Organization; or, Kitchen systems

A few times a year, my random internet browsing brings me to the world of productivity or “life-hack” websites, which are at once completely awful and compulsively seductive. Reading them is like walking around a megastore or department store without knowing exactly what you want, with all the bright lights, lack of clocks, and circuitous routes calculated to get you stuck in an endless purgatory of desire.

I should say, of course, that I believe it’s important to be self-conscious about how you structure your work day. Part of being in grad school is figuring all that out, attending to what you need to actually get things done and in a way that is as “productive” and “pleasurable” as possible, and so that it doesn’t expand to take up every hour of your day. I put these adjectives in quotation marks because of the tendency to fetishize them, i.e., the mandate to “love your work” or the fantasy that we can turn ourselves into efficient, frictionless workbots. So for those of you who, like me, happen to stumble into the realm of lifehacking –which sounds kind of gross, right? like a cat with a hairball or a violent dismembering of life?–and want to make it not a total waste of braintime, I’d advise only spending a few minutes browsing these sites. The first ten or so minutes are usually the best, letting you pick up a few nuggets here and there before your brain glazes over. For there are some useful suggestions out there, I think — and if anything, they get you thinking about your practices of everyday life.

This time, it got me thinking about how this might apply to cooking, a really important practice in my life that means so many things to me and in so many different ways over time. It is, or has been:

  • a total release from the demands of my worklife
  • a period of concentrated play akin to meditation
  • work. just….work.
  • seasonal
  • a social activity
  • a solitary activity
  • something I want to fastidiously document
  • something I want to do and then relinquish, immediately
  • an indulgence
  • a discipline
  • at times, completely avoided or forgotten
  • economical
  • $$$$
  • fun! satisfying!
  • self-defining

And many more things.

Today, I want to discuss a few habits that have stuck with me for awhile when it comes to cooking, or at least for a bit before I discarded them in favor of other practices. This is just a glimpse into how one home cook processes the wealth of information out there about food, recipes, books, techniques, and restaurants. (Disclaimer: this is more a post for myself than any form of advice!)

1. YummySoup!

A screenshot of my YummySoup! application.

A screenshot of my YummySoup! application.

One constant that has enriched my cooking has been the app YummySoup!. I describe it a sort of an iTunes for food, one that catalogs and categorizes your recipes, allows you to rate, scale, and search them, and also imports recipes from websites and food blogs. I like it because it provides an archive for all the browsing I do online, one that is more interactive and substantial than Pinterest, Evernote, or your basic online bookmarks. I don’t love the iPad/iPhone interface, which strangely doesn’t have the useful side folders of your categorized recipes, but the computer version is pretty darn great. I also like the calendar view (on the bottom), which is useful for planning your meals. There are other such apps out there, but this is the one I use every day.

2. Recipe sources #1: Food blogs

I read a lot of food blogs: it’s what got me (and kept me) into cooking. There are a handful I read religiously, including the personal blogs of Joy the Baker, Kate Christiansen, Smitten Kitchen, and Alexandra’s Kitchen; the general gorgeous site Food52; and a handful of others off and on. It’s fun to discover new voices, approaches, and aesthetics, which I do from time to time; someday I’ll update this site’s blogroll to reflect my favorite and most-trusted sites.

3. Recipe sources #2: Cookbooks

A whole other post, of course. What I want to note here is how I use them: I’ll quickread them, often cover-to-cover, noting on a piece of paper what recipes jump out at me in doing so. This could mean a list of ten or so recipes (as I don’t buy cookbooks unless I want to make a good number of them), or as with thisthis, this, or this, one or two single-spaced pages. I then keep this concentrated index inside the book for future notice, providing a digest of sorts so I don’t have to start from ground zero each time I open it. I should also note that while I love cookbooks, I rarely buy them: it’s easy enough to Google the cookbook name and find full recipes that have already been blogged. I have two small shelves’ worth, but am thinking about selling the ones I really don’t use.

If one really strikes my fancy, I’ll cook from it for a few weeks at a time, as it’s really satisfying to work with a book for an extended period–you get to inhabit deeper sense of a new style, palate, and in some cases, cuisine when you do so. While doing so, I sometimes like consulting Chowhound’s Cookbook of the Month threads, where users cook the book and then contribute their thoughts, edits, and experiences about particular recipes. Many books are covered by this website, and it’s nice to know that, for example, other people have been in your shoes as they try tackling duck confit or pad thai for the first time.

Finally, I annotate my cookbooks every single time I cook from them, noting my general opinion (very good! excellent! life-changing!! not worth the work, just okay), any changes I made or would make in the future, and thoughts as to how to tweak the recipe. I also might start noting who I made the dish for, as that’s a nice touch. I love writing in my cookbooks; it feels more personal, not to mention just plain useful.

4. Google Maps

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 4.47.38 PM

Philadelphia pins.

Where do I save my list of places to eat, shop, visit, etc.? Google Maps’ function of “My Places,” which allows you to pin various businesses on your own customized map. This is a great way to archive histories of travel as well, that you can revisit should the need arise.

5. Cooking strategies

A few things I keep in mind when clipping and categorizing recipes, which I’ll write up as on pieces of paper and tack to the fridge or note on other to-do lists:

  • Time-saving vs. weekend (increasingly important!)
  • Seasonal/farmer’s market
  • What do I already have in your pantry, fridge, and freezer? (Especially re: moving in a few months, it would be nice not to have to pack so much food. Also, economically speaking, this is a good habit.)
  • Dream parties (momofuku bo ssam, Wind in the Willows’ Rat’s picnic, etc.)

6. Dinner diary

For about a year and a half, I kept a dinner diary. Inspired by Jenny Rosenstrach of the blog Dinner: A Love Story (and fellow Amherst alum!), I noted what I ate for dinner in a very simple, no-frills manner: one day per line, the name of the dish(es), circling the ones I really liked. It’s a good way to document food life and to see it from a birds-eye view: you really get a sense of your food trends, your willingness to eat leftovers, how often you cook in and go out, etcetera. A few differences: while Jenny used her diary for planning purposes (a week at a time), I only wrote what I ate after the fact, preferring to plan my meals a few days at a time and on disposable scrap paper. I also was alone for a good amount of the time, so my entries got a bit monotonous (including a memorable tune casserole that lasted me five meals in a row!) If I return to this practice, I think I might document lunches rather than dinners — I need the most inspiration to make and bring lunch with me on a regular basis, and I often forget those recipes that really work for lunch.

7. Food binder for magazines

Over the last five years, I have amassed about three years worth of Bon Appetit issues, two of Food & Wine (not the best, I’m afraid), two of Fine Cooking, and one of Cook’s Illustrated. When I am feeling organizational (or watching Game of Thrones and need a distraction from the gratuitous, Well-I-can’t-unsee-THAT violence), I make some headway on my food binder project, where I rip out interesting recipes, hole punch them, and put them in a three-ring binder for future use. Eventually I’ll write up an index so I know what’s in it… This is definitely my most aspirational kitchen system!





4 thoughts on “Organization; or, Kitchen systems

  1. There’s a short story in here, and it will be narrated from the perspective of the cookbooks that were exiled when the kitchen library came to completion and every single webpage and magazine page finally got filed. It will probably be “Borgesian” and it will be very funny, and a little sad, too.
    In the meantime, is there a post forthcoming about the cookbooks you don’t use?

    • Haha, love it! — Though I still love cookbooks in print, so there will never be a complete exile. I like the idea about unused cookbooks, too. It’s a good reminder that one should blog about what doesn’t happen, get eaten, made, or read as much as what exerts a gravitational pull of interest.

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