I go on stints where I cook almost exclusively from one cookbook or blog. Actually, I take recipes, apply their concept, and change almost everything. I’ve been cooking from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem lately.
I also share recipes on Food52 sometimes and I received the kindest comment on my beet and lentils with flatbread there. It made my whole week and reaffirmed why this blog remains mainly about food. The comment made me think, too, about the decisions I’ve made that were true turning points. One of those was during my senior year in high school when I decided to go to university rather than culinary school, and then after university, deciding to find a job rather than going back to Ireland for a course at Ballymaloe.
Sometimes I feel as if I was born to cook and feed people. I’ve loved everything about cooking for as long as I can remember. I love the creativity of selecting ingredients and flavor combinations. I love both its meditative aspects and the more fast-paced balance of doing multiple tasks simulanteously. I love sitting down to a special meal with William and sometimes friends or family, turning off the phone, computer, TV, pause and say grace, and then invite in the experience of enjoying a meal.
I remember bringing a beef and mushroom stew over to a friend’s one time in college, and how her then-boyfriend took two bites and then paused, looked at me, and said, Bec, I can tell this was made with love, before proceeding. And it was.
I know a lot of my friends and family do not get the food I make. I’ve long felt sensitive about it, as I’ve been cooking creatively since the beginning. When William and I first began dating, it was summer and I was in town for a week. There was very little to eat in my college house as my roommates and I were largely absent for the summer. I invited him over for lunch, knowing there were approximately five ingredients to make a meal—and I knew they could combine to provide a pretty spectacular combination. William survived college up to then on his grandma’s spaghetti sauce, made by his family and frozen in huge quantities, tuna sandwiches, plain spaghetti, pizza, and kraft mac + cheese. Anything outside of that lineup was super adventurous, and he didn’t exactly appreciate what I thought was a fabulous summer lunch—with ingredients largely from my self-watering garden. For months after, he approached every dinner I’d make with trepidation, knowing it was going to be awful, and a breach from his standard American diet. But he’d try it anyway. Nine times out of ten, he’d end the meal telling me he was pleasantly surprised, again. The weird things I made actually tasted good. All he had to do was try.
When left to my own devices, I tend to veer strongly in the direction of cooking with middle eastern influences. I don’t know exactly when I picked this up as I didn’t try the cuisine until mid-college at least. I like the combination of savory and sweet grains and spices, the vegetable-heavy emphasis of the traditional recipes, and the infinite possibilities as even the simplest of ingredients can taste rich and flavorful and nourishing.
As I reflect on the statement above, I feel as if I was born to feed people, I realize I still haven’t found exactly what this means for me. I know my place is not actually feeding people in the standard chef/culinary sense. I know it is not in producing food, as I also once contemplated. Perhaps it is in sharing recipes here or elsewhere, but more likely, it might be in feeding people something other than actual food, in the form of kindness, hope, understanding, or inspiration. Ultimately, I know for me to be able to do that with authenticity, I have to be able to provide it to myself first.
William has been working late these days, and I’ve often been feeding only me. So I’ve been cooking with more mindfulness, taking recipes and adapting them intuitively to what I need, trying to eat meals a little more slowly with less distractions. I’ve been focusing on allowing the process to fill me up in ways that stretch far beyond the meal itself, to let light shine into the dark internal corners I’m afraid of, and let self-compassion and love in, when for so long I’ve projected it only outward, onto others.
I’m at a real turning point just now, and it feels like a good one. I’m finally coming to know and appreciate me. I’ve been learning (and still often failing) how to feed myself the essential nutrients that come from genuine self-care, rather than merely “nutritious food.” This is one of the meals I’ve been enjoying lately through the process.
Mejadra with Swiss Chard + Tahini
The inspiration for these two recipes are drawn from Jerusalem. Mejadra is an ancient dish in the Arab world, considered a meal for the poor but fit for kings. At its simplest, it is rice and lentils cooked together with caramelized onions. Crazily enough, those simple ingredients can taste heavenly. I’ve incorporated a few wonderful spices in keeping with Ottolenghi’s version, and for William, I’ve added raisins. He loves raisins. He added another handful for good measure as he gobbled it up. The Swiss chard and tahini-cream will make for a nice side. I’m loving Swiss chard lately, when for so long I discarded it completely. The trick, I think, is a quick sauté.
For the Mejadra:
1 very large onion (1 1/2 lb.), sliced thinly into rounds
2 Tbs. olive oil, divided
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. allspice
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. pomegranate molasses
1/2 tsp. salt
pepper to taste
1 cup long-grain brown rice, soaked and rinsed
1 cup lentils
1/2 cup raisins, optional
3 1/2 cups water
- Begin by soaking the brown rice for at least 8 hours in a large bowl of water with a little apple cider vinegar or lemon juice. This breaks down some of the phytic acids which can bind the zinc, magnesium, calcium, and other important minerals. Prior to cooking, rinse and drain the rice.
- In a large sauté pan, add 1 Tbs. olive oil and heat to medium-high. Then, add in the sliced onions, cook and stir for 3-5 minutes, and then turn down to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until they soften and caramelize, about 25-30 minutes.
- While the onions are cooking, add the remaining 1 Tbs. olive oil, spices, rinsed rice and lentils, pomegranate molasses, raisins, and water to a medium pot, and bring to a boil. Once boiling, turn down to low, cover, and allow to cook for 40-45 minutes, or until the water is absorbed.
For the Swiss Chard:
1 tsp. olive oil
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
1 bunch Swiss chard, stems chopped, leaves sliced
salt and pepper to taste
- In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high. Add garlic and chard stems and allow to cook until beginning to soften. Add a little water as necessary to help the chard stems soften up.
- Then add in the sliced leaves and heat just until they begin to wilt. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.
For the Tahini-Cream:
2 Tbs. tahini
1 1/2 Tbs. lemon juice
1 small clove garlic, smashed and minced
2-4 Tbs. water, as needed
salt and pepper, to taste
- Whisk together all ingredients in a small bowl, thinning as necessary with water.
- Spoon the tahini-cream atop the Swiss chard as a side to the mejadra.