I used to wander around the grocery store, hoping to be inspired. Instead, I got overwhelmed by all the choices. There I’d be, standing motionless in the middle of the aisle, a hall monitor of sorts for the debate in my head about which food was healthiest versus which food would make everyone happy. My cart and I were possibly even blocking your path. I’m sorry. I was having decision fatigue and getting a headache from the guilt I felt being angry at choices. Because I knew I was supposed to be grateful for them.
But those feelings turned out to be pretty normal. Stress from too many options is actually a real thing and there is another study that reports only 10% of people love to cook. I interpret that as meaning 90% of us dread cooking dinner. I blame all the options.
All these choices were probably the reason I used to say, “when my kids grow up, I am never cooking dinner again.” But then something transformational happened — our family hosted two girls from Nepal — and they got me straightened out. The short version of this much longer story is that they taught me how to make rice and dal (dal bhat). This is a dish my Nepali friends were used to eating three times a day.
On the days after they first arrived, I was sure they were going to be thrilled with all the new American food choices. I was wrong. They missed their dal baht. They missed it so much they insisted on teaching me to make it. Eventually I agreed, despite my aversion to cumin.
Soon we were making rice and dal nearly every day. I’m serious. Far from being boring, rice and dal became comforting. I began to look forward to it. And to the myriad ways we doctored it up adding different amounts of spices or other vegetables. Our cooking together became the highpoint of the day for me.
I loved the “no thinking” of what to make. Having the same thing so often was convenient because we kept all the ingredients on hand. I got better at measuring rice and chopping onions.
I no longer stood motionless in supermarket aisles. I learned that becoming good at one specific thing — so good that it becomes a matter of habit — made me happy. I gained confidence to experiment with other types of cuisine. And then something else happened that improved things even more.
My son, knowing I was making a lot of rice, gave me a rice cooker. Though I’d told him I didn’t want it because I try not to collect too much stuff, he was convinced it would change my life. I’m always ready to change my life so I kept it. He turned out to be right. The rice cooker taught me that while pots with a clearly defined purpose may seem like a luxury, they are also practical.
On a late afternoon, when I am trying to think up dinner, all I have to do is look at the rice cooker to remember that all my pots have something that they are good at.
That they hold the answers of what I can make, they remind of me of our history.
My cast iron skillet, probably still sitting on the stove, offers itself up for a frittata or sautéed potatoes. My blue Dutch Oven reminds me about Deborah Madison’s lentil soup. It is my go-to for mashed potatoes and Penne Vodka. My deep heavy skillet is especially perfect for red lentil dal, risotto or a recipe I recently found for one pot garlic spaghetti with peas.
This revelation is why I recently splurged on a tagine. The purchase came about because the week before my wonderful friend had invited us for dinner.
“Come for Moroccan Chicken,” this friend said.
She is a very good cook and if there was ever a time to try Moroccan chicken this was it.
It was delicious, even according to my slightly picky eater son, and by the time we were finished my friend had no leftovers. I was already craving more Moroccan chicken the next day and looked for recipes to make it. The word tagine kept coming up in regard to Moroccan chicken. At the time, tagine was a new word for me, and I didn’t know it referred to both a stew-like dish and an earthenware cooking vessel.
A week later, I found myself at a kitchen store wandering down the aisles looking to replace my salad spinner. And that’s when I happened upon a display of funky looking pots. Upon closer inspection I saw that they were labeled “tagines.” I wondered if there were other things one could make with a tagine. I flagged down an aproned salesperson.
“Is there a way I could look at the recipes that are included with the tagine?”
We walked together back to the tagine section.
“I’ve never used one,” she said.
Which made me feel impulsive for even considering it if the official kitchen salesperson didn’t even have one. She took down one of the boxes from the shelf and we walked over to a chair in the corner where she pulled out knife, cut through the tape and lifted out the Styrofoam and the top part of the tagine. I saw the square little recipe booklet I was after.
“You can just leave me here,” I said, motioning her over to the line that was getting bigger at the register. I needed time to think. The recipe booklet only had about five recipes, two of which I knew I’d probably never make because I don’t like lamb or eggplant. I was still craving my friend’s Moroccan chicken. I thought about my nana’s special chicken pot. It was passed down to me when she died. She was the most practical person I’ve ever known — she canned and froze all her garden vegetables. If she kept a certain pot for a certain recipe it must have merit. I calculated how many dinners I’d need to make to justify the price.
My husband walked over.
“I’m going to get this tagine.”
And I think my bold, relatively fast decision surprised both of us equally.
As I lugged the pot back to the car, instead of regret, I felt excited.
This pot had one job.
It felt so manageable, so purposeful.
I was going to make chicken tagine every week.