On Food and Cooking

On Food and Cooking - Vegetal MattersHarold McGee’s On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen is the best known food science cookbook, and has been for the last 30 years (and deservedly so). The first edition came out in 1984 and the second 20 years later. I found a copy at a library book sale years ago, but didn’t end up referencing it as much as I wanted to (maybe because I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information). It was a challenge that needed to be taken head on, and last month I decided to read it cover to cover. McGee has a doctorate in English Literature, so it is incredibly well written but also peppered with stories about the origins of certain foods and their names. Popular science books tend to glaze over concepts and leave out the gritty details, which McGee does absolutely none of. The chapters are broken up by types of food, including dairy, eggs, meat, vegetables and fruit, bread, sauces, alcohol, and additives. Most chapters contain the history of the food in our diet, overview of the chemical structure, chemical changes during cooking, and tips to avoid common mistakes and why they produce inferior foods.

The breadth of this book is proof that McGee is not one to be scared of seemingly impossible tasks. The chapter “Fruits and Vegetables, Herbs and Spices” starts off with descriptions of plant food in mythology, quickly moves to botany, fruits and vegetables in language (we use fruits to “praise”, and other plants to “disparage”), history of the spice trade, plant breeding, photosynthesis, molecular structure, flavor, nutrition, storage and preservation, cooking, notes on 50 different plants/families, and then finishes with tea and coffee. You learn where the best nutrition in plants comes from (the skins), why to cut off green potato parts (alkaloids), why legumes cause gas, why you should blanch vegetables before freezing, and how canning kills the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

Why food behaves the way it does as it develops, deteriorates, or cooks and how cooking affects foods are essential questions to answer to be a better cook.  This book is so well known because no other food science book compares to its breadth or depth. It belongs on every home cook’s shelf because sometimes it takes a little more than googling to understand why and how our foods behave the way they do, and why we are even eating them, and it is rare to have such information delivered with McGee’s eloquence. If taking on the whole thing at once doesn’t interest you, it is definitely the kind of book you can read a chapter or section of, and then leave for a while and return to. It is a rare and wonderful thing when such an informative book is also a delightful read.


Last week I cooked…

Turkey Burgers - Vegetal MattersMeals in my kitchen are not always some original, blog-able dish. Sometimes I make the same thing on repeat (often for breakfast), or follow someone else’s recipe to make a satisfying meal. But a lot of the time I’m trying something new, or adapting recipes a bit to fit my ingredients and desires. This will be a regular posting about what I’ve made recently to track my food obsessions and inspire more variety on your table (and mine too! please share!).

Lemon Pepper Yogurt Chicken – Amazing, easily adaptable marinade.

Quinoa salad with grilled lemons and asparagus, pistachios, mint, and parsley (inspired by the Quinoa Salad with Toasted Pistachios, Preserved Lemons and Zucchinis from Persiana).

Turkish White Bean Salad – Easy summer meal assembly.

Lettuce and snap peas tossed with lemon juice, olive oil, and sumac.

Spring Asparagus Pancetta Hash topped with goat cheese and a fried egg! For dinner!

Tofu lettuce wraps with ginger carrot pickles, cucumber, cilantro, scallions and peanut sauce. Loosely adapted from this recipe, but I had some of this Thug Kitchen peanut sauce leftover in the fridge so I just added some hoisin to it instead of making up a new batch. I thought it was a little thin as a dipping sauce when I originally made it, but it was great on tofu bowls with rice and snap peas.

Apple Chipotle Turkey Burgers from The Sprouted Kitchen (an old favorite), with grilled sweet potato fries and salad with strawberries and balsamic dressing.

Breakfast burritos with scrambled eggs, black beans, cilantro, scallions, and wicked hot green salsa every morning.

PS – Exciting development this week…my first tomato is almost ripe!!!! It’s a sungold cherry, that I picked and then immediately consumed.

Sungold Cherry Tomato - Vegetal Matters


Persiana and Turkish White Bean Salad

Turkish White Bean Salad - Vegetal Matters
You know what is better than a giant cookbook collection? A free giant cookbook collection. I usually end up with at least one cookbook borrowed during my weekly library trips. I hadn’t requested any new ones last week (the week before it was Paletas), but I took a quick look at the new non-fiction and Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour practically jumped into my arms. I looked through it during navigation breaks on this weekend’s road trip to upstate New York and planned out a summer’s worth of meals from its pages. Middle Eastern food is the theme, and the book is full of fresh vegetable and herb salads, hearty grains and legumes, warmly spiced meats, and varied mezze. A small sampling of recipes on my list are the Hummus, which incorporates chickpea cooking liquid, Smoked Eggplant Salad (ok, every eggplant recipe), and Tomato Salad with Pomegranate Molasses. The salads entice me most, as they are all simple but with lovely herb and spice combinations that excite me way more than my usual repertoire.

Turkish White Bean Salad - Vegetal Matters

Our last stop before home was the grocery store to grab some cans of white beans, an onion, and a lemon to make this salad. Cooking upon returning from a road trip is not usually an activity I jump to, but this was just a quick assembly and made me feel so much better then relying on someone else for a meal again after a weekend of eating out. I also took the basic concept of Ghayour’s fattoush dressing which is just lemon juice, olive oil, and sumac to make a salad with lettuce from the garden that grew like wild while I was gone. I’ve made many a lemon vinaigrette, but the sumac added a more nuanced sourness and lovely red flecks all over the lettuce (and (I’ve already made it again since). I also made the Eastern-Style Focaccia which took 2 hours start to finish and was full of cumin, coriander, sumac, and thyme, and Pistachio and Feta Dip to go along with it, which was as easy as throwing everything in a food processor (and an excellent use of the disappointingly unsalted pistachios I accidentally bought for road snacks). Persiana hasn’t been in my possession for long, but I already feel this book should be added to the my house library.

Turkish White Bean Salad (Piyaz)

Slightly adapted from Persiana

This salad is delicious leftover, but the Aleppo pepper does tint the dressing red after it sits for a while. If you are serving this to entertain, toss just before serving. Serves 4 as a light dinner or lunch, 6 as sides.

  • 3 cups cooked white beans, rinsed (2 14-oz cans)
  • 1 cup thinly sliced red onion (mine was from half a large onion weighing ½ a lb)
  • 2 teaspoons Aleppo pepper flakes (or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes)
  • ½ cup flat leaf parsley, chopped (about a large handful)
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice (or juice of 1 lemon)
  • 3 tablespoons tahini
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • fresh ground black pepper

Mix the beans, onion, Aleppo and parlsey in a large bowl. Put the rest of the ingredients in a smaller bowl and whisk until smooth. If it seems stiff, add a teaspoon of water at a time until the dressing is pour-able but still on the thick side. Pour the dressing onto the bean mixture and toss carefully to coat.