COOKING & CREATIVITY
I don’t remember how I learned to cook. There was no concrete event or particular pedagogy. There was no single moment in time where I sat down with the intention of honing any technical knowledge at all. But one thing I can nail down is how I cultivated an appreciation and thereby a passion for cooking. Growing up in a family that loved and gathered around food, taught me that good cooking is an act of love and respect. And through spending time with my Mom in the kitchen, I began to soak in the motions and methods that make up an intuitive chef.
My family kitchen growing up was loud and bright - adorned with pastel yellow cabinetry and large printed yellow and silver leaf flowers on the ceiling (no joke!). What it lacked in space it made up for in personality. And while it couldn’t have been larger than 100 sq feet, it felt larger than life. It was the epicenter of our home, the public square of our little village.
And it was in this kitchen where my Mom showed me how to cook. Our cooking lessons were not really lessons at all, but rather pockets of time (often before Shabbat), where I observed her casually throwing together a formal dinner for five and effortlessly creating something that the whole family savored. I watched her motions and tendencies. She never looked at recipes. Instead she moved through the kitchen gracefully in a dance- her hands in spirit finger pose releasing spices on simmering vegetables, and gliding to tend to boiling pots and roasting pans. Her instinct for cooking was ingrained- like muscle memory, honed after years of prepping large communal dinners around the Shabbat table.
I memorized and modeled these movements - the way she would pinch the salt and sprinkle it over sautéing onions, the way she rocked her knife as she diced vegetables, and smashed garlic with the back of a spoon. When it was time for me to serve as sous chef, my Mom walked through the steps to cook and taste some of our most coveted recipes, passed down for generations. Our meatball recipe for example is one of the most beloved dishes in our household, and knowing that it was the meatballs that gave me the ability to make everyone in the house feel happy, made me feel like I had a secret weapon- a super power that filled everyone with joy. And these recipes that I learned in my mother’s kitchen did not involve measuring cups, or spoons. Like many traditional recipes, the measure of balance came from the 5 senses - taste, smell, feel, sound and sight. Learning how to cook in this way is the single most important factor that paved the way for me to innovate in my own kitchen.
I recently had the honor of meeting two women that I admire, Samin Nosrat, author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat and Alison Cayne of Haven’s Kitchen and author of The Haven's Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen. Both Samin & Alison believe that if you know how to eat, you can learn to cook. They note that once you understand a few basic rules around cooking, you can make nearly anything, and you can make it delicious too. And once you learn how to strike that transcendent balance between saltiness, acidity, fat and texture you can create dishes unique to you. It’s a simple, yet radical idea. It’s a liberating idea. And this philosophy matches up to my experience and point of view in every facet of my food ventures.
It’s an idea that my dear friend Alexandra and I put into practice at The Wandering - our plant based dinner series - and in many ways, it’s our core purpose. Through The Wandering we really want to inspire a movement around cooking, eating, creating, and sharing a table with friends. In order to do this, we spend a lot of time demystifying the cooking process, and encouraging all of our wanderers create in the kitchen. This is also the central ethos of The Fennel Frond. One of the most exciting things about this platform is the freedom to experiment in the kitchen. And the reason that I’ve been able to create new, and often unusual, dishes that actually taste good is because I’ve learned to balance each of these taste qualities in every dish. I take in the cardinal rules, and I innovate within constraint.
The recipe that I’m sharing is inspired the pineapple DC (check us out if you're a woman in food and like to meet amazing, inspiring women!) event that showcased Samin’s work. The gathering included an inspiring Q&A with Samin, followed by a demo on how to make caesar dressing with no recipe. And while our guests went off to make dressing of their own, the pineapple staff (including me!) hovered over Samin’s dressing, dipping bread into it, savoring the perfect palatable balance of salt, fat and acid. It was delectable. And like Samin encourages in her book, I allowed my taste buds to guide me. This fun impromptu bonding moment inspired me to create a caesar toast, and incorporate the pleasant crispy texture of toasted bread to accent the creaminess and savoriness of the dressing.
* note use your taste buds to adjust these quantities as needed! It's a fun exercise
- 1/2 cup of yogurt
- 4 dashes of worcestershire
- 2 tbs of pounded anchovies
- 1 tbs of pounded and salted garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup of good parmesan
- 1 tbs of milk to thin out the yogurt
- 1 tsp cracked black pepper
- tomatoes, roasted with olive oil and salt
- toasted bread
- shredded romaine
Arrange dish by spreading caesar yogurt on bread, top with romaine, roasted tomatoes and parmesan.
Here are my main tips for being innovative in the kitchen:
- Buy Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat and Kitchen Confidence - they're both great starting points, and have lots of information on the fundamentals on cooking to set you up to innovate. Learn the basics and create within constraint
- Don’t be ashamed of looking at recipes or cookbooks
- Recipes and photos are great for flavor inspiration even if you don’t need the finer details and measurements
- Like Samin mentions, the perfect balance of salt (like feta, anchovies, soy sauce), acid (lemon, ferment, lime, vinegar), and fat (avocado, cream, butter, oils) are the forces that make a dish sublime. Use your palate to tweak your dish and add an element if it needs that extra something.
- Use travel to inspire and note your flavor combinations. Carry around a notebook, and ask chefs what they put in their dishes. Go to local markets to see the spices that are used in that region.
- Practice! Invest the time in learning.
- Learn to enjoy the market (super or farmers), and let the ingredients inspire you
- Have your friends and family taste your creations and ask for their feedback
- Cook with friends and family to learn their traditions and recipes