I have, historically, been the kind of cook that wants to Do Things Right. If a recipe calls for dark brown sugar, I make damn sure I have dark brown sugar. If it says stir for eight minutes, I’ll set a timer for exactly that long. In my day-to-day work as a barista, this accuracy is key. But in my attempts to treat weeknight cooking as an act of self-care and love, I’ve been trying to break the reliance on precision.
Julia Turshen’s Simply Julia has been living on my kitchen table for the last three months. There's a sticky note on the front cover titled “Dinners I Want to Make,” with recipe titles and page numbers. It is not a short list, and if anything it gets longer the more I cook from it. Simply Julia, published this spring, begs the reader and home cook to rethink how they approach recipes. Out of specific ingredients? Improvise! Go with what you’ve got! It’s not what you’ve got that’s important so much as how you work with it. Above all, trust in the process.
Turshen evokes the T-word throughout Simply Julia, but nowhere more explicitly than in a recipe for Caribbean Pelau. “You’re not looking for caramel. You’re looking for burnt. Trust!” Trust! The exclamation mark! Just skimming through, looking for recipes, that sentence stopped me in my tracks.
And so, this week, I cooked Julia Turshen’s Caribbean Pelau with kidney beans and spinach. Hands down, it is an understated gem of a recipe. It does not pretend to be authentic pelau, but an easy, pantry-friendly vegan weeknight staple, calling for coconut milk, beans, rice, and the kinds of vegetables you keep on hand: carrots, onions, a bell pepper, and a bag of baby spinach. The night I made it, I didn’t have any peppers, but I plowed ahead anyway, adding an extra half an onion. The earth didn’t fall out from under me.
The burning comes at the beginning. You heat oil and sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot, and I was mesmerized watching the sugar melt and caramelize, and then thicken into a black, smoking mass. I wanted to pull the pan away when the sugar began to brown, but the recipe’s guidance (Trust!) felt like a hand on my shoulder, a friend in the room. So I let it smoke.
And just when I started to feel nervous, I added my vegetables. The black, burnt sugar goo seized, and then dissolved. In time, I added beans, turmeric, garlic, coconut milk, and rice. After half an hour, I added what felt like an impossible amount of spinach, but once again, Turshen’s words were there to guide me: You might really need to pack it in, and I trusted her. The end result was a dinner that tasted like it had stewed for six hours, packed with flavor and tenderness. I felt warmed through and through. I felt safe. Like the best recipes, it held my hand while nudging me out of my comfort zone. I’m now eagerly awaiting my library hold of Ramin Ganeshram’s Sweet Hands to come through, so I can learn more about pelau and other southern Caribbean rice dishes.
As a final note, Turshen isn’t alone in writing this way about food—just today I saw an excerpt from Ruby Tandoh’s new book, Cook as You Are, published in the UK this fall, featuring an entire chapter of pantry-centric recipes. “This is an exercise in trust,” Tandoh writes in the chapter’s introduction, “putting faith in your battered old microwave, the tin cans in the back of your kitchen cupboard and, as ever, your ability to magic something delicious from everyday things.”
It’s not coincidental that both books were published this year, and were written and edited, in part, during the pandemic. And it’s certainly no coincidence that I feel safe in Turshen and Tandoh’s hands—both have written and spoken at length about body acceptance. Tandoh’s Eat Up is a book I frequently recommend to anyone and everyone, and an excerpt from Simply Julia on feeling worthy after a lifetime of feeling fat resonates deeply with my own experience. I can't wait to add Cook As You Are to the kitchen table, too.