This post comes to you from the day after our flat Christmas dinner.
Last boxing day, our family sat round the table in our local pub and talked about our proudest achievements of the year. It had been a big year – I’d been made permanent at my job, moved house, and overcome some pretty big emotional challenges. But I said that one of the things that had made me happiest and proudest in 2014 was, without a doubt, learning to cook properly.
Don’t get me wrong, I fed myself on the usual pasta and stir fries throughout university. And I have always been a fan of a slow cooker – bunging a lot of things into a pot on Sunday morning and forgetting about them for a few hours.
But in 2014, I moved to a house where my housemates and I cooked for one another. Before that, I had always been very nervous about cooking for people. My last boyfriend, in particular, I always left to do the cooking, because he was good at it, and I wasn’t sure if I really was, my repertoire was odd, and when I cooked for him he never said thank you (which I know now was just plain old rudeness but I took to heart at the time).
However cooking for my housemates, one of whom was vegetarian, changed my relationship to cooking significantly. Some dishes which were regular staples – Sainsbury’s 3-minute ravioli with no sauce, just butter, sliced chicken breasts and noodles in a vegetable-free immitation of a stir-fry, fish fingers and spaghetti hoops – didn’t really seem appropriate to cook for everyone. In a short amount of time, my vegetable intake increased massively, and, as a still quite picky eater, I had to be inventive with how I cooked them.
But something slowly started to happen, as I cooked new food, tried new recipes, and watched my housemates devour and enjoy them and say thank you – I began to love cooking. I took a little more time with it. I got a feel for my spice cupboard – which ones went with what, how they all smelt and tasted. I got in touch again with eating what I craved, what my body wanted. Eating more filling portions so I was less likely to eat biscuits for the rest of the evening (though, honestly, I still do). I got used to how vegetables make your body feel different to carbohydrates, but how both feelings are sometimes necessary.
I would plan and feel excited about cooking the evening meals – the Friday night curry, the Monday night pasta bake, the mid-week stirfry, the Sunday roast. I found myself relying less and less on the bags of chips and fish fingers in the freezer, and more and more on challenging myself to scrape together an exciting meal from the stuff in the cupboards. And I began to enjoy cooking. Slowing down. Taking care with the chopping of vegetables, seeing the ingredients laid out on the side, the smell and sounds of frying or roasting, the liberal application of herbs and spices. I could come home stressed and wound as tight as a spring, but then I would chop an onion, fry in butter, toast off the arborio rice, add bacon, mushrooms, stock bit by bit, stirring slowly, and by the time a steaming plate of risotto sits in front of you, you’re happy and calm. It’s as good as a glass of wine (well, not quite).
It’s so easy to resent cooking, and I know a lot of people who do. It used to worry me, stress me out, I used to hate having to make time for it, would always be too hungry for it. But now I come to it as an act of mindfulness, and self-care. Treat each task with your full attention. Think about where the ingredients have come from, what you should do to each one to bring out the very best of it. Experience each texture, smell, the weight of the knife, the heat from the pan. Think about flavour, moisture, resting time. Let the rest of the world melt away and cook in the moment.
Yesterday I made a Christmas dinner for my flat. It’s the second year I’ve done so. Amy provides the pudding. We cook duck, because it is our favourite, and though it’s expensive, there’s one time of the year when we should be able to treat ourselves. The skin is crispy and golden, the meat moist and rich and melting. We have potatoes, carrots and garlic roasted in duck fat, and asparagus sauteed with pancetta, and creamed spinach with nutmeg, and a deep brown gravy that famously once made Amy cry.
We cook like this to take care of ourselves, and of each other, because that’s what we do, Amy and I. I cook, and she washes up. I blog about the food, and she adds in the jokes. She makes me talk about my feelings, and I pour her a glass of wine and tell her to chill.
Christmas is a time for food, for self-care, for treating yourself right. There’s nothing ever quite as perfect as a little bit of what you’re craving, and even better when you can make it yourself. And if someone makes it for you, always ALWAYS tell them: “Delicious! Thank you!”
May you be well, and nourished, this Christmas,