Wednesday, June 18, 2008

10 Ways to Make Cooking More Enjoyable...

"Although I have lived in France for more than fifteen years, I still marvel at the way my French friends put a meal on the table. It always looks so effortless, even though I know better. I have come to believe that it looks so easy because French people do not consider cooking to be work. They cook because they want to eat well, they want their families and their friends to eat well, and they simply love the process."

"...Behind the 'effortlessness' is a 'connaissance instinctive,' or knowing, which translates as supreme confidence and an innate understanding about ingredients and cooking... Most French, male or female, have grown up around someone who cooked all the time, in a society where good, often lavish, meals are daily fare. They heard their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters talking about recipes and techniques, and their grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and brothers exclaiming over flavor and finesse... Knowledge of food and cooking is simply part of the ambient information that swirls around the French home.

"Not only do most French people still grow up in this atmosphere of culinary ease, but they also spend time in the kitchen learning at their mother's, grandmother's, sometimes father's and grandfather's elbows... I'm convinced that the reason French families are tightly knit, that generations do not merely tolerate but actually enjoy each other, that French children have an awareness of and gusto about food, and that the French tend not to be as overweight as their contemporaries in the United States, has to do with this ease about food. They have a sense of security from eating together so frequently and taking the time to eat well."

~Susan Hermann Loomis in Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin

At risk of seeming entirely obsessed with food, here is another list of ten things-- this time ten things that help to make cooking more enjoyable. This frequent writing about food, cooking, and the kitchen might seem especially obsessive because I am so pointedly focusing on it at length on this blog, but, in reality, over time, kitchen time becomes a natural, instinctive, pleasant part of daily life.

I really believe that mealtime is extremely important-- a time to fuel our bodies, enjoy God's blessings, and to connect with one another in a meaningful way. And how will my family remember our mealtimes? As stressful, hurried affairs that seem to be considered more of a nuisance than anything else? Or as pleasant, relaxing family times where simple, lovingly prepared, good food is enjoyed?

I know too many people who hate to cook, and there have been times in my own life when I didn't enjoy it so much, either, so I understand. There have been times (and periods of time) when I didn't feel like cooking, and I was always rushing, dreading, and being drained by kitchen work. Here are some things that helped to make kitchen time enjoyable for me:

1. Purposely establish a positive outlook. This means having a vision for the importance of mealtime. Choosing to slow down, to learn to enjoy the process, to cook with good cheer and gratitude. There's a bit of discipline involved in this, but soon the attitude is real and lasting.

2. Make a nice atmosphere in the kitchen. I like to cook in a clean kitchen. Put on an apron, turn on the music (or enjoy the quiet), and settle in. Learn to enjoy yourself whether you choose to cook long, complex meals or you're simply reheating a pot of soup.

3. Plan a simple menu. Making mealtime nice doesn't mean you have to serve multiple items on the plate (unless you want to). Serve enough, and focus on bringing out the best in the foods you prepare. Simple food, carefully prepared will make a wonderful meal.

4. Mise en Place. In The Provence Cookbook, Patricia Wells writes: "I've long noticed that when people get flustered in the kitchen, it's due to lack of organization. Cluttered counters, sinks overflowing with dirty dishes, refrigerator stuffed to the gills: a sure invitation to disaster. The French have a system of organization called mise en place, meaning quite simply 'everything at hand.'" I'm sure this is obvious to all, but it really does help to be prepared and organized, to have all ingredients chopped and prepared and ready to go before you start cooking.

5. Cook with family, for family. Children love to help in the kitchen, but even before my children could help, I tried to keep them happy in the kitchen. They could stand on a chair and play with the bubbles in the water in the sink. Or, depending what I was doing, I'd let them stand on a chair or sit on the counter beside me to watch. We'd visit. I wanted my children to feel at home in the kitchen and to enjoy mealtimes, but this doesn't mean I always had a pleasant way about me (to my shame!). In those hurried times when I'd feel tired and almost resentful about having to cook and clean the mess, I'd shoo the kids away or drawn an imaginary line and tell them not to cross it while I was cooking! :-) Over the years, these times dwindled away, thank goodness, and I do think they were rare. There was a lot more warmth and joy in the kitchen than not, and I think the kids have mostly positive, happy memories of food and mealtimes.

6. Clean as you go. Oh, it helps tremendously not to face an absolute disaster in the kitchen when mealtime ends! Cleaning as you go is really pretty simple and quick, and keeping order in the kitchen makes cooking much more fun.

7. Set a pleasant table. It can be as elegant or as simple as you want, but make it pleasant. Put some effort into it. It makes people want to settle in more, to linger longer at the table, to get a nice feeling of togetherness and of the love that went into meal preparation. Put candles on the table in winter and simple flowers, if you have them, even when you aren't having a fancy meal.

8. Don't rush the meal. Eat slowly. Savor the flavors God made. Enjoy the company. Talk. Relax. It's definitely more rewarding and fun to cook when the food is appreciated and when mealtime is not over in less than five minutes. Who wants to lovingly prepare food for individuals who fly into the kitchen, dish up a plate of food, carry it off to the TV or computer, and eventually dump their dirty dishes on the counter, usually not saying a word beyond possibly muttering a quick thanks? We are creating meals when we cook, and when they are rushed through, we wonder if the time and trouble it takes to prepare food and table is worth it. If our children grow up learning to enjoy time together at the table, you will help your children develop a healthy family spirit, an appreciation for good food and the hands that prepared it, and an ability to slow down and relax.

9. Make special favorites. I try to do this often, and I don't hesitate to mention it. "I made this just for you, Aaron, because I know how much you like it." Or, "I cooked this with you in mind, Monty." Or, "This one was made in honor of Lissy." I do try to think of particular ones in the family and what they like, and I make a point to fix those things for them.

10. Everyone cleans up! When the kids were young, we had chore lists posted on the fridge, and it was automatic after meals that everyone would get up, help clear the table, and then do the after-meal task that was assigned to them. When you've already cleaned as you cooked, and then after the meal everyone pitches in clean things up, it's quick and easy. When I was young, my mom had pinned right over the sink a little ditty about gratitude. It was hard to do the dishes with a complaining attitude with this staring us right in the face:

Thank God for dirty dishes
They have a tale to tell.
While other folks are starving
We've been eating very well.

Sure dirty dishes mean some work
But why make all the fuss?
They're just a stack of evidence
That God's been good to us.

Truly, we are blessed to have food to eat. And as long as we do, it's wrong to have anything but a cheerful attitude about preparing and enjoying God's gifts. He has provided. We should be thankful, both in our hearts and in our actions, all through the process, as we purchase food, prepare it, eat it, and even as we clean the mess.