Cooking: My Path to the Feast

My favorite cookbooks.

Some of my favorite sources of culinary inspiration: Simply in Season, Mark Bittman, Barbara Kingsolver, and my longtime community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Credit: Ashley Braun/All Rights Reserved

I’m not going to pretend that cooking is “easy.”

At this point in my life, I love it and I think that everyone should learn the basic culinary skills (chop, boil, saute, etc.) to feed themselves and their families healthy food. But I used to stumble through my meals, relying heavily and with blind faith on complicated, by-the-book recipes, balanced out by the most basic of quesadillas.

It’s not that my parents never introduced me to cooking growing up. They expected my three siblings and me to be able to make pork chops and cheese potatoes, hamburgers, mashed potatoes. The type of hearty Midwestern meals centered on meat and potatoes. But the secrets of seasonings–aromatic fresh herbs, exotic powdered spices–remained foreign to me. To the extent that I once “experimented” by adding something like nutmeg to canned spaghetti sauce, to the dismay of my waiting family. My parents informed me that I would be eating the leftovers.

Then, three things changed.

  1. After graduating from college, I moved to Seattle, a city I had never been to and have not since left. A city with a vibrant local food scene. Here, I lived with someone whose culinary prowess exceeded my own, who savored trips to local spice shops, who was willing to toss an occasional wild card into the proverbial stew pot. Who could feed five hungry roommates on a $10 dinner budget and who let me in on the joyful secrets of cooking.
  2. I stopped eating meat. Inspired by the talented writings of my then-colleague Tom Philpott and uninspired by the destructive policies of industrial agriculture and factory farming, I gave up meat for Lent. And the habit stuck. This sent me back to the drawing board to learn how to cook a meal without meat as the anchor. I got creative.
  3. I eventually subscribed to a community supported agriculture program, Tiny’s Organic. This third-generation family farm a couple hours away in central Washington inundated my fridge and shelves with pounds of fresh, flavorful fruits and vegetables every week for six months of the year. Here were delicious, diverse varieties of produce I had never tasted or even heard of, which piled up–and often rotted–quickly. This was an incentive to figure out what to do with feathery, pale green bulbs of fennel, a dozen velvety orange apriums, or an unidentified, warty winter squash.

It was a combination of these factors that led me to begin chopping, mixing, roasting, sauteing, and baking with new vigor. Now I was preparing food with a joy and flavor I hadn’t previously known or embraced.

I began listing kitchen utensils and cookbooks on gift wish lists. I was laboring in the kitchen over new recipes late into the night. I was growing my own food in containers outside my door, growing herbs like rosemary, basil, thyme, sage, oregano. Not only did I know how to tell them apart, but I knew when and how much to sprinkle into dishes. (Try thyme and a little olive oil on pan-fried peaches served over arugula. You’ll thank me later.)

Sweet potato and white bean chili. Vegetarian tested, carnivore approved.

Sweet potato and white bean chili. Vegetarian tested, carnivore approved. Credit: Ashley Braun/All rights reserved.

But I’m not going to pretend that this transformation was instantaneous (it wasn’t) or that it was always satisfying or successful (nope, neither of those). I’ve boiled over soups and jams, scorched sauces, sliced fingers (five stitches), and been dead on my feet, exhausted after a long day of work and several hours of cooking, with an expectant and miserably large pile of dishes to tend to after my tasty but too-few minutes of mealtime.

Still, I think it’s worth it. Everyone’s going to take a different path to feeding themselves, but I’m happy that mine has led to improvised sweet potato-white bean chili, juicy plum pie, and flaky rustic tart with kale, dandelion pesto, caramelized onions, and fresh tomatoes.

Everyone’s invited to the feast; let’s eat!

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2 thoughts on “Cooking: My Path to the Feast

  1. Yay! Awesome post! I ran across another unique dish you’d enjoy: sauteed kale, fried eggs, blueberries in a bowl topped with a little pancake or maple syrup. Is that sweet potato chili the same as the pumpkin chili? I still make that every year, it’s my fav!

    • Ashley says:

      Ooh, that does sound good — a mix of savory and sweet. And the sweet potato chili is very close to the pumpkin chili we used to make; I just made it a week ago, actually, complete with corn bread in the cast iron.

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