What Do You Do on Sabbatical? Part 2 – Cook

What Do You Do on Sabbatical? Part 2 – Cook

If you didn’t read Part 1, I’m cool with that. Who am I? You don’t owe me anything. I was on sabbatical for 10 weeks and probably most people want the general idea of what I was doing for that time. Others may want a little more detail. These posts are for the latter kind.

This one is also for the food people. Game recognize game.

Back when I first proposed my sabbatical to the Personnel Committee months and months ago, it had a list of commitments and one of them was that I would cook a new dish every week, except when I was on vacation because if I’m cooking on my vacation, then what’s the point?! I committed to this because I love cooking. It’s something I do normally but our family has a stable set of meals that we are able to crank out after school and before dance or whatever. Can I get an “amen?” Given time, I wanted to cook some stuff, to boldly go where no Naeve has gone before.

And I did! I cooked at least one new dish a week for 8 weeks. As you might imagine, there were some successes and some that were not so much. Now, I’m going to include pictures of some of the dishes, but please note that they are not my pictures (except one). I’m not one to snap pictures of my food because I’d rather just get it onto my plate or into my face ASAP.

So… you wanna know what I made?

Pad Thai

Pad Thai
Like a high-five from Jesus.

Pad Thai is one of the dishes that Gigi and I fell in love with eating. Thai food is about balancing all kinds of flavors – salty, sweet, sour, savory, and spicy. Pad Thai is a noodle dish that has all kinds of unique ingredients that you just have to go to an Asian supermarket for, but is totally worth it. One of the easiest ingredients in Pad Thai is peanuts. Unfortunately, Gigi developed a peanut allergy about 7 years ago and so we just don’t eat the dish anymore. The idea behind making this at home is that I could sub out the peanuts with almonds and ensure that it’s safe for my wife.

To my shock, the amalgamation of recipes I used ended in a Pad Thai that tasted exactly like we remembered from our favorite Thai joint back in Georgia. It’s sour and funky and savory. It’s perfection in a bowl. It was a great way to start the cooking adventure and I’ll be cooking it at least once a year for Gigi’s birthday… and maybe mine. And the dog’s. And Flag Day and…

Kofta

Kofta Kebabs
Traditionally, kofta (kufta) is skewered and grilled as a kebab. Delicious either way!

When I made this and we sat down to eat, I told my kids about my first time eating kofta back in high school. My friend Danny had a bunch of us over and wanted to make burgers. His family was from the Middle East way back when and so they made burger patties in the style of kofta. I remember Danny’s father chopping vegetables and a ton of herbs and then mixing it into the meat with some spices. We all sat down outside after the kofta burgers were put onto the french style hamburgers buns that I insisted on bringing. When we ate, we all looked at each other. Danny said, “I know, right?”

The ones I made didn’t elicit that reaction, but I’m betting I can get there eventually with some more practice and experimentation.

Potato and Shallot Galette

a free-form pie
This is actually my picture of my galette. I did that!

A galette (shut up, spellchecker, it’s totally a word) is sort of like a free formed pie. The picture here is actually the one I made. The middle part where the filling is showing through the crust folded over around it is like a sneak preview. Honestly though, the crust was what I really wanted to eat. When my kids tasted it, they said, “No soggy bottom. It deserves a Paul Hollywood handshake!” So now you know what kind of nerds I’m raising.

Fideos

All these recipes were new to me, that’s the whole idea, but I had never even heard of this dish before. It’s a Spanish style toasted pasta dish. The idea is that you toast dry pasta (thin spaghetti) in a frying pan before adding the other stuff that the pasta will absorb the flavors of. The version I made was vegetarian, so it was full of tomatoes and cannellini beans , making it fairly hearty. It called for a homemade garlic aioli, which is fancy for mayo. It wasn’t bad, but it was no one’s favorite. Probably won’t do it again.

Tunisian Spiced Vegetables

If there’s a cuisine that I want to see pop off, it is the North African/Middle Eastern kinds. Often, they are spiced with ingredients that Americans would tend to think of as sweet, but try some stuff out and you’ll see how wrong we are. I made a shawarma style spice mix full of cloves, cinnamon, and a bunch of other good stuff that seasoned some chicken kebabs to accompany these vegetables, but I’ve done some of that kind of thing before.

The vegetables also had some good spices indicative of the region like sumac (not the poison kind), but the real punch you get is a ton of herbs. That’s the other thing I love about NA/ME cooking is all of the herbs. There’s parsley and thyme and sage and mint that you rub all over these vegetables that just makes them something different. I grilled up zucchini, eggplant, peppers, onions, and tomatoes and then tossed them with an herby dressing to make kind of a warm salad. Your mileage on this kind of thing may vary, but I love eating vegetables that taste and feel new.

Pav Bhaji

White buns on a platter with a dish of a vibrant vegetable stew
This looks like art. Mine looked like sloppy joes.

The name alone took over my house for the entire week. My wife replaced “pav bhaji” for “good night.” It’s just an Indian street food. “Pav” is the soft bread roll and “bhaji” is a kind of vegetable dish. And that’s what this is: it’s a vegetable dish on a bun. The way I described it to my kids was that it’s an Indian flavored, vegetable sloppy joe.

The base is mashed potatoes and cauliflower, but it’s stacked with all the great flavors of Indian cooking – garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, turmeric, cilantro. My entire upstairs smelled awesome for three days just from cooking the stuff. I love Indian food, especially because they treat vegetables seriously and make them taste good.

Cuban Sandwiches

This sandwich is… how do I do this? OK, when you get the thing in a restaurant, it’s a simple looking creation. It’s a pressed sub roll with ham, roasted pork, cheese, pickles and dressed in bright yellow mustard. That’s it. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But you pop that joker in your mouth and you’ll look for someone to hold your hand to get you through it. It’s perfect. It’s a perfect sandwich. It’s an experience of perfect joy.

a pressed sandwich with layers of pork, pickles, ham, and cheese
“No words… so beautiful… they should have sent a poet…”

Every element is there to serve the purpose of balancing tangy and sumptuous. It’s a roast pork shoulder, but you marinade that honk of meat with mojo (a.k.a. the nectar of the heavenly realms). The pickles, the Swiss cheese, the mustard, it’s all to bring balance to the force.

Now I have made this before, but I chose to smoke the pork instead of roast it this time and the smokiness was well worth it. The whole thing is a joy and a delight. I fried up some plantains on the side (maduros, for the initiated), and called it a day. And it was good.

Empanadas

A platter of baked hand pies
People are really good at photographing food, y’all.

Empanadas come from Spain & Portugal originally, but you can find them in various cultures that the Spanish contacted in the Americas. It’s a hand pie, basically. It’s stuffed with whatever you want. I made a recipe that was ground beef with olives and raisins and spices. We had some kind of oddly flavored olives pretty well ruined it for us. The recipe made a dozen though, and I dutifully ate them for lunch for the next 4 days. By then the olive flavor mellowed out and it was quite nice.

This was doubly new for me. I hadn’t made that combination of stuff before, but I also had to make the empanada dough, which is pie dough. Gigi’s the baker, not me, so I sweated this pretty hard. As with the galette, the dough turned out really nice. I’d make these again, but I’m going to have to find another filling.

Maryland Crab Cakes

I wanted to send off the sabbatical with a bang, so I decided to do crab cakes. The recipe I had emphasized how it wasn’t clogging the works with all these fillers. This recipe was about the joy of crab. I love me some crab legs and have many fond memories of sitting down for hours with my grandpa, my dad, my uncles, with dishes of butter and an entire table covered in newspapers while we picked clusters and ate.

So I dropped a considerable amount of grocery budget on buying jumbo lump crab meat. I followed this recipe and added seriously like 2 tbsps of bread crumbs to a full pound of crab meat. It was crab front to back with only enough other stuff to barely hold it all together. And do you know what?

It turns out most of my family likes the fillers!

It was the worst thing I cooked throughout the entire experiment. The girls took two bites and tried like fire to act like they enjoyed them, but I encouraged them to eat leftover tacos and they sighed with relief. They weren’t inedible or anything. They just weren’t all that good. And so, my cooking adventure came to an end with a bang to my budget and a whimper to my palate.

As I said up front, I wanted to do this because I really enjoy cooking. So much of my professional work as a minister is emotional, cognitive, community-building, relational – the kind of stuff that you feel more than you really measure. It makes the work difficult to gauge in a lot of ways. But with cooking, I get to know how I did immediately. I taste it and I know immediately how I did.

My approach was to cook things I haven’t cooked before. Each of these is an experiment. Some were successes and some were failures and that’s OK. It stinks that I dropped good money on what ended up as bad food, but that’s the nature of experiment. If I waited until it was a sure bet, I wouldn’t have made half of those things. And I’m glad I tried. All of the effort was a success and I learned and grew as a cook.

And that’s not so different from my ministry job. I am convinced that ministry and church in the future will be, by necessity, experiment. Some will succeed and some will fail and both of those are good things. They teach us and we will grow from them. But we have to try. We have to measure our efforts as the success even if we end up with a bad crab cake now and again.

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