Grub Shlub

I want to cook more at home, but I keep falling back on my takeout habit. How do I incentivize myself to get in the kitchen?

Eggplant dip in a white ceramic bowl with parsley and whole-grain flatbread.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by OlgaLepeshkina/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

I have recently been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Obviously, my husband (who is fully supportive of changing our eating habits in my favor) and I will be consulting with a registered dietician and my regular physician about this, but I would like to get a chef’s perspective. How can we transition to diabetes-friendly meals without sacrificing the flavor and richness of the “comfort food” from various cuisines we enjoy? 

The fact that your husband is willing to change his habits along with yours is a beautiful testament to the power of companionship and love. Together, you can make this a fun journey, for in the end, besides the obvious measures of cutting back on certain foods, the task here is not merely to focus on eating what’s good and healthy for you but to derive a new sense of shared pleasure from it. In other words, don’t replace your comfort food with discomfort food but with fun food. Doctors will tell you what to avoid and what to include in your new diet, and technology has come a very long way, making the measuring of blood sugar levels easier than ever before (I have friends with diabetes and marvel at the modern tools they use that tell them their insulin levels in a matter of seconds). In addition, I am sure you will easily find comprehensive charts and apps that will help you analyze nutritional labels and navigate your intake. What I can try to give you in terms of advice is all about creating food that is not merely tasty but that actually creates a new level of excitement that can compete with the thrill you used to get from traditional comfort foods, sweets, and sense memory, the last of which you might have to create all anew from scratch with new favorites that will become part of your repertoire. And it’s all about two guiding principles: Seek intense flavors, and a wide variety of compelling textures, from crunch to creaminess, not necessarily all in one (although that can be fun too).

I often say that we cannot really register flavor without texture. There is something about the so-called mouthfeel that can be immensely satisfying on a visceral level—biting down on cruciferous vegetables like barely steamed broccoli, seasoned with something as simple as olive oil, salt, and chili flakes, or letting a velvet-smooth chia-seed pudding, made with homemade almond milk, perhaps seasoned with a little matcha powder or turmeric and barely sweetened with stevia or xylitol, linger in your mouth as you indulge in the tiny seeds’ popping sensation. (Be careful with sweeteners and use them very sparingly: The goal is to ween yourself off intensely sweet foods and develop a sense for subtle sweetness that occurs naturally in foods and will not harm you.) Speaking of homemade almond milk (which ought to be made with blanched almonds—just drop whole raw almonds into boiling water for a minute, and the skins will pop right off when you pinch them), you might want to invest in a high-powered blender so you can make your own almond and oat milk. Soak raw nuts or grains overnight in cold water and make the daily batch in the morning with the push of a button.

For intense flavors, look into Mexican, Thai, or Sichuan cuisine, one of my favorites. For example, you could make Sichuan ma po tofu, a very intense stew of silken tofu and a kind of ragu made with homemade stock (bone broth being something you might want to make regularly anyway), ground meat (traditionally pork, but you can substitute lean chicken breast—just make sure you brown it intensely to boost its flavor, and use avocado oil), ginger, garlic, scallions, cilantro, and spices, including a fabulous condiment called spicy chili crisp. While you’re at it, see if your area has a Chinatown and go explore Chinese vegetables and the wild variety of Asian leafy greens, which are good for you and taste fantastic, from bok choy to tatsoi, Chinese broccoli and celery (much more aromatic than regular celery), pea shoots, amaranth leaves, water spinach—the list is nearly endless.

Of course, this would traditionally be served with rice, and here, you need to find alternatives. But I should also say that I, whenever I have a variety of well-seasoned, spicy, and crunchy vegetables on my plate, I find myself craving the starch less than I usually do—and believe me, I am a complete starch addict. Still, keeping in mind that the goal is to find starches that are high in fiber, experiment with buckwheat groats, “wild” rice (which is not rice at all but the seed of an indigenous American grass), and farro (which is by the way great as a rice substitute for risotto—just know that farrotto takes a bit longer to cook).

Naturally, oatmeal porridge, preferably made with steel-cut oats, will be your friend, and you should experiment with savory versions. Top it, for example, with roasted yams, charred red peppers, and a 6½-minute-boiled egg, and season the lot with chives, wheat-free soy sauce, and raw sesame seeds. Are you having fun yet?

Luckily, fatty fishes like tuna and salmon are encouraged, and I don’t think one can tire of them: I prefer the tuna seared on a stovetop but still raw inside, with a dollop of lightly salted Greek yogurt mixed with wasabi powder (dissolve it in some cold water before mixing it in), whereas salmon might be best baked in the oven at 300 degrees until it’s succulent and silky. (Remove the seasoned skin after the baking and toast it in a toaster oven or under the broiler for a crunchy chip.) I cannot mention tuna without pointing you toward seaweed in its Japanese culinary forms—toasted seaweed leaves, waved over a gas flame and crushed onto a heap of cold, shirataki (yam) noodles dressed with pumpkin seed or hazelnut oil, wheat-free tamari sauce, pan-fried jalapeños, and firm tofu cubes. Or hijiki (dried seaweed) salad with lemon juice, avocado, edamame, and raw peanuts.

Don’t forget legumes: Play with black beans, soaked overnight in salted water and simmered in unsalted water with a cinnamon stick and other aromatics of your choice. You can mash them and make a spicy dip out of them, a great alternative to hummus. Instead of sour cream, top it with Greek yogurt, chopped scallions, and fresh herbs, all scooped up with pan-crisped blue corn tortillas.

All of this brings me to a very important element for your new lifestyle: Do not underestimate the impact of creativity on your overall sense of well-being. As a private chef, I often have to deal with specific dietary demands and restrictions, and I have learned not to be annoyed at them but to take them as strong incentives to be creative. That is, to learn something from the challenge I am facing and find new solutions that are informed by guidelines yet free in their interpretation and flavor combination.

Last not least, the new diet gives you and your husband a new incentive to eat all your meals together and continue to enjoy the bliss of intimacy and, if you will, co-conspiracy to find new solutions for a healthy life together.

I have for the longest time harbored the ambition of preparing home-cooked meals on a regular basis, but I keep falling back into my habits of eating out or ordering in. How can I create an efficient incentive?

Ah, the lure of instant gratification beckoning with its crooked fingers … it’s a pretty severe problem of the modern, service-oriented urban life because it points toward a critical issue: Many people work too much without really enjoying it and thus feel compelled to “treat” themselves and take it easy outside of work. There is a tendency to avoid anything outside of work that feels like work. And no wonder: Why would we exert ourselves when we are already tired? But as long as you regard home cooking (the real kind, that is: from scratch, the kind that involves actual grocery shopping) as a chore, I’m afraid you will, with a few more or less either grudging or exalted exceptions here and there, not change your habits.

Start by asking yourself where the advantage of home cooking lies for you. Is it about doing something from beginning to end, with hopes that you might draw a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment from it? Is it about learning something new? Is it about feeling guilty for never using your kitchen? For if you are neither curious nor creatively minded, neither will appeal to you. Is it the potential health benefits of home-cooked food? That, by the way, should be a no-brainer. I always say that there is no such thing as healthy or unhealthy food, only healthy or unhealthy eating habits, and yours are definitely not healthy. This is because restaurant and takeout food are by definition excessive no matter what they claim—too much sugar, salt, and fat, and too much frying, roasting, and charring—all of which adds flavor but does not make for a balanced meal. Or is it about sharing, about sitting down with your loved ones and offering them not just a home-cooked meal that was made with care but also creating an intimate moment of civilized togetherness and conversation?

Make your own list of reasons and write it down. Imagine what your life would be if you were to follow through on your plan, and imagine the long-term effect it would have. Next, write down what it would take for you to follow through: reorganizing your kitchen; doing research; learning new skills (not just the meal preparation but also working in the kitchen without making too much of a discouraging mess); planning ahead; making time for grocery shopping, meal preparation, and the extended meals themselves; and finally, getting your family, partner, or friends involved. Then, write down what has so far prevented you from realizing your ambition. Is it just laziness or perhaps fear of failure? If the latter is the case, try to examine the ambition. There is nothing more down to earth than cooking a simple, home-cooked meal. If you have delusions of grandeur and picture elaborate feasts, try to picture what your kitchen would look like afterward (assuming you don’t have an army of minions to clean up after you, like those celebrity chefs or TV chefs who make it all appear so easy). Take it down a notch and start with simple things.

My late, great ballet teacher Evee Lynn used to tell a story in class about an ambitious young dance student who told the ballet master, “I want to learn how to do those big jumps,” to which the master replied, “Sure, I can teach you how to do this. Look here,” and took him by the hand, led him to the bar, faced him, and instructed him to watch carefully: “This is how you learn it.” With this, he assumed the “first” position and did a demi-plié, the most basic movement there is in ballet. In short: There are no shortcuts. Start with the basics. On the other hand, simple food has become such a big catchphrase these days that perhaps you won’t be derailed by inflated ambition—even Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli British restaurateur and new darling of the culinary world, whose food, as far as I can tell, has never been anything but simple, put the word in the title of his newest cookbook.

Finally, write down what would happen if you did NOT follow through on any of it. What does the accumulation of more of the same do to your life? Where is the joy, the adventure, the benefit? What kind of a person will you be in one, five, 10 years if you continue to deprive yourself (and your loved ones) of the joy of cooking and the joy of eating food that comes out of your kitchen—not to mention what takeout food will do to your body in the long run?

Ultimately, it’s your mental image of your future self (and the solidity of your projection) that will propel you into the kitchen—or not. Also, do not anticipate that loving the task itself will come right away; it’s more likely to happen step by step as you gain confidence and ease. Be patient. And remember, the worst thing that can happen is for nothing to happen.

I want to make baba ganoush, but I do not have a blender. I mean, the inventor of baba ganoush was doing this before Vitamix, so … is there a way to make it without one?

I would certainly not push a food processor off my kitchen counter, but making baba ganoush (or, come to think of it, pesto) by hand has a distinct advantage: Its texture is more interesting because it is less homogenous. We are getting too used to eating food our grandparents would have regarded as baby food.

The first widely circulated food processor was actually a French invention (they called it the Robotcoupe), but it very quickly made its way to America, where it was rebranded and perfected for domestic use. It makes perfect sense that it was invented in France, for French cuisine has, long before the smoothie obsession, had a fascination with smooth and creamy textures—no doubt because French aristocrats, the first to employ chefs, had notoriously bad teeth. How Antonin Carême, Europe’s first star chef (he was known as “the chef of kings and the king of chefs”) made his mousses, mousselines, and creamy, gelatin-stabilized pièces montées in the early 19th century by having meats and vegetables virtually pressed by hand through fine cloth is hard to imagine these days. But the traditional tool for baba ganoush, a comparatively rustic dish, has always been a mortar and pestle. Seeing that a decent-size model (preferably made of marble) can be almost as expensive as a food processor, you might have to resort to a mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, and/or a fork. Luckily, well-cooked eggplant gets so soft that mashing it is actually the least amount of work in the whole procedure. But cooking it right is actually trickier than it sounds: Eggplant only breaks down at very high temperatures. If you don’t believe me, just follow Julia Child’s recipe for ratatouille, and you will find that the eggplant is still hard when the dish is “done.”

There are two versions of baba ganoush I can recommend for you.

The faster version is to peel the eggplant, cut it into cubes, drizzle it with lemon juice, and steam the pieces until very soft for five to 10 minutes. (Add the lemon halves into the steaming water for extra flavor.) You can add a peeled garlic clove, which will cook too, and mashing it later with the eggplant will add a mild hint of garlic, less pungent than the raw version. Mash the eggplant with a fork while it’s still hot, and add salt, white pepper, a touch of ground cumin and coriander, and some olive oil. You could also add some finely chopped parsley or basil, but not until the mash is cool, or the herbs will wilt and lose their bright color. I would actually not add tahini in this case to keep the flavor fresh and pure. Call it baba ganoush light.

The second version involves charring the whole eggplant directly on your gas burner, turning it occasionally with tongs but making sure you get a smoky black skin all around, flecked with ash-white streaks. It will burst in parts and drip a bit, but that’s fine. Just clean up right afterward. Transfer the eggplant to a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake it in a 375 degree oven until very soft (there should be no resistance if you pierce it where it’s thickest), which can take up to another 30 minutes. Now roll it up in the parchment paper to let the steam soften it even further. This will make it even easier to strip off the skin when it’s cool enough to handle. Cut off the stem and remove the skin. (There’s no need to be too diligent about it. A few flecks of charred skin are fine and will add smoky flavor). Mash it with a fork or pound it with a wooden spoon. In a separate bowl, stir together tahini and cold or boiling hot water until smooth. (I prefer the hot water because it cooks the paste, giving it a pudding like consistency.) Mix the tahini with the eggplant and season it according to taste with salt, pepper, chopped fresh garlic, lemon zest and juice, cumin, coriander, perhaps a dash of cinnamon, and finally whisk some olive oil into it.

Get your pita ready (always toast it!), and don’t worry about resisting the urge to double-dip. I won’t tell.