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How to get your groove back

February 27, 2011

Regaining your kitchen mojo: the chicken stock method

This week, my dear friend Ms Manners remarked rather sadly that it seemed she never cooked anymore.

She works incredibly hard at a stressful job, her partner is a good cook and happy to do it. But these weren’t the only reasons she had virtually abandoned the pots and pans, she said wistfully. The major problem was that, despite being an excellent cook at various times of her life, it seemed now she had simply lost the zest for it, and didn’t know how to get it back. She’s lost her kitchen mojo.

We all know how this feels, right?  The day you try to come up with an idea  for dinner and decide that, think as hard as you might, there are only two possibilities, grilled chicken drumsticks or pesto, and you’ve had them both already this week. It’s not that you don’t want to cook other dishes – it’s that you simply can’t imagine what other stuff there might be to cook. The books on your shelves, full of recipes and ideas, are like holiday brochures: full of gorgeous places you might like to visit one day, but simply too distant, too exotic, too out of reach for now.

This is a very common syndrome, known as Culinarus Mojous Interruptus. It is characterised by a light melancholy and an overwhelming fatigue whenever the sufferer glances at the cook top. It can last for years, and the same cure doesn’t work for everyone. Fortunately though, there are a few remedies that, taken as directed, can slowly but surely restore the sufferer’s confidence and enthusiasm for cookery.

The other night I found myself in the throes of a syndrome at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; an episode of Culinarus Hyperstimulatus which manifested in waking at 3AM, insomniac with excitement about a bag of chook bones in the fridge.

This was partly inspired by my cooky brother-in-law (one of several!) marvelling recently over why people pay good money for tetra-paks of stock full of salt and perservatives when chicken stock was quick and so simple to make. I confessed I was one of these ninnies; I had not made stock for months, and I often use those cartons (my view remains that using packaged stock is pretty far down the list of culinary sins, so I have no problem with it).

But of course he’s right about it being so easy to make, and cheap. You can buy a bag of chook bones from chicken shops for around a dollar, but since I pledged allegiance to free-range or organic chook only, don’t eat all that much chicken anyway and often buy boneless thigh fillets, my supply of bones has diminished. Until this week, when I came to my senses and asked the lovely peeps at Feather And Bone to sell me some carcasses along with the whole chooks I ordered this week. A bountiful bag of four beautiful, fresh, meaty, free range chook skeletons arrived on my doorstep for the princely sum of $5.

As I flung these into two big stock pots along with the other bits and bobs, it occurred to me that maybe making a pot of chicken stock could be a first step towards regaining one’s vanished culinary mojo.

First, there’s no pressure to actually complete a whole dish, and surely there is no less stressful task than hacking up a carrot, an onion, a celery stick and a tomato and tossing it into a pot with a couple of herbs (bay leaf, thyme, parsley, whatever), the chook carcass and some water.

Second, the sensory delight of this little job is immense. For one thing, there’s the luscious smell – our front door was open to the street when I made mine, and I actually saw passers-by stop and peer into my hallway, provoked by the cooking aroma. Then there’s the visual beauty of it – the glistening little baubles of  fat separating and rejoining, the gentle steam, the gradual transformation of your wan bunch of ingredients into a potful of golden goodness.

But most of all, I reckon making chicken stock provides one with an instant and very rewarding Real Cook glow.

Partly it’s to do with the busy productivity of the water toiling and simmering away (while you get to read the paper and drink coffee). Partly it’s to do with the virtue factor involved in making wholesome good use of otherwise wasted vegetable crisper odds and ends – all those tough bits of leek, nubs of carrots, limp herbs and otherwise useless parsley stalks, mushroom trimmings and overripe tomatoes. And partly, of course, it’s the incredible usefulness of the result: a splash or a litre of gorgeous home-made chicken stock can enrich anything from a risotto to pasta sauce to tagine to poaching broth to bouillabaisse to minestrone.

I have mostly made stock by bunging the leftover bones from dinner into a little saucepan with the veg trimmings before the dishwasher is stacked, then simply turned off the heat before going to bed.  Recipes are everywhere and recommended simmering times vary anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours, so it’s pretty much a no-brainer, deadset simple thing to do. But I have to say there is a leisurely pleasure in the long-simmered type that doesn’t really shine through so much in the quick apres-dinner simmer. For me, anyway – I welcome dissent on this!

The other virtue of this stock remedy for getting your mojo back is that you can enter into the kitchen spirit without having to make it a performance – there’s no tricky timing to worry about, no dinner party stress, not even anxiety about a raised eyebrow from your partner, housemate or cat!

So, there’s my first tip for reviving Ms Manners’ enthusiasm for the rounds of the kitchen. Some others I’ve thought of while writing this post include:

  • Have a well stocked pantry & freezer. That way, when inspiration strikes there’s no dreary going to the shops involved. Let’s face it – supermarkets drain the life force out of the most committed cooks, so you don’t want that giant obstacle in your way. My pantry essentials are mostly listed here (and lots of good advice in the comments too), but of course there are much more obvious things – salt & pepper, spices, canned tomatoes, olives, anchovies, pine nuts, etc. For the freezer, my essentials are butter, couple of bits of chicken, some chorizo sausage, a couple of other good sausages, and loads of nuts.
  • Start small, start simple! Don’t try to cook a special dinner for eight until you’re really firing on all burners – you need to rebuild your confidence cooking simple but interesting things. Even if it’s just sparking up a salad with a few nuts or some lentils & goat’s cheese, start small and get the mini-buzz first.
  • Go to a grower’s market or a really good fruit & veg grocer, sniff the air and get inspired (I love Addison Road Sunday market at Marrickville for its lack of pretension, cruisy vibe and good veg stalls).
  • Use good equipment. No need for loads of gadgets, and nothing need be really expensive – but decent saucepans, at least one sharp chef’s knife and a sturdy food processor make otherwise tiresome chores easy and pleasurable. Would love your ideas on the basic essentials.
  • Watch a bit of Jamie Oliver. He has naysayers aplenty, but I love his exuberance and egalitarian insistence that anyone can cook good food. We have two of his books and they’re both great, and I am a huge fan of the 30-minute meals show that screened here recently. Always felt the urge to cook after watching.

Okay, enough from me; it’s your turn. How do you get your mojo back back after a holiday from the hob?

 

14 comments

  1. I think reading this blog has done it for me!

    Thank you Charlotte- no forensic pathologist could make bones in water sound more exciting.

    And people crowding round your letter box because of the delicious smell! Ah… Memo to self- move rubbish bin from front gate as neighbours are looking in for other reasons.

    Julie


  2. For an even better all round stock, thicker and more gelatinous than chicken but lighter than beef use pigs trotters cut in half length ways. Most butchers will either give them to you free or cheaply.


  3. […] How to get your groove back […]


  4. I don’t know if this would work for Ms Manners but sometimes it’s nice to cook something frivolous but simple, when there’s no consideration of nutrition or actually having to do a whole meal. Something small and yummy to have with a cup of tea – like coconut macaroons. Couldn’t be easier and only 3 ingredients. Then step away from the kitchen and let husband in to grill the chops, toss the salad etc.


  5. You know I was watching that Jamie last night, and was totally drooling and itching to make the same meal. Also, used up my last supply of stock so will be getting it happening on the weekend.


  6. I had convinced myself that making pesto from the basil in my garden and the garlic from my sister’s garden in Tasmania meant I was ‘cooking.’ I now realise my delusion thank you, and need to go in search of my own kitchen mojo. The first step will be to invite myself for dinner at my mum’s. She is a passionate and creative cook and every time I have a meal with her I find myself wondering at the ingredients she has used and firing questions at her about the food. I can feel my mojo begin to bubble as I eat and jot down recipes. So, sharing a meal with someone who loves to cook is a good first step. I totally agree with you about Jamie Oliver’s infectious enthusiasm for cooking, and have been anxiously awaiting the 30-minute cookbook to be back in stock at the local bookshop. As you also note, the Addison Rd markets are also a fabulous incentive to move the mojo. I think having a clean and organised fridge and pantry helps too. You know what you’ve got, how old it is and can plan meals in your head when you’re not at home. I have sometimes uncovered my kitchen mojo behind the mouldy ginger stub. I think a stick blender is a wonderful and versatile piece of equipment to have in the kitchen. Soups, sauces, smoothies, pastes, all manner of desserts can come to life under the blade of this magic wand. I can’t go past a really good spatula and a nifty microplane grater. I actually enjoy shopping at supermarkets and like to go to different ones to see all the different products. It keeps me interested in what’s out there in food world and encourages me to experiment with new ingredients. Lastly, despite all these steps to recovery, if the mojo doesn’t want to be found, I don’t force myself to cook (the result is never good) but try to wait until the mojo muse descends. Then off I trot to the garden to pick some more basil.


  7. Yowza, what a lovely lot of comments. Jules, do you think I could get a gig writing for CSI perhaps? Beeso, love the trotter idea. Will give it a try if I overcome my foolish squeamishness about identifiable limbs & other parts floating about (sheep’s head stew, anyone?).

    Empress, I do like the idea of a frivolous bit of nothing to get the mojo fizzing. I thought macaroons were hard though? Or is that an easy version – as you know, my sweet tooth is underexercised in the kitchen. So much easier to hack off a bit of chocolate.

    Isabelle and Reemski, I am very glad you agree about Jamie. I heart him, though not as much as my friend’s French mother Judith, an amazing cook with many decades of experience, who ADORES J and always has.

    And Isabelle – of course pesto is cooking! I’m the one with the frozen pea soup, remember. I just plucked that out of the air, but it could just as easily have been chicken soup, or whatever.

    I think your ideas are excellent – having dinner with a great cook is a brilliant start, and love the advice about cleaning out the fridge too (Senor tends to end up with that job round here – I loathe and detest it …

    And @crazybrave aka Zoe agrees with you about not forcing it – this comment from her via Twitter:

    “If you draw creative satisfaction from cookery, you need to understand that like all creative processes there will be ebbs and flows. If you don’t want to cook, eat uncooked things and wait. And have long walks. And swim. It has happened to me many times. I’ve learned to sit it out.”


    • Thanks for the encouragement regarding the pesto Charlotte! I guess it’s my little lacking mojo messenger as I know I make it when I can’t think of anything else to cook (as you described). And, I seem to make it every couple of weeks… Still, it is yummy.


  8. My first time to your blog Charlotte and I hit upon the perfect post for me right now. I love to cook. But not right now.

    Like you, I’ve never really seen anything wrong with the boxes of stock. If you’re going to cut corners, that’s an ok corner to cut in my opinion. However, newly inspired, I’m going to fire up the stock pot next week. Because then you have to think about lovely ways to use your delicious stock.


  9. A late entry into the conversation, but I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. I have had regular periods where I’ve lost my kitchen mojo, it happens about every few months and usually after a period of having to be intensely busy and creative in the kitchen. Anyway, I’ve been trying to think through how I get it back. I think that firstly I always trust that it will return. I *know* it’s not gone forever. Then I think I focus on making really, really simple meals. The stuff I could make with my eyes closed, which takes minimal of fuss and only a handful of ingredients. The kinds of meals I can make without having to really think about cooking and meal prep. But the key thing is, despite being mojo-less, I still carry on cooking. And gradually, over time, my brain starts sparking and thinking of more interesting food. I’ll have a few different ideas and start to feel like cooking again. In some ways I work my way back into the mojo through the act of cooking itself.


  10. I was going to try and gross you out with a stock photo, but you should read the comments on this post if you need a giggle.


  11. I’m late, but this is still so timely as I have definitely lost my kitchen mojo at the moment. I also rate Jamie Oliver, not least because of his work improving school lunches, but mainly because his recipes are accessible and successful. Also he seems like a good bloke. But back to the mojo. I cooked all through my pregnancy and was baking the night my waters broke, but I have struggled in the three and a bit months since. My in-laws dropped off two whole snapper from the fish markets the other week and i just stared at them. I was utterly defeated by the prospect. Llew got me to pick up some palm sugar and tamarind paste while he was at work, and when he got home he stepped in and saved the day and then some. He ended up using a spectacular Thai recipe from David Thompson, right down to perfectly fried basil leaves and all on a Tuesday night. I found that inspiring.


  12. Sigh, since moving to a smaller, less functional kitchen (where the oven broke down after a month) I too have lost the kitchen mojo… need to take onboard some ideas… It’s also the heat though. BBQing is about all I can cope with, apart from assembling salads.


    • installing a new oven might be a good first step…



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