I have devoted a good deal of my career to teaching others how to become better cooks, and if I had to distill all my lessons down to one, it would be this: Pay close attention.

It may sound overly simplistic, but sometimes the simple lessons are the hardest ones to master - especially if it's 6 o'clock at night, the kids are hungry, the house is a mess and you've got a long list of chores that need doing before bed. The last thing you have time for is to slow down and contemplate the weight of a lemon.

But then again, if you can take a moment, just a moment, to hold that lemon in your hand, to feel the slightly dappled texture of its cool surface, to squeeze and sense its firmness, to take in the brightness of its sunny color, to dig your thumbnail into the skin and inhale the intense citrus scent, that single moment will teach you something about that lemon: Does it feel fresh and full of juice or somewhat hard and dried out? Is it bigger than average? Does it feel like it has a thick rind or a thin one? That moment can also serve as a reset button and provide a moment of calm amid the chaos of everyday life. And it might inspire you to make something with that lemon, even if it's just to squeeze a spritz into a glass of ice-cold seltzer and take a refreshing swig before going back to whatever it was you were doing.

In addition to providing a moment of calm in a busy day, learning to adapt an attitude of attentiveness can set off a domino effect of other positive reactions. For starters, the more you focus in the kitchen, the more you learn about how cooking works. The more you learn about how cooking works, the better cook you become. The better cook you become, the more relaxing you find the activity and the more you enjoy it. And finally, the more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to do it on a regular basis.

Of course, there are other habits and activities that help us relax - say, knitting, gardening, journaling, yoga - but for people like me who love to eat (and who have trouble sitting still), the kitchen is where I find my balance. And as with any practice or craft, in order for cooking to create calm, it requires a certain mind-set and level of discipline. Here are a few tips for getting there.

Cook what you know

I am all for trying new recipes and broadening your cooking horizons, but if you find cooking generally stressful and want to turn it into a more relaxing experience, the place to start is to learn to cook a few things by rote. If you don't already have a few dishes in your arsenal that you know how to cook without a recipe, then it's worth choosing one or two things that you're willing to commit to learning how to make. It can be as simple as a sheet-pan supper of chicken and vegetables or a pot of buttered noodles with spinach. It doesn't even have to be a proper recipe, but it has to be something you like to eat - because you're going to make it repeatedly until it becomes second nature.

Raw ingredients are endlessly and miraculously varied, and when we can shift our focus off the cookbook page (or the screen) and take the time to really experience the ingredients and our actions, we gather information that helps make better decisions and opens the way to inspiration and improvisation. For instance, if I notice especially thick flesh on the bell pepper I'm slicing, I'll know to cut it into smaller pieces and cook it a little longer. Or if the pie dough I'm rolling out starts to stick and feel oily, I'll slide it into the refrigerator to firm up before continuing. By staying alert to what's happening under my nose (and in the skillet), I gain confidence to ignore the paint-by-numbers tyranny of recipes and to follow my instincts.

Make space

In many homes, the kitchen is the center of activity, which means it can be crowded with dishes, groceries, stacks of junk mail, homework: the general detritus of our daily lives. Before I set out to cook, I clear a space to work. It doesn't have to be a huge area - and if the rest of the kitchen is a mess, it's best to ignore that for now. (Otherwise, I can fall into the rabbit hole of housecleaning, which can also be a grounding experience, but it's not the one that's going to feed me dinner.) All you need is enough room to lay out your ingredients, a cutting board for any chopping, and space on the stove or in the oven for whatever cooking is required. Don't get too worked up about getting everything prepped or measured out; just do a quick inventory to see that you have what you need.

Zone in

I start by taking a deep breath (or two or three) before I pick up the vegetable peeler or knife. Then I imagine I am able to turn up the volume on my senses to take in what I hear, feel, smell, see and taste. I listen for the scrape of the peeler along the length of the carrot; I watch as the brighter orange interior reveals itself and the dried outer layer drops into the sink; I snap off an end piece, crunch it between my teeth and consider its coarse texture and sweetness. I note the sinewy feel of the shiitake stems as I tear them from the velvety caps, and I listen to the light tapping of my knife on the wooden board as I chop an onion. I hear the click of the igniter and the whoosh of gas as I switch on the stove, and I observe the way the oil ripples across the skillet and how it becomes more fluid as it heats. I smell the sweetness of the onion as it hits the hot oil and begins to soften.

Of course, I don't live in a Zen sanctuary - and there are inevitable interruptions and distractions that prevent me from being 100% present in my cooking - but what matters is the effort to focus and to stay in the moment.

Choose your moment

Depending on the daily rhythms of your home and the particular day, finding a moment of calm in the kitchen every day may feel impossible, but it can also be a matter of timing and choice. On a weekly basis, I'll look at my schedule and choose the days and times I know I can find a relatively quiet kitchen and time to focus on what I'm doing. Sometimes this means preparing something in the morning (or the night before) to have a proper dinner ready at dinnertime. Other times, it means I only cook a couple of nights a week.

Perhaps the best example of how important it is to make time to cook comes at Thanksgiving, when two dozen family members converge on the kitchen at the same time. No amount of inner peace that I've stored up during my quiet weeknight cooking routines can prepare me for this onslaught, and I find it impossible to practice any of my mindful cooking habits amid this chaos. Instead, I focus my efforts on make-ahead contributions to the meal (like my mashed potato casserole and roasted turkey broth), and I peacefully prepare these well before the holiday hits.

- Remember: It's about the process. Cooking for ourselves should not be about perfection or performance. It's about taking time to feed ourselves and those around us. As I was working on this article, I happened to speak to one of my nieces, a 30-something who lives in Baltimore with her husband and three daughters under age 5. She and her husband both work outside of the house, and to say they lead busy lives is a gross understatement. Even so, they make time to cook supper most every night. They often ask me for cooking advice, and I developed two sheet-pan recipes for them: roasted chicken thighs with butternut squash and kale, and roasted salmon with broccoli. They swap in various vegetables, chicken parts and fish, but both recipes have become part of their weekly routines.

"Cooking lets me feel somewhat in control," my niece told me, "and this calms me. Amid all this chaos in our lives, I lay out my ingredients on a clean counter, take a deep breath and literally say to myself, 'I can do this.' And I do! Sometimes the cooking is more calming than the eating."

No matter where it leads, cultivating an attitude of attentiveness makes our time in the kitchen more enjoyable and more effective - and, yes, much more relaxing. Plus, it means there will always be something good to eat. And that is reason enough to feel at peace.

- - -

ROASTED CHICKEN WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND KALE

4 servings

Bone-in chicken thighs roast alongside squash and shallots, and then join kale in this version of a sheet-pan supper. After roasting, the vegetables, with all the pan drippings, are tossed into a bowl of shredded and seasoned kale to become a sort of warm, savory salad loaded with winning tastes and textures (and only one pan to scrub). If you prefer your kale cooked down more, you can add it to the vegetables at the end of roasting and let it wilt.

Make Ahead: It's best to season the chicken a day in advance for more pronounced flavor. However, advance prep is not mandatory.

Storage Notes: Leftover chicken can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

4 to 6 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs (2 to 2 1/2 pounds), or a mix of thighs and drumsticks

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary

2 teaspoons finely grated peeled fresh ginger, from a 1-inch piece

2 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

1 small bunch kale (about 10 ounces), lacinato or curly, stemmed and sliced into 1/4-inch ribbons

2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 butternut squash (about 2 1/2 pounds), peeled, trimmed, seeded and cut into 3/4- to 1-inch chunks

2 large shallots (about 6 ounces), cut into 1/2-inch-wide wedges

Trim any excess flaps of skin from the chicken and thoroughly pat dry.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 tablespoon rosemary, ginger and garlic until combined. Season with 1 teaspoon salt and several grinds of pepper. Place the chicken in the bowl or a large zip-top bag and coat the chicken with the mixture. Cover the bowl or seal the bag and leave at room temperature while the oven heats, or up to 1 hour, or refrigerate for up to 24 hours.

Heat the oven to 425 degrees with a rack in the middle.

Place the kale in a large bowl and season with a pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons olive oil. Using your hands (make sure they're clean), toss vigorously to coat and rub the oil into the leaves to soften them.

Combine the squash and shallots on a large rimmed baking sheet. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon rosemary, season lightly with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Spread out the vegetables in an even layer.

Nestle the marinated chicken pieces among the vegetables and drizzle any extra marinade over the top. It's fine if some vegetables are under the chicken. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, stirring the vegetables about halfway through -- doing your best to work around the chicken -- until the chicken's skin is browned, crisp and cooked through, and the tip of a knife slides easily into the meat (the juices should run clear). Transfer the chicken to plates or a platter.

With a metal spatula, scrape the roasted squash, shallots and pan drippings into the bowl with the kale and gently toss to combine. Squeeze over a few drops of lemon juice and serve the vegetables alongside the chicken.

Nutrition | Per serving: 750 calories, 45 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 47 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 215 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 10 g dietary fiber, 11 g sugar

- - -

ROASTED SALMON AND BROCCOLI WITH GINGER-SOY MARINADE

4 servings

Here's a delicious sheet-pan dinner that uses the entire bunch of broccoli, florets and stems. Be sure to trim and shave the stems down thoroughly to remove the woody ends and outer core.

You can easily halve this recipe or multiply it. If doing the latter, be sure to use two baking sheets, so as not to crowd the fish or vegetables.

Storage Notes: The cooked fish will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 days.

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

3 tablespoons neutral oil, such as grapeseed, sunflower or peanut

1 tablespoon maple syrup or honey

2 teaspoons grated peeled ginger, from a 1-inch piece

2 teaspoons Sriracha

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Four (6-ounce) center-cut salmon fillets, at least 1 inch thick, skin on or off

1 1/2 pounds broccoli, separated into florets, stalks trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch pieces

White sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Heat the oven to 425 degrees with a rack in the middle.

In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, 1 tablespoon of neutral oil, the syrup or honey, ginger, Sriracha, sesame oil, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Place the salmon in a shallow dish (or a zip-top bag). Pour half of the marinade over it and seal the bag, if using one. Turn the fish to coat and let sit at room temperature while the oven heats, or up to 30 minutes. Reserve the remaining marinade.

On a large, rimmed baking sheet, toss the broccoli with the remaining 2 tablespoons of neutral oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat, then spread the broccoli in a single layer.

Roast for 10 minutes, until the florets start to brown. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and set it on a heatproof surface. Stir the broccoli and make some room in the middle of the pan for the fish (crowd the florets together if they are threatening to get too dark; this will slow the cooking).

Lift the fish from the marinade (discard the marinade from the fish), letting any excess drain, and place skin-side down in the center of the hot baking sheet. Return the pan to the oven and roast 10 to 15 minutes, until the broccoli is crisp-tender and brown and the salmon is lightly browned and cooked to your liking. Check for doneness by making a nick in the fish with a small knife and peeking at the interior. Transfer the salmon and broccoli to plates or a large serving platter. Drizzle the reserved marinade over the broccoli and scatter the sesame seeds, if using, on the fish and serve.

Nutrition | Per serving: 470 calories, 48 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 680 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.