Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cooking and Winning

It’s been a cooking spree around here lately. In the last three weeks -- since returning to the U.S. and being reunited with all my cooking tools that were in storage while I was living temporarily in England -- I’ve made a number of simple go-to recipes that have allowed me to chop, mix, braise, puree, and bake to my heart’s content.

Here, I’ll share with you some of my favorite go-to recipes. These are old favorites of mine; they're nearly all recipes that I can cook off the top of my head.

A Word on ‘Cooking From the Top of Your Head’
Being able to cook without a recipe in hand make me feel liberated from a lot of the mental work that can go into cooking. It lets me enjoy the act of cooking a lot more than being tied to a recipe.

Cooking can be a very Zen thing for me, much like sweeping. I’m at ease in the mind while my body is completing rote motions. While sweeping is very Zen because it takes almost no conscious effort, it also has almost no variation in satisfaction. Cooking, on the other hand, requires some amount of focus and is something that you can take pride in doing successfully. I do feel a higher sense of accomplishment when I take my time to evenly dice an onion, or fold melted chocolate ever so delicately into egg whites, pull pasta from the water while it’s still perfectly al dente.

I have a theory about casual video games that I think also applies to cooking. What I like about causal computer games (for example, Solitaire, Bejeweled, Tetris), and what I think other casual game players might like about them too, is that I feel like I am winning often. Even though “winning” in the game really means passing a level or finishing the game, I feel like I’m winning each time I clear a line in Tetris or match three of the same color gems in Bejeweled. I feel like I’m winning every time I lay down the right card in the right place in Solitaire. Sure, it’s nice to get to the end of the game, but I am happy just winning those small victories along the way.

With cooking, there is the same sense of completion when the dish is ready to eat. But I actually take more pleasure in mastering all the small steps that lead up to the final product. I feel like I’m “winning” -- or doing a good job at cooking -- when I emulsify balsamic vinegar with olive oil and it holds. I’m succeeding at being a great cook when I cut a beautiful birthday cake into even neat and even wedges and serve them standing up, rather than plopped down on one side. I like the constant affirmation that I’m doing a good job.

Enough analogies. Here’s what I’ve been cooking:

Jill Duffy’s Mock Tabouleh


I love tabouleh, but I don’t usually have bulgur wheat on hand. My version uses cous-cous instead of bulgar, cutting down the cooking time to a mere 5 minutes.

1 cup cous-cous, prepared (according to package instructions) and salted
2 cups finely diced tomatoes
1/2 large English cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced small
1 bunch parsley (flat or curly is fine), cleaned and chopped
zest of 1 lemon
juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
olive oil to taste
salt and black pepper to taste
optional: 2 cloves garlic, mashed

Set the cous-cous and olive oil aside and combine everything else in a very large bowl. The vegetables should be coated in liquid. If more liquid is needed, add more lemon juice. Slowly add the cous-cous, scraping in into the bowl with a fork so that it doesn’t clump. Stir and fold until evenly combined. Drizzle with olive oil.

Jill Duffy’s almost fat-free Tzatziki

1 1/2 cups fat-free plain yogurt
1/2 bunch of dill, cleaned and chopped
1/2 a red onion, diced, or 3 chopped scallions (green onions)
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled and grated coarsely
zest of one lemon
juice from half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped and briefly sautéed in 1 teaspoon olive oil (unless you can handle it raw)
olive oil for garnish
optional: 1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, torn

Combine everything in a large bowl. No, you don’t have to strain the fat-free yogurt, but you can if you want. Or you can use full fat Greek yogurt, which is delicious but very high in fat. Stir gently to combine. Drizzle with olive oil. Serve with pita bread, pita chips, crudite, grilled salmon, grilled chicken, lamb kebabs, or falafel.

Inauthentic Baked Chicken Tandoori


A few boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
A few spoonfuls of tandoori spice (adjust the amount depending on the spiciness of your brand; I found one I like called Kohinoor, and I use about 1 heaping teaspoons per breast)
Olive oil

Place raw cubed chicken in a plastic bag or bowl. Add spice and a few teaspoons of olive oil. Toss to coat. The spice should resemble a paste, thinly distributed on all the chicken pieces. Let marinate at least four hours. Preheat oven to 350. Grease a small baking pan with either cooking spray or a bit of olive oil. Put the chicken pieces in the pan in a single layer, and cover the pan with aluminum foil. Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until chicken is done. Serve with Indian flat bread or basmati rice with peas.


Sweet Potato Soup


This recipe is extremely flexible and very forgiving. It’s also completely inexact. If you like to work with recipes that have well defined measurements, don’t try this one. I like to use a Dutch oven, but you can use any good soup pot to make this recipe. Don’t use a slow cooker, though.

Olive oil or cooking spray
1/2 an onion (white or yellow), diced
2 carrots, roughly chopped
3 celery stalks, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons (or more) cumin
salt and pepper
1 really big sweet potato, or 2 or 3 small ones, peeled and cubed
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock or broth, heated

Use olive oil or cooking spray to get your pot started over medium heat. Add the onions and sweat them out. Add the carrots and celery and cook until the carrots turn a brighter shade of orange. Add the cumin, and a pinch of salt and pepper, and stir until the vegetables are coated. Let the cumin toast in the heat for a minute or two, then add the sweet potatoes and toss to combine. Add a half cup of the hot broth, just to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Then add the rest of the broth, turn the heat up, cover the pot, and let the soup come to a boil. After 3 minutes, turn the heat down to simmer. Let simmer 30 to 45 minutes, until sweet potatoes are very soft. Turn off the heat. Once the soup cools slightly, puree it in a blender. Serve with cilantro.

Oatmeal Cookies (3 ways)


1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature, Presidente or Lurpak preferred
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/4 cup rolled or quick oats (but not instant), divided
3/4 cup seedless raisins, soaked in hot water and drained OR 1/3 cup dried cranberries and a 1/3 white chocolate chips OR 3/4 cup chocolate chips

In a large bowl or standing mixer, combine the butter and brown sugar. Beat with a wooden spoon or with the paddle on the mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add the white sugar and continue beating. Add the egg until it’s fully incorporating into the dough. Add the vanilla. In a separate bowl, sift together dry ingredients, less the oats and raisins, cranberries, or chips. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and beat with a wooden spoon or paddle on the mixer.

Add about a cup of oats, more as needed. Lastly, add the drained raisins, or cranberries and white chocolate, or chocolate chips, and incorporate. Turn out the dough onto wax paper or plastic wrap. Shape into a log. Use leftover oats to coat the log, then wrap completely. Set in freezer for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Slice the frozen cookie dough log into 1/2-inch thick rounds. Depending on how small or large you want your cookies, you can cut each round into quarters, halves, or just leave them whole. Bake on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet (or use a Silpat) for 7 to 10 minutes or until the edges start to brown.