Cook the Book: Dinner In an Instant by Melissa Clark


Welcome to Cook the Book, an occasional series where I cook my way through books I love and explore how poetry surfaces in the kitchen. This post contains affiliate links, so if you click through and make a purchase, I’ll receive a small commission.

This blog post could very well be titled Instant Pot: A Love Story, because in the course of a year my adoration of this machine has grown by leaps and bounds. It wasn’t love at first sight though …

The first thing we should clear up about the Instant Pot is it will not make your dinner instantly. Yes, you can cook rice in about nine minutes, tortilla soup in about six minutes, and carrots in about three minutes, but here’s where the learning curve comes in: warming up. The process of allowing the Instant Pot to pressurize takes roughly 10 minutes, so you need to tack that on to whatever you’re making, as well as some release time on the back end.

Some recipes call for a manual release, which is when you press a magic button and all the steam comes whizzing out in about two minutes. Other recipes have you delay the release, and others don’t have you touch the release button at all, which can take up to 20 minutes. Also, some recipes call for using the sauté function first, so everything essentially happens in one pot. This is ideal for making cleanup easier, but adds cooking time.

But once you learn how it works, there’s a lot to love. When I first started using it, I followed the advice of Heidi Swanson who suggested trying one new recipe a week to keep from getting overwhelmed. Overall, using an Instant Pot significantly cuts cooking times, especially for dishes like braised meats and stock. In about an hour, you can have an enriching broth ready to freeze, and in about an hour and a half, garlicky pork, which would normally take three hours to braise in the oven.

My favorite thing about the Instant Pot is being able to walk away. Normally, I like tending to the pots. After all, when it comes to finding poetry in the kitchen, the actual process of cooking itself is where much of it is revealed—the chopping, the stirring, the listening, the staring off into the yard as you wash dishes.

But sometimes it’s nice to not have to worry about turning the flame up or down. The Instant Pot gives you some time back. Once everything is locked up inside and the appropriate buttons are pushed, you don’t have to think about anything until it’s time to plate your dinner. You can reallocate the time you’d normally spend puttering around the kitchen to other domestic or creative tasks. If you’d like, you can walk straight to the bookshelf and pull down a book of poetry, reading it while you wait.

I was scared of the not cooking at first, of tossing everything into a pot and trusting its precision, never having to come check on things, to stir, to taste as I go. In many ways, cooking with an Instant Pot is an act of trust. But there’s also a satisfying rush that washes over your body when you turn the lid and lift it open.

An Instant Pot will never replace my Dutch oven, its enamel, its heaviness, its history. But an Instant Pot does offer a gift many of us are in short supply of: time.

An Instant Pot will never replace my Dutch oven, its enamel, its heaviness, its history. But an Instant Pot does offer a gift many of us are in short supply of: time. We can leave the kitchen and tend to other parts of our lives. Sometimes I write or read, other days I vacuum or fold laundry. I’ll go upstairs and play with my son for a few minutes longer, or cook something in the morning so it’s ready for dinner in the evening. For giving the ability to walk away, I’m grateful.

Other recipes I enjoyed from this book:

  • Steel Cut Oats: I make steel cut oats in the Instant Pot about once a week. The whole process takes about 30 minutes in total (so keep that in mind if it’s a school/work day) but it’s nice to have a warm breakfast option no matter the season.

  • Tangerine Carrots With Ricotta, Chives, and Walnuts: These carrots cook in 3 minutes. Seriously. Such an easy side! I’ve also made it a meal by tossing the carrots with quinoa and baby kale for a salad situation.

  • Garlicky Cuban Pork: I saw this recipe when it was printed in the New York Times and remember my mouth watering. This is one of those secret weapon recipes that’s so easy to make it’s almost laughable, but everyone clamors for more, tells you repeatedly how good it as, and asks for the recipe.

  • Indian Butter Shrimp: The shrimp are marinated in yogurt and lime, and the tomato-based sauce is full of flavor thanks to ginger, lime, and a generous hunk of butter.

Black Beans With Green Chiles and Cumin

Barely adapted from Dinner In an Instant by Melissa Clark

Black Beans With Green Chiles and Cumin (Instant Pot Recipe, Vegetarian)

I wanted to share this recipe because it’s one of the unsung heroes of the cookbook, I think. First of all, it comes without a picture, so it’s easy to flip the page without giving black beans much thought. But these are worth the pause. First, the versatility. A pot of these fragrant beans can transform your meals in many different ways—serve them alone, spooned over rice, or as a base for veggie tacos. I always freeze about half for later. The ingredients list looks long but everything is probably sitting in your pantry already (except the poblanos), so don’t let that deter you, either.

And this recipe essentially illustrates everything I’ve shared about the Instant Pot above. You start by using the sauté function (about 15 minutes), cook beans (unsoaked, hooray!) for 40 minutes, then let the pressure release naturally (up to 20 minutes). So you see, there’s nothing instant about these beans, but you get the benefit of not needing to remember to soak them, and only one pot to clean up. It’s a win in my book!


3 poblano chiles
2 serrano chiles (leave these out if your kids don’t do spicy)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped sage
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 pound dried black beans
1 tablespoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1 medium-size ripe tomato, quartered
1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems and leaves separated
Monterey Jack cheese, for serving (optional)
Lime wedges, for serving


Roast the poblano and serrano chiles over an open flame, or under your broiler, until their skins are blistered and charred, about 10 minutes. Transfer them to a bowl, cover with a plate, and let them sit until they are cool enough to handle. Rub the skins off with a paper towel, then seed and dice the chiles.

Using the sauté function, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in the pressure cooker (I use the low setting). Stir in the onion and cook until golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in the sage, two-thirds of the minced garlic, and the chili powder and cumin; cook for 1 minute. Stir in the chopped poblanos, half the serranos, and the beans, salt, and 5 cups of water. Cover and cook on high pressure for 40 minutes. Allow the pressure to release naturally. If the beans aren’t cooked through, cook on high pressure for another 5 minutes, then manually release pressure.

While the beans are cooking, combine the tomato, cilantro stems, half the cilantro leaves, the remaining garlic, the remaining 3 tablespoons oil, and remaining serranos. Add a large pinch of salt. Blend until smooth.

When the beans finish cooking, stir in the tomato puree and let sit for 5 minutes. If the mix seems thin, simmer beans on the sauté setting for a few minutes until thickened up.

Transfer beans to bowls and serve topped with cheese (if using), remaining cilantro leaves, and lime wedges on the side.

“Making Dinner I Think About Poverty” by Betsy Sholl + Golden Beet Soup

Golden Beet Soup via Eat This Poem

Ever since I read a poem and realized I could make a recipe out of it—back in 2012—I also realized that when they’re used as a literary tool, ingredients go deep. They rustle up memories, make stories relatable, provide beautiful imagery, and stir our appetites. When poets use food masterfully, it tends to serve a purpose beyond our plate, and moves us into emotional territory that might not be comfortable at first, but essential nonetheless. This is that kind of a poem.

Betsy Sholl is a former professor of mine, and when I heard her new collection was coming out, I couldn’t wait to read it. Indeed, I’ve marked up and underlined many a poem inside House of Sparrows (affiliate link), including poems that have nothing to do with food (like finding an injured bat on the ground), but of course, we’re here in part for the food so I needed to find just the right poem to share. Have a read, and then we’ll talk about it.

Making Dinner I Think About Poverty

By Betsy Sholl

I mean the kind saints praise and scripture
calls blessed, the kind that inherits heaven
where maybe what’s left of us will be

more like a clear broth than the vegetables
and meat we chop up here, as the radio
blasts war, soup kitchen fills,

and down the block a crowd gathers
around two men yelling their different stories
at the cop as an ambulance wails off.

In its wake, I go back to cutting carrots
and beets, gazing into their concentric rings.
Everything with its secret heart,

Saint Francis says, where it’s better to be
prey than predator, better to step into
the net than be the one who rigs it.

Poverty, he says, a word so pure
it can’t be hyped. It sees into the dark
vessels of the heart, where the blessed know

what they lose, what sinks to the bottom,
enriches the stock—which we will ladle out
to those shuffling in with their empty bowls,

as if they follow the saint’s hard recipe,
the one that says: Put everything in the pot
and let fire take over.

From House of Sparrows by Betsy Sholl. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2019 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.

I do this too, think about things like poverty and genocide and what have you, while I’m making dinner or taking a walk, or while I can’t sleep at night. It seems there’s a discussion of two poverty’s: one of choice, that the saints and scriptures speak of, and one of circumstance, that the nightly news and nonprofits speak of. There’s also a tension on the part of the speaker, almost asking, Where do I fit?

How might I take where I am right now, my privilege and empathy, and translate it? I’m not sure the poem answers the question, or that it’s supposed to. These questions are large and looming, and can’t be answered after a handful of lines or a handful of months.

What I also thought about while reading this poem is cooking as both distraction and resistance. Cooking can both separate us from the hard things we see and hear of (“I go back to cutting carrots…”) keeping us cocooned around our own tables, in our own homes. But as activist and chef Julia Turshen says, “It’s important to take care of yourself so you can better take care of the world.”

Golden Beet Soup (via Eat This Poem)

I used to approach these posts with resoluteness, to offer a concrete interpretation, a sense of finality. But today I’m more inclined to pause and let the ideas circle over my mind and my heart for a while. And rather than wait to share this with you until that process is over (because who knows how long that might be), I’m offering it now, considered yet still incomplete. After all, that’s a truer reflection of how we operate as human beings, and maybe some of you will join the conversation in the comments, too.

A final thought: I love the end—“put everything in the pot/ and let fire take over.” It’s both a call to accept life’s challenges and also to hope that against all odds, we might be able to leave everything behind we don’t need and start again.

Golden Beet Soup With Chive-Spiked Crème Fraîche

This soup comes from the Eat This Poem cookbook, and was one of the first recipes I developed when working on the manuscript. One of the things I love about it is beets—an often polarizing vegetable—are made approachable by using the golden variety, which has a milder, though still earthy taste. Paired with the sweetness of butternut squash, a little splash of acid from apple cider vinegar, than swirled with crème fraîche that’s been liberally dotted with chopped chives, it’s a soup I hope you’ll love as much as I do. If it’s warm when you’re reading this, serve it chilled!


4 to 6 golden beets, scrubbed, tops and ends removed
1 small butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeds removed
Extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
3 to 4 cups vegetable stock
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly cracked pepper
2 tablespoons minced chives
¼ cup crème fraîche


Preheat the oven to 400°F. Wrap beets individually in foil and place on a sheet pan. Add a drizzle of oil to the butternut squash, then place them cut-side down on a second sheet pan. Place both pans in the oven, cooking the beets for 1 hour, and the squash for 30 minutes to 45 minutes, or until tender. Once cool, peel beets gently with your fingers; skins should come away easily. Quarter the beets and place them in a medium bowl. Scoop out the flesh of the squash and place it in the same bowl with the beets.

Warm 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a small skillet. Add onion and garlic, and cook for about 5 minutes, or until soft. Scrape into a high speed blender, then add the reserved beets and squash, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 cups of the stock. Blend on high for several minutes, until silky, adding more stock as needed. Pour into a small stockpot, taste to see if you need a bit more salt, and add the lemon zest. Keep soup warm while you make the crème fraîche.

Stir the chives into the crème fraîche and season with salt and pepper. Spoon a dollop into each bowl before serving.

Cook the Book: Small Victories by Julia Turshen

Red Lentil Curry

Welcome to Cook the Book, an occasional series where I cook my way through books I love and explore how poetry surfaces in the kitchen. This post contains affiliate links, so if you click through and make a purchase, I’ll receive a small commission.

Since this is a new series, I’ll explain how I landed here. When I started in 2012, it was very structured: here’s a poem, here’s some commentary, here’s a recipe to go with it. I still love the format and will be blogging like this sporadically, but I’ve also felt compelled to talk about food and poetry other ways. Specifically, through the lens of whole cookbooks.

This longing was brought on by a recent dry spell in the kitchen. Our cross-country move has opened up space for me to rekindle my love of cooking, and I’ve been getting back into a ritual I sorely missed: reading cookbooks cover to cover, and cooking from them peacefully and quietly.

Small Victories by Julia Turshen

During the busy promotional months for Eat This Poem in 2017, I zeroed in on one of the cookbook’s key messages: Eat This Poem might be filled with recipes, but it’s narrative is also a call to mindfulness. To that end, there’s a lot of poetry to be found in the kitchen. Paying attention to the small things, like pot stirring or vegetable cutting, is an opportunity to listen in, to meditate briefly, and to both practice the art of releasing control while also being in charge of an outcome, like a recipe. It’s a beautiful thing when we’re able to pay attention, which admittedly isn’t always, but I like to think of this space and the book I wrote as an encouraging call to action on that front. That’s a long way of explaining we’ll be talking about the intersection of poetry and cooking, sometimes without a poem directly involved.

When I was writing my second book throughout 2018—a meditation on the writer’s life—cooking was usually an afterthought. I still planned our meals every week, but didn’t spend a lot of time dog-earing magazine pages or pulling cookbooks from the shelf. I relied on instinct and simplicity, and a small group of recipes I could make over and over with slight variations, and within about thirty minutes after getting home from work.

I was in a season of having to choose one essential activity over another, and writing won out for about nine months. I’ve crossed to the other side now, but when I reflect on that period, red lentil curry immediately comes to mind.

In Julia Turshen’s comforting cookbook, Small Victories, she urges us to embrace the little wins cooking a meal can offer. During a time when that’s about all I could manage, her voice was a welcome one. The recipe for red lentil curry is perhaps the most cooked recipe in the entire collection. In fact, when reaching for the book, it practically opens to page 136 as if on cue, knowing exactly what I’m looking for. Over the years I’ve tried (and loved) many other recipes: pickled onions, chilaquiles with roasted tomato salsa, turkey and ricotta meatballs, a berry cobbler I made with only strawberries even though Julia said not to because strawberries are too watery, and a chopped chickpea salad.

But for a long stretch, curry was all that counted. It was reliable, always worked, required nothing but pantry ingredients and a few fresh additions like ginger and onion, and even went so far as to think about clean-up, advocating for filling up the coconut can with water rather than using a measuring cup.

At first, the small victory was simply that I made dinner. Eventually, I memorized the recipe, and didn’t need to consult the page while I worked. But I often found I wanted the book open, because by then it felt a bit like an old friend. I liked the companionship of seeing a picture of the lentils and double checking that I needed 1 teaspoon of cumin, then rummaging through the cupboard to pull out the rice and other spices.

It was difficult to take my own advice and see the poetry in cooking when life felt so full and draining. I wasn’t always stirring the curry, lost in thought, or looking up from the stove counting my blessings. I was simply filling our bowls so we could eat before getting ready for bed and doing it all over again. But the longer I made this recipe, and the more it lodged itself into my brain, the more I moved through the kitchen with an ease. I already knew the outcome. Instead of having to think about measurements, I could think about the day, let loose anything I needed to release, and find contentment in knowing that although it’s the same recipe we’ve had week over week, it’s still something from scratch, and that enjoying a humble dish of red lentils truly is a small victory.

Curried Red Lentils With Coconut Milk

This is a very flexible recipe, especially if you have extra vegetables wilting in the crisper drawer. I often add chopped carrots to the pot, or a handful of spinach.

Recipe ever so slightly adapted from Small Victories: Recipes, Advice + Hundreds of Ideas for Home-Cooking Triumphs by Julia Turshen

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 garlic cloves
¼ of an onion, minced
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup split red lentils, rinsed
1 can full-fat coconut milk, shaken
Sea salt
For serving: Cooked basmati rice, chopped cilantro, plain yogurt, and chopped peanuts

Warm the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic, onion, coriander, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened and the spices are fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the lentils, coconut milk, and 2 teaspoons salt. Fill the empty coconut can with water and add that to the saucepan. Stir the pot, then bring the curry to a boil. Reduce heat to low and let the lentils simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with additional salt, if needed.

Serve over hot rice and top with chopped cilantro, a dollop of yogurt, and a sprinkle of chopped peanuts.