Write it down.”
— Joan Didion
This week a 13-year-old girl astonished me with her creativity. A attended both my week-long baking camp and the cooking camp for teenagers I team taught with a local chef named Jacob. This girl loves food. But she’s more than an eater or someone who wants to learn to cook because she has been watching videos on Instagram. She thinks like a chef.
In the baking camp, I gave each team a task: choose a cookie to make. We had chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles, oatmeal-raisin, and Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace cookies. After they had all chosen their cookies, I threw them a curve. Pointing to each table, I said, “Now, yours has to be gluten-free, yours has to be dairy-free, and yours has to be vegan.” Most of the kids froze for a moment, until they got over it and got to work. A looked elated. A challenge! She was on the World Peace team. They decided to make the cookie gluten-free and vegan, since one of the kids in the class couldn’t eat gluten. We looked at the recipe together and noticed it didn’t require eggs. There’s the egg part done. In a moment, A said, quietly, “But Shauna, if we’re making them gluten-free, then they are missing that protein that’s in wheat. Isn’t that what you taught us? So maybe we should use some aquafaba to bind the cookies.” (Aquafaba is the liquid at the bottom of a can of chickpeas, which makes a great egg replacer when whipped into stiff peaks.) I blinked, then said, “Yep. That’s right. Go at it.”
Those were the best World Peace cookies I have ever eaten.
A doesn’t have any ego about this. She’s quiet and shy, her shoulders hunched around her tall frame. Inside, however, is an artist, wanting to play with her food.
In cooking camp, Jacob and I gave the students a mystery challenge. Each team was given an ingredient: green lentils, artichokes, or cacao nibs. They were told to come up with a dish that featured that ingredient. But wait! There’s more! One team had to come up with something allium free (Jacob told them he saw that in his restaurant all the time), one gluten-free, and one plant-based. Go.
A’s team found spices in the drawer, mixed them together to make a Thai curry blend, and started chopping onions. They cut carrots on the bias and a block of tofu into tiny triangles. Someone put the lentils on the burner to cook al dente. A started sweating onions, then added Thai chiles she had chopped precisely and the spice blend. There was garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and a touch of chili flakes. Coconut milk. Simmer. Stir. Simmer. Stir. And then they put the cooked lentils in, coated them with the sauce, and turned off the burner after they had fully reheated.
It blew me away. A gave me some of the leftovers and I ate them for breakfast the next day. I will be making it again and again.
And yesterday, we asked the students to make a 5-course meal for 44 people. They had the entire day to shop, plan, prep, and be ready to box up every course — amuse bouche, appetizer, main course, pre-dessert, and dessert — by 3 pm. They worked, heads down and cooperating, all day long. Jacob and I ran around to answer every question they had and made trips back and forth to the restaurant walk-in for more ingredients. They astonished us both.
We had talked about the menu the day before. After camp was done, after dinner at our favorite burger joint on the island, my family and I saw A in the parking lot. She ran over to say, “I’ve been thinking about the dessert I have planned. I still want to make the Swiss roll with lemon curd and cream cheese frosting I was planning, but I was wondering how to get rosemary in there.”
Danny looked at her, his head cocked to the side, then looked at me. After we talked about making a rosemary simple syrup with her, then walked to the car, he said, “Who is that kid?”
Oh, that’s A. She thinks like a chef.
Yesterday, in class, she came in and realized that a jelly roll might not make it home without making a mess. So she decided to try making tiramisu, even though she had never made it. However, she wanted to make a lemon-rosemary tiramisu. Jacob and I both gave her the heads up, so she went to work. She separated 12 eggs, then set to making a meringue. But the meringue came up with smudgy little brown spots, something like a bit of dough. Jacob assumed the bowl had been dirty, so he told her to wash it out. She separated another 12 eggs. I came back from another grocery store run to see it again. I took the mixer bowl to the restaurant dishwasher, dried it out entirely, and gave it to her. She separated another 12 eggs. The same thing happened. (Neither Jacob nor I had ever seen this, so we still don’t understand.)
Through it all, A remained resolved. She did not flinch. She certainly didn’t cry. She looked down at the floor, thinking, then said, “Why don’t I make a rosemary custard? And then I can make a lemon curd and fold it into whipped cream, and top the custard with that.”
So she did. It was creamy on the tongue, not too sweet, and good.
This young woman, she amazes me. She doesn’t cook to impress. Her mind thinks in flavors, in textures, in colors and layers of tastes. She thinks the way my husband thinks, the way Jacob thinks, the way I have begun to think after 13 years of working with my husband and writing cookbooks together. She plays in the kitchen.
That playing is the true joy of cooking. We could all use more joy these days. I will be thinking of A the next time I step into the kitchen to play.
Here’s some of the food we will be playing with this week.
(I’m never going to be offering you a meal plan, since we don’t think that way here. If we plan out what we are going to eat for the week, by Friday we are bored. We want to invent! So we have some inspirations in mind, plus all the basic ingredients we use on a daily basis. Then we play.)
A few months ago I assisted a dosa class on the island. The teacher made the batter the night before, which is traditional for dosa. But Meera Sodha (a recipe writer I love) published a dosa recipe made with buckwheat flour that can be made as soon as it’s ready. I’m crazy about buckwheat flour so this will be in the rotation this week.
My co-teacher, Jacob, loves to make bagna cauda — the Piedmontese fondue-like dip made with anchovies and plenty of garlic — so much that he might just bottle it up someday. I’ve never made it. We’re taking care of that this week.
Together in class we made Vietnamese rice-flour crepes (banh xeo) with chicken pan-roasted in a fish sauce/garlic/ginger/lemongrass marinade, plus herb salad. My kids are going to love these. (And they are gluten-free.)
We were going to make memelas with the students but we ran out of time. (Most of them had never made their own guacamole before, so we slowed down a bit the first day and made them feel confident with the basics.) We’re going to make memelas — Oaxaca thick corn tortillas with delicious toppings— this week instead of tacos.
And this summer is already the season of cobbler. Last year I seemed to gravitate toward crisps. The other day I made a raspberry/apricot/blueberry cobbler with ginger and sumac. It was a big hit. And it’s really not hard — blend the fruits you want with the spices you want, then add honey or sugar. A cobbler topping is an easy ratio of 3-2-1: 3 parts flour, 2 parts fat, and 1 part sugar. Blend them together the way you would pie dough, then add a touch of cream to bring it all together loosely. Form into biscuits. Plop the biscuits on top of the fruit. Bake at 350° until the fruit is bubbling and the biscuits are browning and baked through. Done.
These days I’m less interested in recipes and more fascinated by stories of food and culture. Here are three that caught my eye this week.
This week, we’re playing with our fresh pasta recipe. As soon as it’s ready, we will be sharing it here with paid subscribers.
Remember, by supporting my work here, you’re helping me to do this work for you. Let’s play together.