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.

Social Distancing Recipe Matrix

A lot of you are learning to cook for the first time with this social distancing that we all have to do because of the coronavirus pandemic. I want to write relatively little on that, and instead provide a recipe matrix you can use for easy meals with long-lasting goods.

The recipe matrix consists of three sections: a separate carbohydrate section, identifying plant matter, proteins, and spices, and a way to combine them. As a note, for all combinations, you will need onion and garlic cloves, as well as cooking oil and vinegar.

Pasta
(Photo CC)

Carbohydrates

Rice and pasta keep for a long time, as do potatoes, tortillas in the refrigerator or freezer, and bread in the freezer.

Rice: prepare according to package directions. For jasmine rice, I add one and a half cups of water for every cup of rice. Set in a pot to boil with a splash of oil and a dash of salt, then simmer while stirring regularly. If you have a rice cooker, as I do, I strongly suggest you use that.

Pasta: prepare according to package directions. I can’t suggest more than that, because every package is that straightforward. I usually aim for al dente texture when I cook pasta.

Potatoes: my preferred method to cook potatoes is to wash them, then boil them in salted water for 25-30 minutes or until tender to the fork. Then, slice them. Minimal effort and minimal equipment. For new potatoes, or small potatoes, 15-20 minutes will do.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Social distancing-appropriate ingredients! (Photo mine, December 2019)

Bread: Make sure bread is sliced before you freeze it! Toast bread from the freezer for about a minute longer than if it was fresh. You can usually defrost bread quickly in the microwave – about 30 seconds for two slices – but it will be much softer. If you didn’t slice the bread, or you have rolls, I recommend defrosting the loaf or rolls in an oven at 350F/175C for about half an hour. Then, slice.

Tortillas: Wrap up to six tortillas in a wet paper towel and microwave for 30 seconds.

Choose vegetables, proteins, and spices

Vegetables

Fresh winter squash, fresh peppers, and fresh whole mushrooms keep for a long time in the refrigerator. You can also use frozen vegetables – I prefer peas, carrots, squash, zucchini, kale, and corn here. Or you can use canned vegetables – my top choices there are peas and corn.

To prepare the fresh squash, wash it, then chop off the top and the bottom, and then chop it in half. Remove the seeds, and then chop into thin, small pieces. You will need to remove the peel from butternut squash first, but you do not need to do the same for acorn squash, delicata squash, or kabocha, so I suggest buying those when you go out for your grocery run.

To prepare the fresh peppers, wash them, then chop off the top. Remove the seeds, and then chop the remaining pepper into small pieces.

To prepare the mushrooms, wash them, then chop into small pieces.

All you need to do for frozen vegetables is to massage them in the bag until they are broken apart.

All you need to do for canned vegetables is drain the contents.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for social distancing. (Photo public domain)

Protein

The easiest protein in this circumstance is a can of beans – all you have to do is drain out the fluid, and you’re ready to go!

The other protein I recommend is tofu: drain a block or two, then chop it into small cubes. Firm tofu works best.

This recipe does not really work with meat or fish.

Spices

The spices should vary based on your vegetables. Always add a teaspoon of salt and half a teaspoon of black pepper. For sweeter vegetables like squash and pepper, I recommend using (ground) cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, curry powder, allspice, sugar, and/or red pepper flakes to taste. You can also add more salt or black pepper too. For mushrooms or frozen savory vegetables, use oregano, thyme, red pepper, paprika, or rosemary. Soup powder (avkat marak) works well here too.

Chickpeas with kale in a bowl in a black and white image

Ratio for every two to three servings

Carbohydrates: one of: 1 cup raw rice, 8oz/225g raw pasta, 2-3 medium potatoes, 4-6 slices of bread, or 6-8 tortillas

Vegetables: 1 squash, 1-2 bell peppers, 1.5-2 cups mushrooms, 1 8oz/225g can vegetables, or 8oz/225g frozen vegetables

Protein: 1 8oz/225g can beans or 8oz/225g tofu

Spices: should add up to about 1-1.5 tablespoons

Potatoes on the counter

Recipe!

Make your carbohydrate separately. Get started with rice, potatoes, pasta, or defrosting bread in the oven now. Tortillas and bread in the toaster can be done after you’re finished cooking.

Chop ½ a medium onion and two cloves of garlic.

Place a medium saucepan over high heat, and add a drop of water. When the water sizzles away, add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic and sauté for one minute, moving the onions around with your spatula. When your onions start to wilt, add the spices and mix in thoroughly. Sauté for 30 more seconds, and then add your vegetable, and mix thoroughly. Then, add 1 tbsp of vinegar – apple cider vinegar or white vinegar will do. Sauté for two more minutes, and then add the protein. If you are using fresh vegetables, add a few tablespoons of water. Mix thoroughly, and when the mixture starts to boil, lower the heat. Stir regularly until either: the squash, peppers, or mushrooms are soft, or the canned or frozen vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Serve over or alongside the carbohydrate.

Shabbat Brownies

As a busy graduate student, I have largely been sticking to these simpler recipes during my semesters. Sometimes, these are very obviously Jewish, but this time, I am providing a brownie recipe. I call these Shabbat brownies, because they taste great a day or two later – making them suited for baking for a Shabbat lunch! Make them on Thursday night or Friday afternoon for a tasty end to the meal. (Have one or three as a snack in the meantime.)

While the origin of brownies was likely in church communities in central Maine, they became quite popular among American Jews – just like everyone else in North America. There is a certain type of very fudgy brownie that seems to be popular among synagogues across North America. While they are good, I tend to prefer a cakey brownie – one that relies heavily on eggs.

brownie on parchment paper with brownies behind
This stock photo’s brownies look oddly similar to mine, if a tad denser. The photographer is more talented than I, hence… (Photo Pixabay/CC)

Hence this recipe. I used to have a different recipe, but here is my updated version. Thank you to my boyfriend, housemates, colleagues, and classmates for testing the various iterations.

Shabbat Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

2 sticks (1 cup) butter + more for greasing

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

1 cup granulated white sugar

½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ cup whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

6 large eggs, room temperature

1 ½ cups sifted white flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
  2. Grease a 9”x13”/23cmx33cm (or similarly sized pan) with butter. Line the pan with parchment paper, then grease the parchment paper again with butter.
  3. Melt the butter and chocolate chips together until smooth. You could do this in a bain-marie, but I just do it in the microwave: put the chips in a deep, microwave safe bowl, add the butter in chunks, microwave on high for a minute, then stir together. Put the melted chocolate-butter mixture in a large mixing bowl.
  4. Add the sugar and cocoa powder and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  5. Add the milk and vanilla extract, and whisk together until thoroughly combined.
  6. Crack the eggs into the bowl, and then whisk together until thoroughly combined and the mixture is smooth.
  7. Add the flour, baking powder, and sugar. Whisk together until the batter is thoroughly combined and is a smooth, thick consistency. Make sure all the flour is thoroughly mixed in!
  8. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean or with only a few crumbs. Let cool before cutting.
  9. Store in an airtight container for up to four days.

A Quick Addendum to the Pantry Article

Bags of frozen vegetables
 (Photo public domain)

I moved to Maryland in July from New York State. Though the move is fairly short – about 200 miles or 360 kilometers – my new home state does have a slightly different climate from New York. This difference does have some nice benefits, like the persimmon trees in my neighbor’s yards, or the slightly warmer winter. However, this also affects food storage. Maryland is just enough more humid and just enough balmier that food lasts for different lengths here. I have to be particularly more careful about flour and rice storage, and things like cake and bread do not stay fresh for quite as long as in New York. The difference is about a day.

So I need to add something quickly to my pantry guide: the fact that you need to take climate into account. Humidity, heat, and temperature changes will make some foods go off more quickly – and may necessitate different storage techniques. For example, in a hot, humid climate, tomatoes will last much longer in the refrigerator – and will go off more quickly when stored at “room temperature.” (Yes, this will affect the taste slightly.) Flour, rice, and noodles will need to be very carefully sealed to prevent bugs from getting in. On the other hand, in a cool, dry climate, it is important to make sure that your containers are fully closed – especially for things like bread, which can go stale quickly.

This knowledge can seem overwhelming. So I recommend: ask around with your local friends and see what they do! No doubt some people will have tips and tricks relevant for you. One example is that I’ve learned many people here keep their flour in the freezer, because Maryland has a particularly big population of flour mites (which are not nice).

Climate change will affect this. As climactic conditions become warmer, more humid or more dry, and with more extreme weather, food is affected in more ways than growing. One thing that has been less discussed is how storing food may need to change – and, if more refrigeration is needed, the resultant energy use and carbon emissions. On a macro level, that could be a big impact. On a micro level, it means that you may end up changing what you consume and how much as the impacts of climate change continue to play out.

Budget accordingly, buy accordingly, and store accordingly! Use tips and tricks for your climate to store things and to make sure things stay yummy and good to eat. Keep an eye out, especially given that extreme weather is sadly here to stay.

Trip-Chaining and Groceries (With A Recipe)

When I am not writing this blog, I am in graduate school for urban planning at the University of Maryland. I primarily focus on disability access and aging, and how we can do better planning for cities that are livable for everyone (Sometimes this means that I write about toilets.) A lot of what we look at revolves not just around how people should move about the city, but about how people actually do so. And some of that includes the fact that some travel is simply not facilitated.

Double decker bus with the text "53 Plumstead Station"
Photo by David Geib on Pexels.com

One thing we planners often discuss is “trip-chaining.” In our jargon, this means “a trip with one or more stops on the way.” So, instead of say a single-purpose trip – a trip to work or from work – it is more of a trip that might include dropping your child off, picking up some medicines, working for a few hours, and then swinging by the supermarket on the way back. Everyone trip-chains at some point. However, women, children, and people with disabilities are far more likely to trip-chain on a daily basis than men. The problem is that much of our extant transport infrastructure is planned around the assumption of a commute to work in the morning and a commute back from work in the evening. This case is especially apparent for public transit schedules. But for women still largely charged with childcare and household responsibilities, and others who are less likely to work in big job centers on those schedules, navigating the transport system becomes more difficult. Trip-chaining is easier for many – and besides, logically makes more sense – than doing one trip to get the groceries, another to drop off a child, and so on. Planning is finally cottoning on to this reality.

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – easier to carry than the fresh version. (Photo public domain)

Trip-chaining affects how we buy groceries and what groceries we buy. Firstly, when we go to buy groceries, our cognitive bandwidth is not always focused on the groceries. Anyone who has cared for a child while shopping or had to do it in a rush to catch a bus can tell you this. Secondly, it means that groceries will be carried sometimes a fairly long distance – especially if it’s not the last stop on a trip. If, like in some countries, distances are not that far, it means that it is not too terrible to carry around fresh vegetables, dairy, or other perishables. But in places with long travel times, or where transit is unreliable, perishable food becomes risky. Hence it is easier – and less wasteful – to buy things that do not need a refrigerator or can be outside of a fridge for longer. Think canned beans, fruit and vegetables that travel well, and not as many fragile leaves or berries. (Which, besides, are prohibitively expensive for some.) Difficulty in travel also makes big trips to the supermarket with a car far more likely – people in places that are heavily car-dependent go to the grocery store less often than people elsewhere, and the bulk and length of those visits are hard to chain.

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

I think processed foods have other benefits, especially for certain folks and people in certain places. But one advantage that is not always acknowledged is that they are something someone can actually buy and cart around effectively. If you have to grocery shop while doing three other tasks, it is harder to select and lug around fresh foods – especially if you don’t have a car to stow them in or if you have a long way to travel. Sometimes, it is easier to just buy a can or a box. Not to mention that it is already hard, with overwhelming choice, for many people to grocery shop anyway. Add the labor on top of that of child care or coordinating three schedules or three tasks, and then the cognitive load for many is overwhelming. The fact that I can eat and cook with so many vegetables has much more to do with the fact that I have lived walking distance from a good grocery store my entire adult life, and not nearly as much to do with my (lacking) virtue.

What does this mean in the Jewish context? Well, I think it illustrates the fact that things like pre-made latke mixes, canned soups, and “hacks” to make traditional dishes actually have a place in our kitchens. They make Jewish food much more manageable and feasible for some people, and there should not be shame in doing what is possible in the system you cannot change as an individual alone. And certainly not with consumption wrapped in deeply privileged ideas of propriety.

canned tomatoes, canned veggies, canned beans, spices, chopped onions and garlic, and elbow macaroni laid out
Ingredients that one can buy and schlep! (Photo mine, December 2019)

I have attached a simple recipe for a soup made entirely from ingredients you can buy while trip-chaining. It is an adaptation of pasta e fagioli for the vast majority of us who do not have the time to lovingly caress beautiful ingredients every day. The soup takes under half an hour to make.  You could probably swap frozen vegetables for the canned option, but it is harder to travel with those! (I use frozen, but I live five minutes’ walk from a grocery store.) These are also items that could easily be stored for a while in a pantry. I use soup powder, but you can use stock as well. The recipe multiplies well. My boyfriend enjoyed this soup, and I hope you do too!

Bowl of soup and mug of water on wood table)
(Photo mine, December 2019)

Bean Soup with Pasta (Trip-Chainers’ Pasta e Fagioli)

Serves 2-3 (or 1 person for two-three meals)

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

2 teaspoons soup powder/avkat marak (if using water)

1 teaspoon table salt (add 1 ½ tsp more if using stock)

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 15oz/425g can cannellini beans

1 15oz/425g can diced tomatoes

1 8oz/212g can mixed vegetables

1 cup elbow macaroni

Olive oil or vegetable oil

Apple cider vinegar

Water for pasta (and soup)

Ready-made vegetable stock for the soup (optional)

  1. Put some water on to boil in a small saucepan for the pasta. Dice the onion and garlic however small you like them.
  2. Put a bigger saucepan on the heat for the soup. Add the oil – maybe two tablespoons – then the onions and garlic. Sauté, stirring, for two minutes, or until soft.
  3. Add the soup powder (if using), salt, pepper, and oregano, then mix in. Add a splash of vinegar. Sauté for 30 more seconds.
  4. Add the canned tomatoes and mix in. When they are boiling, add the beans, then 2 cups of water or ready-made vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, then simmer until the pasta is ready. If you like your soup very liquid, cover the pot so the steam gets trapped.
  5. When the pasta water is ready, add the elbows. Bring to a boil, then cook for five-six minutes or until al dente. Drain, and set aside.
  6. Add the canned vegetables to the soup when the pasta is done. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for two minutes. Turn off the heat.
  7. To serve, ladle pasta into the bowl, then soup, to the serving size of your choice.

Arugula Salad for the Fall

Shana Tova! I made a salad at my Rosh HaShanah dinner that I was quite proud of, and after a few more tries (and a lot of arugula), I got the recipe down enough to post it here. Here is to a 5780 in which we are prickly when needed – like arugula – but sweet like pears and rich like goat cheese.

Black and white photo of arugula salad in a bowl

Salad itself has a very long history for Jews – salted raw vegetables were common in the Roman Empire, and it is where we get the word “salad” from. However, like other raw vegetable dishes that were not pickled, salads begin to become much more popular with the advent of refrigeration, when raw vegetables became safer and more readily available. That said, they were somewhat common in the Middle East, and the early Zionists borrowed/took the Palestinian custom of eating salads – which may have been of relatively recent vintage – and christened it as “Israeli.” Since then, certain kinds of salads have been nigh-ubiquitous in Jewish communities – and have only grown more so as Jewish communal life has become more centered on Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel, many feel that no meal is complete without a salad.

As for arugula, I wrote about the Jewish history of arugula for the Jewish Daily Forward back in 2016. Shall we say that this salad may serve as a proverbial “pick-me-up?”

Arugula Salad for the Fall/Tishrei and Marcheshvan

For every 8 ounces/225 grams of fresh arugula, add:

½ cup finely chopped walnuts

½-1 cup crumbled goat cheese (to taste)

1 small-medium red onion, finely chopped

2 medium pears, cored and finely chopped (you can use any pear, I prefer D’Anjou)

Toss these together. Then, make a dressing of the following proportions. Double as necessary for every 8 ounces/225 grams of arugula.

1.5 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon strong mustard

1.5 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

A few dashes of table salt

Mix these together, then pour over the salad and toss. The salad keeps for three days but tastes best right after you make it.

Pareve Pie Crust

I am moving to Maryland and in the midst of packing, but I did not want to leave you, my loyal readers, hanging. So, here is a quick recipe for a dairy-free pie crust. I have seen many people complain about the lack of quality generally present in pareve desserts. Though I love butter and sour cream, I do not think that a lack of dairy means that your dessert needs to be bad. Here is my tested pie crust recipe, which works for most dairy-free and vegan pies.

Thatched apple pie in a glass tray
An apple pie I made with the crust. (Photo mine, October 2018)

Pareve Pie Crust

For one double-crust 9-inch/23cm pie or two singe-crust 9-inch 23cm pies.

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

½ cup oat milk

½ cup corn oil

Up to ½ cup cold water

  1. Sift the flour and salt together in a large bowl with a fork or a whisk.
  2. Add the oil and oat milk. Then, with a pastry knife or your hands, meld the flour and liquids together to form a dough. Add a teaspoon of water at a time until you have a pliable but not dry dough.
  3. Refrigerate the dough until ready for use. You do not need to have the dough at room temperature to work it. Use like a dairy pie crust in your pie recipe.
  4. Do note that when it is done, it will be slightly lighter than a dairy pie crust.

Mistakes Made Jewish Cuisine

My maternal grandmother left a mountain of recipes. I wrote about some of these for Handwritten Magazine before. The recipes are delicious and replete with typos or forgotten ingredients. Mysteriously, 0s are doubled or removed, so the recipe ends up calling for “20 grams flour” rather than 200. Entire ingredients, like flour, are forgotten. So are basic steps, like frying onions. When one cooks from the recipe, it is an experiment of trial and much error. It took nearly twenty attempts to get her pumpkin fritters right.

Fish on ice in a market
Cooking a whole fish for the first time – or after a long time – can result in various mistakes. (Photo mine, December 2017)

So, to this year. My mother and I were tasked with bringing stuffed matzoh balls to a Passover seder. These kneidlach are stuffed with fried onions and garlic and are very, very tasty. We opened the sheaf of my grandmother’s typewritten papers with her recipes to the matzoh ball to find that … mysteriously, she seemed to call for as much margarine as matzoh meal. Being experienced enough to know that this couldn’t be right, we consulted other recipes for a more sensible ratio. We realize now that my grandmother meant 20 grams.

As I reflected on this bizarre typo (and imagining fat globules swimming through my soup), I thought about all the ways Jewish cuisine might have been shaped by mistakes. We often think of cuisine as some sort of unbroken tradition. I have written repeatedly, here and elsewhere, why that is bunk. We also valorize the creativity of our ancestors in using and taking in new ingredients, or making things out of limited ingredients, or having the bravery to try something new. That is somewhat more accurate, but there is still something lacking. And so I would say this:

Mistakes have shaped Jewish cuisine. They may be typos, omissions, spills, accidental omissions, or random accidents. Sometimes they change it for the worse, sometimes for the better, and sometimes we never know. A dish might end up being better with the accidental addition of a spice, or leaving out something else. It might become a longstanding tradition – I suspect that whoever first made the gelled broth of gefilte fish probably left the broth out for too long by mistake. A mistake may also turn into someone’s “secret ingredient.” My formerly-secret ingredient of black pepper in applesauce started as an accident.

Soup with squash, beans, and noodles garnished with sour cream in a bowl
I have not made this soup for a while, and I am liable to make a mistake while making it. (Photo mine, February 2018)

That said, people make mistakes more often than they withhold secrets. When a recipe does not work out, some people’s first instinct is to assume that the cook left out an ingredient to preserve their domination over a dish. The mythical “secret ingredient.” I doubt that this is usually the case, though ardent cooks can be as vain and petty as anyone. Rather, I am more convinced of the fact that cooks forget that they do things in a way, or that they add something in such and such a way, because it is so natural to them. I beat eggs in a certain way, so that the whites get a bit puffier, but I never thought to include that in a recipe, for example. That mistake will change the final product, unless you too beat your eggs in the exact same way. In addition, you can always mess up when cooking from someone else’s recipe. And these mistakes determine, I think, a bit of what gets cooked and what does not. If a mistake makes a dish hard for someone to recreate, then that dish will likely not appear on the table – or appear in altered form. Likewise, if a mistake leaves you with a bad impression of a dish, then you will not be inclined to cook it again. As I write this, I wonder how many creative, tasty, and wondrous dishes have been lost to mistakes by author or cook. My grandmother’s pumpkin fritters very nearly met this fate, because she forgot to mention flour at all.

Things get lost in translation, too. One thing that often never gets really appreciated is how different “eyeball” quantities can be in different languages – ktzat in Hebrew is not necessarily a bit in English, and that is not un poquito in Spanish either. Now, apply that measure to salt, or pepper, or nutmeg (as I have witnessed), and see what results. The same goes for directions: meng in Afrikaans can be expressed by several words, not just mix, in English. And, of course, “to taste” is impossibly personal and extremely cultural. So when parents give their children recipes, or friends give their friends recipes, or someone squints over a newspaper in a language they speak imperfectly (guilty as charged), unintentional mistakes can be made quite easily. And the end product is different. Sometimes the change is not so great, but sometimes it is better or tastier.

Pihtije, a Serbian aspic
Aspics, like the pictured Serbian pihtije or the Ashkenazi p’tcha, were maybe invented out of a mistake. (Photo VI via Wikimedia/CC)

And then there are the dishes you end up forgetting to make for years at a time. I have not made brownies, for example, for about five years. (Shocking, I know.) I know that when I make them the first time, I will probably mess something up. If I make them for someone, they might not like “my brownies” – even if I try to convince them that my brownies are normally delicious. If that person is my boyfriend, I might not end up making them for quite a while, or ever again. Transpose this idea to a rarer dish, or one that might not be easily made. It is quite possible that many things have been given up, because they are too hard to make right, or so hard to recreate that they are easily messed up. Beyond changing ideas of “good” and “bad” and assimilating a cultural aversion to wobbliness, one reason that p’tcha is probably no longer as common, for example, is that it is actually quite easy to mess up. Other dishes or variants of extant ones have probably been lost in the recesses of many memories. Still others are changed by the mistakes that you make in re-creation.

Part of me wants to think only of the happy accidents – after all, which genius realized that gefilte fish is perfectly paired with horseradish? But cooking and cuisine are not only happy or happy accidents. A lot of learning to cook, and researching food history, is not noticing a thing and then making a disaster of your dish. These disasters help us figure out what to cook, how to cook, and how not to cook. And when we learn from others how to eat, what to eat, and how not to eat, these disasters can add up to a cuisine. Mistakes have changed the way Jews talk about, cook, eat, and remember food, and that is something worth noting – just like my grandmother’s missing 0.

A Method to Check Rice for Passover, with Jay Stanton

This post was developed in collaboration with Jay Stanton. Thank you Jay!

Happy Passover! Some of you may choose to eat rice for Passover – and if you, like me, are Ashkenazi, it may be your very first time. One requirement for many people on Passover is that all kitniyot – roughly, wheat-like foods must be checked to ensure that they don’t contain chametz – one of the forbidden grains. Rice, with its small grains, is particularly hard to check.

My friend Jay Stanton was kind enough to teach me an efficient and fun way to check rice for chametz. Sharing is caring, so I will show you here. Many, many thanks to Jay Stanton for his assistance.

What you will need: a baking tray, parchment paper, an unopened package of rice, a place to store checked rice.

First, make sure that your space is well lit, and that you have a flat surface, and a comfortable place to sit. Your rice should be unopened for kashrut reasons. Make sure your hands are dry.

Choose a baking tray that has a lip. This will be helpful for making sure you do not lose rice.

Lay a layer of parchment paper over the baking tray.

Now, pour a handful of rice onto the parchment paper. Shake the tray so that the rice is in a layer that is one grain thick.

Scan the rice pile and start picking out anything that does not look like a grain of rice. In the United States, you are unlikely to find chametz, but you will find other things. For example, we found: some rice husks, some rice grains that had been damaged and discolored, and some tiny stones. If it does not look like rice, take it out and discard it. (Or feed it to a bird.) You

You may need to shake the tray a few times to spot everything.

Once you have taken everything you can see, use your finger to scan the edges to find any other impurities.

Once you are done with that, use the parchment paper and pour your rice into a sealable container or bag. Congrats! That is your first Passover rice.

Repeat the process until all rice is checked. This process also works for other small kitniyot.

A few notes:

  • Some people have the custom of checking a batch three separate times. You can decide whether or not to do this yourself.
  • If you keep a strictly kosher or kosher for Passover kitchen, you need to do this process before Passover.
  • Be mindful that where you live and the type of rice you buy will affect what ends up in your rice.

Some Thoughts About Stocking Your Pantry

A shelf of canned fish
Canned fish – essential for many. (Photo public domain)

A preface: I do not tend to be fond of “must-have” articles. What each person needs to do or keep for food differs: what do they eat? How much can they spend? Where do they live? What do they do? Must-have articles always seem to make far too many assumptions, and then ask folks to keep things that they never actually use, or do things that are totally unreasonable. (Three types of salt? To quote the kids, “whomst.”) That said, I do seem to write a lot of advice articles. People seem to like having ideas or general advice, and I strive to be suggestive rather than prescriptive. So for this article, please correct me if I mess up.

A few people wanted me to write an article about “how to stock a pantry.” Despite what so many food bloggers tell you, this is actually a hard thing to write. What to stock and how to stock depend on where you live, what you eat, what you can afford, your cooking habits, and all the social things that also intersect with food. So instead, here are some thoughts about stocking your pantry, which come from two places. One is my own experience and research. The other is you. I surveyed friends and readers about what they kept in their pantry. Then, I cobbled together data from dozens of responses to get an idea of what other pantries look like, in all sorts of situations.

So, here is some advice. Keep in mind that what you can afford, where you live, what you can and cannot do, and what you eat all play a role in stocking your pantry. You may not be able to have very much in a dorm room or a temporary place. You may not have a good refrigerator. You may have tons of space and money and be able to go all out – but not really have a diet that necessitates all those ingredients. Some things someone can tell you, but this is one thing you will need to partly figure out yourself.

Which is to say: this advice is not prescriptive. I give only suggestions! Mix and match as you need.

Canned vegetables on a shelf.
Canned vegetables: a life saver for some. (Photo Parenting Patch via Creative Commons)

An important note on cuisines: your pantry should change based on what you eat. This pantry list is largely for Ashkenazi and Western Sephardic cooking, with some other addendums. If your primary diet is a different cuisine, be it Japanese, Korean, Senegalese, Ethiopian, Lao, Mexican, O’odham, or Cree, you will need to stock accordingly for the base ingredients in your main cuisine. So, you will probably want to first look at advice from other folks that eat those cuisines primarily. Many “pantry” stocking articles assume a generic Western standard that applies for everyone. Let us not do that here.

With that said, let us dive in!

Pantry Stocking Advice

I have sorted the following out into three sections, and the second section has three parts of three parts each. The first is a general rule on what to make sure you have. The second part sorts some things out by how to store them, then split up into how much preparation they require. I give suggestions across a range of flavors and budget levels. The third selection is on building up a spice and seasoning stockpile.

Bags of frozen vegetables
Frozen vegetables are handy for many. (Photo public domain)

Things You Should Try to Have

You should try to have the following two things: some food that they can eat with no or very little preparations, and ingredients for a simple meal.

I am about to say something heretical for a food blogger to say. You need to have a ready-made meal, or something that can be treated as such, on hand. Ideally, a few. There are going to be days when you cannot cook, days when your stove is out of commission, or days when you’re suddenly stuck at home because your road is blocked off, and you have few groceries. This is where industrial food comes in. Platitudes about real food are all nice and good until you have a real need for food that cannot wait. So, keep some things on hand. Some things I recommend are: instant noodles, microwave meals if you have a working freezer, canned soups, protein bars, breakfast cereals, and microwave-pack shelf-stable meals. I personally stock some protein bars, breakfast cereals, frozen mac and cheese, and shelf-stable microwaveable pasta and vegetables for emergencies. I do not recommend making these a mainstay of your diet if you can avoid it, but they are a good idea. We live in a time where industrial food has enabled us to stockpile safe, somewhat tasty food if we can. It would be a shame not to take advantage.

Kasha varnishkes in a metal bowl
Kasha varnishkes can be made with shelf-stable ingredients. (photo mine, May 2017)

The other thing I recommend is keeping shelf- or freezer-stable ingredients for a simple, easily cooked meal. This could be as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You should have a carbohydrate and a protein, and sources of salt, fat, and acid. Vegetable matter is always nice, too. I usually keep the ingredients for pasta with tuna or beans at all times:

Ingredients for Tuna/Bean Pasta

  • Pasta
  • Canned or frozen vegetables
  • Canned tomato sauce
  • Canned tuna or beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

In this list, the pasta, beans or tuna, salt, oil, and vinegar are the most essential, with the seasoning and vegetables adding flavor and nutrition. You can mix and match as necessary.

Here are ingredient lists for four more shelf-stable based cooked meals that you can plan for:

Rice and beans

  • Rice
  • Canned black beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Couscous and beans

  • Couscous (the add-hot-water kind)
  • Raisins
  • Canned lentils
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Kasha with Mushrooms and Beans

  • Kasha
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned white beans
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Pasta with Green Beans and Canned Fish

  • Pasta
  • Canned green beans
  • Canned salmon
  • Salt and some spices
  • Onions or garlic, using powders as a backstop
  • Cooking oil
  • Vinegar

Again, if you can, I encourage expanding from these bases. But keep basic ingredients for a basic meal on hand. Again, this does not even necessarily have to involve cooking.

Five brown bouillon cubes in open wrappers.
Bouillon cubes – just as Jewish as homemade stock. (Photo Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

Beyond the Basics

Once you have the very basics, here are some things that you could consider placing in your pantry, based on your diet, your space, what you can do, what you cannot do, what you can afford, and what you can realistically keep.

I don’t even have all of these things in my pantry. You do not need all of these things at once! This list is suggestive, not prescriptive.

Note: some things are listed twice, because you can store them in either place.

Things That You Store in Cupboards

    No or little preparation required:

  • Bread (I tend to freeze bread.)
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable rice
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable pasta
  • Add hot-water or microwaveable mashed potatoes
  • Add hot-water oatmeal or Cream of wheat
  • Canned baked beans
  • Canned sardines
  • Canned peas
  • Canned corn
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned mushrooms
  • Canned carrots
  • Canned fruit
  • Nutritional shakes or protein bars
  • Canned soup
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Add hot water soups
  • Corn tortillas
  • Instant noodles
  • Snacking nuts
  • Potato chips
  • Apple sauce (can also go in fridge)
  • Rice cakes
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Long-life milk or plant milk

    Some preparation required:

  • Pasta
  • Noodles
  • Rice
  • Potatoes (can also go in fridge)
  • Onions (can also go in fridge)
  • Garlic (can also go in fridge)
  • Rolled oats
  • Buckwheat groats
  • Canned beans
  • Dried beans (Though I strongly prefer canned.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Salt – people will tell you to have multiple types of salt, but having basic salt that you can shake or grind is honestly manageable enough.
  • Vinegars – I recommend rice wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar to start for food, and white vinegar for cleaning. Red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, and malt vinegars are nice to have if you can.
  • Oils – I recommend canola or vegetable oil to start. Sesame oil, olive oil, and sunflower oil are nice to have.
  • Spices – see the section below.
  • Sugar – I recommend white sugar to start, brown sugar or confectioners’ sugar as needed. I personally store sugar in the fridge, since I find it keeps bugs away.
  • Flour – I usually recommend all-purpose flour to start, unless you cannot have gluten, in which case, an all-purpose gluten-free blend. Keep it sealed!
  • Cornstarch – for thickening foods.
  • Onion powder and garlic powder (even if you have onions and garlic)
  • Stock cubes or soup powder.
  • Syrup or honey, if you prefer that to sugar.
  • Yeast, if you bake breads.
  • Baking soda or baking powder for baking – I find baking soda and vinegar is great for cleaning too!
  • Soy sauce.
  • Peanut butter.
  • Ketchup – this can also go in the fridge, but it is fine if not.
  • Worcestershire sauce – do keep in mind that some folks have kashrut issues around this.
  • Hot sauce – check which kind, since some types do need to be refrigerated.

Things That You Store in the Fridge

    No preparation required:

  • Pickles
  • Yoghurt
  • Applesauce
  • Cheese

(Most ready-made stuff that is kept in the fridge does not keep for very long – so I would not rely on always having that specific type of thing on hand.)

    Things you add to other food:

  • Butter
  • Vegan butter substitutes
  • Milk
  • Plant milk
  • Lemon juice
  • Eggs – admittedly all three, but so versatile!
  • Applesauce – admittedly, the same as eggs.
  • Onions – can be stored outside, but keep longer in the fridge. If space allows,keep at some distance from potatoes.
  • Garlic – can be stored outside, but keep longer in fridge.
  • Pasta sauces (as needed)
  • Ketchup – this does not need to be in the fridge, but I do find that it is less messy

when it is refrigerated.

  • Miso paste – if you cook things that require it. If you seal it well, it actually keeps equally well in the freezer.
  • Mustard
  • Jams – they can be kept, if not yet opened, on a shelf.
  • Chutneys – same rules as jams.

Things That You Store in the Freezer

    Little preparation required:

  • Microwave meals/frozen meals, for backup situations
  • Frozen snacks
  • Frozen breakfast foods (frozen waffles, frozen patties)
  • Frozen prepared foods (I am a fan of frozen kugels and frozen dumplings)

    Some preparation required:

  • Frozen meat (I’m a fan especially of freezing mincemeats)
  • Frozen meat substitutes (Frozen tofu has a tradition of several hundred years)
  • Frozen beans
  • Frozen fish
  • Frozen bread
  • Frozen vegetables – including: frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen spinach, frozen okra, frozen broccoli. Note: some frozen vegetables have more nutrients than their average fresh equivalents.
  • Frozen fruit, including: frozen berries, frozen mango

    Things you add to other food:

  • Frozen stock – which is especially useful for soups and rice.
  • Frozen garlic or frozen crushed garlic – a lifesaver.
  • Frozen animal fats, if you use them – I particularly like frozen schmaltz.
  • Frozen sauces, if you use them.

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

Spices

Let me be clear about one thing first: getting a spice or ingredient stockpile together is not easy. Spices are expensive, need to be stored properly, and can easily be “lost” in a pile of bottles. Organization helps, but so does a bit of advanced knowledge.

Some people go off generic lists or kits, but I do not advise that. Instead, I suggest that before going out and buying spices you never use, get a sense of what you like to eat. Do you like spicy foods, bland foods, sweet foods, or savory foods? Look up a few recipes for things you like to eat often and note down the spices that you see. Buy those spices first, and make sure you know which ones you have. Then, only buy other spices as you need them. Over time, you will build a stockpile. Properly stored ground, dried spices can be stored for years.

I put together a joint list for spices based on the frequency I use them in Ashkenazi and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m Lithuanian and German by heritage, so I tend to skew more seasoned than Polish or Russian Jews. I cook quite a bit of Middle Eastern food at home, and Mexican food.

Spices to start:

  • Black pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Cumin
  • Dill
  • Garlic powder (alongside fresh garlic)
  • Ginger
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Red pepper (flakes or powder)
  • Salt (iodized or sea)
  • Thyme

More spices:

  • Allspice
  • Basil
  • Bay leaves
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway seed
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Cilantro
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seed
  • Mustard seed
  • Nutmeg
  • Paprika
  • Poppy seed (for baking)
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric
  • Vanilla extract (for baking)

Even more spices:

  • Asafoedita
  • Celery seed
  • Fennel seed (Anise)
  • Fenugreek (extremely needed for some cuisines)
  • Juniper berries (I personally am not a fan)
  • Mace
  • Marjoram
  • Nigella seeds
  • Saffron (very expensive, only buy if absolutely needed)
  • Savory
  • Sesame seeds
  • Star Anise
  • Sumac (but if you frequently cook Levantine food, get this)
  • Tarragon

If you want to experiment with several spices at a time, I highly recommend buying spice mixes. Some of these are quite beloved by their users, and are “standard” for many cuisines. I keep a very large amount of South African spice blends for cooking meat and pickling things on hand at all time. You can get some of these mixes very cheaply at the supermarket – for example, Pumpkin Pie Spice. There is no shame in using these!

Special thanks to the dozens of readers who told me what they keep in their pantries.