Cooking with profound ambivalence.

Eggplant Pizza

Baking is a very fraught endeavor. It is soothing to feel dough forming in your hands, and the scent of baking bread is calming. 

At the same time, baking is so goddamn stressful. 

For one thing, you can’t really taste anything. You can, and it will give you a general idea of how salty/sweet/cinnamony/etc you’ve made something, but eating paste is never going to give you a clear idea of whether you’ve made something delicious or something disgusting. And given no definitive evidence, I assume I’ve made something disgusting. 

The worst part is, about 30 percent of the time that instinct is correct. 

You think you over-mixed that muffin batter? You almost undoubtedly did, as the proper amount of mixing is roughly four Herculean turns of the spatula. Enjoy your chewy muffins. 

That is one of the reasons I so love Jim Lahey and his unapologetically simple dough recipes, both for bread and, recently, pizza dough

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'Artists should have their tongues cut out,' Matisse once said, and the same — if even more metaphorically — applies to many chefs. They should be chained to their stoves and merely allowed to pass food through the hatch as we require it.

—Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen

Eat Them All

I feel an almost pathological protectiveness for the plants this year. The other day I gave my eggplant a full sponge bath and exfoliation with coffee grounds after I discovered some tiny green bugs spreading through its tender little leaves. Then a terrifying spider moved in and ate everyone anyway. 

I felt I was coming to terms with my bug fear, but the spider really threw me. But I’m glad he ate the others — the enemy of my enemy is my friend, I suppose. 

Anyway, the Sweet 100 cherry tomato is growing incredibly fast. The first five little green bulbs have appeared. 

Senegalese peanut stew

I invited friends over for dinner the other night, and had a moment of longing for the days when I could roast a chicken or lure them over with slow-roasted short ribs or even a hearty beef stew. I wanted something with a comparable warmth and richness on a cold, rainy spring evening, and was all prepared to make a barley risotto when I remembered that one of the aforementioned “friends” was gluten-free.


Goddammit. In an age where everyone is huge, no one eats anything. The Tall Man I live with is 6’6”, which defies all logic considering he spent the larger part of his formative years eating nothing but pizza, as far as I can gather. And our other dinner guest was well above 6 foot. But as I get older, it seems like everyone has a dietary restriction of some sort. Vegetarianism and gluten-free are the most prevalent, but kosher and halal crop up from time to time, veganism is always lurking, carb-phobics are just part of life at this point. As we slowly turn the corner from bloom of life into decrepitude, food allergies and general digestive weakness spread like wildfire.  And this is just the beginning! Running a vegetarian kitchen in no way makes me more sympathetic to other special needs eaters. I was once told by a former coworker that she knew her marriage was over when her then-husband sprinkled flour in all of her drawers, knowing she had Celiacs disease. I laughed. 

As a condolence, I had recently received the latest issue of Saveur and had been meaning to try some of their Senegalese recommendations. The recipe for mafe (peanut stew) reminded me of a chickpea, zucchini, and peanut butter mush that a vegetarian friend used to make me while we were all living in penury right after college and trying to calorie-load as cheaply as possible. I figure if I have to maneuver between restrictive diets, I might as well reward us all for tolerating each other with enough saturated fat to kill a small bear, right? It seemed to work. We were happy. 

Speaking of bears, we followed our dinner with a marathon of Frozen Planet episodes, and let me tell you, bears are terrifying. Terrifying! I highly recommend the series. 

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If you happen to live in an apartment with a balcony or a deck, or have a yard of some sort, this is the time to get serious about growing some food! Herbs are extremely easy, and a huge pot of parsley, mint, and basil will serve you well all summer. Also useful is a mixed pot of thyme, rosemary, and sage. If you want to grow vegetables as well, lettuce is a good one to start early, as is chard. 

Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence is a good way to get in the mood. It’s all about being old and British and puttering, which is what a fussy little herb garden is all about. 

Couscous with roasted vegetables

Couscous is one of my favorite grains to use as a base with whatever vegetables happen to be on hand. I usually like to use a relatively low ratio of grain-to vegetable, but you can add more to stretch out the meal as needed (the couscous pictured above is less vegetable-laden than i would like, but I was feeding an Easter crowd). 

I lean toward straightforward, bright flavors in what I generally consider the more summery interpretation of a couscous dish - roasted vegetables with lots of fresh herbs. I use dill, mint, and parsley most frequently, and sometimes roast the vegetables with a little cumin. In this sometimes warm, sometimes cold early spring weeks, I like to bulk up the dish with sweet potatoes or squash. In the height of summer, I like to use fresher, lighter vegetables (tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, etc) , and even less grain.

Asparagus is not in season yet, strictly speaking, but who’s counting. 

Instant couscous is more than serviceable, but if you’re interested in making a really standout couscous, you need to use the traditional steamer method. You can improvise using a colander set over pan filled with stew (as detailed here) or, for the more serious coucous enthusiast, invest in a couscoussier (I think this one looks nice, but I’m sticking with the colander for now). At the bottom of the post, I’m also including Alice Waters’ instructions for steaming, which sounds excellent and yet always irritates me too much to actually try. 

Also, this movieLa Graine et le Mulet, called Coucous in English, is pretty incredible.  

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Duo of Salads

I am not a great believer in salads for dinner, as they always seem either unsatisfying or a poor excuse to eat fried things covered in buttermilk sauce in the least satisfying manner available. But there are exceptions to every rule - M.F.K. Fisher put it best in How To Cook A Wolf when she argued for a balanced day, rather than the drudgery of a balanced meal:

The best answer to that is to have such good food, and such generous casseroles and bowls and platters of it, that there cannot be even a conditioned appetite for more, after the real sensuous human one is satisfied. 

Sometimes, then, salads are lovely, especially if you’ve had a particularly debauched weekend and are desperate for something that has never seen the inside of a deep fryer. 

I like combining two different salads because it provides more opportunity for textures and flavors that make the meal more interesting. By eschewing lettuce, the flavors are more concentrated and the vegetables have a little more heft. I chose one with some heat (the carrot and harissa mix) and one with a strong salty kick. And then I ate a ridiculous amount of each. 

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This is an excellent way to peel garlic, as well as being a good way to relieve the pent-up rage that comes from making yourself a seasonal vegetable when you’d rather be having a ham sandwich. 

pesto and spaghettini

Pasta is a bit of a fraught item for vegetarians. As a forced default, it’s become an outcast of the dinner cycle, but I find it hard to deny the charms of a versatile, delicious, fast option. Pasta is the roast chicken of vegetarian cooking - familiar but endlessly adaptable, easily shifting from high brow to low brow and through the seasons.

Also, the actual vegetarian in the house is quite the pasta enthusiast. 

As the balmy weather continues and the sallow basil plant that has crawled unhappily through a winter indoors finally perks back up, it’s time for pesto. It’s a plant-based sauce, if you think oil and cheese are plants. 

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vegetables with tahini and avocado

While the recent spurt of unseasonably warm (apocalyptically erratic?) weather has its advantages, it has the unfortunate side effect of banishing cheese and carb deliciousness - not to mention buttery sugar wonderfulness - months before their intended departure. Even the most sadistic among us wouldn’t argue that March is time to hang up the winter-month binging entirely, but the warm weather does put me in the mood for something between bechamel and a juice fast. 

This recipe has the best of both worlds. While the whole grains and leafy greens make this a convincingly healthy meal, the tahini and avocado give it a delightfully creamy, saturated-fat richness.  

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