I am not a great cook.

I’m usually a good cook. Some days I’m a very good cook. When I have the occasion to put cinnamon and garlic in the same pan, I’m a damn fine cook. But there are no culinary revolutions being staged in my kitchen. I spend my days working next to people who were born with the gift of good seasoning, and I’m glad to learn from them. I’d like to think I’ve picked up a lot in my year and a half of professional fooding. Little things, like peeling ginger with a spoon (try it!), bigger things like finding a love for fennel I never thought I could have, gruelingly essential things like scrubbing walls. (And the occasional ceiling, thanks to a long night with butternut squash puree in an overzealous blender.)

My short life in a big kitchen has given me a hundred new ways of looking at food. At first I was so distraught by the amount of meat being processed during my day that I was very nearly vegan outside of work. After a few months, I all but stopped cooking for myself at home, out of frustration and exhaustion. This inevitably resulted in a diet that left me undernourished and cranky, not aided by the fact that I was readjusting to life in the U.S. and going through my first nasty gray gray gross awful gray Portland winter. It wasn’t until spring came that I remembered that I have friends who enjoy it when I cook for them. I had a dinner party for a few people and spent all day emptying my fridge, emptying my winter blues, emptying my culture shock and refilling my lungs with the air of community in food that I have always so loved.

I have people over often, now, for dinner. Or lunch. Or whatever I just pulled out of the oven.

For the past month, Zeke and I have set a challenge for ourselves to not eat at restaurants for a month. A month! We have a couple of caveats, of course – supermarket delis don’t count, and we can go out on the weekends as long as we keep it under $5. (This means that I can continue to have my weekly nosh-and-crossword at Clinton Corner Cafe; there’s just less noshing and more crosswording.) The point? Spend less, cook more. When I told Nico about it, he said, “For you, that’s like breathing with only one lung.” He’s right. My list of the restaurants I’ve dined at in Portland is way over the 100 mark, in a year and a half. Part of this is for the sake of convenience, part of it is wrapped up in socializing, but the majority of it is centered around being a foodie.

On Thursday, I can eat out again. Have I spent less? Hell no. My grocery bills are ridiculous. If I do this again – and I think I will – I will do it with the added rule of a tight weekly grocery budget. Have I cooked more?

Yes. Of course. While some of that “cooking” translates to “making guacamole and heating up a Trader Joe’s Indian meal” (those things are SO good), a lot of it ends up being similar to what I made in Bulgaria. I’m reminded that I don’t mind eating the same thing every day, as long as it’s not leftovers – I’m awful about eating leftovers. If I made myself avocado quesadillas every day, I wouldn’t feel as though I cheated myself out of a good meal. I’m a good cook because I know what I like and what I’m willing to experiment with. I’m not a great cook, because I still have a cluster of Weird Foods in my pantry that I haven’t been inspired to use well.

At the moment I’m reading Deborah Madison’s What We Eat When We Eat Alone. I’d like to think that she and I would have wonderful conversations about food – her writing nearly always calls to mind exactly what I’ve been thinking about and haven’t yet put into words. Heading into the last week of the No Restaurant challenge, I’m glad to be reminded of more small, achingly simple meals that do not come straight from Trader Joe’s. After reading the first chapter, I knew immediately how I should photograph this entry’s dish. It’s absolutely unadorned, with no thought to plating, and it’s next to me on the couch that collects cat hair. Because that’s how I’m eating it. And you know what? It’s luscious and filling and healthy. When I eat alone, the appearance of the dish is important only as far as how much it affects flavor. Friends who don’t cook tell me I have an eye for presentation, but most of the time the fact is, if you’ve cooked something well, it presents itself well.

Here’s a recipe for some wonderful trout cakes. (Nearly vegan, not so much. I’ve started eating fish again.) This is one of my favorite recipes that I’ve posted lately, even if I did burn them a little. It’s a great way to start using fennel if you’re not familiar with it. I put it in anywhere that celery – one of my least favorite vegetables – is called for, and I think it makes things taste quite grown-up. You can make a larger batch of these and freeze them. You can give them a nice sauce and serve them over a bed of greens, with a side of mascarpone-finished polenta. Or you can eat them off your lap on a Sunday afternoon on the couch, before or after you vacuum the cat hair.

Fennel and Red Pepper Trout Cakes
makes 4

1 teaspoon each: black mustard seed, whole black peppercorns, coarse salt, dried thyme, dried marjoram, anardana (optional – a splash of apple cider vinegar will work fine instead)
1/2 teaspoon each: fennel seed, fenugreek seed
1 1/3-pound trout fillet (skin on)

1/4 cup finely diced fennel bulb (half a small bulb)
1/4 cup finely diced red bell pepper (half a small pepper)
1 large shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/4 cup mayonnaise (I like the vegan stuff)
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

In a wide skillet combine all the spices listed before the trout and add enough water to come about an inch up the side of the pan. Bring to a boil, then drop it down to a bare simmer and add the fish. Poach 2-3 minutes, until just barely cooked. Remove from poaching liquid and set aside. Discard poaching liquid, rinse the pan out, and set it aside.

Combine all remaining ingredients except olive oil. Remove any black peppercorns that might be hanging on to the fish, take the skin off, and flake it into the mixture. Combine well and form into four tight patties. Tighter than the ones I made.

Heat olive oil in the skillet over medium high heat. Add patties to the hot oil and turn the heat down to medium. Cook 2-3 minutes until browned, flip, and cook 2 minutes more. Eat.

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