By Renee Langmuir
I have been retired for six years. One of my greatest accomplishments, that no one in particular would applaud, is the greatly improved quality of my home cooking. This less-than-astonishing fact benefits just a few: my husband and me and the occasional guests to our home. The small miracle of my improved cooking is the result of two seemingly unrelated events: a home kitchen renovation and a carotid artery which was blocked 97%. If I’m to be totally honest, I should also include the knife skills class I took at Sur La Table. How embarrassing to have been cooking for so long and not know the best way to chop an onion or tomato – or to have a decent Chef’s knife!
Change is coming!
Just as the pandemic was incubating, I came into a small inheritance that enabled the renovation of my kitchen, ca. 1984, a functional yet bleak room resplendent with Formica countertops and composite cabinets. It seemed obvious to do a purge of non-essential items that had been accumulating since 1972, the year of my first marriage. There was no way I would fill up those gorgeous new cherry cabinets with outdated pots and pans, hard-to-clean muffin tins, gadgets of questionable value, serving pieces from long-departed family members, and other detritus one half-century old. The Great Purge was the initiating event, followed by the grand purge of cookbooks and recipes. The task was a charming romp through the major culinary themes for the same time period mentioned above.
I know I was working towards better eating habits years earlier because on my website, therookieretiree.com, I wrote about mindful eating habits in the post – Food: The Golden Mean. However, there was one event that changed my relationship with food forever! My husband was scheduled for serious oral surgery and required a scan which revealed an unknown, almost completely blocked carotid artery.
Goodbye to the familiar
The Great Purge is something anyone can manage with enough will and energy. Changing out ingredients permanently is another matter entirely. We were not people who ate French fries, cream and butter, red meat, and sweets frequently. By most standards, we had a very healthy diet. But… if that were true, why the blocked artery?
Out with the old
My thin, athletic self had recently seen rising cholesterol and glucose numbers on the yearly blood work. Something had to be done. Immediately olive oil was always substituted for butter. Sweets and anything with high-fat content vanished, although some have snuck back in the past year.
I have never shirked from my family cooking responsibilities. Even while working, there were home-cooked meals on the table each night, although broiled chicken and pasta are not fantastically interesting. However, my culinary skills of the past needed a serious reboot.
I want to offer a reasonably simple plan to have fantastically interesting, healthy food on a regular basis. This plan will only work if there is a strong commitment, something that my family health scare provided. In lieu of such a dire situation, a simple wish to use the surplus time provided by retirement is reason enough. The benefits are an embarrassment of riches: good health, lots of money saved (which can be used for other pleasures), a worthy aspiration, ongoing learning, discovery of local food sources, and sheer delight!
The plan begins with the big purge of unneeded items in all drawers and cabinets, and the discard of irrelevant cookbooks and recipes. Habitat for Humanity gladly accepts such items. The next step is the investment in easy-to-clean, quality pots and pans. My choice is the very affordable All-Clad Hard Anodized Line. These are readily available at Marshall’s or in sets elsewhere. The inventors of Teflon would be amazed at how readily a simple spray and rub with a kitchen pad removes just about any cooked food remnant. The outstanding heating surfaces on the bottom are a tremendous benefit in any recipe.
In the same vein, an investment in a quality chef’s knife, paring knife, and tomato slicing knife, useful for cutting any fragile items, makes challenging prep work infinitely more productive. A small and large sheet pan, in the quality range of Nordic Ware, are easy to clean and have higher quality heating surfaces. Glass storage jars with lids for leftovers, and a serious commitment to purchase pantry items that recur frequently in recipes are essential. These are discovered at the beginning of the week when plans are made.
What will I be cooking?
Now that your kitchen is outfitted properly, your commitment will be challenged. At the beginning of EVERY week, I decide what I will be cooking. I don’t need five recipes, most of the time I choose only three. There are days when I just make broiled salmon, or we “graze” from the refrigerator, or we go out, or order in (but much less frequently). Sometimes, if things are busy, a recipe or two gets moved to the following week! By deciding in advance and sticking to the plan, your shopping list writes itself, and you will have every recipe item on hand. This is where the pantry inventory is taken, and missing items are placed on the list.
Where do the recipes come from?
Remember the cookbooks that were saved from the purge? You probably haven’t looked at them in years! They have fabulous recipes, which have been waiting in the wings for decades. Now is the time to crack those spines! I have a number of single-subject cookbooks. Tonight’s dinner of chicken sausage, apples, and cabbage is from Granny Stark’s Apple Cookbook.
But my best “not-kept secret” is subscribing to New York Times Cooking. As a subscriber, either separately or through your regular NYT digital subscription, you will be privy to a non-stop offer of healthy, diligently tested, creative recipes in every genre and ethnic domain. I recently wrote to one of the recipe creators and told her she always “makes me look so competent in the kitchen.” The recipes are consistently sensational in their ability to boost the mundane to a professional level. Most are written for busy working people, sans obscure ingredients and culinary school techniques.
If a subscription doesn’t meet your needs, there are infinite weekly, free recipe newsletters. These include The Food Network, Bon Appetit, Taste of Home, and American Test Kitchen, among others.
Most of these recipes call for a lot of chopping of vegetables. For some reason, when 5:00 rolls around, I am not in the chopping mood. This task is gladly accomplished earlier in the day when I have more energy.
Nothing is worse than assembling all the ingredients and finding something missing. It is imperative to do due diligence on planning day to check the pantry and fridge and get the missing items on the shopping list.
Please don’t take a shortcut by using old, hard-to-clean cookware. Nothing will deaden the will to cook like a pot that needs to soak overnight. Ditto for often used items that are on shelves that are over-crowded or are too high.
In my daily spiritual reading, 360 Tao, the author Deng-Ming Dao states, “Today we have a very incomplete relationship to our food. We don’t see where something grows, we eat foods out of season, we buy prepared foods made by someone we don’t even know. There is a great power in knowing your food, knowing where it came from, preparing it with your own hands.” My bloodwork and satisfaction in the kitchen could not agree more!
Renee Langmuir was an educator for 34 years in public schools and at the university level. After an unplanned retirement, Renee chronicled her transition to retirement through a series of personal essays. As challenges arose, research was done, and essays were penned, all helping her gain perspective in this new landscape. These reflections are housed on the website, https://www.therookieretiree.com/. She writes from both a research and mindfulness basis.