Inspired Living: 5 Fun Ways to Spice Up Your Cooking Life

As much as I love to cook, there are some weeks when even I find myself stuck in the middle of a total kitchen rut, with energy for little more than rifling through the take-out menu drawer. Inspired by the many "spice things up in the bedroom" articles that cross my desk as part of my (not-at-all-food-related) day job, I decided to create a similar list of quirky tips to help put the fun back in the other oh-so-important room in your house:

1. Make a Culinary Wish (list)
Sit down one day and write down anything (and everything!) that you've ever wanted to try making. Think dishes from restaurants you'd love to recreate at home, or something you love, but which has always seemed too daunting to try. (My own list includes things like "learn to bake fluffy and buttery homemade croissants" and "buy a real truffle and shave over scrambled eggs.") Don't edit yourself when making the list by worrying about cost or skill; just add every crazy and delicious thing you can think of--the details will work themselves out later. When you've got it all down, post the list somewhere conspicuous like the fridge or a pantry door where you're sure to spot it regularly. Whenever you start to feel a little bored or uninspired with cooking, take a peek at the list and pick one wild thing that really excites you...then give it a try!

2. Schedule a Play Date
Set aside one weekend a month where the cooking is just for fun...and just for you! If you have a family, arrange with your husband (or wife) so that they take care of food for themselves and the kids, or keep a back-up plan in place (read: phone number to the local pizza parlor)...then just play! Make whatever you want--an elaborate cake, homemade bread, a vegetarian meatloaf, liver pate...the sky is the limit! Don't worry about having to feed anyone or perfecting anything; just enjoy the time cooking. It it comes out fabulously, you can celebrate! If not, throw it in the trash and grab a slice of pizza with the kids. You just might surprise yourself!

3. Become a "Cheftestant"
Make your own "Top Chef" style challenges. On the popular cooking shows, the chef contestants are always being challenged to make delicious dishes with quirky obstacles. This could be a tight budget, having to buy all the ingredients in a 99 cent store, using only food of a certain color, or inspired by a particular film. Take a tip from those shows and create similar challenges for yourself. If you have friends or relatives who also love to cook, invite them to join in on the fun by setting a challenge for everyone to follow on the same weekend or even just within the same month. Then get creative and see what you come up with. You can host a potluck to share all the crazy dishes, or just share your pictures and results via a blog or e-mail chain. When you realize how much you can do when you let your creativity take over, you might find yourself a little more inspired on the other days of the week.

4. Talk to Strangers
In the market the other day, a woman asked me if I knew how to cook with a vegetable she had just noticed. She had no idea that I'm a food blogger and writer, but she saw me looking at them too so she gave it a shot. I gave her a couple ideas on how to prep the vegetable (sunchokes, in this case) and gave her my favorite recipe for a sunchoke soup. It might seem random, but why not follow that lady's lead and ask your butcher or another shopper at the store who is buying the same thing you're buying how they usually prepare it? If you go to a farmer's market, the farmers will usually be happy to talk to you about ways to use their produce. Or if you're in a small cafe or restaurant that you frequent, ask the owner or chef if he's willing to share the recipe for that dish you always order. You never know what you might find out!

5. Go Back in Time
Try to remember the first dish you successfully ever made by yourself. That could be a batch of back-of-the-box sugar cookies made with your mom looking over your shoulder when you were a little girl, or some simply sauteed chicken cutlets your second semester of college. Mine was a light and airy microwaved lemon pudding cake that I found in one of my mom's 80s "Microwave Cookery" books when I was about 10 and just starting to get curious about the kitchen. Whatever you early dish was, think back to the way it felt to make it, and (this part is key) make it again! Try and track down the original recipe (I spent a while hunting in my parent's house to find the exact sticky microwave book), or come up with the best approximation that you can. The mere act of thinking about that dish--and making and tasting it again--could be just enough to waken the excitement that the kitchen once held.

Your Turn: What tricks or ideas do you have for getting out of a kitchen rut?

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