The overall culinary malaise I wrote about on Monday, which prompted our Gentle Food Weekend, seemed to regrettably last for the first few days of the week as well. Something about the hectic schedule we’ve had lately, all the planning and organizing, and the heat and humidity on top of it all, really put me in an uninspired mood…or maybe I’m just plain TIRED. Whichever description is more accurate, what it boils down to is that pretty much from Saturday through Tuesday, I had one of those rare spells in my life where I sort of didn’t feel like cooking or baking much of anything.
I’m not complaining — in fact, I think it’s probably a good reality check for me when I get into these little foodie funks, because it gives me a glimpse into the world of people who don’t enjoy cooking or meal planning, but have to do it anyway. It’s just that coming home in the evening, looking at the plan, and taking out all the ingredients to get started on our meal doesn’t usually inspire that “Ugh” sort of feeling in the pit of my stomach. So when it happens, I don’t quite feel like myself.
I wasn’t sure what how I was going to get my proverbial groove back this time, with the monotony of the week and two more busy weekends looming. But last night, magically, my Kitchen Mojo returned. I think I owe it to the slow cooker (thank you, trusty friend). Yesterday’s dinner was something my mom calls California Chuck Roast, and which can be made on the grill or in the oven, but which I’ve started tossing in the slow cooker because a) it yields great results; and b) the thing is sort of time-consuming if you do it any other way, and I don’t ordinarily feel like investing in it to that extent.
I’m not sure where Mom got the recipe or the name — it’s possible this is one of those throwbacks from the 1970s-era housewife’s bible type of cookbook she got as a wedding gift. My mother is an excellent cook and a progressive, adventurous one, but over the years a select few of those old-school recipes have survived because, well, they’re actually good. And comforting. And they often, as in the case of last night, fall into the category of “just the right thing to eat at the right time.” Basically, the California Chuck Roast is a glorified pot roast smothered in a homemade barbecue sauce and cooked alongside your typical pot roast veggies — carrots, celery, and potatoes, mainly. It’s serious meat, but it is darned yummy.
So on Monday night, deep in the thick of my foodie funk, I consulted the meal plan and sighed. Dragged the slow cooker out of its cozy cabinet. Prepared to chop and sear and simmer. The California Chuck Roast Official Recipe calls for actually making the barbecue sauce ahead of time, which in and of itself is a half-hour project. As I reached up to the pot rack to wearily wrench a saucepan from its hook, I stopped, mid-stretch. Light bulb:
The Slow Cooker is supposed to make your life easier.
If this thing was going to cook for 9 hours or so, wouldn’t the sauce sort of, well, cook itself? I decided I was going to find out, consequences be damned, and I proceeded to triumphantly dump all the ingredients into the cooker insert, stir, and deposit the whole mess in the fridge to await the morning.
My reward: Last night, I walked through the door after a long day at work, a ridiculous traffic jam, and a late pick-up notice at preschool, and was greeted by the overwhelming and luxurious scent of my mother’s California Chuck Roast. It smelled right! A quick peek into the cooker confirmed my suspicions. The sauce had, indeed, dutifully come together, and was glazing the meat and vegetables with a heavenly sweet-spicy gravy of barbecue and meat juices. I ushered my hungry family to the table gleefully. As I surveyed the scene, I felt a surge of nostalgic, Betty Crocker-esque pride. L. sat happily tucking into what can only be described as a wholesome, homespun, Americana dinner of tender shredded grass-fed beef, glistening Zephyr Farm carrots, tender, earthy Moosup River Farm red potatoes, bread, and homemade peach sauce. The whole family ate in blissful silence.
Whether it was the fact that such a dinner appeared on our plates with the mundane magic of slow-cooker ease, or the transporting powers of the food itself, by the time I’d finished my meal, I felt the Kitchen Mojo flowing again. I could hardly wait to pack lunches and look ahead to the rest of the week. There was the matter of leftovers from L.’s birthday, meat too good to waste, that needed to be used immediately — and I’d been semi-ignoring it in my post-party letdown. No longer! I was mentally rolling up my sleeves in preparation.
Boys in bed, J. relaxing, I rushed to the kitchen. Honey-baked ham was diced and sprinkled into golden, melty, oozy quesadillas for the boys’ lunchboxes. A stray sweet potato was rescued from its idling and shaved into ribbons with a peeler, then flash-fried in canola oil and dusted with cinnamon. The food processor made a triumphant appearance to whiz up a quick pizza dough, which even as I type is lazily rising in the refrigerator. Meats and cheeses were wrapped, organized, and frozen, with mental notes for their eventual use quickly filing into order in the back of my brain. Beautiful, balanced lunchboxes were packed and slipped into the refrigerator; I was rewarded this morning with L.’s “ooooohs” as we did our daily inventory of his lunch while putting it into the fridge at preschool.
I feel like myself again, today, and I’m both relieved and slightly amused by the Mojo’s return. But it speaks, I think, to the power of what that school-lunch guru, Jamie Oliver, would call “wholesome” food. There is something about putting effort and love and thought into the food you set before your family — and the food you set before yourself — and seeing the return on that investment of effort in small but tangible ways that feels so settling, so reassuring. It’s the kind of calm that fast food will never achieve, and for me, that’s a lesson learned long ago, probably with my first plate of California Chuck Roast. For that (among a thousand other things) I say only: Thanks, Mom.