Zen in the Kitchen

March 26, 2008 at 10:28 am 15 comments

Tassajara Cooking on shelf of book store

Amidst my browsing of the pleasantly cluttered and charmingly disorganized shelves of Walk A Crocked Mile Books, previously touted here on SFTF, I stumbled upon what may be the best cookbook to ever be printed.  Well, really, let me refine that brash statement.  Tassajara Cooking, printed by Shambhala Publications in 1973 for the Zen Center of San Francisco, may just be the best ever cooking philosophy book that happens to also contain some excellent recipes and practical how-to for the beginner and intermediate cook.
You read right: this is a book about the philosophy behind cooking.  I find it utterly fascinating to flip through its pages at bedtime as it has such a wonderfully relaxed approach to preparing food that nourishes not only bodies, but also souls.   It’s all very “zen.”  Sadly, I think this original version is out of print, but if you have a lovely used book shop near you, perhaps good karma will yield you your very own copy.

It was this tidy summary on the back jacket of the book that prompted me to lay out the princely sum of three dollars that was needed to make it mine. “This is a book to help you actually cook – a cooking book.  The recipes are not for you to follow, they are for you to create, invent, test.  It explains things you need to know, and things to watch out for.  There are plenty of things left for you to discover, learn, stumble, upon.  Blessings.  You’re on your own.  Together with everything.” 

Cooking Vegetables chapter

You’re on your own…together with everything…I love it!  The first chapter, entitled “Beginning”, does indeed outline how to begin: “You follow recipes, you listen to advice, you go your own way.  Even wholehearted effort sometimes falls short, the best intentions do not insure success.  There is no help for it, so go ahead, being and continue: with yourself, with others, with vegetables…The way to be a cook is to cook.”  

Within the pages of the book, there are rough ink drawings that somehow do a brilliant job of illustrating cooking techniques and what to look for in fresh produce.  There is a chapter devoted to talking about the seasons and what is available in each.   The recipes, relegated to the second half of the book behind all the philosophical dialogue on what it means to create food, are spartan and brief in nature, but somehow quite inspiring. 

Advice like this doesn’t come all that often in the current gourmand trends eager to blow your socks off with new inventive dishes:  “When vegetables are in their prime, consider doing as little as possible.  Consider letting them be what they are, rather than making them something else. Hopefully, the simple recipes that follow will prove a guide for doing just that.”  And indeed they do.   

Pumpkin isn't always pumpkin pie


There is something oddly magical about this book. If you don’t believe me, click on that picture above and read a little of the text…  The more I read it, the more it unfolds its secrets.  I know that sounds strange, but it is true.  For me, it’s proven to be an ironic volume too since I’d previously been an outspoken proponent for very colorful, fully pictorialized (is that a word?), detailed books of recipes with little other fluff in them.  I still advocate for those cookbooks on a whole; Tassajara Cooking is just in a class of its own.  While I am rather partial to this one’s relaxing zen attitude, do you know of any other books that concentrate on the philosophy of cooking?   A book that concentrates on discussing your approach to cooking and not on providing recipes?  I’d be curious to read more of them. 

And while we’re at it, what’s your personal philosophy on the act of cooking?  How do you approach it?  Methodically?  Creatively?  Haphazardly?  Fearfully? 

Do tell, young grasshoppers!

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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Deborah  |  March 26, 2008 at 10:59 am

    “When vegetables are in their prime, consider doing as little as possible. Consider letting them be what they are, rather than making them something else.”

    Oh my gosh. Does this ever speak to me! Both as a cook AND as a gardener. And the second sentence. What words to live by… for cooks, gardeners, anyone!

    My philosophy on the act of cooking… good question. I like to think of myself as a facilitator…and maybe as an artist (or conductor?). The stuff is already there waiting to achieve a marvelous manifestation. I help get it there –with all the stuff I know–but I certainly don’t want to get in the way or micro-manage.

    And for me, somewhere in my philosophy about cooking (and gardening, writing, singing) there needs to be an answer the question who benefits? And its certainly okay if sometimes that’s just the vegetables and me. But I also believe that engaging in ones most passionate and gratifying pursuits can benefit others, maybe the world. I just wrote a post called “Cultivating Delight” on my own blog…as a way to start thinking about fostering wonder, exuberance, delight as a sort of “activism” (for want of a better word). I need to think it through some more.

    Sorry to blather on. But I guess that’s my answer to your question. I approach cooking (and every day) with exuberance, wonder, delight, and with hope for helping the world to a better place.

    Lovely blog. So thoughtful and well written. I’ll be back!

  • 2. lcsa99  |  March 26, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    I personally take a pretty methodical approach to cooking, which is rather soothing for a control freak. I’ll follow recipes pretty exact, then add to it and change it according to previous experiences.

    This book sounds rather fascinating. Might help me quite a bit in breaking out of the bounds of a set recipe and experimenting more.

  • 3. taylor  |  March 26, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    Sounds like you found a soul mate cookbook, judging by how you normally “throw together” your recipes.

    I just cook any which way I feel, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Usually, not too methodical, though.

  • 4. VegeYum  |  March 26, 2008 at 3:20 pm

    I was one of those people who grew to adulthood only able to cook a couple of dishes. Tuna morney. Bread and butter pudding.

    But when I began to spend time in the kitchen I found that I loved it. As I was learning to cook, teaching myself by reading everything that I could, I would follow recipes reasonably closely. However, once I developed a feel for the ingredients, the flavours, combinations of flavours, I began to use recipes as a guide only, a sort of base on which I could let my cooking soul run free.

    I adore the sound of your book. It IS about oneness with the ingredients, understanding their likes and dislikes, when they can shine, when they need to be only a note in a dish. It is the best part of cooking.

    My most favourite compliment was a very subtle one. I was watching my daughter in the kitchen with a friend, some years ago when she was a teenager. Her friend asked her how come she was a good cook. She replied that it was not about knowing HOW or WHAT to cook, it was about knowing the ingredients. I don’t think I ever articulated this to her, she just absorbed it from our wonderful times in the kitchen together.

  • 5. Angie  |  March 27, 2008 at 7:33 am

    when i first looked at that photograph, i thought it was a tattooed arm, and i thought, DAMN, that is dedication to eating locally and freshly.

    this book sounds awesome. i just ordered it from amazon. it is still in print, i guess. here is the link to anyone interested: http://www.amazon.com/Tassajara-Cooking-Edward-Espe-Brown/dp/0877733449/ref=pd_bbs_sr_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1206620578&sr=8-4

    i have noticed recently that my best meals are the ones that i pull out of thin air–where i don’t follow a recipe or plan at all. i call it guerilla cooking. i open the fridge, or pantry, look in the garden or shop at the farmer’s market, with no preconceptions of what i am making. i just need a meal, STAT. i start getting inspired by what i have, and what flavors seems to work together. magic happens when you are forced to be creative. i love the slackjawed look of my husband as he stares at me from the kitchen doorway ten minutes after i yelled, “we don’t have anything for dinner” and the divine look as he eats.

  • 6. Jennie  |  March 27, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Wow, such wonderful comments from all of you! There are apparently a lot of kindred spirits out there in the food blogosphere. 🙂 Not surprising, I guess.

    Deborah – Thank you for such leaving such an expressive comment. I love that you’re approaching cooking as a gardener too. Obviously that’s what I do. A tomoato never tastes as good as it does when you bite into it without taking a step away from the plant from which you just plucked it! I will be reading your blog moving forward as I agree in entirity that you can use your passions to change the world, even if it’s only your own small corner. That’s what urban farming is all about! 🙂

    Icsa99 – There’s nothing wrong with being methodical – if it weren’t for methodical cooks, the rest of us wouldn’t have tried-and-true recipes from which to springboard! 🙂 That being said, this book might be a lot of fun for you to read if you want to break the mold a tad. 🙂

    Taylor – I think we’ve got pretty similar cooking approaches. 🙂

    VegeYum – Oh, wow, that’s such a unique story about your daughter! I feel I have a similiar experience, only I’m the daughter and my mom was the one that infused my cook’s soul with an interest in getting intimately familiar with the produce from our kitchen garden that continues to inspire me today. Good job on your part! Now, about that bread and butter pudding…. what is that? It sounds yummy! 🙂

    Angie – Now that you mention it, maybe I’ll get another tattoo… 😉 Thanks for the link…that’s actually a revised edition (printed 10 years after my copy) but I bet it has pretty much all the same stuff. You’ll have to let me know when you get it. 🙂 I love the mental image of the hubby staring slackjaw at your impromtu culinary creations! And I bet you’re teaching the little one how to cook already! 🙂 xoxo.

  • 7. urbanvegan  |  March 27, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I’ve seen this book and love the open-endedness. And that’s how I approach cooking–as a journey, not a destination to reach.

    The Indians beleive that the food only tastes as good as the consciousness of the cook.

  • 8. noolives  |  March 27, 2008 at 10:20 am

    Beautiful photography!

  • 9. ApK  |  March 27, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Yes! This is exactly the approach to cooking that I have fallen into! After years of hearing from cooking-school educated friends who called themselves chefs but weren’t very adventurous, I resolved that in my kitchen at least, recipes are meant as guidelines, and experimentation encouraged. It isn’t just cooking, it’s a creative adventure, and more often than not I find myself settling into a meal with the reaffirmed belief that I am, indeed, a culinary goddess. 😉

  • 10. VegeYum  |  March 28, 2008 at 6:59 am

    I found this recipe tonight for Bread and Butter Pudding. It looks wonderful:


  • 11. Jennie  |  March 28, 2008 at 7:26 am

    More great comments!

    UrbanVegan – “The Indians beleive that the food only tastes as good as the consciousness of the cook.” That is such a powerful statement to me…I hadn’t ever articulated it in my own mind so clearly but it feels perfectly in-sync with my mantra when I’m in the kitchen. And, actually, when I’m growing things too. Wonderful!

    Noolives – Thanks so very much! 🙂

    ApK – I have no doubt that you have the making of a culinary goddess if you’re approaching your cooking with such open-mindedness. 🙂 While I respect (and even envy) the education that cooking school provides, I still favor the zest that comes with the unknown…meaning, if you’ve never been taught how to “properly” use, say, a rutabaga, you may just find a much better way to prepare it on your own. 🙂

    VegeYum – Oooooo, I think I’m going to have to make this ASAP! Do you think I could use other fruit preserves, besides marmalade? Maybe something like strawberry? I’m thinking a loaf of homemade bread with some homemade jam…. Yum! Thanks for finding the recipe!

  • 12. Penny  |  March 30, 2008 at 10:56 am

    Hi there,
    I don’t have Tassajara Cooking, but The Tassajara Recipe Book (now stained ad crumpled) is one of my favorite books. I have a batch of their Granola in the oven right now. I also use The Greens Cookbook also by Ed Espe Brown. I find it really inspiring when I ‘m facing a fridge full of vegetables knowing that I need to get cooking because the next veg box delivery will be arriving in a few days. The most important cookbooks are not the ones with the recipes you always follow but the ones which get you rushing to the kitchen in burst of enthusiasm.

  • 13. VegeYum  |  March 31, 2008 at 4:30 am

    Any jam works really well. Strawberry home made would be a real treat.

    You can also use dried fruit – sultanas, raisins, currants. Sometimes I would cook a meringue on top, in the days when I still ate eggs.

    Also, it is a great dish cos you can even use really hard stale left over bread. Simply mix the milk and eggs, maybe a bit more than usual, and soak the bread for a while before you go on with the recipe.

    An english person I knew made it with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg, and broke the bread up after it had soaked, so it all came out like a bread and butter moist cake.

    So you can experiment lots with the basics. It is a handy and delish dish.

  • 14. Jennie  |  April 1, 2008 at 6:56 am

    Penny – I would love to read your Tassajara copy too! The Greens Cookbook is another I’ll have to check out. I couldn’t agree with you more about sometimes needing a little inspiration to get rushing into the kitchen, especially in August around here when the fridge is bursting with zucchini. 🙂

    VegeYum – I can only say “thank you”. You’ve opened my eyes to a whole new world. 😉

  • 15. Easy to Cook Recipes  |  April 7, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    nice photography


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