Last weekend, inspired by Julia Turshen’s wonderful cookbook, I spent some time meditating on the idea of small victories. The theme has stayed on my mind this week, as I reflect on how much my approach to cooking seems to have changed in the last six months or so.
“Adventurous” has never been a word that I’d use to describe my own cooking. Indeed, the word that I’d use to define my very early cooking efforts–which are chronicled in the archives of this blog–would be “cautious.”
It’s not that I didn’t bring enthusiasm and passion to what I made, because I did. And there was certainly something daring in my attempts to use vegetables creatively. It’s more that I had a very narrow range of tastes–and, to be honest, a very narrow conception of what constituted healthy eating, which informed most of what I made and ate at the time.
One of the best things about food writing and food blogging is that it encourages you to constantly redefine what you perceive to be your own fixed and immutable tastes. I eat a whole host of ingredients I wouldn’t have dreamt of eating regularly five or six years ago. Part of this is because, in deepening my nutrition studies and work, I’ve developed a radically expanded and quite different vision of a healthy diet, which I’ve applied to my own life as well as my recommendations for others.
But a lot of it is experiential, too. It’s very hard to spend a lot of time reading and writing about food, collecting cookbooks and poring over food magazines, without wanting to taste and experience what you’re writing about. And as you do that, you surprise yourself. Ingredients you’ve always disregarded endear themselves to you with a new or different preparation method; flavors you’d declared off-limits sneak up on you, and one day you realize that your cooking wouldn’t be the same without them.
For me, the most dramatic example is my relationship with alliums, which I eschewed for years. I though I just didn’t like them, but how much of this was the fact that it simply takes time to open up to aromatic and pungent ingredients? How much of it had been influenced by my mother’s dislike of cooking with alliums, her insistence that if she ate onions she’d “repeat” them all day long? How much of it was the fact that I didn’t mince garlic finely enough to integrate it seamlessly into my food? (Nowadays I almost always use a mircoplane grater, and it’s made a big difference for me.)
Who knows, but today a solid majority of my recipes include garlic or onion or both. Like a lot of people, I don’t care too much for raw onion, and I try to avoid an onslaught of raw garlic in midday meals for obvious reasons. Yet I can’t imagine starting my soups and stews and pilafs without garlic, shallots, onion, or leek.
Spicy foods are another great example; for many years, especially when my IBS was particularly bad, I had a hard time digesting hot food. But I often confused spicy things with hot things, which led me to avoid a lot of spices unnecessarily. And a few years ago, when I started dating a man who put liberal amounts of hot sauce on everything, I started to cautiously turn up the heat in my food. Much to my surprise, I found that I could tolerate spicy things far better than I had in the past–and I enjoyed their intensity, too.
It all goes to show that our tastes are always changing, and more importantly, our conception of our own tastes is always changing. Some likes and dislikes seem destined to stand the test of time; I don’t know that I’ll ever warm up fully to most tropical fruits, for example, though I keep trying.
But often embracing a new flavor or ingredient is simply a matter of messing around in the kitchen, trying new preparation methods or recipes or combinations. The important thing is to not get overly attached to the idea that you are a person who cannot and does not eat/like this or that.
I’m also loosening up in my approach to cooking, which is a welcome change. I used to approach every new recipe with great seriousness and concentration: I’d write out my recipe plan before getting started, proceed in strict accordance with procedure, and if things didn’t turn out well I’d get very discouraged. Usually it would take me quite a bit of time to try the failed recipe again, if at all.
I’m letting go of this solemnity. Even with recipe testing for the new book–which is my process at its most formal and organized–I’m better able to accept the unexpected. I’m able to laugh when something is a big, glorious flop, because no one who spends a lifetime cooking will be able to avoid such things.
Best of all, I’m cultivating the resilience it takes to try a recipe again and again until it turns out right, and the wisdom to know when to quit. But I rarely declare anymore, as I used to, that because a recipe turned out disastrously in the past, I’ll never try again. Time and perspective are powerful alchemists.
I take pleasure in these shifts because resilience and humor and flexibility are still qualities that tend to elude me in my emotional life. This past week was marked by a lot of gloom and even gusts of despair about things that I wish I could take a little less seriously. Recognizing that my worry and sadness are what they are for now, I can at least celebrate the dimensions of my life in which flexibility and perspective feel far more accessible.
Cooking has become such a place for me–a place that is characterized by vigor and optimism and a capacity to laugh at the ups-and-downs. And I hope that my relationship with food and cooking can teach me something valuable about the whole business of living. It wouldn’t be the first time.
On that note, so many wonderful new recipes to explore this week, handed to us from bloggers who have no doubt experienced their own fair share of cooking vicissitudes.
First up, I’m in love with the simplicity of Amanda’s 10 minute kimchi noodle salad. True to her promise, it takes only minutes to make, which means that it’s as suitable for a casual lunch at home as it is for dinner on a busy weeknight. And on the topic of spice, I so appreciate her deliberate and powerful use of peppers, along with other bold flavors.
Farro is one of my all-time favorite whole grains, and it’s especially good for hearty, autumnal grain salads. Liz’s farro salad with butternut squash, brussels sprouts, and leeks is next on my list to try.
I have yet to turn savory waffles into a mainstay here at home (though sweeter waffles are a weekend breakfast mainstay for me and Steven), but I keep saying that I should. Kristy’s portobello bahn mi waffles are terrific inspiration: not only a savory, creative waffle base, but also a slew of bahn mi inspired toppings and a spicy sriracha aioli. Yum!
Along similar lines, I’m really loving Erin’s savory + crispy Vietnamese crepes! The batter is easy, the toppings are full of texture and color, and Erin tops the whole dish with a savory and ever-so-slightly sweet vegan nuoc cham sauce.
Finally, I’m bookmarking Maya’s kale, red cabbage, and lentil salad, which features vegan mayo as a dressing rather than the typical vinaigrette. I love using mayo in smashed chickpea salads, and I imagine it would be every bit as creamy and tasty with a lentil mixture.
This is such an easy, flavorful lunch dish, and if you like the looks of it, then you’ll love pretty much every recipe in Maya’s cookbook, Easy Vegan Breakfasts & Lunches. I’m giving away a copy on the blog now, ICYMI, and you can enter to win here.
1. I like Julia Belluz’s sharp critique of America’s narrow view and treatment of health. Belluz uses the presidential debates to illustrate how our emphasis is continually placed on the health care system, rather on public health, which typically includes preventive measures and education. She writes,
Health care is obviously hugely important, but it’s public health — vaccine programs, improved sanitation, clean drinking water — that has given us the greatest gains in longevity over the last century. By ignoring these issues, politicians are missing an immense opportunity to impact the health and well-being of millions of Americans, and even prevent sickness and injury before they happen.
I agree, and I’d also add that placing emphasis on preventive care not only helps to spare us suffering and pain, but also to help alleviate the grievous costs associated with long-term care. The benefits of preventive medicine extend to economics as well as human, quality-of-life issues.
2. I continue to feel a little squeamish and basically not very keen on trying the Impossible Burger. And I continue to be really excited that it exists, that it has the potential to disrupt our system, and that it is gaining as much attention and press–from omnivores as well as vegans–as it is.
If you’re curious about the burger and how it was created, this article gives some clues into the factors that scientists considered in trying to create something that would be authentically reminiscent of animal protein.
3. As an appropriate follow-up to article #2, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that substituting even a small amount of plant protein for animal protein can have a significant impact on potential health outcomes. When they examined correlations between protein consumption and death rates, they calculated that substituting a small portion of plant protein for an equal portion of animal protein might reduce the risk of dying over the next three decades by one-third for people whose health habits increase their likelihood of an early death (i.e., smoking and being sedentary).
4. I think I’m late in becoming aware of the terrible entrapment and mental decline of Pizza, a polar bear who is displayed as an amusement in a mall in China. But I read the New York Times‘ article about his plight this week, and I felt compelled to share it. Pizza is showing signs of mental decline associated with captivity and despair, which has prompted a strong outcry from activists. I’m glad that attention is being paid, but so sad to hear of his suffering.
5. Circling back to the theme of preventive care, Statnews has good coverage of the struggles associated with selling two new drugs that use a novel mechanism (blocking the PCSK9 protein) to lower LDL cholesterol. These drugs have the potential to do so more effectively than statins, but high cost and caution among healthcare providers has slowed their sales, making biotech companies nervous.
The article illustrates how difficult the business of establishing a new pharmacological treatment really is. It also makes me wonder how much more effective it would be, from a public health standpoint, for primary care physicians to offer better education and earlier dietary interventions to patients. Cholesterol lowering medications are irreplaceable in treating some cases of hypercholesterolemia (particularly those with a strong genetic component), but many other cases can and do respond to lifestyle interventions that are far less complex, risky, and expensive than a new medication.
OK, everyone. On that note, I wish you a lovely Sunday and a very happy, early Halloween! I’ll be offline for the next few days, but back on Wednesday with a scrumptious new breakfast recipe. And if you need a little Halloween treat inspiration, I’ll link back to my raw, vegan witches’ fingers cookies, which continue to give me the creeps years after I first made them!