I¡¯m an extremely self-taught home cook. And I can also be an extremely self-critical home cook; call it a side effect of being the Type A first-born child. I¡¯ve spent the past twenty years or so reading recipes, watching PBS Sunday afternoon cooking shows, and the occasional Youtube series. I¡¯ve also spent the past twenty years or so trying my best to live up to those recipes and on-screen chefs, and often feeling that I¡¯m falling short. That feeling grows tenfold the moment there¡¯s an audience¡ªeven of one, even of someone I love.
I¡¯m okay with breakfast, I¡¯m just fine with a 22-minute dinner, but the moment a recipe even hints at being a project? My pulse starts racing. Can I cook? Have I ever cooked before? I just know there will be at least one stress-related fight before dinner is on the table. And in the back of my mind, I¡¯m certain that after hours of labor, what I put out will never look like what [insert influencer] had in their book.
It¡¯s this line of perfectionist thinking that¡¯s kept me from doing COOK90 in the past. I knew that I¡¯d get three weeks in, forget my lunch at home, and go back to eating food court sushi for lunch. I have immense respect for project-lovers¡ªpeople who say things like ¡°an entire day in the kitchen is meditative, actually!¡± For me? Cooking one thing for an entire day sounds like a recipe for heartbreak. And stating publicly that I¡¯ll be cooking all my meals for a month sounds like a fast track to making myself a liar. I¡¯m only going to let myself down. Or at least, that¡¯s what I thought.
In one sense, the ¡°deconstructed lasagne¡± from Canal House: Cook Something should have been one of those project recipes that made me fray at the edges. It involves a ragu bolognese that simmers for six to seven hours. It has you rolling sheets of fresh pasta and making a stir-constantly besciamella (you know, the white sauce). And a few Sundays ago, the first time I made it, I started the recipe in my usual project-cooking headspace: a low-level panic, exhaling pointedly, insisting that ¡°nothing! Nothing¡¯s wrong!¡±
But as time passed, something happened: I relaxed.
At some point during those six or seven bolognese hours I was listening to a podcast, while also making the besciamella, and realized I needed to stir the bolognese. (It should be noted that the besciamella is perhaps the most anxiety-inducing step, as it requires constant stirring and a steady pour of milk.)
I didn¡¯t even realize what I¡¯d done until it was over. It just came naturally.
Maybe it¡¯s the way Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton wrote their recipe. It is less of a recipe, I guess, and more of a suggestion¡ªa description of something you might like to eat, formatted as a paragraph, like a note to a friend. In just a few short sentences, Hirsheimer and Hamilton suggest you take some of the ragu bolognese, layer it loosely with some buttered fresh pasta, and simply ¡°whip up¡± a quick besciamella to turn it into a loose lasagna. It¡¯s all presented so matter-of-factly that there¡¯s no room for self-doubt. ¡°Doesn¡¯t this sound nice, and wouldn¡¯t you like to eat it today? Well, you can. You can do this. You already know what to do,¡± the recipe seems to say.
Shortly before the stirring-stress-success, I made another empowering choice: I decided in my spirit that I just wasn¡¯t going to mess with fresh pasta that day. Not that I felt I couldn¡¯t do it, but I just felt that I had the power, the agency, to choose not to. I thought of how simply the Canal House authors described the dish. It was an outline I could color in.
I saw the rest of my day ahead of me and decided that what would bring me the most joy was to layer those sauces with some store-bought pasta or some frozen cheese ravioli instead of starting with flour and eggs. And I had no one to please but myself.
Halfway into my first COOK90, I¡¯m still realizing the lessons of this meal: that simplifying isn¡¯t giving up. That ¡°perfection¡± isn¡¯t possible. That COOK90 gives you three breaks for a reason. That even if you forget to buy brussels sprouts for Anna Stockwell¡¯s winter salad hummus bowls, dinner isn¡¯t going off the rails. It¡¯s going to be fine, and you can do this. You already know what to do.