Getting Back In the Zone

For the last few weeks, I have been going through this challenging time with my cooking. It is not that I have not been cooking, I have. However, since Zoë and I made the decision to eat healthier, focusing on whole foods and those lower in the glycemic index, I have found myself going through this time of doubt. Where I had once felt free to be inventive and creative in the kitchen, I all of a sudden found myself feeling pulled back into a world where I wanted to be assured by a recipe. So much of Western culture is about having a recipe in front of you that tells you how to do something. This how to approach to cooking takes all the creativity out of it. I have been so de-inspired that last week, I didn’t even feel as if I had anything to say. Had I been on one of the TV cooking competitions, it would have been one of those bad meal kind of days. My soul was just not in my cooking.

Part of what I have enjoyed most about cooking was that it was a space in which I was in this zone. When I was doing my doctoral studies, there was a book we had to read by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I have written about flow before. I know when I am in the flow with my cooking. I am in this state of oneness with the universe where I am present and mindful of what I am doing, but also lose track of time and being. I am present, but I am not. I am cooking, but I am doing more then that. I also found it is easiest for me to be in this state of mind when I am by myself. When I am with someone who is cooking at the same level as me, I can sometimes achieve that state of being once we have developed a rhythm, but I find it hard to do that with someone who is just learning how to cook.

As I started to reflect on what has kept me out of this state the last couple of weeks, I realized it had to do with mastery. I had mastered, or at least had a feeling of mastery with ingredients and dishes I was comfortable with, those I used all the time. Now, I was encountering and using ingredients I had not used before. It is not that they were completely alien, but different enough that it has thrown my taste buds and comfort level off. For example, whole-wheat pasta. It is just pasta and to some degree, you cook it like regular pasta. However, I have come to realize that I cannot cook it quite as long as regular pasta because the texture of it seems to get starchier then regular pasta and so I am still getting the hang of cooking that. There are other high fiber grains that I am experimenting with as well like Israeli couscous, bulgar, and kasha. As I get used to working with them, I know my comfort level with them will increase and soon I will have the same sense of mastery as I do with other ingredients.

I have come to realize that mastery like any other part of life comes with practice. Practice makes perfect. That is something I heard all the time growing up. While I hated hearing it at the time, I do know it is true. The thing about practicing is that it does not matter what you are practicing, over time you will master it. It does not matter if it is positive or negative. It does not matter if it is a healthy or unhealthy behavior. It does not matter whether it will be beneficial or not, all that matters is that practices makes perfect.

The same is true for cooking, once I practice working with an ingredient and come to know it, it’s taste, texture, the various ways I can prepare it, etc., then I can begin experimenting with it again. Like tonight, I was feeling Italian sausage with sautéed peppers and onions. So I defrosted some Morningstar Farms Italian Sausage and sautéed them in just a little bit of olive oil, added some chopped red and green peppers, onions, and garlic and just let them do their thing. Then I thought hmm, do I want to have this on a piece of whole wheat bread or a whole-wheat hot dog bun. Hmm, what if I mixed it with some whole-wheat pasta and added some left over marinara sauce.  

What I learned tonight was this, I can take those things that I have mastered and the flavors I enjoy and put a new twist on them. But I also realized that even with those items I have mastered, I am always experimenting, trying something slightly new. Going hmm, I bet this would taste awesome if I just added a little of this or a pinch of that. I learned that I needed to embrace the challenge and in doing so, it allowed me to return to this flow like state of cooking again. And I have to say it was nice to be back in the zone.