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Something In Between | Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Figs

Something In Between | Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Figs

Sweet Potatoes & Figs | Delightful CrumbTransitions, in life and on the calendar, fascinate me. (Not a new interest: As evidence, I give you this post, and the series of recipes that followed, from spring 2012.) Now, for instance, the leaves are changing colors, but it’s still warm; you can’t yet put away the shorts and sandals. You’re ready for pumpkins but, at the same time, hanging on for dear life to the last of the tomatoes, eating as many mayo-and-tomato toasts as humanly possible. Wasn’t it yesterday that we were eagerly anticipating the warmth and delights and vacations of summer? And who decided on just four seasons, anyway? I see a good many more than that.

But sometimes, it’s weightier than this. You might still love the thing you’re in—or maybe you don’t, or maybe you never did—but it doesn’t fit the way it used to. The season is ending; change hovers on the horizon.

At times, I’m sad to see the previous season go. Other times, I can’t wait for the next one. More often, it’s something in between.

It can be hard to celebrate the transition, to cheer for the in-between times, to savor the moment that comes just before the next big thing, before getting over there, wherever that might be. But we are so often in these spaces. It’s exercise worth practicing.

This dish is one of very few things I know that revel in the transition, and I tell people about it all the time, so it’s high time I share it here. It’s on rotation every year in this Oakland apartment, something to look forward to as summer winds down and autumn creeps in. The recipe is the very first in Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, and I think it’s often missed in the flipping of pages, which is truly a shame. There are figs, soft and sweet like summertime. There are sweet potatoes, autumn’s earthy, sturdy contribution. (Already, you know we’re going somewhere good!) They’re pulled together with creamy goat cheese, sticky balsamic and spicy chile. The combination is unexpected but delicious and satisfying, an ideal celebration of this strange, wondrous in-between moment.

I burned the sweet potatoes a tiny bit this time around, but they tasted just fine, and the moody look seems appropriate. More than that, though, there’s no time to waste! The window on figs is about to close, at least out here in California, so there isn’t a moment to lose. Serve this with a baguette or a hearty grain salad to make it an easy meal.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Fresh Figs

Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem

This is a delightful, unexpectedly delicious combination. Even if it sounds strange to you, I urge you to give it a try!

The cheese is optional but really rounds the dish out, so I encourage it. If you’re averse to heat, you can use just half of the chile or leave it out entirely. I’ve also tossed in a pinch of red pepper flakes instead when I found myself without a fresh pepper. A purchased balsamic reduction would make for a helpful shortcut.

Finally, I’ll just note that this sweet potato roasting method is pretty genius. Don’t flip the wedges while baking (though perhaps turn the pan around once if your oven heats unevenly) and await the fantastic result of burnished-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside potatoes. While I’d say that the ones in the photo above were slightly overbaked, definitely don’t be afraid of a few black spots.

Serves 4 as a side or 2 generously as a main

4 small sweet potatoes, about 2 1/4 lb (1 kg) total

5 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 1/2 tablespoons (20 g) sugar

12 green onions, halved lengthwise and cut on the bias into 1 1/2-inch pieces

1 red chile, thinly sliced

6 ripe figs, about 8 1/2 oz (240 g) total, halved or quartered

5 oz (150 g) soft goat cheese, optional

Maldon sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.

Halve the sweet potatoes lengthwise, then cut each piece lengthwise into 3 long wedges, to yield 6 pieces for each potato. (If your sweet potatoes are significantly larger or smaller than noted above, you may want to slice them in a few more or less pieces than this.) Toss with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the salt, and some black pepper. Spread the wedges out, skin side down, on a baking sheet. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the potatoes are soft and dark brown in color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Make a balsamic reduction. In a small saucepan, combine the balsamic vinegar and sugar. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat and simmer for 2 to 4 minutes, until the mixture thickens. Remove the pan from the heat when the vinegar is still runnier than honey, as it will continue to thicken as it cools. (If it becomes too thick to drizzle, stir in a drop of water before serving.)

Arrange the sweet potatoes on a large platter.

Heat the remaining oil in a medium pan over medium heat. Add the green onions and chile. Fry for 4 to 5 minutes, stirring often, until the green onions are soft. Spoon the oil, onions and chile over the sweet potatoes. Place the figs among the wedges, then drizzle over the balsamic reduction. Crumble the cheese in large pieces and dot them on top.

Serve at room temperature.

Howl to the Moon | Peach Upside-Down Cake

Howl to the Moon | Peach Upside-Down Cake

Peach Upside-Down Skillet Cake | Delightful CrumbIt’s late summer, a final mellow moment before the chaos of fall for some, already weeks into the school year for others, same old, same old for others still. I am, for the fifth year in a row, feeling entirely surprised by the warmer weather that has descended upon the Bay Area on the coattails of August just as my spirit has decided it’s ready for autumn to begin. The markets are filled to overflowing, from California back to Michigan. It’s the last gasp, the last hurrah—but it’s a long and jubilant one, a howl to the moon.

The truth is that at this time of year, I regularly wish for that grand sensation of being eight or ten or twelve years old, with a wild new school year on the horizon, there to wrap me up in its hopeful tornado of activity. The great big world far off but nonetheless my oyster, limitations and setbacks unknown, as full of promise as a school year for this kid who really liked school. All this, with new notebooks to boot.

We adults don’t get all that, but we can eat cake whenever we damn well please, one small but not insignificant perk of being old enough to understand the rapid-fire chaos of the news and content with our existential angst while also dealing with the many trials, trivial and less so, of daily life.

(Note: This cake reference was not meant to invoke Tina Fey’s “sheet-caking,” but I see now that it may, so I will pause here to recommend that we all both eat cake and get off our bums to do something.)

As for existential angst, I can’t stop listening to Regina Spektor’s “Older and Taller,” thinking yes Regina, yes! which probably says something about how I experience the world. There’s this perfect phrase that encapsulates how I often feel about the tasks and experiences in life that feel so important but also almost overly cyclical, like the aspects of our jobs that feed right into doing them all over again and teaching and even parenting: And you retired just in time / You were about to be fired / For being so tired from hiring the ones / Who will take your place.

It’s genius! I just never say it that eloquently, so people look at me with confusion, like maybe I’m unhinged. Is it because she sounds so perky when she sings it? Perhaps that’s the trick. People are thinking, Well, at least there’s that pop rock backdrop.

And why not? That’s the best we can do some days.

And so, like a pop rock backdrop for our existential angst, we create the magic and the hope, both to celebrate such things as peaches and summertime and for the push we need to carry on. This cake is on the one hand comforting and on the other a big joyful hurrah, plus it’s easy enough to throw together (promise!) that no particular prompting is necessary. This would have been just as appropriate at the height of July but feels like a mighty fine fit for late summer, too. Thankfully, you can swap in the fruit of the moment and enjoy it throughout much of the year.

While it bakes, the most wonderful and homey smell wafts from the kitchen, laced with the scent of jammy fruit and butter, too, as the sugary mixture at the bottom of the pan bubbles. It reminds me of childhood, free and easy and comforting.

Apparently I haven’t yet written about this cookbook, which is a shame, but I’m here to remedy that now. It’s such a gem! So many of the things I said about Samin’s cookbook are also true about Julia Turshen‘s first solo project. It’s a book about small victories, a philosophy I can definitely get behind. Counter to the message I feel I’m getting from so much food media and the internet in general, this book wants you to succeed. Julia wants you to eat dinner and feel good about yourself—victorious, even! I’ve never met her in person, but cooking through this book, it really does feel like she’s right there in the kitchen with me, or maybe just over in the dining room, shouting encouraging instructions, and either way, I adore her. There are lots of suggestions for substitutions, adjustments, spin-offs and more, plus themed menus and lists of seven suggestions each on such topics as what do to with a can of chickpeas, how to prepare mussels and ideas for easy desserts. Among the recipes I’ve made are Julia’s Caesar (the first Caesar salad I’ve been truly excited about and a favorite of Ben’s), Smoky Eggplant Dip, Avocado & Kimchi Toast (super clever combination), Curried Red Lentils, Afternoon Cake (YES), Parmesan Soup with Tiny Pasta & Peas.

This is a great little cake for your Labor Day celebration, weeknight craving, last minute gathering or lazy Sunday. Don’t fear the flip, and use whatever fruit you find. I suggest whipped cream, and also eating this for breakfast. I might not be a kid anymore, and I might feel more than my fair share of angst, but I’m doing my darndest to keep howling at the moon.

Peach Upside-Down Skillet Cake | Delightful Crumb

Peach Upside-Down Skillet Cake

Slightly adapted from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories

This is a friendly cake, open to a variety of adaptations. Julia calls for an 8-inch cast iron skillet, but mine is 9 inches and worked just fine. The original recipe called for apricots, but other stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums will all work nicely. Or, try it with blueberries, blackberries and/or raspberries. Julia also notes that nut milk, rice milk or coconut milk can be substituted for the cow’s milk called for below.

I like to serve this with whipped cream, preferably with a little sour cream added so it has some tang. However, vanilla ice cream, crème fraîche or even a dollop of yogurt would be delicious.

Serves 8 generously

11 tablespoons (150 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

Packed 3 tablespoons (35 g) dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

1 lb (455 g) fresh peaches or other stone fruit, pitted and cut into thick wedges

3/4 cup (150 g) natural cane sugar

2 eggs

1/2 cup (120 ml) whole milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 cup (180 g) all-purpose flour

1/2 cup (60 g) whole wheat flour, or more all-purpose

Whipped cream, for serving, optional

Put a large piece of aluminum foil on the oven rack below the one you’ll be baking the cake on. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly butter the sides of an 8-inch or 9-inch cast iron pan with the butter wrapper.

In a large bowl, use a spatula, wooden spoon or your fingers to mix 3 tablespoons of the butter with the brown sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Spread the mixture on the bottom of the skillet. Set the bowl aside.

Arrange the peach wedges in a single layer on top of the butter mixture. Concentric circles are neat and pretty, but a more haphazard arrangement will do just as well. Squeeze all of the slices in even if it looks tight, as they will reduce somewhat as the cake bakes.

In the same large bowl, use a whisk to combine the remaining 8 tablespoons of butter with the sugar until smooth. Add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Whisk in the milk and vanilla. (Don’t worry if the mixture looks a bit curdled, which may happen especially if the milk was cold but isn’t a problem.) Whisk in 1/2 teaspoon salt and the baking powder. Add the flour and whisk until just combined; finish mixing with a spatula if needed.

Use a spatula to gently dollop the batter over the peaches, being careful not to disrupt the fruit too much. Smooth the batter with the spatula or an offset spatula. Tap the pan to settle the batter.

Bake until the cake is golden brown and a knife inserted in its center comes out clean (be sure to stop before you get to the jammy fruit), about 45 minutes. Let the cake cool in the skillet on a cooling rack for about 30 minutes. Use a butter knife to loosen it from the skillet. Put a plate or other serving dish on top of the pan, put one hand on top of the dish and hold the handle of the pan with the other hand. Gently but assertively flip to invert the cake onto the serving dish. If any of the brown sugar mixture and/or fruit sticks to the pan, just use a knife or spatula to remove it and place it on the top of the cake.

Serve warm or at room temperature with whipped cream, if you wish. Then, eat the leftovers for breakfast with coffee.

Peach Upside-Down Skillet Cake | Delightful Crumb

A Guide to Composed Summer Salads

A Guide to Composed Summer Salads

Composed Summer Salads | Delightful Crumb‘Tis the season for composed salads! Summer produce is at its peak—and so, simple cooking as easy as it gets. I thought I’d drop by with a quick little guide to building simple summer salads, my go-to for this time of year…even more than in other seasons!

For a certain set of you, none of this will be new. But for others, I know it’s not, and I can easily recall a time when I didn’t know any of these tips. I’ve also found that simple things are what I’m most often asked about, whether it’s a salad I’ve made for dinner with friends or family or a picture of my lunch that I’ve posted on Instagram. It’s hard, I think, to teach the concepts that lend confidence rather than just sharing a recipe. But concepts and confidence are what empower us to pick up what’s beautiful at the market or make use of the veggies lounging in the crisper drawer…rather than seeking out a specific recipe with a long list of ingredients and breaking out in a cold sweat when that one obscure spice is nowhere to be found at the grocery store. Greater ease in the kitchen lends freedom to the task of cooking and is far more useful in the day-to-day lives of most people I know, so it’s also the goal today.

I should say here that I still love recipes, and I long relied on them for most things I cooked. But at some point along the way, I stopped using recipes for certain dishes, and salad is first on that list. It’s the one thing I’ll almost never follow a recipe for these days—because I know I can do a mighty fine job myself, and without breaking a sweat.

And so, here’s what I know about composed summer salads! Raw ingredients only and simplicity in spades. We’ll save lettuce for another day. Read through and let me know what you think! What did I miss? What are your favorite combinations?

Melon, Cucumber & Fig Salad | Delightful Crumb

GUIDELINES

These are, to me, the key components of simple salads, listed in the order that I like to do my assembling. Start by arranging your fruit and/or veg and the creamy ingredient artfully on a plate, drizzle generously with olive oil and your chosen acidic component and then sprinkle on the rest: seeds and/or something pickled if you’d like, herbs, flaky salt, black pepper and perhaps a spice. And that’s it! Taste, adjust and serve.

By the way, if you’re feeling stuck on determining which ingredients pair well, the best tool I know (beyond experimenting and tasting) is The Flavor Bibleby Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

1. One or two types of produce: Slice cucumber and zucchini thinly, or peel them into strips with a vegetable peeler. Tomatoes can be sliced into wedges or thin rounds—a mix is always nice, especially if you have a few colors or types. I like to cut watermelon into cubes and other melons in thin half moons. Halve little things, like figs, strawberries and cherry tomatoes.

2. Something creamy: For me, this is most often cheese. I rely on feta, soft goat cheese, mozzarella, burrata, Parmesan shaved into strips with a peeler, dollops of ricotta and crumbly blue cheese. Avocado is another excellent option. Or, try Greek yogurt or labneh. Spread it on the plate before you begin assembling, or dollop spoonfuls on top. Sometimes, but not always, avocado and dairy play nicely if you’d like to use both (see the second link in the favorites list below for an example).

3. Extra-virgin olive oil: Good stuff is worth it, though it doesn’t have to be super expensive. Aim for the middle ground—California Olive Ranch is my go-to.

4. Acid: Lemon or lime juice (fresh squeezed is always best, but don’t ever be embarrassed to use the bottled kind instead), balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, rice vinegar, soy sauce or apple cider vinegar.

5. Something crunchy, optional: Toasted seeds like pepitas, sunflower seeds or sesame seeds are nice with melons and cucumbers. Chopped toasted almonds are often an easy fit, and peanuts are a good pair for Asian flavors. Croutons and toasted pita bread are delicious, too, for a salad that’s panzanella adjacent.

6. Something pickled or briny, optional: Thinly slice a red onion or shallot and put it in a small bowl with your chosen vinegar and a pinch of salt. Let it rest for 10 to 20 minutes for a quick pickle, which also mellows the flavor. Use the pickling liquid on the salad. Radishes take well to this treatment, too. Alternately, buy a cool pickle at the store and slice it thinly. Or, get a briny kick from olives or salt-packed capers.

7. One or two fresh herbs: Pick the leaves off of parsley or cilantro stems—tedious but worthwhile! Basil and mint leaves can be left whole or cut into a chiffonade. That is, pile several leaves up, roll them tightly, and slice the roll into strips, leaving you with a mess of little ribbons. Dill is best in small quantities. You could also throw on a handful of arugula or sprouts instead.

8. Flaky sea salt: Maldon is my favorite and absolutely worth having in your kitchen.

9. Freshly cracked black pepper: Start with peppercorns if possible!

10. Spice, optional: Aleppo and Urfa pepper can be hard to find but add a pleasant warmth without much heat. Red pepper flakes and cayenne are spicer but also easier to find. I like any of these when avocado is at the forefront, and with melons as well. Coriander is unexpected but very tasty, especially with tomatoes. Swap in a smoked salt for the flaky sort noted above. Or, let the spice do all the work of flavoring with a blend like za’atar or shichimi togarashi.

A FEW FAVORITES

These are some of the combinations I return to again and again. Want to start with a more detailed recipe? Click the links below for a few that I’ve posted here in the past!

Tomato, mozzarella/burrata, balsamic & basil (for a variation on the classic, add nectarine or fig, or use avocado instead of cheese)

Cucumber, feta & mint

Cucumber/zucchini ribbons, goat cheese, seeds, mint & basil

Fennel, Parmesan, lemon & parsley

Watermelon, feta, pickled red onion & mint

Melon, cucumber, Parmesan, basil & Aleppo pepper

Cherry tomatoes, corn, Parmesan, lime juice, cilantro & red pepper flakes

Oranges, avocado, almonds & parsley

Figs, blue cheese, walnuts & arugula

Strawberry, mozzarella & sprouts

Rye Picnic Cake for Summer

Rye Picnic Cake for Summer

Rye Cake | Delightful Crumb

This August, we will have been Oakland residents for five years, and it’s taken me until just about right now to get used to the subtle shifts of the seasons. Soon after we arrived, I remember asking our friend Jon, also from Michigan but here a couple of years before us, what happens in the Bay Area when the seasons change. It was late summer, and he responded with the disdain that only a child of the Midwest on the cusp of what would most decidedly not be a dramatic autumn could have about the woes of excessively temperate weather. Nothing! he said.

This still feels a little true come September, but I’m finding that the turn of the seasons feels more dramatic to me each year. I have to tune in, pay closer attention, limit my expectations. But the differences are infinitely clearer to me now. Sure, summer in the Bay is not the technicolor magic of the Midwest—a Michigan summer is truly something to behold. Yet it’s something, in the air and the way the clouds move and the few degrees of temperature. The dizzying array of produce has its own particular magic—I just picked up my first figs of the season at the market—and if I really want to be warm, all I have to do is swing up north or south or inland. We took a short trip to Yosemite (photo below) when Ben’s parents visited earlier this month, and that felt like summer to be sure.

And it’s in the little stuff, too: the picnics, the composed salads, the extra bottles of rosé in the fridge. We’re drinking Cynar and soda, sitting on the stoop, slicing tomatoes. I’m wearing summer dresses and shaving zucchini and cucumbers into crisp delicious ribbons for lunch most days, dousing them in a creamy avocado-lime dressing. We walk in the late summer evening, relishing the long golden hour and enjoying other people’s gardens.

Here’s what I’m saying: I’ve gotten used to California, finally. But that’s not the only thing at work here. We create this stuff as adults; it isn’t handed to us. The seasons might be mighty or mellow, but the routines and rhythms that define them are ultimately in our hands. I think our twenties are a lot about figuring this out, discovering the boundaries between what the world is like and how we’ve experienced it to date, figuring out little by little by little how we want our own lives to look. And me? I want tradition and celebration and also routine—and all of this with feeling. I want the seasons, the rhythms, something to look forward to around each corner. Sure, weather helps. So too the academic calendar. But it wasn’t just vacation and the warm weather that I loved as a child in Michigan. It was the rare treat of homemade ice cream churning noisily on the deck, running through the yard with my sister, sweet rhubarb cake disguised as “bread,” lunch every single day with my mom, bare feet rainbow-dusted with chalk, peach and blueberry cobbler, traveling with my family to visit relatives in South Dakota, summer camp in the woods or on the basketball court far too early in the morning, corn on the cob on my face, my dad’s goofy uncontainable joy when he too was on vacation, sprinklers, fresh fruit by the handful. Lucky me, to be given all of that.

And that brings us to cake. This is a cake for any season, but it is particularly well suited to summer, the time of picnics and backyard parties and stoop-sitting and all the rest. It is hearty and sturdy, quite perfect for such things, and very tasty, too. Here’s to making it a glorious season.

Rye Pound Cake

Adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Near & Far

Makes 1 large cake, enough for 10 generous servings

I have also made this with slightly less sugar (down to 200 grams, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go further), but I’ve listed the original quantities of sweetener below. Any sort of yogurt will do; I used low-fat this time. Orange zest is tastiest, but lemon will certainly do the trick if it’s what you have around.

2 1/4 cups (285 g) rye flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lightly toasted caraway seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons black or white sesame seeds, or a combination

1/3 cup (60 g) raw sunflower seeds

1 cup (115 g) raw pepitas

1 tablespoon freshly grated orange or lemon zest

3/4 cup (170 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup (215 g) natural cane sugar

1/2 cup runny honey

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 eggs, at room temperature

1 cup plain yogurt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Liberally butter a 10-cup Bundt pan (or equivalent), dust with flour and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the rye flour, baking powder, salt, caraway seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pepitas and zest. By hand, or with an electric mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, mix together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the honey and vanilla extract, then add the eggs one by one, fully incorporating each before adding the next.

Add half of the flour mixture and mix until incorporated. Add half of the yogurt and mix again. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then repeat with the remaining flour and yogurt.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top, and knock the pan against the counter to get rid of any air bubbles.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. If it’s browning too quickly but the cake isn’t yet set, tent the pan with foil. Let the cake cool in the pan on a baking rack for about 5 minutes, then turn it out to cool completely on the rack.

Serve plain, or with strawberries and something creamy (yogurt, crème frâiche, whipped cream, etc.) alongside.

Yosemite Falls | Delightful Crumb

Our Own Lives | Spring Panzanella

Our Own Lives | Spring Panzanella

Spring Panzanella | Delightful CrumbI’ve been frustrated lately with the food media—that is, the larger publications that (still) drive the category, not blogs or independent zines or the like. I know I’m not the only one: Tim Mazurek and Amelia Morris are two people who quickly come to mind for their thoughtful critiques of food media and culture (which are sprinkled throughout blog and Instagram posts containing excellent writing and recipes and all that other good stuff). And this isn’t really anything new for me, but my complaints right now are specific. My sense is that food publications, and the realm of food/beverage/lifestyle media more generally, are responding to a surface-level idea of what people want, and the resulting content is rather uninspiring. And also pretentious, and generally unhelpful.

Case in point: the May issue of Bon Appétit focused on travel, highlighting excursions and recipes from such places as Taiwan, London, some cool city in British Columbia called Tofino and, of course, Oaxaca, the it-girl of the moment (I could focus more specifically on the problems with the current, sudden, surface-level obsession with Mexican life and culture, but I’ll save that rant for another day). This is not a terrible concept, and there were some okay articles and good recipes included in the issue. I also see the logic: people love to look at other people’s Instagram photos of travel and adventure and meals! It’s one of our favorite pastimes, isn’t it?! Yes. Sure. We like looking at pictures of other people’s beautiful lives…kind of. Except that it makes us sad and jealous and less present in our own lives. I don’t believe we’re actually looking for more: more images of gorgeous meals at hot new restaurants in cities we don’t live in, more articles about far-off destination we can’t afford to visit, another picture of a beautiful, skinny white girl with the perfect shade of lipstick holding, but not eating, a bright pink popsicle (sorry—paleta). Why not a guide to planning a stellar weekend getaway that can be adapted to any part of the world, or a 101 to road-tripping across the country, or a simple primer for traveling well in Europe? Why not offer something general that would be exciting and useful, not just “aspirational”?

I think we are tired of wishing we were doing other things, living other lives, being other people. I think we actually want advice and inspiration—strike that: just a little encouragement!—for living our own lives, with our own partners and babies and friends, in the perhaps imperfect spaces in which we live, in whatever city we might call home, with the jobs we’ve got right now. I don’t want to be “inspired” if the definition of the word is, apparently, to be jealous of other people’s lives. I want to be encouraged to live my life—my imperfect, messy, confusing, technicolor, wild and wonderful, beautiful life. People actually want help packing good lunches, and coming up with an idea for dinner tonight, and making vegetables taste fantastic, and figuring out how to fit all this into a busy schedule. When I cook for friends and family, the thing I am asked about most is how I make salad dressing, and/or how I build a tasty, interesting salad. I get questions about the simplest food that I post on Instagram: grain bowls and pretty toasts and simple quick breads and the like. It’s the advice I seek as well—how did my friend Celia make that classic creamed kale at Thanksgiving, and that dreamy risotto before that, and what are her tips for assembling such perfectly satisfying spreads of appetizers and picnic provisions? How did our chefs at Good Eggs keep such staples as crème frâiche and sourdough starter brewing at all times? What’s the trick to keeping all of those lacy ends tucked into the poached egg on my restaurant toast? Why are my mom’s blueberry muffins and my grandmother’s rhubarb pies still the best I’ve had? It’s not the fancy, complicated, time-consuming stuff that’s most attractive at the end of the day, but the everyday good stuff.

Let me be fair, Bon Appétit does address these questions occasionally. They have a dinner column that I think is great, and a new “Healthyish” initiative that is sometimes annoying but actually very much aligned with what and how I like to eat. And maybe what I’m envisioning is too idealistic and wouldn’t sell magazines. But in this moment of food mania, I’m keeping the bar high. I think they could do better. I think a lot of publications could.

On a brighter note, I can tell you who IS doing better, and that is Samin Nosrat! Ironically enough, there’s an article about her and a crop of lovely recipes she wrote in the June issue of Bon Appétit, so good on them for that. But what I really think you should do is seek out her new cookbook, SALT FAT ACID HEATwhether you want to learn the basics of cooking, or you are a very good cook but want to better understand the principles behind the techniques you know, or you just like clever illustrations. Samin outlines the principles behind great cooking—salt, fat, acid and heat, as you may have guessed—and she explains not just how they work but why. It’s a primer based on all she learned from years cooking at Chez Panisse and elsewhere, traveling the world and teaching these techniques to others, not least our man Michael Pollan. And Samin is a fantastic teacher, the sort who roots for you and wants you to succeed. It’s a bit of an investment to actually sit down and read this whole book, but for those who are curious about cooking or working on improving, it’s entirely worthwhile—and super charming to boot, thanks to illustrations by the very talented Wendy MacNaughton.

Because Samin really does want you to learn how to cook, the book also includes lots of variations with each specific recipe. The whipped cream recipe, for example, includes a full 19 variations on that theme! It also includes fantastic tips that you’ll remember well beyond the first time you follow the specific instructions here, like putting your bowl and whisks in the freezer before you get going. For this panzanella recipe, Samin offers an iteration for each season, which is great because we should definitely be eating panzanella beyond tomato season. The crouton recipe included here includes a cheesy variation that I tested back when the book was still in development, and those were, no joke, the most perfect croutons I’ve ever eaten.

The point, though, is that this is a book about being a cook, not dreaming of cooking in another life that isn’t yours. There is a time and place for that sort of thing, I realize, and I own plenty of cookbooks that I happily flip through but don’t often use. But what I think we need now is more of this: empowerment and tips and kindness and a really good dinner.

So pick this one up if you want to live your own life…with, perhaps, just slightly better food. As a start, here’s that killer salad.

Spring Panzanella | Delightful Crumb

Spring Panzanella with Asparagus, Feta & Mint

Slightly adapted from Samin Nosrat’s SALT FAT ACID HEAT

Serves 4 generously as a side, or 2 generously as a main

Salt

1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus additional

1 1/2 pounds asparagus (about 1 1/2 or 2 bunches), woody ends removed

4 cups torn croutons (recipe follows)

Somewhere around 25-30 large mint leaves

3 ounces feta cheese, plus additional for topping if desired

Batch of red wine vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Set a large pot of water on to boil over high heat. Season it with salt until it tastes like the summer sea (that is a direct, wonderful quote from Samin). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

In a small bowl, toss the sliced onion with the vinegar. Set aside and let the mixture sit for at least 20 minutes.

If the asparagus is thicker than a pencil, “stripey peel” it: press lightly with a vegetable peeler, removing just the outermost skin from about 1 inch below the blossom to the base. Then, slice the asparagus on a bias into 1 1/2-inch segments. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water until it’s just tender, about 3 minutes, less if it is very thin. Taste a piece to determine doneness: it should have a faint crunch in the center. Drain and allow to cool in a single layer on the prepared baking sheets.

In a large salad bowl, combine half of the croutons with about 1/3 cup of vinaigrette. Let them sit for 10 minutes.

Add the remaining croutons, asparagus and macerated onions with their vinegar. Tear the mint leaves in small pieces, and add those, too. Crumble in the feta in large pieces. Dress with an additional 1/3 cup vinaigrette and seasons well with salt, then taste. Adjust the seasoning with more salt, vinaigrette and extra vinegar as needed. Toss, taste again, and serve at room temperature. A final sprinkling of feta and/or more mint leaves on top make for a pretty presentation.

For the torn croutons

Makes 8 cups (about twice what you need for the recipe above)

1-pound loaf of country or sourdough bread, preferably day old

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you want particularly tooth-friendly croutons, remove some or all of the crusts of the bread. Cut the loaf into inch-thick slices. Cut each slice into inch-wide strips. Working over a large bowl, tear each strip into inch-size pieces. You can also tear croutons directly off the loaf, but this method helps get more even but still rustic croutons.

Toss the croutons with the olive oil to coat them evenly, then spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet or two. You want them to have plenty of space so that they don’t trap steam, so an extra sheet is usually worthwhile.

Toast the croutons in the oven for about 18 to 22 minutes, checking them after 8 minutes. Rotate the pans, switch their oven positions, and use a metal spatula to turn and rotate the croutons so that they brown evenly. Once they begin to brown, start checking every few minutes, continuing to rotate and turn. Bake the croutons until they’re golden brown and crunchy on the outside, with just a bit of chew on the inside. If some are done while others still need time, start removing them as you check their progress.

Taste a crouton, and sprinkle the warm croutons with a pinch of salt if desired.

When the croutons are done, let them cool in a single layer on the baking sheet(s). Use immediately, or keep in an airtight container for up to a few days. Refresh stale croutons in a 400-degree oven for 3 or 4 minutes.

Note: That cheesy variation I mentioned? Just add 3 ounces (about 1 cup) of finely grated Parmesan and lots of coarsely ground black pepper after you toss the bread with the olive oil. Toss well, and then proceed as directed above.

For the red wine vinaigrette

Makes about 1 cup (a bit more than you’ll need for the recipe above)

2 tablespoons finely diced shallot or red onion

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

In a small bowl or jar, let the shallot or onion sit in the vinegar for about 15 minutes to macerate, then add the olive oil, a generous pinch of salt, and a small pinch of pepper. Stir or shake to combine, then taste and adjust salt and acid as needed. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.