Trader Joe’s has always been a mystery to me. People love the place, they start to cheer when one opens up in their neighborhood, but I’ve always been stumped by what to buy there. I’ve done well with trail mix (because it tastes more like candy), and it’s nice to get a decent bottle of wine for not a lot of money. But until yesterday, I’d never made a dinner from Trader Joe’s ingredients that I’d be eager to make again. Yet there I was–there’s one downstairs from my gym–and I wanted to make a healthy dinner so I bought a can of white beans (a pretty safe purchase), a bag of cruciferous vegetables (including kale), a lemon and a bottle of white wine. And the dinner that I made was so stupendous, I’ve just gotta tell you about it.
If I’m lucky enough to write another cookbook, I’d like to write one about using pantry staples. That’s how you separate a cook from a recipe follower: the recipe follower makes a list, buys what they need for that recipe, cooks it and repeats that process again the next day. A cook opens the refrigerator, opens the pantry, and makes dinner with what they find. That’s what I love to do most and what I’d like to teach other people to do.
Start, for example, with a bag of dried beans. You know I’m really into the Rancho Gordo brand, but you can use any dried beans. These ones were Pinquitos, but use any small brown beans for this formula.
My cookbook photographer Lizzie Leitzell is in town for a wedding and, of course, I had to have her and her fiance Kyle over for dinner to catch up, to reminisce about our cookbook travels and to talk about what we’re working on now.
The nice thing about having Lizzie over for dinner is that she’ll take much better pictures of the food than I ever will. Hence, the picture above is much nicer than the one I would have taken. You should see the size of Lizzie’s lens.
Let’s start with the toast: instead of a jam-topped breakfast concoction, this toast moves in a more savory direction. I toasted it just like normal (I couldn’t cut a thick slice because Craig bought pre-sliced sourdough bread; I forgive him) and then–here’s where we go savory–rubbed it with a garlic clove and then drizzled it with good olive oil (Katz’s, if you wanna know the details).
There are two kinds of people who cook at home: the first kind chooses an elaborate recipe, buys all of the ingredients, spends hours cooking it, invites friends to eat it, spends hours cleaning it, and takes the rest of the week off. The other kind has long-range vision, makes a large batch of something and uses that batch to feed his or her family for the rest of the week. This kind of home cook–the true home cook–is resourceful, inventive, and frugal without letting that frugality show. And, lately, I’m proud to say, I’m shifting from Column A to Column B. Let me prove it to you with a bag of lentils.
The best dinners are the ones that have a story. This is one such dinner.
It started on a typical day: I was driving to Silverlake to eat lunch at Forage (one of my favorite places to grab a bite here in L.A.) and to have coffee and do work at Intelligentsia. Only, it was street cleaning day which means half of the normally available spots were no longer available. I circled and circled and started to go a little crazy. Trying to find a parking spot isn’t something I had to do in New York; here, it can be a totally maddening experience, especially as you pass the same landmarks again and again, not one car budged, not one person dangling their keys.
My favorite way to cook, the cooking that makes me happiest, is the kind of cooking you do on the fly: no planning, no prepping. You just see what you have already on hand and you make dinner. And often that dinner is way better than the dinner you spend a week prepping for, shopping for and methodically executing. I have a theory about this. The theory involves cravings: the food that you crave in a specific moment directly correlates to something that your body wants. So, when you’re making dinner on the fly, if you add an extra pinch of red chile flakes? That’s because your body’s craving some heat. And that’s why the dinner you make on the fly is often so satisfying.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I really like Anne Burrell’s show on Food Network. I Tivo it and watch it each week, and more than other current Food Network show it inspires me to cook. I’ve made her deviled eggs, I’ve made her chicken liver mousse (which didn’t come out too well, so I don’t think I posted about it) and–this weekend–after seeing her serve grilled salmon on a bed of stewed lentils, I decided to get off my couch and recreate the picture on the screen (minus the salmon). The best part is I didn’t even have to go food shopping to do it.