When the pandemic started, food writer Sandra Wu started making smoothies, with a vengeance.
"Like, ugh, let's press blend," she remembers. "Let's put in some liquid, like ugh, and get it in there."
All her anger, frustration and fear melted away, she says, like the strawberries she pulverized in her blender. Now Wu's writing a cookbook, Feel Good Smoothies. It's part of a trend of catharsis cookbooks, says Paula Forbes, who publishes a newsletter about the cookbook industry called Stained Page News. She recently noticed a number of new cookbooks focusing more on the rage of cooking than the joy of it.
"Rage Baking, which was controversial," she says, noting other emotion-themed cookbooks, such as Procrastibaking: 100 Recipes for Getting Nothing Done in the Most Delicious Way Possible by Erin Gardner, and the upcoming Baking By Feel by Becca Rea-Holloway.
"Which she describes on Instagram [@TheSweetFeminist] as a book about 'feeling your emotions (all of them, without judgment),'" Forbes adds. And "for when you feel bad, Alison Riley is writing Recipe for Disaster: Good Food for Bad Times."
Finding release through pounding filets, chopping onions and smashing basil is the concept of a recent cookbook called Steamed: A Catharsis Cookbook. It was written for those days when you're boiling over, steaming mad or just plain fried, according to its San Francisco-based authors, who sold the proposal right before the pandemic.
"We're dealing with the wildfires here in California, which is really creating a sense of existential angst and, like, devastation," says Tara Duggan, a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle. "And we just effortlessly wove in Covid," chimed in freelance food writer Rachel Levin, dryly.
Levin and Duggan maximize pounding, whisking, grinding and grating. Cooking redirects your energy, they say, forcing you to be in the moment. Spatchcocking chicken can serve as a coping mechanism. But isn't this all vey ... 2020?
"It'd be easy to gloss over our cookbook — honestly, to gloss over any cookbook — as a COVID relic right now," Levin admitted in an email. "We conceived of Steamed before COVID, when our world was just in its normal state of major upheaval (climate change, partisan politics, mass shootings, systemic racism) and minor daily irritations.
"If anything is certain: the pandemic taught us to persevere, but it, 100 percent, won't be the only challenge we face in life."
"Steamed calls out the kitchen for what is, most certainly has been, and always will be: a refuge," Levin added. "Complete with sharp blades for cleaving watermelon and blunt instruments for pummeling chicken thighs and soothing wooden spoons for slowly, mindlessly, stirring yourself into a state of calm."
We're still not done processing our emotions from last year, Levin says. And always, we need to eat.
SNAPPED ASPARAGUS WITH CHERMOULA, from Steamed
SERVES 2 TO 4
Snapping the ends off of asparagus spears is one of the more mindless, meditative tasks in the kitchen. In fact, it could easily cross reference with "Chilling the F Out" section of this book. But listen closely and the snap itself brings a perverse satisfaction of its own. (Is it an asparagus stalk or your obnoxiously loud neighbor's neck? You decide.)
Also, the chermoula topping is a natural fit for this chapter, as making this tangy North African condiment takes muscle, just like its pesto counterpart. Instead of the food processor, you can mash the garlic in a mortar and pestle with the salt and spices, then slowly sprinkle in the parsley and cilantro, and finally the olive oil and lemon. If you have any left over, jar the extra chermoula to serve with fish and other vegetables.
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive
oil, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons as needed
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound)
1 to 2 teaspoons olive oil
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
TO MAKE THE CHERMOULA: Place the garlic in a food processor and process until chopped. Add the salt, cumin, and cayenne and pulse to combine. Add the parsley and cilantro leaves and process until finely pureed. Slowly add the 1/3 cup of olive oil and then the lemon juice. Season to taste with more salt, spices, and/or lemon juice; you can also add another 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil to balance the flavors.
TO ROAST THE ASPARAGUS: Hold an asparagus stalk in your nondominant hand with the bottom facing out. Grasp the end and snap where it bends naturally to remove the woody end. Continue with the remaining asparagus.
Place the asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with the oil, and sprinkle with salt. Rotate the asparagus to coat in the oil. Roast in the hottest part of the oven until the tips are crispy and the thick part of the stalk is cooked through when poked with a knife;
the time ranges from 15 minutes for pencil-thin asparagus to 20 to 25 minutes for superthick ones. Turn once during cooking.
Serve the asparagus right away on a platter, drizzled with the chermoula.
Excerpted from STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook for Getting Dinner and Your Feelings on the Table by Rachel Levin & Tara Duggan. Copyright © 2021. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
This story was edited for radio by Petra Mayer, and adapted for the web by Neda Ulaby and Petra Mayer.