The only New Year’s resolution I can remember making was back in 2012 when I resolved to learn more about wine. I failed spectacularly. Once a week for the first couple weeks of the year, I walked over to Whole Foods and picked out a bottle, but it was always too much to finish on my own, and they ended up sitting half-empty in the fridge until I dumped them out a few days later.
I decided on my New Year's Resolution yesterday: Learn something about/develop a taste for wine.
— Daniel Morales (@howtojapanese) January 4, 2012
I can’t say for certain, but I think this likely serves as a stand in for most of my past resolutions, which makes me similar to many.
A quick Twitter search is instructive: I won’t share all of them, but I have at times resolved to ferment more foods, to want less, to read my RSS feed regularly, and to listen to more Johnny Hodges/Gerry Mulligan.
New Year's resolution: level up my fermenting game and learn to make kimchi.
— Daniel Morales (@howtojapanese) January 4, 2014
Mid-year musical resolution – listen to more Johnny Hodges; exhaust Gerry Mulligan's catalog.
— Daniel Morales (@howtojapanese) July 17, 2010
I do very few of these right now. I’m coming down off a year or two of wanting, Johnny Hodges only occasionally pops up in my play list, I can’t remember the last time I opened Feedly, and while I do still brew beer, my fermentation game has lagged in food categories…until recently.
And that is because I was fulfilling a new style of resolution that I implemented in 2017. I’d have to do a deeper dive into my journals or my Twitter feed to know exactly why I made this decision, but that year I decided that I would cook something I’d never cooked before, and that this new dish would be my New Year’s resolution.
Totally agree here. My resolution tradition for the past few years has been setting a cooking challenge. Last year I made pupusas, a few years back I cooked ribs for the first time. This year I'm not sure yet. Ramen and lasagna are on the short list. https://t.co/AsfaqAANhd
— Daniel Morales (@howtojapanese) January 1, 2020
That year it was ribs, the next saag paneer. And onward. I’ve kept it up for four consecutive years. Here’s the list so far:
2017 – ribs
2018 – saag paneer
2019 – pupusas
2020 – natto
Not everything was ‘gram-worthy, so I won’t share pictures, but I will say that it felt good to be expanding my cooking repertoire, and to be accomplishing something. When I started, I imagine my thinking was that a clearly defined accomplishment was more important than a more vague, sustained change in lifestyle, or perhaps that small, actionable items rather than broader ideals would necessarily lead to a change in lifestyle.
When life gets busy, I still reach for Trader Joe’s Indian food, as by chance I happened to do last night as I was writing this, but I also have a freezer full of food I’ve prepared myself in advance—Japanese hambagu, lentil soup, lamb meatballs, black beans.
I keep a short list for future resolutions. Lasagna and ramen are near the top. But I find myself trying out new recipes more often, without needing a prompt from the calendar. When I’m shopping, I’ll pick up something I haven’t tried before and spend a minute Googling to see if I have enough at home to turn it into something.
There are a couple of other benefits, in addition to the food itself and the sense of improvement.
I’ve experienced a heightened sense of memory related to these recipes. I remember picking up ribs from the grocery store and cooking them for friends who came over last minute to play board games. I remember venturing out early in 2018 during a snowstorm, when I still had a blissful Japanese New Year’s holiday, to find a cheesecloth for the paneer at Sur La Table and go shopping at Uniqlo downtown. And I remember picking up the wrong type of masa for my pupusas, which sadly resulted in throwing out a lot of wet cornmeal.
This exercise has taught me that you don’t have to do too much. This isn’t an excuse for me to acquire new kitchen equipment or half a dozen obscure spices. A few tomatillos or a head of cabbage can be enough. (Especially if you use the cabbage to make bigos.)
I also find these cooking adventures useful ways to dissipate the sort of restless anxiousness I find myself experiencing from time to time. Cooking new recipes gets me out into Chicago, up to Devon to pick up ground lamb, to Argyle for daikon, and to Lincoln Square for bacon from Gene’s Sausage Shop. And there’s the focus in the kitchen. Too much of my time gets spent in front of the screen. Much of it is required for work and for writing, and I sometimes hate myself a little for not writing and translating more in my free time, but relief from the screen is also critical.
My next challenge, free from the need to fulfill a resolution, is chashu. This will be the first step toward my ramen goal, but I’ve realized it’s also a key ingredient in Japanese fried rice, which has been stuck in my mind recently. I have such strong memories of eating fried rice during summer holidays in Japan.
I have just about everything I need other than the pork belly and butcher’s twine. This recipe will give me direction for a bike ride, help me restock my freezer, and focus my time during this wild and still young October 2020.