Eating in a Wide Open Space

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Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.

-Rumi

The picture above is of a chocolate croissant from Le Quartier bakery here in Omaha.  It is one of my favorite things in the whole world.  Buttery, flaky layers of laminated dough encasing batons of dark chocolate.  With a cup of creamy coffee this makes for one amazing breakfast.  I don’t eat these very often, maybe once a month or so.  But when I do it will be with my full presence and appreciation.  Not an ounce of guilt in sight.

I have learned over the years, particularly through my relationship with food, that my soul prefers the wide open spaces.  Once I start placing restrictions and limitations on what I can and can’t eat, my soul forcefully pushes back.  I’m sure you’ve experienced this in your own life.  As soon as you say, “I’m not eating any more cookies”, all you can think about is cookies.  And the next thing you know you just ate half a box of stale Oreos from the back of the kitchen cupboard, and you don’t even really like Oreos.

Staying in this wide open space has become even more difficult in recent years as it seems everyone is seeking a label for the way they eat:  Paleo, Keto, Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free, Sugar-Free.  There is always someone somewhere proclaiming that their way of eating is the best way, and they’ve got the science to prove it.  Never before have we as a culture felt so pressured to choose a particular restrictive diet to the exclusion of everything else.  I think there are many reasons for this:  an overwhelming amount of conflicting information about what we should and shouldn’t eat, a lack of a unifying cultural diet that has been passed down from generation to generation (think of the enduring legacy of the French or Italian diet, for example), a lack of fundamental cooking skills, and the desire to be a part of something larger than ourselves and to find an outward identity of sorts through what we eat.

But here is a radical notion:  What if, instead of giving our power away to the “experts” out there trying to tell us what is best, we trusted our own experience with food and let ourselves be intuitively led to the best choices for us?  In his insightful book, No Recipe, Edward Espe Brown says:

“When it comes to eating, we frequently have things backward.  We put a high value on obedience, while putting little value on permission and empowerment….The implicit assumption we often make is that we could never figure out anything for ourselves, so we better do what those who really know tell us.  Although that is sometimes called eating wisely, how wise is it to abandon your capacity to find out?  Do they know you as you know you?  How could they possibly have a formula that matches your uniqueness, your capacity to taste and experience, to explore and play, to enjoy and savor?”

When we eat from a wide open space, from a place of permission and empowerment, we make choices based on how foods taste to us, how we enjoy them and, most importantly, how they make us feel.  This requires us to be present and pay attention while we eat, a difficult task in our modern, fast-paced world.  It may also require that we get into the kitchen and learn some basic cooking techniques so that we can explore and play with food in our own space and on our own terms.  It may very well be that, upon your own experimentation, you find that you feel better when you eat meat, or when you eat a lot of vegetables, or that bread doesn’t agree with you.  The subtle nuances of YOUR diet can be unique, discovered through your own senses, through taste and experience, rather than through a blind adherence to an eating plan that is outside of yourself.  How we eat is yet another facet of our authenticity, an aspect of our lives in which we must align our inner knowing and experience to our outward actions.

We can reframe the way we think about food and eating so that it becomes, first and foremost, an intuitive and intimate act of self-care.  It just takes a little curiosity and a willingness to slow down and pay attention to what you enjoy and how you feel.  We all deserve to be nourished and experience the pleasure of food on our own terms.  Trust that you know more than you think you do.  Give yourself permission to eat in a wide open space.  I will see you there…I’ll be the one eating the chocolate croissant.

Homemade Pasta or Work That Is Real

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The work of the world is common as mud.  Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.  Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used.  The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.  

To Be Of Use, Marge Piercy

There is absolutely no practical reason to make your own pasta from scratch.  There are plenty of fine dried pastas available to you on the grocery store shelves and even fresh pasta in the refrigerator aisle if you are so inclined.  And yet, sometimes it is nice to do work that is real, to make something with our hands, purely for the pleasure of creating it ourselves. Or so I told my daughters as we set out to make a batch of homemade pasta. The dough itself was a surprisingly simple affair:  flour, eggs and a tiny bit of water whirled around briefly in the food processor until it forms a rough ball.  After a brief knead, the dough rested on the kitchen counter while the girls and I went to the basement and found the pasta maker attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer (it was still in the box…a gift given to me probably 10 years ago but never used).  We divided the dough into five equal pieces and began feeding each piece through the pasta roller, again and again, adjusting the thickness of the roller to allow the pasta to gradually become thinner and thinner.  Very quickly, a half-inch thick piece of dough became a long, smooth sheet of pasta.  The girls began to argue over whose turn it was to feed the dough through the roller and whose turn it was to catch it as it came through the other side.  “This is so satisfying,” they said as they let the cool, thin pasta sheets drape over the backs of their hands.  How often do we forget to simply notice the way something feels on our skin, the pleasing sensation of something touched and appreciated?

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The girls had been to a restaurant recently that served pasta in coin shapes, tossed in fresh basil pesto.  So we cut our pasta sheets into circles using a biscuit cutter, stacked them in parchment paper and stored them in the refrigerator until we were ready to cook them.  Meanwhile, we got to work on the pesto itself.  Basil from the garden, toasted pine nuts, toasted garlic, olive oil and parmesan came together quickly in the food processor to create this high summer treat.  We boiled a large pot of salted water and slipped our pasta coins in as quickly as our three pairs of hands could peel them carefully from the parchment paper.  After 3 minutes, we removed the coins from the boiling water and tossed them with the pesto.  The girls opted for just pasta and sauce while I added fresh tomatoes and lightly dressed arugula.  We sat outside on the porch and enjoyed the summer evening and this simple meal that we had literally made with our own hands.

Homemade Pasta and Basil Pesto

Serves 3

adapted slightly from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook by America’s Test Kitchen

Pasta

2 cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour

3 eggs, beaten

Water

1.  Place flour in bowl of food processor and pulse a few times to fluff.  Add eggs and process until dough comes into a ball, about 30 seconds.  Small amounts of water (1 teaspoon at a time) or additional flour (1 tablespoon at a time) can be added if the dough is either too dry and doesn’t want to form a ball or too wet and is sticking to the sides of the bowl.

2.  Remove dough and place on clean counter.  Knead until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 15 minutes or up to 2 hours.

3.  Cut dough into 5 equal-sized pieces.  Following manufacturer’s instructions for your pasta machine, roll dough into sheets.  Place dough onto parchment-lined sheet pans.

4.  Transfer the parchment and dough to a countertop or other work surface.  Using a biscuit cutter approximately 2 inches in size, cut pasta sheets into coins.  Transfer coins back to parchment, being careful not to overlap the pasta.  Stack parchment with pasta onto a sheet pan.  Cover pan loosely with plastic wrap and chill while you make the pesto.

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil leaves, rinsed and dried

1/4 cup pine nuts

3 garlic cloves, unpeeled

7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (preferably grated with a rasp grater or microplane)

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1.  Heat a small skillet over medium heat.  Add pine nuts and toast until lightly browned, shaking pan occasionally to redistribute nuts.  Watch carefully!  Pine nuts go from perfectly toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds. Remove pine nuts from skillet and transfer to a small plate to cool.  Set aside.

2.  Wipe out the skillet with a couple of dry paper towels and return to medium heat.  Add the garlic cloves, still in their peels.  Toast cloves, shaking occasionally, until the peels are dark in spots and the cloves are slightly softened, about 7 minutes.  Remove from heat and let cool.  Remove peels and finely mince garlic.

3.  Place basil leaves, toasted pine nuts and minced garlic in the bowl of a food processor.  Process until relatively uniform in consistency, scraping down sides as necessary.  With the machine running, slowly add olive oil and continue processing until the pesto is smooth and homogenous.  Transfer pesto to bowl and stir in grated Parmesan.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

To Finish

Kosher salt

Fresh tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Baby arugula (optional)

Lemon wedge (optional)

Extra virgin olive oil (optional)

1.  Boil a large pot of water.  Add salt.

2.  Working quickly, slip pasta coins into the water and cook for approximately 3 minutes, The coins should be opaque and float to the surface.  Drain pasta, taking care not to tear the coins.  I will often use a spider (a wide strainer with a handle attached) to retrieve the pasta and transfer it to a separate bowl.  This allows me to take more care in handling the delicate coins.  Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water and discard the remainder.

3.  Return coins to pot, but do not place over the heat.  Add approximately half of the pesto and a tablespoon or two of pasta water.  Toss pasta and pesto with a rubber spatula, taking care to not damage the coins as you do so.  Add more pesto and/or more pasta water until the mixture is to your liking.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

4.  Serve, dolloping a little extra pesto on each portion and topping with chopped fresh tomatoes and baby arugula tossed with lemon juice and olive oil if you desire.

Notes

*If you make a double batch of pasta, cook the pasta in two batches.  If you get too many coins in there at once, they may stick together.

*Many pesto recipes call for raw garlic, but taking the time to toast the garlic as I recommend here will yield a soft garlic flavor without too much bite.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minimizing in the Kitchen

“Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” –Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, The Minimalists.com

I used to have a really tricked out kitchen. A six-burner Viking stove, double ovens and every pot, pan and gadget known to mankind. I also had a bookcase filled with an extensive cookbook collection and subscriptions to several cooking magazines. The trouble was, the more stuff and recipes I accumulated in pursuit of my cooking endeavors, the less I was actually cooking. I had always been an enthusiastic home cook, but over time my focus slowly shifted from the cooking itself to the collection of objects I thought I needed to do that cooking well.

And then I got divorced. I said goodbye to the fancy stove, double ovens, expensive cookware and gadgets. I moved to a one-bedroom, furnished apartment that had a very bare bones kitchen: simple pots and pans, only the essential gadgetry, and four sets of dishes and glassware. My kitchen had a dishwasher, but I never used it. With fewer things, it was easier to simply wash everything by hand and either reuse it or put it away.

I began cooking again. And somehow, even without all of that expensive kitchen stuff I thought I needed, I was making really great food and enjoying the process more than I had in years. By clearing out the extraneous kitchen clutter, my focus shifted back to what I loved in the first place, the creative act of cooking.

I no longer live in that small, furnished apartment, but the lessons I learned about keeping things simple in the kitchen in order to focus on what matters most have endured.

1.  Simplify.  Go through your kitchen and get rid of any equipment, gadgets and ingredients that you don’t use or need.  Beware of duplicates or multiples of items such as measuring cups and spoons or bowls.  Sometimes it is easier to wash and reuse a spoon or cup rather than using several in the course of cooking a meal and then finding a sink full of dirty dishes to wash when you are done.  A more extreme but highly effective method for getting rid of things you don’t use comes from The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.  They write a fantastic blog about how to live well with less stuff. One of their recommendations for helping you clear clutter from your space is to have a packing party. In other words, pack up all of your belongings as if you were moving, and then take out only what you need as you need it. After a certain period of time, donate, sell or give away those items that never made it out of the boxes. For the purposes of simplifying your kitchen, you can do a mini-packing party just for the one room. Take everything out of the kitchen and put it in another room or box it up. For the next few weeks, only take out what you use and return those items to your kitchen. Get rid of the stuff that never made it out of the boxes.

2.  Cultivate excellent knife skills.  There are many unnecessary slicers and dicers on the market that may be taking up space in your kitchen. In truth, if you own an 8-inch chef’s knife, a paring knife and a serrated knife, you can complete most chopping and slicing tasks. The key is knowing how to use your knives properly and keeping them sharp so they perform well for you. Check out www.craftsy.com for an excellent free course in basic knife skills.

3.  Remember…you are a home cook, not a restaurant chef. Take some time to examine your expectations in the kitchen. Mark Bittman says there are two dirty words in American home cooking, “convenience” and “gourmet”. I think we all understand the pitfalls of convenience food, but the gourmet approach to cooking can be equally as dangerous. Bittman describes gourmet cooking as “our ability to obsess about aspects of daily life that most other cultures take for granted. You might only cook once a week, but wow, what a meal.” This kind of approach to food is the antithesis of simple everyday cooking and is pervasive in American food culture today. We use terms like “foodie” and watch celebrity chefs on TV as if cooking were a spectator sport. Magazines and food blogs give us the impression that we are supposed to be churning out restaurant-quality meals on a regular basis. And so, overwhelmed by these expectations, many of us fall back on the ease of convenience foods to get us by. It’s time to find our way back to the middle ground: simple home cooking. Roast a chicken or a salmon filet. Learn to make a simple vinaigrette for your salad. Make a grilled cheese sandwich or an omelet. Unfussy, uncomplicated, delicious food should be the cornerstone of everyday cooking.

4.  Limit your recipe sources.  As I wrote in this essay, there are many benefits that arise out of limiting your repertoire in the kitchen. Focus on a few basic recipes that you hope to master (roasted chicken, poached salmon, steamed broccoli, whatever calls to you). Get to know the technique so well that you could practically make it with your eyes closed (or at the very least without a recipe). You will be keeping things simple and gaining confidence and skill at the same time.

5.  Invest in good essentials.  Kitchen equipment takes a beating. It is exposed to fire, water, stirring, and scraping on a daily basis. Quality makes a difference when it comes to how pots, pans, knives and small appliances will handle the day-to-day abuse of cooking. Do your research before buying anything for your kitchen, and don’t be afraid to invest in something that is an essential for you. For example, if you make a lot of smoothies, particularly smoothies that contain sturdier greens like kale, a powerful Vitamix blender is an expensive but worthwhile investment to consider. That said, expensive does not always mean better. My favorite pan is a vintage cast iron skillet (which can be found at garage sales or thrift stores for practically nothing), and my favorite chef’s knife retails for $44.95 on Amazon.com. Know what you need and research the quality of what you are buying.

6.  Cook seasonally.  Using seasonal fruits and vegetables is not only more affordable and better for the environment, it also helps you focus your recipe repertoire into a seasonal rotation and cultivate a sense of gratitude for the present moment, for what’s available NOW. I make a puréed butternut squash soup every fall when winter squash is in season. I do not make that soup in the spring or summer. For that reason, it is something I look forward to once the weather becomes cool and the leaves begin to change. Just knowing that it’s time to make that soup again brings a sense of gratitude for the return of fall, for the squash itself, for the changing of the seasons.   Seasonal cooking brings a simple rhythm to life, an opportunity to find gratitude for this season’s sweet strawberries and anticipation for next season’s perfectly ripe tomato.

In the end, it’s not about having the latest gadgets, expensive cookware or an impressive recipe collection. It’s about being in the kitchen everyday preparing nourishing and simple food for ourselves and the people we love. And enjoying ourselves in the process.

 

 

25 Recipes

“Most cooks I know are constantly looking for new recipes the way some folks are constantly on the lookout for antiques, clothes, computer software, or specials down at Price Chopper. There is nothing wrong with living life vicariously through recipes-we all do it to some extent-but the problem with most home cooks is that they have too many recipes rather than too few.”

Christopher Kimball, The Kitchen Detective

Cooking has changed drastically over the last century. Our grandmothers and great- grandmothers cooked most of their food from scratch and worked from a limited set of recipes that they probably knew by heart. Through their senses, intuition and repetition, they became experts in the kitchen. We, on the other hand, live in a unique age in which we are absolutely inundated with recipes.  Cookbooks, magazines, the Internet…..there is no shortage of ideas for tonight’s dinner.

Before you buy another cookbook or leaf through another cooking magazine, consider this:   maybe our ancestors were on to something.  What if the secret to becoming a good home cook, to becoming self-reliant in the kitchen, is having fewer recipes?  Developing the skills to prepare simple foods for ourselves gives us power in the kitchen, power that we have largely given away to food corporations, diet experts and celebrity chefs in recent years.  Once we are confident with the basics, we are free to engage more creatively with the ingredients in front of us, and to make our own choices.

In his book, The Kitchen Detective, Christopher Kimball suggests that we begin with a shortlist of 25 recipes and stick with them for a while:  “Like good musicians, good cooks realized that restricting one’s repertoire has great advantages:  It allows one to focus on the underlying technique instead of just a new set of notes.”

I’m not sure if I can pare my list down to 25 recipes, but I love the idea of simplifying my recipe collection; of getting back to basics and taking the time to establish a foundation of skills in the kitchen.  I love the idea of becoming an intuitive cook rather than simply a reader of recipes, a cook who is mindfully engaged in the creative process of cooking.  And simple, of course, does not necessarily mean boring.  The simplification of anything can be an art. Think of a pared down wardrobe that is stylish, elegant and has everything you need. Scandinavian design.  A juicy, crisp-skinned whole roast chicken.

Like so many other things in life, less is more when it comes to our recipe collections.  More skill, more confidence and, ultimately, more freedom and creativity.  How might you benefit from a limited repertoire in the kitchen?  What might your 25 recipes be?

 

Alone in the Kitchen

“Imagine treating yourself the way you treat people you love. This means actually sitting in a chair when you eat.” –Geneen Roth, When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair

There are many opportunities to practice self-kindness in the kitchen. Cooking an unhurried, nourishing meal just for you is an excellent place to begin. So often we think that if we are not preparing food for our families or the people we love, why bother?  Instead we opt for a handful of chips, a bowl of cold cereal or leftovers from a Tupperware container while we stand at the refrigerator with the door open. When we are alone in the kitchen, it is easy to send ourselves the message that we are simply not worth the effort.

But of course we are worth the effort, each and every one of us. We are our own family, deserving of nourishment, beauty and pleasure each and every day, regardless of whether there is anyone else around or not. Show yourself some love the next time you are hungry and alone in the kitchen.  Prepare a meal just for you. It doesn’t have to be complicated; simple and delicious will do.  Set a place at the table for yourself, sit down and enjoy your own company.  Treat yourself like the precious guest that you are.

Perfectly Imperfect

“You don’t need more motivation or inspiration to create the life you want. You need less shame around the idea that you’re not doing your best.” 

-Julie Veron, To Anyone Who Thinks They are Falling Behind in Life, Huffington Post blog

I read blogs for inspiration and ideas, but sometimes they leave me feeling like I’m inadequate in some way, particularly food blogs. Suddenly I’m not cooking and eating the right things. Clearly these other people are eating perfect, healthy meals three times a day, seven days a week. Oh, and the food is always gorgeous. I’m holding myself up to someone else’s idea of the perfect way to eat and live, and guess what? I’m not measuring up.

The last thing we need in our lives is yet another opportunity to compare ourselves to an online ideal, another way to feel not worthy and not enough.

I hope to never give the impression here that my life is perfect or that I’ve got it all figured out. My intention is to create a space where it’s okay to slow down and nourish ourselves, to explore how you might gently bring these ideas into your own life, in your own way. A space that is kind, comforting and encouraging. The ideas presented here matter to me because I long to incorporate them into my own life. Sometimes I succeed, and sometimes I don’t. My sacred kitchen is sometimes spotless and inviting, and sometimes covered in backpacks and school papers along with dirty dishes from last night’s dinner. And that’s okay. Sometimes I mindfully make a pot of beans on a Sunday afternoon, and sometimes I heat up a box of tomato soup from Trader Joe’s. Also okay.

We must always remember to be kind and go easy, to not make grandiose promises to ourselves about what we will always do or will never do again. We must give our good intentions the open space to flow with our perfectly imperfect lives.

We are on this journey together.

The Blank Canvas

One way to ground ourselves in this very restless month of February is to prepare nourishing foods that soothe and give us an opportunity to explore the creative potential of this unsettled energy. This is where your simple pot of white beans comes in.  Think of these beans as a blank canvas, an opportunity to play.  How might you incorporate them into something beautiful and altogether new to nourish yourself today?

A portion of the beans I made last week found their way into a delicious rosemary white bean purée.  Creamy and smooth, this purée is an excellent topping for bruschetta and a tasty dip with pita chips.  Combined with a little chicken stock or water and heated, it would make a simple, warming soup.

Rosemary White Bean Purée

Place 2 cups cooked white beans, slightly drained of their cooking liquid, into a food processor.  The more liquid you include in your purée, the looser the the texture will be.  Add 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 1 peeled garlic clove and 1 tablespoon lemon juice.  Pureé until smooth.  If the purée is too thick or too thin, simply add additional beans or liquid as needed and purée again.  Add another 1/2 cup of beans, well-drained this time, and 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary.  Season with salt and pepper.  Pulse a few times to incorporate the rosemary and break the beans down slightly.

The bruschetta pictured below is simply toasted baguette topped with the purée, baby arugula and thinly sliced red onion that has been tossed with 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.

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