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.

I achieved a major milestone this week by completing 25% of the recipes in the Fields of Greens cookbook. Mark and Alicia joined Spike and me in the celebration. We paired a butternut squash soup with a baguette and gruyère cheese for the occasion. Delicious!

mark and aliciaI’ve learned quite a bit about cooking since I started this journey:

  • Cooking “from scratch” takes quite a bit of time. Spike’s able assistance has been my salvation on a number of occasions. This journey has proven to be a lovely way to spend time together. I’ve also made a point of playing good music while in the kitchen.
  • Cooking “from scratch” is far more flavorful than cooking with short-cuts. There is a material difference in taste between fresh herbs and dried herbs and between bottled garlic and fresh garlic – well worth the incremental food preparation time. The biggest surprise in this realm is the extent to which canned tomatoes overwhelm a multi-facted recipe. While far more convenient than preparing stewed tomatoes from the fruit of the vine, canned tomaotes prove to be the “dominant genes” against which everything else seems “recessive.” It’s fine for some meals, but I’ll opt for making fresh tomato sauce for others.
  • This quest has introduced Spike and me to several new ingredients – e.g., celery root, chanterelle mushrooms, calvados, gruyère cheese. By stretching my boundaries, I’ve had to get much more familiar with the inventory at my local grocers. I’m awestruck by the bounty of food stuff we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest!
  • It’s not as hard as I imagined to prepare these foods. Admittedly, I’m not stellar in my technique. (I’m still struggling with pastry!) But I’m “succeeding” at meal preparation for the most part, and I expect to improve with practice.
  • Great food turns an otherwise run-of-the-mill meal into “date night”!

spring vegetable curryIt was fairly light week cooking-wise. We signed onto a meal train in behalf of good friends who are a week out from major surgery and did a “repeat” of the Summer Vegetables with Red Curry and Apricot Chutney. Spike and I worked efficiently in the kitchen having made these recipes before. It felt good to serve up something special for them.

Otherwise, I decided to venture further into soups and stews. I made my first batch of Vegetable Stock for use in the Winter Greens Soup. With a bit more effort, I could have made a double batch of stock and saved myself some effort on the next go round. Stock freezes like a champ. Lesson learned… Meanwhile, the Winter Greens Soup was wonderful!

My second meal of the week was an ambitious one: Winter Vegetable Pie. Even the author admitted: “This is a time-consuming dish to prepare, but well worth the effort.” It had 3 major components: (i) Mushroom Stock from which I made a sumptuous Mushroom Sauce; (ii) assorted vegetables and fresh herbs for the “meat” of the pie; and, (iii) tart dough for the topping. It consumed a healthy part of a day to prepare – although I made a double-batch of Vegetable Stock while I was at it. The end result was a full-on party for our taste buds.

spring vegetable curryWhen I make this dish for company, I’ll opt for individually-sized pie plates (a la chicken pot pie.) As you can see, it’s rather difficult to get a serving out of the pie pan. I’ll also make sure to place a cookie sheet under the pie pan while baking. The filling oozed out the sides and started burning on the bottom of the oven. Spike and I scrambled to ventilate the kitchen before the smoke detectors got in on the action. Oh, well… We needed to clean the oven anyway!

Dad and meIt was a big week for my family. Dad celebrated his 96th birthday on September 16th. We hardly thought this day would come given his failing health. But he managed to sport his 1000 watt smile as we joined him at the Maryville Nursing Home for dinner. I brought a fabulous strawberry cream cake from the Beaverton Bakery. Dad loved it. It was a special night to be sure.

For this week’s Fields of Greens meal, we invited my good friend, Lynn Landrum to join us for a feast of Winter Vegetable Curry, Cucumbers with Yogurt and Mint, and Fiery Pineapple Chutney.

As I’ve worked on curries these past couple of weeks, I’ve witnessed the benefit of boiling green beans and broccoli briefly and setting them aside. Their colors perk up, and they retain their crispness when added to the pot in the final moments of cooking. There’s advanced preparation for mushroom in the Winter Vegetable Curry; they’re sautéed for 7 minutes in oil with a splash of water to loosen the pan juices. The little darlings emit a high-pitched squeal akin to baby mandrakes in the second Harry Potter movie. It sounded like we were torturing them for state secrets… which they never gave up. They were tasty, however…

Having declared victory on another meal, we set off that weekend for a two-day getaway at Cape Meares on the Oregon Coast. Lovely weather. No crowds. Long walks on the beach. Heaven!

I stayed the course through the first week of my new adventures in cooking. I cannot report to have made great strides in food preparation efficiency, but I’ve learned to make the time pass pleasantly.

I have dozens of CDs that rarely get played. So, I’m going to make sure I have great music rolling while I’m cooking. Guess what? Listening to music really fills my soul! I don’t know why I’ve opted for silence all these years when I could have reveled in sound. Already an unexpected bonus of my quest!

tomato-basil tart with smoke mozzarella cheeseI’m especially pleased with the Tomato-Basil Tart with Smoked Mozzarella Cheese. I’d never made Tart Dough before, so I thought I’d have a real issue pulling it off. Fortunately, my trusty Kitchen Aid mixer did most of the work… and seemed delighted to be out of the closet for once! While my rolling pin skills leave much to be desired, the end result was quite tasty if not the aesthetic masterpiece for which I’d hoped!

I just finished reading Chris Guillebeau’s book entitled The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose To Your Life. He reflects on his 10-year quest to visit every country in the world. In his travels, Chris met scores of kindred spirits whose quests enriched their lives and satisfied inner longings.

By Chris’ definition, a quest:

  • Has a clear goal and specific end point
  • Presents a clear challenge
  • Requires sacrifice
  • Is often driven by a calling or sense of mission
  • Requires a series of small steps and incremental progress toward the goal

A core premise of the book is that there are adventures awaiting us all.

For the past 20 years, I’ve had the Fields of Greens vegetarian cookbook on my bookshelf, and yet I’ve only made a few of the recipes (all delicious). I’ve decided that my quest will be to make all 284 recipes (or a reasonable approximation thereof) between now and December 31, 2016. This undertaking will be no small feat. The recipes are challenging and leverage a whole host of ingredients that I’ve never used before.

spring vegetable curry with basmati rice and mango papaya chutneyHaving made this decision at 4:00 pm last Tuesday, I opted to make that evenings’ meal my first undertaking. I set off to the store to buy the ingredients for Spring Vegetable Curry with Sri Lankan Spices accompanied by Basmati Rice and Mango-Papaya Chutney. I found everything I needed at New Seasons and then dashed home to start cooking.

Spike arrived a little after 6:00 pm to find the kitchen in a state of complete disarray. (I really should have a taken a picture of it!) I told him about the quest while assuring him that meat would remain a factor in our diets. He then offered to help… thank goodness! With four hands hard at work, we finally got dinner on the table at 7:30 pm. It was WONDERFUL! Clean-up took about an hour.

Admittedly, I choose one of the more challenging meals right out of the gate. However, I expect to get more efficient with food preparation once I get the hang of it.

Stay tuned!