When in doubt, chop an onion.
That’s what I told an interviewer recently who asked for my best cooking tip. I’m not sure if he was looking for something more clever or crafty or chefy, but that really is the best piece of culinary wisdom I’ve learned in the past seven years of thinking critically about how I cook.
Many days, I just don’t feel like it. Or I do want to cook but feel too overwhelmed by whatever is going on in my head to stop whatever I’m doing to dirty up the kitchen.
One thing that has been consuming my life lately has been moving into a new house. It seems like that’s all I’ve been doing for the past month, and it has been even more exhausting (and exhilarating) than I thought. Thanks to home renovations, it took two weeks to finally turn on that new oven and cook a proper dinner, and I still can’t find my potato masher and favorite wooden spatula.
The place is far from being finished, but as a first-time homeowner, I guess I’ll have to get used to that feeling. One weekday last week, I was letting myself simmer in this state of unease. Too much to do, too many decisions to make, too many conundrums to unravel, but somebody’s got to put dinner on the table.
Out came the onion and the knife.
I was down to the dregs of the vegetable drawer, so I reached for those brassica (Brussels sprouts and broccoli) on their last stems. While I was in the (still totally disorganized) pantry, I pulled out a sweet potato and some dried spiral pasta (the three-color kind, my favorite).
While the cast-iron skillet heated and the pot of water came to a boil, I peeled the papery outer layer off the onion, shaved the rough skin from the potato, trimmed the ends off the sprouts and chopped the baby broccoli trees from the big one.
My hands did the work on their own, almost independently of my brain, which allowed me to focus on what I know: That a hot pan with oil and aromatics is a good place to start figuring things out or, in my case, take a break from trying to figure things out.
Twenty minutes later, the doubt was gone because dinner was ready.