Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Musings on Cooking

A food friend posted this Adam Gopnick piece from the New Yorker a little while back on her Facebook. It's a few years old but still gets me thinking.

I love reading cookbooks even though I don't need more recipes. I get into how people combine ingredients and hope to see some different cooking methods.  Most of us who habitually read cookbooks, blogs, etc. are simply looking to see how other people have creatively done this. Or maybe, to learn about new ingredients. And sometimes, just to drool over food we will never create at home. The ideas do percolate even after perusing a coffee table, chef-y cookbook that is purely aspirational.

But cookbooks do give the illusion of perfection. If you follow these 8, 10, 4, 25  steps correctly, you will achieve the perfect dinner and all will be good in your life. Perfect doesn't exist so don't even go there. But start somewhere and make like Nike. Just do it. Just try something new and see what happens.

Once we're comfortable with basic cooking skills, we can create meals from whatever we have in the kitchen.  I'm not talking about a crazy tv show challenge where chefs must make a meal out of coffee beans, grape jelly and squid, but typical weeknight dinners. If your pantry and refrigerator contain the right ingredients, cooking gets easier.

I think most people need to feel like they can do this with muscle memory, that they won't ruin a bag full of groceries, that there's no time to experiment. But, like with any muscle, it gets stronger with practice, and the duration and intensity of the exercise should be increased in small increments. You wouldn't run a marathon without training for months. Likewise, make small forays into the kitchen if you're not already cooking everyday. Make a one pot meal first: a pasta dish, a chicken dish, a soup. Serve a simple salad on the side. I read once that when taking up jogging as exercise that you should increase your distance by only 1/4 mile per week. Per week!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sweet Potato, Greens, and Bean Soup

We woke to a 64 degree house this morning, and though it felt great for sleeping last night, I had to do some cool acrobatic moves in order to bundle up without actually removing myself fully from the blankets. Just last week I worried that I was too late planting lettuce and chard as DC had a tease of the heavy air of August, which seemed poised to roll right over us for the duration. Today, with a high of 55 or so, it feels like a soup night again. Now I'm worried that I was premature planting my warm weather seedlings!

All winter, I kept finding sweet potatoes in soup recipes. Joe Yonan of the Washington Post had a sweet potato broth based soup with collards and black eyed peas. And then there was the streamlined sweet potato and kale soup in the Arcadia Mobile Market Seasonal Cookbook, written by JuJu Harris of the Arcadia Mobile Market, a service run by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture in Alexandria. 

I had planned to make a hybrid of these soups for a class I was to teach in March, that ended up snowed out. I had some ingredients around that I didn't want to waste, and things went in a little bit different direction, but, inspired by the above recipes, I ended up with hearty vegetable soup for a snowy day.

This soup is perfect for this time of year as well. Go ahead and substitute any other bean you like for black eyed peas, or other greens for collards. Use turnips instead of rutabaga, or throw in a parsnip or two with the carrots. If you're OK with salt, and the soup seems bland when you taste it, throw in a splash of Worcestershire sauce. Add more hot pepper if that's your thing. Play with this and use whatever you have hanging around the vegetable bin.

Easy Sweet Potato, Greens, and Bean Soup

(inspired by Joe Yonan and JuJu Harris)

makes a big potful

1 small bunch collard greens rinsed and dried
1 onion, peeled
2 stalks celery, washed and ends slightly trimmed off
2 carrots, washed and ends slightly trimmed off
1 Tablespoon olive oil, more if pan looks dry
Sprinkle Aleppo or Maras pepper (or 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
1 rutabaga, washed and peeled
2 small sweet potatoes, washed and peeled
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups broth or stock (I use vegetable to keep the soup vegetarian, but can be chicken or beef)
4 cups water
1 can black eyed peas, drained and rinsed in a colander
1 cup small pasta shape - shells or ditalini work well
salt and pepper

Cut out the thick center rib of the collard greens. Put the leafy areas to the side and dice up the ribs. Then cut the leaves into ribbons or thin strips. Reserve those separately from the diced up ribs.

Put a large soup pot over medium heat on your stove. Dice the onion, celery and carrot. Add a little olive oil to your pot and then the onion, celery, and carrot and the reserved diced collard ribs. Sprinkle on a little salt and pepper and the Aleppo or hot pepper. Mix from time to time and cook until the onion begins to turn translucent, about 8 or 10 minutes.

Dice the rutabaga and sweet potato as the other vegetables saute. Add them to the pot, give it a good stir, and let that cook for another five minutes or so.

Add in the tomato paste and another pinch of salt and grind of pepper. Let that cook while mixing for 2 or 3 minutes.

Add in the water and broth or stock, the ribboned collard leaves, another pinch of salt and grind of pepper, and bring to a boil.

Once the soup boils, lower heat to medium low and let it simmer (still bubbling, just not too hard) for about 10 minutes.

Throw in the beans and the pasta and cook for another ten minutes.

Test a piece of the pasta to see if it's done. You want it al dente -- just a little bite to it, not crunchy and not mushy. Check for salt and pepper.

Serve topped with a little grated parmesan cheese if you like.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Flawed Thinking in "The Joy of Cooking?" Study

While I was traveling a couple of weeks ago, this study, called The Joy of Cooking?, came out and caused a little stir in the home cooking world. In it, three sociologists argue that encouraging home cooking should not be a part of fixing our food system.

As you know, I am all about home cooking, so this got my attention.  I've read the study and many responses to it now, and I am not persuaded at all. While they raise some legitimate concerns about poverty, none of their arguments change my feeling that more home cooking is a worthwhile goal.  

My main problem with the study is the straw man they set up. They argue that people are frustrated by feeling the need to cook some "ideal foodie" three hour extravaganza and give examples of families attempting that.  They suggest that because Michael Pollan can seem a little elitist, that all proponents of home cooking (and presumably this would include Michelle Obama's Let's Move which has identified home cooking as a piece of the fix, and ME!) are pushing "ideal" as the standard.

This is not only ridiculous, but really wrongheaded, perpetuating the myth that unless we create a dinner party worthy masterpiece we’re not really cooking, that unless we have the time to achieve this "foodie ideal" (and they use the words "foodie" and  "ideal" repeatedly) that we might as well throw in the dishtowel. "Ideal"is dangerous thinking and should not be a standard in the food world any more than it should be in the body image arena.  As Megan McArdle says in her response to the study, "don't make the perfect the enemy of the adequate." 

Using reasonable shortcuts and some packaged items that are thoughtfully chosen we can make home cooking possible for many of us, even on those busy weekdays. We need to approach cooking from a place without guilt or judgment.  We are all doing the best we can with what we have - time, money, space, interest - and should feel good about whatever steps we can take to make our food just a little bit healthier.  This is not an all or nothing venture. 

The home cooking movement is just one strand of many needed to repair our food system and turn back the obesity epidemic and its resulting health ramifications. The authors describe some families living in severe poverty and their particular challenges to home cooking. There is no dispute that there is much work to be done to help such families with food access and poverty relief in general, as well as continued and increased access to healthier foods and teaching about them in schools. But, as government and community groups attempt to assuage these problems (and we should all be activists fighting for changes that help all families eat more healthfully) we should not discount the value of home cooking in the mix, when it is at all possible. 

Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Granola for Breakfast

One of my favorite breakfasts is a bowl of plain yogurt with a small drizzle of honey, topped with fresh berries and a little granola.

I particularly love this in summer when I don't have the same physical need of the warmth of a hot bowl of oatmeal that I do on a winter morning, and when I can enjoy the sweet local blueberries.  I will be sad when blueberry season ends. My local farm stands include farms from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania so I've been able to stretch my blueberry season by moving north as the summer progresses.

One of my best finds this year has been Icelandic yogurt which my daughter introduced me to.  I think it might be even thicker and richer than the Greek yogurt I love, and is also nonfat.  It's full of protein and tastes just a little less tangy than Greek. As I discovered in my sugar experiment a while back, nonfat yogurt is one of the few food items where the stated serving size is actually larger than what I'd eyeball for myself!

Granola can be full of fat and calories, so I both make my own and use only about a 1/4 cup serving. I like the crunch and the nuts with only a little sweetness.  Sometimes I sprinkle on a little bit of hemp hearts as well. I base my recipe off of one from a Brooklyn shop that has made the rounds and has even been adapted by Melissa Clark of the New York Times.  I've adapted it slightly differently, reducing the sugar and adding some spices like Clark does, but changing out the nuts a little. Feel free to experiment with reducing the sugar even further. One friend reported that she eliminated the sugar but added a couple of tablespoons of molasses to good effect. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I'm really excited to tell you about my new venture!  After years of playing with this idea, I've finally taken steps toward making it happen.  I'm now officially offering my services as a "cooking coach," meaning I can come to your home and help you with whatever kitchen and cooking issues you'd like to resolve to make it easier and more pleasant for you to cook at home more.

I see this as a logical offshoot of what I've done in my own home and what I've tried to do here.  If you've been reading this blog, then you know that I try to make healthy and delicious, seasonal foods that satisfy all kinds of eaters.  I use whole, natural foods as much as possible and stay away from too many packaged items, while still trying to maintain ease and simplicity. Taste and fulfillment are paramount to me and I love to experiment with spices and international flavors as well as play around with much loved comfort foods to try to lighten them up. I'm not playing with molecular gastronomy here - I'll leave that to the restaurant chefs - but I'm hoping to make it easier to cook real food at home.

I've got an official website now, at www.healthier.kitchen.  It's a new [dot]kitchen domain name which is kind of cool and different, so don't be confused by the unusual ending. I had lots of help from my great kids with design and photos so please head over and take a look! And if you like what you see, please pass it on to anyone you think might be interested in this type of service. I can help busy parents with recipes, skills and organization for time saving, healthy meals, I can help if you've recently received a medical diagnosis that requires an eating change, or just requires that you eat out less and cook at home more (though I am not holding myself out as a medical professional or dietician, there is much that I can help you adjust in your own home), and I can help if you just want to expand your weekly repertoire, learn some new techniques and lighten up your family recipes. I can do everything from a complete kitchen and pantry evaluation and overhaul to cooking skills lessons to recipe development.

For the near future, I plan to continue the blog right here and migrate some posts that are also relevant to the cooking coach side of things over to the website.  This site will continue to have new recipes and links as well as food politics.

See you in the healthier.kitchen!!