Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

The temporary kitchen

Salad, steak, potatoes

A throw-together salad for moving day

We’re in the midst of moving right now, caught in “stuff” purgatory.

The movers came earlier this month, blew in with rolls of corrugated, laminated cardboard and heavy-duty packing-tape contraptions. They wrapped and boxed and piled and disassembled. They erected a lift, a sort of open-air amusement park ride, on the sidewalk in front of our apartment, and our furniture rode slowly in shifts down to the moving van.

I watched, helpless. It is nearly time to go, and our things need a two-month head-start to voyage across the ocean.

And so, there went my kitchen. My beloved pots, my Dutch oven, my good knives, my baking gear. Bye, spatulas! Tschüss, pepper grinder! See you later, pasta maker!

(The fridge, stove, and oven stayed put – thankfully. In Germany, appliances and even cabinets typically accompany a resident from apartment to apartment. The entire kitchen is considered part of your furniture. But we have an unusual American-style built-in kitchen, ready for the next expat.)

Now we’re down to loaner furniture until move-out day.

And a little loaner “kitchen kit” that’s been a god-send.

We’ve got four dinner plates, four glasses, four bowls, utensils, a cutting board, three pots with lids, a can opener, a vegetable peeler, and – my favorite; I nearly gasped when I saw it in the big black locker – a Pyrex casserole dish. A magic wand in the kitchen. You can do nearly anything with a big, rectangular glass dish. Brownies. Roasted chicken. Baked potatoes. Lasagne.

The apartment feels sparse now. Vast white walls. Blank corners that stare back at me, unblinking. Expanses of open floor dotted with loaner furniture.

We joke that we live in a dorm room. It’s college for the third time.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the void is oddly pleasant. The freedom of life with less things. The illusion of starting over.

It feels almost like camping. We’ve been creating make-shift, disposable substitutes to replace useful items that have left us. Glass jars salvaged from our recycling bin became toothbrush holders. A liter plastic water bottle cut in half turned into a vase. A plastic lid is now a soap dish.

It feels more like an adventure than deprivation.

Last night, we made dinner in our new minimalist apartment. I roasted potatoes in the Pyrex dish and created a hodge-podge bean salad out of our cabinet leftovers. My quest now is to get through all our pantry staples before we leave. Today’s victory was finishing a soy sauce bottle, a balsamic vinegar bottle, and a jar of cocktail onions:

The Residents 3, The Pantry 40.

The bean salad came out better than I expected, so I’ll share it here. I liked the bitter notes of the arugula against the savory beans, the acidic, sweet onions, and the creamy feta.

It’s barely a recipe, and completely subject to whatever is in your pantry.

I wanted to use diced red onions, for instance, but we had none. The jar of cocktail onions was begging to be used up, and they ended up adding a lovely sweetness to the salad. I wouldn’t buy pricey cocktail onions just for a salad, though. I’d be inclined to omit them or sub caramelized onions, diced red onion, spring onions, etc.

Do you have a throw-together salad you love?

Salad close-up

Bitter, bright, acidic, creamy – this arugula-bean-feta salad hits all the notes.

Bean, Feta, Arugula Salad

  • A 15-ounce can of pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 2-ounces feta, crumbled, or to taste
  • Handful of arugula
  • One yellow bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup cocktail onions
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Olive oil

In a bowl, toss the beans with crumbled feta, diced bell pepper, onions, arugula.

Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil, to taste.

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The Spice Learning Curve

Amchoor powder, or dried mango powder. Sour and lovely in curries.

Amchoor powder, or dried mango powder. Sour and lovely in curries.

For a beginning cook, herbs and spices are extraordinarily mysterious.

Those little jars are like potions.

Those unassuming leaves contain so much potential to turn a dish from mediocre to magical.

But how? Cooking with herbs and spices once to me seemed like a form of alchemy.

Herb wizardry takes time.

The other day, I was at a friend’s home when she invited me to sample the herbs potted prettily on her deck. “Try the marjoram,” she said. “It’s pretty hot!” I plucked off a tiny rounded leaf and chewed it.

The leaf hit me with a blast of pleasant spiciness and tang.

“That’s oregano!” I blurted out.

She looked baffled. “No, I’m sure I bought marjoram.”

I looked down at the leaves, little club-shaped clusters. I didn’t know what marjoram looked like, but I did know oregano looked an awful lot like that.

Hmm.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems like oregano to me.”

These are not oregano leaves or marjoram leaves. What are they?

These are not oregano leaves or marjoram leaves …

Who knows if I was right and the label wrong – no herb judge could be located – but I was surprised by how certain my taste buds were.

I couldn’t have identified any fresh herbs 15 years ago. I couldn’t have told you what an oregano plant looks like. I hadn’t ever chewed a raw oregano leaf.

I love moments like these. These little markers, I imagine, serve to remind us grown-ups that we’re on a path and we’ve stepped some  indiscernible, otherwise unnoticeable distance. It doesn’t matter so much if we ever get there – for there is no there there– but that we’re moving and learning and understanding a little more, with one more leaf, one more taste.

Think of it as the adult equivalent of a sticker or a level up.

Later that day, my friend texted me:

“I think you are right. It’s oregano.”

Here are five things that helped me learn more about spices and herbs. Perhaps they’ll be handy for you, too.

A whiff of tantalizing sweet licorice from these fennel seeds.

I wish you could catch a whiff of tantalizing sweet licorice from these fennel seeds.

5 Aids on the Spice Route

1) Your sniffer. When I’m at a loss for what spice to use, sometimes I start unscrewing lids and sniffing my spices. Sooner or later, one smells exactly right for whatever dish I’m making. My nose knows. It feels so unscientific, but I think of it as training myself, making the lines connecting spice to dish more instinctual.

2) “The Flavor Bible.” If my nose fails at the flavor puzzle, I turn to “The Flavor Bible.” Each ingredient  – ordered alphabetically – is followed by a list of compatible flavors. The best matches are in all caps and bold; other very good matches are in bold; etc. The lists give me both solutions to ingredient shortages and ideas to broaden my use of herbs and spices.

3) Lessons at restaurants. Restaurants that emphasis eating local are treasure troves for the curious cook. I like to pay attention especially to fancy salads, unusual dishes, and seasonal specialties. What is that odd bitter leaf? What is that lovely edible flower? What is that nut unlike any nut I’ve seen before? I take a photo, make notes of its shape and texture and taste, and look it up later online. Or better yet, ask the cook.

4) Cooking outside your comfort cuisines. These days, I’m exploring more Indian dishes, getting familiar with curry powder, ground coriander, garam masala, amchoor powder, cumin, etc. From Hungarian recipes I’ve learned about the wonders of paprika; from Lebanese recipes, the glory of za’tar. Then I can transport those spices to other favorite foods, mixing and matching.

5) Investing in new spices. I learned the sad way that you can’t cook great Indian food by through North American substitutions. Nutmeg does not equal cumin. A splurge on new spices, for use over and over, is rarely more than what one drink would cost in a restaurant. I sometimes remind myself what a cooking class costs, and then a new $5 bag of exotic spice and its built-in mini lesson seems like a bargain.

How do you learn more about herbs and spices? Which ones should I try next?

Marvelous Roasted Chicken

On the heels of a miserable post-winter cold monster, I’ve been craving comfort foods. Soup. Mac and cheese. Spaghetti. All serviceable. All edible. All have tamed the tissue-gnawing beast a bit.

But the blue-ribbon winner of the week? Roasted chicken.

Roasted chicken, done

Roasted chicken, carrots, onions, potatoes. Heaven on a Sunday evening.

That’s what I’ll be making again, even after my nose turns back to its normal color.

Roasting also feels like perfect weekend cooking. It’s a bit of prep, and then you get a lazy evening to relax as the aromas fill the house. And the leftover meat makes terrific sandwiches to take for lunch.

I think I sort of knew already, back in some dust-bunny crevice of my brain, that roasted chicken was a certifiable winner. That it’s one of those classic meals that gives you 10 times the return for the effort. It is so so so good. It is the kind of meal where you wonder, why in the world would we ever go out to a restaurant to eat? This is a $5 chicken and $2 worth of vegetables. And it’s fabulous!

There are a more or less a quadrillion ways to roast a chicken. The experts have their tips. Salt the chicken a day ahead. Let the chicken come to room temperature before roasting. Use a cast-iron skillet.

But, in the end, I turned to two standards: Ina Garten and Martha Stewart. And they seemed more or less in agreement on the critical bits:

1. Wash and dry – thoroughly – the chicken.

2. Salt and pepper the chicken skin.

3. Stuff some flavor magic in the cavity, like a half a lemon, a few cloves of garlic, some herbs, a half an onion.

4. Rub butter all over the chicken skin. If you have fresh herbs around, mash that into the butter first.

5. Place the chicken in the bottom of a roasting pan or something similar.

And then there’s my own rule:

6. Add vegetables.

This seems to be optional for the celeb chefs.

But not for me.

Roasted vegetables are delicious in their own right. But these vegetables? These vegetables cuddle around the chicken and cook in chicken juices. They soak up the most exquisite natural broth and grow caramelized and yet crisp. Dreamy. Seriously.

Pan of veggies

Veggies, ready for their chicken neighbor and the oven spa.

Even veggie haters need to consider this. Think of it as a veggie gateway.

Besides, why would you bother boiling or sauteing a side dish when you have extra space for rent around the bird? Do you have a secret game for making washing dishes fun?

If so, please share.

I advocate one pan for one dinner whenever humanly possible. (By the way, an official roasting pan isn’t essential. I used my all-purpose 9×13 Pyrex dish, and that worked fine.)

Here’s my recent recipe, but it’s really up for grabs. Swap the veggies with fennel, parsnips, or any root vegetable. Change out butter for olive oil. Nix the garlic. Make it exactly how you like it.

Marvelous Roasted Chicken

  • 1 whole chicken, 3-4 pounds (you can easily go bigger, just cook it longer and add more veggies as needed to fill your pan)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Butter
  • Fresh herbs (optional)
  • Dried herbs, like herbes de provence (optional)
  • 2 carrots
  • 6 small potatoes
  • 4 small onions
  • 1/2 lemon

Preheat the oven to 425F degrees or 210C.

Wash the chicken and dry it thoroughly. I used paper towels to pat it down.

Place the chicken in the middle of a baking pan with sides. Sprinkle salt and pepper all over the chicken.

If you have fresh herbs – oregano, basil, rosemary, dill, sage, etc. – mince up a few tablespoons and mash them into a few tablespoons of butter.

Using your freshly washed fingers, spread the butter, with or without herbs, all around the skin.

Sprinkle dried herbs all over the chicken.

Into the cavity – make sure it’s otherwise empty, no bag or giblets or anything – stuff a half a lemon and a small onion peeled and cut in half.

Chicken to be stuffed

Stuff the chicken with lemon, onion. Garlic and herbs are nice, if you like.

Peel the carrots and potatoes. Slice them up into carrot rods and potato chunks. Don’t make them too thin or small or they will cook quickly and burn. Peel and quarter the small onions. (Cut them into chunks if you only have large onions.)

Add the vegetables all around the chicken.

Drizzle the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence. Toss the vegetables with your hands so the oil and seasonings get spread around.

Ready for the oven

You can tie the legs shut, but I didn’t bother. Turns out it’s a myth that trussing is essential. Though, if you want to tie it up, here’s a great video detailing how.

Pop the pan into the oven. After 15 or 20 minutes, check the oven. If the veggies are looking slightly too done already, turn down the oven to 400 or 375. (I had to do this.)

Cook for an hour (3-4 pounds) to an hour and a half (5-6 pounds).

Take the chicken out and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving. This seems ridiculous, but it’s the difference between a good bird and a succulent, moist, and memorable roasted chicken.

Have a marvelous weekend!

Cooking, in sickness and in health

When I was growing up, routine childhood sickness had its routine.

Whoever was sick would claim the couch, set up a fort of pillows and blankets, position the tissue box, tuck a big plastic empty ice cream gallon on the floor for an abrupt bout of nausea. And then turn on the TV. Bob Barker with his lineup of packaged goods (how much is Ivory soap?). Lucy Ricardo stuffing chocolates into her shirt, fussing in her high-pitched voice. Lassie galloping over the fields and jumping the fence to sound the alarm.

TV seemed to help, or maybe it just distracted us.

If my stomach was upset, Mom would bring ginger ale.

I’d also plea for bread, “French” bread from the supermarket with doughy white insides spongy with warm melted butter. Maybe a popsicle or a bowl of ice cream, if my throat was sore.

And Jell-O. That sweet, wiggly, stained-glass-colored cure-all.

This week, a pesky bug has struck our grownup home. Coughs, sore throat, exhaustion, massive headaches. Not so fun. I’ve been at a loss at what could help.

The right food can be so soothing, both as a morale pick-me-up and an elixir for the worn-down body.

Blood orange ginger ale

Blood orange ginger ale

Yesterday, I made a simple tomato soup out of a can of whole tomatoes with juice, beef broth, a small minced onion, and a sprinkling of dried thyme, oregano, basil.

Then I made something I never make: mac and cheese, a classic comfort food. It is not mislabeled.

I  also lean toward anything with vitamin C. I added the last pulp and juice of a blood orange to a glass of ginger ale. Pretty delicious, illness or no.

Some links, for these icky times:

Chicken Noodle Soup from Smitten Kitten
I love that Deb’s recipe uses the chicken to make the broth – keeping all those extra vitamins and skipping a chemical-laden canned soup.

101 Cookbooks offers this Good Soup for the Sick

The New York Times Well section runs Recipes for Health

Homemade sore throat remedy with mint, cinnamon, honey, lemon

What’s your favorite feel-better food?