Kitchen Magic

I amaze you with tales of magic in the kitchen. Then you want to return to the kitchen to make cream puffs and red lentil soup.

2013-3-22 173When I was in high school, my mom was in nursing school. That meant that my sister, Lindsay, took over the laundry and I was left with the cooking. I knew right away that I liked to cook, but my views of cooking were so narrow that I had no idea I could one day love cooking. I stuck to a handful of recipes I had picked up from my mom over the years (who, bless her, has never really enjoyed cooking). We probably had cornflake chicken, stroganoff, and spaghetti bolognese one night each per week, and with pizza from the corner and the occasional deal on Big Macs, that just about took care of it.

When I was in college, my final paper was a 50-page behemoth on the Obligation of Affluence which led me to various conclusions and moral obligations, including a new-found vegetarianism. I married right out of college, and I buried myself in my newlywed cocoon under a pile of vegetarian cook books. Since Kevin and I could no longer eat most of the things we had been eating our whole lives, I had to start over. Thank goodness I did, because with each new recipe I prepared, Kevin and I were opened up to new palate-possibilities and I grew more and more fond of food and the kitchen.

In that first year in our sort-of nasty apartment on the wrong side of town, I can remember standing in the windowless kitchen preparing many meals, remember sitting down at our tiny table to eat them. An Ethiopian feast with homemade injera for my mom and her boyfriend. A pasta with marsala sauce and mushrooms served to a college friend who–it turned out–hates mushrooms. Egg rolls. Mushroom popovers. Spring rolls. Broccoli casserole that I accidentally over-peppered, as in we could not safely consume it. That moment when my first homemade dressing went from oil and liquid to something emulsified and different or that moment when my first carton of cream whipped from splashing to fluffy solid! And among those glorious moments of cooking through Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and shopping at Vic’s, I had a handful of very special moments when I pulled something out of the oven or removed a lid from a pot and–big intake of breath–magic had happened!

Perhaps the process is more science, but to me it felt like magic. Two times stand out in my memory: Once, I was cooking something as benign as a pot of red lentils into a soup (having never eaten red lentils, that I knew of). I poured the dry lentils into the water, stirred, and set the lid on, partially. I returned to the pot later and removed the lid and what did I see? Yellow lentil soup! Where did the red go? Abracadabra! Two, I was baking desserts for a 9/11 bake sale and–of course–chose all desserts that I had never made before. In fact, again, I’m not sure I had even ever tried a cream puff. I cooked up a choux dough, plopped rounds on a baking pan, and set it in the hot oven. The timer dinged. I opened the oven and pulled out, not little balls of wet eggy mass, but golden, fluffy, three-times-the-size orbs of bread! And when I cut into them? Holes! Holes for stuffing and filling and exclaiming over! Holes baked right into the dough by pure magic.

Now, you don’t have to get quite as excited as I do about cooking. But I would love for you to recognize that magic (and art, and science) does happen in the kitchen. Take a moment to absorb the process with your eyes, your ears, your nose, your fingers. Notice the soft flour moving between your fingers as your crumb in the butter. Now it’s like damp sand! It stays in a ball if you mold it, disintegrates with the slightest pressure! When you open the oven to remove your cornbread, stand back and inhale! Aaaah. And when throwing together a Greek salad, take in the circus of colors and form on the platter: the reds, greens, oily black, pale tan, the slight curve of purple on the thin-sliced onion. And for heaven’s sake, taste your food while you cook! Using tasting spoons leads to more enjoyable dinners, obviously, and helps  you to interact with the process and enjoy it.

Let’s face it: we all have to eat and almost all of us have to spend a significant part of every day thinking about where our meals will come from and then making that happen. So let me give you a tip: the more you enjoy your time in the kitchen, the healthier you will be because you’ll be giving more thought to your food, you’ll be slowing down around food preparation and food consumption, and you’ll be sharing more meals with others. You’ll be drawn to more natural foods because natural foods nourish you in more than just your body, but through all your senses and even on an emotional and sometimes spiritual level. Now that’s kitchen magic.


  1. Preheat your oven to 400F.
  2. Put 1 cup water and 1/2 cup unsalted butter in a medium sauce pan. Bring to a full boil.
  3. Reduce heat to low and stir in 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour. Continue stirring (a firm, wooden spoon is best) until dough pulls away from pan and forms a ball.
  4. Remove from heat and beat in 4 eggs–one at a time–until dough is smooth between each addition.
  5. Drop dough by 1/4 cup-fuls onto an ungreased baking sheet, leaving a few inches between each. You should have about 12. Bake about 40 minutes until they are puffy and golden. Cool away from a draft, at least 30 minutes.
  6. To serve, cut off the top 1/4-1/3 of the puff and remove extra strands of dough. Fill with stabilized whipped cream, vanilla creme, or custard. These also go great with fresh fruit, especially berries, or a drizzle of dark chocolate or caramel.


  1. In a medium soup p0t, combine 2 cups red lentils, 1 tablespoon turmeric, 2 1/2 quarts water, 1 tablespoon butter (or ghee), and 1/2 tablespoon salt.
  2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes or so, until lentils are good and mushy (and yellow!).
  3. Meanwhile, in a small skillet, saute 1 minced onion in 2 tablespoons butter (or ghee) with 2 teaspoons cumin and 1 1/2 teaspoons mustard seed. When onion is beginning to brown, add a whole bunch/head of chopped cilantro. Stir and remove from heat.
  4. When lentils are ready, stir in cilantro mixture and the juice of 3 limes and taste for seasoning.
  5. Reheat your skillet and add 1 bunch chopped spinach, water from rinsing still clinging to it, and saute until just wilted. Salt to taste.
  6. Serve soup topped with spinach, basmati rice, and a dollop of plain yogurt.

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