Mastering the Art of Zen Cooking

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For most people, cooking a family dinner feels like a fire-throwing juggling act, leaving the kitchen resembling a culinary crime scene. The cutting board is a mess, a tower of crusty pots and pans is teetering in the sink and there’s not a single square inch of available counter space. When the oven timer beeps, you’re lucky if the dish looks even remotely similar to the picture printed onto your food-stained recipe.

Obviously, you blame Giada for making it look so easy in her perfectly pristine ocean-view kitchen. She’s whisking and chopping, laughing and chatting about mascarpone cheese and pancetta, all without splattering a single drop of marinara on her marble countertop. Sure, she’s got a staff of people cleaning up after her, but have you ever wondered how some people effortlessly churn out food for the family while you run around the kitchen like a lunatic? While making a meal isn’t exactly meditation, you can easily create a more zen-like culinary experience by incorporating the following simple rules into your routine.

1) Be a Meal-Prep Boss

It’s Sunday night, time to make your grocery list! Effective meal planning is half the battle when cooking for your family. Going to the store with no road map translates to messy, thrown-together dinner disasters. Nerd Alert! Write your grocery list in the order you shop the store. This isn’t supermarket sweep. Zigzagging through the aisles might burn more calories, but it’s also a surefire way to forget an ingredient. Running out to the store mid-meal is stressful and annoying, so be sure to make your list and check it twice before checking out.

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2) KISS…Keep it simple, Stupid!

Simple doesn’t have to mean boring. I’ve cooked oven-roasted chicken breasts that elicited more “oohs” and “aahs” than a fancy shmancy bacon-wrapped cheese-stuffed pork tenderloin. Often times, the more you take on, the more things can go wrong. Resist the urge to cook overly complicated dishes. Try to cook recipes with only 5 or 6 ingredients, require minimal chopping or can be prepared in advance. Feeling ambitious? Concentrate on one showstopper and choose simple sides. Ain’t no shame in your game for using boil in a bag rice so you can shift your focus to mastering the main course.

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3) Do your homework

It may sound obvious, but make sure you read the entire recipe BEFORE you begin cooking. Read it all the way through…and then read it again. No one wants to be two paragraphs into a braised short ribs recipe at 8pm only to realize it calls for 3 hours in a low and slow oven. Reading the recipe also ensures efficient meal timing. If the rice needs to simmer for twenty minutes, you’ve got the perfect window to start breading and frying the chicken cutlets.

4) Everything in its Place

If there is one mindset to master in your desire for stress-free cooking, it’s this: PREP YO’SELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YO’SELF. In other words: get all your ingredients chopped, measured and set out so they’re ready to go before you fire up your stove or turn on your oven. In chef lingo it’s called mise en place, which is French for “everything in its place”. This is truly the secret to making cooking look, and actually BE, effortless. Does the recipe call for a small saucepan and a wire whisk? Park those babies right on your stovetop so you aren’t frantically scrambling for them mid-recipe. Take it one step further and keep all your staples nearby. For me, that means squeeze bottles of olive oil and a dish filled with kosher salt placed right next to the stove, and a drawer filled with herbs and spices within an arms reach of my prep area. Every time I start cooking a meal without my mise, something goes horribly wrong. If you only take one thing away from this article, it’s this. It’s a game changer!

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5) Keep Calm and Cook On

Believe it or not, cooking can be therapy. If stress numbs your senses, then cooking activates them. Crank up some loud music and sing along. Try to enjoy the aromas wafting through the kitchen. Taste your food often, taking note of the textures and flavors that you are creating. Rejoice in the satisfying sizzle of a hot pan. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, it’s the only way you’ll learn what NOT to do next time. Remember, the more you cook, the more you learn…and the more you learn, the better you become at mastering the fire-throwing juggling act.

For more on Jennifer Benerofe visit The Balaboosta Chef