Making Something Out Of Nothing

Moroccan Quinoa Salad | Eat This Poem

I emerged from a nap, a small luxury, about a week before Henry was born. The house had just been cleaned, which meant the kitchen was a blank slate. Empty, with late afternoon sunlight streaming in. I pulled out my largest bowl, a collection of herbs, and the remaining vegetables in the refrigerator that needed a home.

Make something out of nothing. Tamar Adler's words were fresh in mind. When I first read An Everlasting Meal, this idea clung to me. It appears suddenly on Friday evenings, when I'm deciding between going out and staying in, realizing I didn't quite plan for the end of the week, but feeling up to the challenge of scrounging around in the fridge and pantry and putting together a meal.

Lately, these four words have been a companion of mine in the kitchen, and I often turn to them as one would a mantra or favorite quote written on the chalkboard. Because the words stay with me, I proceed to follow their advice, relying on instinct and memory and only a small amount of knife skills.

The words appear as a simple nudge, and they are, in one way. In another way, though, they are a call to pursue the instinctual piece of yourself as a cook which can be frightening, depending on your mood or comfort level. The words are gentle, but they guide us to an interior part of ourselves, perhaps unexplored.

Like anything worth practicing, cooking is an important pursuit. If you're here now, reading this post, I'm inclined to think you agree with me. And that means sometimes we must go off on our own, remove recipes from our counters or phone screens, and just make something. 

My something turned out to be a Moroccan-inspired quinoa salad. I often soak grains overnight, cook them, and assume they will be used, which they usually are. So I did some of the preparations already, having cooked two cups of quinoa earlier that morning, but I didn't decide what to add to the bowl until the moment when I pulled out my knife, sharpened it, then proceeded to open the refrigerator and pull out what remained from the week.

There was half a cucumber, a cup of cherry tomatoes I was protecting from summer fruit flies, half a bunch of kale, three different herbs (mint, parsley, cilantro), a box of chickpeas, a handful of golden raisins leftover from the granola I baked two days before. To make the dressing, I reached for cumin, lemon, shallot, mustard, honey, oil. 

In keeping with the theme of trust and instinct, I cannot offer a recipe. I've listed my ingredients, and I trust you. You know how to whisk a vinaigrette and add more honey if it's too tart. You know how to chop all the greens at your disposal, gather a pile of grains. I know the same, because I peeled, chopped, sliced, whisked. I tossed well, coating every grain, tasted for salt, tossed again, then stepped back from the counter, proud in some small way but mostly, deeply content. And grateful.

Grateful for a quiet house, for the light, for the dog waiting by my feet should a piece of cucumber spill to the floor. Grateful for what was to come in just a few days, which would be more monumental that I could have ever prepared for. Grateful for sustenance and skill and the ability to make something when required. Or not even required. More simply, when needed.

Moroccan Quinoa Salad | Eat This Poem

Poetry in a Bowl of Grains

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

I've been wondering, lately, how it is that we each manage to get through the day, cooking for ourselves and often our partners and children.

How do we manage? How do we plan (or not), and what do we eat?

Maybe it's a strange series of questions to ask, but I find that most of us are so involved (rightly so) in our own routines and habits, we rarely discuss what occurs in each other's kitchens. And I'm not talking about a pre-scheduled dinner party, either.

I'm interested in Monday morning and Thursday night. What you come up with when you realize you're missing an ingredient, or you didn't plan what to make for breakfast on Saturday, or you've been inundated with zucchini from the garden and are trying to make it interesting again and again. Or you're just flat out hungry but don't feel like making anything. (My answer for this always tends to be an omelette with Parmesan cheese, any greens I can find, and crushed red pepper flakes.)

So that's what I want to talk about today.

As for my own routine, I meal plan most weeks, a habit I took to years ago, right around  the time when I started working full-time. It just makes life easier knowing I've already thought ahead and designated a meal for dinner. It keeps me calm. It gives me something to look forward to. Sometimes meals are switched around, of course, or an impromptu dinner out ensues, but generally you can find me at home Monday through Friday standing at the stove soon after getting home from work.

The weekends are a bit more leisurely. While I do tend to plan those as well (except for days I just want to roam the market and see what happens, which happens a lot this time of year), I like leaving room for a dessert I've bookmarked or something more involved that I don't have time for mid-week. (homemade croissants, anyone?) Also, there is almost always some version of pancake or waffle at the breakfast table. It's borderline obsessive. 

Recently, I made stew. I don't typically associate June with stew, but it turned out to be the perfect accompaniment to an unusual bout of gloomy Los Angeles weather. It rained, actually. Really rained. Our state is always in desperate need of water, we just don't tend to receive much of it during the spring. So here I am in the middle of the year, making stew. And harissa, I should note.

Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem
Quinoa Salad with Homemade Harissa | Eat This Poem

Have I told you about Amy Chaplin's new cookbook yet? It just won a James Beard award (!!), and has reignited my interest in grain soaking. I dare you to close her book without feeling inspired. Somehow, Amy makes the basic act of soaking rice and quinoa a meditative moment, and you can't help but feel enormously healthy and on top of things when you remember to pull out your bowl and pour water over the lentils before you go to sleep at night.

There's something deeply poetic about the whole thing, especially when you consider rhythms of poetry. We find similar rhythms in our kitchens, too. We move from the sink to the refrigerator seamlessly, opening the door like a line break, taking out the pitcher of water. Next line. And so on.

I've been making my way through this cookbook slowly. First I read it cover to cover and kept track of the recipes I wanted to cook (along with their page numbers) on post-it notes. The inside front cover is now a pale shade of yellow, almost like homemade mayonnaise when you make it with yolks. 

Lately I've started prepping a few things on Sunday to help make cooking faster during the week. Amy's harissa is the perfect example of make-ahead condiments, destined for a robust quinoa salad. 

Quinoa salads have had their run, haven't they? First, no one really knew what quinoa was. Then no one knew how to cook it properly. There have been debates about how to make it fluffy, and whether or not our healthy grain habit it making matters worse for the people of Peru.

There were lots of bland recipes, too, but quinoa doesn't have to be bland. This is one of those wow! yum! pow! salads that hits you over the head thanks to a few spices like cayenne and coriander. It's probably the simplest homemade harissa you can make, but it makes an entrance. Roast some summer vegetables, saute rainbow chard in garlic oil, and toss it all together with a sprinkle of cheese. I can't say enough good things. 

And as for your own kitchen routines, I'd love to hear about them. They're deeply personal yet wildly relatable, aren't they? 

Homemade Harissa from Amy Chaplin | Eat This Poem


Adapted slightly from At Home in the Whole Foods Kitchen

1 tablespoon cumin seeds (I used ground)
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
2 teaspoons ground paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 small garlic clove, grated
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Warm a small skillet over medium heat and add the whole spices. Toast seeds, stirring occasionally, until fragrant (about two minutes). Transfer to an electric spice or coffee grinder and grind until fine; pour into a bowl. Add the paprika, cayenne, garlic, salt, oil, and lemon juice. Stir until smooth. Store in a sealed glass container for up to two months in the refrigerator. 

I didn't follow her quinoa salad recipe very closely since I had a variety of other ingredients on hand. But the general method goes something like this.

Soak 1 cup of quinoa overnight. Bring 1 cup of water to a boil and add the drained and rinsed quinoa. Cover, lower the heat a bit, and simmer for about 12 minutes. (You'll find with Amy's method that for soaked quinoa, you only need a 1:1 ratio instead of 2:1 for un-soaked grains.)

I roasted zucchini and cherry tomatoes, and while those were in the oven, sautéed half a bunch of rainbow chard with plenty of garlic. (Amy's recipe also calls for red peppers, which would be fantastic.) Then I dumped in the fresh herbs (parsley and basil), crumbled in feta, and spooned harissa over everything. 

"Buckwheat" by Carl Sandburg + Cold Soba Salad

Buckwheat by Carl Sandburg + Cold Soba Salad

In the kitchen there are secret pleasures, like the scent of the garbage disposal after you sneak in the peel of a lemon, or chopping chives in complete silence, or drinking homemade almond milk straight from the bottle while the refrigerator door is still open. 

Of course when the house is quiet it's easier to notice these details. To move slowly from the chopping block to the stove to the freezer, being careful not to step on the dog splayed out on your kitchen rug. When I'm alone in the kitchen, and especially when I'm alone for dinner (a somewhat rare occurrence), my senses seem to heighten. 

Andrew was finishing a big work project in early October, which kept him late most nights. His office even ordered dinner for the team, so I was cooking for one and would sort of ho hum around the house, going through a list of meals in my head and letting my gut decide what to make for dinner.

One evening, it was a cold noodle salad.

I have a certain affinity for soba noodles, and when my enthusiasm gets out of control it's usually met with a passive aggressive remark such as "soba noodles again?" or "why do you like soba noodles so much?", so I've started leaving more days in between. But being alone I could slurp soba noodles to my heart's content (!), without any judgement. 

This being a cold salad, I took steps earlier in the day to prepare. Boiling the noodles and shrimp before leaving for work, chopping cucumbers when I came home for lunch, and even whisking the dressing the night before (overachiever!) so that by the time I came home and shoved Emma around the block for a "walk," dinner was waiting. 

Buckwheat is something of a staple in my pantry. Soba noodles are always tucked in a nook, and I adore buckwheat flour in pancakes, so when I happened upon this lovely little poem by Carl Sandburg, it made me consider the plant itself, the "honey-white buckwheat" grown in fields before being ground to a fine, gray powder.

Cold Soba Salad | Eat This Poem


by Carl Sandburg

There was a late autumn cricket,
And two smoldering mountain sunsets
Under the valley roads of her eyes.

There was a late autumn cricket,
A hangover of summer song,
Scraping a tune
Of the late night clocks of summer,
In the late winter night fireglow,
This in a circle of black velvet at her neck.

In pansy eyes a flash, a thin rim of white light, a beach bonfire
ten miles across dunes, a speck of a fool star in night's half
circle of velvet.

In the corner of the left arm a dimple, a mole, a forget-me-not,
and it fluttered a hummingbird wing, a blur in the honey-red
clover, in the honey-white buckwheat. 

From Smoke & Steel

It's a love poem, both for the season and the speaker's beloved. Full of personal details, the poem still invites you in like a rush of wind. When I close my eyes I stand on the dunes not far from my house, the remnants of a beach bonfire smoking below. And it being autumn there is a chill, but also an overwhelming, expansive beauty, captured so eloquently on the page.

And we must say a little something about how the poem ends on the word buckwheat. The honey-white buckwheat plant, the source point. Our ceramic cups dive deep into flour bags and emerge with a decidedly different version of the poem's buckwheat. What a good reminder to spend what little time we have left of the season in absolute awe of the hummingbirds, the moles, and the "smoldering mountain sunsets."

Cold Soba Salad | Eat This Poem


Recipe adapted from Aida Mollenkamp 

I came across this recipe on Twitter of all places. And I say that with a dash of surprise because of the limited amount of time I spend there these days. It was good fortune to see the link when I did, because it made for a very satisfying meal, and one I look forward to making again. (I also love her trick of poaching the shrimp in the same pot while the noodles are cooking!)

A few minor recipe tweaks ensued, mostly due to the fact that I forgot to bring home snow peas and the green onions I thought were fresh were beyond saving by the time I opened the crisper. Luckily, this is a recipe well suited to light adaptations. 

For the noodles:
8 ounces dried soba noodles
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 pound (about 24) shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 big handfuls of spinach
6 ounces snow peas, cut on bias into 1-inch pieces
2 Persian cucumbers, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and thinly sliced
1 bunch of chives, finely chopped
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds or chia seeds (pictured)

For the dressing:
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 inch piece ginger, peeled and grated
3 tablespoons canola oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Fill a bowl halfway with ice water and set aside. (It's tempting to skip this step, but it will make a difference and really help the noodles cool down.)

When the water is boiling, add the noodles and cook for about 3 minutes, then add the salt and shrimp and continue cooking until the shrimp are pink and firm, about 3 minutes more. Put the spinach in the bottom of a colander, then drain the shrimp and noodles over the top. The heat will help wilt the spinach. 

Place everything in the ice water and cool completely, at least 20 minutes.

To make the dressing, add everything except the oil  in a food processor. Process until smooth, then drizzle in the oils. Drain the noodles, shrimp, and spinach (pick out any remaining ice if you need to), and add the cucumber and chives. Pour on the dressing and toss to coat. Garnish with the sesame or chia seeds and serve.