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Finding Time for Finding Joy in Cooking Again

I've always loved to cook, and I used to cook as much for fun as for necessity. I've written about it more than a few times on this website back in the day, and some of my friends will still laugh recalling my love for brown butter and "mother" sauces. My wife and my friends have long been willing test subjects when I want to try roasting a spatchcocked turkey for Thanksgiving, or bake a chocolate tart for the first time.

Then I had kids. Despite my best efforts, each of my children are as finicky as you'd expect for their respective ages (2.5 and 5 as of this writing). And, sure, I'd been forewarned by friends and family. Before I even had children, I read about one of RVA's own favorite chefs trying to expand the palates of his own. But having my kids so frequently refuse to try what I put in front of them sucked the happiness out of something important to me. And that was before schedules got busier and meals got rushed.

I've adjusted over time, but more important to me is that I'm starting to find ways to have fun in the kitchen again. Yes, the most important step was recognizing that my children's tastes are developing and that their current opinions of my cooking have nothing to do with my skills. But from a practical standpoint, I've made a handful of changes.

First of all, I've embraced cooking from recipes. Most of my personal cooking history is improvisational, adjusting ideas I learned from family or cooking shows. I learned methodology so I could wing it with whatever I had on hand. I used to feel boxed in by recipes, but what I've come to accept is how much time they save - both in the kitchen and at the grocery store. I still tweak, and I still improvise, but a few times a month I try to make my spin on somebody else's dish. I can have it both ways :-D

I've also leaned a bit more into simpler foods this past year. It's no secret I have a great appreciation for simple foods done well, so I'm trying to do just that in my own kitchen. What are some foods I can prepare that are relatively simple in technique and ingredients, but delivery a lot of flavor? Simple pleasures like cacio e pepe, a good quiche, well-roasted Brussels sprouts, or a rich potato gratin are each satisfying quests for perfection that don't take forever to cook, or are at least simple enough to permit watching my kids in the process.

Of course my daughter is getting old enough to start helping in the kitchen, and that's a different kind of joy. Sure, she won't eat many of the dishes we prepare, but it is one of the great privileges of my life to share something I love with my kid. She has keen senses of smell and taste, too.

And finally, well, baking. Oof. I've had some real stinkers in the past whenever I've tried to bake, and no amount of The Great British Bake Off is going to make me a hobby baker. Watching the show, however, I realized that I want to learn a few utility baked goods. Simple-to-moderately complex items that afford flexibility and customization. So I'm practicing - literally practicing without an occasion - a particular type of cake. Once I'm comfortable with the cake, I'll work on frosting. I already know how to make decent buttermilk biscuits, but I'd like to get proficient at making Japanese-style milk bread (for sandwiches, dinner rolls, etc.).

There are still some fruits that my fruit-loving son won't eat because they're green. My daughter hates my incredible mashed potatoes. Most weeks I'm lucky if I can make something more interesting than a variation on pasta with sauce half the time. But I'm working on it! Little by little I'm finding ways to have fun in the kitchen again, and I'll take what I can get.

At least until it's time to clean the dishes.