The Bittman project is done. I did it! I took a list of 101 side dishes conceived to accompany a Thanksgiving turkey, whittled it down a bit into dishes N. and I would actually eat (this left us with a total of 82) and, over the course of two years, made and ate each one. Before moving on to my next project, I wanted to stop and consider a bit. This project was valuable in many ways and I don’t think it should be pushed aside like a last gasping bite before launching into the next thing. I learned a lot about cooking, I think, both from the mistakes I made and from the little triumphs and successes I achieved.
Measuring is important. If you don’t measure, if you don’t have the correct ratios, things don’t bake up the way they are supposed to.
Follow directions. Roasting can’t happen with waterlogged ingredients, and adding items in the wrong order produces unintended results. Of course, this is challenging with Bittman’s suggestions because they don’t always have exact directives. But it has taught me a lot about how a recipe fits together, and how to organize and present information in a way that works – at least for me.
Pairings matter. Learning how to cook a dish is one thing. But you’re probably always going to be serving it to someone (or multiple someones) as part of a meal. Crossing flavors in strange ways – Italian sausage with soy-glazed vegetables, Southwestern spices with Middle Eastern preparations, too much sweet with too little savory – doesn’t produce a very satisfying eating experience.
I just don’t like yellow curry. I can tolerate it, but I’d much rather have garam masala, or tumeric, or cumin, or just straight black pepper.
Give yourself time. Charging headfirst into an unfamiliar recipe with only twenty minutes until dinnertime is almost always going to lead to frustration, mistakes, and unsatisfying results. This sounds very preachy, but read the recipe beforehand, make sure you understand what it is asking, and budget your time accordingly.
WRITE THINGS DOWN! This isn’t the first – or the only – time I will make this mistake. But I’m trying. If you don’t write it down, chances are good you won’t remember it. And then that perfect amount of nutmeg, or salt, or the temperature you used, is lost. And that makes it unrepeatable.
Repurposing works. If something doesn’t come out right – or to your liking – there is no sense in throwing it away if you can imagine transforming it into something better. If that means adding booze and wrapping it in pie dough, then so be it!
Acid saves. If your dish is missing something but you don’t want to add more salt and you’re not sure about upping the spice quotient, try a squeeze of lemon juice or a dash of red wine vinegar. There’s something about the brightness and verve this brings to a dish that really changes it. (Hell, it even tones down the overbearing sweetness of buttercream. )
I can, if I take my time and don’t freak out, make a successful dough. It’s not pretty yet, and it’s not error-free, but it comes together and rolls out and tastes pretty good too. That’s something. That’s more than I expected.
Soup is easy. I grew up on two kinds of soup: the overprocessed, condensed kind that came in cans, and the long-simmering stew and chili kind. This led me to believe that homemade soup was a time consuming process. Watching cooking shows that talk about extracting flavors from bones and babysitting a stock for hours furthered this assumption. But since I’ve started making my own chicken stock from the carcasses of roast chickens, and since I realized that Bittman’s soup recipes mostly go the same way (sweat vegetables, add flavoring, add broth and heat through), soup became a quick and simple venture. Onions, garlic, carrots, celery, and chicken broth, and you’re 75% there already. During the year I even invented my own, which N. and I will be having again next week with the addition of ramen noodles.
As seems inevitable with a project like this, there are some ingredient combinations N. and I will never have the desire to return to. But there are some that we will crave again and again. Some, in fact, have already graced our table on multiple occasions. I just want to point out a few of these.
Sweet. This combo of sweet potatoes and green onions, roasted until caramelized and perfectly salted, is an achingly beautiful side dish still in search of the perfect accompaniment. But it dances solo just fine. I’d have these for lunch any day. I’d have them for dessert too.
Sausage, kale, and white beans (and cheddar cheese or Parmesan rind, too, if you really want to comfort it up) are a beautiful combination that deserve revisiting. This soup is warm and satisfying and should be eaten at least once per winter. Nicely spiced tempeh crumbles might make an adequate substitution for the sausage, if you aren’t into pig.
Herbed buttermilk biscuits, especially with the addition of lemon zest, are all I want in the biscuit world right now. They are crisp and tender and have just the right crunch. They are breakfast ready. They would accept cream gravy. They would mop up a savory sauce. They would provide the perfect vehicle for jam or honey or sweetened goat cheese. They freeze perfectly and, frozen solid and plopped onto parchment paper, require only a few extra minutes in the oven to cook.
Ginger-Apricot Chutney. This spicy-sweet condiment would be a suitable topper for the Herbed Buttermilk Biscuits I just got weak-kneed over. But it also pairs well with grilled or roasted chicken, and would probably be delectable as a fresh take on a Christmas ham glaze. Or, you know, on sandwiches with lunchmeat or cream cheese, or as an interesting filling for chocolate truffles. Now I want to make this again immediately. I wonder if I have any ginger in the freezer…
Perhaps the crowning glory of the whole project, the beer-y cornbread stuffing laced with tomatoes, green onions, and corn kernels is a genius combination I have already revisited on multiple occasions. My sister has used this as a Thanksgiving stuffing alternative for her celery-hating boyfriend (seriously, almost every stuffing I’ve ever made has a base of onions and celery. Hit the shelves. Look for one without that notorious stringy green stalk). It’s yeasty and deep and golden and glorious, and it gives you an excuse to toast and taste a few cubes of cornbread along the way. It is, even if you don’t like beer, not to be missed.
I have a few things planned for the year on which we’ve just embarked. First, we need a new project. I’ve decided. It’s going to be bad for my waistline but good for my confidence in the kitchen. I hope you’ll like it. I’ll get to that next week.
Second, I think we need a new place to meet each week. I started this blog intending to write about fancy things I’d made. I didn’t know how much I would enjoy sharing even my mistakes. I didn’t know how much I was going to learn about cooking and photography and writing about food. “shornrapunzel,” a moniker picked up from my last days in college when I went from three feet of hair to less than one (I’m back in the three feet range now), was the username on my first blog – a livejournal I used as a writing exercise and an attempt to stay in touch with friends pre-Facebook. Eventually, all I was posting there were long, drippy descriptions of food I had eaten or wanted to eat, and I decided to start this little venture as a more appropriate way of addressing this obsession. So “shornrapunzel” was an easy name to saddle a url with because it was familiar and connected with me, but it never really had any relevance to this blog or its topics. Blackberries, given their literary suggestions of adventure and unexpectedness, still seem to fit well the kind of cooking and sharing I’m doing here. So they get to stay. In this next week, I’m moving this little kitchen corner to a new domain for continued blackberrying. I hope everything transfers over okay. I’ve never done this before. But then, that’s nothing new.
See you on the other side!