Why I’ll “Cook 90” again in January 2019

Cook90 upped my cooking game.

20181212_110138-03My mom’s guidance and her Mennonite cookbooks taught me to cook. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi widened my cooking world to include more ingredients and new flavor and texture combinations. Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat transformed how I create flavors in the kitchen and deepened my understanding of recipes. But it was EpicuriousCook90 challenge that grew my confidence in the kitchen.

After all, the best way to learn something is to practice and to practice often and regularly, right? Like Julia Child said in that now classic scene of her attempting to flip a potato pancake, “the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.” That’s what Cook90 did for me. The only way you learn to cook things is just to cook them.

Epicurious’ Cook90 challenge calls on people to attempt to cook 90 of their meals in one month: breakfast, lunch, and supper (or dinner, if you call it that) pretty much every day. You’re also not supposed to repeat recipes, except for breakfast. You can aim to cook 90 meals a month anytime you want, but David Tamarkin, editor of Epicurious and the creator and biggest cheerleader of Cook90, attentively leads the challenge each January. He sends out weekly emails with encouragement, recipe ideas, and shopping lists. He shares photos and updates of his meals on Instagram and other social media and encourages others to do the same.

People can use as many or as few of his recipes as they want. And, yes, you can make leftovers (though, one of Epicurious’ great additions to the 2017 Cook90, its second year, was the idea of “nextovers”). Does pouring milk over cereal count as cooking breakfast? Sure, if you want it to. Or, no, if you want to challenge yourself. The Cook90 challenge is what you make it.

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A favorite dish (Eggplant, potato, tomato brunch dish, topped with poached eggs, cilantro, and sumac, recipe from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty More) I tried through last January’s Cook90.

I undertook Cook90 last January. I realize cooking almost all meals in a month wouldn’t be a challenge for several people in my life, like my mom, who has cooked 90 meals a month more or less for the past few decades. I was living in midtown Phoenix, continually tempted by delicious meals (though not traditional fast food restaurants) a short walk from my full time job. (Namely Pane Bianco. Good thing I have the cookbook with me here in Indiana.) I packed a full time job, a bit of freelance work, and a couple different volunteer gigs into my life. I had the money and ability to eat decently healthy at local restaurants, so why not? (I also recognize the several ways I am privileged to be able to chose when and what I eat.)

When I heard about the the upcoming January 2018 Cook90 challenge, it appealed to me for several reasons and I decided to jump in with multiple goals:

  • save money,
  • eat healthier,
  • learn some new cooking techniques and perfect some of the old,
  • sit down and eat intentionally with my spouse at our table rather than on the couch while watching Netflix, and
  • work through a bunch of those recipes I’ve marked through the years in all of the cookbooks I own. (That means I only occasionally used Tamarkin’s suggested menu plans and recipes, instead creating my own.)
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A not authentic take on Cambodian lok lak.

I didn’t expect Cook90 to bring me a general sense of balance. I expected to be stressed, to get to week two and breakdown crying while trying to (once again) put together a meal after a full day of work and an hour at the gym before needing to head to an evening volunteer shift. There were moments I felt rushed. But overall my evenings of methodical chopping, mixing, and simmering brought me a lot of peace. Cooking at home for all those meals (and planning out the coming week’s menus and shopping for ingredients) brought me so much calm and joy, it was worth the extra time. Best of all, cooking all my meals became habit, so that it became easier and easier each day to get home from work and start peeling carrots or heating up a saute pan.

Yesterday, Epicurious and Tamarkin released the book “COOK90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals.” It gives an overview of the whole monthlong adventure, lists tips to make the month go well, and includes some recipes I recognize from past Cook90 challenges along with several new ones. It’s a beautiful book and is helping me ramp up excitement for my second year of Cook90.

Last year, Cook90 helped me earn “the courage of my convictions” in the kitchen. What will year two bring?

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(If you enjoyed Julia’s flipping advice above, you may also enjoy this 19-minute compilation of Julia-isms that someone took the time to put together on YouTube. It brings me unending delight.)

2 thoughts on “Why I’ll “Cook 90” again in January 2019

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