Why I cook


You might agree when I say that life feels uncertain right now. There is a new normal replacing many assumptions and expectations we had taken for granted. Some of this is organic: We evolve, kids grow, parents age, paradigms shift. Some of this is external: Our world as we know it changes, affecting jobs, homes, security — even the weather. We all have our own mix of ingredients that concoct a plan, a recipe, for our life. Yet, the only sure thing is that there is no sure thing. And this is a reason that I like to cook.

The act of cooking is predictable and methodical, an essential daily routine that grounds and comforts us. When I cook, I surrender to its principles, meditate on the process, and revel in its artistic shape. Cooking tells a story that is both personal and reflective. It’s a creative journey and sensual expression that can be gifted and shared. It’s rooted in history, yet embraces the present; it’s our daily bread. Cooking is a thread that tethers us, reminding us of the past while planting seeds for the future, reinforcing and creating new traditions. It connects a family, old friends, new acquaintances and travelers with whom we intersect.

The power to create and provide sustenance that feeds and links us to people is a most simple and powerful gift that we can realize for ourselves and loved ones every single day. I might not have a crystal ball, but I can predict my dinner, and I will make it happen.

This recipe is not fancy. It’s inspired by a glowing food memory of a trip I took to the wilds of Alaska a few years ago. Whenever I re-create this dish, I am transported back to Tutka Bay, where I was served a similar meal during the height of summer, when the sun hovered in the sky, never entirely setting; where vegetables grew at lightning speed, gobbling up the daylight energy; and fresh fish was abundant in the surrounding fjord and sea.

The ingredients are wholesome; each has its place, building layers of texture and flavor derived from an abundance of fresh herbs and citrus. It’s simple, honest cooking that is purposeful and timeless, nourishing and delicious — a perfect respite to make, share and enjoy in peace at the end of a day.

Shrimp and Kale Couscous

Active time: 30 minutes

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: Serves 4

Extra-virgin olive oil

2 cups pearl (Israeli) couscous

2 cups plus 1/4 cup chicken stock

1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 tsp. finely grated lemon zest, plus extra for garnish

1 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp.sweet paprika

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound large (18/20) shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails optional

1/2 tsp. red chile flakes

1 bunch purple or curly green kale, tough ribs removed, torn into large bite-size pieces

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup mixed chopped fresh Italian parsley, dill and chives

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the couscous, stir to coat, and cook until the couscous is toasted light golden, about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Carefully add the 2 cups stock (it will sizzle). Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and zest, the cumin, paprika, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Keep warm.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a clean skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium heat. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper. Add the shrimp in one layer to the skillet. Cook until bright pink and lightly seared on both sides and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes, turning once. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate.

In the same skillet, heat 1 tablespoon oil and the red chile flakes over medium heat. Add the kale and garlic and saute until the kale leaves begin to wilt, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the 1/4 cup stock and continue to saute until the liquid evaporates, about 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and season with salt.

To serve, divide the couscous between serving plates or shallow bowls. Top with the kale. Arrange the shrimp over the kale. Garnish with the fresh herbs and additional lemon zest.


Lynda Balslev is the co-author of “Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture” (Gibbs Smith, 2014). Contact her at TasteFood, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106; or send email to tastefood@tastefoodblog.com; or visit the TasteFood blog at tastefoodblog.com.