Tag Archives: food politics

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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Bittman by the Cooking Bug

That would be Mark Bittman, New York Times food columnist, blogger, and cookbook writer. He didn’t get me started cooking, but he and his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (all 1,008 pages of it) have certainly helped keep me cooking. His recent writing has also started venturing more and more into the food opinion and politicky realm of my inspirational former colleague Tom Philpott. Take this excerpt from the Times:

…we don’t spend enough time discussing what happens to food once it’s in the home. Or what doesn’t happen. Which is cooking. And that part is pretty simple.

Not long ago, cooking was a common topic. Weekly food sections of newspapers were filled with it. Churches self-published cookbooks by the pile. There were even real cooking shows and cookbooks.

Now, if it weren’t for the vibrant but dwindling community of bloggers, we’d hardly see actual cooking discussed at all. There are but a fraction of the food pages there once were in newspapers, and most cookbooks are offshoots of TV “cooking” shows, almost all of which are game shows, reality television shows or shows about celebrities.

Like many professional urbanites with grown children, I often succumb to the temptation to work late and eat out with friends.

I agree, with the following edit: Like many professional urbanites with who act like grown children, I often succumb to the temptation to work late and eat out with friends.

cherry jam

My first, hopefully botulism-free, cans of cherry jam. Time of photo: Approximately 11:30pm.

This is probably one reason when I do cook, I so often end up eating at 9 or 10pm. I can blame my time in Spain, but really, I don’t pretend I’m not writing this blog post at midnight or that I started canning cherry jam for the first time at 9:30pm on a Monday. Or that my former roommate and I gave ourselves the befitting moniker “Midnight Gardeners.”

If you’re looking for a church-published cookbook, I recommend anything the Mennonites put out, particularly Simply in Season. Back to Bittman, though: recipes of his I’ve already used this week:

  • caramelized onions
  • pan-fried tofu
  • steamed sweet corn
  • fruit pancakes (I added the cherries and chocolate chips)
  • pizza dough

Basic while also being basically delicious (and affordable–and healthy!). I feel like I’ve progressed enough in my cooking skills that I can improvise a pretty tasty meal with a little inspiration and whatever fresh produce I have in my fridge or garden. Case in point: Tex-Mex Stew on Quinoa. A Mexican-Bolivian-esque dish with a name I made up just as quickly as the ingredient list:

olive oil
1 cup quinoa (a tasty, wholesome grain; complete protein; and producto de Bolivia)
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
1-2 cups summer squash, chopped
1 ear fresh sweet corn, cut from the cob
1 15 oz. can diced tomatoes (or fresh tomatoes, if you live in a place other than slow-to-ripen Seattle)
1/2 of 1-15 oz. can black beans
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
Top with avocado and grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Lightly toast the quinoa in a saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty, fragrant, and something like popcorn. Then add a tablespoon or so of olive oil and 2 cups of water. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, and then turn down the heat so the quinoa simmers and absorbs the water (about 20-25 minutes).

Meanwhile, sauté the onion in  olive oil until translucent and add the chopped squash to cook down. Next, add the can of tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, and oregano, and bring to a simmer. Once the squash is starting to cook through, add the sweet corn and black beans and simmer again until everything is cooked through and smells delicious. Season to taste with salt and pepper. I think adding a little cinnamon might be good too. Serve the stewed vegetables over quinoa and top with fresh avocado and extra sharp cheddar.

Look at me; I made (and ate) that up!

(Find more culinary creativity at the venerable and photoriffic food blogs: 101cookbooks.com and smittenkitchen.com.)

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