory let’s back up and mention a couple more obvious culprits. These came up over lunch with some friends yesterday:

1. Lack of Skills and Knowledge. That makes perfect sense. Of course a task can be unnerving if we don’t know what we’re doing or supposed to be doing.

2. Expense. Food is costly. Who wants to risk precious food dollars on dishes that have to be sent down the garbage disposal?

Although less obvious, here are a couple more culprits that I’ve observed from my years in the field, which may well underlie the previous two causes. This is where the Olympics business comes in.

I’m not talking about the actual athletic competition in the Olympic arena. I’m talking about the culture that gives rise to and, in turn, is encouraged by the Olympics. In particular, three aspects of this culture come to mind: hyper-perfectionism, complexity and highly demanding spectators. Against this kind of backdrop, are we poor home cooks practically assured of an unnerving experience in the kitchen?

See what I have to say, chew on it a little, and tell me what you think:

First up: Hyper-perfectionism: Watching the coverage of the mammoth Beijing Olympics a couple months ago, what struck me most was the Olympic-sized display of perfectionism. From the prowess of the athletes to the magnificence of the structures to the precision of the Chinese hosts, everything was so perfect. Did anybody, anywhere trip over their shoelaces, stumble climbing up to the winners’ stage or otherwise screw up? Granted, a couple gymnastic bumbles made their way onto our TV screens, but those were easily overlooked given that the athletes were attempting something that is actually beyond human capability.

What also struck me, watching the Olympics, was the overwhelming degree of complexity involved in something that started out pretty simply. In the swimming pool, millisecond victories are dependent on high-tech swimming tights and full body suits. A highly engineered fast track is necessary for the world’s fastest man to do his thing. A few carefully executed flips and spins on the gym mat are no longer enough to elicit our oohs and ahhs. It’s got to be a quadruple aerial loop-de-loop. And the stakes just keep getting higher and higher. In the near future, I fully expect gymnasts to incorporate flying segments into their routines.

These two aspects of modern Olympic culture give rise to a third: overly demanding spectators. Audiences are so accustomed to seeing perfection that they are intolerant of anything less. It’s surprising to see how personally offended and disappointed announcers and viewers can be when an athlete fails to meet the perfectionist ideal.

Unfortunately, these cultural characteristics aren’t confined to the narrow, quadrennial world of the Olympics. They’ve seeped down into every nook and cranny of the athletic world. Susie on the summer swim team must now have swimming longjohns, even if her struggling parents can’t afford them. Johnny trains on the vaulting horse everyday, threatening the proper development of his young muscles and bones. On the teen soccer fields, parents yell at coaches, referees and players for perceived errors, despite a level of play that is far more advanced than even just a few years ago.

It’s not too great a stretch to wonder: Does the perfectionism and complexity celebrated by the Olympics seep even further a field than athletics? Has it invaded the kitchen, forcing us to engage in an Olympian trial competition each night just to get our daily dinner on the table? How many home cooks suffer from “audience intolerance” at the dinner table?

Tomorrow: There’s good evidence that the food world is spiraling into the stratosphere of perfectionism and complexity. . . .

What do you think? About kitchen fears? What’s fueling them?

Herb and Spice Resources—A Beginning List

Over the week of this posting, a couple of resources have come to my attention that might be helpful for an herb and spice adventure. In particular, these sites have recipes that are indexed by spice, making it easy to find new uses for those herbs and spices on your experimentation list.

For Information and Recipes:

Born in Australia to a Lebanese family and now relocated to San Fransisco, Ursula Ayrout has created a site to help rescue your meals from the land of bland. “Don’t just make food. Make taste,” as Ursula (a/k/a Jane Spice) says. Her website is new and doesn’t have a full line-up of recipes yet, but there are still quite a number of interesting options, especially those for cumin. Plus, she’s busy adding more recipes and a FAQ section, so keep checking back.

For Information, Recipes and To Buy On-Line:

The Spice House has been in business for over 50 years, with stores in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas and now a complete online selection. I have no doubt that, with a 50-year history, they are “merchants of the highest quality, hand-selected and hand-prepared spices and herbs.” I’ve ordered several herbs just to see.

However, in addition to quality, I’m looking for no flavor enhancers, colorings, etc. in spice blends and this appears to be largely the case with Spice House products. There are a few blends that contain MSG, but every description includes a complete list of ingredients so you can check for yourself.

Here is what the owners say about MSG: “As the country’s concern for MSG became apparent we made a concerted effort to remove MSG from almost all of our blends. However, MSG is a flavor enhancer that does make things taste better. What we found is our old-time customers complained about the taste difference when we took out the MSG. These are also people who knew they did not have MSG allergies. Only an extremely small percentage of our blends still have MSG for these particular people. We try to be very upfront with our customers about ingredients in our blends. Even though the government requires us to identify only salt, sugar, MSG, garlic, onion and “spices”, we give you every spice ingredient in a blend at the bottom of the seasonings description in our catalogue.

Using Fresh Herbs:  Food Reflections Newsletter, April, 2003

Informative article by the experts at the University of Nebraska’s Cooperative Extension Service.  Filled with useful tips on using fresh herbs, I especially liked the instructions for freezing them, which is particularly apt advice right now.  If any herbs have survived the weather to date, freeze. them soon  In the dead of winter, they compare pretty nicely to fresh.

Others. . . .

Do you have any other good spice resources to share? The next rainy day we have, I’m going to take an outing to the newly opened Boulder Spice Shop and will report back. Could be a nice winter-type outing. . . .

Using Herbs and Spices: Continue the Adventure

Previous posts talked about taking the plunge and using herbs and spices outside our comfort zones.  Lot’s of tips and tricks were given to make it more comfortable and less agonizing to take that plunge.

It may take a little time and effort to get going, but you’ll be hooked once you start using herbs and spices more regularly and adventurously. And talk about a cheap thrill. In tough economic times, what could be nicer than to enjoy the comforting salve of a meal brightened exquisitely with the simple addition of an herb, either purchased for pennies or grown for free in our gardens or kitchens?

The best way to keep your adventure going:  Keep an eye out for other recipes featuring whatever new herbs or spices you target. This will be easier than you think: I remember how, with each new car we got over the years, we suddenly “noticed” that everybody seemed to be driving the same kind of car! By our third car, we finally realized this phenomenon was an optical illusion. Vehicles like ours had always been out there; we just began to “see” them once we became an owner. Happily, the same will happen once your attention is focused on a particular herb or spice. Suddenly, you’ll begin running across all sorts of recipes that use it.

But don’t stop with your initial one or two new herbs. Continue working up the confidence to extend even further, trying ever more daring combinations and new and more interesting herbs and spices.

As you begin experimenting, watch for patterns that emerge: how do recipes combine herbs, spices and flavorings? What types of meats, vegetables, grains or beans are used as backdrops? Does an herb or spice taste best in small amounts or large?

Speaking of patterns, one things you’ll begin to notice are “Herb Families.” These are helpful because if you like one member of a family, you may well like (and you’ve probably already had) some of the others. Here are a couple examples, by no means scientific, just to get you started:

  • Italian: Basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme
  • Indian: Coriander, cumin seeds, mustard, chili peppers, turmeric
  • Simon and Garfunkel: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme (like the song, if you can remember back that far)
  • Sweet: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cardamom
  • Savory: Rosemary, thyme, sage, bay leaves
  • A little more unique—the “fines herbes:” parsley, chervil, tarragon and chives
  • Mexican: Chili peppers, oregano, cumin

As an example of a pattern, you’ll see dishes with chili powder are often complemented nicely with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro and lime juice. Basil, mint and cilantro are very often combined in Thai food–an unlikely but nevertheless superb flavor trio.

Once you begin noticing these patterns, you’re set to take an exciting step: Getting creative and seasoning dishes on your own, without a recipe to follow. That’s how the fun continues without end!  Check out how I transferred the flavor family from Julee Rosso’s Beef and Eggplant Stew to a vegetarian version.

Getting Adventurous Using Herbs and Spices—Part 2

Ready to start using herbs and spices more adventurously, or just at all? The first post in this series talked about how this isn’t hard or difficult. Mostly, it just takes a little courage and gumption. Start by finding a spark of herb and spice inspiration. Once you’ve settled on a couple herbs or spices, find a recipe or two and you’re off and running. The second post shared Six Tricks and Tips for a Successful Spice Adventure. Now, here are:

Seven More Rules of the Road for a Successful Spice Adventure

1. Maximize Flavor Over time (i.e., six months to a year), herbs and spices lose their vim and vigor. So if you’ve been wanting to try a curry dish, don’t use the powder bought last year in a fit of inspiration. Find a recipe first, then go buy a fresh batch of flavorful, fresh curry powder. That way you get a taste that’s the truest and best.

2. Buy Wise Buy herbs and spices from the bulk bins at a health foods store with a good turnover. Not only are they cheaper ounce per ounce, you can buy just what you need. To begin with, buy a very small amount, enough for a few recipes. Once you’ve made friends with an herb or spice, buy larger amounts, but not more than about a quarter cup at a time, so you won’t be tempted to use them past their prime.

3. Smell Before You Buy Most herbs and spices have a comforting and inviting smell. However, if you find a smell repulsive, maybe that particular flavoring is not for you. For sanitation purposes, sniff from a safe distance or, better yet, sprinkle a little in your hand and get a good whiff.

4. Don’t Give Up Too Soon If it’s not love at first sight when you try an herb or spice, be open and give it at least another couple tries. Likely as not, your taste buds are simply surprised, especially since the typical western diet is so sadly limited and bland. Be considerate and give the buds a little time to adjust. Try the herb or spice with different foods and over several weeks. With so much potential pleasure at stake, that much effort is definitely warranted.

5. Get Fresh Don’t forget about trying fresh herbs and spices. In my opinion, fresh are better and brighter tasting, and add a real special-ness to a dish. I’ve found this to be especially true for garlic, ginger, tarragon, cilantro, dill, parsley, mint, and rosemary.

6. The Exchange Rate With fresh herbs so widely available in grocery stores, many recipes now call for them to begin with. If a dried version is called for, simply substitute one tablespoon fresh for each teaspoon of dried. Generally speaking the reverse is not true. If a recipe calls for a fresh herb, using dried will likely result in a less than satisfying dish.

Coach on Call: My coach on call service is perfect for times when you’re in a bind abut substituting herbs and spices or just have other questions about using them.

7. Do Wait Until the Last Minute–Sometimes  Remember the earlier rule about letting herbs and spices cook a bit? It doesn’t apply to some of the more delicate fresh herbs like basil, chives, cilantro, dill leaves, parsley, marjoram and mint. They should only be added during the last minute of two of the cooking time.

Tomorrow:  Using Herbs and Spices–Continue the Adventure

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