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Quick, easy - and tasty.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Maybe one reason we end up eating so much processed food - becoming a nation far too big for its collective britches in the process - is that cooking has become just too intimidating.

At least, that's one of Jean Johnson's premises in her hot-off-the-press book, "Cooking Beyond Measure."

It's just too easy, if you forgot to take something out of the freezer on the way out the door this morning or can't remember all the ingredients you need for the recipe you were going to make for dinner, to drive up to the nearest fast-food window or hit the pop-it-in-the-microwave aisle at the local supermarket.

But Johnson says not so fast: Quick, tasty and inexpensive meals are within the reach of cook and non-cook alike, just by going back a century or so to embrace some of the kitchen habits of yesteryear.

Start with leaving measuring cups and spoons in the drawer whenever possible, she recommends, and then send your hang-ups about having to follow recipes exactly - including having exactly the "right" ingredients at hand - down the drain with the dishwater.

After all, ordinary people have been cooking their meals for thousands of years, and as anyone with an immigrant grandmother or great-grandmother has known for decades, they often can show you how but not give you exact instructions for making their signature dishes.

Part of the reason is that measuring cups and spoons are a relatively recent phenomenon in home cooking, becoming popular in this country in the early 20th century, when technology started burgeoning and math and science became society's holy grail.

"I wrote this book as an everyday cook without culinary training, with a full and busy life and not a lot of time for the kitchen - a regular person," said Johnson, who nonetheless has extensive experience at food writing as well as a doctorate in cultural history. "I wrote it as an invitation for people to get back to the way their grandmothers cooked, and the way most people around the world still cook for their families.

"It's the idea that people can cook healthy and affordable food in a flash - and have fun doing it."

The subtitle of her book - "how to eat well without formal recipes" - pretty much sums it up. Johnson uses the example of a favorite Thai restaurant to make her point.

"You go in and get a great Thai dish, and then you go again later and order the same thing, and it's still great but it's not the same," she said. "Of course, that doesn't happen only with Thai food - it's Mexican and (rural) French and everywhere that people cook for their families in ways that meet their specific needs."

Johnson's book might seem a little hifalutin to some. It offers a recipe for a breakfast porridge made from amaranth, a nutritious grain used for thousands of years in South America and Asia and now grown in the U.S. Southwest but still probably a mystery to most home cooks.

It also includes instructions for a snack made by mixing quinoa (another grainlike plant common in South America and gaining in popularity here) with a sweet, carmelized goat cheese made in Norway (Gjetost, pronounced YEH-toast), formed into "logs" and rolled in cinnamon, touted for its cholesterol-lowering properties.

Esoteric as they may sound, virtually all of the ingredients mentioned in Johnson's book can be found in today's supermarkets, ethnic groceries or health food stores, often in the more economical bulk food sections.

And she does a good job of allaying the fears of those reflexively conditioned by recipes that spell out everything, down to the 1/8-teaspoon (why bother?) or 1-cup-plus-1-tbsp. (what could that extra tablespoon possibly do?) that make cooking seem so critical.

"Boil up a pot of beets," reads Johnson's recipe for Beets with Chives. "Cool, trim, and slip the skins off. Slice into pretty chunks or disks. Splash with cider vinegar. Garnish with plenty of finely snipped chives, using your kitchen scissors."

That's all there is to it. As long as you like beets, you've got it made.

Some of the recipes are a little more involved, and Johnson, whose Eugene connection includes frequent visits to grandparents who lived for many years on Friendly Street, has figured out a way to bring along cooks who don't have quite enough confidence to just start throwing things together.

She starts out with a quick description of the food, adds a "Recipe Note" that passes for instructions and then, if needed, includes some "Details" to answer lingering questions about the dish.

Occasionally, she sticks in a few extra paragraphs - "On Washing Greens" and "On Drying Greens" and "On Quinoa," for example - to add a little more information to enrich the cooking experience.

Take her hummus recipe, for instance.

"It's easy to make hummus," Johnson begins. "What you wind up with is less expensive and has way more character than store-bought."

The instructions tell you, "Ladle out cooked garbanzos and some broth into the blender with tahini (sesame seeds ground into a butter that you can buy at the grocery). Season with cayenne, lemon juice and garlic `pounded to smithereens with salt,' as Jordanian-American Rula Awwad-Rafferty puts it.

"And blend the hummus until it's smooth, smooth. That's one of the problems with American hummus. It's rarely smooth enough."

Then the fine detail, that, "Tahini is like any nut butter, so use enough to give your hummus some backbone without getting too heavy-handed."

Furthermore, "If you think your batch of hummus still needs something after the lemon juice and cayenne, you can try my trick: a spoon of fish sauce to bring on the umami."

Umami, Johnson has explained on the previous page, is a fifth sense of taste (in addition to salt, sour, sweet and bitter) that the Japanese define as an "overall mouth feel and exceptionally amazing deliciousness" that comes from fermented and dried foods such as vinegars, soy sauce, anchovies and Parmesan and blue cheeses.

"Keep `umami' in mind when you're cruising in the kitchen," Johnson said. "People won't be quite able to put their finger on it, but they'll know there's something special afoot."

"Cooking Beyond Measure" is the first in a trilogy of measure-free cooking books, Johnson said. Her second, "Hippie Kitchen," is due out in April, and the third, "Garden to Table," will appear in 2010.

Book preview

Cooking Beyond Measure: How to Eat Well Without Formal Recipes

Author: Jean Johnson

Publisher: Seventy-Sixth Avenue Press, 3524 N.E. 76th Ave., Portland, OR 97213; (503) 577-0668

Details: 212 pages; 82 color photographs

List Price: $16.95

Availability: Local bookstores; www.amazon.com
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Title Annotation:Food; You, too, cal make more meals for your family by letting go of a reliance on recipes
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 6, 2008
Words:1108
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