People who work in creative fields like writing, programming, and design tend to be productive in fits and starts.
I know some folks who have the discipline to sit at a desk and just crank out good quality work, day in and day out. I don’t think I’m one of these people. I can do this type of work, but at least in my case the productive output feels pretty mechanical in process and final product. At least to me.
Counterintuitively, I find that my most productive and creative days involve little actual productivity, from a percent-of-the-day perspective. Good ideas take time to surface and coalesce, and, at least for me, that’s rarely a deliberate activity.
I like to let those things come together via some unknown cognitive background process. (The thinking slow part of Thinking, Fast and Slow.) But it’s not like I can just sit and meditate my way to a research question or article idea; I have to be doing something active.
A lot of folks find mental clarity and flow states through exercise. I, for one, tend to hate every minute of exercising and can only really focus on just how badly the podcast episode I’m listening to is distracting me from whatever fresh hell I’m wreaking on my corporeal being today. (Except for when I’m cycling; then, I fly.)
I currently work from home, and that’s given me the opportunity to exercise a different set of skills. I really enjoy the process and rhythm of cooking, and I’ve managed to build food prep and cooking into my workweek as a way to have something productive and creative to do while the creative, productive work I do for money and health insurance metaphorically simmers on the back burner.
Is cooking downtime? Technically, yes. But it’s productive downtime that helps with managing stress, saving money, and eating healthier. Is it less efficient from a time perspective? Sure. It’s easier and much quicker to go get lunch at the yuppie food court around the corner, but I currently make the small-to-medium-sized dollars writing on the internet about large-dollar venture capital deals. If I made software or finance money, I’d consider eating fancy $20 salads most days, but I’d probably still sneak in a bunch of homemade lunches.
Because, again, it’s not about the time or the money; it’s about the process. Years of practice and following instructions lets you start coming up with your own instructions and your own recipes. Whether that’s for code, for data visualizations, for phrasing, or for soup.
Here’s a recipe for a very tasty soup, with plenty of color commentary. Forgive the verbosity. It’s an occupational hazard.
For the meatballs
- 1 pound ground chicken
- if you can find ground chicken thighs, even better
- 1 Tablespoon of finely minced fresh ginger
- Unless you have no other option, avoid the jarred stuff. Buy whole root and peel it with the edge of a spoon before processing
- 1 Tablespoon finely minced garlic
- You could also use a microplane to process the garlic. However, because the microplane creates so much surface area, you might want to use slightly less garlic if you’re sensitive to it
- 2-ish Tablespoons of finely sliced scallions, white and pale green parts only
- Finely slice the darker green parts too, but keep those separate for later
- A daring amount of red pepper flakes, to taste
- If you have fresh hot peppers, even better. Especially if they’re Thai chilis or habaneros, because of the fruity notes they give
- A little kosher salt
- A little olive oil
For The Soup
- A 32oz container of good cloudy chicken broth
- 3-4 leaves Lacinato kale
- Rice vermicelli or other thin rice noodles.
- (Optional) Just a wee bit of the special salt (MSG)
- (Optional) Dried shiitake or maitake mushrooms
For The Toppings
- The reserved sliced dark green parts of the green onion
- Fermented hot sauce
- (Optional) a dash or two of soy sauce
Preparation Of The Work
- Because anxiety, wake up at approximately 6:15 AM, about an hour before the scheduled alarm. Roll over and reach down for your vintage iPad Pro. Read the internet for awhile, until about 7 AM.
- Perform your regular morning ablutions. Shower, shave, teeth brushing, etc. Get dressed.
- Realize you have some ground chicken in the fridge that you should probably do something with before you go on vacation.
- Look in your fridge’s produce drawer and assess the state of your provisions. Note the ever-so-slightly desiccated exterior of the ginger you bought last week for smoothies but instead left to languish in the produce drawer, slowly drying up.
- Remember bits and bobs from that one meatball soup recipe in that Nigel Slater cookbook, Tender.
- Come to terms with your lack of kale and various herbs and aromatics.
- At 7:50 AM, decide that you have enough time for a very quick trip to the grocery store.
- Walk several blocks to the grocery store. Obtain ingredients. Go home, and refrigerate your perishables.
Preparation Of The Ingredients
Unless you’re exceptionally slow with a chef’s knife, this shouldn’t take much more than 15 minutes between Zoom calls. This is also a process that can be accomplished during a call if you’re not on video, though you may want to mute yourself when dealing with clanky metal bowls.
- Grab yourself a big mixing bowl and a stack of small prep bowls.
- Peel ginger using the edge of a spoon. Place garlic on a cutting board, place the side of your chef’s knife on the garlic and, with a closed fist and swift hands, hit the side of the knife with the bottom part of your hand sufficiently hard to crush the garlic slightly and loosen the skin, but not hard enough to send garlic shrapnel flying about the kitchen, the smell of which would linger for days.
- Mince garlic and peeled ginger, together or separately. Both will end up in the same small prep bowl.
- Slice your scallions and place them in the bowl with the garlic and ginger. Add your pinch of pepper flakes or finely-minced fresh hot peppers to the prep bowl. (Please note: if you’re using fresh peppers it’s advisable to wear a glove and use a separate small cutting board for the prep.)
- Wash your kale under cold water. For each leaf, run the tip of your knife along each side of the fibrous stem to cut it out. Stack and roll your de-stemmed kale leaves like a cigar, and chiffonade the leaves widthwise. You should be left with a lot of very thin ribbons of kale. Place in the remaining (empty) prep bowl.
If not using immediately, place both prep bowls in the fridge. Both should be fine there for a couple hours without degrading their quality.
Make The Meatballs
This is another step that can be accomplished in the interstitial time between calls or downtime between large-ish tasks. This process should take about 20-25 minutes from beginning to end.
- Get a sufficiently large frying pan onto the stove and begin pre-heating it over medium-low heat. The next couple steps should only take a few minutes, enough time for your pan to come up to temp.
- Get your large mixing bowl.
- Put in your ground chicken, your aromatics from the small prep bowl, salt (I recommend going very easy on the salt because you can always add additional salt to the broth later), and a little olive oil (maybe a couple of teaspoons) to help a bit with emulsifying all the ingredients.
- Using very, very clean hands (or, if you’re squeamish about chicken, gloved hands—or a spatula if you must) thoroughly mix the ingredients until they’re homogeneously blended. Then wash your hands.
- Add a little bit of oil to the pre-heated pan. Even if it’s nonstick, oil helps with conducting heat.
- Again, using very, very clean hands (or gloved hands), roll the meat mixture into spheres just a bit smaller than golfballs. Make your meatballs and place them directly into the pre-heated pan. Do not overcrowd the pan. I repeat: do not overcrowd the pan. Do this in a couple batches if you need to.
- Lightly brown the meatballs on all sides. Keep in mind that, at this point, it’s likely that they aren’t cooked all the way through, and should be treated as if they were still raw.
- If not using immediately, remove from heat to a ceramic plate or glass storage container. Refrigerate if you’re not going to make your soup within about 20-30 minutes after browning.
Build Your Soup
This can be initiated in parallel with the browning step of the meatballs.
- Bring your chicken broth or stock to a simmer in a large enough saucepan to accommodate your meatballs and cooking liquid. (If you’re using dried mushrooms, add them to the pot alongside the stock so they can come up to temp together. This will give the mushrooms time to rehydrate.)
- Carefully add your meatballs to the broth, ensuring that they’re covered by at least an inch of liquid. If not, add more broth (if you have it) or water.
- Bring back to a simmer and let cook for about 5 minutes, long enough to cook the meatballs through to the center.
- Taste for salt and add more if desired.
- Add your kale ribbons to the pot, stir to combine, and cover. Simmer for 2-3 minutes until the kale is slightly softened but still has a little texture to it.
- Take a tangle of thin rice noodles and add it to the pot, ensuring they’re submerged in the cooking liquid. Let simmer for 1-2 minutes, until al dente.
- In your favorite soup bowl, ladle in a satisfying number of meatballs, some rice noodles, and some broth.
- In order: Top with a good fermented hot sauce, ideally made from green chili peppers. Then add your scallions. Then add your cilantro, lightly torn.
- Eat immediately.
- Refrigerate leftovers for lunch tomorrow and/or the following day.