In the Making

In the Making

More and more, I see the act of cooking as worthy in itself. That it should be valued for the experience it gifts us, and perhaps less so for the final product—the dish—it produces. Like gardening, or other practices that entail patience, humility and labor, most of the credit is found in the act itself, before the bloom of the flower, or before the bud.

Before we plate or even eat our salad, we must gather our ingredients, wash them, slice what should be sliced, whisk away a while. Taste for salt, or lemon, add more heat, notice what’s fragrant or burning, scrub the garlic from our fingertips, and listen to our children scamper through the kitchen, pouring into the backyard. This is life. And all of it happened in that seemingly benign moment—in the making of dinner.

A kind of play, a kind of agency transpires in the kitchen. We don’t notice, only because the culture reinforces the notion that cooking is quaint, or entertainment, or intimidating and too-involved, or as something to bustle through in order to move on to the next thing. What is that next thing? Anyhow, it is understood as a means to an end, and anyway, there is always take-out or a deli salad. With all of that, we are understandably disconnected from the venue of the kitchen, and the important acts that take place there.

It is here we get a bit dirty. We knead, and learn the practice by kneading again. A kind of voting booth, we choose our ingredients and concoct our own versions of the dishes we want to eat. And so we are generous with our imaginations, adding pistachios to this or ketchup to that. Our instincts get some exercise; even with our backs turned, our noses tell us to turn the heat down on those onions. It is a place of creation, and a place where we get to nourish our bodies and the bodies of those we feed.

I wonder something unusual: before we expect people to produce beautiful, homemade meals with integrity—such is the subliminal pressure—or even integrate home cooking back into everyday life, we need to simply be in the kitchen. Dramatically, we need to step over the threshold, with fresh perspective, with our senses at the ready. To partake and explore there, regardless of the dish being made or how it turns out. But the act of cooking is in of itself a beautiful, enriching playdate.

Stripped Down

 
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A piece of writing in a mainstream food publication struck me as truthful this week. It asks the question, are we losing our appreciation for subtle, delicate flavors in the current sea of flavors that are bright and bold? We are inundated with spicy, salty, sweet condiments but more than that, there is such competition to arouse our palates by food manufacturers for instance, and restaurant chefs. We’re growing accustomed to flair, and are increasingly hypnotized by variety. With that, it is getting more difficult to appreciate naturally delicate, or pure and or old-fashioned flavors.  A stalk of spring-grown asparagus grilled or blanched without dressings or a slice of just-picked cucumber or melon can resonate on the tongue and remind us just how delicious unadulterated food can be. 

Spring is the right season for considering this. It is the season for stripping down food to its essentials, for simplifying, and moving away from the multi-layered and rich flavors of winter. Lightly dress an arugula and cress salad, poach a chicken breast, make a clean and brothy pea and ham soup or a hard-boiled egg just dusted with black pepper. This is the way to approach spring eating, but even outside of spring it’s a good exercise in simplifying and noticing. Seasonal foods are wonderful at giving us this opportunity since they are already at their peak in flavor (and nutrition) and need little or no dressing up. In spring we look for greens of all kinds, asparagus, ramps and green garlic and spring onions and chives, and radishes for instance; look for those in your local market and see how they qualify as fast-food, in the best possible way.

 

Grow a Few

 
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Herbs that is, or a few easy-to-grow vegetables. Like lettuces and radishes, or laid-back perennials like chives and rhubarb. It’s that time of the year, at least in the upper Midwest, where I live. Stubborn patches of dirty snow still cling to areas of the garden, but they are kindly receding. See the dried-up, honey-colored remnants of leaves and stems--a positive green will soon take their place.

A cup of tea, a piece of draft paper, and some optimism this weekend as I curate the edible garden.

I talk so much about cooking and eating, but I have equal adoration for growing; it being one of my building blocks. Like the practice of cooking, gardening is as humbling and rewarding an adventure. My yard: hardly an area of full-sun, especially with our one backyard maple tree increasing its canopy over the garden each year. Yet I still tuck in peppers and tomatoes and melon plants with giddy optimism. Maybe a single melon will grow, hardly a pepper; those are the sun-lovers. But so much does transpire: peas, herbs, berries, and beans.

If you don’t grow your own food, I nudge you to start now. Start small and playfully and modestly. A few of your favorite herbs, in the ground or in pots, in the yard or on a bright windowsill. Maybe some lettuce leaves, my favorite being the short cut-and-come-again style, alongside a few radishes. That’s all. Start there. These are all relatively simple and forgiving plants to grow. You’ll be impressed by their freshness and flavor, and you’ll be inclined to eat them: the point.


Here's an article on the best garden crops for beginners. Food for thought!

I get personalized updates in my inbox on what to plant and when from The Old Farmer's Almanac. A rather nifty tool in case I get disorganized, which of course I do.

Seed Savers Exchange is my absolute favorite company for sourcing garden seeds. Absolutely, you can order online, and warning: scintillating food porn in the pages of their catalog.

If you haven't a patch of green (or sill or stoop for which to put a few pots), explore some community gardens in your area for a rented patch of your own.

No gardening for you, you say. Support a local grower by subscribing to a CSA farm share nearby to you, and reap what they sow. 

5 Questions: Jen Prestegaard

 
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I'm so delighted to introduce you to my friend and longtime client (or 'eater' as I like to call those I support in the kitchen), Jen Prestegaard. Her charm is certainly reflected in her daughter's face in this photo. I have always admired Jen's zeal for good food, and her determination to share this energy with her own family, most importantly her two young daughters.

What does eating well look like for you?

When I am eating well, I am sharing a meal in the company of others. A nourishing start to my day includes a yogurt bowl with fresh berries, nuts and perhaps even cocoa nibs or chocolate chips. All washed down by a cappuccino in a mug made by someone who knows my name. Greens for lunch and a hot meal for dinner that I've planned ahead. I am off my game when I have a line-up of disposable coffee cups and pastry bags in my car. If you see me with a Taco John's bag, it usually means I need an intervention.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you and your family?

At the ripe age of 42, I have perfected the art of the take-out dinner. The Trader Joe's stir-fry bag with an over easy egg, pasta/peas/cheese and Friday night pizza delivery were once standbys. I have grown more confident and adept with Goosefoot's meal planning service however and now love warming up a homemade chowder or soup from the freezer, whipping up an omelet or throwing together a pasta sauce. Brinner (breakfast dinner) is a always a solid win in our house because the kids love bacon, pancakes, cheesy eggs and all the accessories.

Can you share a defining food memory?

Like most, all food memories lead to my mother. My mom devoured cookbooks when she was alive and I remember her (at least weekly) concocting a recipe for a work potluck. Her specialty was the appetizer although most involved a frightening amount of cream cheese. Her holiday dinners were massive spreads. The twice-baked potatoes, the red hot jello salad, the head of cauliflower doused in bearnaise sauce and nearly a dozen tupperware containers of cookies. Without fail, we'd be halfway into a holiday meal and Mom would exclaim that she'd left the crescent rolls in the oven and burnt them to a crisp.  

Traveling took my taste buds captive and changed everything. A frisee aux lardons salad in Times Square before a Broadway show, fresh macarons from Laduree in Paris and every morsel tasted in Sonoma County. The Macaroni and Cheese Gratin and roasted red pepper soup at Underwood Bar is my most memorable meal ever. And I want to start every day at the Inn at Occidental with their breakfast buffet and fresh granola, proceed to wine and cheese hour and drift off to bed with hot cookies and cocoa.

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

I'm very interested in enjoying the simplicity of food. For too many decades, food was confusing. The food labels, to meat or not to meat, the calories, superfoods, the cooking shows, bulk shopping, cleanses, slow cookers, aargh...I just want to eat real food that makes me feel good and know that it came from a good place. My greatest hope is that my children develop a relationship with food that empowers and inspires them.

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

After much thought, I want to have my last meal at the lake cabin.  Grilled turkey and fresh corn on the cob with butter dripping off it.  I want a salad that tastes good (absent the iceberg lettuce and bottled salad dressings I grew up on).  And I want my mom's homemade strawberry pie . . . like only she could make it.

Traveling took my taste buds captive and changed everything. A frisee aux lardons salad in Times Square before a Broadway show, fresh macarons from Laduree in Paris and every morsel tasted in Sonoma County. The Macaroni and Cheese Gratin and roasted red pepper soup at Underwood Bar is my most memorable meal ever. And I want to start every day at the Inn at Occidental with their breakfast buffet and fresh granola, proceed to wine and cheese hour and drift off to bed with hot cookies and cocoa.

Ireland Revisited

 
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I arrived in Cork City, Ireland, on a spring day in 2005. But my luggage had not, nor my kitchen knives, or anything that tethered me to home. I was bare, and on my way to begin an adventure in cooking at the tiny and perfectly quirky Ballymaloe Cookery School for a spring/summer immersion course.

That program changed me. I walked in a little arrogant, expecting some affirmation of my culinary expertise. And then I let it all go. I really had to since the course was impressively rigorous, reaching far beyond my current scope. The school sits on its own working farm, where animals pasture and vegetables grow in abundance, all beside the shores of the Celtic Sea. All is collaborative and integrated, and that is the point.

The small group of us international students milked cows before dawn and baked bread in early ovens. We cooked difficult dishes in cramped kitchens, all under the serious eyes of instructors, including the matriarch, Darina Allen. This woman, in this unassuming place, really offered up the big picture on sustainable eating and cooking, down to saving kitchen scraps for the chickens who, in turn, provide compost for the garden beds.

I’ve been rereading her book Forgotten Skills of Cooking, and feel particularly soft since it’s March when St Patrick’s Day (a day, by the way, that is deeply unrecognized in Ireland) awakens our fascination with this faraway place. I always make a few proper Irish soda breads this month and bring them along as gifts. In Darina’s honor, here is my soda bread contribution in the way of scones.

Buttermilk Scones: Sweet or Savory

                        Makes 8 scones              

We make these all the time in our house; I could make them blindfolded, if it wasn’t for the hot oven. Whether or not they are sweet or savory, we always smother them with salted butter. This recipe looks long but that’s because I’ve folded in a bit of baking wisdom!

 

MARKET LIST

4 cups all-purpose flour (or in combination with whole wheat pastry flour; plus extra flour for dusting)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 large egg
15 oz buttermilk
Refer to any notes and variations

 

Apron On

Preheat your oven to 425°F. In your largest and widest bowl sift 4 cups, of all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Mix well with your hands or use a whisk. Look below for ideas on adding any additions. Mix or whisk well again once you’ve added any addition. (Of course, you can also make these plain, without any addition; they are just as delicious.)

Into a large measuring cup (or bowl), break one large egg and whisk briefly. Add 15 oz of buttermilk to the cup (or bowl), and whisk well. Make a well in the dry ingredients, and add in most of your buttermilk, leaving behind  ¼ cup or so. (This leftover is insurance, in the case your mix is too dry, and also can be used to glaze your scones before they go into the oven.) Place your largest cutting board (or use a clean counter space) and dust it liberally with flour. If you are using a baking stone, make sure it is on the middle rack of your oven, or ready a cookie sheet with a length of parchment paper (not wax paper), or if you don’t have parchment, dust the sheet lightly with flour.

Now, using your hands (a fun, messy, and more direct approach) or a wooden spoon, patiently and little-by-little incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet, working from the inner reaches, circling outward. (This may be clumsy at first, but the more your practice it the more at ease you will become. The idea is to not overmix your dough, but to be light-handed; this will be at first an imperfect process. Overmixing diminishes the lightness of the final product). If your dough is still too dry and not coming together into a shaggy ball, add just a bit more of your buttermilk to tidy it up. Roll it out onto the edge of your cutting board, and then flip it over one more time to the middle of your cutting board; the flour on your board should prevent sticking. Rinse and dry your hands. Flour your hands and pat your dough gently into a circle with 1-inch height.

Oven-Ready

Divide the dough into 8 triangles, as you would for a pizza. With a brush, or your fingers, glaze each scone lightly with any remaining buttermilk and egg mix. Place each scone onto the baking stone, or your cookie sheet, and bake for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 400°F and bake for a further 5-10 minutes, until they’re golden. Let them rest on a cooling rack.

NOTES & VARIATIONS

  •  For sweet scones, consider adding to the dry ingredients ¾ cup of dried fruit or crystallized ginger (chopped, if the fruit is large-cut), ½ cup chocolate chips or chopped bittersweet chocolate. For savory scones, consider adding to the dry ingredients a few tablespoons of a finely chopped fresh herb, such as dill or rosemary, or a seed such as cumin or fennel.
  • Store your scones in a Ziplock-style bag, well after cooling, or freeze any for later.
  • Beyond triangles, you can stamp your scones into any scone-favorite shape.

5 Questions: Jeannie Farrell

 
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Do you know Jeannie, everyone knows Jeannie. In my neighborhood that is. A woman tuned in, she is the one who orchestrates the neighborhood meetings and potlucks; she is that soul. Earnest gardener and true home cook, Jeannie discusses how the kitchen is a venue for experimentation and learning; all the while with two small daughters and a rambunctious puppy at her busy heels.  

What does eating well look like for you?

When I am eating well, I am baking and making good food for my family.  A sweet potato, maple sausage and parmesan egg bake or blueberry muffins for breakfast.  Trying a new vegetarian recipe or going with the old standby of meat and potatoes for dinner.  Eating well for us is eating organic as much as possible and buying meat that is ethically raised – either from our local co-op or directly from the farmer at the downtown St. Paul farmers market.  

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you and your family?

We love tacos! Recently I discovered a vegetarian taco meat made with baked quinoa – it is so delicious!  A homemade lentil soup with homemade bread always hits the spot for everyone on a cold winter day.

Can you share a defining food memory?

I was born in Melrose Park, Illinois, which at the time had a large Italian population. Most of my mother’s family (her parents were from Sicily) lived there or in the suburbs surrounding. Every summer we would drive to Melrose Park and go to Aunt Millie’s house for the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. There would be a procession honoring the Madonna in front of Aunt Mil’s house.  Inside her house I remember eating the best pizza! I recall it being cooked on a cookie sheet, so it was square and a bit salty (I am guessing anchovies) and did not have very much sauce, if any, on it. Oh, how good it was! After the parade we would walk to the carnival and eat Italian ice out of paper cups – as a little girl I looked forward to that Italian ice all day!  I also loved going to visit my grandma’s side of the family on Christmas Eve and eating cucidati (Italian fig cookies) and pizzelles.  My mom passed away when I was nine, but those fig and almond flavors always make my heart feel warm and connected to her and her family.

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

I was never allowed to help in the kitchen as a kid, so I never learned how to cook. I met my partner, a chef, when I was 24 years old. At the time, my specialty was making a poached egg – and that was about it.  Sean started helping me learn to cook and I am still amazed when I find things that I can do on my own or find a new way or process for making something in the kitchen.  Years ago, I was thrilled when I found out I could make my own yogurt.  Last year I took up kombucha and kvass making. I also love learning about how food can be used in the healing process. During flu season I make Elderberry syrup for my family and homemade fire tonic for Sean and I. it feels so good to take care of myself and my family in this simple way.

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

Such a tough question! I am sure my answer would ebb and flow depending on the day, week, year. Currently, if I had to choose it would be good bread with olive oil and salt, cut up grapefruit, cashews, hard salami, a nice white cheddar, fig jam and crackers and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and raspberries on top served on a lovely table with candles and fresh greenery or flowers.

Seeds

 
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Planting seeds. Time for planting seeds of planting a garden. Deep winter here, and currently shrouded by snow, it’s laughable to conjure a garden. But now the seed catalogs rush in, seducing and igniting.

I keep relatively epic gardens here. So much food, hundreds of perennials. These packets are last year’s, having been tucked into the fridge; they’ll be fine for the upcoming season. Some of my eternal favorites: bush beans, French thyme, baby lettuce mix, nasturtium.

Grow a few things. That’s all. I haven’t full sun anywhere on the property, and we can still eat endlessly during the summer. Be humbled, the garden is that venue.

Five Questions: Iglika Petrova

 
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Photo by Eliesa Johnson

Meet Iglika, the gentle soul behind Sprig of Thyme, a beautiful blog that reflects her love of food and her talents as a designer and photographer. I admire her light touch, her vegetable-focus, and want to hear more from her on her Bulgarian upbringing and her reflections on the food of place. 

What does eating well look like for you?

I grew up eating homemade food prepared with fresh, seasonal produce. So, pretty much anything that is fresh, seasonal and grown with love is eating well for me. Simple things like a thick crusted sourdough toast topped with heirloom tomato and drizzled with olive oil.

What is a favorite and reliable everyday dish for you and your family?

I go through obsession periods. Taco obsession. Avocado obsession. Handmade pasta obsession. Right now I am on a pan-roasted cabbage and cherry tomatoes tossed with dill and yogurt obsession. 

Can you share a defining food memory?

My family owned a small house in the mountains where we spent the summers. The house was passed down generations together with two vegetable gardens and every tree on the property was a fruit or a nut tree. Eating sweet carrots that I just pulled from the ground and cleaned in my shirt is my favorite food memory.

What topics around food are you most interested in, and why?

Local and sustainably grown or produced foods are a passion of mine. I have felt the effects on my body and health from eating both fresh sustainable foods and eating industry crafted food products. The difference was so drastic in a short period of time, so I am sticking and advocating for fresh and when possible local foods. 

I have to ask. What would you hope for as a last meal on this earth?

Tomato, cucumber salad with parsley and olive oil and a huge plate of grilled octopus.