A few weeks ago, I took an unofficial mental health day from work and attended a workshop hosted by Purple Kale Kitchenworks. I had been intrigued by Ronna Welsh’s cooking “system” after reading about it in Whole Living and on the about page on the Purple Kale Kitchenworks site. I started an email conversation with Ronna, and decided to attend a workshop that was specifically for parents.

Ronna’s concept reminded me a lot of the way my parents cooked while I was growing up, and still continue to cook. As new immigrants, food was not a commodity, it was a luxury. Growing up, my parents didn’t buy many clothes or toys, but I was well-fed (and I did not realize this until much later!). My parents always cooked with what was in the refrigerator—without recipes! I hardly cook without recipes. My parents often laugh at me when they see me toiling away in the kitchen measuring out spices, or trying to read the next line of a recipe while making sure the pot on the stove isn’t running over. They always ask, “What do you need a recipe for? Just taste!”

I love to cook, and food shopping whether at the grocery store or local farmers market is one of my all time favorite activities! When shopping, I often pick out beautiful vegetables that look great and then end up bringing them home, not knowing what to do with them. Or I’ll get busy and have a crisper full of rotting vegetables and end up wasting a lot of food. It’s also been hard to find time to cook. I don’t like to take shortcuts with my cooking and prefer to do most of it from scratch, which means it takes me a long time to make a meal. By the time I’m done cooking, I’ve missed out on a substantial amount of family time, or am too tired to really enjoy eating what I’ve made.

So when I read this quote on the Purple Kale Kitchenworks site, it just resonated with me.

After my first daughter was born, I limited my work to more humane hours. Still, I spent my energies cooking only for guests, and left nothing for even modest meals for ourselves. My attempts to cook us a casual dinner while caring for a newborn left me despairing. I would inevitably under-salt pasta, if I didn’t overcook it. I burned plenty of vegetables left steaming in a long forgotten pot. And the dishes generated in our toy of a kitchen surrendered us to too much take out and meals of cheese-toast and beer.

Mind you, my daughter never suffered such injustices. The baby food I made for her consumed our cooler space and my time. Eleanor’s first foods weren’t simple purees, they were fruits and vegetables recast as edible silk. I maintained a disciplined schedule of baby food production until, after she licked clean my plate of tuna drippings, I saw our tastes begin to merge.

Faced with caring for an infant after a long day of working, Mr. Marbles and I would often order take out. It’s even more shameful that I work in the food industry and place such a high value on good, quality, food that I just lost interest in cooking. Food was just sustenance. I missed coming home to a good home-cooked meal, but really didn’t have the energy to chop onions or cut up meat for a recipe. I’ve also failed at weekly meal-planning because Papa Marbles and I are not the types who know what we want to eat five days ahead of time. What happens if you’re not in the mood to eat what you had planned for the evening? And I’m not up for freezing meals and reheating a meal in the microwave. I love fresh food! It was a conundrum. I love food and good technique, but I don’t have time to apply good technique every night without spending 3 hours in the kitchen!

So I attended the Purple Kale Kitchenworks workshop with an open mind. It was a small class of three and we started at the table while Ronna and her team served up some of the most delicious food I’ve had in a long time, including dinners at five star restaurants! We had a celeriac soup with almond cream, seared kale and pumpkin seed salad with a cumin vinaigrette, and ricotta custard.

While we ate, Ronna shared with us terms like mise en place, holding points, bridges and blocks, which are essential to efficent and versatile cooking. But in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, The only reason this tastes good is because she’s a professional! Ronna IS a professional and is very talented, but she highlighted the key to the whole process which was prepare ingredients individually. Elevate each ingredient for its own sake. It sounds simple, but when you’re cooking with recipes, you’re really focusing on process and getting through the steps. In preparing each ingredient individually, there is so much room for improvisation!

A large portion of the class was dedicated to individual improvisation. This is where you get the converts. Ronna had laid out about 20 prepared ingredients for us to study and taste. Everything on its own tasted fantastic. I could have eaten all the items out of the storage containers. Then she challenged us to cook something using the ingredients. I chose a paparadelle pasta with shitake mushrooms sauteed in simple herb butter. The total cooking time was less than five minutes, and the final product tasted superb. I was shocked at how easy it was and it required no prep! We just tossed everything into one pan and voila— dinner was served.

The Purple Kale Kitchenworks workshop really helped me think outside of cooking with recipes (which usually creates a lot of waste—what do you do with the remaining ingredients that the recipe does not require?). I came back from the class armed with a deck of excellent guides on how to prepare my ingredients, and the confidence to cook with whatever was in my refrigerator. I have to admit with travel and a busy work week, I haven’t had a good chunk of time to totally implement the system, but I’ve been adding bits and pieces here and there with my cooking. For example, I saved my leftover pieces of chard to prepare stock and when food shopping now, I focus on selecting things I want to eat and worry about how to cook them later.

If you’re interested in learning more about this process, Ronna writes a great blog, 2 Minutes to Dinner, with recipes and more background. If you’re in the NYC area, I highly recommend her workshops.

Have your cooking habits changed post-baby? Do you cook more or less?

Hellobee Series: Mrs. Marbles part 7 of 11

1. The Road to Pregnancy – Part 1 by Mrs. Marbles
2. The Road to Pregnancy – Part II by Mrs. Marbles
3. The Road to Pregnancy – Part 3 by Mrs. Marbles
4. Emma’s Birth Story Part 1 by Mrs. Marbles
5. Emma’s Birth Story Part 2 by Mrs. Marbles
6. The Struggle by Mrs. Marbles
7. Re-learning How to Cook by Mrs. Marbles
8. Sitting the Month by Mrs. Marbles
9. Selfish or Self-Care? by Mrs. Marbles
10. A Portrait for The Marbles by Mrs. Marbles
11. Little Marbles’ First Birthday by Mrs. Marbles