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How Reading Fiction Can Make You A Better Cook

by | Apr 29, 2013

Photo by » Zitona «

It’s a little known fact that before I became interested in neuroscience (which was well before I became interested in food) I spent three years as a literature major at Berkeley. The power of language to whisk us away to other worlds, different times and even into other people’s minds never ceases to astound me.

Fiction can often give me a better glimpse into a culture than even visiting, since the amount of time and exploration required to really get a sense for the mindset and lifestyle of the people who live there is substantial, and vacation time is typically limited.

Excellent works of fiction transform me as a person as I internalize the vibe of a book, and what I read has the power to influence what music I listen to, how I dress, and even how I eat. When a book really pulls me in its hold can last for weeks or even months at a time.

Read the rest of this story »

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8 Inspiring Places To Find Recipe Ideas

by | Apr 27, 2011
Foodie Inspiration

Foodie Inspiration

Healthy eating and cooking for yourself go hand in hand. If you have the resources it is possible to eat healthy while dining out, but restaurants that don’t use processed foods can be difficult to find and tend to be pricey. They also limit you to a handful of different dishes that can become monotonous if you rely on them for most of your meals.

But keeping your healthstyle interesting can be a challenge even if you cook for yourself. Although shopping in season inevitably rotates you through new ingredients over the course of the year, we can still slip into the pattern of making the same dishes over and over again. And while repetition can be easy and comforting, it can also be problematic.

Monotony and boredom are your enemies if you are trying to make healthy eating a way of life; junk food will be extra tempting simply because it’s more interesting than the same boring meal you’ve had 10 times before.

To keep yourself from getting in a cooking rut you must actively seek inspiration for new dishes and flavor combinations. This is true for both kitchen newbies and seasoned chefs, and it gets easier with practice. The more you learn to outsource your creativity and experiment, the better you get at finding meal ideas in your daily life.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. These are some places I often find new ideas, but you are only limited by your imagination.

8 Places To Cook Up Recipe Inspiration

1. Farmers markets

My number one source of inspiration is always the beautiful produce and other goodies I find each week at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Not only do I often find interesting new ingredients to experiment with, I also find familiar foods that look so fresh and delicious I can’t help but buy them and turn them into something wonderful.

If you are thinking about buying something but do not know how to cook it, ask the vendor for ideas or common preparations. I recommend you get anything that looks new and interesting, since most vegetables are relatively cheap and Google puts a universe of recipes at your fingertips.

2. Restaurants

Most major cities (San Francisco especially) are home to amazingly talented and innovative chefs of all different styles and flavors. Steal their ideas! If you have a memorable meal while out on the town, take mental notes on the flavors and textures that capture its essence. You don’t have to be able to recreate it exactly at home, but you can definitely borrow the concept, simplify it and adapt it to your own skills and needs.

For example, I was recently struck by a dish at a spectacular restaurant that was composed of beets with dill–a flavor combination I had never tried. The dish was technically complicated and I wouldn’t bother attempting to make it the same way, but later that week I did roast some beets and change up my usual recipe to include dill instead of mint (sans chèvre). Turned out fantastic.

3. Food blogs

The number of outstanding food blogs today on the interwebs is staggering, and I love to skim through them looking for wonderful recipe ideas. I can’t even begin to list all my favorite sites here, but I try to highlight at least one mouthwatering recipe each week in For The Love of Food posts.

4. Travel

Nothing inspires enthusiasm for new flavors and recipes like traveling to a different locale. Eating traditional cuisines–the way they are supposed to be made–is one of the most intimate and meaningful ways to engage with a culture. Learn a few of the cuisine’s basic ingredients and cooking techniques and you can bring a tiny bit of your experience home with you. Think of this process as a procedural photograph you can use to remember your trip.

Again, you don’t have to recreate dishes exactly the same way in your own kitchen. Sometimes just a single special ingredient can evoke an entire cultural experience.

5. Friends

We all have that friend who is an amazing cook (love you guys!). Not only does this person sometimes hook you up with delicious treats, chances are your foodie friend also loves to talk about food and cooking. This is a goldmine for new ideas and sometimes even a little help and guidance. Maintain a healthy, food-centric relationship with this person and watch the inspiration roll in.

(Hint: If you don’t have a friend like this come hang out with me on Twitter @summertomato)

6. Books

Cookbooks are wonderful but, to be honest, I rarely use them. The reason is that I’m usually too busy to bother lugging the giant things off the shelf and thumbing through them for something specific. I usually either wing it in the kitchen or search online for what I need.

Literature, however, can be a huge inspiration for me to try out new things in the kitchen. It wasn’t until I read The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie that I really started exploring Indian cooking. The Last Chinese Chef helped me learn to appreciate the depth of Chinese cuisine. And I cannot eat enough Spanish tapas when I’m reading Hemingway.

7. Podcasts and radio

I love Mondays because all my favorite food podcasts are waiting on my iPhone for me to listen to on my commute. Both entertaining and educational, foodie podcasts never fail to inspire me to try new foods and cooking methods. They also make me a better cook by describing tips and techniques I am unfamiliar with.

8. TV

Although I do not watch TV regularly, there was a time when I would catch a periodic episode of Top Chef or other foodie show. What I enjoyed most about these programs was the times they would explain the decision making process that goes into creating a dish. But even if culinary improvisation isn’t in your cards, you can at least borrow their ideas (just like at a restaurant) and make similar meals for yourself at home. The recipes used are often posted online.

You can also get meal ideas from TV dramas and sitcoms. Remember Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi? That’s where I first learned about mulligatawny.

Recipe inspiration can come from anywhere, but if you aren’t looking for it a stroke of genius may pass you by.

Where do you get your inspiration in the kitchen?

Originally published February 24, 2010.

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Great Thinkers: 10 Inspiring Quotes For Healthy Living

by | Jul 19, 2010
Universe in a magic Drop

Photo by h.koppdelaney

It always helps to start off the week with the right frame of mind. Huge thanks to Cathryn for sending in today’s guest post!

Cathryn Johnson is self proclaimed health-nut and a content writer for Online MBA Rankings who gives advice on the education, pursuing an online mba and living a healthy life. In her free time she enjoys travel, theater and having fun in the sun.

Great Thinkers – The Benefits of Good Health

by Cathryn Johnson

Many of us, when we think of weight loss, exercise and living a healthy lifestyle, we think like Mark Twain:

The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.

We focus on the negatives. We think about how hard it will be and all that we will be missing. But the real joy and benefit of good health comes from focusing on the positives of health, what we gain through living well.

Here are ten quotes from great thinkers to challenge, motivate and inspire us to exercise, eat right and live healthier lives:

10 Inspiring Quotes For Healthy Living

1. Buddha (c. 563 BC to 483 BC) – a spiritual teacher from ancient India who founded Buddhism

To keep the body in good health is a duty, otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.

2. Marcus Valerius Martialis (known in English as Martial) (circa 40 AD – 103 AD) – a Latin poet from Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) best known for his twelve books of Epigrams

Life is not merely being alive, but being well.

3. Edward Smith-Stanley (1752-1834) – English statesman, three times Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Those who do not find time for exercise will have to find time for illness.

4. Paul Dudley White (1886 – 1973) – an American physician and cardiologist

A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world.

5. Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887) – a prominent, Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker

The body is like a piano, and happiness is like music. It is needful to have the instrument in good order.

6. James Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859) – an English critic, essayist, poet and writer

The groundwork of all happiness is health.

7. Francois Rabelais (c. 1494 – 1553) – a major French Renaissance writer, doctor and Renaissance humanist

Without health, life is not life; it is only a state of languor and suffering.

8. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) – an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist and author

A healthy body is a guest-chamber for the soul; a sick body is a prison.

9. Persius (34 AD -62 AD) a Roman poet and satirist of Etruscan origin

You pray for good health and a body that will be strong in old age. Good — but your rich foods block the gods’ answer and tie Jupiter’s hands.

10. Menander (ca. 342–291 BC) – Greek dramatist, the best-known representative of Athenian New Comedy

Health and intellect are the two blessings of life.

What inspires you to live healthy?


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Cooking Up Inspiration: Daniel Patterson of Coi

by | Mar 1, 2010
Photo by Robb North

Photo by Robb North

Finding inspiration to cook something new at home is not always easy, but with a little practice you can learn to pick up recipe ideas from common things in your everyday life.

Daniel Patterson, chef/owner of San Francisco’s acclaimed Coi restaurant, elevates this concept of finding inspiration from daily life to an art form. I asked Patterson about the thought process that goes into creating dishes for the menu at Coi, and how a regular home cook may try to use these principles to inspire his or her own cooking.

At Coi, every dish has an organizing idea. Patterson strives to connect the eater to a particular concept, which may integrate culture and nature, or people and place.

“The idea is so important to me. Cooking is a form of communication.”

A recent addition to the menu at Coi is a dish that Patterson explained as a “foodscape,” evocative of a certain place at a certain time, with a particular feeling. He wanted to capture the essence of late fall into winter in a rural place, when the rains have come and the fields are green. It was intended to evoke the feeling of an older world, where there may be the smell of things like hay, barn and pasture.

To convey this feeling Patterson used hay to flavor the dish, which he recently described in detail in San Francisco Magazine.

Cooking things in hay is a traditional practice. Typically in Europe, big cuts of meat will be roasted in hay, which accomplishes two things: it insulates to preserve heat, and it imparts flavor.

Lamb is something that was traditionally cooked in hay. Patterson wanted to work within this tradition, but reinvent the idea for modern Bay Area diners. Instead of lamb or other meat, Patterson used the hay to flavor carrots, which are extraordinary here locally.

“We look at how things are done traditionally, but bring them into our reality and make them vivid for contemporary palettes.”

Integrating old-world cooking techniques and re-imagining them as contemporary dishes imparts both emotional depth and energy to foods.

But such innovation need not be limited to 4-star kitchens. A home cook can also borrow from cultural traditions and reinvent recipes to reflect ingredient availability and personal preferences.

According to Patterson, you can find inspiration by reading cookbooks and going to markets. “Have curiosity, that is the most important thing.”

Local ingredients are the easiest way to begin. “Cook greens simply with a little rice wine vinegar then think, ‘What would go with that?’ Maybe chicken. Then continue on from there.”

In this way, Patterson says cooking should be intuitive. Yet he acknowledges that we are not starting with the same level of knowledge about food as our ancestors did.

“We need to rebuild our connection to cooking. No one knows what things should taste like anymore. We’re starting disadvantaged compared to our ancestors in the tradition of cooking.”

But as long as we start with simple, fresh ingredients it is possible to learn a few techniques or preparations that can be the foundation for several dishes. Once we have these down we can add complexity and build upon the things we’ve learned.

“Go get any kind of greens. Cook until tender, chop them up, throw them on pasta with some lemon zest and chili flakes, then you’ve created a template that you can use any time you see greens.”

Patterson thinks it is possible for us to reestablish our connection to food culture and give the next generation the advantage most of us never had.

“People cooking with their kids is the best thing they can do. This will be our salvation. My kid will have no taste memory of an industrial food product. Then when he’s older those foods won’t resonate, won’t taste like food.”

The possibility that a new generation of children could grow up without dependence on industrial foods is, of course, Jamie Oliver’s now famous TED Prize wish. That we are now able to even have this discussion, which was probably not possible even 15 years ago, is an inspiration in itself.

What inspires you to cook?

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