When you leave home and strike out into the world to volunteer and travel, there is one thing that you will do substantially less of, and that is cooking. You will do substantially more of many things, such as getting stuck in bogs, putting in hardwood floors, and exploring previously unknown cities, but cooking will not happen. Your host will cook for you twice a day (if you’re lucky), and you’ll buy Ramen noodles for dinner at your hostel, and you’ll go out for fish and chips or sandwiches or crepes. But you will not get to cook.
For many of you, this may not be a problem. But for me it was like encountering claustrophobia; every meal I’d be thinking of what I would rather have made with the ingredients at hand, or how I would like to record that and make it later, or, at restaurants, deconstructing the favors in the food to figure out what was in it, and then writing down a potential recipe for use on the great and beautiful day that I would again have access to a kitchen and a grocery store.
Since 2011, I have been obsessed with cooking and baking. Before that, I enjoyed it: once I moved to Vancouver, I reveled in it. The days were cold and grey, and all I could think to do to combat the dreariness was make delicious, warm food. I read food blogs all the time (my favorite being The Wednesday Chef) and frequently cooked my own versions of what was therein presented. I’d get obsessed with certain things: bread was my hangup for about a year, and then French food, and then it was curries, and then it was soups… But no matter what I was currently cooking, I still read about everything.
By the time Christmas of 2012 rolled around, I had somehow managed to absorb enough information about cooking that I made the entirety of Christmas dinner on my own in about four hours, entirely without recipes, and made it delicious. The only ‘problem’ were the underspiced Brussel’s sprouts, and that wasn’t too big a deal, given that everything else was magnificent. In addition to that I’d also cook for my mother and myself every night, making things I’d never tried before without the crutch that is a recipe, trusting my gut to guide me.
Christmas dinner was essentially the last interesting thing that I’ve cooked until the last two days. And the food I’ve made in this period of time has been so good, I have to share the recipes with you, though I will say this right now: they aren’t exactly recipes. I measure nothing, and these dishes are so simple you won’t even need this page open while you’re cooking.
The first of these dishes employs an old French trick, which is “add butter and milk and it will be delicious.” This is a technique that can be used with any green vegetable that starts this cooking process steamed, or left over, or frozen. Do this to something a little too soft to resuscitate successfully and you (or whoever you’re cooking for) will think you are a cookery wizard. It’s a good thing to do when you have next to nothing in the fridge, and are desperate for inspiration, which honestly seems to happen to me a lot. The sauce produced in this recipe would probably be improved if pureed, but honestly, I hate cleaning blenders so I never puree anything.
Faux Epinardes a la Bretagne
Pasta (whatever you want, I’m not your mother)
Vegetables that shouldn’t be consumed otherwise (I used frozen spinach)
More butter than you think you should use
Milk for as much sauce as you want
(If you’re feeling fancy, get about 2 Tbsp flour and another Tbsp of butter or so, for a roux)
Salt and pepper to taste
- Start the pasta.
- Into a skillet on medium high heat, bung the vegetables and the butter, and let it do its thing until it’s quite melted.
- (If you’re feeling like you want more milk and a thicker sauce, scoot the vegetables to the edges in your skillet, turn the heat down, and then melt the Tbsp of butter and add the flour to it. Stir these together constantly until the flour is a darker color than it started off, but not burnt. This is a roux! Hooray!)
- Add the milk to your skillet, along with the salt and pepper. Stir everything a lot, and then once it’s all friendly-like, make sure it’s all evenly spread out and turn the heat back up to medium high until the pasta is cooked, stirring whenever you get bored. When the pasta is done, your sauce should be ready too. Puree it if you’re all fancy-like, but if you’re me, eat that shit.
- Be pleasantly surprised that it actually is awesome.
Tonight, however, I made something rather different, and a lot closer to a summer-y Christmas fare. An old friend of mine came to visit, and after hours of swapping the stories of our past six months and goofing off at the park, we began thinking food thoughts. The one problem is that she’s on this crazy diet thing, and has a rather restricted regime of things she can eat, so restaurants were tough and in any case a little unaffordable. So she turns to me and is like, “Will you cook for me?!” Part of our relationship always has been me, the skinny girl who eats everything, trying to feed her, the woman with all the curves (she’s gorgeous) who never eats. So whenever I see her, which isn’t nearly often enough, I try some new and outlandish recipe on her, and so far, they’ve all worked out very nicely, so she thinks I’m a good cook. So I thought about it, and rolled some tastes around in my mouth, and said to her, “Carbs?” “Nope,” she said. “Okay, meat?” “Yup. Meat and fruit and vegetables.”
I decide to roast a chicken, and indeed anything else that came within arm’s reach of me (STAY BACK, I’M DANGEROUS). So I say to her, “How are you with butter and salt?” and she looks me in the eye like I’m crazy. All she says is “No.” It takes me about five minutes to convince her that the butter and salt will be only on the skin of the chicken, and are in fact there to keep in the moisture and flavor as well, and reluctantly she consents. (This is only partially true: yes, the butter and salt stay on the outside. No, it is not possible to avoid them, on account of them being so good oh my heavens me.)
When dinner comes out of the oven, I impatiently peel a bit of skin off the chicken to try it. Just as I’m moving it to my mouth, my friend looks at me and says, “Can I try some?” And I, being an enabling diet destroyer, hand her a chunk of golden, dream-come-true skin.
That was the end of her complaints about butter.
Roasted F**king Everything
1 whole chicken, with all the skin
3 Tbsp butter, or so
2 tsp coarse salt
4 lovely ripe peaches
1 bunch of asparagus
Small amount of vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Liberally smear the bottom of a pan with butter. Add a thin layer of salt to this, maybe a teaspoon.
- Place the chicken in this pan, breasts down (I know that breasts up is traditional, but that dries them out!).
- Cover the chicken with blobs of butter, and then sprinkle the rest of the salt over the whole thing. Bung that bitch in the oven!
- Halve the peaches and place them cut side down in another pan.
- Break the tough ends off the asparagus, and then put them in a bowl and coat them in about a teaspoon of oil. Put the glistening stalks into the same pan as the peaches, and put THAT bitch in the oven as well.
- Coat the potatoes in oil (again, only about a teaspoon). Put those in another roasting pan, and stick that in the oven as well.
- Wait for the fire alarm to go off twice, or for an hour and a bit. Check the chicken after maybe a half hour, and then again at an hour just to see how it’s getting on. If you’re unfamiliar with cooking chicken, the way to check is to take it out of the oven and slice somewhere where the flesh is pretty thick. If the juice runs clear, it’s ten minutes from done (is my rule of thumb – technically, it’s done as soon as the juice is clear, but I’d rather be safe than sorry, and unless you forget about it for hours, this chicken will not dry out).
- When the chicken is done, so is everything else. Take it all out and carve that chicken, and then serve it all together. Save the bones and carcass for next week’s onion soup recipe (which I shall post if it works…)!
Yes, peaches and asparagus. You don’t believe me, do you? The peach juice turns to syrup, and takes some of the bitterness out of the asparagus, while allowing the tang to come through. And this chicken recipe always, always turns out beautifully – it makes the most succulent, falling-apart chicken you will have outside of my Emergency Backup mother’s house. This dinner is wonderfully simple to make, lacks any kind of spices at all, and tastes like biting heaven. It was exactly what I’d been dreaming about, all those months of cooking deprivation. Though you know what happens when you whet an obsession…