Approach cooking with an open mind

Being a biologist, my husband is constantly pausing to question or observe all the little things occurring under our noses that tend to go unnoticed.

Backpacking with Steve isn't just walking from point A to point B with a lot of heavy things on your back. It's stopping at every stream to peer under rocks to see who's living there.

Once, while gardening, he lured me outside to observe a weed in action. When I got there he was on all fours, peering into a patch of weeds.

"Come down here and watch," he said, indicating that I was to mimic his fanny-skyward position. "It isn't a trick, I promise."

"What am I watching?" I asked.

"Just wait, you'll see."

I felt something graze my jaw. Then another flick was felt against my forehead. But I couldn't spot the attackers.

"Look at all those white specks," he said. At first they weren't visible. Then suddenly, like hitting the correct adjustment with the lens of my camera, they all came into view. There had to be hundreds of teensy, little, white seeds blanketing the ground and foliage. Steve ruffled the leaves, and a wild series of barely audible pops and crackles accompanied the display of little seeds that were literally exploding from their pods.

"Look at that," he said, making another pass with his hand over the surface of foliage and inciting another burst of activity. "This plant's just waiting for a critter or wind to come along to unleash its seeds."

The fact that he had turned such a mundane activity as weeding into a National Geographic special shouldn't have surprised me. But I couldn't get it out of my mind as I headed back into the kitchen.

And then it struck me: Cooking has its serendipitous moments, as well. You set out on an activity that's supposed to take you from point A (a lot of produce that you feel you must take advantage of because it's in season) to point B (dinner). But along the way, if you're lucky, you get sidetracked.

With very little additional effort, this dutiful exercise in economics begins to relax you (in a perverted, up-to-your-elbows in sticky, dirty dishes sort of way). The heady aromas and vivid colors of the different foods assault your senses. Your mind is free to wander over time and memory. And then, like pausing midstream to see who's dwelling beneath the surface, or getting hit in the face by a gang of wily seeds, the simple act of cooking has helped set your hell-on-wheels week back in perspective where it belongs.

All that and a fabulous meal, as well? Such a deal.

With Steve's curious nature in mind, consider approaching the following recipes with the same open-mindedness. With each recipe, there are plenty of options for changing direction. No local asparagus? Go with leeks. Fontina not your preferred cheese? Use one that is. If Margy's Best Potatoes seems to need leeks instead of green onions, or a well-aged Jarlsberg instead of cheddar, that's something to consider.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at or read her blog at

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