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The Home Test Kitchen

Balancing Creativity and Calculation in Cooking

Teaspoons. Tablespoons. An assortment of measuring cups including ¼, ½, and ¾. A timer on standby. A printed out recipe or well-loved cookbook lying on the counter with hand-written annotations in the margins. All set to cook.

In the midst of the pandemic, about 54% of American adults report cooking more, with 75% saying they have become more confident in the kitchen, according to 2020 research by HUNTER. Naturally, with this rise in cooking, a rise in searching up relevant recipes is sure to follow. In fact, 34% of adults surveyed shared that they are looking for more recipes. This can range from healthy recipes, recipes for how to use existing ingredients in one’s pantry, or just searching for simple, practical recipes. Recipes give solutions, guidance, and instruction. How might one’s relationship with recipes affect their approach in the kitchen? There is certainly a practical element of cooking (sustenance for survival), though individuals decide the extent to which they choose to be explorative when cooking. Stick to the recipe? Veer off? Try something different? This differs on a person-to-person basis.

Personally, I have always approached cooking in terms of measurements, precision, and planning. Following a recipe to its definite measurements offers a sense of security and repeatability. If I repeat the same sequence of steps in the same manner, a good product is guaranteed every single time. After spending hours in the kitchen, working with all sorts of ingredients, who would not want a palate-pleasing outcome? 

There is no harm in following recipes down to the footnotes. However, in my effort to shoot for only positive outcomes, I realized something deeper at stake: my fear of failure. My pursuit of perfection suppresses my creativity, innovation, and freedom to experiment in the kitchen. I soon discovered there comes a point when depending on solely measurements becomes limiting instead of liberating. My grandmother’s style of cooking helped shift my perspective to welcome more experimentation.  

My grandmother, who I affectionately refer to as “Nanidear,” keeps the precise measurements mostly for baking. Everything else she measures her own way. Eye-balling it, a handful of this, a pinch of that but it really isn’t a “measurement” as I previously understood it. It is cooking by taking context into account, changing up ingredients based on what we already have, trying something new by modifying a base recipe, adjusting accordingly, or having fun with it. “Made with love,” as Nanidear says. And boy, is her food heavenly. Cooking with her allows me to contemplate the role of calculation and creativity in preparing food.

On a chilly mid-May day (New England weather is like this), Nanidear brought me into the kitchen to show me how to make Hyderabadi chicken korma. “I want you to make it,” she told me with a smile. Ah, the classic “learning by doing.” No printed out recipe here. 

Bewildered since I didn’t know the exact specifics of the recipe, I hesitantly took out ingredients I thought would go in the trusty pressure cooker. Chicken (obviously), Desi yogurt, ginger garlic paste, fresh mint leaves, almonds, assorted spices, oil, fried onions… I’ve watched my mother make the dish hundreds of times, but somehow I felt unsure without a recipe to cling to for safety. 

Image address from Tea for Tumeric

My grandmother then directed me to put all the ingredients in the pressure cooker. “Uh… how much of each ingredient do we need?” I asked. Nanidear knew I was a stickler for measurements, so with a twinkle in her eye she urged me to try my best without measuring tools. I had to figure it out myself using only a wooden spoon and my hands. I carefully placed each ingredient in the pressure cooker with how much I thought would be needed. All Nanidear would say was “a little bit more” or “that’s enough.” I was challenged to really scrutinize what I was putting into the pot, and “feel” how much was best in order to understand how the proportions of ingredients work together. So if I was changing the serving size from small to large, I would know how to adjust accordingly. 

Since this version of cooking chicken korma is done using a pressure cooker, it is simple in that all ingredients go into a single pot. Once all the ingredients were in and well-mixed, we turned on the stove and let it cook. “That’s it?” I asked. “That’s it,” she nodded, then added “So easy, right?” She was right. It was easier than I imagined. Not to mention, I didn’t have to wash a pile of different measuring cups I would have otherwise used. Yay.

After a couple of steams, we opened the lid to check on the chicken. This is where the variable nature of the pressure cooker comes into play. It is imperative to monitor the meat to ensure it is cooked all the way through. A recipe gives guidelines, but everything between each step is up to the cook. Not everything is written out, so developing a “sense” is critical. 

Nanidear shared with me that depending on the chicken, heat, cooker, and other factors, cooking time may be longer or shorter. She decided to increase the cooking time to allow the flavors to meld together and chicken to become tender. No korma dish will finish cooking at the same exact time. Therefore, it is important to adjust as needed depending on the context. 

Once the dish finished cooking, Nanidear opened the lid. The comforting, delicious smell of korma instantly greeted me. After Nanidear tasted the gravy, she pulled out our metal spice box to add a little more red chili powder. I tasted it. It was absolutely divine. Prepping the fresh naan and basmati rice is all that was left. 

My grandmother inspired me to view step-by-step recipes as tools to help with the direction of a dish. Not getting so caught up in the measurements as before, I welcome experimentation, and thus, the possibility of failure. However, it really isn’t a failure but an experience to reference in the future. Knowing how to adapt in different situations, like Nanidear changing the cooking time of the korma or adding more spices to taste, is a skill in itself. 

In my experience, destroying self-imposed pressures of perfection invited a sense of playfulness and creativity. Not only did I discover newfound freedom, but also strengthened confidence and trust in my abilities. Perhaps with more Americans embracing cooking as a result of the pandemic, attitudes towards recipes can welcome adventurousness and experimentation, like I am warming up to.

Of course, every person and circumstance is different. Calculations are necessary in many dishes, and straying too far from a standard can transform a dish into something completely different—for better or for worse. Recipes and instructions have merit. However, in dishes where there is some leniency, perhaps seeing a recipe as malleable instead of fixed could invite new creations. 

Experimenting outside a recipe can have its perks. For example, chocolate chip cookies were invented in the 1930s by Ruth Graves’ hard work testing, developing, and perfecting the cookie we all know and love today. A home test kitchen is born when calculation and creativity can intermingle. Both elements can exist and open the door to new possibilities. What is your next concoction?

Featured Cover Image by Williams Sonoma

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Foods From Fiction

For food lovers, there’s nothing more fascinating than seeing scrumptious dishes in films and television shows. Or reading about meticulously baked treats or lavish spreads of food in books. Immersive cinematic experiences in film or encapsulating writing styles in literature can make it feel like the audience is right there with the characters and food. But why stop there, as a mere viewer? What could be more satisfying than actually creating and tasting the dishes yourselves? To not consume media solely by flipping pages or staring at a screen, but instead leveraging your tastebuds (and culinary skills!) to transport yourself to a given fictional universe? Yes, that’s right. Recreating food from popular media can help bring us closer to our favorite media pastimes in a captivating way. 

The idea of creating food inspired by movies and television shows is not new. Binging with Babish (Babish Culinary Universe), a YouTube cooking channel created by Andrew Rea, seeks to “recreate the iconic and obscure foods from your favorite movies and TV shows.” With quality film production, culinary creativity, attention to technique, and a side dish of humor, Rea’s channel has amassed over eight million subscribers. Step-by-step, viewers can learn how to recreate dishes from all sorts of shows and movies, from the “Krabby Patty” from SpongeBob to “The Sloppy Jessica” from Brooklyn Nine-Nine. With the help of recipes from Binging with Babish and other chefs and creators, here are five different recipes inspired by television shows, movies, or books. Which fictional world will you dive into today?

1. Kevin’s Famous Chilli inspired by The Office

image courtesy of usmagazine.com

Kevin: “At least once a year I like to bring in some of my Kevin’s Famous Chili. The trick is to undercook the onions. Everybody is going to get to know each other in the pot. I’m serious about this stuff. I’m up the night before, pressing garlic, and dicing whole tomatoes. I toast my own ancho chiles. It’s a recipe passed down from Malones for generations. It’s probably the thing I do best.”

We’re starting this list strong with an iconic scene from The Office. Kevin Malone cooks up his famous chili and brings it to the office to share, an annual tradition. In a tragic turn of events, Kevin spills the huge pot of chili on the floor. But just because the office couldn’t enjoy his dish doesn’t mean you can’t.

Recipe: Binging with Babish recipe with video

2. Ladoo inspired by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham

image courtesy of bollywoodbubble.com

Avid Bollywood movie watchers are no stranger to Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, one of the most popular films in Indian cinema. “Ladoo” is the childhood nickname for Rohan, one of the characters in the film that helps unite his divided family. This name comes from ladoo (also written as laddu), a sphere-shaped Indian sweet that comes in all sorts varieties. Try your hand at making ladoo, a delectable accompaniment when watching Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, especially during festive scenes when the dessert appears.

Recipe: Dassana’s Veg Recipes’ Motichoor Ladoo recipe

3. Kronk’s Spinach Puffs inspired by The Emperor’s New Groove 

image courtesy of finction-food on Pinterest

One of my all-time favorite Disney movies, The Emperor’s New Groove, is incomplete without Kronk’s passion for cooking. Kronk is the loyal yet oblivious henchman for Yyzma, the royal advisor to Emperor Kuzco in the movie. During a memorable scene, Kronk frantically cries “My spinach puffs!” when he realizes he forgot to check on his puffs cooking. You too can experience the happiness Kronk felt with perfectly crisp, delightful spinach puffs.  

Recipe: Binging with Babish recipe with video

4. Jjapaguri inspired by Parasite

image courtesy of nbcnews.com

Parasite is a South Korean comedy thriller film that won numerous awards, including four at the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film. The film features a dish many foreign viewers were curious about upon seeing: Jjapaguri (Ram-Don). Jjapaguri is created by combining two instant noodle brands together (Chapagetti and Neoguri) and sometimes adding steak (as featured in the film). However, the dish’s placement in the film is more than a tasty and creative noodle concoction. Instead, it poses as a metaphor for class inequalities with the depiction of expensive steak resting on top of cheap noodles. Celebrate the remarkably layered and well-produced film with a bowl of jjapaguri.

Recipe: Korean Bapsang’s recipe with video

5. Butterbeer inspired by Harry Potter 

image courtesy of buzzfeed.com on Pinterest

“Harry and Hermione made their way to the back of the room, where there was a small, vacant table between the window and a handsome Christmas tree which stood next to the fireplace. Ron came back five minutes later, carrying three foaming tankards of hot Butterbeer. ‘Happy Christmas!’ he said happily, raising his tankard. Harry drank deeply. It was the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted and seemed to heat every bit of him from the inside.” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling, quoted in article)

Harry Potter fans know Butterbeer is a classic beverage popular among Hogwarts students. While you’re mostly likely a Muggle reading this, that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a magical pint of Butterbeer like a true student in the world of wizardry. 

Recipe: Favorite Family Recipes’ recipe 

Next time you watch a movie or television show, or indulge yourself in literature, remember that you too can help yourself to mouth-watering meals along with your favorite characters. Bring food to life in your kitchen with your own adaptations, or through inspired recipes from creators like Binging with Babish. Blur the lines between fiction and reality as you travel universes. After all, you are the main character of your own life. Seize your story.

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Steps in Sustainability: Boston College Dining to Restaurants

Boston College’s dining hall is primarily à la carte—students select food items and pay for each item. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the university has adapted to include mobile ordering and grab-and-go options. This is different from other dining hall styles where students pay a flat rate upon entering the hall and have access to an unlimited amount of food. 

Boston College’s dining hall approach makes it so that about 60% of students take food to-go. Because of this trend, Boston College Dining wastes significant plastic, paper, and non-recyclable materials students use to carry food out. To help combat this problem, the dining hall ran an experiment in the fall of 2018. Two Boston College dining halls ran a pilot test of a reusable to-go container program.

The program, called Green2Go works like this:

Students must first pay a nine dollar, one-time fee for a single green container and receive a green carabiner, indicating participation in the program. Second, students bring the container to a participating dining hall to fill with food. Third, students drop off the used container at the dining hall. Lastly, students use the carabiner to exchange a new container, repeating steps first two steps in the cycle.

These boxes are BPA free, microwavable-safe, and are made of 50% recycled plastic. While there are certainly environmental benefits to buying into this college’s program, there are areas for improvement in its operation. For example, the current to-go containers are still being supplied in addition to this reusable alternative. It also costs students to participate in the program without offering an incentive, which may be a deterring factor. In addition, if a student forgets or loses the container, they must pay the fee again. Both the structure of the program and its marketing are critical elements in this experiment.

image courtesy of BC Dining

The Heights writer Riley Ford comments that for Green2Go to be successful “it is imperative that this initiative is properly publicized and incentivized to increase participation… many students will not want to go through the hassle of changing their current habits if information about the new program is not well-broadcasted.” It’s worth exploring improvements and opportunities of the program in order to accomplish its mission in an effective, accessible manner. Nonetheless, Boston College Dining’s sustainability efforts with the Green2Go program is a huge step in a battle to limit waste. Since fall 2018, the university has expanded this program to additional other dining areas on the campus, increasing the potential for a positive environmental impact. 

Sustainable containers expand beyond universities. In the restaurant industry, there is a rise in online food delivery and mobile ordering, catalyzed with the pandemic. To accommodate this trend, the world has seen an increase in take-out packaging. Some restaurants implement packaging similar to that of Boston College’s Green2Go. These include eliminating single-use plastics since take-out containers are notorious for ending up in landfills and containing chemicals detrimental to health. This can take the form of reusable takeout containers, compostable products, and reusable box programs such as OZZI and Go Box. Implementing sustainable practices occurs beyond the individual or institution level as well. 

image courtesy of BC Dining

In some cases, it’s the city. Berkeley, Calif., uses legislation to protect customers and the environment. Their law, which went into effect Jan. 2020, requires restaurants to provide food containers that are certifiably compostable and free of added chemicals. Additionally, they must charge 25 cents for disposable beverage cups. By July 2020, restaurants can only provide reusable foodware on their premises, with exceptions for “certified compostable paper tray/plate liners, paper wrappers, napkins, and straws” and “recyclable aluminum foil is allowed for wrapping/forming items” according to the Berkeley Single Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance. The goal of the ordinance is to “assist businesses with the shift away from environmentally harmful single use disposable foodware and toward reusable foodware.” City requirements like Berkeley’s put responsibility on businesses to be more mindful of the environment. 

In relation to the restaurant industry in particular, The National Restaurant Industry’s 2018 “State of Restaurant Sustainability” states that “about half of consumers say that a restaurant’s efforts to recycle, donate food or reduce food waste can be factors in where they choose to dine.” Thus, many restaurants today have started employing sustainable practices to help the environment and draw in environmentally-conscious customers. Some areas besides packaging including local sourcing, food waste, lighting, water usage, equipment, and food waste to name a few.

One thing to note about these environmentally friendly practices: it’s an investment. Greener practices often mean higher initial costs to reap long-term financial and environmental benefits. A U.S. news article by Megan Rowe gives an example about Coasterra, a fine dining Mexican restaurant in San Diego that “invested about $1.5 million on extensive solar panels that generate about a third of the restaurant’s energy needs. The owners, Cohn Restaurant Group, estimate it will take about seven years to pay for the panels, but view the installation as a hedge against rising electric rates.” Solar panels are neither feasible nor affordable for every restaurant, but in Coasterra’s case, the owners found it the best option considering the restaurant’s needs and the potential profit from its developments. The panels were installed by HMT Electric in San Diego, as the owners of Coasterra stressed importance on the local factor. It’s also a prime example of how ideas of investing in local businesses and long-term sustainability can overlap to promote both community and environmental good.

The trend towards increased sustainability is already taking shape across institutions and industries. Boston College Dining’s Green2Go program is just one example of an active, environmentally conscious system. For the program to sustain itself for the long-term, constant assessment and appropriate adjustment is essential. After all, effective, environmentally-friendly practices in a university context are only as powerful as they are accessible and actionable.

image courtesy of BC Dining

Cover image courtesy of BC Dining