Simplicity Rules

On Sunday night, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the marriage of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. I’ve known about both technologies because I read the MIT Technology Review, an excellent source for staying informed about our fast paced world. Each issue delves into a new technology’s impacts from a historical, scientific, demographic, educational, political, economic, sociological, environmental, and cultural perspective. I’ve anticipated the convergence of AI and QC for a long time, but the 60 Minutes episode heightened my awareness to a new level. What happens when these two huge technologies marry? Hold on! Whoa!!!

Now you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with food and cooking. After the program ended I sat in my chair and stared at the wall glazed over like a zombie. I contemplated the dizzying pace of societal change and a growing complexity of life that seems to have no end in sight. Then I remembered one of my most deeply held values: simplicity. You already know how much I love simplicity – every recipe I write about has minimal ingredients, requires little cleanup and takes only thirty minutes or less. Simplicity rules!

I often read recipes and re-write them in my head to eliminate unnecessary steps and stuff to wash. I sometimes wonder “What on earth are these cooks thinking?” They want me to use every pot, pan, and utensil in the kitchen. When I’m finished, I will be knee-deep in things that need to be washed, dried and put away. I will likely feel very crabby and ask myself why I even made This Thing. Why follow a recipe exactly just because it said so? Break free from all the recipe shoulds and musts. Cooking should be enjoyable, not a chore that leaves our kitchens looking like a massive tornado just ripped through it.

When I read a recipe, I look for ways to simplify it and ask “Do I really need three bowls to mix this?” Can I combine steps and use only one bowl? Is there a shortcut that won’t compromise the recipe’s integrity? For example, my beau James taught me that it’s not always necessary to sauté an onion before adding it to a recipe. The onion usually cooks enough, has plenty of flavor, and a delightful crunch. I would have never thought to question this step. After all, my mother and grandmother and probably my great grandmother always did it that way.

Sometimes the most satisfying meals are the ones cooked with a sprinkle of ease and a dash of freedom. Do what feels good and eliminate the fluff. And who knows, after AI and QC marry, the best meals just may be the ones cooked by your robot.

Bread Pudding Bliss

Recently I was a passenger in the car with my friend Terry and we chatted about food. Right off the bat, she rattled off a recipe for bread pudding which I wrote down. The simple dessert sounded delicious with a comfort food feel. Thanksgiving was fast approaching and I wanted to bring a dessert but this wasn’t fancy enough. How could I fix it up to make it suitable for a celebration?

A few days later I visited my friend Ellie and the topic of Thanksgiving came up. I told her that I planned to make bread pudding. Without missing a beat she said “I have a recipe for an Irish Whiskey sauce that would be lovely on that”. What on earth prompted her to answer an unasked question? I absolutely love it when my problems get solved without any effort from me – it’s like magic!! Abracadabra! Poof!! That certainly makes life easy, doesn’t it? Now my humble dessert could get dressed up and attend a special occasion dinner. Another unasked question that Ellie answered was “What kind of bread do I use”? She just happened to blurt out that French bread was the best kind, even though the recipe is known to work with any kind of leftover bread, particularly artisanal breads.

Bread Pudding

4 – 6 cups semi-dry bread, shredded
2 cups milk
1 cube butter
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Dried fruit: raisins, figs, dates, cherries, etc.

Preheat the oven to 350⁰. Grease a baking dish and use it to mix the bread and the dried fruit. In a saucepan, scald the milk then add the butter. Let it melt then whisk in the sugar, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Pour the mixture over the bread. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes until the bread looks crunchy, the custard bubbles away on the edges, and the kitchen fills with an intoxicating aroma. Eat it right away because the top gets soggy the longer it sits.

Irish Whiskey Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
½ cup sugar
7 egg yolks
¼ cup Irish Whiskey (bourbon or rum will work too)

Boil the cream and milk in a double boiler, lower the heat to simmer, combine the sugar and egg yolks and gradually whisk in. Add the whiskey and stir constantly for 8-10 minutes. Recipe is from “The Southern Foodie”.

This dessert is a delightful combination of textures: a crisp, crunchy crust, a spongy custard-soaked interior, and a velvety sauce. Next time I’m going to add bacon and eat it for breakfast. And maybe lunch and dinner too. This makes my mouth water just writing about it!

A Feast of Gratitude

Lately the world is in a tragic turmoil and it’s so easy to get sucked into the cesspool of negativity. For a long time, I’ve known that thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are a type of nourishment, just like food. We often operate on “default mode” and unconsciously take in what is fed to us without much reflection or consideration. As the world grapples with challenges, I make a daily commitment to preserve the sanctity of my mental space and I disregard the news. That opens up “disc space” in my mind so I can appreciate the things that make me feel tranquil instead of focusing on all that is wrong in the world.

I don’t understand war. I can’t even kill a bug in the house just because it’s in the wrong place. I usually catch them and put them outside; after all, they are living beings just like we are. Oh dear, I digress! Well anyway, when I limit my exposure to the constant barrage of negativity, then the small moments that bring happiness, comfort, and connection leap out at me from just about everywhere. There are so many small, beautiful moments that unfold throughout the day.

The perfect antidote for negativity is to be grateful. Every day I train myself to see the abundance of small blessings that constantly surround me. I get immense fulfillment when I immerse myself in the richness of everyday life. We don’t need grand gestures or monumental events in order to feel thankful; the opportunities reside in the minutia of our daily existence. They are embedded in the aroma of a cup of tea, the lovely muted blues and violets of the hills in the wintertime, the laughter shared over a simple meal, the scent of a cake in the oven; these small gifts fill the heart to overflowing.

And you know what happens when the heart overflows with happiness? It automatically flows to other people. My friend says “Happiness becomes joy when shared”. Oh I am so idealistic! What if . . . everyone in the world noticed and appreciated the sweet little things in life? Their hearts would get big – just like The Grinch’s – and that fullness would be contagious. All this takes is a simple shift in perspective. That’s free! I sound like one of those Age of Aquarius people, don’t I? Oh well, why not? Someone’s gotta’ envision a better future if we want to see transformation in the world. Together, let’s do that!

So climb out of the cesspool and buy someone you don’t know a cup of coffee. Surprise! Create opportunities for gratitude. Who knows, someday the world just may thank you for that.

One Pan Chicken, Grapes and Vegetables

I love to go to the grocery store this time of year and see the beautiful cornucopias of squashes and pumpkins piled high in the produce section. Sometimes I just stand there and take it all in, as if I am a sponge absorbing a moment of divine rapture. I pretend that am in a still life painting, mesmerized by all the patterns, colors, and shapes. Of course I speculate about all the wonderful concoctions I could make with those pumpkins and squashes. Butternut squash soup! Julia Child’s pumpkin pie! Spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese! And a recipe from for a “sheet pan dinner” of chicken, grapes, and vegetables. 

For those of you who don’t know yet, “sheet pan dinners” are definitely a “thing”. That is a meal where a cook roasts all the ingredients together on a single sheet pan and that translates to ease of preparation and minimal cleanup. You know how much I love simplicity! There are no pots and pans, and just a few utensils to wash. Most sheet pan recipes include a protein, vegetable and starch, all sprinkled with herbs and seasonings. The result is a flavorful and nutritionally balanced one-pan meal that you can whip together on a moment’s notice. These recipes are the perfect “un-recipes” because you can easily switch up the ingredients and use what you have on hand. Here goes:

One Pan Chicken, Grapes, and Veggies

2 pounds chicken drumsticks
1 acorn squash, cubed
8 cups green beans, trimmed
2 cups seedless grapes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh thyme
½ teaspoon sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400⁰. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Drizzle the olive oil over everything, season with thyme and salt and toss a few times. Roast it for 25-30 minutes or until the chicken cooks through.

I sometimes wonder why recipes are so specific. It seems to me that you could make this with any parts of the chicken – breasts, wings, or thighs. Why does it have to be just legs? The pieces might cook at different rates and you’d have to keep an eye on it. The recipe is better with fresh thyme but dried works well too. Don’t have green beans? Try zucchini or asparagus. The grapes are what make this recipe delicious. When biting into a warm, succulent grape the juice will explode all over the inside of your mouth with tender sweetness. I like to add small potatoes; the addition of starch makes the dish more complete and flavorful and I stay full much longer. Now I can be in a still life painting that also has great flavor! Yum!

The Bean Club

I was raised in the 1960s by a progressive mother who was a health food nut and a vegetarian long before most people knew what those were. She grew up during the depression and knew how to make low-cost staple ingredients like dried beans and lentils taste utterly delicious. We almost always had a pot of beans simmering away in a big copper kettle on the stove.

One time I stumbled across a bag of dried beans from a place called Rancho Gordo and they were outstanding, unlike any other beans I had ever eaten. I became curious about this “Rancho Gordo” and looked them up. The company was started by a gentleman named Steve Sando who was frustrated with the run-of-the-mill beans grown as commodity crops that are commonly available in grocery stores. His quest to find a better bean propelled him from a backyard garden experiment to warehouses, mail order, and a network of farmers across the Americas who grow heirloom beans that have flavor and history. Some varieties have been cultivated for hundreds of years. They are packed with mouthwatering flavor, have velvety textures and are so good that they can be eaten plain.

After looking at their website for a couple of hours, I ordered a few bags. I learned that if a person wants to get the rare limited harvest beans they have to join the Rancho Gordo bean club. The company ships six bags every quarter and the box includes a surprise; last time it was a jar of pure New Mexican chili powder. When the box arrives, I am full of anticipation and sheer delight. What unusual beans am I going to get this time? Not only do I get beans, I learn some history and get a geography lesson too because an informative newsletter accompanies the beans.

Last week, I cooked a bag of borlotti lamons, the equivalent of pinto beans on steroids. All I added was vegetable broth, bay leaves, and ham hocks. They were extraordinary in their simplicity. Another time I made my usual pot of chili and instead of using regular kidney beans, I used ayocote morados and suddenly my chili jumped to elite status.

Sometimes I feel saddened that so much flavor and diversity has been lost in the food chain along the way. My grandmother used to say that the food now just doesn’t taste as good as she remembered when growing up. I have heard similar statements from other older folks. I applaud people like Steve Sando who work tirelessly to preserve genetic diversity and heritage in our food. Because of that I have access to the highest quality ingredients available and I can cook like I’m a chef in a fancy five-star restaurant. That’s awesome!

Pumpkin Bread

The pumpkins are here! I love the festive orange dots scattered everywhere; when I see one, happiness bubbles up in me. If the pumpkins could talk, they’d say “PARTY”! And then I think of pumpkin pie, cookies, and bread. I often wonder why a person would buy a can of pumpkin when it is so easy to chop up a pie pumpkin, pop it in the oven, and then purée it. The lovely aroma of pumpkin wafts through the kitchen and you know that something good to eat is on its way. If you can find an heirloom pie pumpkin, that’s even better.

The following recipe is for my favorite quick bread. It’s an un-recipe because you can make it with pumpkin, bananas, or zucchini. I love to eat this in the morning, toasted with lots of butter. Eating something this delicious —and nourishing —makes me happy to be alive. The quality of one’s life can be measured in the number of simple little pleasures that occur throughout the day. You don’t even need a mixer to make this – just a mixing bowl, spoon, and some elbow grease. I like to use my hands cuz’ then I get to lick my fingers when I’m done. Yum!

The Very Best Quick Bread or Muffins

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
¾ to 1 cup sugar
Spices: ½ tsp each cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger or, 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie or chai spices or any other combination of warm spices
2 eggs
½ cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup pumpkin, bananas, or shredded zucchini
Chopped nuts and/or raisins, figs, dates

Combine the dry ingredients. Combine the moist ingredients then thoroughly mix the dry with the moist. Pour into a greased loaf or muffin pan. You can vary the size of the loaf or muffin pans– just make sure they are filled about ⅔ of the way. Bake in a 350⁰ oven for 35-40 minutes or until it starts to pull away from the edges of the pan and cracks appear on the surface. Cool in pan. This bread freezes well, too.

I like to make this via the “assembly line” method. You can make multiple batches of the dry ingredients and store each batch in one quart mason jars. Then all you have to do is round up the moist ingredients and whip a loaf together in just a matter of minutes. I did this one time with my friend Rachel.  We gave some of them away with the recipe written on a tag that was tied to the jar with a ribbon.

So there you go – another “un-recipe” recipe just in time for Halloween.

Porcini Power

In 2014, my friend Eve gave me access to her wholesale account at a fancy foods Indo-European importer. The company supplies high-end restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and wineries with a treasure chest of all things gourmet. Their catalog roared with mouthwatering descriptions and photographs of foods I had never seen or heard of before. Five pages of chocolate and four pages of salt blew me away! Full of glee, I went berserk and ordered about twenty things, among them smoked sea salt, aged sherry vinegar, pomegranate molasses, and porcini mushroom powder. I felt like a culinary wizard who had a collection of magical potions that transformed recipes into enchanting masterpieces. That’s when my cooking went from ordinary to extraordinary and I coined the words “flavor bursts”, my term for concentrated flavorings that elevate cooking to five-star restaurant status.

One of my favorite flavor bursts is porcini mushroom powder. The powder adds intense savory and earthy flavor of unparalleled depth to culinary creations. Have you ever taken a bite of something and wondered “Wow, what’s in this”? Porcini definitely adds that full, mysterious, and unidentifiable flavor. I add a heaping teaspoon or two to soups, stews, pasta sauces, barley, lentils, and marinades. I cook rice in broth along with some porcini powder and suddenly that simple staple ingredient becomes a luxurious and aromatic dish fit for a king or a queen. Porcini powder explodes with the umami flavor – a taste that some describe as “delicious meaty savory”.

I make a lovely creamy porcini mushroom gravy, perfect for drizzling over meats, mashed potatoes, and pasta. I even put it on cauliflower the other day. Porcini gravy turns almost any food into an instant comfort food. Yum!

Porcini Mushroom Gravy

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon porcini powder
Salt and pepper to taste

In a sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the flour. Add the porcini powder and cook until it bubbles and turns a deep golden color. Add the broth and milk and whisk constantly until it thickens. You may need to add more liquid. Easy!

Porcini powder seems to last indefinitely since I store it in a swing-top-bale jar – a jar with a metal clamp and a rubber gasket. My Italian porcini powder is seven years old and still remarkably potent. A one pound package that costs less than thirty dollars and lasts for years and years – I’d say that goes in the category of “lots of cluck for your buck”. Some say porcini mushrooms are the king of wild mushrooms and I definitely agree. Try some! It’s fun!

Peaches and Cream . . . and Porcini

Last week, I wrote about flavor pairings that are so remarkable they seem like matches made in heaven. The memory of them may even linger for years. I vividly remember one such flavor pairing.

Awhile back, I toured the Piedmont region of Italy. Parmesan Reggianno (the original Parmesan cheese), balsamic vinegar, and prosciutto (dry cured Italian ham) originated there. For a couple of days, I visited the small town of Parma, the Parmesan cheese capitol of the world. Parmesan Reggianno is unlike any other Parmesan cheese. It’s crumbly with little crystals in it and has a rich, nutty, and savory flavor because it’s aged for one to two years.

One evening, I attended a dinner party hosted by a local chef. A few minutes after I was seated at the long table, another guest told me that the dinner was a special occasion. It was? Yes, we were about to experience a rare event. Peaches and porcini mushrooms were being harvested at the same time. Normally, their growing seasons do not overlap. But this year perfect environmental conditions brought them together. This rare and precious treat was soon to arrive on my plate. I was so excited!

The chef prepared a lovely pasta dish and the earthy flavor of the porcinis mingled perfectly with the sweet peaches. The next morning the produce market overflowed with piles of peaches, porcini, and black truffles, a beautiful sight that I could now truly understand and appreciate.  

This vivid memory stayed with me until . . . my friend Julie just happened to stop by with a big bag of tree ripened peaches. Now I wanted to go play in the kitchen! I didn’t have porcini mushrooms, but I had porcini powder. In a moment of inspiration, I made a quick pasta sauce that was culinary ecstasy. Porcini powder is a handy umami-packed flavor to include in your pantry; it’s available on Amazon. I imagine frozen peaches would work just fine in this dish.

First, heat two tablespoons of olive oil or butter in a skillet. Then sauté two shallots along with about a dozen sliced brown mushrooms until they are crispy on the edges. Add one cup vegetable or chicken broth and a tablespoon of porcini powder and simmer until reduced slightly, about ten minutes. Season with salt and pepper and add ¼ cup heavy cream. Simmer until thickened. Add a handful of sliced peaches and heat through. Toss the sauce with pasta (I used penne) and serve with grated Parmesan. The measurements are estimates only – trust your senses to know how much to add.

Who said that heaven is somewhere else? It’s here right now, in the divine flavor combination of peaches, cream, and porcini. Try it, you’ll like it!

The Flavor Marriage

Last week, I wrote about the New York Time’s most requested recipe ever – “Marian Burros Plum Torte”. That recipe is the ultimate “un-recipe” because you can easily switch up the ingredients to make it your own. Play a little and have fun! Adults can do that, you know.

The torte was so easy and delicious that I wanted to make it again. But this time I wanted to use almond flour and almond extract. Almond flour makes baked goods nutritionally more substantial and adds lovely flavor and texture. Almond extract would intensify the flavor. I had about a dozen miniature peaches but they wouldn’t cover the top if I was going to use my 10” springform pan. What to do? I went about my day then forgot all about my peach conundrum until my friend Don called and told me to look on the front porch. I opened the door and almost tripped over a box of fresh figs. Yay! Problem solved. I get so excited when surprise solutions arrive without any effort from me.

That evening, I made the torte with half tiny peaches and half figs. The torte was incredibly beautiful with its rainbow of ruby red, orange, and yellow hues. For a moment, I felt as if I had jumped off my chair and straight into a Monet painting, the colors were so extraordinary. The torte went into the oven after I sprinkled demerara sugar – big, chunky golden crystals – all over the top. 

Then the Anticipated Moment came. I took a bite of the figs and what a surprise – the flavor combination of fig and almond was pure perfection. Clearly, those flavors love each other. The crust tasted like marzipan (almond candy) and when combined with the figs – well, my world screeched to a halt for a few seconds. If perfect harmony had a taste, this would be it. Next, I tried the peaches. They were good, but not exceptional. Why, I wondered?  Then I remembered one of my favorite books, “The Flavor Bible” by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

The Flavor Bible is a four inch thick dictionary-like book. You can look up almost any food and get a list of foods that compliment it. This book is the perfect culinary reference guide for anyone who wants to cook or bake with un-recipes because it removes the guesswork. After I bought the book, I read it like it was a good mystery novel and couldn’t put it down. Yes, almonds love figs. Peaches, well, not so much. Maybe in a week or two I will get some inspiration and play matchmaker for peaches. After all, I wouldn’t want the peaches to feel lonely, or left out. Stay tuned!

The Best Five Dollars

Did you know that a well-stocked pantry is like a good work horse? Your pantry can help you whip up something delicious to eat without too much effort. You only need a handful of ingredients and thirty minutes. That’s all! Think of it like this: there are 26 letters in the alphabet but those letters combine to make 275,000 words. I often wonder what a person could make with only 10 or 11 foods in their pantry.

Even if you keep a well-stocked pantry, I imagine that sometimes you wander into the kitchen feeling lost, and ask yourself “What shall I make for dinner?” This can happen even if your pantry and fridge are stuffed full. There is a cure for the “What’s for dinner syndrome”. Subscribe to New York Times Cooking.

For only five dollars a month, I get access to their incredibly well-organized website. I also get a daily email packed with recipes. Often the recipes inspire me and suddenly I will know what to cook. Though many of their recipes are geared for those fancy sorts of people who live in “hip” urban areas, they are still fun to read. Then there are those recipes that would seem to take forever to make. Well, if it takes longer than 30 minutes, I’ll pass, thank you very much. All that being said, NYT Cooking is a superb resource because there’s something for everyone.

Let’s say you have a pound of chicken breasts in the fridge and your mind goes blank. Tap on the “Ingredients” tab and on the drop down menu, click “chicken breasts”. All the recipes have pictures and some are marked “easy”. You can also use the search bar at the top of the page that asks “What would you like to cook?” Are you in the mood for cauliflower? Type that in and you’ll get so many recipes your head will spin.

Another wonderful feature is that below the recipes, there is space for comments. I love to scroll through them and read all the different versions cooks invent; the creative variations are endless. I get so many new ideas when I read these comments. Sometimes the ideas are just tiny twists, but those little ideas can pack big punches.

So you see, you get a lot of inspiration and creativity for your five dollars a month. My subscription is now the most essential ingredient in my pantry. It goes in the category of “Good Ideas”. Just as I finished writing this, I got a new email with the subject line “100 Quick Dinners”. There you go! Now food can whirl around, jump off the shelves and cook itself for you – well, almost!

A Famous Plum Torte 9.21.23