Happy Sunday. After a week of weird, warm, soupy weather in New York, it has been a perfect fall weekend. Even the rain yesterday was perfect in its own way: a perfect excuse, anyway, for making hot chocolate, reading, and turning inward.
My reading material has been Julia Turshen’s new book, Small Victories, which is as warm and personable and practical as everyone says it is. It is far from vegan, which in my opinion is OK because the book is far more focused on technique and strategy than it is on recipes.
Turshen has a number of good suggestions for veganizing some of her dishes, but what I’m taking away from it most of all are a number of memorable tips: mixing kimchi brine with mayonnaise to make dressing, for example. Or seven suggestions for what to do with canned chickpeas (at least a few of which I’ve never thought of–and that’s saying a lot, given how many cans of chickpeas I’ve gone through). Or the reminder–which probably should be obvious but so often isn’t–that “patience is an ingredient.”
It’s a good book for me to be reading right now. Turshen, like so many great food writers, understands that a lot can go wrong in the kitchen, and it’s essential not to see failed recipes or meals as a big deal. I’ve actually calmed down with my current surge of recipe testing, but still, it’s good to be encouraged to leave my tension at the door (if patience is a valuable ingredient, surely anxiety is a useless one). Kitchen flubs are unavoidable; they’re the little price we pay for our discoveries. Or, as Laurie Colwin (another one of my favorite food writers) once wrote, “always try everything even if it turns out to be a dud. We learn by doing.”
I also love the idea of “small victories,” the theme that unites Turshen’s whole collection. She suggests that learning to cook is all about embracing small victories–the little tricks and realizations that yield big rewards. When asked what she considers to be a “home cooking triumph,” Turshen has said “a triumph looks like a really satisfying meal that you’re proud of (and hopefully not a mess to clean up afterwards).”
I feel the same way. Every fancy, overreaching meal I’ve ever tried to make has left me exhausted and ambivalent, if not downright dissapointed. The ones I remember most proudly were simple, fun to make, and they resulted in food that I loved eating (rather than food I thought would impress).
The small victory theme resonates with me in ways that go beyond food, too. Lately I feel as though my purview has shrunk, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s the whole anxiety thing: thinking big tends to stress me out, whether that’s looking far ahead into the future or trying to wrap my mind around a number of things at once. Having prided myself on my multitasking abilities for years, I’m suddenly in the position of needing to tackle things slowly, one by one or two by two. And I can’t imagine dreaming up big future plans in the way I used to; the very idea of it is beyond me.
There is a sweet side to all of this, which is that I think I may finally be learning how to live in the present. Well, OK, who am I kidding–a little more in the present. The upside of not knowing whether you’ll be flattened by fear or worry or sadness at any given moment is that you become very interested in enjoying the moments in which you aren’t. Pleasure, laughter, connection, calm–these things take on a new kind of meaning. Small sensations and experiences register more vividly: the sensation of cool breeze. The sight of wet leaves on city street. Sunrises. The smell of something cooking. I’ve started paying attention–really paying attention.
Meanwhile, my idea of what constitutes success, or victory, has changed quite a bit. I used to be full of big dreams and great hopes for myself–some of them very worthy, some sort of grandiose. Right now I’m just interested in navigating the days and moments as gracefully and honestly as I can. Breathing through a crisis is a small victory. Sudden laughter is a small victory. A moment of unexpected levity during a difficult conversation is a small victory. A shift in perspective–well, that’s almost a big victory.
Small victories–of little moments that are cause for true celebration–has never meant more to me. In and out of the kitchen.
I’m sure that all of the following recipes felt like small victories in the eyes of the talented people who created them, and I’m glad they had the generosity to share those victories with us.
First victory: Tessa’s awesome, savory oat crackers. I admit, crackers are usually on the list of things I opt to purchase rather than make. But the process here seems so simple, and the results so good, that I’m tempted to try.
Constanze’s mushroom bolognese is a beautiful farewell to tomato season. I can feel her appreciation of its vibrancy and color–a contrast to the grayness and chill of November.
This meal qualifies as “comfort food” because it evokes a traditional recipe and because carby things are comforting. But for me, the essence of comfort food doesn’t really reside any particular recipe or ingredient. It’s all about whether or not a dish can create a sensation of safety and succor. I’d say that most of my favorite meals do that, and I’m sure that this one will when I make it.
With time and plenty of patience, I’m learning to not fear certain kitchen techniques that have always freaked me out, like making a lattice top for pie, or making anything that involves yeast. Ravioli still seems a bit beyond my grasp, but for the time being I’m just going to stare at the prettiness that is Ania’s beetroot ravioli. So lovely and colorful and–oh yeah–vegan and gluten-free, too.
I admit, Elenore’s semiwarm herbed quinoa bowls are making me just a little nostalgic for summer tomatoes and fresh herbs. But they are beautiful and bountiful and right up my ally, and I’m bookmarking them all the same. Love the addition of fennel!
I think we’re all probably awash in crisp and crumble recipes right now, but great ideas always find their way to the top of the pile. I love Sohpie’s idea to add tahini to her apple crumble. She says “with the addition of only a couple of tablespoons of tahini the crumble is brought into a whole new realm of richness and luxury and becomes a little more cookie-like. But like a healthy fruit filled cookie you can eat for breakfast!”
A healthy fruit filled cookie you can eat for breakfast? Sold.
1. An interesting article about how peoples’ perception of genius reveals subconscious gender biases.
2. I love this video, narrated by Sharon Salzberg, about compassion as a practice of paying attention. Salzberg notes that we often speak about compassion as if it’s an innate quality or gift. It may be true that some people are uniquely or especially empathetic, but to frame compassion as a personality trait may actually limit how much we allow ourselves to cultivate and feel it.
Instead, Salzberg says, “I think of compassion as a natural result that comes from paying attention.” Other people become more real to us as we register small details about them; we realize that they are not “props” in our lives, but rather whole people whose experiences are as vivid and unique as our own. I appreciate her perspective, and I agree that compassion (like so many things!) can be a practice.
3. I like Ina Garten’s five tips for creating special date nights at home–especially #5, which is hard to observe in this day and age of abundant, excellent TV shows!
4. An interesting consideration of the challenges and opportunities presented by social media in the context of an epidemic (or another public health crisis). We live in an age where people can quickly access and disseminate information. According to the article,
This new environment presents a complex mix of opportunities and challenges for health officials. On one hand, increased public engagement during a health crisis can allow officials to communicate more directly with citizens. But every new online platform is also a conduit for spreading criticism or misinformation. The rise of social media makes it “harder for governments to shut down the flow of information, but the information itself may be unreliable,” says Crawford Kilian, a Vancouver-based writer who covers the politics of public health.
5. Finally, good reporting on care gaps for transgender people, via the New York Times.
I’m sorry for the quick commentary this week, but it is, truth be told, almost past my bedtime. I’ll be back on Tuesday with a new recipe, and for now I wish you a wonderful Monday.