ONE OF THE best pieces of cooking advice I got came at one of my life’s lowest points.
Facing a sudden medical crisis, I was strangely fixated on how I would get dinner on the table for three little kids during months of recuperation.
A friend said, “Cheese and crackers can be dinner.”
I thought of that revelation a lot while reading Leanne Brown’s new cookbook, “Good Enough” (Workman Publishing, $19.95), a combination of essays and recipes on “embracing the joys of imperfection and practicing self-care in the kitchen.”
I’d met Brown when she visited Seattle years back for her earlier groundbreaking cookbook, “Good and Cheap,” focused on low-budget meals and distributed at food banks nationwide. The bestseller was organized around a SNAP (formerly food stamps) budget of $4/day, and is still available as a free download at books.leannebrown.com/good-and-cheap.pdf.
I had no idea that Brown was dealing with depression and exhaustion at the time, or that someone so resourceful and helpful could be overwhelmed by daily cooking and the constant mental and physical tasks around it.
Her subsequent lessons on reframing old views and rigid rules could be a relief for anyone feeling ground-down or overwhelmed. That describes … quite a lot of us these days.
As Brown puts it, “Cooking is great, but eating is essential.” We can dine on “assembly-only” meals, like the ones I had found so useful: cheeses and crackers, dips and spreads, fresh fruit and nuts, hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with salt or dipped in salad dressing. (True confessions: I buy cases of already-boiled and -peeled eggs from Costco.) Depending on our own desires and abilities on a given day, we also can find joy in cooking more traditional or elaborate meals — if that’s what we choose.
I tend to think of cooking as both a repetitive necessity and a delightful hobby, but those trains of thought don’t always run simultaneously. Sometimes dinner is an adventure or experiment or labor of love; sometimes it’s an egg-salad sandwich. Sometimes the main dish takes time, but the greens come from a bag.
Brown urges readers toward acceptance above all: being kind to ourselves, feeling gratitude, giving up perfectionism and other people’s ideas about what our dinners should look like.
“There is no such thing as a bad home cook,” she writes.
I particularly liked her “TL;DR” approach to every recipe, giving a high-level summary of how it works. (That’s from the internet acronym “Too long; didn’t read,” followed by a sentence boiling down the essentials of a long piece.) The relaxed nature of her TL;DRs reminds me of recipes from my grandparents’ day, which get flak for being imprecise, but also are sometimes more flexible and useful and easy to remember because of it. Those quick rundowns are the way I would tell a friend how to cook a dish.
I’m so grateful and lucky to have moved past our own days of crisis and crackers, with kids old enough now to get their own dinner should it come to that. We eat plenty of savory scratch-cooked food. I’m also still fine grabbing random ingredients from the fridge and pantry: pita and hummus; tomatoes on top of presliced mozzarella; a handful of soft, sweet Medjool dates; maybe a can of pickled asparagus or stuffed grape leaves; a quick platter of roasted broccoli or asparagus. I was a little apologetic one time about the random assortment — just as Brown would say I don’t need to be — and my eldest surprised me by saying, “I love dinners like this.”
Honeyed, Cheesy Asparagus
Makes 4 servings as a side dish
TL;DR: Roast asparagus at 400 degrees F. for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with shredded Gruyere, and roast again until the cheese is melty and crispy.
1 bunch asparagus
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup shredded Gruyere cheese
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
2. Cut off and discard the woody end of each asparagus spear to prepare for roasting.
3. Arrange the trimmed asparagus spears in a row on the prepared sheet pan. Drizzle them with the honey, salt and olive oil. Get in there with your hands, and rub the honey, oil and salt all over the spears, then put them back in a neat(ish) row.
4. Roast until the asparagus is bright green, around 5 minutes. Remove it from the oven, and sprinkle the shredded Gruyere over the top. Roast again until the asparagus is super bright green, with some little dark bits at the top, and the cheese is melty and bubbly, 5 minutes more. Serve immediately. I usually eat about half the spears directly off the pan, burning my fingers and tongue.
— Excerpted from “Good Enough. A Cookbook,” by Leanne Brown. Workman Publishing, 2022