Kitchen Ambitions

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People often ask me for advice on how to actually become a good cook beyond Hamburger Helper and Stouffer’s. “How did you come up with this?,” “Teach me your ways!,” “You don’t use recipes?!” are some common questions I get asked by my friends and family. I love talking to people about this because it’s obviously one of my biggest passions, and I want other people to find the same joy from cooking that I have.

I’ve been into cooking since before I can remember. Of course I started small (literally) as a kid in the kitchen chopping vegetables, stirring sauces, or grating cheeses. My family was always big on eating at home as a family and not going out, so my sister and I just always jumped in to help. My parents never really cooked anything too gourmet, but they did what they knew well. Probably since middle school, I have loved watching Food Network (Giada and Bobby are my favorites and I’m determined to meet them one day) therapeutically for hours or getting sucked into a season of a culinary competition show. A big part of becoming a good cook I think is just starting somewhere and not worrying about if you’re actually any “good” at first. I promise it’s not nearly as intimidating or time-consuming as some people try to make you believe. In fact, it’s quite elemental: knife, heat, sizzle. Some people also say don’t try cooking something new when you’re having people over, but I never cease to ignore that “rule.” Once you get more comfortable and confident, it’s hard to ever actually mess up.

Recipes are of course a good place to start, and just follow those for awhile until you really get the basics down. See what different ingredients bring to the table (pun intended), and figure out different flavor profiles and combinations that you like to eat. Being knowledgable about ingredients is a big part of being confident in the kitchen and can allow you to be more creative. Does it make a dish creamy, sweet, salty, bitter, acidic, or spicy? Once you know the basic methods – sauteing, roasting/baking, grilling, making sauces, etc. – you can literally make anything.

I also have read endless amounts of food literature over the past several years: magazines, blogs (90% of the ones I follow are food/cooking blogs), cookbooks, etc. For example, how did I spend much of my last Saturday of break today? Reading through my two new cookbooks from Christmas for inspiration for the new year: Food&Wine Annual Cookbook and Vegan Cooking for Carnivores. I think the different little tidbits of culinary information have just sort of stuck in my brain through osmosis. Reading and watching does help you with the knowledge side of it, but nothing beats actually getting in the kitchen and getting your hands dirty to see what you can really do. Just like anything else – practice, practice, practice. Also, always taste your own cooking as you go! How do you know what it needs if you don’t taste it?

Once you decide to embark on the mission to up your skills and really get into it is half the battle! Some people are so indifferent about it, but to me it’s such a vital part of living. We’re talking about something we need at least three times a day every day for the rest of our lives. On top of that, cooking is such an tangible way to show others your love (acts of service is definitely my love language) and connect to people through food by spending time around the table together. I could go on and on.

I would say some of the very first things I cooked on my own that are pretty simple would be:

1. Pasta with sauteed/roasted vegetables, maybe chicken, and a simple homemade sauce (tomato or pesto)

2. Fajitas/Tacos with all the fixings – grilled meat, sauteed onions/peppers, homemade guac and pico, black beans. Later you can make your own tortillas (so good)

3. Asian stir fry – lots of sauteed veg, brown rice, shrimp or chicken, and a simple sauce maybe of soy/teriyaki/honey/sesame oil/garlic

That’s literally the tip of the iceberg. The main thing is stay with it and continue to experiment and challenge yourself as you go. Fresh gnocchi, pizza dough, butternut squash soup, fish tacos (one my signature meals for sure), why not? I had never baked bread from scratch before, but I did it for the first time this semester as part of a project for a grade in one of my classes. If you love to eat it, learn to make it.

Want to know what’s on MY gutsy kitchen bucket list for this year? Be looking for invites to those monthly dinners I talked about before…

1. Risotto – all ways, all seasons

2. Thai Green Curry – my Asian comfort food

3. Cocktails – Scratch-made, custom, and cheaper than happy hour

4. Sourdough – gotta get that starter going I guess…

5. Mussels in a white wine broth

6. Pork Tenderloin

7. Homemade Ravioli

8. Pistachio Gelato

9. French Onion Soup

10. Something with fennel or leeks

Happy cooking, my friends, and be adventurous!

Book Review: Bread and Wine – Part One

If you read about my winter break reading list, you’ll know I really wanted to read Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist. I got it for Christmas and haven’t put it down since! I’ll probably finish it tomorrow, but I thought I’d share some of my favorite moments so far.  This is less of a book review and more of a collection of things I read that made me go, “Wow, that’s so my life.” I feel like I’ve known Shauna forever.  She writes with such a raw, vulnerable, honest, passionate, and down-to-earth voice. She talks about everything from travel memories, cooking mishaps and  successes, the ups and downs in the lives of her loved ones, saying yes to running a marathon finally, her journey to self acceptance and finding balance, and learning to live each day focused on the things that matter most. I can see, smell, taste the meals in her kitchen as well as feel the love in her home as I read. We share such a similar view of the world and the place of food in that world. I want to have dinner with her one day, I’m not even kidding. Anyway, this is going to be a multiple series, because I have too many favorite quotes from this book already. Enjoy this sneak peak and go buy it here! Also check out her own website and blog here.

“Whenever my jeans are too tight, I’m reminded that I know better than to love bread the way I do, but love is blind, and certainly beyond reason.”

“More than that, I am a bread-and-wine person. By that I mean that I’m a Christian, a person of the body and blood, a person of the bread and wine. Like every Christian, I recognize the two as food and drink, and also, at the very same time, I recognize them as something much greater – mystery and tradition and symbol. Bread is bread, and wine is wine, but bread-and-wine is another thing entirely. The two together are the sacred and the material at once, the heaven and earth, the divine and the daily.”

“It’s the thing that connects us, that bears our traditions, our sense of home and family, our deepest memories, and, on a practical level, our ability to live and breathe each day. Food matters.”

“All through the stories about God and his people, there are stories about food, about all of life changing with the bite of an apple, about trading an inheritance for a bowl of stew, about waking up to find the land littered with bread, God’s way of caring for his people; about a wedding where water turned to wine, Jesus’ first miracle; about the very first Last Supper, the humble bread and wine becoming,  for all time, indelibly linked to the very body of Christ, the center point for thousands of years of tradition and belief. It matters. It mattered then, and it matters now, possibly even more so, because it’s a way of reclaiming some of the things we may have lost alined the way.”

“What makes me feel alive and connected to God’s voice and spirit in this world is creating opportunities for the people I love to rest and connect and be fed at my table.”

“There’s something entirely satisfying in a modern, increasingly virtual world about something so elemental – heat, knife, sizzle.”

“When you eat, I want you to think of God, of the holiness of the ands that feed us, of the provision we are given every time we eat.”

“I can’t imagine life without a table between us.”

“That’s how this is for me. I’ve been catastrophizing about my weight since I was six. I’ve lost the pounds and gained them, made and abandoned plans and promises, cried tears of frustration, pinched the backs of my upper arms with a hatred that scares me…And through all that, I’ve made friends and fallen in love, gotten married and become a mother. I’ver written and traveled and stayed up late with people I love. I’ve walked on the beach and on glittering city streets. I’ve kissed my baby’s cheeks and danced with my husband and laughed till i cried with my best friends, and through all that it didn’t really matter that I was heavier than I wanted to be.”

“I think about the food and the people and the things we might discover about life and about each other. I think about the sizzle of oil in a pan and the smell of rosemary released with a knife cut. And it could be that that’s how God made me the moment I was born, and it could be that that’s how God made me along the way as I’ve given up years of secrecy and denial and embarrassment. It doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is that one of the ways we grow up is by declaring what we love.”

“But it’s a lovely process, with not a minute wasted.”

“I’m not talking about cooking as performance, or entertaining as a complicated choreography of competition and showing off. I’m talking about feeding someone with honesty and intimacy and love, about making your home a place where people are fiercely protected, even if just for a few hours, from the crush and cruelty of the day.”

“Risotto lets you know what’s happening at every turn . Risotto-making is the exact opposite of baking, where it all happens in the oven without you. Risotto shouts out each step, invites you to notice each change. It’s physical and active and clear.”

“I want to cultivate a deep sense of gratitude, of roundedness, of enough, even while I’m longing for something more. The longing and the gratitude, both. I’m practicing believing that God knows more than I know, that he sees what I can’t, that he’s weaving a future I can’t imagine from where I sit this morning.”

“As more and more of us watch more and more shows on the Food Network and the like, we actually cook less and less.”

“For many years, I only ate meat that was boneless because it freaked me out and made me feel overly carnivorous and animal-like to wrestle with wiggly, slippery bones. All of a sudden, fast-forward to me burying a ten-inch knife into a venison shoulder and, in the process, ending up with deer blood all over my shoes.”

“But then you find yourself holding a very sharp chef’s knife and you realize all at once that it doesn’t matter what you’ve read or seen or think you know. You learn it, really learn it, with your hands. With your fingers and your knife, your nose and your ears, your tongue and your muscle memory, learning as you go.”

“What I’m finding is that when I’m hungry, lots of times what I really want more than food is an external voice to say, ‘You’ve done enough. It’s OK to be tired. You can take a brea. I’ll take care of you. I see how hard you’re trying.’ There is, though, no ice that can say that except the voice of God. The work I’m doing now is to let those words fall deeply on me, to give myself permission to be tired, to be weak, to need.”

“I want so badly to release my stronghold on my plan, my way, my calendar. I want to be the kind of Christian who really does believe God holds the future and that even my best guesses are just that. I want to live without anxiety, fear, and deadlines. But it seems that every chance I get, I grab back those pretend reins and allow myself to believe the myth that I’m in control.”

“And I began to understand what drove the acronyms and slogans and the almost violent positivity: you need it, that kind of enthusiasm, to get you up that early, to prod you along those miles.”

“It’s all out there, with nothing but the drumbeat of your feet and the rhythm of your ragged breath and the green of the trees on the path.”

“People are sometimes horrified when they hear that I wandered so many big cities all alone as a young teenager, but I found that people all over the world were charming and helpful, and that there might not be as much to fear as we think.”

“As we traveled, food became a language for understanding, even more so than museums or history lessons.”

“I hold all these places and flavors with me, like a fistful of shiny coins, like a charm bracelet. I want to be everywhere at once…I want it all – all the tastes, all the smells, all the stories and memories and traditions, all the textures and flavors and experiences, all running down my chin, all over my fingers.”

“Sometimes people ask me why I travel so much, an why we travel with Henry so often. I think they think it’s easier to keep the kids at home, in their routines, surrounded by their stuff. It is. But we travel because it’s there. Because Capri exists and Kenya exists and Tel Aviv exists, and I want to taste every bite of it.”

Butternut Squash and Quinoa Harvest Skillet

IMG_1330I know my last recipe I posted was butternut squash based, so I’m sorry for the lack of variation. It’s because it’s seriously my favorite fall veggie and can be used in countless different ways. For Tuesday’s roommate dinner this week, I casually whipped up one of the best vegetarian, seasonal meals I’ve ever made.  I didn’t really put too much thought into making this, but I wish I would have written down the exact amounts of things (this recipe is basically just a mixture of several different ingredients and you can play around with amounts). I didn’t realize while I was throwing this together that it would turn out SO dang delicious.  If you love fall and the seasonal ingredients, then I promise you’ll love the flavor and texture combos in this dish.

(serves about 4-6, could be entree or side dish)

Ingredients

Butternut squash, peeled and chopped into cubes (I used about 3/4 of a large one)

S/P, ground nutmeg, ginger, garlic powder (to taste)

1-2 t agave nectar

Quinoa, cooked in chicken or vegetable stock (I started with 1 cup dry)

2 T olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced thin

3 garlic cloves, chopped

Several handfuls of fresh spinach or kale or a combo

1 medium sweet and crisp apple, skin on and chopped (I used a Pink Lady)

Fat free half and half or milk (amount varies – I probably used about 1/4 c)

1/2 c grated smoked provolone (or regular)

1/3 cup less sugar Craisins

1/3 cup toasted chopped pecans (I toast on a dry pan in a toaster oven for a couple minutes and watch carefully so they don’t burn)

Several leaves of fresh sage, finely chopped

Directions

1. Roast the squash, drizzled/sprayed with EVOO, agave nectar, and seasonings to taste at 375 for about 15-20 minutes or until fork tender.

2. Cook the quinoa according to directions using stock as the liquid. Set aside.

3. Saute the onions in a large skillet over medium heat in the EVOO, season with S/P, and cook until caramelized (about 10 minutes), adding in the garlic towards the end.

4. Add the apples and greens until just wilted.

5. Add and combine the cooked quinoa and roasted squash.

6. Add the grated cheese and H&H/milk until everything comes together and is melty.

7. Stir in the craisins, pecans, and sage.

I think what I love about this meal is not only is it fairly quick and simple, but it’s sweet, savory, cheesy, crunchy, packed with nutritious goodies, and very filling.  Enjoy, friends!

P.S. Be on the lookout for a showcase of my creative project for my Jesus and the Gospels class this week.  I want to incorporate my blog into my project because the title, Eat Pray Learn, represents the idea behind my concept for the project in a pretty cool way…

Evolution

I bet I caught your attention with that post title.  No, I’m not actually writing about a fundamental biological process, although I could write a lengthy explanation on everything I believe on the subject as a believing Christian with a scientific mind that would probably spark some healthy debate among my readers.  Instead, I’m referring to the idea that I’ve had recently that I might gradually shift this blog’s focus and purpose from solely healthy recipes and food inspiration into something more all-encompassing and better representative of the things that I’m passionate about day-to-day.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still enthralled with all things food and especially convincing people that eating fresh, healthy, and from-the-earth can be the farthest thing from boring.  I do still want to occasionally share recipes and my meals that are just too darn good to keep to myself.  However, I don’t want to showcase false advertising that this is only a “healthy cooking blog” with the name and description, only for readers to be annoyed with my venting about the stresses of school, elaborating on my dream to be a dentist/oral surgeon, or just my random amusing stories along the way.

As I get older (and I’d like to say this is true of everyone), my passions and priorities do evolve over time.  Thinking back to high school,  for example, I was so wrapped up in all my extra-curricular activities such as marching band, varsity sports, piano lessons, UIL academics, school clubs, and other endless time-suckers.  Of course all these experiences shaped me into the person I am today through my teachers and mentors, making memories with my friends, practicing and perfecting skills, and the sometimes hard lessons learned over the years.

I was very consumed with maintaining my image as the girl who did it all, and did it all well.  I also thought about what I ate and how much I exercised probably more than I should’ve, and I can admit now that I was too small back then (I think athletic curves and confidence trumps skinny any day) .  Now I enjoy my food a little more and appreciate the muscle and curves I’ve gained the past few years (even if they came with more pounds).

Things I devote my time and energy to now include things like the never-ending cycle of studying for exams and writing research papers (both of which I should be doing right now), working, dental school applications, laughing and late night library shenanigans, spending time whenever I can with my family and new nephew, fulfilling my goals to become a life-changing doctor, and living life with my group of on-fire-for-God friends that encourage and challenge me every day.  Of course I still cherish the little time I make to get in the kitchen and create a beautiful meal start to finish for people I love, it’s just that in the grand scheme of things, it’s sometimes hard to keep up a consistent recipe pool for blogging.  Thanks to all my readers (however few of you there are) for sticking it out through all my off-topic rambling, and be on the lookout for a possible new name and theme…

Favorite Food Quotes From Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan has recently earned a spot in my line-up of favorite authors after I read In Defense of Food last summer.  I recommend his books to anyone that is interested in food, cooking, environmental health, nutrition, history, economics, food industry marketing, or American society in general. He has written several best-sellers, and he simply has a way with inspiring words about food and health.  I know what you’re thinking – books about nutrition and food science seem far from exciting, but his style is not your typical scientific or medical lecture.  He writes with convincing passion and quick wit.  I just bought his newest, Cooked, and can’t wait to get around to reading it. Here are some excerpts from his books:
“You are what what you eat eats.”

“Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”

“The shared meal elevates eating from a mechanical process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community, from the mere animal biology to an act of culture.”

“If you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”

“The sheer novelty and glamor of the Western diet, with its seventeen thousand new food products every year and the marketing power – thirty-two billion dollars a year – used to sell us those products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and government and marketing to help us decide what to eat.”

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t. ”

“Organic Oreos are not a health food. When Coca-Cola begins selling organic Coke, as it surely will, the company will have struck a blow for the environment perhaps, but not for our health. Most consumers automatically assume that the word “organic” is synomymous with health, but it makes no difference to your insulin metabolism if the high-fructose corn syrup in your soda is organic.”

“That eating should be foremost about bodily health is a relatively new and, I think, destructive idea-destructive not just the pleasure of eating, which would be bad enough, but paradoxically of our health as well. Indeed, no people on earth worry more about the health consequences of their food choices than we Americans-and no people suffer from as many diet-related problems. We are becoming a nation of orthorexics: people with an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.”

“When you’re cooking with food as alive as this — these gorgeous and semigorgeous fruits and leaves and flesh — you’re in no danger of mistaking it for a commodity, or a fuel, or a collection of chemical nutrients. No, in the eye of the cook or the gardener … this food reveals itself for what it is: no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on each other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight.”

“Now, all of this might be tolerable if eating by the light of nutritionism made us, if not happier, then at least healthier.  That it has failed to do.  Thirty years of nutritional advice have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.  This is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do: in need of a whole new way to think about eating.”

“Pay more, eat less. What the French case suggests is that there is a trade-off in eating between quantity and quality.”

“To eat slowly, in the Slow Food sense, is to eat with a fuller knowledge of all that is involved in bringing food out of the earth and to the table.”