how to cook like a poet

beans and rice and rice and beans

Okay, okay, maybe I’m stretching the poetry angle here a bit. But the idea for this post came out of a Facebook conversation yesterday with fellow poets and parents after I posted this as my status:

Discovered last week that even if I don’t try to write, and just do mom/house stuff all the time I still can’t get it all done. Very freeing! The fantasy evaporates! Ever onward with my new motto: write first, do the “musts,” lower standards for all else.

There were several commiserating and hilarious comments from other poets and parents (some of which included socks, applesauce, legal pads, and fervent declarations of belief), and then the wise and excellent Molly Fisk weighed in with this:

Most women’s daily lists have three days-worth of tasks on them… Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis…

Having read that, I decided to revise my motto. Motto 2.0: “Write. Feed your family real food. The rest is pretty much up in the air on a rotating basis.”

See, the thing is, the “real food” part of Motto 2.0 is actually really important to me. Sometimes I feel like a throwback, but I think one of my crucial jobs as a parent is to feed my kids healthy food and, of course, to teach them how to plan and prepare healthy meals so they know how to do it someday for their own families. I confess, I have an apron and wear it every day. I confess, I made Sister’s birthday cupcakes, which seemed to almost horrify some of the other parents. Them: “You cook? Do you cook every day? How did you learn to cook?” Me: “mumblingsomethingaboutbeingfromthemidwest.”

But back to cooking like a poet. One things parents and poets often have in common is that money can be scarce. Don’t get me wrong, our family is very fortunate, especially in this economy, to have a good income that covers all of our necessities and sometimes a few extras. Still, we do everything we can to live frugally, and one way to live frugally is to cook frugally (think “concisely”), but with care and attention. You know, like a poet. So, here’s my handy-dandy guide on how to cook like a poet:

1. eat seasonally  I grew up in Michigan where fruits and veggies roll out of the fields from May to October. We marked the year by what was in season: first asparagus, then strawberries in June, moving on through cherries mid-July, blueberries in time for my mom’s birthday, then the bounty of August: peppers, tomatoes, sweet corn, cukes, plums and apricots, the peaches, the earliest apples. Well, you get the idea. Here’s the thing: eating what’s in season costs less. When strawberries are $5.99 a carton, it’s because they’re out of season, and they taste like cardboard anyway. When they’re $5.99 for half-a-flat, they’re in season and completely delish. You can save lots of money and eat better produce by eating what’s in season.

2. plan ahead  I know, I know, this is the worst part. You actually have to sit down and figure out what you’re going to feed everyone all week. I hate it, too. But what I’ve found is that if I plan, I spend less money at the store and the whole week goes more smoothly. I’ve found it convenient to have a standard menu starting place, for example:

Monday – pasta
Tuesday – chicken
Wednesday – hearty soup, green salad, bread
Thursday – leftovers if any; if not, something vegetarian
Friday – pizza (often ordered in if budget allows)
Saturday – scrounge (my favorite night!)
Sunday – something on the grill

Having this backbone helps me fill in the week with recipes I know well (helpful hint: well-known recipes go most quickly, therefore maximizing your writing time!).

Also in the planning ahead department are two corollaries (say that the British way — it’s more fun): a. double and freeze: That’s right, make a double batch of spaghetti sauce and freeze half for next time. And b. parallel process: If your’re cooking on Monday night, prep Tuesday’s dinner right alongside. Both corollaries get you — you guessed it — more writing time! I’ll often start three meals on Monday afternoon. I figure I might as well cook while I’m cooking and free up some time later in the week. Not only that, but I find that if I cook a couple of nights a week, I very often have leftovers for later in the week. Oh, look, there’s another corollary: Cooking like a poet definitely involves serving c. leftovers whenever possible.

3. cook it yourself I know, I’m sorry, I sound like such a bore. Plan ahead. Double and freeze. Cook it yourself. But it really is cheaper and healthier. Of course, there are nights for everyone when cooking it yourself just won’t work. But if you can get into a routine of cooking it yourself most of the time, it becomes a habit and doesn’t (usually) seem hard anymore, unless you have children under the age of 3, in which case getting any meal on the table is nothing short of a miracle. And don’t forget to involve all members of the household in cooking it yourself, once they’re of an age when they’re more help than hindrance in the kitchen. This seems to be around ages 7 to 9, depending on the child.

4. one word: legumes  Legumes, such as beans and lentils, are very nourishing, very healthy, and very cheap. My older brother’s favorite money-saving advice is, “Beans and rice and rice and beans!” You can buy a bag of dry beans for a dollar. A little time and effort and you’ve got a meal for 11 cents a serving (I actually did this calculation once on the black beans and rice I make every week or two; it really did cost 11 cents a serving). We eat a lot of legumes in this family: lentils and pasta, beans and rice, lentil soup, navy bean soup, etc. They’re good, good for you, and nice on the budget.

5. two words: hot cereal  Do you want to know why your mother made you eat oatmeal on those cold winter mornings? Do you think it was because she wanted  you to have a nice, warm meal in your belly before you faced the blast of winter wind outside the door? Well, I have news for you: She made you eat oatmeal because she was broke! Hot cereal is one-bazillion times cheaper than cold cereal. It also allows you to determine how much sugar goes in the cereal bowl (unless you have a child like my middle child who is a sugar stealth bomber). We eat cold cereal, too, on days when there’s no time for anything else. But folding hot cereal into your breakfast rotation is a money saver. And it’s really yummy, especially with brown sugar and cream. Don’t skimp on the cream. One must sustain oneself, you know.

6. no guilt  I know you’ve been waiting for this one. We all do our best. Sometimes our best is homemade lentil soup, a loaf of bread, and a green salad. Sometimes it’s a peanut butter sandwich on paper plates. Sometimes we buy local, organic produce, sometimes we grab whatever’s closest and easiest, organic-orgshmanic. Food is such a gift, and having enough of it is such a gift. I try to avoid guilt around food — it tarnishes the sheen on the blessing.

*BONUS* One side benefit to cooking like a poet if you actually are a poet, is that, at least for me, working and dwelling in one’s body can loosen thoughts, words, and ideas from the depths of the subconscious. I am often seen dashing toward my desk in my apron, one hand covered in a potholder, and the pasta timer ringing, as I furiously scribble down a scrap of a poem or an idea for something I’m working on. Agatha Christie said: “The best time to plan a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” She just might be right.

Bon apetit, Reader! And don’t forget:

Motto 2.0

11 thoughts on “how to cook like a poet

  1. Molly, this is terrific. You and I have so much in common. Much to my husband’s dismay, your newly-adopted motto seems to be my modus operandi, too. I’d add exercise to the mix. Write, feed the fam well, and run or stretch a bit. Squeeze in a bit of housework, but only if there’s any time left over. Only then. Here and there. And food comes in such pretty colors . . .

  2. Molly, this is terrific! You and I have so much in common. Much to my husband’s dismay, your newly-adopted motto seems to be my modus operandi, too. I’d add a bit of exercise to the mix. Write, feed the fam well, run or stretch or walk about. If there’s any time left over, try to do a little housework. IF. Here and there. And fresh food comes in such pretty colors . . .

    • Kathleen, good idea to add exercise in — yes, I try to move my body by walking or swimming most days. There is, not infrequently, a touch of dismay around here from time to time, too. In those moments I remind myself that we all live here, and we all have our life’s work.

  3. Loved, loved, loved this. This is how I operated our house and you are SO right on with your thoughts and reasoning. I do remember the days of massive cooking and shopping for our hungry bunch, while still trying to do the things I loved. Not an easy thing, but you have such a great handle on this Molly!
    Loved Motto 2.0!

    • Well, Mrs. B., you know I learned from one of the best :). The fact that you “remember the days of massive cooking and shopping” is very refreshing to me — it never occurred to me that it would end, but of course it does as the kids grow and leave the nest. Not that I’m in a hurry for that to happen… .

  4. Sage advice for planning meals and living a writerly life.

    Dried pasta can be cooked ahead too. Cook it slightly more al dente than normal, freeze. You can bring it back by running hot water over it to thaw. Absolute magic with leftover spaghetti.

  5. I’m in love with your motto 2.0. I might just borrow it……one of these days…..and actually write……

    Also I always want to cook more beans but find them…too….gassy…..do you cook them a special way to remedy that, aside from soaking?

    • I cook the heck out of those suckers! 🙂 Yes, I soak them, and I find that the overnight method is less gassifying than the quick-soak method (which is to bring them to a boil, then let them sit for an hour). Then, I cook the beans low and slow — either on the stovetop for 2-3 hours, or in the crockpot on high for 9 hours (I will often do this overnight while we all sleep). Make sure to discard the soaking water and start with fresh water for cooking. I always throw in a bit of onion and bay leaf for the cooking time. Then, once the beans are cooked, commence with whatever recipe you’re using, which will often include a little more cooking time for those beans. I also recommend waiting to add salt until the end of things, as salt in the cooking water tends to make the beans tough.

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