Today, I’m taking a break from the now! new! next! mode of the internet to talk about a cookbook that was published six years ago. No Time to Cook, by Australian lifestyle guru Donna Hay, is by no means hot off the press, but the recipes couldn’t be more relevant to the timeless struggle of what to have for dinner. The struggle has been particularly brutal for me this winter. For a time, the effort of fending against all of this polar-arctic-vortex-blasting froze me into a rut where nothing seemed easy enough or delicious enough to warrant the effort. Lured in by the sunny pictures of perfect food, I forced myself to give Hay’s book a try. Like a light therapy box, No Time to Cook proved to be a mid-winter lifesaver.
Despite the dullness outside, the book has made my kitchen bright (she uses lots of lemons), tart (olives are a favorite), and hot (red pepper flakes at every turn). On these cold, dark days, when all I want to do is come home and watch my cold, dark shows (e.g., “House of Cards,” “True Detective,” “The Bachelor”), Hay has inspired me to spend just a little bit of time in the kitchen. The reward has been genuinely simple, flavorful meals that I’m never too tired to make.
Things have been deliciously dessert-y around here lately. Which is one of my favorite ways for things to be, but I thought maybe we should switch it up with a salad. A salad with the double virtues of raw kale and roasted sweet potato, but made extra tasty by fancy cheddar and roasted almonds. We don’t want to go toooo health crazy, after all. I first came across this recipe, originally from a Manhattan restaurant called Northern Spy Food Co, in a Food 52 post. I can’t remember how I actually found it: the post is from January 2012, and I pinned the recipe back in October. The internet is amazing. I haven’t ever been to Northern Spy Food Co., but I can say with confidence that they seriously know their way around a salad.
In 2010, I was without a romantic Valentine for the first time in 15 years (lest that sound like the worst ever humble brag, lit-rally all of those long ago Valentines make me look back and shake my head at my younger self, so, there’s that). And I was really feeling it; getting used to living by myself and fighting not very successfully to stay optimistic about whatever might be next. My lovely seester called me on VDay, and asked about my plans. I told her that I was going to keep it low key, maybe Thai and Netflix, but that first I was headed to Kitchenette for one of their awesome hot chocolates. She agreed that this was a solid plan, and we hung up. When I got to Kitchenette and placed my order, the gal behind the counter said, “Oh, Jessica?” and gave me not only my hot chocolate but also a cupcake. Joie, in her infinite wonderfulness, had looked up the restaurant’s info, called ahead, given them a description of me, and ordered me an extra treat. I was so touched, but not exactly surprised. My seester is incredibly thoughtful and kind hearted. And, she knows the power of a really great cupcake.
A few years ago, Ed’s parents Martha and Terry came to D.C. for a late summer visit. Ed and I decided to spend a night cooking for them. The menu came together pretty quickly: parmesan-crusted chicken, green beans with vinaigrette, Pimm’s cups, and for dessert, I said I’d think about what to make. Ed said I should make a chocolate lava cake. I said I’d think about it, but maybe brownies would be easier. He said I should make a chocolate lava cake. I hedged again and kind of dodged it. I love lava cake, but finding the secret to the solid outside-molten center seemed like too much of a science experiment, especially because this was the first time we were cooking for his parents. Ed didn’t waiver. It was the only time—before or since—that he’d been adamant that I cook a particular thing. You sort of have to know Ed to understand that “adamant” for him means politely asking a couple of times in a row. It wasn’t an order, it wasn’t a demand, it wasn’t even a whine, it was simply an idea put forth with enough conviction that I knew he meant it. I still stammered around, mumbling about how I wasn’t sure how to make one and I needed a trusted recipe. And then fate sealed the deal. I’d just checked out Nigella Lawson’s How To Be A Domestic Goddess from the library and right there on page 179 was her recipe for Molten Chocolate Babycakes.
These limes bars were the result of a happy accident–they were meant to be lemon. I’ve loved my mother’s recipe for lemon bars, pulled from a Christmas issue of either Ladies Home Journal or Good Housekeeping years ago, since I was a little girl. We are first and foremost a chocolate dessert family, but these bars often made their way onto the sweets table at New Years Open Houses and potlucks, providing a welcome bright and citrusy contrast to the chocolate. Having made these lemon bars for a fall baby shower and reminded myself of how much I liked them, they seemed like the perfect dessert for an for an impromptu Saturday night dinner party. And they would have been, if I had remembered to buy lemons.
Some people have a way in the kitchen. They don’t need recipes, they don’t need culinary school, they just have a gift. My aunt, Joan Wolford, is one of those people. If you’ve ever had a spoonful of her soup or a drop of her salad dressing, you know what I mean. Her food is indulgent but balanced, familiar but special. She’s the founder, owner, and Executive Chef of Savoir Fare in Round Hill, Virginia, a restaurant and catering firm that has significantly raised the bar for quality cuisine in Loudoun County. Joannie, as we call her in the family, has built a successful, resilient career. She has a legion of devoted regulars, she’s made countless brides ecstatic, and her creativity is boundless. She also happens to be my favorite chef.
I am learning to love the Jamaica Plain Whole Foods. It’s small and mighty, packed with just enough of just the right stuff. Sure, sometimes it’s stocked out of basics like brown sugar and chicken broth, but it has a variety of imported cheeses to make up for its faults. The only thing about the J.P. Whole Foods that continues to challenge my affection is the width of the aisles. They are narrow. Passing people mid-aisle is not a polite maneuver; it’s impossible unless someone is willing to go flat up against the shelves. Navigating around loose kids, full-sized shopping carts, sample tables, and artisan salumi is no easy task. On any given day, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Guy Fieri in there piloting a new Food Network show, “Yuppie Grocery Gauntlet.” Frustrating though those aisles may be, they do force me to get close to the food, which is how I discovered that the J.P. Whole Foods regularly sells hot-from-the-oven bread. That’s also how I developed a bread surplus problem. And a bread pudding solution.