Oregon in September…
The smoke moved in quickly, overnight it seemed. I awoke to an eerie golden light trickling in through my blinds. The street outside our house, normally busy with neighbors and passers-by, sat empty and quiet, the only movement came from the occasional car or an errant squirrel. Now a pallid yellow, the sky was swallowed. Everything smelled of smoke and as it lingered, it coated our lungs and choked my mind.
Those days were surprisingly difficult. Everyone was forced to be inside because the air quality was too unhealthy. Long hours spent looking out the windows. The world fell quiet, a quiet that slowly seeped into me and I felt like I was losing my mind. It was around this time that I fell out of cooking. Instead, I would opt for quick meals and snacks. I felt bored and tired of cooking, it was too much work to make myself a meal.
As a one person ‘household,’ it can be hard to motivate myself to cook, even on a good day. It’s complicated to shop and cook for one. I find myself eating the same meal for a week, because I am not able to afford to waste lots of ingredients, and I do not eat enough volume to consume an entire recipe in one sitting. I miss cooking for someone else because it allowed me to experiment, I could try a new recipe every other day. Not to mention the love and care around making a meal for others. I use cooking as a creative outlet as well as a way to express love, and a shared meal does create a sense of connection and intimacy. When I cook for myself though, the experience is different. All these circumstances lead to a cooking burnout, which is a normal part of life. Similar to any other activity, eventually it loses its luster. This sort of ‘boredom’ cycle is fascinating because it is so universal. You start a new activity, riding a wave of inspiration and dive head first, eventually you might find yourself reaching a plateau. For me, the joy and connection I found almost meditative about cooking was gone, and it stayed that way for a while. The question I will go about answering is how I was able to reignite the excitement.
A few weeks ago, after some quick decision making, my housemates and I decided to have a ‘family dinner.’ We came up with a menu for a taco night, and that evening I went shopping. The four of us gathered in the kitchen and split the duties of cooking, all the while talking, laughing, listening to music and dancing as we mashed creamy avocado and cried over diced red onions. The food was incredible and as we sat at the table we all shared how fun cooking had been, that we should do family dinner nights more often. It was only upon reflection several days later when I realized how amazing those shared moments had been and why I am choosing to write about them now. The moments in the kitchen and later at the table were full of joy, pure and simple.
In the days that followed I felt a wave of familiarity washing over me. Finding rhythm in my knife strokes as I sliced late season tomatoes, centering my attention as I practically beat my babka dough into a smooth and soft ball. I began researching recipes again, looking through cookbooks and websites online. Bookmarking so many recipes that when it came down to meal prepping for the week I did not know which to choose, harira or roasted delicata squash, tomato braised beans or miso soup. Without knowing it my friends had supported me in a way that gently encouraged me back into cooking. Here lies the first lesson I learned, the path back to what you love is the path of least resistance (usually). I did not force myself to cook, I just followed the flow. Although I remember several times feeling frustrated with myself for eating mainly snack meals, I also remember honoring my exhaustion by not cooking. This was the second lesson I learned, self-compassion. This may seem like such a small and insignificant act, but compassion was necessary here all the same. Judgment and especially self judgment are seldom useful. Once I begin judging myself for the decisions and actions, or in this case, inactions, it only makes doing the actual task or making the choice more difficult. Self judgment will throw me into a loop that has the potential to spiral out of control, suddenly what started as ‘I can’t believe you can’t cook a meal’ turns into ‘you’re lazy and incapable.’ Breaking out of these loops of judgment is difficult and sometimes they can be avoided altogether by just letting yourself be. However it’s definitely easier said than done. In my case, I had to accept I was not going to be making meals, that was just where I was at mentally and physically. There is much more to be said about self compassion but this is about cooking and food so I will leave that to the gurus and psychologists who are more educated and practiced in this field.
The last thing I learned was finding support, in a way. Under the context of a meal shared with friends I was able to use my community to find support, validation and connection in cooking which was something that had been missing for a while. This extra little push was the final piece in getting me back in the kitchen. I am so grateful for the wonderful people in my life. Even though they cannot solve all my problems for me they offer the best reminder that the world is a beautiful place worth living in, this sentiment can get lost in the hopelessness which sometimes clouds your view. Take this as a reminder to engage in the things you love, to engage with yourself with kindness, that it is okay to use your support system and to cherish the people who make life worth living.
As a disclaimer, take this story with a grain of salt. I am only presenting the things I learned because I thought they would be helpful and relevant in certain situations. In no way am I suggesting these things as the be all end all, cure all. Life is hard, much more difficult than losing your passion for cooking. I present these lessons with an open heart, mostly as a reminder to myself that joy and inspiration take work and can be rekindled even if there is doubt. Without further ado I give you For the Joy of Cooking: Marinated Mushroom Tacos. This recipe is completely vegan and can be made gluten free with your choice of tortilla.
The recipes detailed here are for: marinated mushrooms, cashew crema and self-proclaimed ‘fancy’ black beans
Makes 4–6 tacos, depending on how big you like your tacos. Alternatively use these recipes separately to create new dishes, like a marinated mushroom salad.
1 lb of bella mushrooms (or any other variety)
1 can of chipotles in adobo (you will use these in the other recipes too)
Juice and zest of 1 lime
2 tbsp honey
¼ cup of neutral oil
2 cloves of garlic
Salt and pepper
Start by slicing the mushrooms across creating thick strips.
In a blender combine 1–2 chipotle peppers depending on how spicy you want your mushrooms along with a fair amount of the adobo sauce, around a ¼ cup. Add the juice of the lime, the zest, honey, oil and garlic cloves.
Blend until smooth, season with salt and pepper to taste.
In a bowl combine mushrooms and sauce, toss until all mushrooms are coated. Leave the mushrooms to marinate for at least 20min but up to 40min. Toss the mushrooms and sauce to make sure everything is coated several times during the rest period.
When they are ready to cook, heat a frying pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot add the mushrooms and cook until they are tender and the sauce is thickened.
1 cup of raw unsalted cashews
Juice of 1–2 limes (depends how lime-y you want it)
1 bunch of cilantro
1–2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp coriander
The cashews need to be soaked either in room temperature water in a bowl overnight. If preparing the same day, boil water then pour it over the cashews and let them sit until the water is cool, then repeat this again and let them sit until you are ready to make the crema. The cashews should be larger and be slightly “squishy” in texture.
This recipe is very flexible. If you prefer the creamy and slightly nutty flavor of the cashews, I would not recommend adding much of the other ingredients at all, if any because the taste of the cashews is very subtle. If you do not like cilantro you do not have to include it. Every ingredient except the cashews can be adjusted for your preferred taste.
To make the crema combine the cashews, juice of the lime, all the stems and half the leaves of the bunch of cilantro, 2 cloves of garlic and the coriander in a blender.
Blend to a smooth consistency adding water if needed for the blender or to your desired consistency. Once the crema is at your desired consistency season generously with salt to taste.
2 tbsp neutral oil
1 yellow onion
3–5 cloves of garlic
1 can of green chiles
1–2 chipotles in adobo (depending on how spicy you like your beans)
2 tbsp adobo sauce
2 cans of black beans
½ cup of veggie broth
2 tbsp cumin
Juice of one lime
Salt and pepper
Dice the onion, the cloves of garlic and the chipotles.
Heat the oil in the bottom of a small to medium saucepan on medium. Once the oil is shiny and runs like water add the onion and saute until they are translucent and barely starting to turn golden.
Turn the heat down to a medium-low. I like to cook over lower heat in this recipe because I don’t want to burn anything and I’m not looking to crisp anything. Low and slow allows the flavors time to blend together.
Add the garlic, chipotles, green chiles and cook until they become fragrant. It should take 3–5 min.
At this point add the adobo sauce, the cumin, paprika and about a 1 tsp of salt and ½ tsp of pepper. Let everything cook for a little longer so the flavors begin to meld together and the contents of the pot look like they are well combined.
Add both cans of beans, the liquid inside the cans too and half the broth. Give everything a good mix and bring to a bare simmer.
Turn the heat down to low and use a potato masher, the back of a spatula or wooden spoon to begin mashing the beans. I like when the consistency is mainly mashed, but there is still some texture from unmashed beans. Taste and season with more salt pepper, cumin or paprika if you feel the beans need it.
Now keep the heat down and ‘cook’ the beans until everything is ready to be served. You’re mostly just keeping them warm at this point.
I personally like my beans to be a pourable consistency so I would add the other half of the broth during the final ‘cook’ after they have been mashed to keep the consistency where I want it.
Finally right before serving, add the juice of the lime for a final bit of tang.
Together these recipes made the basis of our meal. We served the mushrooms on cassava flour tortillas and topped them off with homemade guacamole (I’m sure you have your own recipe, or can find some), the cashew crema, purple cabbage slaw with homemade pickled jalapeños and red onions, and cilantro. The fancy beans were served on the side along with a light and simple salad. If you are of age I recommend a classic margarita. This made for an absolutely delightful evening and I hope you can find some inspiration of your own either here or somewhere else.