Ten Things to Check When Reading A Recipe

This post is based on several reader requests. A number of folks have told me that they, or their partners or roommates, have trouble with reading recipes and end up with kitchen disasters, bizarre results, or taking an extremely long time to make something.

I should begin by noting that this is not their fault. To begin, many recipes are badly written. Even the good ones can have problems though. Most recipes are written with lots of assumptions around knowledge, that you can reorder steps in your head, and that you have a given amount of cooking experience. They also assume the same set of sensory and bodily characteristics of everyone, and ways of thinking. (Recipes, as traditionally written, are horribly inaccessible.)

Kitchen with an open window
Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

I’m working on a longer-term project to address some of these issues from a neurodivergent lens (more coming soon!). That said, I want to share a checklist on what to check before you make a recipe, so that you are prepared for the recipe and what it entails, and make the recipe in a way that works for you. (Or not! Sometimes you might realize that a recipe isn’t for you. I’ve been cooking since I was six, and even I have that realization sometimes.)

This list has ten questions that I ask myself when I read a recipe. The answers to this question inform not just whether I make a recipe, but what I do before I make it, and how I make sure that I do all the steps to make it. I hope that this helps you, too.

Bags of frozen vegetables
(Photo public domain)

Before I begin: whenever I make a new recipe, I always read over the entire recipe at least twice (and usually many more times. Recipes are often complicated little beasts, and you should have a general idea of the shape of the recipe, even before you start asking these questions, and certainly before cooking.

Now, the checklist itself.

  1. How much time do I have to cook? This is important to know. If you have 45 minutes, for example, you probably do not want to do a very complicated recipe. If you have a whole afternoon, then obviously you have more options. I ask myself this question, especially given that recipe preparation times in cookbooks are often wildly off (and vary from person to person which is why I do not give them). To be safe, I tend to multiply any prep time by 1 ½.
  2. What ingredients do I need, and in what forms do I need them? The first reason I ask this of myself is to know what I need to buy, if I am going shopping, and to make sure I did not miss anything. Pay special attention to the forms of the ingredients since oftentimes, they are not interchangeable (for example, tomato paste versus fresh tomatoes). When you do substitute them, you will need to take special care – which brings me to my next question.
  3. What substitutions do I need to make? You might not have an ingredient, you might have an allergy or aversion, or you might have another reason you need to swap something out. Always start with any substitute the author suggests, and then go to the internet and do some searches if there are no suggestions. Only trust your guess with a substitution if you have done it before – for example, I can usually substitute eggs in baked goods because I have done so dozens of times. I have a common substitutions list.
  4. Do I have to prepare ingredients first or is that in the recipe? Most recipes are written with some directions as to how an ingredient should be prepared – a chopped onion, a drained can of beans, and so on. Often this makes sense, because the recipe itself quickly assembles and changes these prepared items. That said, preparation takes time (and is never properly reflected in time estimates). Check to see what things you need to do there – such as chopping vegetables. Account for that in your time if you can. If you’re new at cooking, or haven’t cooked for a while, I recommend observing and noting how much time it takes for you to do things like chopping, and how much energy. Factor these things in when reading a recipe – you may want to avoid a recipe for which the preparation is particularly intense. (Confession: my knife skills are still slower than average even though I’ve cooked for over 20 years now. I sometimes skip recipes that require tons of chopping as a result.)
  5. What equipment do I need? Always good to check – not just to make sure you have it in your kitchen. Chopping and prepping your ingredients only to find that your pot needs washing is a frustrating experience.
  6. What are the steps? I read this in advance to know how much energy it will take to make a recipe, and also how much I will need to concentrate, or if I can cook other things during parts or take it a bit easy. For example: a stew that cooks for an hour with only some stirring leaves a lot more room than, say, a stir-fry with lots of quick motions.
  7. What steps might I need time or help with? Some things can be tricky – it is good to know if, say, a long kneading process is involved. If you live with someone else who can help you, you can also check if you can get their help with a particularly tricky step – for example, draining pasta from a large pot.
  8. Have I made recipes like this before? What did I learn then that can help me now? This is always good to ask yourself, so that you can both apply new skills and remember from past mistakes. For example, I remembered from making a miso eggplant that extra miso burns in the oven really easily, so I made extra sure to make sure not too much miso dripped off when making miso-glazed salmon.
  9. What do I need to do before I start cooking? For example, do you need to go shopping – or wash a lot of things you’re bringing out from the closet? Or are you ready to go? This process takes energy and time.
  10. Do I have the time, energy, and things I need to cook this recipe? Consider the answers to questions 1-9. No shame if the answer to number 10 is no.

I hope this helps you as you go forth, explore recipes, and make great and delicious things in your kitchen.

Spicy Beet Skyr Dip

Here is a simple, easy recipe from one of the stars of the show from my Passover seder: a spicy dip with beet and skyr. This dip was inspired by two things: an all-consuming love for beets, and a spicy habanero skyr that my partner and I tried in Iceland. Beets, as it happens, are a common addition to the seder table, as their red color symbolizes the Passover sacrifice of long ago.

Skyr is interesting to work with – partly because it is lower in fat than yogurt, which it resembles. To make this dip richer – and to help it carry the spice and the flavor of the beet – I added a touch of olive oil, which also makes the dip simultaneously smoother but also even more likely to color anything it touches. Don’t wear white when eating this!

Bright pink dip covered with pine nuts in bowl on black counter
(Photo mine, April 2022)

Spicy Beet Skyr Dip

1 large or 2 small cooked beets, peeled (You can use the pre-packaged cooked ones from the supermarket)

¼ cup lemon juice (from one large lemon)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons sambal oelek or minced chilies

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 ½ cups plain skyr

Pine nuts, for garnish

  1. In a food processor, blend the beet, lemon juice, salt, sambal oelek, and olive oil until a consistent puree. (You may need to chop the beet into smaller pieces for your food processor.)
  2. Add the skyr and blend in pulses until uniformly mixed into the beet mixture.
  3. Taste and add more salt or sambal oelek to taste.
  4. Pour into a bowl and garnish with pine nuts. Store covered, refrigerated, for up to 5 days.

Thank you to David Ouziel, Maryam Sabbaghi, Zachary Maher, AJ Faust, and Douglas Graebner for participating in User Acceptance Testing.

Iceland and Storytelling for Jewish Modern Food

A greenhouse with plants on green grass.
A greenhouse for growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Reykholt in Southern Iceland (Photo Salvor/public domain)

This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.

Triangular red and white milk container saying "Mjolk 1 litri"
Triangular milk container from the 1960s at the National Museum of Iceland. (Photo mine, March 2022)

Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.

Checkered jam pastry and fried knot pastry on parchment
Icelandic pastries – hjónabandssæla on the top, kleina on the bottom (photo mine, March 2022)

We should all be like Icelanders in this way.

Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.

In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
Shelves of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. Iceland has a similar selection. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimeh or gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens.  Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we. 

So let’s start thinking of these stories.

Black-Eyed Peas with Red Onion and Garlic

A class ramekin of dried black-eyed peas on a blue gingham cloth
Dried black eyed peas (photo mine, February 2022)

Everyone has a favorite legume, and for me in recent months, that bean has been the black-eyed pea. I love the meaty, nutty flavor of the bean, its toothsome texture, and their subtle, starchy smell. Not to mention that, among beans, the black-eyed pea is particularly beautiful.

Black-eyed peas, which are a type of cowpea, have a long history in many Jewish cuisines. The peas were common on Jewish tables in the Talmudic era, and continue to be popular today among Jewish communities from Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the Balkans, and India – as well as Jews across the Southern United States and in African countries. Egyptian Jews are especially fond of black-eyed peas, both fresh and dried. For many, the food is a tradition on Rosh Hashanah, because the Arabic and Ladino name for the pea – lubya – sounds similar to various words meaning “plenty” and “prosperity” in Aramaic and Hebrew. This tradition parallels the Black American tradition of black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. That said, black-eyed peas are delicious enough – and, in dry form, hardy enough – for year-round consumption.

Here, I adjust a recipe from a favorite, newish cookbook, In Bibi’s Kitchen, by Hawa Hassan and Julia Turshen. The book is a collection of recipes by women from eight African countries that border the Indian Ocean. One of my favorites is a simple and absolutely elegant white bean recipe by a woman in Madagascar, Jeanne Razanamaria. That recipe blends the tang of red onion with the hearty goodness of white beans. That recipe has become a frequent star on my dinner table – and, even though it is from a country with a completely different culinary history, very reminiscent of Jewish white bean recipes. (Perhaps not surprising in the Indian Ocean context.) I decided to try this recipe with other legumes, and found that some beans with a stronger flavor – like black eyed peas – also needed other strong flavors to pair with it and the relative lightness of the red onion. Hence my addition of garlic, which does feature in many recipes from around the Indian Ocean. My suggestion is to not just make my recipe, but also Razanamaria’s original recipe. Both are delicious.

If you want another excellent black-eyed pea recipe by a far more achieved Jewish chef and writer, I highly recommend this recipe for black-eyed pea soup by Michael Twitty – whose book, The Cooking Gene, is one of the Great Books I’ve recommended on this blog.

As for this recipe – it only has six ingredients! The flavor comes not from spices – as much as I love them – but from judicious application of each of the ingredients. The beans, onions, garlic, and tomatoes each shine in their own way, supported by the oil and salt. Finally, a note: I have not tried this recipe with canned beans, only dried. If you successfully adapt it for canned beans, let me know!

Black eyed peas with onions and tomatoes and garlic, rice, greens, and corn and squash with pepper on a yellow plate on a wood table.
The black-eyed peas on the bottom right, served with – going clockwise from the bottom – rice, greens sauteed with a peanut sauce base, and a corn, squash, and pepper saute. (photo mine, February 2022)

Black-Eyed Peas with Red Onion and Garlic

Based partly on a white bean recipe by Jeanne Razanamaria in In Bibi’s Kitchen

½ pound/250g dried black-eyed peas*, soaked overnight or for at least six hours

Water

Salt

¼ cup vegetable oil

1 large red onion, diced

3 slicer tomatoes, roughly chopped, with seeds removed

6 cloves garlic, crushed

  1. In a medium pot, cover the soaked black-eyed peas with enough fresh water to cover the beans by 2 inches/4 centimeters. Bring to a boil, then simmer for an hour, or until soft. Stir now and again.
  2. Set aside ¾ cup of the beans’ cooking liquid. Drain the beans and add a generous dash of salt. Set aside.
  3. Wipe down the same pot, then place on medium-high heat. Add the oil, then sauté the red onion for about 3-4 minutes, or until softer and beginning to caramelize slightly.
  4. Add the tomatoes and sauté for 3 more minutes, or until the tomato skin begins to separate from the flesh.
  5. Add the beans and the garlic and mix thoroughly, then add the reserved cooking liquid.
  6. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, and then add a second generous dash of salt to taste.
  7. Serve with rice and any other fixings. Leftovers keep in a sealed container for five days in the refrigerator, or in the freezer for several months.

Thank you to Jennifer Szlasa and David Ouziel for participating in User Acceptance Testing. Thank you to Mikaela Brown for finally getting me to write about black eyed peas.

Castagnaccio – A Magical Chestnut Flour Pudding

A slice of a brown pancake topped with nuts and herbs next to some ricotta cheese and honey on a white plate with a glass of wine behind it
A slice of the castagnaccio I made with (not vegan) ricotta and honey, and white wine. (Photo David Ouziel, January 2022)

Though I myself still partake in many animal products and a rather abundant amount of gluten, I am trying to learn some more gluten-free, vegan dessert and snack recipes. Some of this has to do with the fact that I now interact in spaces with people with each or both of these dietary needs, and I’m too lazy to make two things. Also, some of this is that this skill is probably useful to develop for potlucks. In my research, I was reminded of a delicious dessert or snack from Italy – castagnaccio, a nut- and herb-studded chestnut flour pudding. This traditional snack has not only a wonderful, chewy but dense texture and earthy, nutty taste – but is also vegan and gluten-free.

Chestnuts have a fairly interesting Jewish history which I have touched on in prior posts, particularly in my recipe for kestaneli kuzu – lamb stewed with chestnuts. In additional research, I came to learn that the Jews of Northern Italy put chestnuts into many delicious things – including a traditional charoset recipe, polentas, and stuffed pastries. Some of the use of chestnuts had to do with poverty – before potatoes and corn arrived in the New World, chestnuts were a key source of starch for many European peasants. Wealthy people ate chestnuts too, often cooked with more expensive things like meat or sugar. I have a suspicion that dishes like castagnaccio crossed some boundaries – because while the chestnuts themselves were accessible, grinding chestnuts into flour required significant labor. It is a modern miracle that I can simply order chestnut flour online that has already been ground for me. I imagine castagnaccio graced more well-off tables more frequently – especially if there was someone else doing the grinding or cooking.

Back to today – most of the recipes called for raisins. My partner despises raisins, which is one of the traditional cornerstone ingredients in castagnaccio. I solicited advice from my Facebook friends on how to substitute the raisins – a key source of sweetness – without losing too much in taste. (Thank you!) I landed on a substitute with a splash of wine and some added sugar – which many castagnaccio recipes traditionally omit.I served the castagnaccio along with some ricotta and honey for added moisture – though you can obviously substitute similar vegan things or omit these. The texture is very difficult to describe but quite lovely – with a certain firm chewiness, and the nuts add a wonderful taste and aroma. I will definitely make this again.

Castagnaccio with Nuts and Rosemary

Based on recipes by Anissa Helou and Emiko Davies

Makes a castagnaccio with 6-8 servings

1 cup chestnut flour

2/3 cup lukewarm water

2 tablespoons white wine or white grape juice

2 tablespoons cane sugar

2 tablespoons pine nuts

2 tablespoons crushed walnuts

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

Olive oil, for greasing the pan

Ricotta and honey for serving (optional, and you can use vegan equivalents)

  1. Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Grease a 9-inch/23cm cake pan with olive oil.
  2. Sift the chestnut flour into a mixing bowl, then whisk in the water, wine, and cane sugar. This mixing should create a batter.
  3. Pour the batter into the greased pan.
  4. Sprinkle the pine nuts, walnuts, and rosemary evenly over the surface of the batter.
  5. Put the pan in the oven. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the batter has firmed up and the cake begins to pull away from the edges of the pan.
  6. Remove from the oven and let cool. The castagnaccio will shrink slightly – that is okay!
  7. Transfer to a plate and cut into slices. Serve with ricotta and honey on the side. Keep any leftover castagnaccio covered at room temperature for up to three days.

Kosher Tostones in the Heights: A Guest Post from Michael Faccini

I’m excited to share another guest post by my dear friend, Michael Faccini, who wrote a lovely interfaith seder piece last spring. This post may be controversial, but I think it is badly needed: a discussion on the intersection of race and kashrut, especially in shared spaces.

“Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be.” This line sums up many of my thoughts about kashrut – and, during the decade when I kept some form of kashrut, my general attitude. Yet, as Michael notes in this piece, sometimes kashrut is an intentional barrier – one that often intersects with attitudes about race and class, particularly for white Jews. I know many firm kashrut-keepers who don’t let kashrut be a barrier for building community, and who ardently question the way race often intersects with supposedly neutral ways of keeping kosher. Sadly, I know many who do not.

I hope you read and enjoy this piece. Michael has generously provided his kosher recipes for tostones – a classic Dominican side dish and snack – at the end of the post, so please be sure to reach that point too. Michael has requested a shout out to his favorite Dominican spot in Washington Heights, El Valle Seafood. I would like to add Albert’s Mofongo in Inwood, which very helpfully has a lard-free mofongo for those of us who avoid pork (and lard-filled ones for those that do eat pork). It is delicious, and here in Greater Washington I frequently miss it.

“What are you making?” said with a confused and concerned face. That’s how I’ve ended up introducing a lot of fellow Jews to the luscious fried delight that is tostones. I make excellent tostones (technique to follow), but I’m not so sure that a white Jew from rural Montana should be anyone’s introduction to tostones and plantains in general. It feels particularly strange because most of those people have been roommates past and present in Washington Heights. I find myself wondering: how exactly do they live in this largely Dominican neighborhood of NYC and not know what a tostone is? 

It seems like an innocent and easy question, but answering it reflects a lot of the challenging racial dynamics I’ve seen among the Jewish community living in the Heights. Before moving here, I was introduced to the Heights as being a Jewish neighborhood. As home to Yeshiva University, a sizable Orthodox population, and a popular traditional egalitarian shul, there are ways in which that is true. There are long and deep Jewish roots in the Heights and a recent significant population growth of young Jews, particularly students and young families, in the neighborhood. When I first moved to the Heights in the summer of 2019 to attend rabbinical school, that description fit. Living on Bennett*, most of the people I saw walking around the neighborhood were visibly Jewish, wearing kippot, tzitzit, and sheitels or tichels, or people I met through Jewish roommates. 

A couple of weeks after moving in, though, I needed to cross over Broadway to St. Nick for the first time, to buy a shirt from Goodwill for a job interview. That’s when I met a more realistic representation of the Heights, known to some as the Little Dominican Republic. On the St. Nick side, Spanish is used prominently in signs and also heard throughout the neighborhood. There are street vendors of all kinds, many selling fruits and vegetables common in Caribbean cooking and foods like chicharrón and tamales (obviously not Dominican, but delicious). And, most clearly, the majority of the people you see on the street are Latin American (Latine), Dominican particularly. The income is also apparent. It’s no coincidence that Goodwill was located in that part of the neighborhood (it’s since closed), along with storefronts like Boost Mobile, health insurance companies that service Medicaid and free federal plans, and community-owned businesses. Looking for housing later, I learned that those couple of blocks from Bennett to Wadsworth/St. Nick are worth a difference of $200-300+ in rent. 

Green coconuts with the tops peeled off
(Photo MaxPixel/CC)

If the neighborhood is so clearly Dominican, why was I introduced to it as a Jewish neighborhood? To me, part of the answer lies in the history of the Heights. Jewish immigrants, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, were a prominent community in the early 1900s. Because of the historic roots in the neighborhood, there can often be this sense of reclaiming and returning to the neighborhood. “We’re not moving in, we’re moving back.” I understand the temptation, especially for individuals whose families were early members of the Jewish community in the Heights. At the same time, it ignores why Jews left the neighborhood. A lot of the Jewish community moved out during the White Flight of the 1960s/1970s. That’s when the Dominican community moved in in large numbers following the assisination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, transforming the neighborhood to the largest Dominican community outside of the Dominican Republic. And things were not great when they arrived, only getting worse when the crack epidemic began. Violent crime, particularly through gun violence, was prevalent. The Dominican community came together in the 90s/early 2000s to change the neighborhood and make it what it is today. That’s when we see the boom of young white Jews moving to the Heights and clear gentrification-fueled attempts to rebrand the neighborhood to WaHi after SoHo (thankfully these have failed). 

Those dynamics influence what I see as a core reason for seeing the Heights as a Jewish rather than Dominican neighborhood: segregation. While of course there are Dominicans living west of Broadway and Jews living east, the racial demographics largely fall along geographic lines. Perhaps more notable, though, is the very limited interaction between the two groups, outside of customer service, childcare providers, domestic help, and (Jewish) landlord to (Dominican) tenant. If you live in the Heights and you’re Jewish, almost all, if not all, of your social contacts are also Jewish. It would make sense, then, to see it as primarily a Jewish neighborhood, especially if you live on a street that is largely Jewish.

fried seasoned plantains
Fried sweet plantains (maduros), one of my first posts, from when I myself lived “in the Heights.” (Photo J. Katz, December 2015)

Going back to food, these contribute to some of the answer for why I meet a lot of Jews in a Dominican neighborhood who don’t know what a tostone is, even though that’s the cultural equivalent of not knowing what a tortilla is in a Mexican neighborhood. If you don’t realize and/or care that the neighborhood is Dominican, you’re not going to really be exposed to those foods. It’s often more than lack of exposure. There is a profound lack of curiosity and often a desire to be separate that people justify on religious terms, particularly kashrut. 

I naively underestimated that dynamic when I entered a conversation over a Shabbat meal shortly after moving back to the Heights. I’d shared that I chose to move away for a while because I found the clear segregation (and Jewish apathy toward it) too difficult to deal with, particularly with some personal challenges at the time. Somehow the conversation moved to suggestions about how that could be approached. I suggested convening religious leadership from both communities, as the Catholic church and local synagogues have a lot of sway in their respective communities. Immediately I was met with this litany of reasons why the synagogue leaders wouldn’t feel comfortable. “Okay, so what about the Reform congregation?” According to this person, that wouldn’t work because the neighborhood was “too religious” for that community to be a good representation. I started to get the sense that my roommate’s friend was wanting separation.

Starting to feel the futility, the conversation switched to tactics. Heavily influenced by a lifetime of watching Anthony Bourdain, I suggested a communal meal to start the process. Food, after all, has always been my soft entry into other cultures, including Dominican culture. Immediately the concerns about kashrut came forth. Which, you know, have some validity. Dominican food is not exactly known for its great vegetarian options and those would still pose some difficulties for people only eat hechshered kosher food (food prepared with supervised ingredients in a kosher kitchen). “Okay, what about if they prepared vegetarian food in our kitchens under supervision?” For those unfamiliar, this is a totally legitimate, although not universally accepted, way of solving the kashrut issue because the food would have hechshered ingredients, be prepared in a kosher kitchen, and there are ways to deal with concerns about someone not Jewish doing the cooking. And that’s how I finally understood that the issue wasn’t about kashrut or religion.

Her face was filled with absolute disgust at the idea of a Dominican cooking in her kitchen or the kitchens of anyone she knew. A year and a half later and I am still horrified at her response. Dominicans can stock our food at the store. Dominicans can scan and bag our food. Dominicans can clean our kitchens. But God forbid they cook in our kitchens, at least if they’re cooking their cultural foods and doing so as our equals. I find it hard to believe that a non-Jewish Italian making fresh pasta or Japanese person rolling sushi in our kitchen would have elicited the same disgust.It was fear and hatred of the racial Other dressed up in the guise of religion and kashrut. 

This is an extreme example, but, when it comes to Latine food particularly, kashrut is often used as an excuse not to explore and form closer bonds. There are some real challenges. I won’t deny that. I experienced them when I used to keep kosher. It’s hard to find things that you are confident are vegetarian and there’s often a language barrier in verifying ingredients/preparation. While there is at least one vegan restaurant that serves Dominican food, I don’t expect to see a successful kosher-certified Dominican restaurant in my lifetime. That’s why I learned how to make things like tostones and sofrito and bacalao. I wanted to experience the food, but needed to make it kosher. Was it as good as the real stuff? Probably not. But I didn’t let kashrut keep me from exploring food so I could get a better sense of Dominican culture while also getting to know Dominican coworkers. Kashrut is only a barrier if you let it be

Some would argue that that’s one of the reasons behind kashrut. Not being able to eat with your neighbors makes it really hard to form close bonds and, therefore, to marry with them and have children with them. Ignoring that this doesn’t seem to apply to pizza or Eastern European foods that commingled to make some quintessentially Jewish foods or sushi or a whole lot of other things, this begs the question: is that a value we want to have in 2022? And what does it mean when a majority white group applies that to Latine and/or Black communities and certain Asian communities**? None of us can say with any certainty that reluctance and/or refusal to make kosher mofongo isn’t a reflection of racism. For me, the answer to values in 2022 and beyond is no. My reasons for no longer keeping kosher are many, but the greatest benefit I’ve seen is my ability to experience other cultures and form closer bonds with people from those cultures. I wouldn’t have been able to form some of the close bonds without unrestricted food sharing. I love making tostones on my own. But I love making tostones with a friend and eating their food even more. 

Now for that tostones recipe…

Tostones - fried green plantain - on paper towel
Tostones (photo M. Faccini, December 2021)

Tostones

Select green plantains, the greener the better; 1 plantain makes 8-10 tostones.

Peel the plantains- I cut a slit through the skin the full length of the plantain to start the peeling process (if you are making more than 3 plantains, soak them in salted water to prevent discoloration).

Heat a skillet with an inch of canola or other neutral oil over medium heat.

Slice the plantains into ¾” slices.

Fry in the oil until lightly browned on each side.

Remove and immediately flatten using a glass or other flat object.

Return the flattened plantains and fry until light golden brown.

Drain on a paper towel and salt to taste, or season with Adobo for more flavor.

*I’m choosing to use geographic and other street markers even though they may mean little to people who don’t live in the Heights or haven’t before. Living in St. Louis and now the Heights, I’m very familiar with the ways in which a street is often the line of segregation and how much difference a block or two can make for demographics, housing prices, and safety. In St. Louis, that’s Delmar Boulevard. In the Heights, that line is Broadway. My goal is to make the invisible visible to fellow Jews living in the neighborhood that find a way to ignore those lines of segregation.   

**Asian cuisines that have been made kosher, such as Chinese and Japanese food, have a pretty clear class correlation. Jews felt comfortable sharing Chinese food and making Chinese food kosher at a time in which we, too, were new immigrants and shared a similar socioeconomic status. Japanese food, adopted more recently, is primarily associated with upper-middle/higher class. Asian cuisines from cultures that have had less economic success, such as Vietnamese and Thai food, rarely find their ways onto kosher menus. (Jonathan note: Krishnendu Ray has an excellent book about this broader trend.)

Calabrian Pasta With Broccoli

A simple recipe this time, for something that I’ve made for dinner quite frequently over the past few months. Olive oil is a prominent ingredient, so I guess it is Hanukkah appropriate? I have not found any specifically Jewish history for this dish, which has variations that come from across Southern Italy – I based this one on the version from Calabria. While this dish is often made with broccoli rabe, which I love, I wanted to master a version with simple broccoli as well – broccoli rabe is a chore to find out of season.

One thing that I do find interesting is that most traditional variations on this dish involve cooking the vegetables and pasta together – something that felt counterintuitive to me, since cookbooks so often direct one to cook the pasta separately! Many recipes mention this as some sort of flavor bomb, but I think the true, and simpler, origin is that this trick makes it quicker to cook and clean up. Unglamorous convenience, but delicious results.

Twisted pasta with a broccoli sauce and cheese in a black and white bowl with a glass dish of grated cheese behind it. Some red pepper flakes are visible.
This recipe, with gemelli. (Photo David Ouziel, November 2021)

Calabrian Pasta with Broccoli

Based on recipes by Micol Negrin and Lidia Bastianich

Variants listed at the end.

10.5 ounces/300 g short pasta (orecchiette, gemelli, and casarecce work best here – penne works in a pinch)

1 pound/450 g fresh chopped broccoli florets*

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

¾ teaspoon dried rosemary

¾ teaspoon table salt

Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Then, add the pasta and broccoli together. Bring to a boil again, then cook for as long as you need to cook the pasta to be al dente. Check the package.
  2. Meanwhile, combine the oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, and rosemary in a small pan. Place on medium heat until you begin to smell the garlic, which should be changing color, and the oil begins to bubble. Stir over heat for 45 seconds, then turn off the heat.
  3. Two minutes before the pasta is done, ladle out two ladle-fuls of the cooking water and set aside.
  4. When the pasta and broccoli are done, drain them out. Then, return the pasta and broccoli to the pot.
  5. Pour over the oil mixture and add the salt, and mix in together. Add a few splashes of pasta water to ensure the oil gets evenly distributed.
  6. Serve hot. Add grated Parmesan on top of each serving. Leftovers should stay good for about three days.

*For a more traditional dish, use broccoli rabe and cut the rosemary. Cauliflower also works well in this dish. I also recommend chopped green beans – for which you may want to cut the rosemary, and add 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice to the oil mixture.

Thank you to my partner, David Ouziel, for conducting repeat User Acceptance Testing and taking photos for this post.

Things You Can Learn From Autistic Cooks

This is the third post in a three-part series; you can read Part One here and Part Two here.

I am not a big believer in specific rules around cooking or what is proper. In these pages, I have called some of these rules “bullshit.” Cooking is great, but cooking is also work, and cooking is an intense experience. Sometimes, you do not have the time, money, resources, energy, space, or patience to follow everything to a T. No one has this 100% of the time. So you have to cook in your own ways, on your own terms. There is nothing wrong with that – but food media will tell you so.

As an autistic person, I find that many autistic people are better at knowing how to navigate these realities – and are not afraid to do so. We already have to navigate a whole, messy world – and food is one part of that. I think everyone, though, can benefit from some of these tricks, autistic or not. So, here are six things you can learn from autistic cooks – across the spectrums of autism and cooking habits.

cabinet of spices
A cabinet of spices. (Photo public domain)

1. Be very honest about what you can and cannot do in the kitchen.  Autistic cooks are often quite forthright about the skills they lack or find exceedingly difficult – whether it be because of common motor coordination or sensory issues or the things anyone might find tricky. While it can be good to build an ability to do something, I think there is a lesson here for everyone. It’s okay to know what you cannot do … and move on.

It can be disappointing to admit that you cannot do something, or cannot do something easily. However, this does not make you less capable or less good of a cook. No one person can do everything, and it is perfectly okay to work with certain bounds or to not do certain things. Honesty can make cooking a far more enjoyable experience.

As an example: my motor coordination is not fine enough to easily fold in egg whites into a batter, so I tend to avoid these recipes.

2. Allow yourself the time you actually need, not what you think other people expect you to need. Many autistic people are forthright about the fact that things can take more time for us – for me, it’s chopping; for others, it might be gathering ingredients or preparing various implements. We often discuss how inadequate suggested preparation time in recipes can be. We also plan more time to cook. I suggest that everyone do this – you know best how long things take for you. The suggested preparation times in books are not a dictum on your ability to cook. Give yourself lots of time, and feel no guilt.

3. Prepared ingredients are good. Many autistic people rely heavily on prepared, processed ingredients like store-chopped onions, frozen peas, packaged cooked beets, and certain kinds of mixes. These ingredients help many who struggle with the executive function of cooking, and also help those who take a bit more time in the kitchen. In addition, these ingredients’ predictability are comforting and even enjoyable by many autistic people. Many non-autistic cook shun these ingredients as short-cuts.

Yes, the original ingredients are different and in some cases taste better or are more predictable. However, a prepared ingredient can mean the difference between cooking and not cooking, or having the time to cook, or being able to cook something you want to make. They also save a lot of time and energy. I think everyone should be more honest and open about using these ingredients. As Rachel Laudan notes, we need “culinary modernism.”

Besides, many well-known chefs and food writers now make recipes that involve these ingredients and take advantage of their specific characteristics – Nadiya Hussain is particularly adept in this regard.

4. There’s nothing wrong with repetition or relying heavily on a few things. Most autistic people like repetition in some form or some shape. Food is an obvious example. Many autistic cooks, including myself, make extensive use of leftovers – dinner one day can also be lunch for the next two days. For some people, that would be dinner for two days as well. Many other people do not handle repetition in their food well – but I have to say, the repetition does make meal planning a lot easier. It is also less time-consuming (you cook once) and expensive.

Many autistic people – and for times in my life, including me – also rely heavily on a few foods. For some people, these foods are known quantities that do not introduce new things that can be overwhelming. For others, these foods do not require a huge amount of cognitive function to make. Many non-autistic people (like my partner) rely on certain dishes or foods, but it seems to be much more common among autistic people. This practice, I think, is good. It takes a lot of the cognitive work out of everyday, non-celebratory cooking – and is far easier for grocery shopping too. If you are just starting off cooking, or find cooking difficult, I think finding a few “reliable” dishes is a good idea. Two of mine for a long time were toast with spinach and eggs, and lentils and okra. (I do not eat the latter very much anymore – my partner despises okra.)

Some of you may have seen the terms “same foods” and “safe foods” bandied about. A “same food” is a food that an autistic person relies very heavily on – sometimes for dozens of meals in a row, a “safe food” is one that can always be consumed. I find a lot of the discourse in the autism community about “same foods” and “safe foods” absolutely cringe-inducing.  I also think that this discourse represents a minority experience, and is often rooted in people using autism as an excuse to feel entitled to other people’s labor, time, and work. As an autistic person, I find this infuriating.

The lesson here is about repetition as a concept, and reliability as a concept, but also being mindful of not being entitled to other people’s labor, time, or work. The vast majority of autistic people find regularity without that entitlement. Please do so too, non-autistic readers.

5. Substitutions are an art, not a cop-out. Many autistic people have sensory or taste aversions to certain foods: basically, eating these foods can be a painful, highly distressing experience. (To the point where many autistic people can handle an emergency better than they can handle a surprise encounter with certain foods.) As a result, autistic people often make substitutions when cooking.

Many people think substitutions are a cop-out. I disagree. Knowing how to replace something to imitate a flavor or make a similarly delicious dish is a tricky task that is as much a creative exercise as anything else. You can also find delicious new ways of doing things by doing so. Autistic cooking discussions endorse and support substitution – and I think we all should take a page when we talk about food and cooking. Substitutions are not a less-than!

A few years ago, I made a substitution cheat sheet for the blog – my examination of autistic cooking has made me realize that perhaps it needs expansion.

I want to give a special shout-out to Ruby Tandoh here, whose new book, Cook As You Are, contains substitution advice for every single recipe. I know she has discussed food and worked with autistic and other disabled cooks in the past (including me!), and I hope she kicks off a new trend of everyone joining us in appreciating the art of substitution.

6. Recognize cooking as cognitive work. Cooking takes thought, and not just in deciding what to make: one has to keep an eye out for several things happening at the same time, from making sure the water is still boiling to chopping vegetables to ensuring the rice cooks properly. These things all take energy to monitor – even if you do not notice it. Autistic people more readily acknowledge the attention and thinking that any cooking takes. I think everyone – and especially those who rely on others to cook for them – should do the same.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

What Do Autistic People Cook?

This post is part two of a three-part series. See the first post here.

In my last post, I discussed how the relationship between autism and food, often narrated as limiting, is actually multifaceted and very complex. There is joy, there is creativity, and yes, there are boundaries, but we autistic people relate to food well beyond limits. In this post, though, I want to discuss what autistic people cook, and how they go about cooking it.

What do autistic people cook? The answer to this question of course tends to vary from culture to culture – though on the internet, you’d come to believe that macaroni and cheese is the national dish of autistic people. A few commonalities abound. Many autistic people rely heavily on the same or a few recipes for various reasons. These “same foods” are safe from the perspective of sensory needs or a need for structure; the recipe is “known” enough to allow preparation without taxing executive function; often, the ingredients are on hand too. I have noticed that these same foods are often comfort foods of whatever culture an autistic person grew up with – for example, huevos con ejotes in Mexico or chili for people from Cincinnati.

Bowl of meaty Cincinnati chili with cheddar cheese on top.
Cincinnati chili. (Photo CC/Wikimedia Commons)

Other autistic people tend to enjoy cooking a wide variety of foods, especially if – like me – they find sensory pleasure in cooking. Some autistic people also do not enjoy consecutive meals or consecutive textures. Sometimes, the “calculus” in a recipe might be different for autistic people than for people who are not autistic. For example: many autistic people are highly sensitive to texture, so a recipe may be more closely aligned around textural contrast or consistency than taste. (Chinese culinary tradition builds heavily on these contrasts.) Other autistic people, including me, add to the astringency, pungency, or acidity of their food, often doubling or tripling the amount of garlic, onions, or chilies in a dish. I realize as I write this that I’ve “gassed out” many neurotypical housemates over the years with a particularly spicy dish. It is hard to categorize what we autistic people in this category make, but I have noticed that many of us enjoy Mexican cuisine, Japanese and Korean cuisines, and the cuisines from around the Indian Ocean basin – Ethiopian, Indian, and Thai food. These culinary traditions place a lot of stock in the sensory experiences to which many autistic people are especially sensitive.

Gnocchi on a board
Gnocchi (photo CC)

Many autistic people are very adept at substitutions. Part of this skill comes from the aversions many autistic people have to certain textures, foods, or ingredients – and so they have to learn how to, for example, substitute for the depth of onion without the texture of onion. In addition, it appears anecdotally that autistic people are disproportionately vegetarian, vegan, or adherent to religious dietary rules. Sometimes, cooking certain things might involve an ingredient “swap.” When I surveyed people on an autistic food forum, a lot of contributors brought up substitutions.

Autistic people often heavily rely on written recipes. Why? Many autistic people have an easier time with structured directions or steps when doing complex tasks like cooking, and a well-written recipe helps in this regard. When recipes go awry, it can be hard for many autistic people to “course correct” – even when, as is often the case, it is the recipe author’s fault. (I’ve had to correct a few myself.)

Other autistic people, like me, are not as reliant on recipes but need other forms of structure in the kitchen as well – and tend to do certain things in very routine or predictable ways. For example, I cannot go to a grocery store without a list, which means I plan what I cook at home – and many adjustments I might make to recipes – well in advance. One autistic person posted about planning meals for a whole month! Autistic people often memorize key recipes, too – which adds another layer of structure. Even those who don’t need written recipes memorize them, because we autistic people often end up remembering reams of information anyway.

Bread pudding with cherries in the pan
Bread pudding with cherries – a dish with a soft yet firm, chewy texture that pleases many autistic people. (Photo mine, November 2017)

There is a lot of tasty food in autistic kitchens. These habits in cooking do lead to lots of delicious-sounding things. On the autistic food group I am in on social media, many people post lovely-looking meals; some of my autistic friends are among the best cooks I’ve met. I hope, someday, to see several cookbooks by autistic people on the shelves of every bookstore. Not just to share the delicious food we make, but also a little bit about how we make it. As I will explain in the next post, I think everyone can learn from autistic cooks.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of fellow autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.

Not Just About Limits: A Misconception About Autism and Food

Old kitchen with many implements and a big window
In this kitchen, the window would always be open for me. Photo by Charlotte May on Pexels.com

The windows are open, or the air conditioner is cranked up, so that I do not get too hot. I put on gloves before I handle the sticky dough, and use a spoon – rather than my hand – to sprinkle the sugar and seeds on the cookies. These are a few little ways you might see my autism playing out in the kitchen.

I have talked about being autistic and how it affects cooking before, both in my writing and in this excellent piece by Ruby Tandoh. In this and the next two posts, though, I want to focus on autism and cooking generally. As part of the research for this piece, I collected thoughts and experiences from several dozen other autistic people, on social media and in my life.

Every autistic person is different. Some, like me, can “pass” as neurotypical in certain situations and are extroverts. Some cannot, are introverts, or use spoken language intermittently or not at all. Some have strong sensory sensitivities (like me). Some do not. Some see things in black-and-white. Others struggle to see things as binary choices or complex systems (like me). Some need comparatively little support in their day-to-day lives. Others need more support from others – which does not affect their worth or capacity. All these things affect how autistic people engage with food and everything around it. Yet many people see food and autism as a conversation only about limits.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

“Autistic people are all very picky eaters.” “Autistic people have severe food limits.” “Autistic people cannot cook independently.” These are things I have seen and heard bandied about, even by other autistic folks. And while these things do apply to some autistic folksand there’s no shame in that – these are generalizations that also reduce the entire autistic experience of food to one of limits.

While limits matter, they are not the only way autism connects to food. Being autistic is a non-stop, all-encompassing experience, and of course, that will include food. Besides, autistic folks are as complicated as everyone else – and that applies as much to me as it does to someone with higher support needs and different capacities. To go beyond this idea of limits, I will now walk through three aspects of autistic relationships with food: sensory, executive, and interest.  

A shelf of canned fish
(Photo public domain)

Autism is a sensory experience. Many of us are highly sensitive to certain things that we touch or perceive – bright or dim lights, hot or cold temperatures, loud noises or quiet, or any of a panoply of textures can cause a level of distress or joy other people usually do not experience. A bad sensory impact can affect our ability to do other things, regulate our emotions, or remember certain facts or aspects of our surroundings. Many autistic people experience sensory sensitivities that relate to food. Some people cannot eat food with certain textures, or touch ingredients with certain textures. Others, like me, need to be careful with how hot the kitchen gets while we are cooking. One friend of mine cannot handle the sound of other people chewing. Other sensory experiences, however, can bring a type of joy or pleasure beyond that of non-autistic people – something that scientists have noted in autistic people’s dopamine responses to certain stimuli. The smells of the food, touching other textures, or the process of iterative tasting as one adjusts a recipe were all cited as “sensorily pleasant” experiences. Some of the people I spoke with cited these “sensory-seeking experiences” as a reason they enjoy cooking or eating certain foods. I myself have this with the sensation of stirring, which I find soothing.

Spoons with spices
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Autism affects executive function – which then determines how we cook. Autistic people sometimes have different strains on doing everyday tasks or other tasks, such as keeping things organized or focusing on certain topics. For example, I tend to get hyper-focused on specific things, whereas another friend has trouble staying focused on one thing for too long. In the kitchen, many autistic people do certain things to help concentrate or do tasks in a workable order. For example, some autistic people must have a completely clean and clear kitchen area to cook at all, or else the clutter is too distracting. Others need specific directions, with exact recipes and mentions of equipment and time ahead of time. Other people have difficulty following a recipe exactly, and cannot “clean as they go along.” Some people save their meal planning for special occasions like holidays – and others, like me, plan many of our meals days in advance. Each autistic person tends to do something different in the kitchen as a result – but it is all with different capacities in mind.

For some people, cooking can be so taxing that it cannot be done every day or very frequently at all. Hence, many autistic people rely on prepared foods or other processed foods, and others rely on the same food for many meals. Many autistic people on the internet joke that boxed mac and cheese is an “official food” of autism. Other autistic people live with people who do more of the cooking or food decision making. These experiences not only parallel other people with disabilities, but also many people whose time or executive function are affected by other things. I doubt that many autistic people’s diets and food habits are that different from that a busy non-autistic parent of a newborn or young infant, or someone overworked or juggling multiple jobs. Processed foods and prepared foods help all these people – it just takes a specific form for autistic people.

A cook ladles brown onion soup into bowls, four of which are full and eight of which are empty. A large pot is to her side.
(Photo US Air Force)

Many autistic people have intense, particular passions for a topic or an activity – which many autistic people call “special interests.” For some, the sensory joys and experiences of cooking – and all the tasty food – becomes one of those interests. For most autistic people with this interest, like me, cooking becomes a hobby. However, I was lucky enough to hear from several people whose special interest led them to become professional chefs. These people often had developed their own sophisticated ways to deal with any sort of sensory or function issue. What was even more interesting, though, was to see how many people chose to go into food precisely because it played into their traits and life as an autistic person – from the heightened sensitivity to certain things to the ability to do the same things and find joy in them to being fulfilled in their passion. If anything, cooking was the opposite of limiting: it was liberating. In that freedom, of course, was deliciousness too. Autistic chefs told me about a few proud culinary achievements: intricate truffles, delicate yet fierce meat rubs, and creative renditions of “comfort foods” among them.

We all have our own, individual, complicated relationships with food. Autism plays a role. Constraining the conversation to limits means that we cannot appreciate the joys, fun, emotional wrangling, and practical considerations that autistic people have around food. Nor can everyone learn from autistic food experiences – which, in the final post of this series, I will discuss. In the next post, though, I will look at what different autistic people cook, and how they cook it.

A quick note: many autistic people prefer “identity-first language,” because autism is part of an identity and can’t be separated from the person. Other people on the autism spectrum prefer “person-first language,” because they want to emphasize the humanity first. (Some non-autistic people like to mention something about not being defined by the autism, which tends to rub most of us the wrong way.) I switch between the two in my day-to-day life, but many of the people I spoke with strongly prefer identity-first language. So I am using that.

Thank you to the dozens of autistic people who I spoke with while preparing to write this piece, particularly those on the Autism Meals Facebook group.