A simple living challenge: simplifying cooking

I like cooking. I can’t claim to possess a special talent for it, but I do quite a lot of it. If I was more talented at it, perhaps I would spend less time cooking, simply because I’d be more efficient. My most-often used style of cooking is generally to take a lot of different vegetables, perhaps some meat, throw them together in a big pot and stew with some liquid/broth/tinned tomatoes. This is great because eating lots of vegetables is good for you. This is not so great because all the flavours kind of blend together, and while sometimes that’s fine, sometimes it’s just kind of muddled. Furthermore, chopping all those vegetables takes most of the time.

When visiting Italy, one thing I noticed is that plenty of good Italian meals aren’t necessarily complicated by a lot of ingredients. Having made this observation, I was struck by the idea of a ‘simple cooking’ challenge. The idea is to go for a week, or two, or some arbitrary time, and only use seven ingredients per meal that you want to cook. The number is arbitrary, really. I think I did a thought experiment thinking up meals with only five ingredients and got bored (onion, garlic, spices, you’ve used 60% of your allocation already!). Anyway, hopefully the seven ingredient limit would require you to focus on getting flavour and utility out of each ingredient rather than just relying on having a lot of flavours. The qualifications, of course are:

  • Cooking oil/butter or the like doesn’t count as an ingredient
  • Salt (or whatever plays the role of salt, like fish sauce) doesn’t count as an ingredient
  • All your spices taken together counts as a single ingredient (for example, you don’t need to count ground coriander, cardamom, turmeric and cumin as four ingredients)
  • You are allowed to make side dishes for any given meal, but they also must pass the seven ingredient test.

That last one might look like it defeats the purpose a bit, but this challenge is tailored for me, and my weakness is that I often cook just by throwing a bunch of stuff together in one pot. If I cook three dishes for a single meal that are all distinct and unique dishes, yet use different ingredients for each, I think I’m still achieving the goals I’ve set for myself.

So: since I usually cook three or four dishes a week, I think two weeks is a good timeframe over which I can challenge myself. Since I’m currently travelling, I can’t take up this challenge right away, but when I get around to it, I’ll document my experience.


Losing the ability to think

One of the things I hope to gain by simplifying my life is more time to just think and explore connections between ideas. I recall distinctly when I was stuck in a job I disliked I feared that I was losing my ability to think creatively. I was in the public service, and in a very hierarchical workplace, and I often felt that much of my job was just following processes. I did push for a move to a different area, one which required me to actually put my own thoughts and ideas into my work. Once I got there, I felt suddenly anxious – after so long just following templates, I worried that I’d be unable to really use my own brain to create any original ideas.

I haven’t really discussed this with many other professionals, but I suspect that it’s a problem amongst white-collar workers.

To go off on a tangent, though, I also wonder if this could be a side effect, somehow, of aging. I remember feeling somewhat connected, while listening to an interview with Ben Folds quite some time ago, to a comment about how deeply young people think. This interview was a long while back, I think perhaps on Triple J somewhere, and Ben was discussing the appeal of his songs to teenagers. Now, paraphrasing greatly, he was saying that he thought it was because his songs made real, and took seriously, the thoughts and feelings of teenagers. He further said that it is easy to forget how much you thought about stuff when you were a teenager. I recall, at the time, being perhaps only in my mid-20s, how correct that was, and indeed how furiously active my brain was in trying to figure out the world when I was in late high school, or entering university. I felt that I was slowly losing that – I no longer thought so deeply about philosophy, about relationships, or about why the world works the way it does. And it’s not that my brain is now occupied with other thoughts – I actually feel that now I just think less interesting thoughts in general!

In this way, perhaps trying to simplify my life is a way to try to regain something I feel I’ve lost. If I can make time for myself to just sit and think, rather than filling all my mindspace by clicking through to another blog, or scheduling another appointment, or at the worst making my mind fuzzy by having another drink, can I retrain my brain to come up with more interesting and creative ideas?

You can’t buy your way to lower consumption

Zen Habits has an article about wanting less. I like it, and I’m going to build off from this theme.

I am recognizing more often that my desire to buy something comes from my desire to solve a problem. This problem may be one I’ve had for a while, and may be genuine, but it also may be one that I’ve been convinced that I have by good marketing. Anyone who’s in marketing is probably rolling eyes at my naivety right now.

Often, there may be a genuine problem: but it’s important to take a moment and check your thought process. Will buying this thing really solve your problem? Remember all those times you thought just by purchasing some gizmo, you could save time on a task? In reality, it works only about 1/10th as well as it should, and while you may save a few minutes here and there you’re not really much happier. You are, however, down $15 and now have less storage space.

In a very meta twist, I find that my growing focus on developing skills is even suspect to this impulse, and worryingly so. For example, I’ll see a book that claims to teach skills of time management, or investment strategies. My internal monologue instantly tells me “Hey if you buy and read that you can be better at <x>.” Here’s where it gets recursive: at times I’ve thought that if I can grow my own vegetables I’ll be more self-sufficient and save money. Perhaps I’ll buy a book on gardening. Wait, what?

One of tenets of gaining early financial independence is solving problems by either gaining skills, using one’s own ingenuity, or just flat out rearranging one’s life so that what was a problem is no longer a problem (don’t buy a car, move closer to work). But one also needs to critically apply the ability to say no to purchased solutions when it comes to advertised solutions to your need for purchases. Since I’m blogging here and you’re reading, we obviously both have internet access, and there’s a wealth of information out there.

I’m not going to become an amazing options investor, and improve my passive income (thus reducing my dependence on my salary) just by buying a book on options trading. It takes an awful lot more time and effort than just one purchase and a bit of reading. If I’m not prepared to put in the hours, the study, and the capital, then the purchase of the book will be worthless. So I think twice (most of the time).

Why am I simplifying my life?

blank paper
I describe, briefly, simple living in my about me page. But I’ve been spurred to expand upon why I am attracted to simple living by this post by Mike Burns.

People are attracted to simple living for a variety of reasons. These could be reducing stress, environmental concerns, or a desire for more free time that the practice of owning and accumulating stuff takes away from you. For me, though, the primary concern is flexibility.

I was originally drawn towards simplicity by a desire to become more independent financially, and this in turn came from the fact that I was unhappy at my job. After a long period of fruitlessly searching for a different employer, I slowly began to realise that I might need to take a substantial pay cut to find other work, take a short-term contract or part-time position, or even just totally get out of employment for a while in order to get away from the anxiety my work was causing me. The prospect of a reduced income made me consider what I could afford in an ongoing sense. That is to say, I had savings in the bank, but what were the long term implications of living the way I was living, day-to-day? Was it sustainable with a lower income or a period of unemployment? I realised that simplifying my life, downsizing my possessions, and reducing some of my commitments would leave me more adaptable and able to deal with disruptions to the steady employment that I was used to.

In the end, I did successfully find a different, more interesting job and didn’t ever take a pay cut, but the desire for flexibility stayed with me.

In the course of my job search I also looked for opportunities abroad. This finally culminated in me actually getting one of those opportunities and moving, although that came much later. In considering all aspects of a potential international move, I realised the obvious: being internationally mobile is more difficult the more possessions you have. I’m not a minimalist for minimalism’s sake. In fact, I’m not a minimalist at all. I’m only interested in holding onto fewer material things to the extent that it makes it easier for me to get up and move for more interesting opportunities, or more pessimistically, in the face of natural or economic disaster. As an added bonus, it makes the house easier to clean.

I wouldn’t be existentially bothered if I owned two cars, a dog, a mortgage on a four bedroom house full of stuff, and a subscription to a gym and a golf club. But accepting all of those things into my life would mean a huge reduction in my ability to adapt to changes.* My interest in living a simpler life grew out of a concern for flexibility in the face of uncertain employment prospects, but from there it’s grown to encompass other disruptions as well: social, environmental, family or whatever else may occur. Maintaining a simpler life, being careful of what I allow into my life, affords me flexibility to respond to new opportunities and allows me more options in the face of adversity.

*The subscriptions, maybe not. I’m generally pretty good at avoiding the sunk cost fallacy, but reminding myself to not consider sunk costs does take some mental effort.