March 16, 2009

Breaking Out of a Rut


There is perhaps nothing more damning than the feeling of being in a rut. Your cookbooks seem banal and overly-familiar, your clothes couldn’t be more boring, your routines — once so comforting and delightful — are just about choking you with their predictability.

The cruelty of ruts is how much of a betrayal they are. You are coasting along, grateful for the quotidian details in your little life, the ones you have so carefully crafted to please you, when suddenly, they turn on you, determined to be the death of the spring in your step.

This happens to me from time to time with cooking (and more often, in life, but we’re getting at the bigger issue by solving smaller problems today). I very much like putting together the weeknight evening meal, a sweet cozy spot in the day, love even more cooking on the weekend. But every once in awhile, nothing could seem more unappealing. Does this ever happen to you? You cannot imagine anything worth setting the chef’s knife to, nor worth the ignition of the stove — it’s all so bland, so predictable, and somehow, since last Tuesday, has lost the ability to transform your mood, your home, your sense of the world and your place in it. Cooking at its best can do all that and more; cooking at its worst, though, is a perfuctory assignment of uninspired proportions that merely keeps us from going to bed with a stomach aching with hunger.

Much like you never know what will send you tail-spinning into a rut, the same can be said of its cure. Its impossible to know when the salve will appear to save, reigniting your delight at the scent of  onions sautéing or the appearance of light filtering through the white linen curtains in your bedroom each morning.

What broke me out of a cooking rut last Thursday was Dutch Girl Cooking, a blog that appeared like a best friend when you are heartbroken — with perfect timing. She told me what to do with the half head of chicory I had kicking around in the produce drawer. Her stamppot was a revelation, opening my eyes again to the wide world of cooking and its unpredictable pairings. Like cooking at its best, it set me right again.


adapted from Dutch Girl Cooking
serves 2-3 as a main course

(“mash pot”) is a traditional Dutch dish of mashed potatoes and vegetables, often made with a bit of bacon. This version is vegetarian. I can’t say enough about how perfect this dish is for early spring: comforting and creamy from the mashed potatoes, rich with caramelized onions, but brighly promising with roasted red peppers and sprigs of chicory. I put a fried egg on top because, well, that’s how I roll.

5 oz cheese cubes
2 pounds potatoes, peeled and diced
1 red bell pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1 tbsp coarse mustard
1/3 head curly endive
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter

In a medium-sized pot, cover potatoes with water and boil until for tender, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, roast your red pepper with your preferred method, either directly over a gas burner, or in your broiler. Once adequately charred, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap to cool.

Melt one tablespoon butter over low heat and cook onions until lightly caramelized. Roughly chop your chicory. Next, peel and chop your red pepper, slipping off the charred skin and cleaning the pepper of its ribs, innards, and seeds. Add red pepper to caramelized onions sauté together.

Drain potatoes, return to pot, and add mustard, milk, and 1 tablespoon butter. Mash, then stir in cheese cubes, onions, red peppers, and chicory. Season with salt, pepper, and a little freshly grated nutmeg. Serve hot, topped with a fried egg.

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  • Avril: Oh girl…tell me about it! I love cooking too! But some days I just cant bring myself to get into my tiny kitchen and whip up something special for the husband who will return tired and hugry. Cooking isnt something I have to do….I just do it b’cos I love it. And yet…the ‘rut’ happens. I feel most upset when it does :(
    I too turn to food blogs online or to the stacks of recipe books I’ve collected over time. Sometimes its just the idea of trying something new and savouring something new, that is the perfect pick-me-up! :)6 years ago

  • Sophie: Yesn that is right!!! In Belgium, we call this : Stoemp!! It is tha same thing!! Your stoemp look delicous!!6 years ago

  • Kristina: The image of hundreds of normally placid and content details suddenly rearing up and turning on you made me laugh.

    And if I were making a stamppot, it would definitely, definitely include a fried egg, as well.6 years ago

  • Amy C: Oh, you have the best timing. So funny…I am in this rut as we speak. It is so bad, in fact, that I don’t even want to eat what I make…everything tastes like it’s running together. Blech. I think I just need something cozy, warming, happy…how could one go wrong with a fried egg on top? I may have to pull this together tonight, lest I push aside another half-eaten bowl of pasta.6 years ago

  • EB: I have more the blahs than a rut feeling lately, but I confess as I got yet another cup of veggie soup for lunch I realized that I was in a major lunch rut. Think the mash pot would good work portables?6 years ago

  • EB, Yeah, I do. Whatever greens you pick won’t be as fresh and crunchy by the time you reheat it, but it will still be super delish, I bet.6 years ago

  • Alison: There’s a dish I had in Switzerland called ‘Rosti’ that is similar to this–though not as healthy-and they put a fried egg on top too–it was a genius move!6 years ago

  • rachael: Sarah,
    Did you see the 60 minutes interview with Alice Waters? Such a fabulous woman! I want her kitchen! I dont care what light they painted her in, the world needs dreamers. You can watch it online, I am fairly sure you will love it.
    -Rachel6 years ago

  • Rachael, Gotta go check that out! I don’t get the Alice Waters haters. I totally agree with you — the world needs dreamers, and I think it’s really important to have her ideas out there. Gotta look this up online — thanks for the tip!6 years ago

  • ann: I hate food ruts, but what I find even more depressing is when a meal that you force yourself to put together comes out badly. Ugh. That happened to me this past weekend. So annoying. But thanks for the intro to Dutch Girl Cooking! How excellent!6 years ago

  • So true, Ann. I’m thinking about doing a post dedicated to those meals: I make, I take a picture, and then I taste, only to be totally disappointed. A couple weeks ago, this kept happening over and over!6 years ago

  • Neena: Absolutely hilarious! I frequent this blog for recipes but find the comic relief much more satisfying.6 years ago

  • anonymous fan: this is my new go-to weeknight dinner5 years ago

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Strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everybody.
- Samuel Pepys