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Cooking as a game

 "I like everything more if it can feel like a game." Bettina Makalintal/Eater

Yesterday's post about the to do list, was partly inspired by the article from which the above quote comes, for the writer began the article with these words:

"I can be motivated to do almost anything if I know that the promise of ticking off a box on a to-do list, or colouring a square on a habit tracker, awaits me at the end."

However, she then went on to an associated aspect, of ticking off the list, which I suppose is creating the list in the first place, in the hope that the list might enhance what she calls "the fleeting essence that is inspiration".

My chosen picture to headline this post is in one way not at all relevant. Whoever has an empty fridge? I suspect the opposite is the more general dilemma. It's much easier to make something from almost nothing, than making something from an overflowing fridge and a packed store cupboard, with all those jars and tins lurking at the back for decades. Yes decades in some instances. Which, of course, leads to extreme guilt. When you do an image search for inspiration in the kitchen you are instantly overwhelmed by abundance. Hundreds of finished dishes made with masses of different ingredients. Yes the problem is just too much. Too many choices.

No I chose the picture because of the joyful lady at the side, who we are supposed to assume is ecstatic at the opportunity to make something from nothing. Well that's my interpretation anyway. It is after all the header for an article in The New Yorker called The Art of Ignoring Recipes. I won't give you the link because you can only read the first paragraphs before you are at a pay wall.

My original article went on to talk in terms of the gamification of cooking, so naturally enough when I came to searching for more views on the subject I tried 'gamification of cooking' as my search term, which, as an example of both needing to have the right search terms for what you are looking for, and also of how one is led into other areas of potential interest, led me into a whole world of computer games, recipe and marketing apps and using games to inspire children and adolescents to cook. Even AI. Not for me today but maybe another time.

Gamification however, does actually apply to what I am looking at here - well according to the Cambridge Dictionary definition anyway:

"the practice of making activities more like games in order to make them more interesting or enjoyable" Cambridge Dictionary

Bettina Makalintal, the writer of my starting point article, was working from the point that even the most dedicated cooks - like myself - sometimes reach a kind of boredom. A lack of inspiration. At times like this we fall back on the tried and true or the takeaway probably, but she was preaching the mantra that if we treated it all like a game, it would be more interesting - an idea that another blogger - Joan Menefee on a website called Culinate described thus:

"What is a game, after all, but the combination of a goal and (at least one) rule? In the case of cooking, the goal is to stay nourished; the rules are to find perishable, tasty foodstuffs, use cold to keep this stuff from growing bacteria, and use fire and knives to make it easier to digest. Oh, and try not to get bored."

It's the not getting bored bit which is the game. The bit that makes it fun. Or at least an opportunity to tick things off of a list. So below is a list of some of the 'games' that various people suggested, some of which I mentioned in yesterday's post. Some of which are a bit old hat, but some of which are a tiny bit interesting and maybe worth trying some time. Forgive me for any repetition:

Do a low-grocery month which means limits on what you can buy. Taken to an extreme this could mean not buying anything. Easy in an overstocked kitchen like mine. The freezer, fridge and pantry would keep me able to concoct something for ages. It would get more of a challenge as you went along, but you might end up with an emptier fridge, freezer and pantry. Trouble is you, well I anyway, would probably soon fill them up again. This is my overstocked pantry. There is more in a nearby drawer.

Make one dish repeatedly, but differently every time - a good idea but I don't think you would dedicate a week to this exercise. Maybe one different version every week for a month. A modest aim. You could start with something like Macaroni cheese for example. I think it would need to be as specific as Macaroni cheese, and not just a kind of dish like risotto, or quiche, or stir-fry. You can be more inventive if you are more specific. Not that it has to be your own recipe. You can look for other versions. I know Ottolenghi has a wonderful variation on Macaroni cheese for example, and probably others do too.

Make your own Chopped -esque selection of ingredients that you must use in a given week - I think Chopped must be one of those random food boxes that you order in. Well make your fridge your food box. Which is probably what you do anyway.

Consider color - cook white for a week, or pink, maybe yellow. Green is just too, too easy.

Think like a TikTok creator and make yourself a themed series, even if it exists only in your head. "That technique you already love? Apply it to something else. I’ve written about how you can adobo any vegetable. But can you Caesar it? Can you carbonara it? Can you piccata it? It’s your little game." Bettina Makalintal/Eater Ideas for themes are, of course endless. It doesn't just have to be a technique.

Try to recreate your favourite restaurant meal - I actually find it hard to remember the actual dishes from a restaurant meal, although I do have that long ago Paul Bocuse 50th birthday meal on the wall. Maybe I should try that one day. When I turn 90? Or you could check out online menus and give it a go.

Soak some dry beans - Yes I should. I have plenty. We all take the easy way out these days and just use the tins don't we? I don't use them enough either, even though 'legumes' is one of the things on my weekly 'to do list'.

Try a TikTok cooking hack - Now that could be interesting. You don't have to be a TikTok member to find them. I still haven't tried the vodka pasta, but this is a new one - Upside down puff pastry - a sort of Tarte Tatin - put some fruit on a piece of parchment paper, trickle over honey or something else - or make it savoury. Fold over puff pastry, cook and turn over. An idiot could do that.

Explore cultural dishes:

"Look to other cultures for food inspiration. Whether inspired by a book you read, a movie you watched, or a place you have visited (or want to visit), there are a lot of dishes that can open your eyes to the way people all around the world eat and enjoy food." Charlotte Post - Hormel Foods.

So not just food from a particular cuisine, although that, of course, is a possibility and a learning experience at the same time.

Use a new ingredient - or maybe one you bought for that special dish and have never used again. I'm sure you've got something at the back of your cupboard.

Turn your culinary world upside down with a new kitchen gadget - a cheap one that is. Something like a mechanical spiralizer. Next time Aldi has a selection of these sorts of things buy one and have a go.

Try trending recipes - You can find lists online. The ABC is saying buckwheat is a thing this year.

Have a chutney-tasting competition - not quite a cooking thing, but there are rules, it's food and it's a game. I certainly have lots of chutneys - and pickles. OK I just liked this:

"When you’re middle class and get to the age of 52, your friends make chutney and give it to you. A lot. I’ve got 14 different chutneys. My cunning plan to combat weekend lockdown ennui? A four-person chutney-tasting competition. Two freelancer parents, two teenagers at peak lockdown cabin fever, all blindfolded. Will it be the Brixton fig chutney or the Hastings pineapple and sultana that emerges victorious? The sad thing is, I haven’t looked forward to something so much in years. Mel Giedroyc, broadcaster/The Guardian

Make a fancy cocktail or mocktail - yes mocktails and non-alcoholic drinks are definitely in.

Try a recipe on the back of a random tin - or packet. Now that's interesting. This gorgeous fudge is from a condensed milk tin.

I'm sure there are lots of other suggestions out there which will make cooking a bit more fun when you are bored.

"But what I love most about cooking (in theory) is that it’s a puzzle to be solved. In its best form, cooking is a practice measured not in individual dishes but in days and even weeks—a strategic navigation of ingredients, expiration dates, uses and reuses, variety and sameness." Helen Rosner/The New Yorker

Or - just to point out yet another detour I came across. You can also make games out of food. Literally. This one was from a book called Edible Games a sample game from which is online here. It was very complicated but beautifully designed. Sort of in the same category as over the top birthday cakes to me.

Now I don't really think I shall be adding any of the above to my 'to do' lists, not even my resolutions because I'll just end up with long lists of things I won't ever do. Which will be depressing. But then again if I don't write them down they will get forgotten and some of them are quit tantalising. Maybe that one dish different ways could be added to my routine without too much angst. Maybe I should open another page in my Ideas book - headed 'boredom techniques' or something similar. Yes that may be the answer.

I'll conclude with another quote, unrelated to this particular post, but which in a way illustrates the whole serendipity, rambling thing that this blog often turns into. I just came across it.

"Even when I don't write this blog, I am writing this blog. Once I got in the habit of mining my food life for tidbits strangers might find interesting, I was constantly hovering at an analytical remove from everyday routine. And I am grateful for that." Joan Menefee/Culinate

Blog writing is a bit of a game too.


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