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My Downwards Cooking Spiral


2012-11-08

A progressively unfortunate habit I’m developing is that I’m not cooking as much, or as randomly, as I did while I living in France. I found that while I was there, I was a better cook. Maybe it was the influence of being in the gastronomic capital of France, or maybe it was the Michelin stars in my eyes, but the cooking trend has worsened since I left.

What’s changed…

Looking back and evaluating what the differences are between then and now, I would say that my time commitments are similar. In France, I spent about 1.5 hours/day commuting to school/work, which I no longer do (either I work from my home office, or when I was back in Canada, my commutes were about 25 minutes/day).

While I was in school, I had more free time than I knew what to do with, so that would be the obvious place where I spent my time cooking. But even when I started working over there and was writing my thesis for some insane number of hours per week, I still found time to cook for myself and have friends over for meals.

Socially, my life was packed to the brim, either going out several nights a week, or having people over, or just hanging out and chatting in the kitchen (common area) with whomever was staying with us that week.

Based on this, I’d think that I actually have much more time free for cooking endeavours now, than I did in France. So, time pressure can’t be the reason for the lack of cooking.

Next up is motivation. I’d say right now, I WANT to cook often, and cook some crazy-go-nuts dishes… But I don’t. Not due to lack of motivation.

If I had to be honest with myself, I think I could lay the ‘blame’ squarely on not living with a half-dozen roommates anymore. In addition to my 5 other roommates, there were often partners, friends, guests, and randoms staying in our apartment. This meant it was much more likely that someone else would be eating the food I was making, so I tried harder to make it tastier or more original.

Even my chai! I practiced for almost a year at modifying my chai recipe until I had something that I really enjoyed, others seemed to like, and that I couldn’t change much without someone being disappointed. Day after day of adding water/milk in the right proportions to fit the number of people, adding the milk at the right time and boiling it just the right amount (my parents each have different tea-making techniques regarding milk - I’ve settled on the middle-ground), putting in just the right amount of each spice and sugar…

And look at me now… I use President’s Choice ‘chai tea’ bags!!! For shame Suresh…

What to do about it…

I suppose I’m not trying too hard to actively trying to remedy this situation. While I’m not cooking as ‘grandiosely’ as before, my recent cooking trend has been quicker, cheaper meals.

My monthly grocery bill doesn’t really bother me too much, but I like coming up with quantitative baselines to measure things I do. Cooking is no exception. I don’t really know how to measure some of these, but a few cooking metrics could be:

  • Cost of food
  • Time spent prepping food
  • Time spent cooking food
  • Deliciousness of said food
  • Time spent cleaning up
  • What I value my time at

I’m sure there is an optimal point there somewhere, I just need to experiment and find it. I really feel as though there is a nice 80/20 solution which would improve the taste of my food, without adding much to the other categories.

A simple example of this would be the French Onion Soup I made a week or so ago. This was only the second time I made it. The first time, it was okay, but I really wasn’t impressed and I’ve definitely had better. This second time, I made a couple of tweaks and the result was orders of magnitude better!

In case anyone is wondering, the tweaks were:

  • Use only chicken broth, instead of vegetable and chicken broth
  • Deglaze the carmelized onions with red wine (I didn’t do this the first time, and I really think it made most of the difference)
  • Let the soup reduce more than I did before, to make it more flavourful per unit volume

Hidden cost of cooking…

One last note before I forget. I’ve spent about two years tracking the time it takes me to complete various activities and comparing the actual times with my initial estimates. More importantly, I’ve paid very close attention to the hidden time costs of these activities. As such, I always find it amusing to hear someone tell me how long something will take, and then mentally note the 10-20% they forgot to include.

I might do a post on this at some point in the future, because I think it’s worth re-visiting, but how does this relate to cooking?

This is a trivial example, but when people plan to cook or read recipes, they have indications as to how long prepping the food will take, as well as cooking it. Most of us also include shopping time in any of these estimates. Not many people include the time it takes to eat, but I would argue that can be social time, so it shouldn’t be budgeted in the same way.

What a lot of people forget to include is the time it takes to clean up. Depending on how elaborate the meal, this can be longer than the prep or cooking time!

As I said, it was a trivial example, but it’s worth thinking about.

If you have any 80/20 suggestions on how to improve my cooking or thoughts about hidden time costs, let me know!