marenIn September 2015, I pulled out the most intimidating (and least used) cookbook on our bookshelf and challenged myself to make every recipe in the book, come hell or high water. Ten months and two days later, I crossed the finish line. That quest fanned a flame that inspired me to move on to the next cookbook… and the next one after that… and you get the idea.

It’s not as hard as I imagined to prepare complex recipes, and it’s OK to invite people over for dinner when trying new ones. The fellowship is wonderful, and I’ve yet to hear a complaint about the food. Quite the contrary, our friends have been really supportive and complimentary. And they don’t care whether or not the house is neat and tidy.

So, if you’ve got a hankering to experiment in your kitchen, I’ve provided reviews of the ten cookbooks that I’ve explored to date with pictures of the individual recipes. I’ve also shared some of my own recipes along with features on favorite foods.

Bon appétit!

According to statistica.com, U.S. residents and visitors ate a staggering 27.3 billion pounds of beef in 2019. I’ve discussed the deleterious environment impact of this culinary obsession in a post entitled The Trouble with Beef. Yet much as we might love Mother Earth, we’re rather entrenched in our culinary habits. Meat and potatoes – and especially burgers and fries – are as American as Mom and apple pie.

Plant-based burger alternatives have been around for decades. They typically involve some combination of beans, grains, vegetables (e.g., mushrooms, kale), nuts, seeds, and/or tofu. I’ve tried a bunch of these recipes with varying degrees of success. None have come close to replacing a good-old-fashioned beef burger that sizzles on the outdoor grill… until now.

In 2011, Stanford emeritus professor Pat Brown founded a company called Impossible Foods with a mission “to save meat and earth.” A biochemist and pediatrician by training, Dr. Brown was alarmed at the collapse in global biodiversity as a function of our excessive use of animals for food. He recognized that folks wouldn’t readily give up what they love to eat. So, he decided to create a plant-based product that tasted, smelled, and acted meaty.

impossible burger mealAfter years of research and development, the company’s signature product – the Impossible Burger – was launched in July 2016. Version 2.0 was released in January 2019. Impossible Burgers are available in select grocers and fast food restaurants. We found them in our local WalMart and decided to give them a try. They look like hamburgers and are quite tasty. Were we to serve them at the next backyard barbecue, I doubt we’d get complaints.

From a nutritional standpoint, the Impossible Burger compares favorably with lean ground beef. A 4-ounce patty provides 240 calories, 19 grams of protein, 9 grams of carbohydrate, and 14 grams of fat. They’re roughly a third more expensive than a conventional burger. But if it turns out that these products make the planet more habitable for the generations to follow, I think it’s worth the price.

This winter, my husband and I signed up for a share in Community Support Agriculture (CSA). It’s an arrangement in which members buy a share of a local farm’s production in advance of the growing season. In return, they receive regular distributions of the farm’s bounty throughout the season. It’s great for us because we get 18 weeks of fresh, healthy, organically grown produce. It’s great for the farmers because they get working capital, risk-sharing for their harvest, and better crop prices.

While we could look through posts from prior seasons to predict what we’ll get each week, we’ve opted for receiving our weekly basket of goodies and figuring out what we’ll do with them on the fly. Fortunately, that task is made easier by having spent the last 5+ years experimenting with lots of recipes.

Here’s what came in this week’s share:

CSA winter share
Left-to-Right: Sage, thyme, onions, garlic, celery, carrots, fennel, acorn squash, delicata squash, beets, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, lettuce, and kale

Here’s what we made:

salad
Nightly salads that used the lettuce, carrots, celery, and beets
roasted vegetables
Roasted vegetables using the spices, carrots, fennel, delicata squash, beets, sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts
lentil stew
Lentil Stew with sweet potatoes
acorn squash
Roasted acorn squash

Though not pictured, we used all of the kale in a variation on Fava Beans with Greens where we substituted a package of tempeh for the fava beans. It’s delicious, filling, and really good for us.

This basic pattern has worked well for each week’s batch of vegetables. I’m working on creating sauces to add interest to the meals, especially for the roasted vegetables.

We have signed up for the Spring/Summer/Fall season with the same farmers and will get an additional 26 weeks of produce. What a great cooking adventure!

I began my cooking adventure five years ago this month. To date, we’ve sampled ~1,500 new recipes from 10+ cookbooks, a handful of magazines and websites, and recommendations from friends. Suffice it to say, I’m feeling rather comfortable in the kitchen.

ready to cookI’ve learned that there’s no end-all-be-all cookbook. Each has its relative strengths and weakness. I’ve generally found no more than 25-35% of the recipes in a given cookbook worth repeating. The others weren’t bad. (Only two recipes proved inedible and wound up in the garbage disposal!) Rather, we opted to set the bar high with respect to taste and level of effort in preparation. Nonetheless, I remain a proponent of cover-to-cover cookbook exploration. That commitment creates an opportunity to explore a lot of ingredients and recipes that you otherwise might bypass. It makes dining more interesting and improves skills and confidence in the kitchen.

With all this experience under my belt, I’ve ventured into Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) this year. These arrangements support local farmers by providing advanced funding for a weekly allotment of fresh fruits and vegetables, generally over the course of 18-20 weeks. By looking at posts from past seasons, you can get a pretty good idea of what you’ll get each week. However, things may vary a bit depending on how the crops fare during the current season. As such, it has been helpful to have a lot of proven recipes on which to draw when each week’s bounty comes in.

Given this year’s pandemic quarantine, I’ve opted to be less adventurous with cooking. I’m limiting visits to the grocery store to every other week. And, of course, we can’t entertain as we once used to do. I miss cooking for others and the companionship that came with enjoying good food. I’ll admit that the rigors of eating every meal at home has worn a bit thin, too. But I’m grateful for all the farmers, wholesale distributors, and retail grocers who make it possible for us to continue eating healthy food. Thank you so much for your hard work!

instant pot

For months, it seemed that every time I went to a friend’s house I’d find an Instant Pot on the kitchen counter. They all expressed great satisfaction with how these pressure cookers operated. So on Black Friday last November, I took advantage of an attractive sales price and took the plunge!

As reflected in the photos below, I’ve tried most of the recipes in the little cookbook that comes with the Instant Pot. I can attest to the fact that this kitchen gadget is really easy to use and provides for set-it-and-forget-it meal preparation. That’s a really nice feature when entertaining company.

Three-Minute Steel Cut Oats
Three-Minute Steel Cut Oats
Porcini Mushroom Pate Spread
Porcini Mushroom Pate Spread
Ginger and Butternut Squash Soup
Ginger and Butternut Squash Soup
New England Clam Chowder
New England Clam Chowder
Black Bean Soup
Black Bean Soup
Red Lentil Chili
Red Lentil Chili
Italian Cannellini and Mint Salad
Italian Cannellini and Mint Salad
Cauliflower and Citrus Salad
Cauliflower and Citrus Salad
Not Re-Fried Beans
Not Re-Fried Beans
Coconut Fish Curry
Coconut Fish Curry
Cranberry Braised Turkey Wings
Cranberry Braised Turkey Wings
Liguruan Lemon Chicken
Liguruan Lemon Chicken
Moroccan Lamb Tajine
Moroccan Lamb Tajine
Steamed Ribs
Steamed Ribs
Beef Roast with Carrots and Potatoes
Beef Roast with Carrots and Potatoes
Braised Beef Shank
Braised Beef Shank
Easy Chili Colorado Smotherd Burritos
Easy Chili Colorado Smotherd Burritos
Kalua Pork
Kalua Pork
Sicilian Vegetable Medley
Sicilian Vegetable Medley
Roasted Baby Potatoes
Roasted Baby Potatoes

“You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
— Harry Balzer, Food Marketing Researcher

Michael Pollan’s 4-part documentary series entitled Cooked introduced me to Laura Shapiro, a food historian. I found her book – Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America – fascinating. Here’s what I learned…

canned foodProduction of processed food geared up in the early- to mid-1940s to support the armed services during World War II. As the great conflict drew to a close, food manufacturers had substantial capacity to produce freeze-dried, frozen, and canned goods without a ready market to consume them. They turned their attention from military to civilian appetites and supported their product offerings with heavy advertising.

Despite valiant attempts to tempt home cooks with the promise of convenience, sales of processed foods did not take off. Ten years into peacetime, households spent only $.07 per food dollar on frozen and canned goods; that figure rose to $.14 in 1960. It was progress, but certainly not the “home run” that industry insiders anticipated. Early offerings did not satisfy American taste buds. Household freezer capacity had a dampening effect on market demand. But the biggest obstacle proved to be the prevailing notions of a woman’s value.

home cookingFor time immemorial, women have been judged by their ability to cultivate a happy home life for their families. Through home cooking, they demonstrated their care, concern, and affection for their families and friends. Housewives of the 1950s and 1960s equated “convenience foods” with shirking their responsibilities as homemakers. Moreover, the quality of their home-cooked meals reflected their social standing. Middle class housewives aspired to the ideal of “gracious living.”

Processed food advertising capitalized on this sentiment by reworking its messaging around creativity, not convenience. It encouraged homemakers to forego the unnoticed drudgery of meal preparation and invest their time on the finishing touches. For instance: “Don’t worry about baking a cake from scratch. Spend time glorifying it!” Using  so-called “foolproof” formulations, homemakers were also relieved of the stress of an imperfect result.

The inaugural Pillsbury Bake Off of 1966 embodied the industry’s new approach to marketing. The allure of national recognition and appreciation for homemaking skills drew thousands of women to the contest. Flour sales skyrocketed, and women eagerly anticipated the annual event and its companion cookbook.

Meanwhile, the post-war era brought profound changes in women’s attitudes toward paid employment. Six million women served their country by joining the work force during WWII. In a 1944 study, 80% of those employed said they had no wish to leave their jobs after the war. As Lillian Gilbreth noted: “The businesswoman or industrial worker has one job. The housewife has a dozen.” While 3 million women were let go when able-bodied veterans returned to work, the percentage of women working outside the home came close to its wartime high by 1953. Paid employment gave women more challenges, more respect, and more money. The latter contributed mightily to the post-WWII economic boom. By 1960, 40% of women with school-aged children worked outside the home.

Columnist Poppy Cannon supported this sea change by showing readers how to conduct their domestic lives with intelligence, grace, and a modern sensibility. Far from demonizing those who found fulfillment outside the home, she developed strategies to help them live comfortably in both worlds. To that end, she offered a collection of recipes in the Can Opener Cookbook. Interestingly enough, the data showed that women working outside the home were no more likely to avail themselves of processed foods than stay-at-home moms.

Humor became an effective way to bridge the gap between the image of the “perfect housewife” and the reality of the modern woman. Shirley Jackson captured the struggle of the homemaker who narrowly escapes disaster in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Erma Bombeck was the reigning queen of domestic chaos for over 30 years. Her I Hate to Cook Book gave women permission to put a “good enough” dinner on the table without agonizing over it.

cuisineThroughout this period, “haute cuisine” remained the province of men under the assumption that remarkable cuisine was beyond the capacity of ordinary housewives. Julia Child dispelled that myth. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she had no tolerance for the snobbery that accompanied highbrow cooking. She took up the mantle to teach American cooks how to prepare exquisite meals and proved that anybody could cook like a gourmet chef. Her seminal cookbook – Master the Art of French Cooking – became an unbridled success as did her television show, The French Chef.

Unfortunately, the food industry eventually prevailed in its goal of capturing the American palate. Convenience foods have become so prevalent that the average home cook spends a mere 3.5 hours per week on food preparation, down from 17-18 hours per week in the 1950s. This change has important implications for our general health. In a 2003 study, a team of Harvard economists tied the rise in obesity to “reductions in the time cost of food, which in turn has allowed more frequent food consumption of greater variety and, thus, led to higher weights.” A 2014 study by Drs. Monsivais, Aggarwal, and Drewnowski showed a positive relationship between the amount of time spent on food preparation and diet quality as reflected in the daily intake of vegetables, salads, fruits, and fruit juices.

Given the prevalence of obesity and the chronic health conditions that accompany it, a return to home cooked meals merits serious consideration. That being said, the responsibility for healthy eating must transcend the gender divide. Ideally, food planning and preparation is a team effort that affords all household members an opportunity to contribute while spending quality time with one another in the kitchen.

This week’s adventures in cooking brought me face-to-face with a vegetable with which I was unfamiliar: a rutabaga. It was a key ingredient in a starchy side dish that hails from the Scottish Highlands – “Tatties and Neeps.” The “tatties” are potatoes, and the “neeps” can be either rutabagas or turnips.

As has been my usual practice when venturing forth into unknown territory, I called upon the expertise of my local grocer to make introductions to unfamiliar food. He obligingly pointed the way to a collective of root vegetables from which I plucked my quarry. Frankly, it looked like a really big beet absent the usual complement of greens. But since there was a section for beets a bit down the line, I chose not to pay attention to this little flash of insight.

tatties and beetsAs I prepared the “rutabaga,” it kept staring back at me with the eyes of a really big beet. Still, I chalked that sensation up to inexperience and soldiered on. Then, when I boiled it with the potatoes, it chose not to soften at the same rate as the potatoes, as one might expect based on the recipe’s instruction. It also didn’t succumb to mashing in equal measure to the potatoes. Still, I shrugged my shoulders and thought: “Well, I guess rutabagas are kind of hard to work with.” And when it colored the entire dish red, like a brand new red T-shirt in a load of white wash, I thought: “Mmmm. It’s just like a beet.”

Of the four of us at the dinner table, none admitted to ever eating a rutabaga before. No one complained about the dish. Quite the contrary, they all expressed gratitude for a hot meal in which they’d invested no preparation or clean-up time. My husband and friends are easy that way!

During today’s shopping trip, I had occasion to purchase another rutabaga. I felt rather smug as I went straight to the place where they’re on display and chose another fine specimen. My sense of pride drained quickly as I went through the check-out line and the item rang up as a “Bulk Beet.” After a brief chat with the cashier, a vegetable expert came over and gave me a quick lesson on root vegetables. And so (drum roll)… my erstwhile rutabaga from the prior night’s meal had been a really big beet!

tatties and beetsI came home and made “Tatties and Neeps” the right way. Everything boiled in the pot at the proper rate, and the resulting dish was quite good. “Tatties and Beets” is OK, too, but not a combination that I’d repeat.

Yep – it was a little bit embarrassing to show my ignorance in a public forum. But, then again, the whole incident really cracked me up! It reminds me that I’m still a student of the culinary arts. I’m not supposed to know all this stuff already; I get to learn it on my cooking adventure. Now I’ll know a rutabaga when I see one.

Some vegetables really know how to make an impression, don’t they!

Spike and I crossed the finish line on the Fields of Greens cooking quest on July 2, 2016, 10 months and 2 days after we began. It was a great experience for both of us. Here are a few values that emerged on the journey.

The Value of Commitment. When making the decision to be “all in” with the quest, it pretty much eliminated the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I conversation about preparing the recipes. I just figured out a way to do it and discovered culinary territory that I simply would not have explored otherwise.

The Value of Encouragement. I hit one noteworthy low point when I nearly lowered my standards for completion. The sticking point was our lack of an ice cream maker and my resistance to buying one. So I thought I’d skip the affected recipes along with a handful of others while I was at it. Hats off to my friend Rebecca for cheering me on AND letting us borrow her ice cream maker. For the record: The Meyer Lemon Ice Cream and Mandarin Orange Sorbet were unreal! Not to be missed!

bryan, julius, and amandaThe Value of Sharing. We realized early on that the quest would go slowly if we had to eat all of the food that we prepared. So we started inviting people to dine with us given fair warning that they’d be noshing on food we’d never made. Suffice it to say, the fellowship was even better than the food… and the food was really good!

The Value of “Oh Well.” We had a few mishaps in the kitchen, and we sampled a few recipes that didn’t send us over the moon. Oh well! No big deal! I have confidence in my ability to improve on my technique and the discernment to know when it’s not worth the effort.

DadA week ago today, I was at my father’s bedside when he took his final breath. His health had been fragile for years, and he experienced chronic pain over the past few months. Through it all, he was a pillar of strength in adversity and made the best of his challenging circumstances. He always managed a smile whenever anyone came to visit and never lost his sense of humor. He was a good man, a devoted husband, and a wonderful father.

I’ve found solace over the past week in the simple act of food preparation. As I’ve alternated between waves of grief and an empty, lost feeling, it has been therapeutic to continue working on my Fields of Greens quest.

Vegetarian cuisine was not my father’s favorite. He’d have eaten it if presented with no other options, but he’d prefer a good old fashioned meat-and-potatoes meal. In fact, whenever I talked about experimenting with vegetarian recipes, he’d feel sorry for my husband. Perhaps as he watches over me from heaven, Dad will catch some of the fine aromas that emanate from my kitchen and wish he had a seat at my table. If only wishing could make it so…

When I started this quest last September, I gave myself permission to make “a reasonable approximation” in lieu of a precise rendition of all of the recipes. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get all of the ingredients locally or be willing to pay a King’s ransom for them. I wasn’t sure that I’d have the time to prepare everything from scratch. And as I don’t like to waste food, I’d allow myself use of reasonable substitutes if it made sense to do so. For example, I wouldn’t buy three types of lettuce for a salad if Spike and I wouldn’t have the time or inclination to eat all the excess.

Fortunately, I’ve yet to find an instance where I couldn’t get an ingredient at a local grocer. Admittedly, some are pretty spendy, especially when purchased off season. But for the most part, I’m able to remain faithful to the recipes as written. And when I’ve intentionally veered off course, the world didn’t come to an end.

spinach canneloniThis week’s “aha” moment in freshness surrounded pasta sheets. I’d never cooked with fresh pasta before; I’ve always opted for the standard dried stuff. But there was a big difference in taste between this week’s cannelloni made with pasta sheets and the one I prepared a couple of months ago using dried manicotti shells. Pasta sheets hold the stuffing together without being overbearing in the taste department. The resulting dish had a far more nuanced flavor. So, I guess I’m a convert to fresh pasta sheets now. Just need to keep an eye out for them as they aren’t available at every grocer.