Brian Gresko, a writer, stay-at-home dad, kung-fu-film devotee, and follower of this blog, emailed me recently about his trouble putting together early summer meals. He was uninspired, and looking for suggestions. But I couldn’t help him. I was coming off the promotion of “Man with a Pan,” and I was barely able to feed myself, never mind come up with new recipes.
It’s an irony of publishing a book about dads who cook, that producing it took me a way from the kitchen for various stretches. Not long periods, mind you, but intense ones (what moment isn’t intense, with two working parents and two hungry kids?) that gave Santa Maria pause. She had to pick up the slack more nights than she might have liked to. Worse, for me, it meant having insufficient mental energy to conjure fresh ideas.
When Brian contacted me, I drew a blank. I confessed this, and asked him to tell me if he ever got out of his cooking doldrums. He just did, and here’s his story:
At the start of every summer I fall into a cooking rut.
Long before the first vine-ripened tomatoes arrived at the farmer's market with their ruby skins still warm from the sun's rays, the heat bore down on New York City. The sweltering nights of late May and early June found me at the stove preparing a pasta better suited for a snowstorm, over-salting the dish with my sweat. I was lost in transition, the necessary ingredients for the pestos and salads of easy summer cooking not yet available, but standbys like risotto, stir-fry, and pasta laying too heavy.
This year, the kitchen doldrums came hand-in-hand with my son graduating from his docile baby days to the terrors of toddlerhood. My wife and I tried brainstorming new menu ideas over breakfast, our voices raised against the tot clamoring to sit in mommy's lap. We lacked the peace of mind to rally our creativity and surmount the seasonal impasse.
I felt especially responsible for our lack of mealtime mojo. As the stay-at-home dad, the shopping and majority of the cooking fall to me. Usually, I attack these tasks with relish. But cooking seemed just another chore – exactly what I didn't need.
Searching for inspiration, I thought of the producer and musician Brian Eno, who has helped guide bands like Talking Heads, U2, and Coldplay. When Eno works with performers, he shakes up their artistic process using cards called Oblique Strategies. The performer pulls a random card from the deck, which impart an obtuse, curious instruction. “Use an old idea.” “Try faking it!” “Ask your body what to do.” Whatever the artist's interpretation, the cards are meant to jolt them into a new relationship with the material, to engender surprise and encourage improvisation.
Sounds obscure, but thinking about this technique led me to throw out the menu plan. Instead of going to the Park Slope Food Coop with a long list of ingredients and meals in mind, I let the shelves be my muse. Often, because I shop with the tot, speed was of the essence too. I ran on pure appetite: if it looked good, I bought it, trusting I'd figure out ways of whipping it into a meal later.
Baby potatoes, Japanese eggplant, young turnips, and fresh beets yielded a delicious potato salad, a Middle Eastern style saute with tahini sauce (recipe below), roast turnips with pork medallions, and beet salad with fresh mint.
I also sought out new recipe ideas. Friends recommended goodies I'd never tried – like yellow corn tortillas from Hot Bread Kitchen, which became the basis for cumin black beans with quesadillas. Blogs like this one introduced me to new preparations, such as the delicious and simple Roast Pork Tenderloin, which I paired with garden-grown collard greens braised with balsamic vinegar.
Within a couple of weeks of shaking my process up, I had rekindled my passion for cooking. Just in time! As here come the tomatoes, peaches, and corn that mark the start of easy summer cooking. Even my toddler, unable to make demands with a mouth full of peach, can appreciate that.
Brian Gresko's Eggplant Stir-Fry with Tahini and Mint
- Red pepper flakes (to taste)
- Cumin seed, to taste
- ½ Spring onion, diced
- 2 Cloves garlic, chopped
- ½ Green pepper, chopped
- Small bunch of chard or beet greens, chopped
- 2 Small Japanese Eggplants, chopped
- 2 Cups pre-cooked or canned chickpeas
- ¼ Cup chopped mint
- 2-3 Tablespoons tahini
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- Lots of olive oil
Toast the cumin seed.
Add a few tablespoons of olive oil, along with the red pepper flakes and onion.
When the onion is softened, add the garlic and pepper. Cook a few minutes, till the garlic begins to get golden and the onions brown.
Add the greens and cook a few minutes with a cover on. Add water if necessary.
Once the greens begin to cook down, add the eggplant. Drizzle with lots of oil, as it soaks up the liquid.
When the eggplant has softened, add the chickpeas and mint.
After a few minutes, turn off the heat. Drizzle with tahini and lemon juice.
Serve with more fresh mint. Goes great with couscous or quinoa.
Note: The beautiful thing about this dish is that it all cooks in one pan. Ideally, it should have a lot of texture. Soft greens, spongy eggplant, and slightly toothy chickpeas, all bound together with the oil and tahini.