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Happy In the Kitchen

A few years ago, I lived through a disastrous home renovation project. It brought mostly heartache and regret and, in the end, left me with a home that still needed extensive renovation to repair the mistakes that had been made.

Once these mistakes were corrected, order was finally restored, or so I thought, until I glanced at the kitchen ceiling and noticed a haphazard configuration of lights; it was an arrangement so illogical that it became an ongoing reminder of our chaos, heartache, and misguided investment. I was stuck with bitter feelings until, one day, one of my children glanced upward and said, “Look, we have a smiley face on our ceiling!”

That moment–that new way of looking at a situation that had, by then, become familiar–transformed the lights into an orderly, artistic arrangement. And so on that day I learned, and I mean really learned, the importance of outlook. I look up now and see a smiley face, and even when I strain to see chaos it simply isn’t there.

In the same way, when it comes to cooking happily and with a joyful acceptance of the task, outlook may be the largest hurdle any of us will need to leap.

  Photo courtesy of :   DTR@Ruhlman.com

Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

Seen anew, nearly everything in the kitchen can bring delight–from bowls of fresh produce, to piles of clean dish towels, to a set of well-stocked pantry shelves. Take a look around your own kitchen and ask yourself how it makes you feel. Does it relax you or leave you feeling tense? It’s an important question to consider because one way to keep cooking front and center in your life is to make sure your kitchen is exactly the kind of place in which you like to spend time.

In my own kitchen, I feel connected to nearly all that surrounds me, which may be why the work and the setting rarely tire me. I know many of the farmers who grow my food; I also know the man who made my wooden spoons, and the potter who crafted my mixing bowls and mugs. The dishes on my table belonged to my grandmother, as did many of my serving bowls and platters. My impulse to spend time in the kitchen has been nurtured by these ingredients and tools, all of which have a history. Feeling connected in this way makes it easier to care. Knowing where it all came from makes the kitchen interesting; and then, of course, there is the cooking itself.

Once you master a set of basics, the process of cooking is predictable and outcomes are mostly consistent. The time and care you invest generally correlate with the results you achieve. These are results you can measure, unlike the effects of a day’s worth of other work–parenting, for example–whose rewards and gratifications can be delayed months or even years.

Another aspect to cooking I appreciate is that the kitchen is not only about production and output. When I open myself to possibility it can be so much more, because while I cook I can let my mind wander and figure things out, if not all of the time, then surely some of the time. So as I’m cooking, I am moving myself forward in life. When I am chopping vegetables, I am also really dreaming up ideas and sorting out challenges. When I invite my children into the process, I may be working out a conflict from earlier in the day, or helping a child who’s had a rough go find success in a well peeled carrot or a lightly whipped cream. It may look like we’re chopping and mixing, dicing and stirring, but on a deeper level we’re weaving and reweaving the delicate strands of our relationship.

There’s an elegance to all this, to cooking alone or together and well, that can make time spent in the kitchen satisfying and worthwhile. Cooking also opens the door to rituals that are themselves a comfort and that pattern our days at home: a cup of tea in the morning, birthday meals, Friday night dinner or Sunday brunch. The seasons of our lives and, if we are parents, our years spent raising children are enlivened and fortified by food, and the kitchen is where we bring many of our hopes for these years to life.

The kitchen is, finally, the place where we grant wishes. “If it’s a cake you want, then a cake you shall have!” In its own special way, time spent in the kitchen bestows upon cooks the power of magic.

Favorite Summer Cake

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul

Finding Love in Italy

I was once swept off my feet while vacationing in Italy, la terra di amore, the land of love. As I might have expected (as you, by now, might expect) my irresistible suitor was not a “him,” but an “it”–the mercato, the Florentine farmers’ market–and the language of our courtship was curiously slanted toward all things edible: rosemario, pomodorifagioli, aglio.

Blocks away, in my Italian kitchen, I could feel the bustle and energy of the market. People streamed toward it from every direction–on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle–and I joined them each morning as I set out to gather ingredients for the day’s meals.

What the mercato offered was a vision; even now, it takes no effort to conjure it in my mind. Barrels of capers in salt. Anchovies. Artichokes. Fresh beans in their pods. Porcini mushrooms and handfuls of wild mint to go with them. More vegetables and fruit, full of color, odd shapes and personalities, and all at their peak of ripeness, the best and most they would ever be. There was rich, creamy yogurt that must have been a thousand calories. There were fresh whole fish that smelled of salt air and sea, squat yellow peaches, and eggs with deep golden yolks. Rather than pack these eggs twelve to a carton, the farmers offered them one by one, each a treasure.

  © Photo courtesy of:  DTR@Ruhlman.co

© Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.co

Perhaps my favorite moments at the mercato were when I needed herbs, aromatiques. The farmers treated them as weeds and gave them away free and by the handful, choosing which herbs to offer based on what I bought. The assumption was that I would know what to do with them, that I knew how to cook; and I did, because the ingredients spoke a language, not in words but by some otherworldly means, that told me how they wanted to be prepared. I had only to observe and respond, imposing little, and my meals never tasted so good.

As I reflect on the way I gathered food before my Italian adventure, I can point to an emptiness, to a missing story in vegetables neatly packed into grocery store bins, or in shrink-wrapped meat displayed on uniform refrigerator shelves. I knew nothing of the farmer, the farm, or the story behind this food.

Shopping at the mercato reminded me that food comes from some place and some one, that behind every bite we eat are hands and hearts that bring food from the fields so we can put it on the table. Behind every bite are stories that most of us have lost and that we can learn again by getting to know our farmers.

I realize that shopping at farmers’ markets may not be a way to restore anything we have actually lost. It may, in fact, imitate a slow-paced way of gathering and savoring food that was never an integral part of our food culture. I’m not sure. But knowing the animals who will provide, or become, our dinner is not new, and knowing the farmers who put seeds into the soil and pull vegetables out of it is not new either. Finally, enjoying the process of gathering food, and spending time doing it, has enriched us since the beginning of time.

Visiting a farmers’ market each week may not work for everyone, and it may not work all of the time. But it is possible, especially now and for most of us. If we make it a priority, we can participate in the process of reaping the harvest, and it’s worth it because where else can you find so many happy people engaged in food commerce: buying and selling, swapping recipes, and sharing details of the harvest? Where else can you inhale the aroma of fresh, beautiful ingredients while you shop? And where can you find more potent inspiration than from deliciously ripe, seasonal food?

Finding Love (Or a Farmers’ Market) Of Your Own

Farmers’ markets are increasing in number, with more than 6,000 spread across the country and, as of this winter, at least 900 are open year-round. Regardless of the season, farmers’ markets provide more than just food. By reorganizing the buying and selling of ingredients around fresh air and community, they add vitality and interest to a process that might otherwise be depleting. In contrast to supermarket shopping, farmers’ markets lift our spirits by connecting us to others and allowing us to exercise our right to choose food that’s wholesome, fresh and nourishing.

To find a market near you, follow this link: Local Harvest. Or this one: USDA. And if you feel like skipping the market and going straight to the farm, have a look at this site: Eat Wild.

More Reasons to Connect to Local Farmers and Farms

If you have any doubt about the importance of knowing where our food comes from, how it was grown, and by whom, take 18 minutes to watch this exceptional video: Robyn O’Brien’s Personal Story. You will be glad you did. It’s one of the most powerful TED talks I have seen.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul