Cooking of course!
Let me explain.
This week, instead of doing his job, Antoine Rozel (senior researcher in ETH Zürich), shows that all your life problems will instantly disappear if you start cooking.
Warning, this introductory paragraph is not going to cheer you up, skip it if you are already feeling blue unless you want to suffer a little more (that’s OK). Clearly the explosion of number of covid-19 cases is nothing to joke about. Many of us have lost someone. Many of us are upset about idiotic politicians who keep denying the importance of wearing masks. Many of us have entered a sadness/guilt spiral. Most of my colleagues have told me at some point that they find it hard to find their motivation. Working from home is difficult or sometimes impossible. Many of us are separated from our family. We often feel cornered, inefficient, basically useless, and our social skills are gone. I could go on and on about all this but this is not the point of this post. OK this is not cheering me up.
The point of this post is that now is time to breathe deeply and think what we can do to make it through the arbitrary psychological trial to come without becoming insane. By the way, I think we should not over-think what this pandemic means. I does not carry a meaning. It just happens and we need to make it through it somehow. There is nothing wrong about you.
Well, after thinking a lot about it, the best I can come up with is: work as you can, reasonably and then treat yourself every day. The point being feeling guilty about how we changed is pointless and we can hope that treating yourself will help you feeling better.
There is one thing that cannot be taken from us even during lock-down. It is cooking!
If, like me, you manage to somehow trick yourself into really enjoying cooking then you will enjoy a very satisfying achievement to look forward to every day! Yes I can hear many of you thinking: “meh, I am terrible at cooking…”. Perfect! This is your occasion to start learning simple things. In fact if you cannot cook much, you are in the best position. You have so many low hanging fruits around you. There are so many cooking techniques that are easy to learn and will make your every day life healthy and delicious! If you are already experienced, I will also try to give you some suggestions to keep learning more.
In fact, when you think about it, cooking deals with so many psychological problems. Cooking for yourself means taking care of yourself and your surrounding. You can be(come) a healthy person. You can make yourself comfort food once in a while. You can feel good about yourself when you made something delicious. You will learn about different cultures. If you are worried about the environment (please be), think about planet-friendly ingredients. You will learn a lot and actually do something about it. You will have something non-work-related or news-related to talk about!
I am extremely convincing and you really want to learn cooking now. Here are some starting points:
- What does your inner child want to eat? Think about dishes you really liked when you were a child. If you still have your parents, ask them the recipe, they will be happy to hear from you. If you don’t, this is a great thing to try to reproduce by yourself. Connect to your old self.
- Your parents were terrible at cooking and you do not know where to start and: open a world map. Pick a country that is not too far from yours for a start because you will find ingredients at your usual shopping place. Then look for a recipe from this country online. It will feel like you are traveling. This helps!
- If you do not have any, find yourself a frying pan and a saucepan. Be careful it works with the type of stove you have. You can cook marvelous dishes with just these two.
- Internet is full of recipes from everywhere around the word! You can learn ANYTHING. If there is something you always do wrong, just look it up. For once, internet will not be misused…
- Most simple meals are designed around a “star of the dish”. It is what you think of when you think: “I would like to eat…”. You also need staple food. Often rice, pasta, couscous, bread, potatoes, etc. And around this are the vegetables. You would be surprised how delicious vegetables can be when they are cooked properly. Vegetables are usually healthy and they reduce during cooking so use a lot of them! You might add a sauce to this. The french in me is screaming: just use wine and you will get a delicious sauce without effort!
- Spices are the key to turning boring food into a delicacy. And it is harmless. And it most often contains lots of vitamins but we do not know about it.
- Herbs are the key to turning boring food into a delicacy. And it is harmless. And it contains lots of vitamins, we know about it. Grow them on your balcony or in your kitchen! Buy a little basil/rosemary/thyme/parsley/coriander. Easy, delicious, healthy.
- Puff pastry and shortcrust pastry are easy to find pre-made. You can do so much with that! This is actually easy to use.
- When you cut ingredients, the thickness matters. Try to be consistent. This will be something you want to change later.
How to actually cook thousands of simple, tasty and healthy dishes:
- Think about the star of the dish: let’s say chicken (but you could use tofu, pork, fish, beef, shrimp, halloumi, scallops, lamb, etc.). If you are vegetarian, one of your vegetables can be the star of the dish. Or you do no have a star and you enjoy the nice balance of carefully selected vegetables.
- Which vegetables go with your star (like chicken)? Let’s say bell pepper, zucchini, onion (but you could use leak, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, mushrooms, bok choy, sweet potatoe, etc.). Cut these in pieces.
- Boil water in your saucepan. Add a bit of salt in the water (just try it, it should be a bit tasty).
- When the water boils, throw rice in it (preferentially in a very dramatic way or shouting while listening to some heavy metal) and stir right away otherwise your rice will stick to the bottom and might burn. You can also use pasta. You could also cook couscous, it is even easier…
- Without waiting, warm up your frying pan (medium high heat) with a bit of oil, throw the vegetables in it.
- Now is when you give the taste to your meal. You need to stir the vegetables only when they start browning. If you stir all the time, your dish will be boring. If you wait 30 seconds to one/two minute before you stir, ingredients will start browning, this is good. Look up the “Maillard reaction“. You want to have a light brown color around the vegetables. When you stir the frying pan, stop stirring when you see most of the brown faces upward. It should take 5-15 minutes (depending on what you are cooking). You might want to add some spices which resist cooking at this stage (curry, curcuma, nutmeg, chilli, Sichuan pepper, paprika, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cumin, allspice, nigella seeds, etc.).
- In the meantime, prepare some pieces of your star (chicken for example, 1cm thickness).
- When they are colored enough, remove your vegetables from the pan and keep them in a plate. If there is still a bit of oil in the pan, do not add any. Throw the chicken pieces in and brown them. You want to have your meat cooked inside to avoid health problems but stop cooking as soon as you can. Do not let it cook forever, it will become stiff and dry and you will be a sad person for at least 15 minutes.
- When the meat is done, add the vegetables again to warm them up (should take about 30 seconds here). Use some spices which cannot stand cooking at this point (like black pepper) or herbs like parsley or coriander. You can also use some soy sauce and this point and/or salt.
- Your rice should be cooked by now, just drain it and put the portion(s) in the plate(s).
- Add the vegetable and the meat in the plate(s).
- Pour some white wine in the frying pan and scrape the grilled vegetables and meat from the bottom of the pan (use a wooden spoon with a flat edge, you will never damage your pan with this). This will produce a delicious sauce in few seconds. Of course do not do this if some vegetables started to burn, this would be a bit toxic. Pour the sauce on top of the rest in the plates. Practice having a satisfied and proud look on your face at this stage.
- Add some fresh herb on top like coriander/parsley/basil and/or some white sesame/chopped spring onion/whatever topping. A final touch can make the difference! Practice having an inspired look on your face at this stage.
- Eat and feel the intense satisfaction of having achieved and (maybe) shared something beautiful today even though your code still does not compile or your coauthors still did not reply your emails or you still did not find a permanent position.
Imagine how many combinations you can make with the list above! This is for certain the true source of forever happiness. I promise you all your problems will suddenly vanish. After a bit of training you will actually be able to make something different and delicious every day! There are so many possibilities and there are lots of little things you will like/dislike which will quickly bring you to your own (forever changing) style.
Of course there are many other simple things you can do:
- Take basically any vegetable, chop it in 2cm size pieces, put in a big bowl, pour 1 table spoon of oil on top (like really, not more), add some spices, mix everything, put in the oven on 180C. Wait around 30 minutes (depending on the vegetables). Add some topping. Eat. Delicious. Healthy.
- Take your saucepan, pour lightly salted water in. Cut some vegetables and throw them in the boiling water. Add spices and herbs. Simmer for half an hour. Congratulations, you have made a healthy soup!
- Buy a shortcrust pastry and a puff-pastry. Pan fry something, but not completely through. Put it in the shortcrust-pastry (with very few sauce) in some tray. Close on top with the puff pastry. Make two or three 1-cm holes in the top to allow steam to come out. Put in the oven on 180C for 40 minutes. Eat. Delicious. Not that healthy, lots of butter in the pastries but damn that was a treat!
- Wrap vegetables, spices, herbs (dill works amazing with that), white wine and some fish in some well sealed kitchen paper. Cook in the oven for about 15 minutes on 180C. Eat. Delicious. Healthy.
- Brown some meat in a big pot, add lots of vegetables (and mushrooms) with some onion and garlic. Pour half a liter of red wine and half a liter of water. Add herbs and spices. Cover tightly. Let cook on low heat for one to four hours (no need to stir). Reduce the sauce by opening the lid and bringing to high heat before eating (should take 15-30 minutes depending on how much water you used, stay close by, you can burn the entire dish at this point). Eat. Delicious. Healthy. The alcohol evaporates when you reduce the sauce, your kids can eat it.
- Buy recipe books all your life and actually read them. But not just before going to bed, you are going to drawn in your drool, that is a stupid way to go.
- Marinade the star of your dish before starting to cook the rest! Soy sauce, ginger, garlic and finely chopped spring onions will blow your mind.
- Dance and sing on very loud music while cooking. Consider buying an inflatable microphone and a wig.
- Listen to some nice podcast while cooking, it will help burning your vegetables.
- While cooking, consider having a serious philosophical conversation with your partner, standing in the kitchen, with your favorite drink. DO NOT GO AND SIT IN THE LIVING ROOM, YOU WOULD BURN EVERYTHING FOR SURE. Standing in the kitchen-apero is an art.
- In fact, crêpes are tasty for the same reason your vegetables are tasty. It is all due to the browning while cooking. Even if your batter is perfect, if your crêpes are white, it will be tasteless.
- Realize the importance of frozen emergency mushrooms. Just in case you need mushrooms. Imagine if you would run out of mushrooms. That is an unforgivable mistake.
- Soufflés do not need much butter in fact. Most recipes online are disgustingly fat. Try with very little fat and some nice spices once. In fact it is very simple to do. Sprinkle with some chives. Beautiful.
- Prepare too much delicious food and freeze some for later when you are lazy.
- Frozen fresh food is often healthy because no preservatives are necessary. Never buy frozen pre-cooked stuff unless you want unhealthy comfort food.
- Look closely at fruits and vegetables you buy. Some stuff is often already damaged but we do not notice it.
Some tricks for you if you already cook:
- Find yourself good knives. By looking for them, you will learn new techniques.
- When you shop, look for an ingredient that you do not know. Write it down. Look for how to cook it at home and buy it next time.
- Lose yourself in the wikipedia pages about Japanese food.
- Look up advanced techniques about boning, filleting.
- Look up advanced ingredients in your surroundings (very fresh, rare, eco-friendly, etc.).
- Focus on a dish for a very long time until you are able to identify the influence on each ingredient on the whole dish.
- please email me further advises… I want to learn!
Extra advice for not feeling down:
- Avoid social media (they destroy your life).
- Do not read the news too much (they destroy your life).
- Try not to think too much (that destroys your life) and just focus on whatever you are doing.
- Learn to fillet all fishes. Fresh whole fishes are much cheaper!
- If you screw up half of your dish, remove what is burnt, quickly chop some salad and place it on the side of the plate. It will look like you wanted to make a nice healthy meal…
- Learn about Portuguese, Japanese, French, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Moroccan (etc.) food. And of course also Swiss and Dutch food (just kidding, no offense…).
- To have motivation for cooking, meet with people online for eating together.
- Ask your friends about cool recipes. You will then talk to your friends…
- If you have a partner, try to impress your partner with your cooking (in fact, this is the best way to cook).
- Do not tolerate critiques and act very arrogant and passive-aggressive when talking about your dishes. Invoke the fact that you french people know better than the others.