Economy, Grace & Eating Well: Trick Yourself into Doing Better
By now, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m never going to be the willfully perfect person of my fantasies. Even as I’ve figured out how to make some meaningful improvements in my life, sometimes I need to tap into my hard-wiring to trick myself into doing things.
This is far more realistic than attempting to overcome the finite amount of willpower that we each have.
I figured out a few good tricks last year. Most involve two big personal goals: saving money and eating better. These things are very often intertwined.
Admittedly, all the tricks cater to my particular brain malfunctions. But there are some universal truths, like…
It’s easier to do stuff when you don’t need to.
I finally understand how much easier it is to handle tasks when you do so at a point in time that is unrelated to their needing to be complete.
An example of the madness inside my brain and how I’m learning to harness it: I have a mason jar with a line on it that shows me where 12 cups of coffee is. When the moment comes that I want to make coffee I just dump the jar into the coffee pot without the annoying scooping, counting, spilling, etc. Now this is a small thing and it may sound ridiculous – it IS ridiculous – but if the jar is not full, chances are, I’m buying a cup of coffee down the block at the deli.
I don’t know how I am fooled by this – I still need to scoop the coffee into the jar. But I usually do so right after I make coffee, for the next time. And that makes all the difference. This absurd annoyance loses all its power over me when I am… not in need of a cup of coffee.
The same goes for food, but a million times more. Never does preparing a meal seem less palatable than when you are hungry. Or worse – tired and hungry.
How many times have I bought lettuce or broccoli or whatever, never to eat it because after an exhausting day at work, I just can’t mentally deal with the steps that stand between me, the head of romaine and a salad.
So I’ve started to be better about washing and chopping produce as soon as I get home, or, if not then, at any other point aside from *dinner cooking time*. It’s amazing how much less ambition is required when all the ingredients are just sitting there ready to use. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “Congratulations, Magellan for discovering that advanced prep makes cooking easier.” But sometimes you need something to click for you on a gut level in a very specific way.
Going all the way to cooked is even better.
If throw a bunch of butternut squash in the oven, it will last just as long as raw, while offering the added benefit of being totally ready when I need it to add to a salad or mix with rice, walnuts and sage brown butter. Roasted vegetables are delicious re-heated. There’s really no reason to wait to cook them. And when all you’re doing is roasting vegetables, it’s nearly effortless.
I read the most beautiful book once called An Everlasting Meal, Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler. Economy and Grace – what a gorgeous phrase. Tamar talks about cooking beans with as much transcendence as Thoreau talking about the woods. It is one of the smartest, most enthrallingly unpretentious books I’ve ever read about food. It’s basically a meditation on an economical, intuitive, elaborately practical and incredibly appealing approach to cooking.
The insights relating to plant-based cooking are what I’m especially interested in right now.
I think a lot of us eat fewer vegetables than we should, not because we don’t like them, but because they’re just high-maintenance. But vegetables, grains, beans and legumes are the healthiest and most economical of all things to eat. And when done right, the most delicious.
Tamar says, “Our desire to eat fresh vegetables has left us with an idea that vegetables are only good if they are cooked just before being eaten. But many of the best vegetable dishes are created over time.”
Forget food porn – this is food poetry.
A cornucopia of pre-cooked elements that you can mix, match and improvise with. Most home cooks don’t think twice about doubling a soup recipe to freeze half for later. But you can go so much further.
Tamar cooks a full week’s vegetables all at once. I agree with her that roasted vegetables, in particular, are great after they’ve had a few days to “settle into themselves.” Do you know how many unused vegetables we throw away in this country because we just can’t deal with them after we’ve gotten them home?
I’ve always remembered and loved Tamar’s admonition to make good use of a hot oven. Once it’s hot, just keep throwing things in there until you have nothing left to roast. Unlike the unwashed spinach sitting in the crisper, you’ll eat it all, eventually. I had a side of roasted broccoli with my omelet for breakfast recently. It was a revelation.
Speaking of breakfast…
Oatmeal is another thing you can and should be making a week’s worth of. Cooked oatmeal, or overnight oats — there’s really no reason to ever make a single serving. This will save you many trips to the bagel shop.
I would never dream of living a life where I can’t have a great bagel once in a while. Otherwise, why even live in New York? But, sadly, as far as your pancreas in concerned, a bagel is basically the same thing as tiramisu for breakfast. There is no daylight between sugar and white flour once they have crossed the boarder of your tonsils. Go for the fiber rich oatmeal more often than not and your future self will thank you.
Aside from being easier, saving time and helping you eat better, all this really helps cut down on food waste, which is an environmental disaster.
I cringe every time untouched food goes into my compost bin. I’m working hard on cutting down on waste. Another big culprit: the witness protection program that is the refrigerator drawer. So many potential meals, doomed to anonymous, goo-ified oblivion.
I’ve begun enlisting glass in this struggle.
I now use large glass mason jars to store chopped veggies, fruit etc. They save room in the fridge by being more vertical and using glass instead of plastic wherever I can is a goal of mine. But most importantly, when you can see what you have in the fridge, you’re a lot more likely to use it.
I bought a set of 8.5 oz glass water bottles that I keep filled in the fridge. This small thing has rid our family of apple juice. The kids love the bottles because they look cool and are easy to grab. A small glass bottle is just a very appetizing way to present water.
My chopped raw broccoli, so appealingly displayed, calls out to be thrown on the plate as a side for my older son, for whom raw broccoli is one of a small number of acceptable vegetables.
I’m thinking maybe I should do this with shredded cabbage so that I remember to get that into more salads. I’ve never once finished an entire head of cabbage, even as I religiously buy the smallest possible ones. And I love cabbage. It’s one of the highest fiber things you can eat. Less sugar, more fiber — my Holy Grail of 2018.
I experienced a peak frugal gourmet moment recently – literally cooking with Economy and Grace, Tamar! – and it was life-affirming.
I had a bit of leftover homemade veggie broth in the fridge. (f you’re not saving veggie scraps in your freezer and making broth, you are leaving money on the table. Good broth is so expensive.) I also had some leftover swiss chard that I did not want to waste.
I found a recipe that I improvised on: I sautéed the chard then added that small bit of broth. Next, I added sautéed garlic and shallots, mixed in some canned chick peas, a pantry staple, and topped it off with some feta cheese.
I did not have a lemon sadly, but a splash of vinegar sufficed. It was the most delicious thing in the world. Rarely have I felt more self-satisfied.
Economy and grace.
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