food for thought: the kitchen counter cooking school

I read a lot of books, period, and lately I read a lot of food books. So I don’t think I’m being too cavalier when I say that this is the BEST food book I’ve read all year. The Kitchen Counter Cooking School (Kathleen Flinn) is a memoir cum cookbook that is just like taking cooking lessons without paying the exorbitant fees, and without being the awkward, food allergy-challenged person in the room.

I do not lie. First of all, Flinn is just really good at putting together a narrative, so the book is highly readable. That’s why it functions so well as a lesson, too–she’s a good teacher, well trained, who knows how to put together a lesson so that it’s engaging and understandable. The book follows her and her friend as they find nine women (not all female on purpose, but interesting sociologically nonetheless) and take it upon themselves to teach them to cook. And so they do, focusing each lesson on things that real people actually want to eat, are capable of cooking, and can afford to eat regularly, such as chicken and bread. Turning each lesson into a narrative chapter, Flinn offers you a lesson, too, not to mention teaches you things about the US food system, the economics of cooking and buying groceries, and tricks to understanding how to use spices and herbs. I now understand that “flavor profile” isn’t just a pretentious chef word but also something that will make my own cooking more interesting and more cohesive.

The book also delves into each of the students’ lives, which means the book also makes a lot of observations and uncoverings and statements about socioeconomics, gender issues, cultural issues, and age issues that surround food, food preparation, and nutrition. It’s hard to cook for one. It’s hard to cook for children. It’s hard to cook when you don’t have a healthy relationship with food, or with your mother, or with your spouse. It’s hard to cook when you have to work tons of part time jobs and still can only afford what SNAP lets you have. But it’s not hard to cook. That, Flinn teaches, is actually very easy, and only requires a couple tricks.

I’ve never been more inspired to change my life and my cooking and eating habits, and I already have pretty decent ones. I’ve never thought of some things as so simple and easy and endlessly versatile. And I don’t read self help books and hate any book that’s pegged as “inspirational.” I don’t think this one was, but it totally offers you just the tools you need to be a functional, healthy person without buying truffles or spending six hours a day in your kitchen. Finding a reference book within the same binding (or, in my case, the same Kindle file) as a good memoir is not something that happens every day. Add this book to the list of books I will be recommending to EVERYONE this winter.

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a city and its food: minneapolis

I spent the weekend in Minneapolis, conveniently avoiding the snowstorm in Boston and inconveniently avoiding my homework. Being from the Southwest, and not being a WASP, I’ve always assumed the Midwest doesn’t have much to offer. Even when people I really respect told me how much I would love going to school in Madison, I chose Simmons instead. Even when I did a summer program at Northwestern in high school, I decided Chicago wasn’t as cool as New York. I’m a West Coast girl with family ties to the East Coast, so I write off the Midwest.

I was mistaken. St. Paul is adorable, and downtown Minneapolis, where I spent Thursday to Sunday, is manageable and city-like, while also really clean, like Disneyland. I was a little ashamed of my initial assumed dislike of the area, and I was really surprised by the awesome restaurants I found. Now I get why shows like The Next Great American Restaurant say that Minneapolis is a food city. Also, it’s really friendly to the dietarily challenged, so if you have food allergies, you won’t be unhappy here. Certainly it’s a very white bread city, racially and culturally, and it’s dead after 8pm, and there’s a lot of bison and cheese, but I was generally satisfied and intrigued by the food I got to eat.

Some general observations. Is it just that I’m not used to eating out lately, or is Minneapolis aioli land? Also, I had no idea that bison burgers were a real thing. That’s awesome but also a little unnerving. I declined to taste bison, since earlier this week I already stretched myself by eating octopus at a tapas restaurant. Also, the surprise of all surprises: I saw Jarritos for sale in more than one place. Finally, I was shocked to find out that Minnesotans are not allergic to spicy food. What’s more, their spicy food is innovative. Finally, it’s a pricey place. But then again, everywhere that’s not Tucson is.

Thursday for lunch I had Au Bon Pain, so nothing special there. Average salad, pretty awesome artichoke aioli as dressing. Dinner was at Hell’s Kitchen, which has an awesome atmosphere–it’s like what the Hard Rock Cafe tries to be, except not overly trendy and with live fiddling and bass violin playing. Also, a very clear menu with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options laid out. I had a chicken breast with portabellas and fries, and while their housemade ketchup (which includes pears, among other ingredients) was not something I wanted more than a couple tastes of, their chipotle mayonnaise was the most fabulous dipping sauce I have ever tasted. It is definitely something I want to make on my own. Hell’s Kitchen also has breakfast for dinner (and for breakfast, and for lunch), so I wish I had had the time and money to go back for another meal. After that, I met up with a good friend from high school and had a delicious margarita with cava (! my favorite wine ever) in it at Barrio, where all the brown people in Minneapolis work.

Friday: Free, made-to-order breakfast at the hotel. And then food truck lunch! This was so exciting and amazing, because I see food trucks on television shows, but aside from taco stands that proliferate through Tucson, that’s something that I didn’t grow up with. But Marquette Avenue was full of food trucks, and they had really awesome menu items, like innovative tacos and Mexican grilled corn. This wasn’t actually the best choice for me as far as going gluten and dairy free, but I really appreciated the fact that at one stand, when I finally figured out something I thought I could have, the guy was nice enough to suggest that I not buy anything from him because he couldn’t guarantee the gluten free-liness. I ended up getting “Mexican-style” tacos from the Get Sauced truck, which you actually have to qualify at food trucks, since tacos, in food truck culture, are essentially just containers to hold a variety of food combinations from all cultures. It had “Oaxacan style” salsa, and then they had a hotter version in a squeeze bottle, which I heartily added. Not having been to Oaxaca, I can’t say how authentic it was, but it was amazing regardless. It was like salsa puree, and I think there was some avocado in it to make it creamy, like salsa aioli mayonnaise. Whatever. But yum.

On Friday night, my cousin and her daughters picked me up and we went to Pizza Luce, which has my undying love because not only do they have gluten free pizza, but you can also get it with one of two varieties of vegan cheese, or with goat cheese. And you can do custom pizza or order one of their specialty ones, which they clearly mark with vegan-ability and gluten free-ability. Sooooooo nice of them. I ended up with a gluten free, vegan soy-free cheese pizza with spinach and mushrooms, just because that’s my go-to veggie choice when I’m overwhelmed by options. It’s amazing that I’ve only been gf for nine or so months, and I’m already used to not having much choice on menus. It’s almost unnerving to have options again, but I so appreciated this place for offering them. They also had non-pizza options that fit a lot of dietary restriction bills as well.

Saturday I was really excited to go to La Belle Crepe on Nicollet, because it advertised galettes, not just crepes. Galettes are traditionally made with buckwheat, which means they’re gluten free. But La Belle Crepe’s galettes are not traditional, they’re just whole wheat instead of bleached. So, fail. But if you don’t have to be gluten free, my roommate, who ate both a savory and sweet one, said they were amazing. I ended up with a salad from Panera, and I was not excited about it because it had both pears and dried cherries in it (some of my least favorite fruits, and also, I don’t like fruit in my salad unless it’s fruit that’s essentially vegetable, like avocado). But it was surprisingly spectacular, especially the cherry balsamic vinaigrette.

Dinner was at Nicollet Island, and it was various buffets for the conference closing ceremony. Nothing special there–I ate off of the vegetarian table, which had various vegetables with balsamic vinegar and rosemary on them.

So. Midwest, I’m sorry I underestimated you. And Minneapolis, thanks for the spicy inspiration. There are a lot of things I now want to try.