I couldn’t resist.
Though I’m not a big book buyer, and I shun accumulating cookbooks, which tend to take up precious counter space, this one needed to come home. Everything about it was a win: smart, concise, and pleasantly light in my hand as I admired its tidy design and attractive typeset. It was half off, too.
Turned out, this innocent purchase soon launched a cavalcade of cookbooks landing on my counter.
Thankfully, I’ve graduated from the tiny abode that sufficed as my first apartment, where the bathroom didn’t even qualify as a room. And the kitchen wasn’t much better. Living in a garage loft as a poor student, I learned how to make do with little, in every sense of the word. How I would have benefited from this “four star cooking guide that shows you how to cut loose like a cordon bleu chef in a kitchen the size of a closet.” It feels practically luxurious to have twice the counter space AND a dishwasher AND a pantry in my first-floor duplex (though I’ve also gained noisy neighbors and a ceiling that likes to leak).
As Schwartz reminded me, one doesn’t need expensive gadgets or a gigantic space to create satisfying meals. And thanks to his help, I also discovered the simple joy of reading cookbooks. So I went back for seconds. And thirds. And more.
But rather than let a book binge break my Christmas shopping budget, I began pilgrimaging instead to the local library. I had a list, checked it twice, and kept on finding even more books – nice!
To be honest, though, it wasn’t just Schwarz who inspired me. Back in the summer, I’d begun following a rotation diet. The reasons are a bit complicated to explain here, but essentially, I wanted to find out if I could trace health ailments to specific foods.
So, first stop was Marjorie Hurt Jones’ Allergy Self-Help Cookbook. And like any good researcher tracing her bibliographic trail, I owe the credit to family for making the introduction. The year was circa 2000, and in attempt to help my older sister diagnose mysterious health symptoms, my mother began reading up on and swapping stereotypical allergens – such as wheat and dairy – for more exotic ingredients, like quinoa and goat milk. Happily, quinoa has become a regular staple in my culinary repertoire, though all forms of animal milk are currently on my ‘naughty’ list.
But the real reason I returned to this particular title was for advice on implementing a “rotary diversified diet” or “food rotation” in plain English. The Internet has plenty to say about such things, but just like fake cheese, there’s no substitute for the real deal: a book bedecked with gentle spatters of cooking oil suggesting tried-and-true meals worth revisiting. Oh, and there might have been an irresistible dairy-free brownie recipe I was after, too.
In essence, food rotation is simple: select and eat foods within the same families on specific days. Rotating gives your gut a break and can help identify allergic reactions. In fact, some allergies develop because of overexposure to the same stimuli. So, rotating and/or eliminating certain foods for a time can help diagnose, and in some cases, alleviate allergies altogether. It’s also fascinating to learn about different food families and which plants are genetically related to others. I hadn’t realized quinoa was cousins with spinach, beets, and amaranth (another ‘exotic’ grain that had shown up on my mother’s shopping list of yesteryear.)
The challenge, of course, is that following a rotary diversified diet requires time, commitment, and careful planning. Thus continued my preoccupation with cookbooks; if I was going to incorporate additional ingredients into my weekly food prep, I needed inspiration and ideas to creatively combine them. I like quinoa, but food rotation diets typically require a minimum of three days between consumption of the same foods. That means interspersing additional grains, like barley and spelt, or millet and amaranth, if I choose to avoid gluten.
The beauty of a rotation diet, though, is that there’s no one right way to do it. Based on a cook’s palate preferences, food families can be grouped any number of ways, as long as they’re rotated in consistent fashion. I knew I was on the right track when I saw Jones’ work listed among a dozen other titles on a website offering an even more in-depth approach to food rotation. And here’s where the fun really began.
One Bite at a Time was actually intended for cancer survivors, but in all honesty, the meals recommended here would do any body good. Among other things, I learned how to make a veggie stock that’s so piquant, I’ve at times sipped it as a beverage. Though it also serves as a great base for tuscan bean soup, or as a zingy substitute for cooking quinoa instead of using plain old water. There’s also page after page of zesty salads, and tasty suggestions for dressing up my new favorite breakfast item, the humble sweet potato.
Next, it was onto Cooking the Whole Foods Way, where, as I’ve learned with other cookbooks. the best part isn’t always recipes, but the context around them. Pirello introduced me to the concept of macrobiotic cooking.
It’s nothing new, but sometimes the basic concept of cooking from scratch gets lost in the shuffle amidst all the hoopla around Keto, Paleo, or whatever ‘O’ is currently in. Macrobiotic is just a fancy way of describing what it means to prepare and enjoy foods in their most natural state. My only qualm is that her approach advocates complete elimination of animal protein, which, like it or not, has an abundance of vitamins that aren’t easily substituted by plants. My nutritionist says I should eat organ meats two to three times each week in order to get enough B vitamins, a recommendation whose chief difficulty isn’t an omnivore dilemma, but the task of sourcing it locally. When my mother mentioned a supplier in her hometown, I begged for assistance. All I wanted for Christmas was a generous serving of grass-fed beef liver.
Speaking of omnivore dilemmas, I should have known it wouldn’t be long before I encountered the work of Michael Pollan, or in this case, his entire family. As its title suggests, the Mostly Plants cookbook, written by his mother and sisters, isn’t exactly fare for a die-hard carnivore, but I was pleased to see beef, chicken, and fish gracing a few of its pages. And, unlike Pirello’s work, this one was chockful of tantalizing pictures. It’s been said an image is worth a thousand words, but in this case, I only needed one: yum!
Of course, a meal wouldn’t be complete without something to wash down all that tasty chow. I took a break from my recipe research to learn more about another favorite past time: drinking tea.
It’s a bit mind-boggling that all varieties of tea come from one plant, Camellia sinensis, and yet, depending how leaves are picked and processed, the flavor profiles and caffeine content can vary widely. I’m currently in love with a jasmine blend that perks me up in the morning – or any time of day – though I recently discovered a sophisticated oolong I can resteep multiple times without sacrificing flavor. And then there are the names; green tea isn’t just green tea. Each method of leaf preparation has its own identity, such as Sencha, Bancha, Hoijicha, Kukicha, and my new favorite, Dong Ding.
Much as I was having fun, I soon realized I should consider a back-to-basics approach that would help me continue cooking well once all the library books were returned. That’s where Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat comes in. Such simple concepts, yet so essential to making food taste good. Take salt, for example. If we seasoned food properly during the cooking process, we wouldn’t need salt shakers at the table. Nosrat reminds us to consider three simple questions: what kind, how much, and when? Just as there are different varieties of tea, there are numerous types of salt. I’ll admit, I was pretty enthused when I found pink Himalayan salt keeping company with my Christmas liver, along with a bevy of assorted goodies. NaCl makes everything taste better, including dark chocolate.
Alas, cooking is not without controversy, as the spectrum of available diets and methods reveal. At times, I’ve been bewildered by conflicting opinions of dieticians and doctors alike, some of whom advocate avoidance of the very foods others heartily recommend. But I was actually amused by the irony of reading Wheat Belly in tandem with The Splendid Grain, the former railing against modern grain production while the latter celebrated the very same food group. Could they both be right? Maybe. We can’t ignore the deleterious effects of pesticides and genetic engineering that have produced food products difficult – or impossible – to digest. But I’m not so sure I’d go as far as Davis claims, that our bodies were never made to ingest grains at all. Even from ancient times, we see evidence that grains – wheat in particular – were valued and consumed. (See Deuteronomy 32:14, 33:28, and Psalm 147:14.) I’m no Biblical scholar, but I suspect God wouldn’t have fed poison to His chosen people.
The problem, it seems, isn’t the grain itself, but how it’s grown and processed. Before the modern industrial age, wheat was wheat, with no modifications. Today’s wheat is not the same; it’s been altered to withstand destruction from disease and pests, which seems like a good thing, but the process of getting it to that state has introduced toxic elements into the food chain. Not to mention, refined wheat flour that’s been stripped of fiber and other nutrients wreaks havoc on blood sugar, leading to other undesirable health conditions. Maybe the fact that bagels don’t grow like bananas ought to suggest they’re not exactly health food.
Then again, it’s times like these I recall another piece of wisdom, courtesy of my mother, whose unforgettable sarcastic quip still adds levity to my cooking: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we diet.”
And so, the journey continues. Just when I think I’m well-supplied with an army of recipes, another book catches my eye, and the pile keeps growing. After today’s library visit, I came home with The Whole Foods Cookbook and Seasons at the Farm. Somehow, Plant Power Bowls also snuck its way into the queue, perhaps because it was perched right next to the checkout kiosk, enticing me with its colorful cover. The clerk saw me hesitate, but knew just what to do. “Would you like a bag?”
Like I said, I couldn’t resist.