How do you unscrew your cooking head? Or can you?

I'm feeling a need to take a step back from performance home cooking. With all I've learned from this site, plus another forty years of random study which I began with the egg and so on up, I need to take a rest and get a look at what I'm doing from a higher ground, if there is such a place.

I guess my question is something like, what do you cook when you just aren't in the mood to push the boundaries for a while?



Bevi May 3, 2012
This sounds somewhat pedestrian after reading all these amazing responses, but I make chicken soup and eat that for a few days while I try to regroup. I too love Canal House for simple inspiration from 2 people who call themselves "salt and pepper" cooks.

I'm not sure what performance cooking is, but is sounds like cooking under pressure would be performance cooking. I think the best way to counter pressure is to cook dishes you love and can make in your sleep, or cook comfort foods that evoke food memories that make you happy.
CookingMomTR May 3, 2012
For me, I let my kids take a go in the kitchen. It might mean eggs and toast, peanut butter and jam, or it could mean the smart one dives into the frozen food and chooses a container of something. She will bake potatoes in the microwave and then we have them with whatever she has defrosted. Sometimes it is pretty weird...chicken chili on potatoes...but it gives me a break.
boulangere May 3, 2012
I would love to get together with you! Indeed, in this part of the country we do pass for neighbors. I'll email you.
boulangere May 3, 2012
Thank you again for posting such a thought-provoking question. I wrote a blog post incorporating some of what it made me think, but it deserves an expanded one, as I suspect many, many people feel the same.
Brain H. May 3, 2012
Boulangere, I just checked out your blog, and I love your post about making a simple meal. I should do more like that! I have subscribed to your blog as well; if you're giving a class, I want to know about it. After all, since you're in Montana and I'm in Wyoming, we are practically neighbors!
LucyS May 3, 2012
I really like this question. I never thought of it as cooking fatigue, but I definitely get the feeling you're talking about. I usually go with the foods that I know I will like and that I know how to make with my eyes closed. It's also important to me that don't take much effort to taste really good, so I don't have to get frustrated if I mess up. My mom makes a great beauf bourguignon that I know is pretty foolproof. Roast chicken. Salad. Stuff like that.

One thing that I've learned, though, is to go with whatever mood you're in and not force it. There are days when I really want to spend a long time in the kitchen, take on a project, and experiment. When I feel like that I try to at least go with it a little bit - play around with ingredients even if I only have half an hour for dinner. And honestly, I love cooking and I don't want it to be a chore so if I don't feel like cooking I just don't cook. It doesn't happen very often so a bit of indulgence is okay once in a while, and it keeps away the burnout. I've been in finals for the past two weeks (I'm a first year law student) and I'm sorry to say have eaten takeout for every single meal. But now I'm so excited to start cooking again!

I'm glad you're taking a break - I know it can be the best thing for this kind of fatigue. I'm sure when you start your projects again you'll feel a lot fresher and ready to re-attack!
Benny May 1, 2012
My first post on this site, so enjoy....

If I'm un inspired, I always go for a nice braised cut of meat. All you do is brown, add aromatics, douse with wine and stock, cover and let the magic happen on its own for a few hours in the oven. Add some potatoes near the end and you have an all in one pot meal. The best part is that it reheats perfectly as left overs the next day, and is typically more flavorfull.
fiveandspice May 1, 2012
This is such an interesting question! And great responses. I love the image you use, bugbitten, of the little paths and the larger road. It's funny though, but I guess because of my style of cooking, I tend always to see the big road. All cooking seems fundamentally so similar to me, you take raw ingredients, you flavor them some way (sometimes just salt and pepper) and then you heat or treat them in another way to make the final dish. I rarely plan meals because I don't have the time and we get all our food from CSA's so what we'll have is often a surprise. So, a lot of our meals are just very simple preparations of a protein, a grain, and a couple of seasonal vegetables. For me food is at its core about stories, nourishing body and mind, being together (another big road that almost all food fits into). But, I get in my own cooking rut that way, like the opposite of performance cooking! So, I have to sometimes shake myself out of that rut by forcing myself to look at some complicated new recipe and actually following it. But, your big road is definitely there, and I think you'll see it as soon as you allow yourself several nights with something as simple as grilled fish and veggies or bread, cheese, and a salad. Select the ingredients well and those will be performance worthy feasts any way! :)
Sam1148 April 30, 2012
I've posted a similar question, ages ago. It does get tiring making each meal a fantastic unique new recipe. . However, with each presentation meal, I bring away a technique or an item to be used for another meal with lesser ambitions.
Even if it's just a quiche or an omelet or a casserole.

Sometimes I just to back to old favorite cook book and get inspiration. Tonight it's mostly veggies and a small portion of ground beef in a patty (grilled)..I have some frozen spinach in a bag and will top cook that with some cream and top the patty. And a ear of corn and some asparagus just wrapped in foil and grilled with some olive oil and lemon juice. Using those same base ingredient could spend hours with timing a Hollandaise sauce, making a corn salad, and mini meatballs with a yogurt sauce etc..etc.
Each technique you learn can be used creatively depending on your energy level and the mood.
Nope it's lazy night and I don't want to use any more cook ware than needed; and he might not even get the spinach cream sauce on the beef patty, it may be just some A1 or HP sauce. Corn on cob, and Asparagus with lemon. (maybe some bread crumbs on the asparagus if I'm feeling especially perky).
mrslarkin April 30, 2012
Thanks for a great question, bugbitten. There are days when I can't wrap my head around making another meal. The answer, for me, is really good crusty bread, sweet butter, crisp radishes, really good cheese, some olives, maybe some salumi, and a nice bottle of wine. Location is not too important - I could be eating at the kitchen counter, or on a picnic somewhere. The goal is simple food, unfussy, shared with good company.

I love getting the daily updates from Canal House Cooks Lunch. Very inspiring. And simple.

I'm guessing everyone's definition of a performance meal is quite varied. What are some of yours? I am curious.
Brain H. April 30, 2012
I love your question. We all get burned out in the kitchen sometimes. This is what I do: Go grocery shopping without a list and buy the most seductive produce that's in season, enough for a few days. Then I put a moratorium on cookbook browsing, blog-reading, menu planning, and any further grocery shopping. When it comes time to cook, I forage through my cupboards and make something up, highlighting my beautiful produce. Usually it's really simple, like pasta tossed with tomato and avocado. And sometimes I'll find cool things in the back of my pantry, like truffles from my last trip to Italy, or a unique mustard, or a lost can of sardines. Dessert can be as simple as a piece of dark chocolate. Back to basics, I guess that's what I do.
bugbitten April 30, 2012
Bless you all for the well-considered answers, which read so beautifully that they could make up a kind of Food52 pocket book. Most of what I'm feeling is that all the things I've learned about bringing food to the table seem very separated from each other, as if they all lived on different little roads of their own. I think that if I take some time away, I'll be able to recognize a larger road, the one that makes them connected to each other and to me.

Of course I'll still be making the world's most perfect mushroom omelet on the odd Sunday morning, but I'm trying to satisfy my dinner party reciprocations by ramping down the guests expectations. Think "spaghetti night!"

Of course this might not work out at all, but I think I should try it, at least once.

You guys are the best.
Pegeen April 29, 2012
You could try limiting yourself to 3 ingredients (not including oil/butter, garlic, onions, vinaigrette), focusing on what's on sale or in season. And it's always an interesting challenge to throw away less: puree/freeze leftover ingredients for soup or some other use, etc.

Voted the Best Reply!

boulangere April 29, 2012
Last summer was an experience in just that. I spent much of it in Italy and France with my daughter. We stayed in studio apartments rather than hotels so we could cook for ourselves at least one meal a day, usually dinner by which time we were pretty worn out. We usually had a 2 burner glass cooktop. the cookware was always an adventure. I remember making pasta and risotto dinners when our one cooking pot was a skillet. We shopped (on foot) at local greenmarkets, bought inexpensive local wines and olive oils and sea salts. We ate fantastically. It was a wonderful experience to get back to my favorite way of cooking and eating. Anywhere. Any time of year. The point became enjoyment, not "experience."
healthierkitchen April 29, 2012
And, like some others have said, an egg on top of almost anything completes a meal!
healthierkitchen April 29, 2012
What a great question. I had to take a step back from kitchen heroics for several months and what I found was that I cooked dishes that we've loved for years, ones that I can make without consulting a book or blog and which often don't require a trip to a special store. Now that our farm markets are pretty much all up and running again, I am likely to go on Sunday morning and load up with fruits, vegetables, some chicken sausage, eggs, etc. and just prepare them all with minimal fuss.
Quinciferous April 29, 2012
I go away -- for me, that's usually India, where I don't have access to an oven, a cheese store, or many of the other ingredients and machines I rely on here in the US. When I am in India, I'm forced to redefine what is possible and what is easy. I learn to cook what people around me are cooking. I cede a lot of control to others. It can be tremendously frustrating, but it can also set my "cooking head" back on straight.

I get many of the same benefits from cooking for friends who are not really cooking people -- in their own kitchens. Coming up with creative ways to get around different kinds of obstacles makes me feel sane and accomplished without getting burnt out in a culinary arms race!
petitbleu April 29, 2012
I think the food scene right now is a really exciting place to be--blogs, crowd-sourced food sites, farmers' markets, artisanal products, seasonal's thrilling. And it can be exhausting.
My fiancé and I test recipes for cookbook authors, do food photography, develop recipes, write for two blogs, and I just started a farmers' market baking business. I love to cook, and I really love to bake, but, frankly, the feedback from the food scene can be really tiring, and there are times (to the tune of at least twice a week) when I don't have the mental energy for any feats of culinary greatness.
But really, there's a beauty to super simple food. My favorite, and most rewarding thing to make is sourdough bread, and it makes for some of the simplest, most fulfilling meals I eat. Toast with almond butter and honey in the morning. Or with an egg and sautéed greens. For lunch with chicken or tuna salad; with avocado; with leftover roasted vegetables. Dinner toast with a simple soup (as simple as miso or a bare-bones dal), a salad, or more vegetables.
I really think making bread is a stabilizing act of cooking for me. When you dedicate an entire day to shepherding your sourdough starter into a big, hearty loaf, you don't have the compulsion to want to prepare something that will simply drown it out or that the bread won't be appreciated with. It's a narrow lens to look at cooking through, but it helps to keep things real in our kitchen.
I also think it's important to tell yourself that, in a nation of non-cooks, where a family is just as likely, if not more, to eat take-out as they are to have something homemade, all acts of cooking are important. Slathering an avocado on a piece of bread and sprinkling with salt and pepper may not sound like much, and it probably doesn't even fit the definition of "cooking," but it's real, whole, satisfying. It can be an artful thing, and it soothes a human need without fuss, without pretense.
This is a great question, and an important one. Thanks for bringing it to the forum.
Linn April 29, 2012
That is an interesting question. I know the people who come to my table are more interested in sharing and enjoying the meal than in assessing my triumphs. Sometimes they can't even tell when I have missed the mark so it's just me who sits there in silence analyzing and figuring out how to do it better next time. When I cook for just me and Jeff I too "wing it" a lot and we have a bit of social time together. My honest answer is I am not sure I could ever let go completely and I am not sure I would want to. I've been this way since I was very young and it's probably hard wired into my system. What balances the meal for me though is to focus more on the people at my table and less on the event.
ChefOno April 29, 2012

When I'm not feeling inspired to try something new, I drive to the store, walk back to the protein section and purchase whatever's on sale. Then I head to the produce area and buy whatever is in season that pairs well with what I've got in the basket. The meal plan simply appears in my head somehow. Chicken is 89 cents, artichokes are in high season, I haven't done Poule au Pot in a while, that's one. Now what do I feel like doing with the leftover chicken. The green beans look good, maybe pot pie? Practiced recipes, no pressure. I guess what I'm trying to say is I let the ingredients tell me what's for dinner rather than the other way around if I'm not in the mood.

Kristen W. April 29, 2012
I think it can be quite inspiring to read about food cultures in which people without access to fancy,, expensive ingredients make a lot out of what they do have (which is generally local, seasonal, etc.). I find that when I read about this type of cooking I am reminded of the beauty and satisfaction of simple food made well and, most importantly, cooked with love, and this inspires me to cook that way.
LLStone April 28, 2012
I've been 'noodling' this post, and while I've got no experience with performance cooking, except that when I print a recipe, or read a post, I do want to cook it. Maybe that's the performance part - I don't know. What I do know is that cooking can become a heavy weight to be shouldered - all the posts, the new recipes, the community picks, the other blogs - it can be overwhelming. I was recently inspired by Tamar Adler's book, " An Everlasting Meal..." I think it addresses the basics of cooking, which includes hunger, seasonal foods, and respecting left-over bits as the next meal. I hear you, though - I used to cook for a family of 4 and now cook for 2 - and I'm bombarded (my own fault) w/ recipes to try. It can be exhausting - seriously, can't everything be adapted to the x factor. I now cook only what I want to eat for the week - roasted veggies, a good salad dressing, some greens, maybe a chicken or smoked salmon, and good bread and cheese and pasta. And, eggs make everything better! I hope this is helpful, but I also hope I'm responding to the question that you asked. I've been thinking about the question all day - and may answer it again completely differently tomorrow.
Esther P. April 28, 2012
Interesting... I'd say that most of our meals currently are not performance meals (they are a performance, but our 15month old takes the spotlight rather than the food at the moment...). I cook food I don't need a recipe for, based on what's in the house. It'll probably have been influenced by a dish I've seen or read about (maybe a spice or a flavour combination that I hadnt thought of) but that's quick to prepare, and what I feel like cooking -although sometimes my hubby will voice a preference too. At the moment, that's casseroles, soups, etc (it's cold and wet here, and feels like it should be autumn rather thanspring!).
I'm guessing if you've got 40 years of cooking under your belt, you know what you like, and you're established enough as a cook to happily wing it with a recipe, it's just a case of letting go, so it's not performance food, but home food. I also find writing what we ate on the calendar very helpful... When you wing it every night, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut. It's useful to be able to look back and see wat you've cooked previously.
bigpan April 28, 2012
We started to tone down by having three easy nights ... Sunday is comfort food. Simple recipes like shepherds pie. Friday is simple Italian , like spaghetti and meatballs (no deep fried basil leaves for garnish). And one might out - not fancy - usually sashimi.
The other nights are slowly not requiring a film crew and flood lights.
hardlikearmour April 28, 2012
Go with some tried-and-true simple recipes that you love. The kind you can make without much thought or effort. Things like soft scrambled eggs with toast and a green salad, a great baguette with some fancy cheese and fruit, spaghetti and broccoli... Things that are ingredient driven - delicious ingredients with minimal bells and whistles.
drbabs April 28, 2012
I cook whatever I'm in the mood for. I think I understand what you mean by performance cooking, although I'm not really good enough to be that. I just cook what I (and sometimes my husband haha) like and am in the mood for. Some of my favorite recipes come from this site, and they're generally easy ones. Like I made absurdly addictive asparagus the other day with some roast fish from the fish market. Really simple and good. The next night I worked late and when I got home, I fried an egg and put it on top of the leftover asparagus. Tonight at my husbands request I'm making fajitas. Yes, fajitas. I actually love this kind of simple cooking because I can come home from a crazy day at work and being in the kitchen relaxes me.

I love to bake, and that's where I get creative, but I have to be in the mood. I think of cooking and baking as a really fun hobby that happens to ensure that we have dinner on the table every night. And even though there are contests here that I participate in, I try not to think of it as a performance, but just as a jumping off point for cooking the way I like to cook, but being more creative about it.

And, sorry, I know this answer is getting really long, but I read a lot--way too much-- about food and cooking, and sometimes that satisfies me in ways that cooking as performance doesn't. Thanks for asking such a thought provoking question.
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