Getting back to true home cooking

When it comes to daily cooking, how often do you rely on a recipe? Even the most basic home cooks can make certain dishes -- scrambled eggs, say, and spaghetti marinara -- without opening a file box, book or browser.

And that's how it should be. Yet we are, in our kitchens, increasingly driven by recipes, a reflection of how far removed from day-to-day cooking we have grown in the last couple of generations. Most kids these days do not learn to cook by the side of their mamas, nonnas and aunties.

It's a shame and I'm always hoping the pendulum is swinging back toward true home cooking. There are signs that it might be: The popularity of preserving and of fermenting and the popularity of farmers markets and gardening come to mind as optimistic signs. Cooking is in our blood, our genes, just as gardening and farming are.

One way to simplify your cooking is to focus on the seasons and the best way to do this is, of course, to garden and to shop at local farmers markets and farm stands, especially when it comes to produce. By doing this, you will naturally combine ingredients that resonate well with each other.

This can mean stepping outside your comfort zone, especially when it comes to certain favorite recipes. For example, if you love Caprese salad -- sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella, basil, garlic and olive oil -- you'll not find all the ingredients in the dead of winter or even mid-spring.

So, what should you do? Run to the supermarket for what is not at a local market? No, of course not.

Wait to make a Caprese salad until local tomatoes and basil appear? That's one option, of course. But there's another possibility.

Take inspiration from that salad, using it as a template of sorts, but make seasonal adjustments.

This is what I do in my most recent book, "Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings" (Harvard Common Press, 2013). Following my version of Insalta Caprese, I offer eight variations to accommodate what is in season at different times of the year.

In the spring, I slice fresh mozzarella and top it with shelled and blanched fava beans, thinly sliced French Breakfast radishes, thinly sliced spring onions, the newest olive oil, fresh spearmint leaves and snipped fresh chives. It is delicately delicious and in perfect harmony with the season.

Sometimes I use burrata instead of mozzarella.

I do the same thing with potato salad, rice salad, farro salad, quinoa salad, bread salad and tabbouleh. I've been cooking long enough that I know the basic formulas, or templates, and then add seasonal flourishes based on what is available and just seems right. This is how I approach soups, too.

Commercial versions of tabbouleh can be very disappointing. In my experience, they can be watery, which comes from either not pressing excess water out of the bulgur or from overcooking it; bland, which comes from under seasoning and from using curly parsley instead of Italian parsley, and rather tasteless, which comes from using out-of-season tomatoes.

Spring Tabbouleh, with a Gluten-Free Variation

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 cup bulgur wheat

1 bunch very fresh small French Breakfast radishes, with nice greens

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

? cup best-quality extra virgin olive oil

-- Kosher salt

-- Generous pinch of cinnamon

-- Generous pinch of ground cayenne, chipotle powder or other similar ground chile

3 or 4 small green garlics, trimmed, with about 3 inches of stem, minced or cut into very thin rounds

2 or 3 spring onions, trimmed and minced

4 ounces crumbled feta cheese

-- A generous handful of Italian parsley leaves, chopped

-- A generous handful of fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

-- A small handful of fresh spearmint leaves, shredded

1 cup, approximately, shelled, blanched and peeled fava beans

-- Black pepper in a mill

Put the bulgur into a strainer, hold it over the sink and shake off any dust and debris. Rinse under cool water, set the strainer in a bowl and cover with water. Let sit for 10 or 15 minutes.

While the bulgur rests, prepare the radishes. First, separate the greens, pick through them to remove and discard any that are discolored, put the pert greens in a salad spinner, rinse will with water and spin until very dry.

Chop the radish greens and set them aside.

Wash and trim the radishes, cut them into small dice and set them aside.

After the bulgur has rested, lift the strainer and press out any excess water.

Put bulgur into a large bowl, add lemon juice and olive oil, season generously with salt, add the cinnamon and ground cayenne (or other chile), stir and then agitate the bowl a bit to even out the bulgur.

Spread the radishes over the bulgur, followed by the green garlic and spring onions. Spread the feta cheese on top.

Put all of the greens into a bowl, toss lightly and spread on top of the salad.

Top with the fava beans, cover the bowl with a tight-fitting plate and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

To serve, remove from the refrigerator and toss thoroughly, being certain to bring all of the bulgur up from the bottom of the bowl. Taste, correct for salt, season with several turns of black pepper and serve.

This salad will keep, refrigerated and covered, for 2 to 3 days.


For a gluten-free version, replace the bulgur with 1 cup quinoa, boiled and steamed until tender and then cooled.

If you do not care for or do not have spearmint, use small-leaf arugula. If you don't like cilantro, simply leave it out. Add fresh snipped chives if you like.

I have fallen in love with the combination of fresh grapefruit juice and good ground cardamom, which I get from the Spicery, which sells at farmers markets in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. Currently, you'll find excellent Oro Blanco grapefruit at several of our farmers markets, as well, and they are excellent in this dish.

An Unusual Spring Tabbouleh

Makes 4 servings

? cup bulgur, rinsed and hydrated as described in "Spring Tabbouleh"

? cup fresh grapefruit juice

1/3 cup mildly-flavored olive oil or toasted peanut oil

-- Generous pinch ground cardamom

-- Kosher salt

-- Pinch of sugar

-- Black pepper in a mill

1 or 2 shallots, minced

1 cup shelled, blanched and peeled fava beans

2 very generous handfuls Earthwork Farms' spicy salad mix, with onion grass and cilantro (see Note below)

1 grapefruit, peeled, membranes removed

-- Lightly toasted peanuts, optional

Put the fully hydrated bulgur into a medium bowl, add the grapefruit juice, oil, cardamom and several generous pinches of salt, along with a pinch of sugar. Add several generous turns of black pepper.

Spread shallots on top of bulgur, followed by salad mix. Scatter grapefruit sections over greens and add the peanuts, if using.

Cover with a tight-fitting plate or with plastic wrap and refrigerate for two hours.

To serve, remove from the refrigerator, toss thoroughly and transfer to a pretty bowl, platter or individual plates. Serve immediately.

Note: Earthworker Farm sells only at the Sebastopol farmers market. If you cannot get there, use small-leafed arugula or your favorite combination of fresh microgreens in place of his mix.

Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at

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