Last month, Scout discovered something rare: an approachable cooking blog. If you’re an experienced home cook, then you probably appreciate unique recipes from impressive food blogs. If you count yourself a member of the “cooking beginners club”, recipes are daunting documents akin to tax forms. We might like to eat fancy food, but when loved ones casually suggest new recipes from obscure cookbooks, we feel a lump in our stomachs. This all changed last month when Scout discovered his new favorite cooking blog: “Cooking the Books”.
When Scout heard that the creators of “Cooking the Books”, Johnny and Victoria, cooked through 50 cookbooks this year, he had to meet these people. Anyone who cooks like that must really know how to eat and there’s no one Scout respects like people who know how to eat. Intrigued, he followed his gut and asked Johnny and Victoria if they’d meet us for a Skype interview. (As always, I was the Scribe and Scout was the dictator.)
Spoiler alert: Johnny and Victoria even created a NEW recipe for Scout, but we’re jumping ahead. Read to the end for the full recipe.
Johnny & Victoria of “Cooking the Books”
Meeting new people over Skype can be awkward, but Johnny and Victoria are easy to talk to. During the call, they were at home in their kitchen in Chicago and we felt like we’d stopped by for an afternoon catch-up. When we asked how they’d met, they described meeting at a record store in Minneapolis in 1997. Then in 2002, they moved to Chicago. Johnny wanted to work in the music industry and Victoria attended culinary school at Kendall College. They owned record stores and Victoria cooked at prestigious restaurants. To onlookers, they were among the lucky few working exciting careers. But working late nights and missing holidays for low pay isn’t always a dream.
Music & food
Determined to pursue their passions, Johnny and Victoria started Alchemy Audio. At Alchemy, they build, repair, and modify electric guitar effects pedals for their notable following of rock stars. (Scout’s not saying he befriended them to get to his favorite band, but he’s also not saying that he’s not saying that.) They were successful small business owners, but still wanted to pursue their passion for food and cooking. They found a way last January and started their blog “Cooking the Books”. They even started to teach “Fearless Cooking” classes for intrepid newcomers like Scout and I.
Johnny knows music and taught Victoria to solder electric guitar pedals. Victoria is a talented cook and shared her culinary expertise with Johnny.
Entrepreneurs like this amaze us. Somehow, they combined their passions and talents into meaningful, successful careers. Johnny knows music and taught Victoria to solder electric guitar pedals. Victoria is a talented cook and shared her culinary expertise with Johnny. Their life plays like a romantic comedy, but we don’t hold it against them. They’re a formidable team and it inspires us.
Why 50+ cookbooks?
As we talked, Scout and I had one major, looming question: Why? Why would any sane person choose to cook through 50 cookbooks (and counting) in under a year? With a smile and a laugh, Johnny and Victoria cleared this up for us, “We’re crazy.” Then, they elaborated.
Last January, Johnny and Victoria noticed the way their pantry “overflowed with unused cookbooks.” Those unused cookbooks gave them an idea. In Johnny’s words, they wanted to “take a deeper dive into these cookbooks” and cook a new recipe every day this year.
Johnny and Victoria not only make home cooking accessible, but undeniably cool. They bring raw practicality to an otherwise exclusive culinary art form.
“Success or failure rests in your hands.”
They’re entrepreneurs and, like Johnny said, “It’s not the safe option. Success or failure rests in your hands.” But they’re doing it. Each day, they cook impressive meals from the comfort of their home kitchen. Their blog is full of cookbook reviews and practical suggestions for complex recipes. Somehow, Johnny and Victoria not only make home cooking accessible, but undeniably cool. They bring raw practicality to an otherwise exclusive culinary art form.
Cooking isn’t a pass/fail test
As we talked, it became clear that Johnny and Victoria are skilled cooks and we began to feel intimidated. But they assured us that cooking isn’t a “pass/fail” endeavor. Scout and I were wary. Cooking a recipe can feel like a test for cooking beginners. Scout and I are all too familiar with dinners-turned-to-charcoal. We’ve scraped these meals into the trashcan and felt like food failures. Nevertheless, Johnny and Victoria assured us that we aren’t failures. When we asked how to avoid charcoal dinners in the future, they shared an invaluable cooking tip:
We’ll repeat this to ourselves daily. “Don’t apologize. Don’t apologize.”
Cook with confidence
As we chatted with Johnny and Victoria, cooking started to sound doable. It even started to sound desirable which is saying a lot for Scout and I. Scout and Team Frymire own several cookbooks, but have only cooked a handful of recipes from each. Scout began to wonder if he could cook his way through his unused cookbooks too. There’s just one problem: where do we begin?
Johnny and Victoria obviously don’t shy away from a challenge. But they’re also exceedingly practical. They reminded us that cooking beginners can start with a few kitchen basics: a skillet, spatula, knife, and cutting board. Johnny and Victoria don’t even use oven mitts because kitchen towels work fine. This was reassuring. If experienced cooks stick to the basics with good results, then maybe the basics are enough for us cooking beginners too.
Remember “mise en place”
Then, Victoria mentioned mise en place. Before you run, it’s just French for “everything in its place”. This means that you chop each ingredient and measure out your spices ahead of time. If the recipe tells you to multitask and chop as you go, ignore it. Professional chefs prep their ingredients because it allows them to focus. For new cooks, excessive multitasking is a recipe for disaster. (You knew we had to throw that pun in there somewhere.) This brings us to Johnny and Victoria’s Tip #2:
Of course, Scout asked Victoria if he should buy those adorable little glass bowls he’s seen in all the cooking shows. She said those are fine, but a sheet tray with each ingredient in rows works just as well. Even when Scout tried to make cooking complicated, Victoria reminded him to keep things simple. Scout and my fear was lessening by the minute.
Read the recipe
Tip #3 may sound obvious, but Scout and I are guilty of not taking it. Victoria kindly reminded us to:
We don’t know about you, but we don’t always read recipes in full. We check ingredient lists, skim for highlights, and then cook with only a perfectly Photoshopped picture as our guide to the finish line. Don’t do this. It will end in disappointment. Pour yourself a glass of wine and read that recipe like you memorize your favorite song: line for line.
Once again, fear began to creep back into the cooking conversation as we discussed a variety of recipes and ingredients. Scout and I felt a little overwhelmed by the options and potential pitfalls. But, once again, Johnny and Victoria assured us that there’s no need to panic in the kitchen.
If you run out of an ingredient, choose a substitute. If there’s an ingredient on the list you don’t like, choose a substitute. If your grocer doesn’t carry that spice, choose a substitute. This brings us to Johnny and Victoria’s exceedingly important Tip #4:
Cooking shows (and even some cookbooks) have the tendency to turn cooking into a high art that’s unattainable for us beginners at the bottom. But cooking is universal. It’s one of the most profound expressions of love, culture, and community. We all take part in it as we prepare and serve food to our loved ones. In that way, cooking is very much like music. If you like the notes, play them. This is your song (or dinner) so compose it your way.
Johnny & Victoria’s favorites
You don’t talk with food people and neglect to ask them about their favorites. It’s the quintessential question and, at the risk of sounding cliché, Scout and I had to ask.
Favorite foods to cook
When we asked Victoria what she likes to cook, she quickly responded, “Mussels!” She described the rich broth, the melted butter, and the beautiful result. As our mouths watered, I said, “That sounds incredible.” But Victoria just laughed as she added, “I love to cook mussels, but I never eat them.”
Favorite foods to eat
Since Victoria doesn’t like to eat mussels, we wanted to know what she does like to eat. Her smile widened as she described how much she enjoys a good steak. Johnny agreed that he also enjoys steak, but his favorite meal is a solid charcutier board. This food conversation made me hungrier by the minute, but Scout turned up his nose. He is, after all, a voracious vegan. As a vegan, he’s constantly annoyed by the way in which people overlook vegetables.
As Scout described how much he appreciates vegetables, Johnny and Victoria agreed with him. In fact, their favorite cookbook is Vegetables Unleashed by Jose Andres. We looked it up and they’re not exaggerating. That’s an incredible cookbook for vegetable lovers. (Scout already put it on his Christmas wish list. He has not ceased to remind me.)
A remarkable recipe for cooking beginners
All of this talk about vegetables inspired Scout. Suddenly, he had the confidence to cook! I guess you could say he was feeling fearless.
Fearless Scout asked Victoria and Johnny if they recommend a vegan recipe for the holidays. He expected them to share a recipe from one of the many cookbooks they’ve reviewed. Instead, they honored him with something truly special: Johnny and Victoria wrote a recipe specifically for Scout. To say he was overwhelmed by the gesture is an understatement.
Scout will be cooking this recipe for the holiday next week. Of course, he’ll take pictures and tell you the whole story, but he wondered if you want to join him? This delicious recipe can be prepared vegan or vegetarian. It’s an easy, tasty spin on traditional sweet potatoes. When you’re ready to make it, here’s all the details.
Sweet Potato Sage Cakes with Lemon Harissa Yogurt
(makes 4 patties)
For the sweet potato sage patties:
2 x medium sweet potatoes (peeled and cut into 1/2 cubes)
1/4 cup raw pecans
3 scallions (finely sliced)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 ground black pepper
1 tsp fresh sage (finely chopped)
1/2 tsp fresh thyme (finely chopped)
1/4 tsp hot smoked paprika
2 Tbs unsalted butter (or dairy-free substitute of your choice)
olive oil (for finishing)
For the lemon harissa yogurt:
1 cup of plain Greek yogurt (or dairy-free substitute of your choice)
1 1/2 teaspoons harissa
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt & pepper to taste
Make the sweet potato patties: In a pot of salted water, boil sweet potatoes until soft (mash-able).
Drain water and place potatoes in a medium mixing bowl. Mash with a spoon or potato masher.
In a small skillet, toast pecans over medium heat until fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
Using a spice grinder, food processor or blender, grind into a fine powder and combine with the mashed potatoes, along with the salt, pepper, sage, thyme and paprika.
Cut individual squares of parchment paper measuring approximately 4-5 inches.
Using your hands or a round cookie cutter, form patties with the sweet potato mixture measuring approximately 3 inches in diameter. Place on individual parchment square and set on a sheet tray or platter. Set aside. These can be made ahead, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for a day or two.
Make the lemon harissa yogurt: In a medium mixing bowl, combine yogurt, harissa and lemon juice. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Set aside. This can be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for up to 4 days.
Meanwhile, in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat, add enough olive oil to coat the bottom and heated.
Add the sweet potato patties. Cook until brown, approximately 3-4 minutes. Flip each patty and add your butter and cook until brown, approximately 3-4 minutes.
Smear a generous layer of the yogurt on a plate. Place your sweet potato patty on top.
“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.”
“Cooking the Books” really changed the way we feel about cooking blogs and cooking for beginners. Scout and I used to skim recipes like we skim radio stations: hoping for a song we like to come on so we can actually sing along. When Scout discovered Johnny and Victoria’s project, it was like finding a new favorite song. Their confident approach to cooking inspired us and, for the first time in months, we reached for our dusty cookbooks.
As Scout and I made our shopping list for the “Sweet Potato Sage Cakes”, Scout hummed one of his favorite songs by the Beatles. He kept repeating “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends.” When I asked him if that verse was stuck in his head, he gave me one of those knowing stares and I realized what he meant. He’s happy to have met Johnny and Victoria because they’re wonderful people and they got him excited about cooking again. Whether it’s music or food or both, we all really do get by “with a little help from our friends”.
*Photos are “Cooking the Books” originals & copyrighted. They are published with permission from the owners.