Vegan Ricotta with Cherry Preserves

Challenges and Joys of Vegan Cheese

food, lifestyle

I’m not vegan, but I understand and participate in the shift towards a more plant-based diet. Enter the meat substitutes and dairy facsimiles that start trends, line health aisles at the grocery store and ignite meaningful conversations about our food system. Again, I eat pant-based as often as I can. I’d consider myself closer to being vegetarian than vegan, but I try to stick to vegetables and grains instead of the substitute products available, especially if those products have unfamiliar ingredients or are no better for me than good old-fashioned vegetables. I guess my biggest concern is: what are in these substitutes, and how are they made?

Now, I don’t consider tofu a meat substitute. I eat it when I’m in the mood for it and in my eyes it’s a protein on its own, with recipes geared towards its unique texture and flavor abilities. I know meat substitutes are often made from tofu. You’ve heard of tofurkey, right? Therefore, I’m not considering tofu as I talk about vegan substitutes because it is not a substitute.

I had the opportunity to fully understand these substitutes when a friend recommended a vegan cheese making kit. I’ve made fresh ricotta, which is easy enough to do if you have a big pot, whole milk, lemon juice and some free time, but I have never even tasted vegan cheese. My first step in understanding the vegan cheese making process was breaking down the traditional cheese making process.

Cheese is just curdled milk. Sorry to burst your bubble. It’s basically strategically spoiled milk that tastes delicious and gives me relentless acne. As I see it, most cheeses require milk, an acid like citric acid or vinegar, and rennet. Specific flavors can be added and the curds can be aged, but at its core cheese contains those basic ingredients.

  • Acid: would you drink a glass of milk followed by a shot of vinegar? Probably not. When you add acid to milk it begins to curdle, forming solid pieces. Doing this over medium heat while skimming those curds away from the whey forms ricotta in it’s most basic form. This is how most cheese making processes start.
  • Rennet: rennet comes from enzymes found in cow stomachs, so not exactly vegan but plant-based substitutes have existed for years. Vegetarian rennet, derived from artichokes, cardoons or nettles, does the job just as well and has been used in traditional Spanish and Portuguese cheeses. The rennet helps the soured milk curds solidify into cheese by working with proteins to coagulate. In order for rennet to work, milk must already be high in calcium and phosphate (which is why rennet might not work well with older milk or goat’s milk).
  • Aging: I love fermentation. Allowing the flavors in cheese to develop over time with bacterial growth gives certain cheese that funky allure. Earthy rinds on brie and savory umami from Parmesan turn the curdled milk into culinary delicacies.

So then how does rennet coagulate almond milk despite a lack of calcium?

In my short experience making vegan cheese, the process involves no coagulation at all. In fact, vegan ricotta involves no cooking at all. The ‘curds’ are not formed by intentionally spoiling the milk, but by incorporating macadamia nuts. The nuts add fat content as well as texture (just make sure to both soak and blend them enough so you aren’t left with any grit in the finished product). While the vegan cheese did not behave like ricotta and did not melt, I’d say that what it lacked in textural satisfaction it made up for in flavor. And yes, I love a good cheese pull and much as the next person, but I believe cheese should act as a flavor enhancer to the dish and not simply a textural layer (unless we’re talking grilled cheese or pizza, then the pull is crucial to the dish, and flavor and texture are equally important). The citric acid provided that curdled tang and the bits of ground macadamia nuts added that grainy texture that ricotta takes on after some time draining.

Vegan products, until very recently with the injection of ‘bleeding’ plant-based burgers into the main stream, have been engineered to behave like their non-vegan counterparts and not necessarily taste as such. Vegan cheeses offered textural similarities to dairy cheeses, but struggled to emulate flavors unique to cultured dairy. Slices of vegan cheese could melt like American cheese but could not offer any flavorful addition to a dish (I mean, American cheese offers very little but STILL).

Recently, vegan cheese makers have employed culturing and aging methods to better assimilate vegan cheese into the world of artisanal cheese plates, moving away from coconut oil-based emulsions and leaning towards something based on fats naturally found in cashews and macadamia nuts. Flavors from nutritional yeast add the missing umami lacking from other attempts.

Now to the more philosophical stuff: is vegan cheese even cheese?

When it comes to finding a food substitute, I understand the inherent identity crisis. Artificial meat is still not meat. Almond milk is technically not milk, but calling it creamy almond juice does not necessarily have the same ring to it. Therefore, vegan cheese by definition is not actually cheese. Cheese by definition is formed by curdling milk, and as I mentioned earlier, alt milk cannot curdle. However, who cares when environmental, ethical or dietary needs are on the line? I think progress in the vegan cheese world proves that artisanship and flavor do not need to fall to the wayside to craft a substitute. Relying on crutches like soy often minimize the clientele as more folks see soy farming as problematic to the environment, and can’t shake soy’s bad reputation despite contradictory research. With advancements in vegan cheese making, there could soon be environmentally sustainable, health conscious and flavor-comparable substitutes hitting the mainstream as hard as imitation meat burgers.

Bowl of Pasta with Red Sauce

My Non-Recipe Recipe for Tomato Sauce

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Every Italian person can make a red sauce based on pure instinct. Period. It doesn’t mean it’s the perfect sauce for everyone but damn it’s a sauce that makes you proud. Maybe it’s inconsistent, but Italian cooking has always been about availability and making something work. It’s about utilizing what you have to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Folks get very caught up in validating or invalidating Italian food when in reality, Italian food isn’t one cuisine but a holistic way of cooking. In reality, nothing about tomato sauce is Italian. Tomatoes are from Mexico, and Italy didn’t even exist when tomatoes traversed the Atlantic.

So cook with what you like and what you have. If you don’t know where to start, here’s what I always and never do to make my sauce distinctly mine.

Always:

  • I always start my sauce with onion and garlic. I slice the onion nice and thin and let it sweat out in olive oil and salt until it becomes translucent. Garlic goes in after the onions have released some liquid (garlic can burn easily so don’t add it at the same time as onion). Sometimes it’s 3 cloves, sometimes it’s more.
  • Salt throughout! Don’t wait until the end to add salt. Build the flavor starting with salting the onion and taste as you go. The sauce should reduce so constantly check your seasoning.
  • Use three herbs: basil, oregano and bay leaf. I find that these three (any variation in any amount) imbue the most iconic flavors to the sauce. If I have fresh basil, I’ll definitely take advantage of it, but dried basil and oregano do the job just fine. The bay leaf seemingly doesn’t add anything, but I was always told to add a bay leaf to take some of the acidity out, reducing the chance of heartburn and indigestion. I thought it was some Old Nonna Tale, but apparently bay leaves reduce inflammation and can aid digestion.
  • Let the sauce cook down! I don’t always add tomato paste (because I don’t always have it on hand) but cooking down your sauce and scraping the concentrated tomato that builds up along the interior sides of the pot add more flavor, basically mimicking tomato paste!
  • Whole, crushed or pureed tomatoes are my favorite. It depends on what else is going into the sauce (i.e. meat) or what’s available. I don’t typically use diced tomatoes. I don’t know why. Yes, the can is fine unless you’re living the dream and making fresh passata all summer.

Never:

  • Use anything but olive oil. Unless it’s Marcella Hazan’s butter and onion sauce. I just like the flavor of olive oil and the higher smoke point gives you some wiggle room when sweating those onions.
  • Rosemary. I don’t know why people put rosemary in sauce. To each their own, I guess, but it’s a little too hearty for something as rich as a tomato sauce. Bright herbs only for this girl.
  • Use pre-seasoned tomatoes. Maybe it’s a quick way to get dinner on the table on occasion, but if you’re going to simmer a sauce use the unseasoned tomatoes.

So my order of operations is:

  • Sweat the onion in olive oil. Season with salt.
  • Add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
  • Add tomato sauce, basil, oregano, bayleaf, salt and pepper.
  • Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer for at least 30 minutes.
  • Taste for seasoning and adjust.
  • Remove bay leaf and basil (if fresh and whole) before serving.

The simplicity is what makes this work. Add your extras like red pepper flakes, anchovy fillets or tomato paste, but consider those the icing on your weird, savory, already-delicious cake.

Roasted Squash and Feta Salad

Roasted Delicata Squash Grain Salad

food, recipes

Once upon a time there was a sophomore in college who finally had a kitchen and wanted to do nothing but cook all day. She spent the last summer working on an organic farm and just got an internship with a food magazine. Unfortunately, she also had to do things like go to class and overcome the insanity of living in a house with nine other manic 19 year old college students. Exciting. But how was she going to make this all work? She was going to bring squash from the farmer’s market to chamber choir rehearsal. That’s how.

If you couldn’t guess, that girl was me. A lot has changed. But deep down I’m still that weird girl. Catch me at work returning from lunch with a canvas bag full of produce sitting at my desk until my commute home. My affinity for squash has not changed and it’s only magnified in autumn when produce bins are overflowing with easily the most beautiful fruit. Stripes, patterns, rich colors and unique shapes coax creativity in the kitchen, too.

I was particularly inspired by delicata squash’s stripes and the way it looks like flowers when it is cut crosswise into rings. It’s so cute and the skin is edible?!? A double whammy.

For this recipe I adapted Epicurious’ Sheet-Pan Roasted Squash and Feta Salad. I’m obsessed with the idea of warm salads, especially during this time of year when mindful eating becomes difficult because the outdoor chill makes you crave cheesy pasta, and avoid cold, uncooked greens at all costs. I also watched Epicurious’ Instagram story series “At Home with Anna,” where Anna Stockwell, senior food editor, invites viewers into her kitchen and cooks dinner. Surprise, surprise, she made her version and it looked delicious, giving out those fall vibes we’re all looking for these days.

Anyway, this recipe calls for cubed bread and radicchio, but I figured the roasty squash and salty feta would pair well with farro. Plus, instead of storing and getting soggy greens, all parts maintain integrity through refrigeration and reheating. It makes a great autumnal desk lunch that can be eaten warm or cold.

Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Cook the farro as instructed on the package. I buy Bob’s Red Mill farro from Ocean State Job Lot and I swear by it. (If Bob’s Red Mill or Job Lot want a spokesperson or brand rep PLEASE contact me.)

While the farro is simmering away, cut your delicata squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and pulp and cut into half rings. On a rimmed baking sheet lined with foil, toss squash with enough olive oil to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven and roast for 10 minutes. After the first 10 minutes, flip squash and roast for an additional 8 to 10 minutes until squash takes on color and becomes soft.

While farro bubbles and squash sizzles, let’s make some dressing! Combine 1/4 cup of red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. olive oil, 1 tsp. honey, 1 tsp. thyme and salt to taste. Honestly, you can use any oil and vinegar based dressing with some herbs mixed in. I know I don’t always have thyme but I have other dried herbs that could also substitute.

Hey, cube up some feta too!

Drain any excess liquid from the farro and combine with squash in a large bowl. Add feta and mix so feta gets warm through. Toss grains, squash and feta with the dressing. Eat warm immediately, or chill for another day.

This recipe is very easily adaptable to accommodate other squash or grains depending on what’s available: swap out quinoa if you can’t find farro for a high-protein alternative; remember to remove the skin from other squash varieties, like butternut or acorn.

Bistered Shishitos with Tangy Sauce

Blistered Shishitos with Tangy Yogurt Sauce

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Do you ever pull a recipe completely out of your ass? I did. I didn’t even actually make this before suggesting it to my mom to serve at a dinner party. I guess you just have to trust your gut sometimes, right? I was happy to learn that it was easy to make and her guests LOVED it. In fact, it’s making a return on her menu sooner than I would’ve expected.

This recipe draws inspiration from tangy yogurt sauce I love so much. I feel like for so long I associated yogurt with sweetness, but really yogurt it sour and compliments sweet and savory foods with acidic delight.

Now you probably don’t remember the first time you tried certain foods, but I was fortunate to experience fun food firsts late enough in my teens that the memory is still fresh. When I worked on a farm we would occasionally sell produce that I had never seen or tried before. Since I was often asked about flavors or recipes, I took it upon myself to taste anything I had never seen before. This is where I tried tomatillos, thai basil and mizuna greens for the first time, among other stranger vegetables. It was all for the job, trust me. When we received our first batch of shishitos I had questions about the wrinkly light green pepper. Was it spicy like a jalapeno or sweet like a bell pepper? I learned that it can be a little of both. Turns out, every few peppers are spicy while most of them are mild. It’s like jalapeno roulette!

Years later (aka 2019) these peppers are everywhere.

Shishito peppers are small enough to keep whole for this recipe. Plus, the attached stem doubles as the perfect tool to pick up and dip the charred peppers. Flavor and function. You love to see it. You want to dry roast these in a cast iron pan until they blister and take on color. Don’t fear burning them, they taste better with more char.

Arrange them on a plate to cool. While the peppers cool, combine your Greek yogurt, lime juice, grated garlic, chili powder, salt, pepper and olive oil. Let the yogurt sit for a few minutes, as the garlic will develop more flavor the longer it sits. Taste for seasoning and adjust according to what you like. Add more yogurt to make it more creamy or more lime juice for sweetness. Plate the yogurt sauce in a small bowl for dipping or spooning over the peppers.

Finally, let your guests go crazy dipping peppers into the yogurt sauce. Snacky enough to finish each pepper in one bite, and deceptively healthy.

This recipe is flexible too. Can’t find shishitos? Use poblanos the same way, just slice and seed the peppers before charring. You can use lemon juice instead of lime and cumin instead of chili powder. The yogurt sauce also tastes great with cucumbers or with burrito accoutrements (think burrito bowl, chipotle chicken, that sorta thing).

Get Into Breakfast Salad

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I unintentionally fell in love with breakfast salad while I stubbornly ate a leftover lunch that I refused to throw away. It was an arugula salad with Italian tuna on it. I haphazardly forked the salad in my mouth, hoping to distract my senses from the early morning roughage. But instead it was delicious. And I didn’t feel weighed down by a heavier breakfast I would’ve grabbed on my way to work.

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Get into breakfast salad ✨

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Hence, this ode to the breakfast salad.

Now I’m not saying eat a full on Greek salad for breakfast. Red onions? At 8am? Pass. But I am saying that your leftover salad from dinner would be dope with some scrambled eggs. Think about it? A nice creamy scramble with a side of acidic veggies? That’s some hot girl summer dining.

It’s also a great way to avoid letting a leftover dressed salad get weepy and slimy. We all know I’m a fan of reducing food waste, so this perspective adjustment helps reduce the amount of salad you may be prone to throwing away.

Now I know my first encounter with breakfast salad had tuna on it and that may sound less than appealing to the masses, but fish isn’t totally out of the question in terms of breakfast options (hello, lox). However, eggs might offer an easier transition into breakfast salad.

While I had a solid slice of bread toasting in the oven (I used Dakota bread), I scrambled two eggs in butter. I left the eggs runny and creamy so they would almost spread over the toast. This requires a low and slow approach. Don’t get impatient and raise the heat, I promise it will be worth it. Don’t forget to salt your eggs.

I took my leftover salad out of the fridge. I made a tomato and tomatillo salad with baby lettuce and a vinaigrette of lime juice, olive oil, salt, pepper, and grated garlic. This mingled with the tomato juices and the whole thing marinated overnight. Delish.

Once the eggs were set enough and the bread was toasted, it was time for assembly. Now you can leave all components separate, but I spread the eggs on the toast and placed the salad on top. So I guess I turned this into a toast? Whatever.

Not only was this a quick breakfast, but I feel satisfied. Plus, riffing on this is easy as long as you have salad + protein + toast. Try swapping in a slice of sourdough and a smear of a thick and tangy Greek yogurt. Or pita and hummus. The sky’s the limit. Do your thang.

Homemade Lactofermented Hot Sauce

I want to pickle and ferment everything now

food

I’ve been pretty obsessed with the idea of fermentation. Keeping something in a jar on your counter in hopes it’ll become a bubbly science experiment excites me in a little kid sort of way. Five year old Marcella would never get away with making this kind of mess in my family’s kitchen. But 22 year old Marcella pays her own rent and can leave jalapeños in a cloudy brine on her counter for as long as she likes.

Now I didn’t just enter the world of fermentation and nail it. I wanted to ease into it. I started with a quick pickle. A quick pickle method emulates the flavor of those crispy summertime pickles you want to slap on burgers or just eat out of the damn jar. It’s basically a long, vinegar-based marinade. The sugar/vinegar combo gives it that pseudo-funky flavor but without all of the benefits of natural lactobacillus fermentation (big words, we’ll get there). The gist of a quick pickle is submerging the vegetable in a heated mixture of equal parts vinegar and water. Dissolve salt and sugar in the liquids and add aromatic spices like bay leaves, coriander, peppercorns and really whatever hearty spices you want to bring out. Then pour the hot mixture over the vegetables. The vegetables can get spruced up with some added raw garlic and other softer aromatics like leafy herbs or ginger. Let all the contents marinate in that jar for a few days before cracking it open and putting those crispy and delicious veggies on EVERYTHING.

Now fermentation is a metabolic process in which natural sugars are broken down and carbon dioxide is released. I remember a biology experiment in eighth grade involving a packet of yeast, juice and a balloon. As time went on the balloon fixed atop a bottle containing the juice and yeast started to fill with air – fermentation was happening and the yeast was, essentially, breathing. We also straight up made wine in class so that was cool.

The chemical process is initiated by yeast which exists in the air, not just in those handy packets at the grocery store. Lactobacillus fermentation breaks down glucose and transforms it into lactic acid. No, this doesn’t involve dairy (but yeah, it could). The transformation is what turns wheat and grapes into beer and wine respectively. It preserves these foods and actually makes them safe to eat even a year after purchasing them fresh. Also makes them funky as hell.

I chose to quick pickle jalapeños using the recipe above (plus turmeric) and ferment jalapeños to make my own hot sauce. I followed this hot sauce video but used jalapeños instead of fresno chilis. Yes, the brine will get cloudy and yucky looking. That means it’s working. However, and I cannot stress this enough, keep the peppers submerged otherwise that cloudiness could become mold, fuzzy stuff on top of exposed peppers.

The result is a tangy, spicy and funky sauce that seems to get spicier as it sits. The two pickled products provide that welcome kick to many dishes (some favorites are tacos, eggs and salads) but the difference is in the nuanced flavor. The fermented peppers are complex and spicy with the sourness of vinegar present but not overwhelming. The quick pickled peppers remain crunchy but the vinegar plays a crucial role in the bright flavor.

Both have their places. I definitely would make both again as they require little active time and the payoff lasts. Different spices and additions can breathe new life into these pepper, or different vegetables can be used to hold onto spring and summer’s bounty long into the winter.

Tofu, meet the omnivores

food, lifestyle, vegetarian

My first encounter with tofu was neither pleasant nor life changing. I ordered a miso soup that accompanied a sushi dinner. I remember dunking my spoon into the cloudy amber liquid and lifting jiggly chunks of tofu out from beneath the brothy surface. The flavor was nothing spectacular but the texture was just a little off-putting. I had little to no desire to give tofu a second chance.

But this wouldn’t be a good blog post if I didn’t try tofu again. Many years later I tried tofu in a rice bowl, cooked until crispy and drenched in creamy coconut curry sauce. I thought “man, this is good.” For a second I thought vegetarianism was possible for me.

But the truth is, I love meat. I grew up in an Italian household and that meant fish for Christmas, lamb for Easter and fresh vegetables on the side. The comforts of a Sunday sauce simmered with meatballs or a fried chicken cutlet at my grandma’s house could never be replaced by vegetarian alternatives.

Though I love meat, I have no desire to try something marketed as a “meat alternative.” It’s not meat, don’t try to make it meat. What do I want? I want to highlight plant based proteins and meals for their naturally, non-meat flavors, which brings me to tofu. Let’s edit the dialogue…

While some “meat substitutes” capitalize on tofu’s ability to crumble like ground beef, I prefer to savor this jiggly soy protein for its naturally appealing qualities, and that means heavy handed seasoning and crisping the edges until golden brown. Since tofu is a blank canvas seasoning is everything. It’s not the time to be timid in the kitchen. In my experiences, tofu tastes best with a sweet and salty sauce (like here in this vegan noodle bowl). The tofu’s creamy texture also compliments a bit of spice nicely, so go ahead and add those chili peppers.

When cooking tofu, at least for a crispy result, it is imperative to really squeeze that liquid out. Put the block under some weights and let it just release liquid for as long as possible before cooking. This will ensure maximum flavor absorption and minimal spongey texture.

The downside to tofu? Not great for leftovers unless eaten cold. In my experience reheating tofu results in that rubbery texture. Certain things (like the aforementioned noodle bowl) don’t taste spectacular cold or reheated, but a cold tofu dish tastes great. These shawarma spiced tofu pitas tasted arguably better the next day cold: the tofu maintained crisp edges and didn’t seize up and become little morsels of rubbery nightmares.

Takeaways to this tofu rant: vegetarians and non-vegetarians can enjoy tofu. Period. If you try tofu and it’s spongey or jiggly, give it a shot elsewhere. Season it aggressively and don’t expect a meaty flavor. Instead, approach tofu with open-mindedness and interest to try something new. You might be an omnivore like me and begin incorporating more plant based meals into your diet too, no disguise needed.

Savor that Oatmeal

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I first learned about savory oatmeal about four years ago after reading a round-up article on breakfast bowls. Like probably anyone reading this, I took a step back and thought “will that even be any good?” The answer is yes. Oatmeal is a neutral base for many flavors, however we mostly see sweet flavored oatmeals and have thus become accustomed to that style. My first encounter with a savory oatmeal recipe included cheddar cheese, eggs and chives. The yolk from a sunny side up egg mixes with the oatmeal, adding another creamy, rich layer to the bowl. You can add any other savory element to the base of the oatmeal (other kinds of cheese, butter or just salt) and additional toppings. My go-to is oatmeal, cheddar cheese, avocado, egg and a sprinkle of pepitas. Like sweet oatmeal, you can add whatever you have on hand. Scallions? Sure. Chili flakes? Go for it. When you think about it, this is no different than a rice bowl with a runny egg on it. There’s just a different grain involved.

Pictured here is my breakfast from the not-so-snowy snow storm: old fashioned oatmeal, salt, butter, white cheddar, avocado and two eggs. Not pictured: the expected espresso.

Intentionally burning food was my first sign of true adulthood

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A timid child, I cried at damn near everything. Couldn’t get the combination in dance class? I cried. Someone made a harmless joke? I cried. I was frustrated easily and fragile beyond help. I was insecure and sheepish for years. That girl is long gone now, but the lingering effects held on in one facet of my life: my cooking. I loved cooking and baking, but I yearned for perfection every time. There were never burnt edges or crispy bits on any of my baked goods or meals, but that resulted in undercooking nearly everything. Setting timers for the minimum cooking time and being the most pesky oven checker were my culinary downfalls. I craved perfection so tenaciously that my efforts had the opposite effect entirely.

Early in my college career my love for food manifested itself into my academics. In my journalism classes I squeezed food into every assignment I could, from political assignments to longform creative pieces. I attempted to become that modern urban farmgirl who cooked squash and overnight oats and blogged about it. I was passionate about local honey and became evangelical about eating locally and seasonally. I had ancient grains coming out of my ears. I needed to have my quirky side and excel at something niche. I snagged an internship with a local food publication and became a published food writer. And yet, each time I roasted a vegetable I couldn’t keep my hands off the oven handle. I hauled squash from the farmers market to class only to bring it home and woefully under season or undercook it for the sake of not making a mistake. I was the girl watching the pot boil. I would peek into the door and feel the warm dry heat on my face, look at the slight color on whatever was cooking, and take it out prematurely. I would take food out of the oven, plate the dish and realize it was undercooked after slicing into it, after which I would throw it in the microwave and nuke the crap out of it, making up for lost time.

My desire to achieve perfection overshadowed my research and knowledge. The hours I spent reading Bon Appetit and Food52 were wasted because my internal monologue inserted itself into the narrative. I knew that color equaled flavor. I knew that salt was essential to all recipes and despite knowing those facts and more, my food was timid and colorless. I was a people pleaser down to my core, and while then I would never admit it, now I see how desperate I was to be an image of perfection through and through. I can definitely attribute that (and probably any aforementioned insecurities) to some form of anxiety. I would bring baked goods to family gatherings and sit anxiously as everyone cut into my acceptably cooked and seasoned pie, knowing that I could have cooked the crust longer or added spices other than cinnamon to the filling. I was obsessed with following a recipe and not deviating from that, fearing that a freestyle move might cost me my reputation. I made beautiful looking olive oil cakes that could have used extra time in the oven, or more lemon zest than the recipe required. While everyone loves the gooey, undercooked section of the brownie pan, everyone also likes the crispy edges. My insecurities revealed themselves in my inability to deliver both.

In any communal living situation and even when I would cook with my boyfriend, my sheepishness returned. Too nervous to make a mistake, I would either wait until the coast was clear and the kitchen was empty, or ask him (or whoever else I was cooking with) to do many of the things I knew I could do but just felt unsure about in the moment. Everyone’s a critic and for some reason, despite being the most amateur of amateurs, I was afraid my knife skills, or some other trivial aspect of my cooking, would insight mocks and giggles.

I’m now 22 and living alone. In my castle (this one bedroom apartment), I am the queen and I’m cooking for me and only me. It’s now that I’m getting dare I say edgy about cooking. I’m taking risks with flavors because who but me am I aiming to please? In the most cynical of ways, I didn’t care about disappointing myself. And yet, that’s how I achieved perfection, or what tasted like it. I love cooking onions until they stick to the pan and take on caramel sweetness. I love hearing sausages sizzle in the pan and take on crispy brown sides. I like seeing the edges of my fried egg become crispy and lacy from the heat. I season haphazardly knowing that no one around me can tell me something is too spicy. I don’t measure my spices with a spoon, but I feel the granules leave my palm as I just toss. I’m the queen of the kitchen sink, sometimes throwing whatever I have in my fridge together and wishing for the best while I let it simmer, bubble, or bake.

Taking control of my kitchen and eating food that I enjoyed unapologetically was a sign of adulthood. I realized that I actually like kale, provided it was smothered in olive oil and roasted into crisps. Deciding what to eat, when to eat it, and most importantly how to eat it seems menial but the creativity thrills me. You know you’re a real adult when dinner’s uncertain outcome becomes exciting. Cooking for myself, I feel shameless in my choices. I can eat spicy potatoes whenever I want, or breakfast for dinner on a Tuesday.

And mistakes? I don’t know her. In the words of Bob Ross, “there are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” Rarely does a silly mistake warrant an unsalvageable meal. Sometimes you just need to think it over and find a way to repurpose or rectify without retrograding and crying over a burnt pan sauce.

In this journey through burnt edges and sloppy sautés I’ve learned more about my heart than I’ve learned about cooking: there’s more to life than perfection, and if you’re a people pleaser make sure you don’t leave yourself out of the equation.

Cook Your Dang Fruit

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Last weekend was a blur of eating greasy meals and understanding that I certainly can’t drink like I did in college. I desperately needed to eat a vegetable so on Sunday I bought kale, carrots, peppers and squash. When I came home I realized I still had some fruit in my crisper. I thought, “oh shoot, I have to eat this.” When I reached in the crisper the plums felt fine. The apples mostly were okay, except for one squishy, mealy monster. If I wasn’t in my current mindset, I would think to just throw it away. But that would be insane. This post should really be called “eat your dang fruit” but that would be too easy. No, when your fruits sit in your fridge for just a little too long think to cook them instead of throw them away.

I chopped up the apple and threw it into my new (spiffy) little red pot with just a little water so the sugars don’t burn to the bottom of the pot. I added cloves, cinnamon and honey and let it just simmer and spatter until the apples transformed into gooey goodness.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had to cook fruit. It’s truly smart, especially when you clearly abandon your fruit for lack of interest. Cooked fruit tastes delightful in oatmeal or over greek yogurt and creates the illusion that you’re eating something new. It tastes special, like dessert. And what’s better than dessert on a weeknight?