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Cook yourself happier

Sun, 13 October, 2019

I read the news every morning, the weekend papers every week (yes, actually papers made from paper). But recently it feels like a chore to open the news app or flick through The Times on Saturday. All news is bad news, whichever part of the world you look towards, even for a generally cheerful, the bright side of life person like me. Looks like everything is going down fast and there’s nothing we can do about it apart from cutting down a bit on our plastic habit. What to do to at least make ourselves feel better? Well, I can only talk about what I can talk about which is food and cooking.

Cooking doesn’t always make me happy, which may or may not be surprising: we don’t always love our jobs or occupations. It is often a chore and elements of it are ALWAYS a chore, like peeling shallots or slicing runner beans. Things go wrong, more often than I’d like to admit, and times are that what seems a really wonderful taste combination turns out to be meh.

But cooking for people is a joy – both professionally (I think) and at home. It’s an expression of love, the easiest way to do something nice for those we love or to make up for where we feel we fall short. A special dinner on a date night, a family celebration, a wonderful treat for your child on a weekend or impressing the teenager and friend with a bowl of pasta with the sauce from scratch. That’s all better, simpler and cheaper than expensive gifts or elaborate surprises.

Even cooking for yourself can be an act of self-love. I’m starting to sound here like my yoga teacher but it’s true: making an effort or experimenting, which you can do freely without the stress that someone will go hungry, is deeply satisfying. Even if you’re in a deep post-relationship pit, you can cheer yourself up by not letting go but appreciating the person that matters – you.

Cooking is therapeutic. Making bread especially so, kneading by hand (provided it isn’t runny ciabatta dough) is sensuous and calming, let alone the side benefit of upper arm tone. Bread is a wonder and the first time you bake a successful loaf it’s one of the most rewarding experiences: out of nothing or next to nothing, just flour and water, you have created man’s primary sustenance. That’s an almost godlike feeling.

If you’re a more advanced cook, you can set challenges or stretch the limits of what can be made at home. For me recently it has been making butter from cream; properly, kneading and rinsing it by hand. How wonderful that butter tasted is beyond comparison. Of course, there are fails: trying to make my own ricotta cheese was less of a victory, and I always resort to good shop-bought puff pastry when in need.

You can cook something you do very well and find contentment in tried and tested ritual with reliably good outcome. Or you can test your limits by picking up an Ottolenghi recipe with a yard long ingredients list and instructions in 17 steps.

Go back to your roots. Most of us have been displaced for years from the place we grew up in; the grandmother who cooked the best chicken soup with noodles in the whole wide world is no more, and you never got round to asking her for a recipe. No matter – google it, post a question on social media, ask friends who might have preserved a worn-out recipe scrapbook into the third generation. Or think what it could have been that made that taste so magic and – who knows? – you may not replicate Granny’s flavour but you could be onto a wonderful dish of your own.

And finally, expensive food doesn’t automatically make the best dishes. Of course it’s nice to be able to cook several fresh lobsters or try your (trembling, with the responsibility) hand at wagyu steak, but among my best food memories are enormous plates of sautéed wild mushrooms I’d foraged and cook for dinner one camping holiday long ago.

Cooking for people is the best gift – for yourself and for those you cook for.


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