I love to cook. I love to make something of nothing, and then eat it. More so, I love to make something from nothing and have other people eat it. While it doesn't always happen, when someone can immediately engage in your work and give you feedback, that is something special – instant creative gratification.
If you’re like me your cooking has evolved over the years. Or you might not be like me at all and you've been cooking the same chicken dish or passed down casserole for your whole life, and plan to make it tonight. That’s fine too, I kind of thought that would be me – I made a lot of my mom’s recipes in college, from photocopied pages of her cookbooks, when it was my turn to cook for my roommates. But I’m really glad I didn't stay there. I'm so grateful for life lived and food eaten and limitations that have shaped how I cook in this moment now. When I take a step back, I see that my metamorphosis happened over the last ten years, by way of the following eras:
My Summer in Florence
Bad Meat, Good Fat
Gluten and Dairy and Sugar, Oh My!
Alison Roman AKA The Most Perfect Recipes
These periods have defined how I cook and view food and are now rolled into a beautiful kaleidoscope of my Rolodex of recipes. If only I had an actual Rolodex I would be more organized. Instead I have a collection of cookbooks, pins, iPhone notes, and Instagram saves. If anyone can compile these or if there is an app out there that does so, I would be so grateful.
My Summer in Florence
My Summer in Florence, Italy was a picture. Sometimes I can’t believe it happened except for the pictures and the way I felt about food, after the fact. It changed how I thought about fresh ingredients and olive oil but also the methods available to me to get from A to B, raw to cooked.
I grew up with what I would call a very traditional meat, starch, salad style of cooking. My mom is a great cook, my grandmothers were great cooks. I love that Sunday dinner at lunchtime still happens at my parents house every week. And I love my Grandma’s Swedish Meatballs. But despite my food heritage, it was very traditional, and very much a product of their childhood. Casseroles, or hot dishes if you prefer, very little sautéing and a lot of boiling or oven cooking. When I arrived in Italy I had never had carbonara or capers, clams or homemade bolognese, or anchovies, and combining them was certainly not done.
I was there as an Aupair, in the hills of Florence, a town called Sesto Fiorentino. I lived with the family, and like my family growing up, they rarely went out. I loved that those long Sunday meals happened in Italy as well, and I saw a lot of cooking. Watching Chiara, the mother, changed everything for me. I had never seen chicken cooked in olive oil, skewered with mozzarella before. I didn’t know that onion, celery, carrot, and pancetta was the base of a bolognese. I remember I brought back two pounds of bucatini pasta in my suitcase and made my own red sauce a day or two after arriving home. I don't think my dad liked it, but there would be no more spaghetti and meatballs for me, that life had passed away. My future involved nutmeg, fresh tomatoes, and a long simmer.
They use the oven very little in Italy, almost never, especially in the summer where it heats the whole house. And so I watched Sunday Suppers and 9 pm weeknight dinners being made, doused in olive oil and sautéed, smothered in fresh parmesan and leisurely enjoyed with a glass of Chianti. I came back to the states and I have used olive oil in almost every dish I have made since.
Bad Meat, Good Fat
Soon after we moved to Nashville we watched the documentary, What the Health. I don't usually consider myself a gullible person, and I still believe there are valid and healthy reasons for a plant based diet, but that doc really got us, and we embarked on a vegetarian diet.
This diet was not difficult to adapt, due to the countless resources, cookbooks, and internet finds. I made tempeh and tofu for the first time. I found things to do with beans, and I made veggies the star. I didn't miss meat, really. How could you, when you are eating this. We would occasionally cheat, with family, on holidays, or if someone cooked for us in their home. And we still ate fish. Patrick would say how flavorful the food was and how full he felt. Maybe we were eating more bread and carbs as well, but we weren’t eating what we thought at the time was bad for us. I really enjoyed this challenge and the skills I had with me from Italy lent themselves well.
The Good Fats phase was a mini add-on to the vegetarian. It was a semi Keto stage and I hesitate to even call it that. It was more that I found this diet fascinating and maybe in an effort to revamp my vegetarian recipes, I incorporated more fat and less carbs into my cooking. More butter, more avocados, lots of tuna and pickles for lunch, and a decent attempt at less carbs. The drawback was more meat, but by this point, we were ready to have it.
Gluten and Dairy and Sugar, Oh My!
Shortly after we moved to New York, on a hot day in June, I had a 24 hour stomach bug, followed by weeks of unexplained bloating and discomfort. After considering my options I decided to try a more natural diagnosis by way of applied kinesiology – something my husband had found helpful in Nashville when he had stomach problems. The specialist’s diagnosis was Candida, a post virus, and fungus in my gut, likely inflamed by recent stressors. Lovely. His recommendation was natural supplements and a strict diet to starve the fungus of all the things it likes. Unfortunately, those happened to be all the things I like as well: sugar, dairy, gluten, alcohol, peanuts, and mushrooms were out for 6 weeks...at least. This seemed impossible, but it wasn’t. It was just limiting and I had figured out limits before.
We had already switched to almond milk in Nashville and after a couple of years learning to modify recipes, I felt I could do this. If you have ever tried to cut sugar out, you know that sugar is in essentially everything packaged, as well as fruit. I could have the amount of natural sugar that is in half a banana each day. I had to cut back on coffee, but thankfully not completely. For me it was cheese, it would always be Parmesan. To this day that is the one dairy item I will not substitute. But again the internet came through and some of my favorites are from this era.
I stuck to this pretty strictly for 6 weeks and my gut did heal. After that he recommended staying off the gluten and dairy. By this point I was just so happy to have my sugar and peanut butter back, that this seemed perfectly feasible. I continued to cook predominantly without dairy and gluten in a quasi-paleo fashion.
If you haven’t discovered Alison Roman yet, this is your call to action. While I wouldn't say she has changed the way I cook, she has written recipes I never would have dreamed of making that are now standard repertoire in my kitchen. She has gotten me hooked on several ingredients: fresh parsley, anchovies, and chicken fat.
Forget dairy free, gluten free, and meat free, this phase has been pretty much, “you only live once.” But I also have the tools to modify, if I want to, and often I do (though I don't recommend it because her recipes are perfect). I don’t really know how to explain what is so wonderful about her food. It is just brilliant and flavorful and fresh. If you're looking for an intro to Alison Roman, I recommend Shallot Pasta, The Stew, or Vinegar Chicken with Crushed Olives. Watching her, I feel I'm watching a master at work in their domain, and what is more inspiring than that?
I also want to note that there is nothing like the limitation of space and time for creative cooking, which I believe is her secret. Just watch Small Kitchen, Big Thanksgiving on YouTube to see her genius at work. She uses the same tiny New York oven and fridge that I have and cooks a full-on Thanksgiving meal. I'd say that makes us kindred spirits.
With each of those stages I have gleaned something meaningful to carry into the next. There are still recipes from all of those seasons that I make regularly. I can cook a meal for almost any allergy or preference due to my time practicing and perfecting in each stage. None of those years eating no meat or more fat and then no dairy went to waste. The limitations added, rather than subtracted, to my skills and knowledge as a cook.
Much like my creative life, my cooking journey has taken the most unexpected turns. I never thought I would be cooking without dairy. I never thought a New York Times columnist would inspire and color my quarantine world. The most exciting discovery is when these two worlds collide. A musical about none other than Alison Roman, a song about her stew? A ballad on her fortuitous biscuits?
The beautiful thing about this rich and dynamic life is that somehow, everything manages to connect. Creativity is simply finding those joints where they do. Like when you realize how brilliant a Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookie is.