After 50 Years of Cooking You Can Still Surprise Yourself

There’s something so satisfying in building a dish from scratch with almost no preconceived notion of what the final product will be. Experienced cooks will know what I mean, but some people may see this as such a weird concept that a blow-by-blow will be helpful.

  • I return from a trip. There’s not a lot in the house. I mean, there’s a ton in the house, but little fresh. I put half a pound of chickpeas in the pressure cooker, with a small bunch of pathetically wilted kale, to which all I do is remove the rubber band and pass a knife through it a couple of times. This I pressure cook for a half hour.

  • Meanwhile I peel two parsnips, two carrots, and two potatoes, something like that—maybe a pound and a half of vegetables altogether. I cut them into big, not bite-sized chunks. When the chickpeas are done—they’re tender but not too soft, and the kale is spinach-soft—I put these in, with some salt. I have some idea where this is going, but note that I still haven’t put in any seasoning—not so much as a bay leaf or an onion. Not that either of them would’ve done any harm.

  • That cooked, under pressure, for 10 more minutes. I left the whole thing alone overnight. I didn’t even release the pressure; I just walked away and went to bed. (That night I had eaten a potato pancake with caramelized onions. Not worth writing about; maybe next time.)

  • It was delicious the next day: sweet from the carrots and parsnips, and with that special flavor of chickpea broth. Still almost completely unseasoned. It seemed to me it wanted to go in one of two directions: an Indian thing, or a Spanish thing. North African was an option, too. If I knew more about different cuisines, I probably would’ve had other ideas, but I was happy about either of these choices, so I texted my partner Kathleen who was just arriving at JFK. “Indian or Spanish”? She likes rice so much she would’ve been ecstatic either way, but she answered, “Indian.” Good; I have fought Eurocentric cooking for much of my life, though I recognize that tendency in myself. I started some brown rice and reheated the chickpea stew.

  • Then I dry-toasted some spices: cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, dried ginger (which I find really handy; dried, not ground), mustard seed, fenugreek. I ground them and mixed them with some already ground turmeric. The proportions … I was eyeballing, but there’s a similar curry powder built into the recipe below. I like cinnamon a lot, so I let it dominate. I put two sliced onions in a skillet with some peanut oil and a dried chile. When they softened, I added the spices and kept cooking for a few minutes.

  • I dumped all of that into my sort-of Chana Aloo (I guess I’d call it “chickpea stew with root vegetables, North Indian-style”) and simmered for a few more minutes. It really needed nothing; that sweetness still dominated, heightened by the cinnamon, and there was an acidic sharpness that came from several of the other spices. Obviously, I didn’t write any of this down, but the recipe below (which I adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for this occasion) is pretty close. I could’ve seen different seasonings in there, I could almost taste them. But the dish was delicious. And it was a surprise, even to me.

— Mark

This recipe was originally developed with red beans—and included tomatoes—but I’ve adjusted it now so the ingredients are pretty close to what I describe here. You can either follow this or use the method I describe above. This stew also freezes well, but if you don’t want the leftovers or aren’t feeding a crowd, cut the recipe in half.


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Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.