Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: Pesto Zine

The second thing I taught in my recipe-free cooking class at the Boston Skillshare last weekend was making pesto.

Later in the day, I went to a skillshare on zine making, where we were encouraged to start making our own little eight-page zines. Mine is about making pesto!

If you'd like your own copy, download the PDF (technical props to Jack). You'll have to do a little folding and cut on the dotted line to make it into a booklet (instructions and diagrams).

If you want to learn more about zines, Somerville's own Papercut Zine Library would be a good place to start. Read local!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: Soup

Today's modest agenda is to talk about how to make every soup in the world, without a recipe.

(These are the notes for the class I taught at the Boston Skillshare on Sunday. Here's my PDF class handout.)

I submit to you that just about every soup is made on the same basic formula:

soup = aromatics + hard things + liquid + soft things + seasoning/garnishes



Peel your aromatics and cut them into small pieces. Cook them in a little bit of oil or butter in the bottom of a pot over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they smell nice.

Aromatics are “things that smell good while cooking.” Seriously.

The most simple aromatic is an onion. If you cut an onion into small pieces and start cooking it in a little bit of oil, people will sense that you’re making food. They will wander into the kitchen and ask, “What’s cooking?” Many, many kinds of food (beyond soup) start with cooking an onion.

There are a lot of kinds of onions and things that are like onions: red onions, yellow onions, shallots, green onions, leeks. You can use any of these.

The aromatics are also the flavor base for your soup. If you want to get more complex than just the onion, add other things to suggest a particular cuisine or recipe:

Onion + garlic + chile paste = Thai
Onion + carrot + celery = French mirepoix / American (chicken noodle soup)
Green onion + cilantro stems + ginger = East Asian
Onion + garlic + ginger + Indian spices = Indian

The chief concern when cooking aromatics is that they will burn. Keep your heat at medium, stir frequently, and cook things other than the onion and vegetables for just a moment. (Dry spices like chili powder and garam masala, for example, smell amazing when cooked with your aromatics for 30 seconds or so, but they'll burn after that.)

If your aromatics seem to be in danger of burning, skip ahead in the formula and add the liquid. Phew.


hard things

Wash and peel (if you want) your hard things and cut them into small pieces. The hard things can either go in the pot a couple minutes before the liquid (pro: they brown a little with the oil and aromatics; con: they might burn) or right after the liquid.

Butternut squash is hard, potatoes are hard, multivariable calculus is hard, and all those unidentified rooty things in the bottom of your winter CSA box (parsnips, turnips, celeriac, rutabagas) are hard. Things that take a long time to cook are hard; your hard things are what determine how long your soup will have to cook.

(Dried beans and grains, like rice, are more advanced hard things, because they take more precise cooking times, and they make your soup unpalatable if they're not fully cooked.)

If you're in a hurry: Hard things cook faster if they're cut into smaller pieces. It's not cheating to zap hard things in the microwave for a few minutes to make them softer.


Dump your liquids into the pot. Raise the heat until they come to a boil, then turn it down to a gentle simmer.

The traditional liquid for soup is broth, which you can buy in cans or cartons or as cubes or powder you mix with water (I like these ones). You can also make broth yourself, but, really, I don't know why you're reading this if you're already making your own broth.

Water is also a liquid. I often add water to my soups because I find broth excessively salty. Or because I don't have enough broth.

Other soup liquids: Canned tomatoes usually have enough liquid with them to count as liquid. Liquid from canned beans or any other canned foods you're putting in your soup (yes, essentially salty water with some flavor in it is what we're going for here). Coconut milk. (But note that regular milk and dairy products should be added later, because they don't like to cook at high temperatures.)

How much liquid? Enough to completely cover all your hard things (with room to add your soft things). After that -- as much as looks right to you. It is not cheating to add more liquid later.

soft things

Wash your soft things and cut them into small pieces. Once your hard things are mostly cooked (taste one), put the soft things in the pot.

Soft things are the things in your soup that are not hard. The things that do not take very long to cook. Hard things would survive being dropped out a third-floor window. Soft things would not.

Vegetables that are better undercooked than overcooked (green beans, asparagus) are soft. Delicate greens (baby spinach) and fresh herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro) are soft. Anything that is already cooked (canned beans, prepared rice, frozen vegetables or vegetables in a can) and just needs to be warmed up is a soft thing.

Soft things generally need just a few minutes to cook, so put them in the pot when your hard things are nearly ready to eat to prevent them from being overcooked.


You can actually add seasonings at any step (and you might have already, with your aromatics or in your liquids), but now you should taste, experiment, and add more as desired.

Copious garnishes are a good way to help (or save) a boring soup. A pretty dull carrot soup I made for practice this week became a pretty good soup with rice, frozen edamame, and cooked shredded chicken sprinkled on top.

This is an area where, if I'm trying for a certain effect or to make something fancy-looking, I do consult recipes. Many, many Epicurious soup recipes, for example, follow this basic formula and then add a fussy coulis/relish/drizzle on top.

A note on one particular seasoning: Be conscious that some soup ingredients (notably broth and anything from a can) are already quite salty, but as Tony Bourdain tells us, the difference between your food and restaurant food (not to mention canned soup) is that restaurant food has a lot more salt.


A couple ways to make your soup a little different.

Puree it. Soup is somehow more elegant if you can't see what's in it. This is also usually a good save for an unattractive soup or one that has a funny color. I love our immersion blender for pureeing right in the pot, but you can use a food processor or traditional blender or food mill.

Add dairy. Make a creamy soup or chowder by adding cream, butter, half and half, or milk. (This is often done in combination with pureeing.) Dairy ingredients can get weird if you let them boil, so add them at the very end of cooking.

last thoughts

Don't spend too much time worrying about which group an ingredient is in -- think more of a spectrum than of discrete choices. Carrots can be an aromatic, but they can also be hard things. The scale is also relative: zucchini is a soft thing when you cook it with potatoes, but it's a hard thing when you cook it with frozen peas.

If you have trouble getting the sequence in which you add things to your pot exactly right, congratulations -- getting everything cooked at the same time is one of the major challenges of cooking. Most soup ingredients, however, are pretty forgiving about being undercooked or overcooked. Pretend you intended it that way.

Any ingredient that you're uncertain about cooking can be cooked separately and added at the end. Cooking chicken in a soup requires some timing and skill. Dropping cooked chicken pieces into a finished soup requires neither. Cooking pasta in your soup? Tricky. Stirring cooked pasta into a bowl of soup? Yes!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: The Thinking

Tomorrow I am teaching a class on recipe-free cooking for the Boston Skillshare.

Before I get to the class content, I wanted to post some thoughts on cooking without recipes and why, in my mind, at least, recipe-free cooking is linked with CSA cooking.

First of all: I like recipes. I read recipes. I work as a cookbook editor. I have a shelf full of cookbooks and a subscription to Cook's Illustrated, and I am still constantly searching the Internet for more recipes.

When I need a particular recipe, a guaranteed showstopper for a special dinner guest, or to make something that requires a particular alchemy I don't understand (ahem, mayonnaise), I use the Internet or my cookbooks and follow the directions precisely. The other 99 percent of the time, when I've had a long day at work and potluck guests are coming in an hour and I couldn't care less about the right way to julienne carrots because everyone's hungry and I just need to get food on the table now, well, that's when I want to be recipe-free.

Cooking without recipes indulges my anti-authoritarian streak. It lets me cook with the food I already have or was on sale at the store or attractive at the farmer's market. It lets me adapt recipes at whim to deal with diners' dietary restrictions or the amount of time I have. It's also fun.

I believe that the right amount of any ingredient is the amount that you have, the correct seasonings are the ones that taste good to you, and the necessary cooking time is the number of minutes you have left until your guests arrive.

My skillshare will cover a couple of the basic formulas I use for recipe-free cooking. (I rely on formulas so much that my former roomates think I only know how to make one dish, which they call "Vegetables in a Pan.")

The other thing I do a lot of (and where the formulas ultimately come from) is comparing a lot of recipes. When I decide to make something, I read through eight or ten or a million recipes online, rejecting ones that call for expensive ingredients that I don't have, dealbreaker techniques (I never, ever bake anything in a water bath), or dubious editing. I look at reader comments that suggest modifications (add less sugar! double the chocolate! substitute half and half!), and combine elements of several recipes into something that roughly resembles what I wanted to make.

My approach is not good science, is not good statistics, and is a lot like “if Mom says no, ask Dad.” If I don’t have buttermilk and Julia Child says I need it, I ask Mark Bittman. If Mark Bittman says I need it, I ask Allrecipes, I ask random food bloggers, I ask eHow, and I just keep asking until someone says it’s okay to omit it.

And what does this all have to do with CSA cooking?

One qualm people have when signing up for a CSA is that they'll get lots of unfamiliar vegetables that they don't know how to cook (or too much of the same vegetable that they don't like to eat). I have a lot of fun researching unfamiliar vegetables and figuring out ways to cook them (see, um, this entire blog), but that's not a kind of cooking I want to do every day. Sometimes I just want to open the fridge, see what's there, and start making dinner.

CSA vegetables are a natural place to start with improvisatory cooking. They're usually the highest-quality ingredients you could hope to have to work with, and generally, the less you do with beautiful fresh vegetables, the better off you are. (Farm-fresh tomato? Cut it into wedges. Maybe add salt.)

Unlike with making baked goods, there's no precise chemistry to most vegetable cooking. If you skip an ingredient or get your timing or temperature wrong, there's no inch-high bread or wasted box of butter or fallen cake to out you. (I always pretend that what I end up with is exactly what I intended to make.)

Unlike with cooking meat, you're unlikely to make anyone violently ill if you get it wrong. The worst that will happen it that someone will say "no, thanks" to your unusual creation, and people so habitually say "no, thanks" to unfamiliar vegetables that you don't even have to take it personally.

And vegetable dishes are generally more or less edible at just about every step of the cooking process, which means you can taste, taste, taste, taste, and taste again. Unlike with cooking meat, you can -- and should -- taste at every step of the cooking process. You don't have to rely on times or amounts in recipes, because you can taste until the food's done just how you like it and slowly add seasonings until it tastes delicious to you. When is it done? When it tastes like dinner.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Recipe-Free Cooking: The Skillshare

This weekend is the Boston Skillshare (Facebook event)!

Amid the hoop dancing, radical spreadsheeting, and roadkill arts and crafts, I'll be teaching "Recipe-Free Cooking: A No-Fear Guide to Using Your CSA":
Cooking without recipes is both subversive and liberating, and it doesn't have to be scary. It lets you cook with the food you have on hand or that is cheap/fresh/ethical/local/[whatever value is important to you].

One qualm people have when signing up for a CSA is that they'll get lots of unfamiliar vegetables that they don't know how to cook (or too much of the same vegetable that they don't like to eat). We'll explore a few simple formulas for embracing the serendipity of the farm share (or your farmers' market) and talk about improvising quick, easy, delicious food with whatever ingredients you have on hand.

To the extent our setup allows, we'll do some hands-on no-fear cooking. If you want, bring a vegetable for us to use.
I'm still working on my lesson planning, so questions and suggestions gratefully accepted. I'll also be posting my notes for the class here.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Local Whole Wheat

Our last Red Fire Farm winter share included a five-pound bag of local whole wheat flour from Upinngil Farm in Gill. (Affectionately dubbed "the pancake share," the last winter share also contained maple syrup, frozen peaches, and, yum, blueberry spread.)

Upinngil notes:
All our flour is unsifted whole grain. This means it contains more bran than most whole wheat flour you might buy in the grocery store. ... if you are baking bread with our flour for the first time, we recommend starting with 50-50 Upinngil whole wheat and white bread flour.
I neglected to pass that last critical detail along to the house, however, and this inch-high -- yet nutty and flavorful and not-too-dense -- loaf was the result.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Purple Sweet Potatoes

Sara picked up some amazing purple sweet potatoes at the farmers market at Somerville High last weekend. (If you're missing the Somerville winter market, too, look out for the four "Spring Fever" markets coming to the Armory on Sundays in April and May.)

Jack sliced them on the mandoline to make some beautiful purple sweet potato chips.

For added snob appeal, we served them with homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise), which came together very nicely in the food processor (sparing us the 40 minutes of hand-whisking described in the recipe), and brought my successful-mayonnaise-making average up to somewhere around 0.500.

The remaining potatoes made beautiful vibrant purple mashed potatoes. (Apartment Therapy has more purple sweet potato ideas.)

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Locally Sprouted

We've got snow on the ground for April Fool's Day, but that isn't stopping us from growing a little of our own fresh local produce on the windowsill.

Sprouting is like growing your own vegetables for the cheap, garden-less, and impatient. I ordered a pound of clover seeds from Sun Organic Farm ($6) when I started sprouting, and, used 2 tablespoons at a time, they've lasted me years. Other than that, you just need a glass jar and some kind of strainer top (I use cheesecloth or a piece of an old pair of nylons and a rubber band). They maybe want a little light at the end of their growing time. And they're done in less than a week -- farming for the instant gratification set.

Sprout People is a great site for sprouting instructions and supplies, and you can probably learn everything you need to know in five minutes there. (I learned to sprout from these folks at the Boston Skillshare a few years ago. Quick plug for the skillshare, which is in two weeks: You should totally, totally go, and, um, apparently I'm teaching this year.)

I've sprouted on and off for a while, but our recent return to sprouting was inspired by Red Fire Farm's inclusion of sprouts in their last couple winter CSA batches.

P.S. Woah, have you seen Blogger's new Dynamic Views? Here's my favorite new view for this blog, but you can cycle through all new five options at the top right. (Add /view to any Blogger URL to get these options for other Blogger blogs.)