Gadgets and the Climate-Friendly Kitchen

This piece follows – but is not a sequel to – my piece on Climate Mitigation in the Kitchen.

We do not eat a lot of meat in the Katz-Ouziel household. Some of this is personal: we both genuinely enjoy vegetarian proteins; my eleven years of keeping various forms of kosher meant that I became pretty accustomed to a low-meat diet; David (my partner) is especially sensitive to animal welfare and well, reminders that food was once a sentient being. And beyond all of that, less meat is often  environmentally and financially better (but not always!). So a lot of our protein comes from beans – not quite to the glorious lots of beans meme of the 2000s, but close.  Most of those beans are canned – thank you modern food processing – but some of the most delicious ones are not canned. So I soak and cook.

Brown, white, and black beans in glass cups
A selection of dried beans (photo by JPMattH in the public domain)

I recently acquired a pressure cooker, and it has made it much easier to eat lots of beans – not just commonly canned varieties. Many of these are more drought-resistant, or are connected with the continent’s indigenous heritage, or grown as part of efforts towards crop diversification. Some are just delicious. Across the board though, these beans, when substituting for meat, are a good choice for climate-conscious eating – and the pressure cooker helps make that choice easier and better.

I have talked a lot about the importance of processed foods on this blog, including vis-à-vis climate (linked above), but I have not given enough space for gadgets. When I say gadgets, I am talking about machines that make cooking easier – everything from a food processor to a pressure cooker to an Instant Pot to my favorite, the humble rice cooker. Even a microwave counts! We often romanticize doing things the “hard,” “real,” or “long” way, but these tools make cooking a lot less drudging for users – and open up a lot more things to be actually practical to cook. (Rachel Laudan says as much in her timeless piece on modernist cooking.) Given that we have to make many adjustments for climate-friendlier eating, I think gadgets can play a key role.

A shelf with rice cookers
A selection of (somewhat pricy!) rice cookers at a store in the US. (Photo Chris Devers/public domain)

Specifically, I want to highlight three potential benefits:

  1. Gadgets make it easier to change one’s diet or adapt to new foods. A lot of the non-financial trouble with changing one’s diet, or learning new foods, is not the food itself. Rather, it is knowing how to cook it, or the cognitive load of changing one’s cooking habits. (I have a suspicion that this is one reason why some vegans and vegetarians revert to meat-eating.) If gadgets make things easier to cook, then they reduce that cognitive load. Many people seem to agree with me, given the wealth of gadget-centric recipes and resources out there, especially for vegetarian cooking.
  2. Greener eating becomes more accessible for people with disabilities and people with time limitations. As I’ve noted before, tools and gadgets help many people with disabilities cook. This is because our capacities mean that some “common” techniques are not always possible. A lot of food culture, including “sustainable eating” seems to also focus on cooking methods that involve types of tasks that some people cannot do, or cannot do regularly. Better gadgets, and embracing gadgets, allows disabled and non-disabled people alike to benefit from greener eating.

    Even for someone who does not have a disability, other things matter too. The frank truth is that most people – and especially people with fewer resources – do not have the time or wherewithal to cook in many of these more “authentic” or “from-scratch” ways. Gadgets open up a lot of cooking possibilities because they allow food to be made with less time and less effort. Climate-conscious foodies should embrace gadgets because they make it more practical for many people to cook greener at all.
  3. Gadgets reduce reliance on gas. Gas for cooking is bad for the planet and causes a lot of emissions and pollution. Electric cooking is one solution, but many people cannot afford to switch over. Things like rice cookers, Instant Pots, and other things not only save time, but also help folks use less gas – even if some gas is used in the process, as with a stovetop pressure cooker. Of course, the electricity should be from a cleaner source.
Greenhouse on a green field
A greenhouse in Iceland – a gadget writ large, perhaps? (Photo in the public domain)

Of course, there are other benefits too. And perhaps I am missing one – I would love to hear from you how gadgets help you – or not – with climate-friendly eating. Are you able to eat greener foods more easily? Have you found new tricks or recipes that you especially enjoy? And what sort of gadgets do you want to see? The climate affects and will continue to affect everyone, and there is infinitely more to say on this topic. I look forward to your input. Enjoy beans and other delicious things in the meantime!

If you want to learn more about eating, climate change, and food in the environment, I highly recommend Climavores – a new(ish) podcast by Tamar Haspel and Mike Grunwald.

Fun at the Capital Jewish Food Festival

DC had its first Capital Jewish Food Festival the day before Sukkot this year. A new museum, the Capital Jewish Museum, is about to open Downtown, and this institution put together and hosted this festival. The goal: celebrate Jewish food loudly, publicly, and in a fun and delicious way in the nation’s capital.

A brick and glass building with steps and a terrace. Drawing
A rendering of the forthcoming museum. (Image Capital Jewish Museum)

I bought tickets as soon as I heard that this event was happening. After all, how often is there going to be a brand-new Jewish food festival near me – and five blocks from my office, no less? I had a lot of fun, and thought I would write up my experience to share with you. For those of you local to Greater Washington, the festival was held on F Street NW between 3rd and 2nd Streets, right by the Judiciary Square Metro. I got there a bit early – but the crowd really started packing in shortly after I arrived. There were throngs of people!

About fifteen to twenty vendors were present, offering samples for ticket holders and additional delicious things for purchase. Some of my favorites included a fantastic challah apple bread pudding from Bread Furst, Venezuelan flan (very Shavuot-appropriate!) from Immigrant Food, and a fantastic hummus with winter squash from Little Sesame. For those who did not want to limit themselves to samples, there was more to buy. If my pantry had not been already packed, I would have absolutely gotten some delicious baked goods from Baked by Yael (what fantastic challah!).

Hummus with pita and winter squash from Little Sesame
Hummus with pita and winter squash from Little Sesame (photo mine, October 2022)

What I loved about the vendors is that they were neither limited to explicitly Jewish vendors, nor to specific interpretations of Jewish tradition. One stall had a delicious Venezuelan-style flan – which some Jews probably eat at Shavuot, but it was not marketed as either Jewish or for Shavuot. It was a delicious flan that you could eat Jewishly! In addition, other community groups were there as well with their wares – including a Chinese-American heritage association with delicious mooncakes. The message seemed to be “these things are part of Jewish tables too.” This mixing also gave rise to some pairings most would not think of – that flan was an excellent counterweight to the bread pudding I just mentioned.

Two plastic cups with fried foods and sauces
Vegan nuggets and fries from PLNT Burger (photo mine, October 2022)

There were keynote speakers too – including the inimitable Joan Nathan and Michael Twitty. Both held book signings after their talks. I was not able to make Twitty’s because of a prior conflict with his speaking time – though I’ve had the fortune to meet him before, in 2016 – but I was able to meet Joan Nathan! As longtime readers know, I have relied quite a bit on her work over the years as I’ve developed my own Jewish culinary practice and knowledge. She, like Twitty, is incredibly sweet in person. If you have a chance to meet Twitty or Nathan, take it! Meeting your heroes is a fabulous opportunity.

The crowd was awesome – and though it got a bit overcrowded, it was wonderful to see people enjoying the joyfulness of Jewish tradition. A lot of Jewish tradition is indeed “Remember that we suffered,” but there is a streak of joy too, and that is what I like to share. Food is a huge part of that, and this festival amplifies that opportunity for joy. It was really awesome to see Jews and their friends just enjoying a very public day out, eating tasty Jewish things. I heard people introducing their friends to Jewish foods, or talking about what they learned or particularly enjoyed. It was also wonderful to hear folks say things like “I’m not Jewish but I love Jewish food.” The joy of Jewish food really should be for everyone, and I appreciate that the Museum consciously pushed back on the often insular and exclusionary approaches to Jewish cultural celebrations. After all, we are never just Jewish either.

A street with pedestrians and covered stalls on both sides. No cars are on the street.
The festival early on – about three times as many people were present just 45 minutes later! (Photo mine, October 2022)

I hope the festival continues next year. I am planning to write to the museum for two suggestions: one on space and one for accessibility. The festival was popular – which is good – but the street space was perhaps too small for the number of folks who wanted to attend. Next year, if possible, I would suggest that they spread out along more than one block to accommodate everyone. Related to that, the seating areas were a bit hidden, which made it hard for folks who cannot stand for a while or eat and walk. These areas should be more clearly marked.

I hope to see you at the festival next year!

The Lillian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum will open soon at 575 3rd Street NW in Washington DC, by the Judiciary Square station on Metro’s Red Line.

Great Books: Koshersoul, by Michael Twitty

Great Books: Koshersoul, by Michael Twitty

Several years ago, Michael Twitty came out with The Cooking Gene, which was a fantastic exploration of African-American culinary history. I gave it a rave review on this blog. That book explored the West African roots of both African-American food and Southern food as a whole, with Twitty’s own personal experience intertwined. Twitty has followed this work with another magnificent book: Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew. Twitty writes about his own Jewish journey, the experiences of America’s many Black Jews (both African-American and of other backgrounds), and how these play out both in the kitchen and in White Jewish communities.

A Black man with a beard and short hair in a green print kente shirt at a lectern
Michael Twitty, the author, delivering a book talk at the Library of Virginia and looking fabulous. (Photo Library of Virginia in the public domain, undated)

Koshersoul is memoir, history, food book, and conversation all at once – and Twitty balances these very deftly. Historical explorations, ethnography, and analysis are intertwined with Twitty’s own well-narrated stories. You learn a lot as a reader – but also come to appreciate not only the intersections Twitty experiences every day, but also the way he can connect these to wider ranges. Twitty also is the rare memoirist that does not come off as self-indulgent – and, in fact, he shows a great deal of empathy and care for the many people he chronicles as well.

The book meanders – which I think adds to its excellence. The stories Twitty tells are not chronological, but rather go back and forth across his life and across history. What this structure does is make the book feel more like a story being told in person, rather than a tome. In addition, because it reflects how we tell stories in person, I found that the structure made it easier for me to envision certain things – particularly when it came to the discussions of food, or some of the more intense stories from Twitty’s Hebrew school teaching years.

Okra stacked on a table
Okra – one of the foods that Twitty discusses in his examination of African influences on Jewish cooking and the food of African-American Jews and the communities in which they live. (Photo Postbear/public domain)

I think this book is an important one. White Jews like myself would do well to read it. Twitty is not only unflinching about racism and racial dynamics in the Jewish community, but also the impacts of “mainstream” Judaism’s headlong rush to whiteness on their fellow Jews’ very real lives. There is also a very important analysis embedded in the book of Jewish food culture – and how much of the politics around Jewish food comes from a distinctly unsavory tradition.

The food discussions in the latter part of the book are fascinating, and also have a realness to them that I find refreshing. Discussions of Jewish food are oftentimes sappy with nostalgia or a distinct unrealism about the cultural balance Jews – and especially Jews of color – face. Twitty faces these head on, with frank discussions about the role of enslaved Black folks and domestic workers in cooking Jewish cuisine, their influence on Jewish foodways, and also the balancing Jews by birth and choice do between cuisines and kashrut. I think a lot of Jewish food writing could learn from Twitty in this regard.

Twitty ends his book with some fantastic recipes. These recipes combine West African, African-American, and various Jewish traditions. Some are by him, and some are by the many Black Jews who Twitty worked with as he crafted the book. Keep the book because these recipes are ones you will want to come back to again and again. Two personal favorites are the Jollof Rice and the Tahini-Nokos Dressing.

Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African-American Jew, by Michael Twitty. I provided the book link here, but please try to buy this from a Black-owned bookstore if you can.

Climate Mitigation and Adaptation in the Kitchen

White beads of pearl millet on a stalk
Millet – a crop we may see more of in coming years. (Photo Kurt Steuber via Creative Commons)

To combat climate change, we will need to both reduce emissions, but also adapt. Why is this? Well, even if we turned off all carbon emissions off today, a certain amount of climate change is still “baked in.” You can read about that science here. This means that, unfortunately, some human-caused climate change will continue to happen. And that climate shift will affect everything that we do – and to “weather the storm,” (pun intended) we will need to mitigate its effects in our daily lives.

Some of this adaptation will occur in the kitchen. There has been a lot of writing about the way we cook and what we cook as it relates to carbon emissions. I discussed this topic in the context of electric and gas cooking in a recent article for Greater Greater Washington. However, our surrounding climate affects how we do everything from certain cooking tasks to food storage to what we are able to realistically grow and eat.

Sejal Sukhadwala, a London-based food writer (and author of an excellent book, The Philosophy of Curry), recently asked a question on Twitter on this topic. Her tweet proposed a few things, rooted especially in the British experience and the recent heatwave there – for example, weather-dependent baking. I wanted to take the topic further. Hence, this post.

This topic could cover books and doctoral theses. However, I decided to think of a few things I could identify for a brief blog post. These are all predictions – or things that will be more common as climate change continues to affect our lives. (The science is, of course, continuously evolving on this urgent issue.)

  1. Better ventilation and cooling in kitchens. We are going to be dealing with more heat – and that also means that buildings will be hotter – sometimes to the point where air conditioning alone (separately complicated) is not going to cut it. Kitchens, already hot, can become dangerously so – especially for people who work in kitchens. In addition, many major food groups will be in demand, and I do not foresee weather-dependent menus becoming too common. Hence, we will need more and better ventilation and cooling to keep the temperature down in the kitchen. I imagine that this problem will get a lot of architectural and engineering attention over the coming years. But – also – we will need to consider what kind of changes we make in order to make that efficiency possible. Some things – like a wood-fired oven – will need a lot more surrounding infrastructure to be usable. I think a lot of these lessons can be learned from the past and from existing practices –many cultures have done some pretty neat things to ensure ventilation and cooling in hot climates.
  2. Changes to processed foods. Some ingredients will be harder to come by, and others will be more problematic to grow as the climate changes (which I cover below). This situation will happen with the climate change that is already locked in. One way that this shift will affect our food is what goes into the processed ingredients that most of us rely on to some extent – everything from the flour that gets milled to what happens in frozen meals to the components of spice blends and preservatives in canned vegetables. These changes will affect how we cook with the ingredients, what they taste like, and how available they are. For example, I imagine that we may see a shift to more amaranth showing up in processed goods as it is a fairly drought-resistant crop. Meanwhile, I suspect that we will start to see fewer things with apple products, including widely-used juice and vinegar, given the effects of the changing climate on apple production. Most of all, I think we need to be prepared for different tastes – which have varied throughout history! As sympathetic as I am when people are upset when preferred products change, this is something we should all be prepared for – and address when we cook and eat.
  3. Fewer water-intensive ingredients. Unfortunately, the amount of climate change that has been “locked in” will continue to affect rainfall – and not just in traditionally dry places. In many places, water-intensive ingredients like almonds and walnuts will go from just being environmentally awkward to economically and scientifically unfeasible. I expect, over the coming years, that many water-intensive ingredients will become scarcer and more expensive. There will also be pressure to use fewer of these ingredients, similar to the way that there is already pressure to consume less meat and dairy. (Though there is more scientific pushback there than with almonds or certain water-intensive plants.) Some common recipes will become less so – for example, the breadth of Jewish recipes that include almonds. Other times, substitutions will be quite common – for example, oat milk rather than almond milk.

    A part of me also hopes that we will see more cooking with some truly wonderful drought-resistant ingredients. Tepary beans, nopal cacti, lentils, millet, corn and black eyed peas all come to mind.

Of course, there are many more mitigation techniques that I could discuss here – I have not even scratched meat-eating or adjustments to when we do certain tasks. And, of course, we need to cut emissions, and that comes through the food system too, as well as how we cook. Mitigation is still a key part of our response though – and I hope that this post highlighted for you how kaleidoscopic, how varied this response will be.

Great Books: Perfection Salad, by Laura Shapiro

I am far from the first person to believe that the kitchen can change the world. In fact, such a belief motivated the domestic science movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which was largely led by women. This push – though not feminist – sought to give honor and credit to women’s work in the kitchen, and to transform how women ate. Laura Shapiro’s 1986 book Perfection Salad narrates the history and impact of this movement – and how the legacy on the kitchen was “devastating” – and how it also, in many ways, strengthened patriarchy rather than lending respect to women.

About two dozen white women in aprons and caps looking at a camera in a library
A home economics class in early 20th-century Toronto. (Photo public domain via Toronto Public Library)

The book charts the fascinating history of “domestic science,” the ancestor to today’s “home economics.” The movement stemmed from a desire to standardize and give respect to women’s domestic work – and rather than changing gender norms or the distribution of labor, social reformers sought to do so by standardizing and making scientific this labor. Much of the change happened in cuisine – with ideas of foods being controlled, and determined for nutrition or morals alone rather also for nourishment and flavor. (Hence creations like the book’s titular salad.) The book also charts the way women interested in chemistry and economics were shunted off to the gendered world of home economics – and how this whole development tied in with the popularization of industrial foods. The book is fantastic, and I highly recommend it.

One surprise for me, while reading the book, has been the type of presence Christianity has in many of these reformer’s narratives. I am unsurprised by the presence – social reform has always had a strong Christian overtone – but rather the tenor of it. Many of the reformers presented “orderly” households as analogous to Heaven itself – and one even narrated Heaven as such an establishment! Even as scientific methods were incorporated into home economics, the base of the enterprise was still a very patriarchal one of the woman as keeper of the hearth and imparter of Christian morals (with all sorts of rather biased assumptions attached). Shapiro’s depiction of this phenomenon is unflinching but also deeply engaging – she draws the reader into the minds of the authors who she writes about from a century’s distance. As I read, I reflected on similar tendencies in many Jewish social reform cookbooks in the early 20th century – like the famed Settlement Cook Book. Even with their secularizing and assimilationist tendencies, these books still relied also on older, very patriarchal ideas of what the kitchen was spiritually – and what women should be doing there.  

Shapiro published this book in 1986, but many of the notes and observations carry over to much of domestic culture today. One is: the constant pushback that people – mostly women – get for following instinct and embodied knowledge rather than something “improved,” “rational,” or “new.” We saw it with domestic science, and now we see it with much of the “health food movement.” Instinct, of course, is not always right – but there is something about knowing what will work when, and the knowledge that comes from things that cannot always be measured or codified, and the action of doing. For this insight alone, Perfection Salad remains as relevant as ever.

Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century, by Laura Shapiro

An Indigenous Lunch at Owamni

My partner and I recently spent a long weekend in the Twin Cities in Minnesota – a fantastic destination for anyone who enjoys eating lots of good food. One of the highlights of our trip was a lunch at Owamni by the Sioux Chef, which is a restaurant that serves indigenous North American cuisine, primarily from the Great Plains and Great Lakes region (the ancestral lands of the Dakhota, Anishinaabe, Ho-Chunk, and others). The head chef, Sean Sherman, is one of the leaders of a decolonial food movement that seeks to renew an indigenous ingredient-based food paradigm in North America. Owamni is named for St. Anthony Falls, which is called Owamni by the Dakhota people indigenous to the region.

Owamni is one of the few full-service indigenous restaurants in the United States. The menu centers indigenous ingredients like maize, wild rice (manoomin), sunchokes, and tubers. It also does not include wheat, dairy, soy, pork, or cane sugar – which were introduced through colonization. This exclusion is important for this movement – and though it contrasts with the approach of some other indigenous food activists, this focus in many ways liberates Sherman to explore some fantastic possibilities. The menu at Owamni showcases these wonders.

After lunch, I reflected on how little we discuss indigenous food in the American Jewish community. Most American Jews are White, and there is not much reflection on the way that we still buy into colonial ways of farming, eating, and cooking. I think this lack of investment partly reflects how White American Jews have, unconsciously, bought into the food system as it is.

When I have brought up indigenous cooking to some Jewish friends in the past, kashrut has been brought up as a concern. Yes, kashrut should be an option for those who choose to keep kosher. But I think here kashrut also covers the discomfort of discussing indigenous affairs – and the fact that most American Jews are not indigenous. Kashrut, as my friend Michael has written here before, is only a barrier if you let it be. I think we can cook more with indigenous food, support indigenous food systems – and eat some delicious things in the process. I certainly plan on looking more into Piscataway and Lenape food traditions back home in Maryland.

Now, for the lunch itself. David (my partner) and I chose to eat a mostly vegetarian meal, because those are the dishes that jumped out to us on the menu. We had several shared plates and one each of a small plate. Everything was delicious, and the beans and sweet potatoes ranked among the best things we have ever eaten. If you have the chance to go to Owamni, do so – and keep in mind that you will need to reserve in advance.

Golden drink in glass with ice
This is a maple switchel – a non-alcoholic drink with carbonated water and vinegar.
Blue crisps arranged around a white dip with fish on a plate with pools of purple sauce
Blue corn tostadas with a whitefish and white bean dip and wojape, a traditional Dakhota sauce made out of chokecherries
Red beans covered with green dust and leaves in a bowl
Tepary beans cooked with maple and cedar – one of the best things I have ever eaten
Brown wild rice in a bowl with leaves
Wild rice (manoomin) from Anishinaabe lands, gently flavored
Purple porridge with blueberries, raspberries, and hazelnuts in a bowl
Blue cornmeal mush with native berries and nuts
roasted sweet potato with indigenous chili crisp and scallion on a plate with red oil
Roasted white sweet potatoes with an “indigenous chili crisp” – David was obsessed
Blue tortilla with cooked mushrooms, raw greens and mustard seeds on plate
Taco with a blue corn tortilla, roasted mushrooms, mustard greens and native mustard seeds

Owamni by the Sioux Chef is at 20 1st St S, Minneapolis, MN. It is wheelchair accessible and close to several transit options. Reservations open 60 days in advance.

Sean Sherman, the head chef, also has a cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Cookbook. I greatly recommend it. The link takes you to Birchbark Books, which is the United States’ only indigenous-owned bookstore. Order from them if you can – and if life takes you to the Twin Cities, the bookstore itself is a real treat.

Cheddar Rosemary Biscuits

Cheese is traditional for Shavuot across Jewish traditions. In honor of the upcoming holiday, I want to share a recipe for a baked good I’ve come to make fairly frequently in recent years. These cheddar rosemary scones are based partly on a traditional British scone, and partly on an Amish biscuit recipe. What I appreciate about this family of recipes is that baking soda and baking powder make for an incredibly fluffy final product – one that is very fluffy. One of my favorite sensory joys, too, is watching the baking soda already act and rise when it hits the buttermilk as you mix the dough for these or a soda bread. If you are sighted, I hope you enjoy this too.

You could grate your own cheddar for this recipe, but I make it with the discount shredded sharp cheddar from the supermarket and it is perhaps even more delicious, given that the machine shredder loses less of the cheese than me on a food processor or box grater. Modernist food for the win.

Fifteen golden-brown biscuits on a baking tray lined with parchment paper
Cheddar rosemary biscuits (photo mine, May 2022)

Cheddar Rosemary Scones

Makes 15-18 biscuits

2 cups white flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon table salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon dried rosemary

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar (any type of shred is fine)

¼ cup melted butter or vegetable oil (either/or)

1 cup buttermilk

  1. Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Line one large or two medium cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  3. Add the cheese and rosemary and mix in thoroughly.
  4. Add the butter/oil and buttermilk and mix together to form a dough with a spoon.
  5. When combined, use two spoons to scoop clumps of dough about 3in/7.5cm wide and place onto the parchment about 2in/5cm apart. These will not be even – do not worry about that! The variety is part of the appeal, and the soda will help them grow.
  6. Bake for 13 minutes. The biscuits will expand and turn golden.
  7. Remove from the oven and let sit on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before moving and serving. Store in a sealed container at room temperature or in the fridge for up to five days.

Thank you to Yohannes and Camille Bennehoff, Kenny Turscak, Melanie Marino, Scott Michael Robertson, and two people who boldly asked me for scones at the Midlands in DC for conducting User Acceptance Testing on this iteration of the recipe.

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

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.