Why do we cook?


April 2022.

When bad news hits or good news shows its smiling face, I head to the butcher block and start chopping. When my neighbour or my kids visit. When we need comfort. When Dave remembers another in his wonderfully long list of our anniversaries. The reasons we cook are many, and often have nothing to do with why we eat. My auntie Lila, a wise woman, told me once, “If hunger isn’t the problem, eating isn’t the solution.” I try to remember that when my mouth hungers for the act of eating or the sense of satiation but my appetite is asleep. For me, though, cooking in all its magical stages of transformation is what I do to celebrate, relax, cope, or create.

Last week, for instance, I was slicing citrus. I peeled each, then slivered the peels and added water before I set them aside to let the pectin seep out of the peels. That pectin would thicken into marmalade when I simmered the rind and fruit with sugar.

Magic, right? But another magic happens in the back of my writer’s brain while my hands do the same thing over and over. Stories unravel, dialogue unknots. Poems touch down. Essays evolve. Same thing occurs when I run, but I am still on the injured list, so the kitchen is my primary idea garden. Like I said, magic, but one I have learned to trust. Those ideas – generated while I am preoccupied with the tangible – come straight from the Muse.

It means that when I make pasta or marmalade, potential exists for making something else as well, something wild and untamed, something that originates in the wilderness. Trusting that means I’m willing to embark on those big cooking projects.

I know that for some, cooking is a chore. But it needn’t be. Cooking can be a way to connect with that place of flow that generates dopamine. Called the chemical messenger of mental health and well-being, dopamine is linked to motivation, memory, attention, pleasure, and reward. So first we cook. Then let’s eat and talk more about the psychic links between brain and belly.

Canneloni with Ricotta and Greens

I love two sauces in the same dish, which makes this a project, especially if you make the pasta by hand. (In that case, make enough to assemble lasagne as well from more of the same ingredients.) Having a good freezer-pantry helps: thaw tubs of roasted tomato sauce, and/or Bolognese/meat sauce while you make fresh pasta and béchamel.  Choose one-meal freezer-friendly pans if you make extra cannelloni or lasagne. Serves 8 – 12

béchamel sauce:

3 Tbsp. butter

½ onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

a grating of nutmeg

½ tsp. dried basil

3 Tbsp. flour

1 ½ cups milk or coffee cream

salt and hot chili paste to taste

Lea & Perrins to taste

2 cups grated Parmesan, divided

2 cups grated cheese, your choice, divided

pasta, 2nd sauce, filling:

1 recipe fresh pasta in sheets, or dried pasta sheets 

2 bunches spinach or 1 bunch swiss chard, chopped, stalks removed

olive oil for the pan

1 large onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

½ tsp. each dried oregano and basil

salt and pepper to taste

¼ cup minced parsley

2 cups ricotta cheese

2 eggs

2 – 3 cups roasted tomato sauce and/or meat sauce

To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed medium pot and add the onion and garlic. Sweat without colouring until tender. Add the nutmeg, basil, and flour, then cook until sandy, about 5 minutes, stirring. Slowly whisk in the milk or cream. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and season to taste. Stir in ½ cup Parmesan and1 cup grated cheese. Keep warm.

Lightly oil shallow gratin dishes. Bring a pot of salted water to boil and cut the fresh pasta into lengths that fit the gratin dishes; cut dried pasta after cooking. Cook the pasta a few sheets at a time, about 2 minutes for fresh, as needed for dried. Remove carefully and lay in a single layer on a baking tray lined with plastic wrap. Repeat with remaining pasta.

If using chard, finely chop the lengthwise stalk. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan, add the onion, garlic, and chard stalks. Sauté until tender. Add oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach or chard leaves with 1-2 Tbsp. water and cook until just wilted. Cool and pat off any accumulated juices.

Combine the parsley, ricotta, and eggs. Stir in the onion-greens mixture. Add 1 cup grated Parmesan and ½ cup grated cheese.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spoon tomato and/or meat sauce to just cover the bottom of each baking dish. Put ¼ cup ricotta mix along one edge of each pasta sheet. Roll up and place in a baking dish, allowing 2 tubes per serving. Nap with tomato and/or meat sauce. Repeat with remaining sauce, pasta and filling, sauce.

Spoon béchamel down the centre of each pan. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan and grated cheese. Bake for 40 minutes before serving.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction [CNF], Culinary

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