Learning how to write is like learning how to roast a chicken. And vice-versa

I tried a new way to roast a chicken the other night, closely resembling this “Herbed Faux-tisserie Chicken and Potatoes” recipe from Bon Appétit. I’ve roasted a chicken with one recipe or another hundreds of times, but experimenting with a different recipe got me thinking about how learning to cook a simple meal suitable for sharing with others is like learning how to write. And vice-versa.

First, both are things that can be learned and/or taught. I think a lot of people– particularly people who don’t think they can cook or write– believe you either “have it” or you don’t. I’ve met lots of struggling students who have convinced themselves of this about writing, and I’ve also met a lot of creative writing types (from my MFA days long ago and into the present) who ought to know better but still believe this in a particularly naive way.

I believe everyone who manages to get themselves admitted to a college or university can learn from (the typically required) writing classes how to write better and also how to write well enough to express themselves to readers in college classes and beyond. I also believe that everyone with access to some basic tools– I’m thinking here of pots and pans, a rudimentary kitchen, pantry items, not to mention the food itself– can learn how to cook a meal they could serve to others.  Learning how to both write and cook might be more difficult for some people than others and the level of success different writers and cooks can reach will vary (and I’ll come back to this point), but that’s not the same thing as believing some  people “just can’t” cook or write.

Second, I think people who doubt their potential as cooks or writers make things more complicated than necessary, mainly because they just want to skip to the meal or completed essay. Trust the process, take your time, and go through the steps. If an inexperienced writer (and I’m thinking here of students in a class like first year writing) starts with something relatively simple and does the pre-writing, the research, the drafting, the peer review, all the stuff we do and talk about in contemporary writing classes, then they will be able to successfully complete that essay. If an inexperienced cook starts with something relatively simple– say roasting a chicken– and follows a well-written recipe and/or some of the many cooking tutorials on YouTube, then they will be able to roast that chicken.

Third, both writing and cooking take practice and self-reflection in order to improve. This seems logical enough since this is how we improve at almost anything– sports or dancing or painting or writing or cooking. But one of the longstanding challenges in writing pedagogy is “transference,” which is the idea that what a student learns in a first year writing class helps that student in other writing classes and situations.  Long and complex story short, the research suggests  this doesn’t work as well as you might think, possibly because students too often treat their required composition course as just another hoop, and possibly because teachers have to do more to make all this visible to students. Whether or not it gets taken up by students or conveyed by teachers, the goal of any college course (writing and otherwise) is to get better at something.

In my experience, the way this works with food is when you’re first trying to learn how to roast a chicken, you do it for yourself (or close family and/or roommates who basically have the choice to eat what you cook or to not eat anything at all), and you make note of what you would do differently the next time you try to roast that chicken. Next time, I’ll cook it longer or shorter or with more salt or to a different temperature or whatever. A lot of my recipes have notes I’ve added for next time. Then the next time, you make different adjustments; repeat, make different adjustments; and before you know it, you can roast a chicken confidently enough to invite over guests for a dinner party.  Also, the trial and error approach to following a recipe for chicken helps informs other recipes and foods so you can serve those guests some mashed potatoes and green beans with that chicken, maybe even a little gravy.

Both writing and cooking involve skills and practices which build on each other and that then allow you to both improve on those basic skills and also to develop more advanced skills and practices. It was not easy for me to truss a chicken the first time I did it; now it’s no big deal. Writing a good short summary of a piece of an article and incorporating that into a short critique is very hard for a lot of first year writing students. But keep practicing it becomes second nature. I routinely have students in my first year writing class who gasp when I tell them the first essay assignment should be around five pages because they never wrote anything that long in high school. By the end of the semester, it’s no big deal.

Finally, there are limits to teaching and not everyone can succeed at becoming a “great” writer or cook. Never say never of course, but I do not think there is much chance my cooking or recipes will ever be compared to the likes of Julia Childs or Thomas Keller, nor do I think my writing is going to be assigned reading for generations to come. I don’t like words like “gifted” or “genius” because people aren’t better at things because of something magical. But for the top 1% of writers/cooks/athletes/actors/etc., there is something. At the same time, it’s also extremely clear that the top 1% of writers/cooks/whatever get to that level through hard work and obsession. It’s a feedback loop.

So for example: it’d be silly to describe myself as a “gifted” writer, but I am good at it and I have always had a knack for it.  I’ve been praised for my writing since I was in grade school (though I did fail handwriting, but that’s another story) and it isn’t surprising to me that I’ve ended up in this profession and I’m still writing. That praise and reward motivates me to continue to like writing and to work to improve at it. I spend a lot of time revising and changing and obsessing and otherwise fiddling around with things I write (I have revised this post about a dozen or more times since I started it a week ago).

In any event, even if I have some kind of “gift,” it ends up being just one part of a chicken vs. egg argument. Being praised for being a good writer motivates me to write more; writing more improves my writing and earns me praise as I get better. A knack alone is not enough for anything, including writing or cooking.

Oh, and for what it’s worth: I thought that recipe was just okay. I liked the idea of the rotisserie-like spice rub and I can see doing that again, maybe putting it on a few hours or the day before. But cooking at 300 degrees (instead of starting it at say 425 and then dropping it back to 350 after about 20 minutes) meant not a while lot of browning and kind of rubbery skin.

Recipe: Mediterranean (-ish) Fish Stew/Soup

 

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Mediterranean-ish fish stew.

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Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • Four ounces or so smoked pork chorizo sausage (basically one link from a four-pack of sausages)
  • One small fennel bulb, diced (about 2/3rds of a cup)
  • One small onion, diced (about 2/3rds of a cup)
  • Two cloves garlic, minced
  • Half a cup of white wine
  • One 14 ounce can of diced tomatoes
  • One 12 ounce bottle of clam juice
  • Teaspoon of dried thyme
  • Half a cup to a cup of vegetable stock, fish stock, or water (optional)
  • 12 ounces of firm white fish like cod
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Juice of about half a lemon (plus wedges for garnish)
  • Half a cup of chopped Italian parsley

This is a simple stew/soup that is largely based on a recipe from an America’s Test Kitchen “cooking for two” magazine/recipe collection. I’m a fan of America’s Test Kitchen shows and cook books. The recipes are simple, interestingly written, and (unlike so many cook books) they “work.”

An interesting tangent here I learned in Googling America’s Test Kitchen: I wasn’t quite sure what the deal was with Christopher Kimball who used to be the face/host of the PBS show, until he showed up on Milk Street. I guess I had kind of assumed that Milk Street was a spin-off of the America’s Test Kitchen series since they are basically the same show but with different hosts. Little did I know that the split between Kimball and his former employer was an ugly one where ATK argues Kimball ripped off the whole concept for his own show (and magazine and cookbooks and web site). Hard to argue with that. There is what I believe is an ongoing lawsuit about all this.  Go figure.

Anyway, there’s obviously a lot of variations to this kind of stew/soup. I have cooked similar recipes with a lot more vegetables (and no sausage) and different flavor profiles, everything from a more spicy/Creole vibe to Asian. I don’t know if this is “Mediterranean” so much as vaguely Portuguese or Spanish, but whatever. I wouldn’t recommend omitting the sausage (chicken chorizo would probably be okay) because that’s what gives this soup/stew its unique flavor; so if sausage/meat isn’t your thing, I’d suggest a different recipe, or I try messing with this one with different spices. Clam juice was a new ingredient to me for this recipe– and honestly, I was suspicious because it sounds kind of gross to use the juice that clams were soaking in– but it does add just a hint of pleasant ocean fishiness to the finished dish. I use cod, but I can easily imagine other kinds of fish and/or shrimp. Note this recipe serves two, or provides one person leftovers the next day. I am certain it could be doubled or tripled with no serious problems. Last but not least, I think of this as a stew/soup because I prefer it a little more on the “soup-side” of things– which is why the addition of stock or water is optional.

Steps:

  • Use a large enough and heavy-bottomed pot to cook this– I use a small Dutch oven. Heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil and sauté the diced chorizo, onion, and fennel for five or ten minutes until it’s softened and a bit browned. I find this is a lot easier to do if you have everything cut up ahead of time before you get started.  For the chorizo, I just use the garden-variety links available nowadays at most grocery stores– pre-cooked and smoked. Dicing up a fennel bulb for the first time can be a little tricky, but basically, you want to core the bulb and cut off all the top stuff. Martha Stewart has a nice demo video of how to do this here.
  •  Taste and add some salt and pepper.
  • Add the minced garlic and cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Stir in the half a cup of wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to get any of those good tasty bits in there.
  • Stir in the tomatoes, clam juice, and thyme, and taste it again, adjusting the salt and pepper to your tastes. Bring it up to a simmer. If you want it more soup-like, add more stock or water; if you want it more stew-like, add just enough stock or water so it doesn’t dry out.
  • Cook the base/broth 15 or so minutes. This is also a great “make ahead” kind of dish because you can do all of this up to this point, turn it off, and just leave it covered on the stove for an hour or so until you’re ready for the seafood.
  • While the soup cooks, dice up the fish and chop the parsley. Also, the lemon: juice half of it and cut up the other half into wedges to serve with the stew/soup.
  • When everyone is ready to eat, add the lemon juice from the half a lemon, half the parsley, and the diced fish. Give it all a stir and cook for about 10 or 12 minutes on medium-low heat. It doesn’t take much to cook fish in a broth like this and you don’t want to overdue it.
  • Serve with parsley to garnish and lemon wedges on the side. A simple salad and nice crusty bread is a good side, too.

Recipe: Salmon and Lentils (w/bonus leftover lentils)

 

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Ingredients:

  • About two cups of dried lentils (preferably French green ones)
  • One big carrot, diced
  • One small onion, diced
  • One medium-ish potato, peeled and diced
  • Two or so cloves of garlic
  • At least a tablespoon Herbes de Provence seasoning
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil
  • Two to four portions of salmon filet cooked how you prefer, about six to eight ounces per person (This amount of lentils would work well for four servings, or with enough leftover lentils to repurpose for a side dish, soup, etc.)
  • Lemon wedges, plus parsley to garnish

I’m not likely to ever open a restaurant, but if I did, it’d probably be some kind of riff on a “French bistro,” and if I did open Cafe La Steve, I’d probably have this dish on the menu. I can’t say I remember ever seeing this on a menu in a restaurant– French or otherwise– but it does feel like a good French bistro recipe to me.

This is a pretty basic approach, one based on the recipe in Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, which is kind of my “go to” cook book for finding basic recipes for, well, everything. You could definitely jazz up the lentils with some bacon or maybe chicken stock or some more fresh herbs or what have you. I keep it simple both because it then is a weeknight (when you have a little extra time) kind of meal, and also because it’s easier to repurpose the leftover lentils into different forms.

Steps:

  • Put the lentils into a Dutch oven or other large heavy pot, cover with water, bring to a boil, and cook them for 15-20 minutes, just until they are starting to soften. If you’re pretty quick about dicing up the vegetables, you can do that while the lentils cook. If you are slower (like me) about dicing vegetables and/or you’re trying to do more than one thing at a time in the kitchen (also like me), it’s probably a little less stressful and easier to dice the vegetables before you cook the lentils. Use your judgement on that.
  • After the lentils have cooked a while, set up a fine mesh strainer in the sink and carefully drain your hot lentils into this strainer. Rinse off the lentils and rinse out the pot. I should point out that this step is (probably) unnecessary and I’ve never seen it described in a cook book, but I do it this way because it makes the final version seem less “muddy” to me. I don’t know if that makes sense or not; so try this step if you want, or just skip it.
  • If you don’t drain the lentils, then just add the vegetables into the pot, and make sure there is enough water to cover. If you do drain the lentils, add a little olive oil to the bottom of the now drained and rinsed out pot and sauté the vegetables with a little salt and pepper for a few minutes, just to get them beginning to soften, stirring pretty much the whole time. If they are sticking a bit to the bottom, add a little water and stir to unstick them from the pot. Put the drained lentils back into the pot and add enough water to cover.
  • Stir in a heaping tablespoon of Herbes de Provence. I just use a mix I always have on hand– it’s a very handy seasoning– but if you don’t have that, you can just add some thyme, maybe a little rosemary, that sort of thing. There’s a lot of lentils there, so you can be aggressive with the amount of herbs you put in.
  • Cook the lentils and vegetables on medium heat, allowing them to just barely simmer and reduce to a thick consistency but without letting them dry out completely. Check on them and stir the pot about every five minutes or so. This takes around 20 minutes.
  • While that’s going on, this is a good time to slice a lemon into wedges (and get rid of the seeds) and chop up a bit of parsley.
  • When the lentils are almost done, taste them and add more salt and pepper as you see fit. I usually turn the pot down very low and then prepare the salmon. You could also easily do this ahead of time (up to several days ahead if you put the lentils in the fridge) and simply reheat the lentils and vegetables when ready to eat.
  • As far as the salmon goes: you can kind of cook that however you want. You could take your salmon filets– a bit of salt and pepper on top, with the skin still on– and put them skin-side down in a hot non-stick pan with just a bit of oil, allowing the skin to crisp up and the fat to render, and then flip them over to brown a bit and to finish cooking to your liking. I don’t do this because Annette doesn’t like the crispy fish skin and also because this kind of makes a splattering mess on the stove. So instead, I usually turn on the broiler and set up the oven rack so it’s not too close to the heat. Then  I put the seasoned salmon on a cookie sheet lined with aluminum foil (it just makes it a lot easier to clean), and then put the salmon under the broiler for just a few minutes, until the skin is crispy. Then I take them out, peel off the skin and discard it, flip over the salmon, maybe add a little olive oil to the top of the filet, and put it back in until the top of the salmon is just beginning to brown. This whole process takes maybe 10 minutes.
  • Plate by ladling a nice pile of lentils and vegetables in a nice shallow bowl, place a piece of salmon on top of those lentils, garnish with lemon wedges and parsley, and eat.

Bonus leftover lentils!

Inevitably, this recipe provides me with leftover lentils, which is actually a very good thing. I’m not much of a leftovers kind of person, but I think these leftover lentils are quite good. I’ll sometimes just heat them up in the microwave as a kind of “side dish” to a sandwich or something like that. Usually though, I’ll make them into soup simply by adding however many lentils I want with broth, either vegetable or chicken, and if I want to get really “fancy,” I’ll cook up a slice of bacon, cut that up, and add the crispy pieces to the soup.

Martha Stewart’s Apple Raspberry Crumble ala Steve

I’m in a bit of a recipe mood today– I dunno, maybe it’s the holidays. Annette and I were over at Jim and Rachel’s house last night, and I brought a batch of apple raspberry crumble. Rachel the baker/dessert queen asked for the recipe, and I figured since I emailed it to her, I might as well post it here, too.

This is a very easy to put together dessert that comes from one of Martha Stewart’s first cook books, called Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook. Actually, for all I know, it may have been her first book. I’m looking at it now, and I can see that it was published in 1983, and on the first page, she thanks her husband who tried all these recipes. Ah, Martha… what happened, Martha, what happened?

Anyway, back to the recipe:

This stuff is bullet-proof. You can put it together in 15 minutes (the most labor-intensive part of the whole deal is peeling the apples), you can make it well in advance and just let it sit in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it, you can eat it hot, warm, or cold. I say here to cook it for about a half-hour, but I know I’ve left it in the oven for an hour and it was fine. Grown-ups like it, kids like it, you can try using different berries (fresh or frozen), add some nuts to the crumble top, take out the oatmeal, whatever you want.

Anyway, here’s my version of this:

3 big or 4 medium-sized granny smith apples
1 10 or 12 oz bag of frozen raspberries, slightly defrosted
1 cup plus a few tablespoons of flour
2 tsp (or to taste) of cinnamon
1/2 tsp (or to taste) of nutmeg (fresh, of course)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup of sugar
1/3 cup of oatmeal
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold

1. Core, peel, and cut up the apples. Cut each apple into about 10 or 12 slices, depending on the size of the apples. Put the apples into the bottom of a buttered baking dish– something 8 x 8 or so.

2. Sprinkle the apples with two or three tablespoons of flour and about a teaspoon of cinnamon.

3. Drain and discard whatever liquid is in the slightly defrosted frozen raspberries and dump the berries onto the apples. It’s no big deal if the raspberries are still frozen, but it will take longer to cook.

4. In a bowl, mix together the flour, sugar, oatmeal, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, nutmeg, and pinch of salt. Cut up the butter into itty-bitty pieces, put it in to the bowl with the other ingredients, and use your fingers (washed, of course) to cut the butter into dry ingredients until, well, crumbly. Spread this mixture out evenly over the raspberries.

5. Bake it at 350 or 375 until it’s just barely golden brown and a bit bubbly– about 30 minutes, depending on how frozen the raspberries were. Eat it with whipped cream or ice cream.