It hasn’t been a stellar winter for me in the kitchen. I usually hit a patch of doldrums in February anyway, but I was uninspired in January and now here’s March, not much better. I’ve made just one recipe in my new crockpot, the spines of the latest issues of my food magazines are uncracked, and my fridge is ridiculously clean, which only happens when it’s, well, empty.
So easily, cooking can become just another chore to get through amid a series of chores. First you need to figure out what to make, which can be the longest part of the process. Then there is the trip to the grocery, then waiting in line at the cashier, then driving, then putting things away, then finally getting set up for preparation. Even if the end product is the most enjoyable part of your day, which eating dinner always is for me, it doesn’t mean getting to it is always fun.
Over the past weeks, I’ve wondered if my love of cooking has left me — or at least shrunk. Why haven’t I wanted to read my “Fine Cooking,” after all? I used to hungrily rip off the plastic as soon as I saw it in the mailbox. And why am I more intimidated than excited to try out a new appliance I got for Christmas? Am I getting set in my ways?
Actually, yes. At this time of year, when spring is refusing to spring and the land is brown and grey, it’s easy to feel stuck in routine, easy to complacently rely on go-to rather than invent or experiment.
But this morning as I packed Gabrielle and William another boring lunch, I felt ready to snap out of it. I opened the February issue of “Bon Appétit,” which promised warm winter meals. Given that it had started lightly snowing, that felt about right. I imagined my humming, fragrant kitchen welcoming my husband home and felt, for the first time in weeks, inspired. It took just a slight adjustment of my attitude to find a recipe that looked good: Indian-spiced chicken with tomatoes and cream.
A quick scan of the ingredients and I could tell the recipe is a good one. First off, it has cream in it, which is always a bonus. Secondly, the ingredients seem to make sense together.
This afternoon as I got ready to trudge to the grocery to get the ingredients, I felt the now-familiar pinch of just wanting to get through the errand. It’s amazing what a habit that can become, this desperate feeling of just wanting to get it bloody over with. But then I stopped it. Take a step back and relax, I told myself. So I did. I walked through the grocery to find my ingredients and then came home with about a dozen other things I have needed for a while but have been too in a hurry to remember to get.
I hit the kitchen at 5 so everything would be ready in plenty of time for dinner. This is something I haven’t done in a while either — start early. If anything, I’ve been using the 20 minutes my husband takes to get home from work as my entire preparation time, so that by the time he walks through the door I’m just deep enough into dinner to be harried. But no, tonight I was going to take my time and enjoy.
And I did. While the chicken browned in butter, I cut up the onions, pressed the garlic and grated a good amount of ginger. I took out the chicken then added the onion mixture into the warm Dutch oven. Aside from my broth pot, my cheery red Dutch oven is the kitchen piece I have the most affection for, its much-stirred bottom and stained lid a history of past meals. I stirred the onions and already the kitchen smelled wonderful, the ginger and garlic singing from the pot.
Then it was time for spices. Should I toast them then grind them? They didn’t say to in the recipe, but my friend Sajani, when she taught me how to make lamb biryani, scoffed at the idea of pre-ground anything, so I added the coriander and cumin seeds into a fry pan to get them nice and warm and then gave them a whirl in the spice grinder. I added that to the onions, along with garam masala, turmeric, cayenne, cardamom and tomato paste and the heady fragrance bloomed inside the room.
When the tomato paste darkened, I added chicken broth, puréed tomatoes — extra, always have to add extra of those — and the chicken back in and brought it to a simmer.
I sit here now listening to the stew bubbling gently and reading the rest of the February issue. It’s a cold night and I foresee a good meal. I’m going to use my new rice cooker, even though I’m scared of it, because everyone I’ve talked to says rice cooked in these things just tastes better. I found naan at the grocery and I’m going to warm that up. I’ll top the dish off with yogurt and I noticed mint has start sprouting in the front garden so I’ll get some of that for a little dash of green. Tomorrow I’m going to try the spicy beans and wilted greens recipe I’ve just read. Saturday I’m going to make dark chocolate waffles for Gabrielle’s birthday breakfast. Because I can feel it, it’s back, this love I have, and, oh, but that feels good.