Don't look now, but it's that time of year when everyone starts making New Year's resolutions. While your friends are busy buying diet books and declaring what they won't eat in 2015, serious eaters are thinking of new resolutions to expand our palates, our counter space, and our social lives. Here are a few suggestions for resolutions that will make 2015 a delicious year.
Try a No-Cost Kitchen Makeover
If you spent December cooking and baking for holiday parties and gifts, you're probably keenly aware of the problem areas in your kitchen. Why not start the new year with a clean slate? I'm not just talking about giving the whole kitchen a good scrub (although if your kitchen is anything like mine, that's probably a good idea too). With all those drawers and cabinets and tucked-away spaces, kitchens tend to harbor lots of items you don't actually need. A little basic pruning can free up work surfaces and drawer space.
You can do these things one at a time when you're free, or just take a day and tackle the whole thing. (If you're snowed in with kids this winter, put them to work with age-appropriate tasks.)
- Take an appliance inventory. Be brutal. How many times have you actually used that pizzelle maker? Do you really need two coffee makers? If you haven't used it in a year or if it's only good for one thing, get rid of it. If it's broken, let it go. That electric griddle you got as a wedding gift and never used? Sell it on Craigslist or donate it to a local women's shelter.
- Now do the same with gadgets, dishes, and utensils. Let's be real here: if you own a knife, you don't need an egg slicer, a tomato slicer, or a banana slicer (although the Amazon reviews are hilarious). That set of festive holiday cheese spreaders you got at the office Christmas party can probably go too if you never actually pulled them out this holiday season. Dinner plates and mismatched mugs have a way of piling up, too. Keep what you need to serve guests. Chuck the others or find storage space somewhere outside the kitchen for especially big-group occasions.
- Let's talk about your spices and dried herbs. You're keeping those sealed safely away in a dark, dry cabinet, right? Right? Good. Now, be honest: how old are they? Ground spices can go stale and lose flavor in as little as eight months. For more on shelf life, storage, and organization, check out Max Falkowitz's spice storage guide. Do the same for dry ingredients like flours, beans, and grains.
- Storage containers without lids are about as useful as cars without wheels. Face it: you're not going to find that lid. Ditch it and keep using whatever you've been using.
- Is your freezer full of old, unsafe, or unlabeled food? Do an inventory and get rid of what you're not going to eat. Then level up and clean your freezer.
Learn a New Cuisine
Resolve to expand your culinary horizons this year by learning a new cuisine that takes you outside your culinary comfort zone. Maybe you feel at home with soul food but have always wanted to try your hand at paneer makhani. Maybe you've just moved to North Carolina and are eager to explore the vinegary local barbecue. Maybe you're hoping to pick up a few recipes that'll impress your Colombian in-laws. No matter why you choose what you choose, pick a cuisine and dive in. Learning about a new kind of food doesn't just afford you some delicious meals: it's a great way to learn about another culture, language, or history while also picking up new cooking techniques.
To get started, look for cookbooks that are geared to beginners. These will usually include a section at the beginning to familiarize you with ingredients and techniques that might be new to you, as well as breaking the cuisine down by region or style. Sometimes there's even a handy glossary. See, for example, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's The Chinese Kitchen, Anthony Bourdain's witty and informative Les Halles Cookbook, or Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking.
Other cookbooks go even further, providing readers with information on the historical and social context of the food—like Claudia Roden's classic The New Book of Middle Eastern Food or Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt's The Gaza Kitchen (which even includes recipe variations that use the UN rations on which many Gaza cooks are forced to depend). Try the recipes more than once and practice the hard parts. Taste an expert's version of the dishes you're learning, so you have a basis for comparison. Keep reading—and keep cooking!
Don't expect to master it—that takes a lifetime. But even picking up a few basics can open up new ideas, just like learning a few basic phrases in a new language can. Think about it this way: if you resolve to learn to cook "Indian food" as a total novice, you'll learn pretty quickly that there is no such thing—or if there is, it's manufactured for an international audience. (Sort of like how much of the world thinks of "American food" as a McDonald's hamburger and fries.) India's a huge, astoundingly diverse place, with 212 official languages (about 600 total) and hundreds of cuisines and food cultures—so you're going to have to get specific.
The same is true for "Chinese food," "Southern barbecue". . . you get the drift. Pretty soon you'll be learning about regional differences in cooking techniques, ingredients, and styles—and about the conditions that gave rise to those things. (How did the tomato get from North America to India? How did colonization by Portugal and Britain lead to dishes like pav bhaji and mulligatawny soup? Why do Mughal dishes dominate the menus of Indian restaurants in the United States?) You'll delve in deeper, pick up a few words, learn how to ferment dosa batter. If you approach your learning respectfully and remember that you are a guest in someone else's house, you'll probably make new friends in the process. And you will eat well, my friend. So, so well.
Master a New Cooking Technique
Just one technique, in a whole year! Easy, right?
Well, not necessarily. You've probably heard the Malcolm Gladwell argument that it takes ten thousand hours to truly master anything (and he really means anything—from hockey skills to surgery). I'm not suggesting you shoot for quite that much practice at your chosen technique in 2015, unless you plan on doing it professionally, but you will need to keep at it. That's why cooking schools force aspiring chefs to break down chicken after chicken after chicken: after a while the technique becomes muscle memory. You can do it in your sleep (and probably will—dreams are one way your brain learns new skills). Whether you choose to learn baking bread, homebrewing beer, a butchery method (like breaking down chicken or carving a whole fish), a preservation technique (like smoking meats, canning fruit, or pickling vegetables), or a flashy skill like stretching pizza dough or making noodles Lanzhou-style, constant practice will allow you to understand the nuances. If the dough's too sticky or the fish isn't fresh, you'll know it right away. You'll get the little things right. And by the end of the year, you'll have a new skill under your belt.
Try challenging yourself to make this resolution about learning, not about shopping. You can learn basic smoking techniques without dropping hundreds of dollars on a fancy new smoker. Really. Use what you have instead of rushing out to buy something before you've learned anything about your craft. Once you've mastered the basics and gained an understanding of the method, you'll know what you actually need.
Meal planning can be intimidating at first. It's really easy to buy too many magazines and then fall down a Pinterest rabbit hole of recipe-organization methods so complicated that you only stick to them for a week or two before giving up. One way to get around this is to pick a specific focus that solves a recurring problem.
For example, maybe weeknights are too busy for even simple meals and you're spending way too much money on delivery. Try setting aside a Sunday afternoon (or some other block of free time) and do a bunch of cooking at once. Try big dishes like casseroles that can provide for a few meals in one shot. Make one for the beginning of the week and freeze another to take out on Wednesday. If you're cooking for one, try making two or three dishes and then parceling them out into single-serving storage containers before freezing.
Making more than one option allows for some variety, so you're not forcing yourself to eat the same thing for lunch and dinner three days in a row. While doing this much cooking at once can seem intimidating, you can put on some music and get into the "flow" of cooking—which can be hard to do after a busy workday.
If you'd like to save money by eating leftovers for lunch, but your workplace doesn't provide a way to heat meals, one solution might be to plan dinner dishes that will stock your kitchen with sandwich-friendly leftovers. Roast meats are a great option: a roast chicken or pork shoulder will yield lots of flavor without a huge amount of effort, and you'll have plenty of meat to slice up and enjoy all week. Leftover fried chicken can be converted into an amazing chicken salad that's delicious cold.
Roasted tomatoes will pack your sandwiches with satisfying umami flavor. For vegetarians, smoked mushrooms can serve as a side at dinner and take the place of bacon in sandwiches. As for bread, you don't need to commit to a serious weekend baking schedule if you want something fresh. Drop biscuits are quick to make and delicious stuffed with sandwich fixings. Want more? The Serious Eats sandwich archives offer plenty of ideas.
Hit the Books
There's more to food than you'll find on the table. Resolve to dig into the literature of food this year. Here are a few classics to get you started:
The Art of Eating by M. F. K. Fisher. Filled with essays like "How to Cook a Wolf" and "Consider the Oyster," this collection celebrates the work of one of America's earliest and most lyrical food writers, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Fisher learned to cook in Dijon, France, during the early 1930s and began writing as a young newlywed in California. Her writing style is so honest and evocative—and so far from the housewife manuals of the time—that many critics assumed she was a man.
The Physiology of Taste by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Despite the intimidating title, this guide to gastronomy—written by a food-loving French magistrate in 1825—is lively and funny, seasoning its observations about food and the social art of dining with dinner-party anecdotes, asparagus-related practical jokes, and warnings about the dangers of bizarre nineteenth-century weight-loss schemes (like drinking a glass of vinegar every morning). It has been translated into English many times, but M. F. K. Fisher's translation is the best.
Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History by Sidney Mintz. This is one book about sugar you'll find in the anthropology section, not among the diet books. Mintz's page-turning history of sugar begins in 1492, with Spanish conquistadors landing in the Caribbean, and races through the centuries through slavery and the Atlantic trade, the American revolution, the development of modern food production, and right up to the role of high-fructose corn syrup in the modern American diet.
My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme. This absorbing memoir of America's first celebrity chef, as told to writer Alex Prud'homme just before her death in 2004, captures not only the life but the distinct voice of Julia Child. Child met her husband Paul in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), where they both served as secret agents during World War II, and after the war they married and settled into domestic life in France, where she began taking cooking lessons. The rest is history, told with Child's characteristic self-deprecating humor: "Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile . . . then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile—and learn from her mistakes."
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin. If the art of cooking is the art of living, Colwin is a master of both. This cozy, intimate collection of essays blends memoir with recipes, celebrating the simple joys of cooking at home. Colwin celebrates her failures as much as her successes, cataloguing recipes gone wrong in "Repulsive Dinners." She also offers plenty of common-sense advice, reminding readers that when it comes to learning in the kitchen, "a friend beats a cookbook every time"—after all, "you can't cross-examine a cookbook."
Start a New Tradition
Okay, so your kitchen's still a mess—and you haven't mastered the fine art of French pastry yet, either. Don't despair! You can still resolve to experience more joy in the kitchen. At the end of 2013, my husband and I resolved to see our friends more and expand our social life—a hard thing to do when you have a small child—with a new tradition we call Friday Night Meatballs.
It couldn't be more simple: every Friday night, we cook up a big batch of spaghetti and meatballs. We put the word out on social media and friends message us to claim spots at the table. They bring the wine, salad, dessert, etc. The kids play in the living room while the grownups open another bottle of Chianti. It's a wonderful way to end the week.
Since writing about Friday Night Meatballs and launching a website, I've heard from people around the world. Many of them have started their own Friday Night Meatballs, but others shared a wide range of invented traditions, all designed to create space for friends and families to get away from their busy lives long enough to share a meal. Whether it's a chili cookoff, a Bad Movies and Great Snacks night, or a simple potluck, whether it's every week or every month, the point is to relax together.
The most important thing to remember here is that this is about sharing, not showing off, so you don't have to cook anything fancy or have a home that looks like a Pottery Barn catalog. If you wait until everything is perfect, your friends will be long gone—so resolve to live life right here and right now, make some simple, imperfect food, and share it with the people you love.