By the time I moved I was ready to cook. I'd been eating out for most of a month, and frankly, although I had needed to cook in order to eat when I was packing up the old house, most of that cooking was extremely basic. It had been months since I had cooked just for the sake of cooking and I was ready to play.
My cookbook collection was unpacked early on, along with the kitchen, and although there were lots of old favorites I could have made, I was also eager to try something new. I wasn't quite sure where to start however, and I was feeling, rather oddly, unsure of myself in the kitchen. I read about the Food52 cookbook club somewhere, and since their June cookbook would be any of the works by Yotam Ottolenghi, books I already own, I thought that joining would be just the inspiration I needed.
And participating in the group did give me the push I needed, at least initially. I started off making the Cucumber and Poppy Seed Salad from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. I really liked the salad. I altered the recipe slightly, using sweet-hot peppadew peppers rather than the ones called for simply because I had them on hand and needed to use them up. I've made the recipe several times since, both as written and with the peppadews, and think I prefer the peppadew version. It is a nice alternative from my usual Thai-style cucumber salad.
Then I floundered a bit. Mostly this was just the repercussions of cooking for one. Most recipes are written for 4 to 6 servings, leaving me with leftovers. I also hadn't really stocked my pantry yet, having intentionally run the cupboards bare before moving, and having this idea that I would simply restock as I needed items. But shopping every time you want to cook gets to be a bit of a drag as well, and there were days that, by the time I drove around locating ingredients, I was too tired to cook. The result was less culinary experimentation than I had hoped. Still, I was determined to continue trying new things.
I had purchased My French Family Table by Béatrice Peltre on a bit of a whim; I don't, after all, need more cookbooks but this one looked really appealing. I baked the rolls I posted earlier in the month. After purchasing couple of bunches of radishes at the farmer's market, I made Peltre's radish greens soup. I love radishes and hate to waste edible food, but hadn't found a way to cook the greens that I consistently loved. The soup was delicious but a little heavy on the potato for my taste. The second time around I increased the proportion of radish greens relative to potato slightly, not so much that I lost the silkiness of the finished soup, and liked the soup much better. Perhaps I went a little overboard on the sliced radish garnish in the photo above. It is difficult not to get carried away with the delicacy of spring radishes after all, and since this had been a rather wet spring and early summer, the radishes have been exceptional.
My next adventure was with a dish from Ottolenghi's newest book, Nopi. I had seen fresh soft-shell crabs in one of the markets, and was excited as I usually see pre-cleaned crabs which are none too fresh. That was one of my first shocks moving to Knoxville, it never occurred to me that a soft shell crab, even if cleaned, wouldn't be absolutely fresh. Of course I didn't ask either. But anyway, onward.
I tried a more ambitious dish called Soft Shell Crab with Sweet Black Pepper Sauce, Okra, and Cinnamon Pickled Cucumber. It wasn't actually that difficult as the pepper sauce and cucumber can be made ahead, and the preparation for the crab is fairly simple. The problem was that it was a lot of work for a dish that I wasn't all that thrilled with. Mostly I didn't like the crab, and I should have known better. The recipe calls for the crab to be dredged in cornstarch and then fried. I know from experience, and should have remembered, that I don't really like fried soft-shell crab unless it is dredged in cornmeal. I like the contrast of the crunchy cornmeal and the soft crab. Whether that is a New England thing, related to my living in the Northeast for so long, or related to my love of cornmeal crusted fried catfish from my Texas childhood, I don't know. But I've tried various alternative techniques before, and I've always been disappointed.
Then there were the sides. The okra was fabulous and I will make it again. The technique is much like the one used for cooking pimientos de padron, simple and brilliant. The flavor on the cinnamon picked cucumber was also good; it was flavored with a syrup made with cinnamon and star anise, a little sweeter than I usually prefer, but quite wonderful. I didn't feel the long ribbons of cucumber worked well, although it is possible that I simply made them too thin. But I made the pickle again, using a mandolin to make thin slices, and was happier with the results, but I didn't take another picture. As much as I enjoyed the cinnamon cucumbers, I'm not sure how often I will go to the trouble to make them when I am just as happy with simple sliced cucumbers.
The other problem was with the Sweet Black Pepper Sauce. My sauce really had no real sweetness to it; in fact it was rather salty and overpowering compared to the delicacy of the crab. Now, although I followed the recipe exactly, this may have been at least partially due to the quality of the ingredients I used. I try to get the best I can, but there were several things which may not be the same in gluten-free versions. But I had extra sauce and I wondered if it would work well with other dishes.
In the long run the sauce surprised me. It is the one dish that may eventually end up being a staple in my kitchen. After 24 hours it had mellowed substantially, and the flavor softened and developed a rich subtle umami which continued to develop over time. I think it would be good on several different kinds of meat, but this month, in the flurry of unpacking and work and sometimes general tiredness, I found it worked wonderfully on a simple burger. I've used up that first batch of (still not so sweet) Sweet Black Pepper Sauce. I probably need to make another batch.
So the failed crab dish put me off experimentation for a little bit, and I was trying to use up groceries anyway. The next time I was inspired to cook, I was once again leaning toward Peltre. I wanted to try her Chicken Drumsticks with Spices and Coconut Milk. I am always looking for a good drumstick recipe. Drumsticks are not necessarily my favorite part of the chicken, but at the same time I feel strongly that if we are going to be conscientious about living on this earth, and caring for its resources, we need to encourage nose-to-tail (or leaf-to-root, in the case of radishes) eating. That means if I'm going to eat chicken I can't just eat the breasts and the thighs.
When the two local farms from which I buy chickens have birds I buy whole birds. I often cut them up, which means the drumsticks accumulate, as I use the breasts and thighs more routinely, and the backs and wings often go into my chicken stock, as do chicken feet when I can get them. In late May and early June there were no local chickens so I bought packaged organic chicken. Just buying packaged chicken is no excuse, at least for me, for avoiding the less desirable parts. Anyway, I bought drumsticks, organic drumsticks and tried Peltre's recipe; it was fabulous.
So there you have it, a month's experimentation. Some things I will make again: radish greens soup, chicken drumsticks, perhaps black pepper sauce. Some things, like the quinoa rolls and the two cucumber salads will be made less often, partially because I consider them treats, but also because they are really dishes that need to be shared. I have no regrets, but I also need to get a little more settled. Cooking is fun, but it is most fun when you are feeding others. That is the next step.