Keep Your Head in the Zone! The Trifold Path to Cooking Zen

Cooking is something of a zen state. I know that Rachael can do it while she is talking. She’s so good at it that I believe she could do it while sleeping. But for me, cooking requires concentration, a kind of trance-like state. I need to pay attention, especially given the kind of high-heat, short-time intuitive cooking I like to do. You can’t walk away from a sizzling hamburger, after all. But sometimes, when there is a lot of cooking to do, and it isn’t fast and furious, I need ways to keep my head in the game. Here are a few of them.

— Music. I have the luxury of cooking mostly when nobody is around. So I have the freedom to play music, via a small ipod speaker in the kitchen. For long, repetive tasks like folding tortellini, or rolling flat pasta, pitting cherries (ew), or removing the silverskin from a high pile of flank or skirt steaks, you would go nuts without something to occupy your mind. Spotify is invaluable here.  I sometimes go with spoken word; but then, I’m a freak. I can’t imagine that anybody else would listen to The Rubiyat of Omar Khayam, read by Alfred Drake, and become so absorbed by it that the minutes flew by. Whole albums that have a full narrative cycle are good, because when else can you really pay attention to them. I just figured out that Ziggy Stardust had a plot. In any case a perfect cooking album has to be lively but mellow, I think. Sparklehorse’s It’s a Wonderful Life or Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear work for me.

— Movies. One of the most challenging things for is me is making things that require long periods of uninterrupted cook time. I am basically ADD, and the second a walk away from a slow-simmering corned beef or some oven-braised veal ribs, I’ve basically forgotten they exist. So I sometimes use a familiar movie as a guide. (I realize I could just buy a time with a bell.) I find that Caddyshack is the perfect length for low roasting a big lamb leg. Other dishes require multiple stages: When cooking a big chicken, for example, I will watch Conan the Barbarian. The bird starts off at high heat, and when Conan is put onto the Wheel of Pain, I turn it down. When the Cimmerian warrior ascends the Mountain of Power in an easy-to-spot priestly disguise, The breast come out. The horrifying “orgy” scene, with its green stew of hands and heads, tells me that it’s time for the dark meat to come out. I add some wine and stock to the browned, stuck-on vegetables at the bottom, turn down the heat, and wait for Conan to chop off Thulsa Doom’s head before assembling and plating the whole chicken. Any movie you know well will work: it kills the time and keeps you in a long-established rhythm.

— Multitasking. This is one Rachael is especially a master of. If you have enough things to do, you can really stay in the zone, entering what athletes sometimes call “the zone.” I made Thanksgiving dinner last year in three hours, producing eight dishes including a large turkey. The key was to plan everything ahead of time, and to figure on making so much that every second you would be occupied. Four burners were going, two big spaghetti squashes were in the oven, the turkey was getting basted, biscuit dough was being prepped — and of course, I was eating the whole time. Everything came out great, because I never stopped paying attention.

And attention, of course, is the one ingredient no recipe can be without. Did anybody ever say that before?

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