The Zen of Cooking

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By Keltie Jones-This holiday season, I did something that I haven’t done in so long that I can’t remember when it happened last – I took two weeks off.

Keltie Jones

The best part about time off during the winter break is that most people (and all the students) aren’t working, so I won’t be swamped by e-mail when I return.

During this remarkable period of relaxation, I spent a lot of time cooking. In doing so, I rediscovered something I have learned over and over again, but seem to forget. Cooking makes me feel good.

When we’re busy, the thought of figuring out what to prepare can be overwhelming. As a result, we have a great relationship with wait staff at almost all the restaurants in Truro. But I need to recognize that when we dine out, I don’t get the added benefit of feeling good about what I’ve accomplished.

During this vacation, I had the time to plan and the time to cook, and I took full advantage of it. I made family favourites – including my almost-famous mac-and-cheese (the real kind, not the KD version) and homemade pecan rolls for Christmas morning. I also brought out some recipes that have languished unused form some time – pao de queijo and carrot cachapas (South American recipes from one of our favourite restaurants back in California –yes, we dined out often when we were there, too).

I also experimented with a few things. I tried a new sauce for our annual enchilada feed – a sweet mole (pronounced mol-eh, not like the small rodent!) made with spices, chocolate, and peanut butter that was a huge hit. And I made maple glazed carrots for the first time, which was another hit. Then I got a new bread maker, which led to three-cheese bread, cinnamon raisin bread, and garlic pizza dough.

My mantra for the past two weeks has been “I nailed that recipe!” At one point, the family joked that I should open my own restaurant. But we all decided that it wouldn’t work out so well because the menu would be dictated by my whims, and we would be randomly closed when I just didn’t feel like cooking.

After a day when I made a wonderful meal, I would go to bed smiling about how nice the house smelled. As I recognized that cooking was making me feel good, I began to wonder why, and then began to wonder why I don’t do it more often.

I realized that I enjoy creating good food because of what I call the “zen of cooking.” When I’m cooking, I’m in my own mental space, connecting to a recipe, revising it as I see fit (which usually involves adding garlic), and helping things come together. It helps that I have Joy cleaning up behind me, so that I can focus on the food.

But cooking is not about total control. It is also a time when I just have to be patient and wait for things to happen. Two of my favourite recipes to make – butternut squash risotto and pear jam - involve being patient. They both require an extended period of stirring and watching. I can’t multitask. I can’t walk away. I just have to be with the food while it cooks. This is a lesson that I try to remember in other parts of my life.

Another element of the zen of cooking is being aware of what I can create from simple ingredients, and being grateful for the fact that I have access to them. I read an article recently that pointed out that only 30 percent of wealthy people eat more than 300 calories of junk food a day, compared to 97 percent of poor people. While the article was insinuating that eating less junk food helps make people wealthy, I read it as further evidence that the poor have less access to affordable healthy food options. I am blessed to be able to buy what I need and to have access to resources that teach me how to use the ingredients to make healthy, delicious food.

Many social service agencies recognize the physical and psychological benefits of cooking. Locally, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Maggie’s Place offer programs that bring clients together to cook, share food, and learn. They provide instruction on preparing healthy meals as well as showing the social impacts of sharing meals with others. Nationally, there is a trend to add “community kitchens” to food bank operations, where people gather to cook together and share meals instead of just taking the food home. Wouldn't it be great to have something like that in Truro? We are just discovering the many connections between food and wellness and how we can connect our communities through cooking together.

So, given the benefits, why don’t I cook more often when I’m not on vacation? Like many others in this modern world, I have fallen into the “busyness” trap. I have to work late, I have evening meetings, I’m too tired, I’m not inspired to create something – these are all the excuses I use. But really, it takes less time to put together a quick meal for two than it does to travel to a restaurant, order, wait for the meal, and eat it.

It’s like exercise. I can think of lots of reasons why I can’t fit it in, but I always remind myself that I never get to the end of a workout and think “Well, that was a total waste of time!” I need to just make the time to cook and remember that I will have the added benefits of feeling good about my accomplishment. Because in the end, I feel better about what I eat, and the house smells yummy. Where’s the down side?

Keltie Jones lives in Truro and is always happy to share her cooking with friends and family.

Organizations: Canadian Mental Health Association

Geographic location: California, Truro

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