We all face a choice about food. No, I’m not talking about watching calories or cholesterol. I am talking about the spirit with which you approach cooking.
Do you consider your time in the kitchen a chore, or do you take pleasure in it?
With the holidays in full swing, we are inundated by images of families sitting around tables piled high with gorgeous platters of holiday food. The media depict smiling moms in flour-dusted aprons creating memories as they bake seasonal treats. The message is clear: Even if you don’t cook all year, now is the time to break out your cookbooks.
But there’s another not-so-subtle message implied in these images: Cooking is about achieving perfection. The roast beef is succulent — yet crisp and impeccably browned. The cookies are expertly decorated. The napkins are ironed.
One food authority, Christopher Kimball, editor of America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated, has built an empire on the idea that there is such a thing as the “perfect” recipe. His staff tests and retests recipes until they are “the best.” As if there is only one right way to fry chicken or bake an apple pie.
In a recent New York Times Magazine profile Kimball said, “Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night … Cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard … I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party.”
I couldn’t disagree more. As I see it, cooking — along with friendship, good work, and family — is one of the great pleasures of life.
As a food writer and cookbook author, I’ve devoted my career to making cooking more accessible, with a greater emphasis on fun than on perfection. I wrote a whole book (“Relax, Company’s Coming!”) exploring the idea that if you stop trying to emulate the media images of a perfect meal and cook for your own enjoyment, your attitude about entertaining might turn around.
The way I see it: Cooking is a quick route to joy and creativity. We all need to eat. Why not turn the necessity into something joyous? Why not feed your soul, while you’re feeding your stomach?
For me it all begins at the market. I need to find ingredients that excite. This time of year it can be hard, but look again:
Gorgeous root vegetables, fresh vibrantly green parsley, tangy pomegranates and tiny sweet tangerines.
A warm salad?
Roast acorn squash in a hot oven until tender and buttery.
Sprinkle the bright orange flesh with loads of chopped parsley, topped with crunchy pomegranate seeds as well as the fruit’s blood-red juice.
Add a few tangerine sections, and some good olive oil and wine vinegar.
Color. Texture. Beauty.
Is my impromptu winter salad “perfect”?
Probably not. Perhaps it has a bit too much pomegranate juice and maybe I didn’t chop the parsley uniformly enough. But what exactly are we after when we cook? Photo-worthy dishes or stomach-worthy satisfaction? “Perfection” or fulfillment? Precision or joy?
Food, for me, is about celebration and pleasure. Without those elements, we might as well swallow vitamins and forgo the act of eating altogether.