You Can Run, but You Can't Cook. Or Can You?


Week 12
Total Mileage: 36 miles
Weekend Meal: Spaghetti with shiitake mushrooms, curried sweet potato soup

After a week of not wanting to cook and two weeks of not cooking at all, Week 12 was my chance to get back in the kitchen. All the eating out I'd done in my month-long cooking strike was taking its toll on my budget—even a "cheap" slice-of-pizza lunch can run up to $10 if you add a side salad and a soda. It wasn't doing much for my health either. When my mother read my last column, where I described the chicken fingers, French fries, and chocolate I'd been eating, she was so worried she sent me a copy of Jim Fixx's classic The Complete Book of Running—which includes a recipe for "wheat loaf."

Fortunately, it was also a step-back week—13 miles on Saturday and five on Sunday—so I was less tired and had more time on my hands, making my return to cooking for myself that much easier. Another factor that helped: it was a beautiful weekend. When I woke up on Sunday to a warm, sunny day, there was nothing I wanted to do more than head out to the farmers' market.

I arrived at the Dupont market late, and most of the good vegetables and bread had already been snatched up by the early birds. But I made my way to the mushroom booth and was overjoyed to discover they still had plenty of boxes of shiitakes—my favorites.

I resolved to do something with the mushrooms for dinner—hot and sour soup? Mushroom pasta? Veggie burgers? —but I still needed something for lunch. The slim vegetable pickings meant I couldn't buy a bunch of produce and make a big salad or stir fry, as I often like to do after weekend trips to the market. So instead I cheated a little and bought a small container of sweet potato soup. On the way out of the market, I bought some smoked mozzarella, then picked up a ciabatta loaf from a nearby bakery and returned home to make a soup-and-grilled cheese lunch.

The soup was lovely—rich and flavorful, with just a hint of other spices—and the smoked mozzarella grilled cheese sandwich made me want to buy a creamery so I'd have access to fresh cheese at all times. As I ate I searched Epicurious for recipes that use shiitakes and found one that required only a few more ingredients: a mushroom pasta sauce not too different from Sally Schneider's mushroom ragu, which I'd made a few months earlier and adored.

I should have stuck with Sally. This recipe was broth- and cream-based , instead of Sally's tomato-based method, and it produced a heavy, bland sauce that nearly killed the earthy flavor I love so much. Its one redeeming quality was its ease—I spent just 20 minutes at the stove, so dinner was ready before the Oscars telecast started.

Though disappointing, the pasta succeeded in rekindling my desire to cook, and I went to sleep Sunday night determined to make a more satisfying dish the next day. I'd enjoyed the farmers' market soup so much I was inspired to revisit a recipe for curried sweet potato soup I'd discovered this winter.

After work on Monday, I bought the ingredients: sweet potatoes of course, plus leeks, ginger, lemongrass, vegetable broth, and coconut milk. I peeled and chopped the sweet potatoes, sliced the leeks, and diced the ginger. Then I cooked the sweet potatoes in butter before adding the leeks and a tablespoon of curry powder. Next I added the ginger, lemongrass, and vegetable broth and let the mixture simmer for 20 minutes. When the potatoes were very soft, I turned off the heat and poured the mixture into the food processor in batches to puree it.

After all the soup was pureed, I whisked in the coconut milk, then rewarmed the entire thing over low heat. Meanwhile I prepared a salad and cut a big hunk of bread from the loaf I'd bought over the weekend. I ladled a generous serving into a large bowl and brought it, along with the salad and bread, out to the living room.

The soup was even better than the farmers' market version—the curry and coconut milk added a depth that had been missing from the pre-made soup. After I finished my bowl, I poured the remaining soup into individual containers to freeze for lunch in the weeks ahead—no more $10 pizza lunches for me. I looked around the kitchen and thought, "I'm back."