Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Loosen up and get rid of your measuring cups!

The presidential candidates are all talking about change. Portland, Oregon based food writer Jean Johnson has come up with a new question for the candidates.

“When you cook, do you measure? Or do you wing it!”

Historian turned cookbook author, Ms. Johnson was amazed when she learned that Americans didn’t even have measuring cups 100 years ago.

Ms. Johnson advocates a return to the roots of American culture. She believes that cooking like our great-grandmas will bring truly delicious food back to our tables. She thinks formal recipes with measurements and step-by-step directions—the small chemistry experiment approach to cooking—are a key reason we schlep off to the land of crinkly packages.

“The good news is that people are as ready for change in their kitchens as they are in the political arena,” Johnson says.

Her new book, Cooking Beyond Measure: How to Eat Well without Formal Recipes is filled with mouth watering, farm to table recipe ideas, tips, and stories that inspire. The focus is weekday cooking, health, affordability, and ease.

“Home cooking is healthy, cheap, and easy—so leave your measuring cups behind and take back your kitchen! Once you get a taste for this great food and how quickly it comes together with what’s on hand, you really never will look back.”

“We’ve lost touch with how easy and delicious food is when it’s whipped up fresh at home,” Johnson says. “All that salt, fat, and sugar that goes into processed and restaurant food, not to mention the 10 to 50 percent extra we pay for processing and packaging. But Americans are ready to stop letting the people who write the formal recipes have all the fun.”

Measure free cooking is actually more common that most Americans realize.

“Ethnic cooks around the world, from Provence to Mexico to Thailand, do not measure. They conjure up delicious rustic meals with what’s on hand, never fretting that they don’t have a particular ingredient or worrying about precision,” she said. “They have a touch and taste their way through cooking, just like many of our seniors who still make pie crusts based just on the way they feel or pull a meat loaf together.”

Johnson’s book is filled with over 60 measure free recipes and includes mouth watering ideas for breakfast, starters and sides, soups, salads, main dishes, and endings.

Each recipe lists the ingredients and notes on how to put them together. But there are no quantities or cooking times.

Here’s Johnson’s recipe note for cucumber melon soup:

“Give chilled cucumbers and cantaloupe a spin in the blender with a seeded jalapeno, salt, pepper, and tarragon vinegar. Garnish with slivers of melon or toasted coconut.”

Or the luscious Edourad’s Mother’s Tomatoes:

“Slice tomatoes in half and cook them in butter on both sides, piercing the skins so the juices run out. Turn them back and forth until you have red gems that are calling to you. Then pour some good cream over the works and heat through.”

Cooking Beyond Measure:
How to Eat Well without Formal Recipes
by Jean Johnson.

List $16.95.
Original edition, 7x8, 212 pages
82 color photographs.
ISBN 978-0-981527-1-0-9.

Johnson says, “You don’t need to worry about a flop. Remember Julia Child. If her soufflé or whatever didn’t work out, she gleefully turned it into a soup! But chances are you’ll be happily surprised. Tips in Beyond Measure make it easy to turn out meals that far surpass packaged food or takeout and put you in charge.”

Cooking Beyond Measure includes technique and theory for novice and seasoned cooks alike. It is full of breakfast, lunch, and dinner recipes written in an easy-to-follow engaging style designed to empower. “I think at some level people have resisted being mere direction followers in their own kitchens. After all, why should the professionals get to have all the fun of making up recipes? Simple everyday cooking just isn’t that complicated.”

For more information visit www.measurefree.com


1. Bake or grill enough squash for leftovers.

2. Find the bulk bins at your grocer.

3. Put a pot of pinto beans on the stove Sunday afternoon.

4. Get the largest cutting board you can find and a chef’s knife.

5. Dedicate a countertop to slicing and dicing.

6. Steam up a pot of quinoa, millet, or other whole grain.

7. Look for young, seasonal vegetables.

8. Buy a block of interesting, affordable deli cheese.

9. Keep fresh fruit on hand.

10. Remember you don’t have to be gourmet to eat well.

Sample recipes

Spicy Cilantro Salad with White Chocolate, Pineapple, and Cashews

It was early August and hotter than heck when this dish came to life. There was a bouquet of cilantro in the fridge along with the end of a pot of brown and wild rice. Beyond that it was all play, and play I did.

Recipe Note
Toss cilantro, minced jalapeño, chilled brown and wild rice, tofu, and fresh pineapple with good olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Garnish with a toss of cashews and white chocolate chips.

With one grand cut, sever the thickest stems from your bunch of cilantro and give the remaining leaves and small stems a quick chop.

The jalapeno chile pepper I used was quite hot so three or four slices off the tip was plenty minced into the pile of cilantro.
I used only a couple of large spoonfuls of rice which made for a very green presentation.

On Solo Cooking

Horse feathers to the idea that it’s too much trouble cooking for one. Rather it’s quite freeing since there’s no one to please but mamma–or papa, as the case may be. Indeed, I’d probably never have had the abandon to through white chocolate chips in a salad I was making to share with another.

Eggs with Spring Asparagus and Parmigiano-Reggiano

This really is one of the very best ways I’ve had asparagus. And such a quick fix. The trick is to make it during the spring when asparagus enjoys prime time.

Recipe Note

Snap the ends off your asparagus and flash cook it. Fry an egg sunnyside up. Shave on some first class Parmigiano-Reggiano right from the Italian bergs that gave the world this cheese, and go to feasting.

Use just enough water when you’re flashing the asparagus to keep it from burning. Ideally the spears will be tender and still bright green just as the last of the water evaporates.
If you flash the asparagus in a skillet, you can use the same pan to do your eggs. Get the heat just right here—closer to medium. And use a lid to help cook the egg without having to turn it. That way there will be just the right amount of runny yolk to sauce your plate.
If you’re feeling ambitious, slivered garlic crisped in the oil before frying the eggs makes for an exceptional garnish.

About the Author

Jean Johnson, age 60, is a food writer, blogger, and cultural historian (PhD) based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been published in The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian Magazine, E/The Environmental Magazine, syndicated with High County News’ Writers on the Range, Edible Portland, The Arizona Republic, The (Portland) Oregonian, among others.

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