As you guys know, I aim to keep it real around here. I try to share my failures and frustrations alongside my joys, successes and good hair days. Shooting this recipe for the blog last week was a MASSIVE frustration.
We’re talking: I’ve-been-working-on-this-for-hours-and-it-still-looks-like-hot-garbage level frustration.
This-was-one-of-my-worst-ideas-ever level frustration.
Why-did-I-ever-think-I-could-be-a-photographer-anyway? level frustration.
This exercise in humility started with me wanting to share this dish I made for my Paris workshop. It is a crazy-good salad. A super-easy, healthy, not-to-be-missed sort of salad. I realized I would be letting you down not to share its deliciousness with you.
And I knew I wanted to try something different when it came to shooting it. Lately I’ve been trying to develop a distinct photography aesthetic: tons of color, hard light, long shadows and minimal styling. The sort of image that looks like it was shot poolside in the French Riviera in 1966. (Oddly specific, I know, but thus are the workings of my brain.)
Because I live in Seattle (which, for all those unfamiliar with this fine city, has no relation whatsoever to the French Riviera), shooting in this style means getting better at using artificial light. I researched for about a gazillion years and then bought myself a fancy speedlight. I read and practiced and watched online tutorials late into the night until my retinas were practically scorched. I was confident I had the basics down.
Then when I set my equipment up and started shooting, everything that came out of my camera looked awful. Overexposed. Underexposed. Weird white balance. Strangely greasy looking. It was a complete mess.
After multiple hours of trying to coax the shot I’d imagined out of my camera, I was on the verge of tears. (Ok, a few actual tears were shed.) I was contemplating packing up my gear when Beau reminded me of one of my favorite sort-of-joking-but-not-really mantras: “Sometimes the only way out is through.”
To be clear, this is the motto of the doggedly hard-headed (oh, hello!) and not always the sanest of advice. On this particular afternoon, it was just what I needed to hear. I decided I was going to keep going until I created something--anything--I liked. I stopped worrying about pinning down the “perfect image”. Which allowed me to approach the shoot as an experiment. I just tried one thing after another to see what the result would be.
Once I let go of what I thought “should” work, things started to come together. In less than an hour, I had a composition and lighting I liked.
I’m not going to lie, there’s a piece of me that doesn’t want to share this story. That part of me wants to post these images, slap up the recipe, wave my hands and pretend it was all easy-peasy and took no time at all. But I know how much I appreciate seeing the creative process of other photographers and artists. And how much a glimpse of the foibles, quirks and insecurities of others reminds me that we’re all imperfectly human and fumbling forward through life the best we can.
Herby Lentil Salad with Smoked Mackerel and Soft Boiled Eggs
- 1 ½ cups (315g) dried black or green lentils (I used black beluga lentils)
- Sea salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 large cloves garlic, smashed
- ¼ cup (60ml) red wine vinegar, divided
- 6 large eggs
- 1 medium shallot, minced (to yield about ¼ cup)
- Freshly-ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) good quality Dijon mustard
- ¼ cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup (15g) parsley leaves
- ⅓ cup (10g) tarragon leaves
- ⅓ cup (10g) picked dill fronds
- 6 oz. (170g) smoked mackerel (smoked trout works well, too), torn or flaked into 1-inch (2 ½ cm) pieces
*Notes: I use a variation of this steaming method for my eggs. It has several advantages over boiling: 1) It’s faster. 2) The temperature inside the pot doesn’t go down significantly when you’re cooking a bunch of eggs, so the results are consistent. 3) Eggs peel much more easily when steamed (even super fresh ones!).
- I used Trader Joe’s smoked peppered mackerel in this recipe and it was delicious. I don’t even really like mackerel that much. But this stuff is great. In Paris, I buy the house brand of peppered smoked Mackerel an Monoprix.
- The lentils and soft boiled eggs can be cooked 1-2 days in advance of assembling the salad. Toss the lentils with 1 tablespoon of vinegar while still warm then cover and refrigerate. The eggs can be peeled and stored whole in an airtight container in the fridge.
Place the lentils in a large saucepan and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Salt the water until it tastes just a tiny bit briny. You want to taste that salt is present, but you don't want the water to taste super salty. Add the bay leaf and smashed garlic cloves. Bring to the boil over high heat. Reduce the heat and cook at a bare simmer until the lentils are just tender. This should take between 15-20 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of your lentils. Check them often in the last few minutes of cooking and make sure not to cook them until they are mush or falling apart.Drain the lentils in a sieve and run a little cold water over them to cool them slightly. Place the drained lentils in a large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the red wine vinegar. Set aside.
While the lentils are cooking, prepare the eggs. Place ½ inch of water in a medium saucepan and place it over high heat. When it comes to the boil, add the eggs. Cover and cook for 6-7 minutes, adjusting the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Six minutes yields eggs that are barely set in the center and runny in the middle. Seven minutes yields eggs that have more of a gel set. (I think 6 ½ minutes yields a perfect egg.) Immediately drain the hot water from the eggs and place the pot with the eggs under cold running water for about 3 minutes, then leave the eggs in the cold water to finish cooling. I prefer this to an ice bath because I don’t like my soft-boiled eggs ice cold. You can use an ice bath if you like. Crack the eggs all over on a countertop then peel the eggs under cold running water and set aside.
To make the vinaigrette, place the minced shallot, a generous pinch of salt, about ½ teaspoon of black pepper, the mustard and the remaining 3 tablespoons vinegar in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Slowly whisk in the olive oil. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To assemble the salad, roughly tear about ¾ of the herbs and add to the bowl with the lentils. Toss the with the vinaigrette. Transfer the dressed lentils to a serving platter. Arrange the trout over the lentils. Halve the eggs lengthwise, arrange them over the salad then lightly salt the yolks. Sprinkle the rest of the herbs over the salad just before serving.
Makes 4 main-course servings.
Ok. It’s time to get real with y’all. I have struggled with my weight for pretty much my entire life. As I wrote about in this post, I was a chubby bi-racial kid growing up in a super white, rural farming community. We moved to Wichita when I was 9, where I was the chubby brown girl who didn’t quite fit in with the white kids and wasn’t quite accepted by the black kids. I have a vivid memory of bawling my head off around this age because my hair wasn’t long and straight and blond like my mother’s. From the time I can remember anything, I remember feeling like I didn't belong.
As a single-parent, my mom worked a lot when I was little. I spent most of my days with my grandparents, both of whom had lived through the Great Depression. They kept their house stocked to the rafters with every manner of foodstuff imaginable. They fed me sugar cereal, mac-n-cheese and candy bars. Fried chicken, frozen pizza and Hostess fruit pies.
Food was love. And they loved the shit out of me.
It was the early 80s and we didn’t know as much back then about how sugar and processed carbs are essentially garbage. I know my grandparents just wanted to spoil me--their only grandchild for 9 years--and make sure I never went without the pleasures they had to forgo as children.
Food was my solace and my secret shame. By the time I was 12, I had a full-on eating disorder. I wanted to be thin and popular and look like the other girls at a time when almost no one looked like me. But I needed food to assuage my awkwardness and my fear of not being good enough. It was a vicious cycle.
Fast-forward to adulthood. I’ve learned to love myself and love the body that I’m in. But it’s been a long road. From the time I graduated college until today, I’ve experimented with a vast panoply of diets. Weight Watchers. The Zone. Atkins. Keto. Low-fat. High-fat. Intuitive Eating. Extreme calorie restriction. The works.
Things started to get better in the body kindness department the day I banished my scale. That sly dictator lounging under the bathroom sink had been running my life for years. I decided he had to go. Not weighing myself has been a major boost to my self-esteem. (And I’m serious about it--I don’t even let my doctor tell me my weight when I go to see her.)
Next came finding a way of eating that works for me. I’ve been tweaking this over the past couple of years, but the gist of it is that I go easy on the sugar and carbs. I’ve learned that counting calories is absolutely toxic for me; I quickly tip over into crazytown if I go down that path, anxiously obsessing over everything that goes in my mouth.
I’m currently eating slow carb, which means lots of vegetables, protein, healthy fats and unrefined carbs, like beans and lentils. And zero calorie counting. Saturday is a free day when I eat whatever I want. So I don’t feel like anything is permanently out of bounds. (A girl has to get her pizza on from time to time!)
On the exercise front, I’ve decided only to do activities that I would do even if they burned no calories. I will play tennis in the freezing cold or blistering heat. I'd play in the rain if I could. There’s almost nothing that can keep me off the courts. So this is definitely on the list. I do strength training that involves a lot of balancing and compound movements because it feels like play and makes me feel strong and capable. And I walk with Beau in the evenings. That’s it.
So, about these beans.
A slow-carb lifestyle involves A LOT of beans. And though I love beans in all their many shapes and sizes, here’s the truth of the matter: beans can get pretty boring when you eat them night after night.
One evening, I decided to toss some beans in with the vegetables I was roasting. What came out of the oven was AMAZING. (Some might even call it culinary genius. I’m not saying who.) These roasted beans were crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside. Like dreamy little roasted potatoes. Or tater tots. Only healthier.
Now I am obsessed with roasted beans. They are my new go-to weeknight starch. I toss them on a sheet pan along with whatever vegetables I have lazing around in my fridge. Thirty minutes later--voilà! Supper is served. If you’re feeling fancy, poach a couple eggs or throw a piece of fish on the grill to serve alongside. Add a squeeze of lemon or a few dashes of hot sauce. It’s hard to go wrong.
For those of you who are perhaps less experimental in the kitchen, here is a recipe to get you started. You roast up a tray of plump corona beans (or gigantes or any other large bean really) with a bit of shallot. Grill up some squid (if you’re into seafood). Add some shaved fennel for crunch and a fresh, zingy chimichurri and your weeknight supper just got extra sexy.
Wherever you are in your relationship with food and your body, I think you can feel pretty good about this salad. It’s delicious whole foods, simply prepared. Miles away from Kraft mac-n-cheese and Hostess fruit pies. But with all the love.
Roasted White Beans with Fennel and Mint Chimichurri
- 4 cups cooked corona beans (or other large white beans), rinsed
- 1 medium shallot, sliced
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus an extra squeeze for the fennel
- 2 large cloves of garlic, finely minced or pressed
- 1 teaspoon chopped calabrian chiles in oil or a generous pinch of chile flakes
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped fresh mint, plus additional mint to garnish
- 1/2 medium fennel bulb, fronds reserved for garnish
- 1 recipe Grilled Squid (see below), optional
*Notes: Canned beans will work for this recipe, but home cooked beans are best. Plus it's difficult to find large beans like coronas or gigantes in a can. Here are some tips on how to cook a perfect pot of beans.
- Grilled octopus would also be delicious in this recipe!
Preheat your oven to 475° F.
While the oven is preheating, dry your beans thoroughly with paper towels then transfer them to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Scatter the sliced shallot over the beans and sprinkle with salt. Drizzle generously with olive oil and toss to coat the beans and the shallot. When the oven is hot, roast the beans, stirring occasionally for even browning, for 12-20 minutes. The exact time will depend on the size of your beans and how wet they are when they go in. You want them to be golden brown in spots, crispy on the outside and tender and fluffy on the inside. Don't worry if some of them split open. Remove them from the oven and set aside to cool.
While the beans are cooking, make the chimichurri: in a medium bowl, stir together 6 tablespoons of the olive oil along with the lemon zest, juice, garlic, chiles, mint and a pinch of salt.
With a sharp knife, Japanese slicer or mandoline, thinly slice the fennel and place it in a bowl. Toss it with a tablespoon or so of the chimichurri and an extra squeeze of lemon juice. Taste and add more chimichurri or lemon juice if you like.
When the beans have cooled somewhat, drizzle most of the chimichurri over them (save a tablespoon or so if you are making the squid). Toss to coat. Season to taste with more salt if necessary. Place the seasoned beans in a serving bowl and top with the dressed fennel and the grilled squid (if you're adding them). Sprinkle the reserved mint and torn fennel fronds over the salad and serve.
Tender Grilled Squid
• 1 lb. squid, cleaned, cut into large pieces and patted very dry with paper towels
• Extra-virgin olive oil
• Sea salt
*Note: You can buy cleaned, pre-cut squid from your fishmonger or clean it yourself, which is a lot cheaper. Here's a video if you need help.
Heat a large pan over high heat for a minute or so. Add enough olive oil to film the bottom of the pan, then add the squid pieces. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the squid is opaque and just barely cooked through, 2-4 minutes. It will give off a lot of water. Don't worry, this is normal. Do not overcook the squid or it will get rubbery.
Immediately transfer the squid to a large plate to cool. While the squid is cooling, heat a grill or grill pan to high heat.
Toss the squid in olive oil to barely coat (use some of the mint chimichurri if you have it) then grill until char marks appear, 1-2 minutes. Turn and grill for another minute or so until char marks appear on the other side. Transfer to a bowl to cool or eat immediately.
There’s a special pleasure to be had in doing a simple thing well. In taking the time to do it slowly and properly then standing back to admire your work.
The sort of things I’m thinking of have an old-fashioned, almost Victorian air about them: making a bed with crisp hospital corners. Polishing a tray of silver until it sings. Mowing the lawn into bright green zig zags.
I am a lover of all these sorts of tasks--shelling peas, ironing laundry, organizing books on a shelf. This might be because my personality veers towards the OCD end of the spectrum. Or it might be because these sort of activities pull me away from the constant pinging of my phone and the flashing notifications on my computer screen and my general hurried busy-ness. They allow me to concentrate fully on what’s in front of me, which feels like a small luxury these days.
One such task I would place on this list is cooking a perfect pot of beans.
Given the current fascination with foods like bee pollen, dragon fruit, active charcoal and cashew milk, beans don’t exactly sound like the sexiest of ingredients. But I have a hunch this is due largely to the fact that many (most?) people don’t know how to cook dry beans properly.
(Don’t worry--I’m not going to go on a rant about how you should become an urban homesteader and start making everything from scratch. I appreciate the convenience of popping open a can of beans on a Tuesday night.)
That said, a warm bowl of freshly cooked beans tossed with olive oil, salt and a splash of lemon juice--maybe a handful of herbs if we’re feeling fancy--is a very fine thing. Forget the bland mushiness of canned beans. Home-cooked beans have a firm skin, silky interior and their own distinct flavors. Bonus points: they're cheap and super healthy. All of which is why I want you to give cooking your own beans a try.
If you haven’t had luck with cooking your own beans or have forgotten how easy it can be, I've got a step-by-step guide for you below on how to prepare perfectly flavorful and not-even-a-little-bit-mushy beans every time.
And when you've cooked up your perfect pot of beans, don't forget to sit back and savor a job well done.
How to Cook a Perfect Pot of Beans
1. Buy good beans. Beans might be a humble ingredient, but buying quality pays off in the pot. The sort of beans you get in a 2-lb. bag at a large chain grocery store might have been harvested as much as 5 (!!!) years ago. Which means they will be less flavorful and won't cook as evenly. As with most things, fresher is better. You want beans that were harvested this year or last (depending on the time of year). How do you know you're getting fresh beans? But them from someone who specializes in (and loves) beans! My two favorite sources are Zursun Heirloom Beans and Rancho Gordo. Both of these growers specialize in bringing a variety of heirloom beans to a wider audience. If you haven't tried these beans before, they will change your life.
2. Soak your beans. I know there are all sorts of tips and tricks floating around on the internet for cooking your beans without soaking them. And I'm sure lots of those work in a pinch. But for tender, evenly cooked beans that don't fall apart or get mushy, I've found that the only way to go is an overnight soak. You want to hit at least 6 hours. For denser beans (like chickpeas) and larger beans (like corona beans or gigantes) I aim for a 24-hour soak (or as close as I can get) to make sure they're fully and evenly hydrated before cooking.
How to: Place your dried beans in a large bowl and cover them with cold water. Your beans will usually double in size as they soak, so make sure you cover them with enough water to allow them to expand. If your kitchen is hot or if you're soaking for longer than 8 hours, place the beans in the fridge to hydrate.
3. Drain your beans before cooking. Unless, of course, you love to fart. Beans contain carbohydrates called oligosaccharides, which are poorly absorbed in the stomach and then rapidly fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, causing gas. Some of these oligosaccharides are released into the water as beans soak. So pouring off that water reduces the amount of pesky oligosaccharides hanging out ready to ruin your next date or team meeting. I have been doing this for years and beans almost never give me any sort of gut problems.
How to: Drain your soaked beans in a colander and rinse them under cold running water for 15-30 seconds.
4. Season your cooking water well. It hurts my soul when I see someone chuck a bunch of soaked beans into a pot with nothing else but water and start cooking them. Like any other ingredient, beans need a little help to release their full flavor. I usually season my beans with olive oil, a ton of garlic, a couple bay leaves and often a chile of some sort. And salt. DO NOT FORGET THE SALT. You don't want to salt the water as heavily as you would for pasta or green vegetables because the beans soak up a lot more water than the former and will get too salty if you do. I salt my water until it tastes just a tiny bit briny. You want to taste that salt is present, but you don't want the water to taste noticeably salty.
How to: Place your soaked, rinsed beans in a large heavy-bottomed stock pot or Dutch oven. Add enough water so that the beans are covered by 2-3 inches. Salt the water as instructed above. Add lots of garlic--at least 4 cloves. I usually use 6 to 8. No need to chop them, just smash them with the side of a large knife, remove the skins and toss them in. Add a nice glug of olive oil, 2 bay leaves and a dried chile if you want to. I like árbol chiles.
Variations: Use more garlic or less. If you are making Mexican beans, you can sub avocado leaves for the bay and add a cinnamon stick and a smokier chile (this is especially good with black beans). Or you can add a bundle of cilantro stems along with the bay, garlic and chile. If you want Greek flavors, sub in a few stems of dried oregano. For French flavors, use thyme or a bouquet garni. For Italian flavors, rosemary. (If you're using fresh herbs, I recommend tying them in cheesecloth, so they don't disintegrate into little black flecks in your beans.) Add large strips of orange or lemon zest cut with a vegetable peeler. The options are almost limitless.
5. Cook your beans gently. Beans cooked at a rolling boil, bounce around which breaks their skins causing them to get mushy. To get whole, tender beans, cook them at a simmer.
How to: Bring your beans and seasoned water to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium-low. Skim any foam that forms on the surface of the water and discard. Cover and cook until the beans are done, adjusting the heat to keep the water at a bare, bare simmer.
6. Use a pressure cooker (optional). My mother-in-law gave me this pressure cooker several Christmases ago and I LOVE it. I'm thinking an Instant Pot would work just as well if you've got one of those. Pressure cooking makes the very best beans in my opinion. The only caveat is that the cook times listed in the manual are often for commercial beans and are too long for heirloom beans which are generally fresher and cook more quickly. When I'm trying a new bean I haven't cooked before, I take 2-3 minutes off the listed cook time. If the beans aren't done, I just put the pot back on the stove and finish the beans without the lid.
7. Cook your beans longer than you think. This one is counter intuitive since we don't want our beans to be mushy. But beans will firm up a little bit as they sit. So I always cook my beans just a bit past the firmness I'm looking for. The key is to LET YOUR BEANS COOL IN THEIR COOKING WATER. If you turn them into a colander, they will smash each other and all your careful bean-cooking effort will be wasted.
How to: Once your beans are just slightly past the doneness you want, slide the whole pot to a burner that's not in use or a cooling rack and let the beans cool to room temperature before you spoon or ladle them to storage containers (never pour). If you need them sooner, use a slotted spoon to carefully lift them out of their cooking water.
8. Store them properly. Store your beans in a covered container in the fridge. Beans keep longer if you store them in their cooking water. I find they keep up to a week that way. You can also freeze them. Place them in a freezer-proof container, cover them with their cooking water and be sure to leave headspace at the top of the jar so the liquid can expand as it freezes. Thaw in the fridge overnight. And hold onto that cooking water! It's like gold in the kitchen. You can freeze it and use it as you would vegetable or chicken stock. It's super flavorful and it's basically free.
9. Eat your delicious beans. In case you need some ideas for what to do with your delicious home cooked beans, here are some recipes from the blog:
huevos rancheros with black beans and salsa verde
roast leg of lamb with cilantro-pistachio pesto and white bean puree
smoky tomato broth with masa dumplings and black beans
lemony parsnip and white bean soup
Feel free to reach out in the comments below if you have any questions or tips to add to this list!