David Tamarkin cooked 90 meals in January.
For the fourth year in a row, the director of Epicurious.com set out to make three meals a day for himself, with the exception of only three "pass" meals when he could eat out at a restaurant. At the end of January, after 30 days, minus three passes, Tamarkin hit his goal.
And then he kept cooking.
"I actually kept it up until about Feb. 10," he says. "I didn't hit the work cafeteria until yesterday, and it was so depressing."
That’s a lot of cooking, but Tamarkin says it's gotten easier since the winter when he came up with the idea. “I’m practiced at it now. It’s in my bones,” he says. Now, Tamarkin is the author of “Cook90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals,” which encourages home cooks to challenge themselves to cook every day for 30 days straight.
As with all of these challenges that encourage people to cook more, “there are no laws,” he says. “I really wanted it to be empowering and to be a good experience. It’s not supposed to be a punishment.”
That’s why he always encourages people who are attempting to cook more at home to give themselves some leeway. He calls those skip meals "passes" and suggests taking three of them during the course of the month, but even that is flexible. Rigidity already takes the fun out of cooking, he says.
“There’s so much messaging that cooking is difficult or too time-consuming or that you can save time and save the ‘hassle’ by getting food delivered or going out to eat,” he says. “People are already primed to think of cooking as something that’s an annoyance,” so he created a program (and subsequent book) that was more realistic, offering doable suggestions for getting as many homemade meals on the table as you can and not sweating it if you can’t.
“Cooking at home is joyful if you do it right,” he says.
A big part of Tamarkin’s home cooking success comes from using “nextovers,” the word he uses for leftovers to emphasize that they are the next day’s meals, not merely last night’s remains. The Ohio native incorporates nextovers into simple dishes, from quesadillas to baked potatoes, but he also encourages cooks to only make enough nextovers for one, maybe two, meals. If you make a week's worth of anything, you'll be tired of it by day three, no matter how you spiff it up.
Until this year, Tamarkin’s project was entirely web-based through Epicurious, but with the supporting cookbook fresh on bookstands, he’s hearing from even more cooks who are finding confidence and comfort in the kitchen that they didn’t think they had. “I see these nice messages on Instagram that say, ‘I’m learning so much about who I am and the kind of cook I am. I’m learning that these are the things that stress me out about cooking and these are the things that don’t,'” he says.
But the fatigue factor is real, even for Tamarkin.
“It’s high-intensity interval cooking,” he says, but as with any exercise or physical training regimen, you get better the more you do it, especially in the tough moments when you feel like giving up. “When you don’t feel like you have anything in the house and then you cook dinner anyway and make it work, that’s the part where you get stronger.”
By doing this intense month of cooking as a self-directed challenge, Tamarkin says it creates a start and an end. "I don’t expect anyone to cook every single day for the whole year, but what’s exciting is if you do it, you learn," and then for the rest of the year you can take what you learned and apply that to your cooking.
“Maybe you learn that you cannot handle making your own lunch, but that breakfast and dinner are OK,” he says. Tamarkin says he’s learned that, as a New Yorker, ordering groceries online for delivery makes a big difference in how much time and energy he has to cook. He puts in one major order every month and then picks up smaller perishable items throughout the week.
Grocery shopping when you have a car to carry the food isn’t as much of a challenge, but if grocery shopping is the primary obstacle to cooking more, Tamarkin suggests trying a delivery service or two, or even a meal kit company, to see if that helps inspire your bandwidth at the stove. “If I have my ingredients there, I’m halfway done.”
Knowing what you’re going to cook in a given week helps give direction to your grocery shopping, no matter how you do it. Tamarkin recommends a loose meal plan that can accommodate a shifting schedule and incorporates batch cooking and nextovers. The most important part of a meal plan is looking ahead to what you're cooking over the next few days to pull out any proteins that need to come out of the freezer or pick up any last-minute ingredients.
Tamarkin freezes meats and fish, and he also freezes sliced breads because he’s the only one in the house who eats them. He also likes to keep bags of frozen chopped greens, such as kale or chard. Unlike the blocks of frozen greens that were the only option for decades, these greens are flash-frozen so you can pull out a handful at a time for stir-fries or smoothies. “If I always have pasta and those greens, or even rice and those greens or eggs and those greens, I’m good.”
One of the biggest benefits of a single-month challenge like this is the boost of culinary confidence, Tamarkin says. “The fact that you think you can’t is what keeps you from doing it,” he says.
Cooking frequently decreases the pressure Tamarkin feels at each meal. People treat it like a spectator sport that they only do for themselves on special occasions. “We want to take the gravitas away from cooking,” he says. "When we take the special occasion-ness away from cooking, we take the fear and nervousness away, and you gain the confidence.”
Sweet Potatoes With Chorizo, Mushrooms and Lime Cream
Sweet potatoes are about as perfect as nextovers get: They’re versatile; they keep well, even after being cooked; and it takes almost the same amount of effort to roast eight as it does one. Roasting sweet potato halves — a method I picked up in the Epicurious test kitchen — cuts down significantly on the cooking time and opens up more possibility for browned, caramelized edges. Save four cooked potatoes for another use, such as a chickpea curry.
— David Tamarkin
8 (roughly 9-ounce) sweet potatoes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
8 ounces fresh chorizo, casings removed
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
1/2 cup (packed) chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more for garnish
1/4 teaspoon red pepper ﬂakes, plus more for seasoning (optional)
2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
1/2 cup sour cream or plain yogurt
1 small red onion, finely chopped, rinsed and patted dry with paper towels
Hot sauce, for serving
Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Slice the sweet potatoes in half lengthwise and toss with the vegetable oil and 1 teaspoon kosher salt on a large rimmed baking sheet (divide the potatoes between two baking sheets if things seem crowded). Arrange the potatoes cut side up and roast until fork-tender, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, warm a 12-inch heavy (preferably cast-iron) skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and cook, stirring frequently and breaking up the meat, until there’s a slick of chorizo fat covering the bottom of the pan and the chorizo has started to brown, about 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the chorizo to a plate (leave the fat behind in the pan).
Add the mushrooms to the skillet; shake the skillet so that the mushrooms fall in a more or less single layer. Now let them sit, undisturbed, until well browned, 3 or 4 minutes. (It may get a little smoky. If the mushrooms start to burn, add a teaspoon of vegetable oil.)
Stir the mushrooms or shake the skillet to cook the other sides of the mushrooms for a minute or two. Stir the chorizo into the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until the chorizo gets a little crispy, about 3 minutes. Stir in the cilantro, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and red pepper flakes. (If the chorizo is really spicy, feel free to leave out the red pepper flakes.) Taste the mixture and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt and/or red pepper flakes as needed. Keep warm until the potatoes are ready. Stir the lime juice into the sour cream.
Use the back of a large spoon to lightly flatten 8 sweet potato halves. (Store the remaining 8 sweet potato halves in the refrigerator and use them for other meals.) Put two halves on each plate and schmear each half with a tablespoon of lime sour cream. Divide the mushroom mixture among the sweet potatoes (you’ll get about 1/4 cup mixture per potato half). Top each potato with a generous spoonful of red onion and a scattering of cilantro, and serve with hot sauce on the side.
— From "Cook90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals" by David Tamarkin (Little, Brown and Company, $30)