Edible understanding: Spring into the kitchen

Photo of carrots
Isabel Bollinger/Staff

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Just south of Unit 2 stands a large house blocked by a wooden fence. If you dare explore beyond the driveway of this humble Berkeley home, you will find a gate leading up to a back house. Each week, vats of water doused with salt come to a boil on the electric stove as grocery bags full of dry pasta are walked through the door. This house is my home. It is also home to my eight other roommates.

This experience isn’t limited to us, however: Recipe developer and UC Berkeley alumna Ali Slagle echoed similar sentiments in an interview with The Daily Californian.

“I feel like in college, you make a lot of pasta,” Slagle said. The first thing we learn how to do is boil water and throw in one basic ingredient.

Quite simply, this is exactly what we do. Pasta is our default option when we want a home-cooked meal with minimal effort and room for error.

As college students, we have limited space, limited budgets and limited time to actually cook nice meals for ourselves. Simultaneously, this is the time in our lives when we realize that we actually need to feed ourselves three meals a day. Although cooking is the budget-friendly option, the idea can be scary to some students.

Photo of Ali Slagle

Courtesy / Mark Weinberg

Slagle comes from a family of cooking enthusiasts. Constantly watching her mother cook, however, couldn’t prepare her for the dynamic between cooking and college. “That’s when cooking for real and when you’re hungry became a thing, not just cooking for fun,” Slagle said. Our new found independence can be overwhelming, even for those who have experience in the kitchen.

Many students also are afraid to experiment with cooking because failure translates into lost time and an empty stomach. When we eat out and buy fast food, we think we are simplifying our lives. In reality, we are missing out on an opportunity to develop critical survival skills: learning to eat healthy foods for less. And when you shop for ingredients at your local farmers market, you support the environment and local economy while discovering the world of produce available for your next home-cooked meal. By taking the fear of cooking and replacing it with simple and flexible recipes, we can start to create a diet for ourselves that extends beyond pasta and takeout.

Slagle encourages students to expand on what they already know how to do in the kitchen. “If you can boil pasta, you can boil vegetables or grains,” she said.

While Slagle was a student at UC Berkeley, she served as a TA for food writer and adjunct professor Michael Pollan and interned at Ten Speed Press, a major cookbook publisher. Through these experiences, she was able to develop an understanding of recipes and seasonality of produce that ultimately led her to become a contributor at Food52, the online hub for foodies, and The New York Times. Slagle has poured that knowledge into her first cookbook, “I Dream of Dinner.”

According to Slagle, Berkeley is the ideal place to embark on a journey of cooking and understanding our food system. Home to multiple farmers markets and a mecca of food shoppers known as Berkeley Bowl, and blessed with the perfect balance of rain and sunshine as compared to the East Coast, Berkeley is a home cook’s paradise.

“I feel like what I’ve learned since living in New York is Berkeley actually does have produce that’s a little bit more reasonably priced than in other places,” Slagle said.

“Berkeley is the ideal place to embark on a journey of cooking and understanding our food system.” — Ali Slagle

As the leafy greens and winter squash leave the farmers markets at the end of one season, new spring vegetables take their place. Asparagus, peas and carrots become their sweetest as April and May appear on our calendars.

 

A springy noodle stir fry: The bounty of spring veggies, both raw and charred

So, now that it’s spring, what can we do with all of these new vegetables in the kitchen and in a non intimidating way? Slagle proposes her springy noodle stir fry. “If you can make pasta, you can make this stir fry,” she promised.

Photo of a pasta meal

Courtesy / Mark Weinberg

Ingredients

  • 2 oranges
  • ½ cup tahini
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ground ginger
  • 2 pounds spring vegetables
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 10 to 12 ounces ramen noodles
  • ½ cup frozen, shelled edamame
  • Sprinkle of sesame seeds

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
  2. Use a vegetable peeler to peel the rind from an orange, and squeeze 1 cup juice from 2 oranges into a large bowl.
  3. To the orange juice, add the rind, tahini and soy sauce. Finely grate your ginger into the bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir.
  4. Trim the stem ends from 2 pounds of spring vegetables (any mix of asparagus, green beans, snap peas or snow peas). Then, thinly slice them on a diagonal ½ inch thick. Add half to the bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine.
  5. Add your ramen noodles (preferably fresh) and edamame to the boiling water, and cook according to the package directions. Drain and rinse this mixture, then stir into the sauce.
  6. In the same pot, heat your oil over medium-high heat. Add the remaining half of the vegetables. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring just once, until the vegetables are browned in spots after a few minutes. Add everything in the sauce bowl and cook, tossing until the sauce is warm and glazy, for a couple of more minutes.
  7. Shower your dish with toasted sesame seeds, and enjoy!

Pro tips: Instead of ramen noodles, you might like to use soba, dried or fresh udon or lo mein. Also, if you want, you can add brown tofu, ground chicken or pork before adding the vegetables and mixing it all in with the sauce.

“I really do want my recipes to kind of meet people where they are regardless of their circumstances.” – Ali Slagle

When cooking this recipe for myself, I opted to purchase my ingredients from Berkeley Bowl. In a small refrigerator tucked away with the bulk bins, Berkeley Bowl sells fresh soba, udon and ramen noodles, which all pair perfectly with this recipe. I was able to use the random spring vegetables I had on hand to make this recipe with as much ease as possible: Slagle’s recipes are designed to be adaptable.

“I really do want my recipes to kind of meet people where they are regardless of their circumstances,” Slagle said.

 

Cheesy vegetable tart

Although the springtime does call for light and refreshing flavors, we may still need crispy and cheesy comfort to get out of our winter slump. Nothing is easier than defrosting some puff pastry and loading it with cheese and vegetables.

Ingredients

  • 1 (14-ounce) package of frozen puff pastry
  • 1 egg
  • 1 garlic clove, finely grated
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/2 cup creme fraiche, full-fat yogurt or ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup sharp white cheddar or crumbled goat cheese
  • A few sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 pound asparagus, carrots or mix of both
  • All-purpose flour (for dusting)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Lemon (optional)

Directions

  1. Take your puff pastry out of the freezer, and allow it to defrost until it is malleable but still cold. Place it in your refrigerator until it is ready to use.
  2. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  3. Prepare your vegetables, whether you are using carrots, asparagus or both. Either scrub the outside of the carrots or peel them, then cut them lengthwise to create slivers about ¼ of an inch thick. Trim off the stiff bottoms of the asparagus, usually about an inch, and cut them in half lengthwise.
  4. In a small bowl, mix creme fraiche, full-fat yogurt or ricotta with the egg and garlic. Season this with salt and pepper. If you choose to use sharp cheddar, shred ½ cup of it into a small bowl. If you use goat cheese, crumble about ½ cup of it into a small bowl. Remove a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme from the stem, and place it on the side.
  5. Now that your ingredients have been prepared, take the defrosted puff pastry out of the refrigerator. Lightly dust the dough with flour, and roll it out into a rectangle about ¼ inches thick. Place it on prepared baking sheet. With a sharp knife, score the pastry, creating a border that’s about ½ inches thick. Then, with a fork or knife, prick multiple small holes within the border of the dough. This will prevent the pastry from puffing up under your toppings.
  6. Spread the creme fraiche mixture within the border. Place your vegetables in a single layer on top of the creme fraiche, and sprinkle them with the thyme, your cheese of choice, salt and pepper. Finally, drizzle the tart with olive oil.
  7. Bake the tart for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are cooked through. Allow the pastry to slightly cool, then move the tart to a wire rack to finish cooling completely. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the top, and serve.

 

By learning to cook for ourselves, we become active participants in our food system. We have the power to create movement toward sustainability when we choose to cook a quick meal instead of buying a fast one. This is not to say we need to get rid of fast food altogether. We can, at least, hold some autonomy in our own hands.

We are students constantly learning, attempting to build a social life and thinking about our future. Amid the chaos and tedium of it all, we deserve to take a beat and learn how to treat and take care of ourselves from time to time.

“I think, every time you go to the store, picking up one thing that is interesting to you or exciting to you is kind of like an easy way to propel you into the kitchen,” Slagle suggested. “Just figuring out what is fun and not scary to cook and then kind of like exploring that.”

So make something more than just pasta: Treat yourself.

 

Springy noodle stir-fry was provided to us by Ali Slagle. The recipe is reprinted from Slagle’s recent cookbook “I Dream of Dinner.”

Contact Isabel Bollinger at [email protected].