Start smart in this new year

My Tribune column from today:

When it comes to new beginnings, getting off to a strong start means everything. Whether you’re in a new job, relationship or town, those early days set the tone for what will follow. Stay sharp, and you’ll be motivated to keep it that way; get sloppy, and you’ll fall into bad habits. It’s the same in the kitchen as it is in life in general.

There are rocks — rocks on Neptune no doubt — that know just less about Sichuan cooking than I do. I think it’s spicy and involves a lot of pork. Beyond that? Total mystery. So I requested and received a Sichuan cookbook for Christmas. The recipes are at once familiar — a balance of sweet and sour and spicy flows throughout — and utterly foreign — what is “black Chinese vinegar?” But stasis is poisonous, and complacency in the kitchen breeds boredom, which breeds bad habits like cutting corners, eating fast food and ordering pizza three times a week. Challenge yourself — your palate, your mind, your cooking skills — this year and grow as a person.

The Internet is a decent place to start the process of branching out. While I visit sound recipe repositories like allrecipes.com and epicurious.com, I find much more inspiration in some of the better cooking blogs out there. One that I’ve recently been getting a lot of inspiration from is 101cookbooks.com. There, San Francisco-based photographer and writer Heidi Swanson crafts one of the most complete food blogs around. The photography is stunning, the writing elegant and spare, the recipes straightforward and healthy. It’s one to bookmark.

While your basic Google search will glean literally thousands of recipes for “roasted chicken,” separating wheat from chaff can get a little overwhelming. This is where the library comes into play. Head up to the second floor of the Columbia Public Library, head to the west side of the stacks and peruse the hundreds of cookbooks. Pull a few down and grab a seat at one of the desks. Thumb through them. See what feels right. See what feels wrong but might lead you in a new direction. Check out one or three or five and cook from them. Explore.

One other place to start a year anew is, I’m afraid, one you’ve heard before. Throw. Away. Old. Spices. I’ve long ignored this oft-recommended tip, thinking, “Old dried turmeric/marjoram/oregano is better than none at all.” Here’s the thing: It’s really not. Last week I tossed a jar of impressively aged curry powder, but not before smelling it. It was identifiable as curry powder but bore no resemblance to the fresh jar I got from Schnucks later that day for next to nothing. Throw the stuff out and buy in small installments. Your food will change.

Organize your pantry. I had no idea what an impressive and redundant collection of soy sauces and vinegars and dried pastas I’d amassed over the last year or so. Consolidate, sort and start the year knowing where your goods are. Cooking will be quicker and easier.

One final recommendation is a rare foray into watching calories. Blessed with an active metabolism, I’ve always been able to eat most of what I wanted and maintain a respectable appearance. But age and sloth have taken their toll, and if there’s one thing I believe in toto, it’s that if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight. I have. And so I’m tracking my eating habits on myfitnesspal.com. It’s available as a smartphone app or online via computer but tracks your daily caloric intake and makes it easier — a little — to turn down that extra roll or enchilada at dinner.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

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