I often say that cooking for me is a form of meditation. Assembling ingredients, chopping vegetables, tending to a stir-fry, grilling fish — all require mindfulness, the full focus of attention on the here-and-now that is the essence of meditation practice.
I first experienced the potential of cooking to center my mind and improve my mood when I was a student at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s. After working long shifts in depressing hospital wards, where the only available food was wretched, I found that preparing a simple, wonderful meal for myself from scratch would neutralize the stress and negative emotions I was feeling. This was the result of fully concentrating on the tasks at hand, without letting my awareness drift to disturbing thoughts or images.
And at the end of the process, there would be great food to enjoy,
again with full attention.
Over the years, cooking-as-meditation has continued to be an important part of my life. I do it even if I am home by myself, always going into the kitchen at the end of the day to make a dinner from fresh ingredients. I avoid overly complicated recipes, preferring straightforward ones that are neither time- or labor-intensive. I love to introduce others to the pleasures of healthy, delicious food that is quick and easy to make. I also like cooking together with friends; being together in the kitchen develops good social skills.
There is another reward of cooking that fascinates and motivates me:
it is excellent training in practical magic.
By that I mean that cooking gives you a chance to practice the esoteric art of manifestation — bringing something from the imagination into physical reality. You picture a perfect dish in your mind, not just its appearance but also its aroma, taste, and mouth feel. The challenge is to create in your kitchen a product that replicates as exactly as possible the one in your mind. Following recipes may help you as you begin this practice, but with experience, you should be able to free yourself from them and feel more confident about tweaking them, improvising, and creating ones of your own.
To do this kind of kitchen magic, you have to deal with a great many variables and solve problems that arise. If you are preparing a whole meal, you have to ensure that all the components are done at the same time so that you can join your guests at the table. Instead of planning a meal and shopping for ingredients, try working in reverse by going to favorite stores to see what ingredients are freshest and in season, then thinking about how you’d like to use them.
I have the good fortune to have a great kitchen garden. At the moment, I have an overload of terrific, ripe tomatoes. I slow-roast many of them by cutting them in half, sprinkling the cut sides with some extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper, then baking them at 300° on a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet for 2 hours. Then I squeeze the pulp and juice out of the skins, store it in the refrigerator or freeze it for later use. Also, I found the first ripe eggplants on my morning garden tour. What to do with them? Maybe a bubbling casserole of eggplant parmesan.
But I don’t like most versions of this classic dish, almost always too heavy, with the eggplant slices breaded, deep fried, and sodden with oil. So I tried another method. I coated the slices lightly with olive oil and roasted them in a hot oven until they were tender and just beginning to brown. I made a quick, highly flavored sauce from a container of my roasted tomatoes by adding them to a skillet of sautéed onions along with garlic, hot red pepper flakes, salt, a few dashes of ground allspice, and some chopped fresh basil and oregano. I cooked the sauce down to the right consistency, then assembled my casserole with layers of sauce, roasted eggplant, sauce, fresh mozzarella, and torn basil leaves, ending with sauce, mozzarella, and a generous topping of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
All I had to do was bake this at 350° for 30–40 minutes, let it cool for 15 minutes, and serve it with a green salad for a most satisfying dinner. By getting it ready in advance I was able to relax for the afternoon.
I will tell you it was a beautiful manifestation, just as I had imagined it.
Of course, the point is not to restrict this kind of exercise to the kitchen and food preparation but to apply what you learn to other areas of your life. I cook because it like what it does for my mind and because it allows me to develop useful skills. And I greatly enjoy the results.
Why do you cook?
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