Every six weeks, my mother brings fresh injera home from Denver and I cook an Ethiopian feast. I specialize in the ease of one-pot cooking, and every time I cook Ethiopian, I remember why. Each dish is simple to prepare, but when you’re making five or six different ones, it equals a lot of time spent chopping, stirring, adjusting, seasoning, and tending. And crying. Because chopping onions makes me cry, and there are a lot of onions in Ethiopian food.
But time isn’t the only reason I prefer one-pot cooking. I don’t get distracted and lose track of what I’m doing when I’ve got one pot to worry about. When I’m worrying about five pots, I struggle.
The last three times I’ve made Ethiopian, I’ve burned a dish. A different one each time. Once, I caught it quickly enough that I could move the top layer of the food to a different pot with no harm really done (except to my poor husband who spent about thirty minutes trying to clean the scorched pan). The second time, I had to start one dish all over again. (More onions just as my eyes had finally stopped watering!) The third time, the dish burned was my son’s least favorite so I just loaded him up on everything else. My saintly husband ate the smoky kik alecha without complaint.
Pay attention, I admonish myself. Pay attention!
More often than not, that’s my inner narrative as I move throughout my day. Pay attention!
Because attention is hard for me. I get distracted easily. I don’t multi-task well. I misplace my materials. I have trouble prioritizing. I accidentally skip steps in the directions.
Pay attention! as I catch myself off track yet again.
Yesterday, I decided to try something different.
Instead of dashing back and forth to the pantry as I remembered what I needed, I collected all of the ingredients and spices I would use before I even started heating up the pans. Instead of trying to prepare four dishes at the same time, I prepped one at a time. I cleaned as I cooked. As one dish was completed and began its long simmer, I started the next.
A couple of times I looked at the hour ticking by and felt myself pick up the pace. Slow down, I reminded myself. Just slow down.
To be fair, I was in the kitchen forever. And I still forgot the tomato paste in the misir wat and had to swirl some in several steps too late (the finished dish tasted fine, though a bit sweet). But I didn’t burn anything. The kitchen wasn’t a disaster of spilled shiro powder, carrot tops rolled under the refrigerator, and berbere splashed all over the stovetop.
And when all of the pots were on the stove bubbling gently, I didn’t feel frazzled or cranky or mentally drained as I usually do. Instead, I felt like I’d just meditated or done some gentle yoga or kneaded bread. Calm. Present. Focused.