Tag Archives: cooking resources

A case in point

I would put money on Brussels sprouts being the most hated vegetable among my generation. Too many of us were served them steamed to oblivion without an ounce of fat, grain of salt, or drop of acid to help them along. Because of that long history of disappointment, this is a great vegetable to experience after the transforming powers of roasting. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. If bacon is a gateway food for you, start there. There’s a reason it’s a classic pairing. I enjoy them roasted with balsamic, too. And, of course, let’s not forget about them with aged gouda and sriracha.

I’ve written in detail about Brussels sprouts before and this probably won’t be the last time, either. Having an arsenal of ten to twenty great brussel sprout recipes is not unreasonable, right? Maybe this blog should be called Brussels Sprouts and Baking. Anyways, I like them raw, shaved into salads, but I adore them caramelized from roasting so much that I would’ve eaten the entire pan last night if Harry didn’t object. Just don’t give them to me mushy and steamed.

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Our last CSA pick-up was a double. Two weeks of vegetables on our counter!

I didn’t set out to share this recipe here, but once I tasted them and groaned with delight, I snapped a few shots knowing what I needed to do. The one of the stalk was taken for my Instagram friends. I’m weirder and sillier there. (More myself- I’ll get there here, too. Baby steps.) I happen to post shots of vegetables in front of my face somewhat regularly, so this was sent out prior to knowing I’d share the recipe. Now, you too, can see what Brussel sprouts look like before they’re detached! (They have big leaves that stick out all around, too.)

This preparation presents the sprouts a bit brighter, and certainly a tad brinier. It would make an excellent Thanksgiving side, but also can stand alone nicely as a meal by itself. Throw an egg on it, poached or fried, and let that runny yolk add an extra saucy element. (The browned butter mixture can certainly be left off of kids’ portions. My boys aren’t huge fans of capers and although they ate a few bites, I think they would’ve eaten more without the sauce.)

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The recipe comes from the queen of roasting and braising, Molly Stevens. Have you seen her James Beard award-winning books, All About Roasting and All About Braising? I don’t own them, but I check both out at least three to four times a year from the library. When I recommend savory cookbooks to new cooks, these top the list. She is an excellent teacher and clearly shares the rationale behind the techniques, helping novices feel comfortable along the way. Her recipes are tried and true, approachable and delicious. That braised cabbage I can’t get enough of? Hers. Our Thanksgiving roast last year was from her, as well. She’s the first chef I go to when I want to cook a huge, expensive chunk of meat but am scared.

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♬ These are a few of my favorite things! ♫

 

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Capers and Lemony Browned Butter

From Molly Stevens’ All About Roasting. Serves 4 as a side.

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds, yellow or brown
  • 2 tablespoons capers, drained
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice, plus more if needed

Preheat the oven to 425℉ with a rack positioned in the center. Line a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (or just scrub later).

Cut the Brussels sprouts into halves or quarters to make for bite-size pieces. Place them in a large bowl to toss with the olive oil, plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Arrange the coated sprouts in a single layer on the baking sheet. (You don’t want them crowded because they’ll steam instead of caramelizing.) If some leaves fall off that’s fine; leave them to roast, as well.

Roast the sprouts for 20-25 minutes, turning once or twice to encourage even cooking. They should be tender throughout and nicely browned.

To make the browned butter, melt the butter over medium heat in a small skillet or saucepan (smaller than 6-inches across so that it doesn’t burn). Once it’s melted, add the mustard seeds, increase the heat to medium-high, and cook until the butter foams and turns golden brown. This will only take about 2-minutes, so watch carefully and swirl the pan frequently to prevent it from burning. Next, add the capers and lemon juice, removing the pan from the heat immediately. They’ll sizzle! Season with salt and pepper to taste and keep warm until the sprouts are out of the oven. (The butter process took about five minutes. It could be started towards the end of the roasting period.)

Serve the sprouts after tossing them together with the browned butter mixture. Add more salt, pepper or lemon juice as desired.

 

 

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Like a drug dealer, but different

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As I watched Charlie willingly eat kale and pear, both foods he adamantly DOES NOT LIKE, I realized I haven’t shared this trick with you! My favorite method of encouraging the boys to continue trying blacklisted foods is to provide “gateway” foods. You know, like gateway drugs, except with a healthy outcome.

I happily dish up all sorts of gateway foods to promote flavors and textures most challenging to them. Charlie ate his kale salad and pear slices because they were paired with blue cheese. (I know. It’s nutty. Blue cheese isn’t challenging to him yet pears make him wince.) He’ll eat just about anything with blue cheese and I don’t see why he shouldn’t sprinkle some on his dinner.

If I make kale chips after a month or two break, I mix in a tablespoon of brown sugar with the olive oil and salt. The sweetness always gets them over their initial hesitation. In fact, I forgot to put any sweetener on our last batch and it’s been sitting around for a few weeks, waiting to be composted. Frankly, I don’t want to eat them either.  Just a sprinkling, and we would have demolished a hefty amount of kale in one day.

Same thing with smoothies. If I’m going to use greens and haven’t done so in a long time, I make sure they’re 1) hidden by blueberries or plums because sometimes the boys will turn their noses up at the very hint of the color green in a drink, and 2) sweetened more than usual (adding honey, instead of just relying on the natural sweetness of the fruit).

Historically, our most successful gateway foods have been butter, cheese (grated, sauces, sprinkled, sliced) and balsamic vinegar. For several years, both boys would eat just about any vegetable we gave them if they could dip it in balsamic. Vegetable dips, bean dips- including hummus, sweeter chutneys and sour cream dips sometimes do the trick, too. Ketchup almost always works for roasted root vegetables, of course. They learned that one from the french fry dealers.

I’m absolutely a food pusher. I don’t care one bit that it requires extra fat, salt and sometimes sugar for them to keep tasting. Fat and salt should be embraced with our fresh vegetables! I will sing that song until I die. In the meantime, pass the butter, please.

Among the mushrooms + my first cookbook giveaway!

I find the lush wooded trails of the Pacific Northwest deeply alluring, somewhat mystical. My Colorado-trained hiking eyes are familiar with dry, rocky terrain. Here, however, I half expect a little gnome to run across the path and hide under a red capped mushroom. Or for Frodo’s hobbit hole to be revealed around the corner. A decade of northwest living has not yet accustomed me to the dense curtains of green that I had previously only envisioned through books and movies. Mostly fairytales.

Exploring Carkeek

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Massive ferns line the way amongst giant, moss covered evergreens. The rays of light that manage to peek through the canopy make for glistening moss and leaves. The return of rain in the fall awakens fungus, transforming the undergrowth. Mushrooms! They pop out to add dots of white, yellow and brown. Many congregate under the evergreens, others hang out on trunks.

Ever since reading The Mushroom Hunters, Langdon Cook’s fascinating account of our local foraging scene, I feel like the mushrooms tease me for my lack of skills. “Come here, little girl. Surely we’re safe! We’ll taste soooo good.” But, I am too smart and cautious of a woman to heed their tempting calls. Maybe someday I’ll learn to safely identify who is tricky and who is kind. In the meantime, I might require that every hike be followed by a trip to the market.

Angels or devils? I did not know, so I left them in peace.

Just like fresh, sustainable fish and well-sourced meat, I used to avoid buying mushrooms because I was afraid I’d end up throwing a lot of money into the compost bin. There are cheap button mushrooms to be found, for sure, but I longed to play with the chanterelles and the morels. Often these run over $15/lb at the market. They felt like a pretty serious commitment and I wasn’t yet confident cooking them.

Then, one summer evening in 2013, after hanging with the Two Crazy Monkeys all day, I drank a glass of wine. Or two. While checking email I discovered that one of my favorite Seattle chefs was doing a giveaway as part of her recipe testing for a mushroom focused cookbook. The person whose shroomy haiku won the most votes would win a tasting meal.

I’ve tasted Becky Selengut’s food more than a handful of times, through assisting several of her classes at The Pantry at Delancey and elsewhere. I also own Good FIsh, one of her other cookbooks. That book and its accompanying videos helped my brother and I take on an oyster shucking adventure, taught me how to choose and cook scallops, and guided me through my first time debearding mussels. Not only is she a great teacher, her food is delicious. I love mushrooms. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

A slightly-less-inhibited-than-usual-me contemplated my haiku. I realized that her fans and friends all shared a love for her wit and often irreverent humor so I fired off this little ditty:

Fungi kissed my log,

baby chanterelles emerged.

Morel of story?

AND I WON! Admittedly, I was a little embarrassed because there were some beautiful, truly poetic haikus written and mine was just a joke. But I won!

About a month before the dinner, Becky let me know the night would focus on the truffle section of her book. I’d never had even a taste of truffle before but was quite aware of its lure. I’m pretty sure I peed my pants. I danced and squealed my way to Harry, proclaiming how lucky we were. I didn’t know the half of it.

Becky and two of her closest friends greeted Harry and me at the door with champagne. I mean, come on! We can just stop there, right? It was our first date out in months. He didn’t have a job most of the summer and a babysitter was a big deal. To have a date and be greeted with champagne felt royal.

With champagne in one hand, the other soon held freshly baked gougères cut open to cradle a slice of white Alba truffle. We could’ve finished off the plate of those and called it a night. We all exhibited deep groans of appreciation. The rich man’s popcorn, “diamonds of the kitchen.” Whatever you call them, those things were absolutely amazing. I’m glad I soaked it in because I doubt I’ll ever eat one again. As Becky states in the section about what pairs well with them: “Truffles really like rich people.”

That was just the beginning. The night unfolded with one stunning dish after another, each paired with wine (Becky’s wife April is a sommelier and contributed drink pairings for the cookbook, as well as our evening). I know. I felt like Annie arriving at Oliver Warbucks’ house. Silken Scrambled Eggs with Shaved Alba White Truffles (about a 1:1 ratio of egg to cream/butter–a bite of pure heaven), Homemade Fettuccine with Shaved Truffle, Black Cod with Truffled Potatoes and Beurre Rouge, and Braised Rabbit with Truffle-Stuffed Rabbit Loin. We ate and drank all night. We laughed a ton. We shared a lot of stories. It was one of the best dinners of my life.

If you’re like me, you won’t be buying truffles to cook that dinner anytime soon. But, you’re still in luck. Shroom contains fifteen different chapters highlighting a specific mushroom (cremini to oyster, hedgehog to matsutake), with recipes ranging from easy to difficult. Additionally, there’s lots of background and prep help. If you’re on the fence about shelling up cash for something a step above creminis, Becky’s book will give you the confidence to buy, prepare and consume those beauties. A year ago I assisted with one of her mushroom classes at The Pantry. I walked away feeling much more confident with cooking them and have greatly enjoyed making many mushroom-centric meals since. (None were tossed out!) With the addition of her book and videos as a resource, my only question is how good the recipe will be. Delicious, amazing, divine? These are not bad options.

Pike Place Market loot: yellow chanterelles, basil and dahlias

Acquacotta soup with chanterelles + a basil/garlic puree

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have already made multiple recipes from Shroom and I have tasted many others during her classes, our dinner, and her book’s launch party. These recipes are flavorful and diverse. She highlights a wide range of ethnic cuisines, including Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian and Indian. Acquacotta Soup with Chanterelles and Garlic on Toast nourished us well a few weeks ago. Normally I wouldn’t have been drawn to this recipe because I had no reference point for it but our CSA vegetable box contents happened to perfectly match up with the necessary ingredients. I was pleased to usher in October with a new, perfectly fall-like soup. Last week I made my first risotto! Chanterelle Risotto with Lemon Thyme provided an incredibly luxurious lunch on an otherwise ordinary day.

Today I do not give you a recipe, I give you a book. One lucky reader will get a signed copy of Shroom. As much as I adore Becky’s sense of humor and keen observations, I also respect her kindness. She lives compassionately and generously. She donates classes, buys coffee for the people behind her, teaches many, and hands slices of Alba truffles to the drooling fools in her living room. In that spirit, I knew shortly after our dinner that I wanted her cookbook to be my first giveaway.

To get your hands on this hot copy of Shroom, you either need to write a haiku or do something kind. I don’t care what the act of kindness is, just as long as it’s not something you normally do. Like changing toilet paper rolls for the next person. Let this gesture take you out of your comfort zone. Valedictorians and extra credit seekers, your act of kindness could be written about in your haiku. Or your haiku could be an act of kindness. But they need not intersect and you don’t actually get extra credit. Leave your haiku or story of kindness on my Facebook page, as a tweet, or as a blog comment to be entered. (If you comment on the Facebook page, make sure I can notify you by “liking” my page. For twitter, make sure to tag me @tableforlove. )

Though I’m not sharing a specific recipe today, you can find five of her recipes here. Take note of Clare Barboza’s gorgeous photographs. This cookbook is a work of art. Lastly, check out Becky’s How To mushroom videos on her website. They’re a perfect way to ease fears about cooking mushrooms or deepen your repertoire.

Good luck!

Closest thing to a gnome I spotted

11/1/14: Contest closed. The winner has been notified. Thanks for participating!

Rules

  1. The book will be shipped within the continental United States. Seattle residents may get it delivered by hand. Maybe even by bike! If you win and live outside of the continental USA, you may certainly ask to have the book shipped to a more local friend or family member.
  2. The contest will close on November 1st, 2014. You have until All Saints Day to be a saint. After Halloween you will need a plethora of veggie-rich, awesome mushroom recipes. This book will help with that.
  3. One entry per person. If you post on the blog, make sure you leave your email in the commenting widget so I can alert you that you’ve won. If you post on facebook, make sure the page is “liked” so that I can message you personally. Otherwise, I can’t contact you through facebook.
  4. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner. Or throw a dart. But I’ll make sure it’s fair.
  5. Comment! Write a haiku! Be generous!

Blueberry bars for breakfast? Yes, please!

New Year’s Eve was the fourth anniversary of our return to Seattle. In most ways it feels like we never left. We hang out with old friends, attend our previous church, frequent our favorite coffee shops and pub of the past thirteen years, and regularly run into neighbors, colleagues, clients and acquaintances from years past. 

As heartwrenching of a decision as the return was, it was right. Harry and I remain head over heels in love with our city and relish our community, which evolves in surprising ways. There has been grief with aspects of that, but mostly the changes have been welcome. Public school has opened the door to new friends, some of whom are neighbors. I can’t quite express how much I love that we now have spontaneous after school play times. I invited a neighbor and her boys over this week, possibly luring them in with the promise of cooling muffins.

Pear hazelnut muffins

Another aspect of Seattle that continually amazes me is the quality and variety of food being produced on surrounding farms, at restaurants and by entrepreneurs finding niche markets for their products. Opportunities for a vibrant, delicious experience abound, whether you cook at home or let someone else cook for you. Visiting one of Seattle’s farmers markets is like walking through an aisle of Heaven. (Please?!) I never have enough money. Purchases always exceed my list. Even in the dead of winter, there is abundance. Freshly caught fish, freshly foraged mushrooms, apples, pears, squash, bread, pastured meat, clothing, wooden bowls, skillets, cheese, wine. We have it good, people.

A new addition to my favorite year-round market is Marge granola. The name might ring a bell because it’s been written up a lot, and the owner also just recently published a breakfast cookbook. I have followed Megan’s blog for years, so I noticed when she posted about a giveaway shortly after publication. I won! I was incredibly surprised, completely thrilled.

Knowing Megan would be at the market the next morning for her first time as a merchant, I headed there excitedly, both to meet her, sample her granola, and potentially get my copy. It was a freezing cold, sunny morning. Everyone seemed happy to be outside, soaking in the beautiful sights without getting soaked. After strolling slowly, booth by booth, filling bags with cabbage (to make this), squash (to make this, for the second time this season), bread and eggs, I came upon Megan. I wanted to hug her. That’s what giveaways do to me. She was funny and friendly, handling the market hustle and bustle like she’d been there for years.

Market bounty

Her book, Whole-Grain Mornings, feels like it was written for me. I am slightly in love. It’s organized by season, which is mostly how I cook these days, and within each season there’s a range from quicker, everyday type recipes to a set of more difficult brunch recipes. Granolas, oatmeals, porridges, egg dishes, greens & grains, muffins. Everything I want in a breakfast book, including the highly desirable whole-grain and lightly sweetened touch. I browsed through the entire book after the market and was immediately drawn to the kitchen. It’s a book that makes you want to bake.

The timing was perfect. Our morning routine of simple oatmeal- boiling thick rolled oats, adding cinnamon, maple syrup and raisins, and topping with milk-has become boring to me. The males in the family are still satisfied, but I’m ready for a broader repertoire. I’m finding myself making eggs or eating granola, even when they’re having (our lame version of) oatmeal. We really don’t need to be making more than one breakfast in the morning.

Her Pear Hazelnut Muffins (pictured above, also shared beautifully here by Sprouted Kitchen), made for a warm, fragrant afternoon snack and significant improvement in breakfast the next morning. These are very moist, fluffy, crunchy from the topped hazelnuts, and provide a gentle nod to nutmeg and cardamom along with the hint of pear. A definite keeper, particularly if you’re over the age of three and therefore not apt to completely lose your shit when there are nuts on your muffin.

I’ve also made the blueberry bars, which I am so pleased to share with you here. I let Charlie pick a recipe for me to make and the minute he saw the picture for these, he loudly proclaimed, “Those!” The bars are reminiscent of a classic crumble bar cookie, though not as sweet. The blueberry depth is brightened by the lemon. The almonds and rye make a warm, nutty base. I imagine they taste equally nice alongside coffee as they do vanilla ice cream. I have yet to try the latter, but I just might tonight.

While these would be lovely as a sweet aspect of a bigger brunch affair, we had them as a special breakfast all by themselves this morning. We also had a little square of them for dessert last night. They work well that way. Like donuts, I suppose.

Blueberry breakfast bar

Megan’s Blueberry Breakfast Bars

Makes 12-16, depending on how you slice ’em

Blueberry Filling

3 cups / 720 ml fresh blueberries or 12-oz / 350 g unthawed frozen blueberries

1/4 cup / 45 g natural cane sugar (I used turbinado)

3 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon water

Whole-Grain Crust

1/2 cup / 50 g rolled oats

1 cup / 100 g rye flakes

1/4 cup / 60 g sliced raw almonds

1/4 cup / 30 g raw sesame seeds

1 cup / 120 g whole wheat flour

1/2 cup / 75 g packed light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1 large egg, beaten

8 tablespoons / 115 g cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch cubes, plus more for greasing pan

3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

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Preheat the oven to 350℉. Butter an 8-inch square pan.

Prepare the filling by combining berries, sugar, flour, lemon juice, lemon zest and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir over medium heat until it simmers. Continue stirring until the berries start to break down and the sauce thickens, 3 to 4 minutes, and remove from heat.

Prepare the crust by fitting a food processor with the metal blade. Pulse the rolled oats, rye flakes, almonds and sesame seeds about 30 seconds, just until they form a chunky, mealy texture. Add the flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt and baking powder. Pulse a second or two to combine. Add the egg and butter and pulse, adding ice water tablespoon by tablespoon until the mixture forms a large crumb-like consistency.

Press at least half of the crust mixture evenly into the bottom of the greased pan. (I found that using slightly more than half of it worked well for my desired crust thickness. Maybe as much as 75%.) Pour the berry filling onto the crust, spread it evenly. Sprinkle the remaining crust mixture across the top so that it’s scattered somewhat evenly. Don’t press it down. It will bake into the bars.

Bake until the crumble is golden brown, about 30 minutes. Let them cool completely in the pan before slicing them into bars. They will keep for 3 days at room temperature if tightly wrapped. (But only if you are crazy. These are not going to last that long.)

Julia’s Lesson

This week, and Wednesday in particular, the food blogosphere was filled with posts honoring what would’ve been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Lots of people cooked her recipes, shared them online and wrote about how she’d inspired them. This short article includes some hilarious clips of her with whole chickens sitting in a row and a burnt souffle. I have enjoyed what I know of this legendary woman. I admire her no nonsense approach and willingness to fight for a woman’s place in many male-dominated scenes, all the while taking herself lightly. But what I like most is that she encouraged more people to enjoy cooking. I am sure that in some tiny, indirect way she is responsible for helping me learn to love making food.

My journey with cooking has been relatively short, with the biggest exploration period occurring after I had children and became a stay at home mom. Feeding kids four to five times a day will lead one to either embrace or disdain cooking. (Or buy a lot of processed food. Lord knows, we’ve bought our share fruit bars, bunny crackers and the booty of pirates.) I don’t recall cooking or baking much of anything while I lived under my parents’ roof. We were never expected to and I don’t think I had much of an interest. I had a few close girlfriends in high school who could bake pretty well and I was intimidated by their skills. My mom faithfully cooked us dinner every night, almost always putting out a “rounded” meal of meat, veggies, starch and fruit. (Bless her. The amount of work and commitment to satisfy three growing children and a tall active husband, all while running her own business, astounds me.) It was very special and unusual for us to go out to eat. We packed sandwiches for every long outing and vacation lunches were almost always pulled out of the packed cooler. I really appreciate that I grew up with this example. While my parents were primarily committed to the budget, they inadvertently spared us a lot of fast food and provided more nutritious meals.

I very clearly remember my trepidation when I was asked to cook dinner during my first months as an exchange student in the Netherlands. I only knew how to cook from recipes and wasn’t even really comfortable with that. So, give me a recipe written in Dutch (which I was still very new to), different standards of measurement , someone else’s kitchen and you get a seriously nervous 18 year old whipping up a barely edible plate of spaghetti for a family used to regularly consuming amazing gourmet meals. (Oh, what I’d give to spend a few months in that home now. Mussels every weekend! Delicious wine! Outstanding company. Aaaahhh. I had no clue how good I had it.) While they ate the meal and were incredibly kind, that family and my future host families never asked me to cook again. Word must’ve traveled through the village pretty quickly.

Harry and I spent the first half of our marriage eating a lot of pasta doused with jarred sauce, frozen gyoza over rice covered with jarred teriyaki sauce, canned soups and other frozen, prepared meals that one could buy in bulk at Costco. We rarely cooked anything of substance from scratch. We made salads, but always bought the dressing. I made occasional cookies or brownies that weren’t from a box, but admittedly even home baking was rare.

The stats on American food consumption let me know that chances are exceptionally high that many reading this eat like that now. Maybe not all of the time, but most of the time. I truly do not judge you. I’ve been there and I understand how high the first few cooking hurdles can feel. And how disappointing it is when you trip over one, ruining an expensive piece of meat or vegetable dish you labored over.  I also know that many people are stretched to the max these days and it’s hard to imagine cooking delicious ingredients as something possible when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. (If this is the case for you, have you seen this? Maybe it provides some encouragement.)

Prior to having Charlie we got a lot of our higher education debt paid off and felt a little more financial freedom, so we went out to eat a little more often and began exploring places with fresh ingredients put together in unique ways. Our friends began to cook better. We began to try more complicated recipes when we had friends over. We were developing our taste for freshness and depth of flavor. (I consider this period the beginning of our “palate cleansing.” I really think we needed to be free of all the additives, obscene amounts of sugar added to food, preservatives and other chemicals to fully appreciate the nuances of fresh food.)

Then, we moved. We left the diverse, delicious beauty of Seattle’s food world and entered suburbia, surrounded by chain restaurants. Time and again we were disappointed by our meals coming from those places. We stopped going, saving our pennies to only eat at more expensive places in Boulder. I also longed for fresher ingredients for cooking. My master gardener father-in-law built me raised beds at our new house and mentored me through my first seasons of vegetable gardening. I had vegetables coming out of my ears, thanks to him. Colorado heat and sunshine were helpful, too. (My cherry tomatoes are still not ripe, folks.)

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Our Colorado home softened with some veggies. The first planting: cool weather crops in front.

Then the economy crashed, Harry had started a business that didn’t provide us any income and I only worked part-time on-call. His job hunt ended up taking months. I worked as much as possible, we depleted our savings and had to borrow money from family. It was a stressful time yet we knew that we were very privileged to have a wide safety net that eased our burden. We had tightened our belts as snug as they could get. Clearly, no more restaurants or outings for entertainment. We stopped buying juice, alcohol, meat, coffee, and lots of other “extras” like chips. I wanted to prioritize healthy food in our budget and not eat Ramen noodles. Plus, we had a child to think of and I wasn’t about to feed Charlie tons of junk. So, I began to cook a lot more. The first year of our vegetable garden yielded enough vegetables for us to not buy any from mid-summer until mid-fall. Additionally, this forced me to expand my zucchini repetoire from sweet bread to actual meals of substance. (Zucchini fritters, zucchini gratin, zucchini fritatta, grilled zucchini…need more ideas?)

This marked the beginning of my journey as a home cook! I am really proud of how far I’ve come and everything I’ve learned. I still get nervous trying new techniques and dishes, but I’m much more willing to try my hand at them. I’m also able to wing quite a few dishes now, building a meal from what we have on hand. Hitting that point has been incredibly satisfying because I waste less food, spend less money and get to experience cooking as more of an art than a science. I really love that creative outlet in the midst of what could otherwise be a monotonous “task.”

Julia's LessonMy first rustic tart: Kim Boyce’s apricot boysenberry galette. I even made the apricot jam for it- my first! I procrastinated starting the dough for days because I was so nervous.Two hurdles jumped! Woo-hoo!

Earlier this week, inspired by that fantastic tomato sauce I’ve mentioned before,  I created my very own stovetop lasagna dish. I realize that this isn’t some amazing invention, but I’m proud that I was willing to attempt something completely new to me without a template. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t  been forced into a corner a bit. I had fresh lasagna noodles on hand but didn’t want to turn the oven on because it was hot in our house. I have no idea what I was thinking buying fresh lasagna noodles in summer. It was a definite impulse buy. Seattle’s having a heat wave. Unlike the rest of the nation, this is our first steady set of days in the high 80s and low 90s. We all get excited, people skip work to soak in the sun. But, after a few days we bitch and moan about how hot it is and long for the cold, gray days of fall so we can drink our delicious hot coffees without sweating. I’m not kidding. I join the chorus now and then.

Anyways, I had everything needed for a roasted vegetable lasagna. My garden is finally starting to donate produce on a regular basis. So, I poured two jars of my favorite strained tomatoes into a big pot, added several large globs of butter, salt, pepper, very finely diced onions, garlic, zucchini and some basil (all from the garden- yay!). I let that simmer while I mixed ricotta with an egg, parmesan, chives and basil from the garden (double yay!), salt and pepper. Then, I rolled each noodle with the cheese filling. Plopped those suckers into the sauce, topped it with some mozzarella and let it gently simmer away until Harry came home. Miles must’ve told me fifty times how yummy dinner was while he covered his face and body with the sauce because his bites were so huge. The whole family loved it. Charlie wanted to know the name, so I called it lasagna roll soup. That needs help, but the dish was a success!

I probably wouldn’t be this adventurous with guests, but I am hoping to get past that. I need to channel Julia’s attitude on a more regular basis. Just why are so many of us fearful to enter the kitchen? I think there are a lot of companies, particularly Big Food, who are heavily invested in making us think cooking is too hard and we “deserve a break.” The advertising messages are sometimes subtle, often not. But they all say essentially the same thing: Cooking is really difficult, not fun, and a burden. Let us make it easier for you. I bought into these lies for a long time. Additionally, I really didn’t believe I had it in me to cook or bake well because I hadn’t practiced in my younger years and had experienced enough flops to feel frustrated by it all.

Below are some cookbooks and websites that I have found helpful during my cooking journey. If you feel bound to the ideas that cooking is too hard, too time consuming or too risky, I hope these help you feel a little more excited and prepared to dive in. Remember Julia. She started without any professional experience, just a love of delicious meals, a desire to learn and a commitment to improve her skills. By the end, she could even handle a burnt souffle with grace. We can see our flops as a failure or choose to be proud of ourselves for trying. The first steps on the journey are the initial reward and the food keeps giving after that. When your kids happily eat vegetables and shout praises about your food, that will be a nice pat on the back, too.

Bon appetit! (Say that like Julia. If you didn’t, try again.)

Resources

Cook’s Illustrated cookbook: The recipes in this cookbook do not concern themselves with nutrition. Not even in the slightest. I like that it shares why certain techniques or recipes were more successful than others during recipe testing. It helps new cooks understand why something works well. There are thousands of recipes, so if you don’t own a cookbook, check this one out from the library and see if it should be your first. It will guide you very gently through all of the basics, like how to grill a burger, make salad dressings, or fry an egg. It also shares a wide range of other interesting dishes, like how to make a simple Indian curry or thai stir-fry. It’s a great launching pad and reference to have on hand. The more comfortable I get in the ktichen, the more likely I am to pull it out for some brief recipe guidelines that I can tweek to my own liking or ingredients on-hand.

In Praise of Leftovers: This food blog launched right when my cooking interest was sparking. Sarah is friends with many of my friends, so I followed along. She first introduced me to the idea of cooking from bits and pieces left on my counter and fridge, helping me move away from recipe dependency. It was her guiding hand that helped me understand I could throw some random raw veggies alongside soba noodles, toss them with a delicious homemade sauce and be thrilled. This was the beginning of my realization that if I had the pantry stocked appropriately, it would always take less time to cook at home than to go to the store, return home and “prepare” a frozen meal or even to buy something already made. She also introduced me to the emergency fritatta. I cook fritattas as a basis for using up aging veggies quite frequently.

Michael Natkin’s Herbivoracious series on making food pop dramatically changed how I approach seasoning. Reading this helped me really begin to understand why certain dishes were so wonderful and others were lacking. I began to use much more salt, including salting my pasta water. (Do it, people! It’s not about keeping pasta from sticking, it’s about taste. Make that water taste like the sea. And buying good pasta will help a lot, too.) I also appreciated his kitchen confidence post.

I love fish but it’s scared me a lot as a home cook because it’s frequently expensive and it’s often delicate. I have found Becky Selengut’s Good Fish book and online videos to be detailed enough to make me feel comfortable. Under her tutelage I’ve successfully shucked oysters, seared scallops (one of my favorite foods), cooked clams, and taken apart squid. Bonus: if you follow her recommendations, you can be sure you’re eating sustainble fish.

Food 52 has a whole series on kitchen confidence and frequently posts interesting recipes and different tricks of the trade. I found today’s post on various pestos an inspiring read. If there’s one thing that grows well in Seattle, it’s kale.

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Cover this with a little bit of fat (oil), vinegar and salt and it will taste divine.