Lessons Learnt From Cooking New Recipes

Growth occurs at the boundaries of our capabilities.

As part of my 2016 New Year’s Resolution, I decided to cook a special meal once a week.

These recipes weren’t supposed to be easy or difficult. They were supposed to be challenging. The unknown is challenging. Cooking something new is exactly that.

And one of my first realisations was that cooking well is hard.

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.

– Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own (1992)

Don’t get me wrong, I considered myself to be a good cook. I knew how to cook a juicy steak. How to cook well-seasoned, succulent chicken breasts.

Through persistent trial and error, I feel I’ve nearly perfected cooking fluffy, flaky white rice.

But ever since I started my challenging myself as a cook by trying to spark up new dishes, me being a ‘good cook’ has become an extremely fluid concept. 

And as you can expect in trying times – I had a few realisations and the first is this:

We might think we’re good in some areas of our lives…

But once we actually put those skills to the test, we realise we have a long, long way ahead of us if we want to achieve actual greatness.

I very quickly realised that I was far away from practicing culinary wizardry.

And the worst thing is that when I failed the first few times at cooking these new dishes – I started doubting myself in every other area of life.

I started thinking what a poor cyclist I am…wh-what has that got to do with anything?

But I just laughed these ruminations off.

It’s very important to be cognisant of such self-deprecating mental gymnastics.

If you’re not, they will hinder your progress, not to mention make you feel lousy.

Being cognisant of these thoughts is super important because, after all – they’re just thoughts.

To paraphrase Eckhart Tolle, you’ll be able to accept these naturally occurring thoughts but detach yourself from them without assigning any deeper meaning or significance to them.

Your brain doesn’t want you to put yourself in challenging situations.

It wants you to make sure you’re passing on your genes or pumping out kids.

It wants you to live a comfortable life, characterised by familiarity, which actually breeds resentment and self-loathing over time.

If you listen to your brain when trying to grow, you will shackle yourself and unceremoniously sentence yourself to a life of monotony.

If you want to grow, you have to be ready for the high emotional spikes and low emotional dips.

For the high highs as well as the low lows. 

Embrace the challenge

Because if you challenge yourself in one area of life, it somehow magically brings up other areas in your life.

I’ve noticed this with my cooking.

In retrospect, cooking a new dish every week positively impacted my health, my social life (sharing the fruit of your labour is the best part) and my exercise regime. 

And on a micro-level, I developed a healthy weekly habit.

It helped me become more organised and disciplined while cooking and these traits spilled into my daily life.

It imposed a structure into my life, and cultivated in me an attention to detail.

Also, (and I concede this may be too nuanced of a point) cooking forced me to delegate more attention to other sensory modalities and not be overly focused on experiencing life just with sight and sound.

Anyway – what’s your challenge for the new year?

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How to Cook Spelt Spaghetti, Vine Tomatoes, and Baked Ricotta

How to Cook Spelt Spaghetti, Vine Tomatoes, and Baked Ricotta

As part of my 2016 New Year’s Resolution, I’ve decided to cook a special meal once a week and share my culinary adventures with you.

This recipe is from “Everyday Super Food” by Jamie Oliver. Cook time is 1 hour and serves 4 portions.

Ingredients:
  • olive oil
  • ½ a bunch of fresh thyme (15g)
  • cloves of garlic
  • ½–1 fresh red chilli
  • lemon
  • 500g ripe mixed-colour cherry tomatoes, on the vine
  • 250g best-quality ricotta cheese
  • 320g dried spelt spaghetti
  • handfuls of rocket
  • optional: balsamic vinegar

Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Pour 3 tablespoons of oil into a small bowl. Run the bunch of thyme under a hot tap for 3 seconds to reawaken it, then shake dry and strip the leaves into the oil.

Here’s a simple video on how to strip the thyme leaves from its sprigs:

Peel the garlic, then finely slice it with the chilli and add to the bowl. Finely grate in the lemon zest, add a pinch of sea salt and black pepper and mix together.

When cooking, you never know if there’s a special technique in the preparation of certain things. In a surprisingly elegant video, here’s how to finely slice a chilli pepper:

And here’s a video about the various ways on how to zest a lemon using different types of tools. Be careful to zest just the most outward layer of the fruit – the white underneath tends to be quite bitter:

Below: the olive oil, finely sliced chilli pepper, (not so) finely sliced garlic, fluffy lemon zest, and thyme leaves all put together with a pinch of salt and seasoned with a bit of black pepper. 

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Lay the cherry tomatoes in a 30cm x 40cm baking tray. Rub the flavoured oil all over the ricotta and place in the centre of the tray, then gently rub the remaining oil over the tomatoes.

Add a splash of water to the tray, place in the oven and roast for 45 minutes, then remove. With 10 minutes to go, cook the spaghetti in a pan of boiling salted water according to the packet instructions.

That smells absolutely incredible. 

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Lift the ricotta out of the tray, then shake the tomatoes off the vines, discarding the stalks. Add half a mug of pasta water to the tray and gently shake to loosen all the sticky goodness from the base.

I used a fork to separate the tomatoes from the stalks. Also, only at this advanced stage did I realise that I used 275g of tomatoes instead of the 500g that Jamie suggested in his recipe. The shops had closed by then, too. Right.

Drain the spaghetti and toss straight into the tray with a squeeze of lemon juice, season to perfection, then break that beautiful ricotta over the top.

Sprinkle over the rocket, toss together well, then serve. My missus likes this with a little drizzle of balsamic, too.

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  • Calories: 429kcal
  • Fat: 18.9g
  • Saturated Fat: 5.8g
  • Protein: 16.3g
  • Carbs: 61.7g
  • Sugar: 9.2g
  • Fibre: 7g

Closing thoughts about the recipe

When preparing the spelt spaghetti, I made sure to drain it just when it started to absorb water.

It was slightly al dente (i.e. firm when bitten) but when I mixed it up with the rest of the dish the spaghetti absorbed all that goodness and flavour instead. Fantastic.

The ricotta gave the spaghetti a creamy texture and the tomatoes from the vine offered an explosive burst of flavour. It was a pleasure experiencing how two drastically different flavours combined so surprisingly well.

What I could have done differently was put in slightly less chilli pepper (I used 3/4 of a pepper) because the spice served as a bit of a distraction from the central flavours of the dish.

Also, next time I’d be more sparing with the garlic – the cloves I used were unusually big and the taste reflected this to an extent. The right amount of tomatoes would’ve made a big difference, too.

This was a pretty easy meal to cook and not too expensive to make as well. I will definitely give this another go in the future.

In a nutshell:

  • More vine tomatoes
  • Less chilli (I used 3/4 of a pepper)
  • Watch out for the garlic…

***

Any ideas on what I could have done better in this recipe? Or any interesting twists to the recipe that you could share?

Let me know in the comments below!

This recipe was from “Everyday Super Food” by Jamie Oliver.

P.S. Thanks for reading! If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more life-optimising stuff.

How To Cook Smoky Veggie Feijoada With Black Beans, Squash, Peppers and Okra

How To Cook Smoky Veggie Feijoada With Black Beans, Squash, Peppers and Okra

As part of my journey on how to live a quality life that is both balanced and purposeful, I have decided to focus on improving my cooking skills for the New Year.

As part of my 2016 New Year’s Resolution, I’ve decided to cook a special meal once a week and share my culinary adventures with you.

Having done my 2015 review, I realised that cooking a special meal was a recurring commonality throughout the past few years for me. I noticed that it was something that I simply enjoyed doing.

The fact that I got a bunch of cookbooks for Christmas from Santa Claus was a welcome nudge. One of them was “Everyday Super Food” by Jamie Oliver.

I’ve always been interested in diet and a healthy lifestyle so this is a natural progression to my interests.

With these new books, I can delve into cooking with purpose.

How To Cook Smoky Veggie Feijoada With Black Beans, Squash, Peppers and Okra

This recipe is from “Everyday Super Food” by Jamie Oliver. Cook time is 1 hour and 5 mins and serves 2 + 4 leftover Feijoada portions.

Ingredients:

  • ½ a butternut squash (600g)
  • olive oil
  • 1 heaped tsp each of ground coriander, smoked paprika
  • mixed-colour peppers
  • red onions
  • cloves of garlic
  • fresh bay leaves
  • 2 x 400g tins of black beans
  • 100g okra
  • 150g brown rice
  • ripe mixed-colour tomatoes
  • ½–1 fresh red chilli
  • bunch of fresh coriander (30g)
  • lime
  • 2 tbsp natural yoghurt

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6. Halve and deseed the squash, then carefully chop into 3cm chunks.

Never before in my life have I made a butternut squash. Here’s a useful video on how to prepare it:

In a large roasting tray, toss and massage it with 1 teaspoon of oil, the ground coriander and a pinch of sea salt and black pepper.

Deseed the peppers and cut into 3cm chunks, then, in a separate tray, toss and massage them with 1 teaspoon of oil and the smoked paprika. Place both trays in the oven for 35 minutes, or until softened.

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Raw peppers with smoked paprika and raw squash with grounded coriander

Meanwhile, peel and finely chop ¼ of an onion and put aside, then roughly chop the rest and place in a large casserole pan on a low heat with 1 tablespoon of oil.

Here’s a great video by Gordon Ramsey on how to finely chop an onion:

Crush in the garlic, add the bay leaves and a good splash of water and cook for 20 minutes, or until soft, stirring regularly.

Be weary of how much water you choose to ‘splash’.

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Tip in the beans, juice and all, then half-fill each empty tin with water, swirl and pour into the pan.

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At this stage I was thinking – is this how it’s supposed look like? I think my version of a ‘splash’ was more generous, so I cooked the stew without the lid on to allow for some of the water to evaporate.

Simmer until the time is up on the squash and peppers, then stir both into the pan.

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Cooked squash and peppers

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Trim, finely slice and add the okra, and simmer for a further 20 minutes, or until the feijoada is dark and delicious, loosening with an extra splash of water, if needed.

Meanwhile, cook the rice according to the packet instructions, then drain.

I’ve never prepared okra, let alone eaten it before. Here’s a good tutorial on what to pay attention to when preparing okra:

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To make a quick salsa, deseed the tomatoes, then finely chop with as much chilli as you like and most of the coriander leaves.

Scrape into a bowl with the reserved finely chopped onion and toss with the lime juice, then season to perfection.

I used a teaspoon to deseed the tomatoes. I like how you can learn little important details about everyday things just by watching a couple of videos.

Here’s a video on how to properly prepare coriander:

Serve the remaining feijoada with the rice and salsa, a spoonful of yoghurt and a sprinkling of the remaining coriander leaves.

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  • Calories: 532kcal
  • Fat: 7.9g
  • Saturated Fat: 1.9g
  • Protein: 19.9g
  • Carbs: 93.6g
  • Sugar: 17.6g
  • Fibre: 20.1g

Closing thoughts about the recipe

This was interesting.

The pepper and squash gave the stew a sweet, exotic taste to the recipe. 

The butternut squash chunks I had sliced were perhaps a bit thicker than the 3cm that the recipe had suggested. For this reason, the squash sweetened the stew a bit more.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although I’m not a fan of squashes in general.

The salsa was a very welcome part of the dish and it was really refreshing when combined with the natural yoghurt.

On a side note, one of my culinary guinea pigs said that my version of the feijoada lacked acidic ingredients (e.g. peppers, chilli, smoked paprika).

Cooking is about heat control. Flavour is about striking a balance between the acidic and the alkaline.

– My Bro

The recipe is quite alkaline-heavy (i.e. squash, black beans, okra) so it’s easy to offset the flavour balance of the dish. I did just that.

The result? After a while, you craved for a bit of a kick and you even got a bit nauseous eating it. It lacked that all important acidic part.

That’s why the refreshing, acidic salsa was a godsend, which only slightly balanced things out.

This took quite a ridiculously long time for me to make (roughly 1 hour 45 minutes).

The stew cooked a lot longer than suggested by Jamie because I had put too much water into the pan. As a result, the smoky flavour wasn’t as distinctive as I thought it would be. For future reference, I would only add the splash if necessary.

In a nutshell:

  • More squash = more sweetness.
  • Balance the alkaline with the acidic flavours.
  • Don’t dilute the flavour with too much water.
  • Save the splash of water if unnecessary. 

***

Any other ideas on what I could have done better in this recipe? Any interesting twists to the recipe worth mentioning?

Let me know in the comments below 🙂

This recipe was from “Everyday Super Food” by Jamie Oliver.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more life-optimising stuff.