But most of all, I want to tell you about something I've been contemplating lately. One of the (many, many things) I love about Amanda Hesser and Melissa Clark is their utter candidness and honesty. It's beautiful, and so attractive. I thought the same of Laurie Colwin when I was reading Home Cooking. "People used to learn to cook by making dishes in their mother's or grandmother's repertoire. But now that cooking is no longer a necessity, very few people do this, which is probably why so many young people may never cook. Without a handful of recipes to start you off, cooking seems overwhelming. There are too many choices. Why begin with roasted chicken when you could make chicken satay or chicken curry? Why make chocolate pudding when you're used to the molten chocolate souffles that you get in restaurants?" Amanda asks in Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes. I'd never thought about it that way, but it's true.
While I grew up with a mother who had dinner on the table by 6pm every night and did indeed cook, I didn't grow up the way some others have -- dining in top Parisian restaurants, perfecting croissants and eating potato salad with homemade mayonnaise. For a long while there was Shake'N'Bake and Swanson's chicken pot pies and Domino's pizza on Friday night (to qualify, I'll mention that my parents both cook and both cook very well.) It was how I grew up and it made sense for my family. But at the same time, as someone who adores cooking from scratch, I had no real repertoire when I first started out. I still don't, not really. I try different recipes. I eat what I like. It's not uncommon for me to eat the same thing for dinner all week without thinking twice about it. But I'd like to think this is a good way to start -- being thrown into the ocean headfirst and trying, gracefully or not, to navigate the waves and ripples.
As Amanda says -- I speak about her as if I know her, I realize -- "when you make a dish again and again, altering it to your liking, it becomes an expression of your aesthetic, of your palate, of who you are. And when you serve that dish to guests, they come to understand you a litte better. This my mother, who is very practical, generous and a perfectionist, makes a superb roasted chicken with herbs tucked under the skin and lemons and onions neatly packed into its cavity, and crisp almond biscotti that look as if the nuts were arranged one by one. My sister Rhonda is indulgent and has a good sense of humor. One of her specialties is spaghetti with fried eggs."
I like the thought that my repertoire of dishes is an extension of myself. Of course this is easy to say given my affinity for anything kitchen related. But I think even throwing together a salad with some nuts and a good goat's cheese counts. I think of the dishes or foods I make most often -- linguine with tiny canned clams, lentil soups and stews, salads with multiple lettuces, granola, roasted chicken with lemon, garlic and rosemary. I made a batch of terrific latkes with aged white cheddar and homemade applesauce, and I love dipping my fingers into a big bowl of air-popped popcorn coated lightly in olive oil and dusted with salt and either smoked paprika or chili flakes.
Brown rice pasta with pesto is my go-to meal, perhaps because it seems perfectly refined to me when topped with a poached egg and is equal parts comfort food and sophistication. I enjoy eating cottage cheese right from the container, standing up, or having a baked lamb sausage with red grapes -- the way the skins split open is lovely. I don't know what these things say about me except that I must have a great deal of time on my hands, which is half true, I guess. However, I do like humble foods, simple foods, and I suppose that speaks to my upbringing and my former geographical landscape. At the same time, I like the best. Good, freshly picked, Ontario apples. A fruity extra-virgin olive oil and a grassy tasting one for different purposes. Delicious teas and fresh herbs. Some might say I'm obsessed with food and they would be correct, but I think of cooking and preparing foods in the same way I perceive fashion or home decor; I see these things as my soul's limbs, not self-defining exactly and not the be-all, end-all, but as a way to live in the world. I get to decide who I am and what I love.
We don't start knowing everything: we learn piece by piece, picking up odds and ends as we go. And that's what cooking is to me, too -- seeing what's around, what scraps can be thrown together into something edible. Eventually you realize sweet potatoes, kale and eggs operate harmoniously together, that coriander was the missing ingredient in the lentil soup from one of your old haunts that you tried to re-create, that latkes are easier to make than you imagined.
Or suddenly you find yourself with an odds-and-ends kind of cookie, one that is a little bit dessert and a little bit refined and a little bit ladies-who-lunch. I don't know what that says about me, but I know I am quiet when I eat them. As anyone who knows me can attest to, this is no small thing.
When I cook these days, I imagine Amanda in my kitchen, tasting a basic vinaigrette I've emulsified in a glass jar, or biting into a bean taco and murmuring aloud, "More salt?" as she lets the flavours float on her tongue, tastebuds making the call.
These cookies are buttery but crumbly, flavourful yet restrained. When I handed them out to those looking for samples, one proclaimed they were very nice. I like them well myself, especially considering the dough freezes well -- excellent for those who live alone and don't want to be tempted with so many cookies. Full disclosure: I devoured seven of these (mini cookies) within a few hours, but since they contain that magical ingredient (begins with b, ends with utter) in addition to the buckwheat and quinoa flours....well, this cookie is practically a health food, non?
Buckwheat Cocao Nib Cookies
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg, who adapted this recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert
1 1/4 cups quinoa flour
3/4 buckwheat flour
1/2 lb (2 sticks) unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1.5 tbsp baking powder
1/3 cup cocao nibs*
1.5 tsp pure vanilla extract
Now, this is going to sound like a total cop-out, but Ms. Wizenberg does a much better job at detailing the method than I could ever hope to do. Please see her instuctions, adding the baking powder to the flours. I used quinoa flour in place of the all-purpose, but I can't see why you couldn't use brown rice, coconut flour or any other flour you like. The texture and flavour might alter slightly, so please take that into account.
Please see Molly's instructions here.
*I only had 1/4 cup of cacao nibs when I made these cookies, so I added in some finely chopped dark chocolate to make up a the full 1/3 cup. The cookies were no worse for wear, trust me.