Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cooking to Feed Your Creativity

by Lisa

Writers know to consider all the senses when describing a scene. What are the colors? Sounds? Smells? Textures?

When it comes to food, though, we often focus on taste (or haste) to the exclusion of other sensual delights. I am aware of this most keenly when I visit a good restaurant, as I did last week in Chicago: Bombay Spice on Clark Street. My husband and I ordered appetizers of lentil cakes and seared eggplant, and a couple of "Create Your Entree" dishes. When the plates were set on our table, I remembered why I originally fell in love with vegetarian cooking. The lentil cakes were garnished with a colorful tomato mixture and tangy sauce, the eggplant was seared to dark perfection on the outside and impossibly creamy in the middle, and the entrees offered a colorful feast of tofu, vegetables, rice, and noodles. The experience was as aesthetically pleasing as it was delicious.

One of the more intriguing options on the menu is the Bombay Sampler, where diners pick a couple of favorite ingredients and the chef prepares a personalized meal. Giving ourselves these kinds of artificial constraints, whether in writing (what would happen if I combined this character with that setting?) or cooking (what can I make with black beans and oranges?), is good divergent, creative practice, forcing us to make new connections. For me, the lure of meatless meals is not so much health or ethics as it is the potential for creativity. And the more creative I am in the non-writing parts of my life, the more I seem to be able to engage creativity on the page.

Of course, nutrition and efficiency matter, too, which is why the following recipes are healthy, fast, and festive, with tastes, textures, colors, and aromas to fuel your creative appetite from plate to pen and back again.

What kind of cooking makes you more creative in your writing life?

Black Bean and Orange Salad

  • 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced
  • 3 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced on the diagonal
  • 1 green bell pepper, trimmed and diced
  • 2 Tablespoons light sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons dark (toasted) sesame oil
  • 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar, white balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon honey
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 4 fresh oranges, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1. In a medium bowl, combine beans, sliced scallions, celery, and diced pepper. Set aside.
2. In a smaller bowl, whisk together oils, vinegar or lemon juice, honey, cumin and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
3. Pour dressing over bean mixture and toss to combine.
4. Add orange pieces and cilantro. Toss gently to combine.
Makes 4 servings.

* * * * * *

Spinach and White Bean Farfalle

  • 1 pound farfalle (bow tie) pasta
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large carrot, trimmed, peeled, and diced
  • 1 large bunch fresh spinach, rinsed well and large stems removed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 15-ounce can firm white beans, such as great northern or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Boil pasta until al dente
2. While pasta boils, saute garlic and diced carrots in olive oil in a large sauté pan for about 5 minutes. Add spinach and beans, cover, and cook until spinach is wilted and beans are heated through. Add salt to taste.
3. Drain pasta. Toss cooked pasta with spinach and bean mixture. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Makes about 6 main dish servings.

* * * * * *

Lentils, Rice and Broccoli with Peanut Butter Sauce

  • 1/2 cup dry brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 1 cup white or brown rice
  • 4 cups fresh broccoli florets
  • 1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 2/3 cup hot vegetable broth, or more as needed
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, or to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon soy sauce

1. Bring 3 cups water to a boil. Add lentils, stir, and simmer until lentils are cooked through but still firm, about 20-25 minutes. Drain.
2. While the lentils simmer, cook rice according to package directions.
3. Steam broccoli for 5 to 10 minutes, until desired tenderness.
4. To prepare sauce, whisk together peanut butter, vegetable broth, ginger, red pepper and soy sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings. If needed, add more vegetable broth or peanut butter for desired consistency.
5. To serve, arrange cooked rice, cooked lentils, and broccoli in any way you'd like on a large, shallow serving plate. Drizzle with peanut butter sauce.
Makes 4 servings.


  1. Wow! Three great recipes for me to try. I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years and I am always looking for new ideas. Can't wait to try these out. Although my books are for kids, I do try to mention some of the food in the country Amanda is visiting. For a 12 year old, she likes to try different things.

  2. Darlene, I hope you like the recipes. I cook vegetarian foods almost all the time, even though my husband and I aren't true vegetarians any more. Amanda in Arabia looks like something I would really enjoy!

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, Victoria! My challenge now is to make these dishes in smaller quantities. With just the two of us, the leftovers can last awhile. :)

  4. Oh boy. These do look good. I excited to try that black bean and orange salad!

    I love how the idea, too, of placing a character in a whole new setting, too. There are some characters from some of my older (non-published) stories who I've fallen in love with, who deserve more than just a quiet home in a drawer :)

    1. Christi, thanks! The black bean and orange salad is one of my favorites (if you can get good clementine oranges, those work well and don't have to be sliced).

      I know what you mean about old characters knocking to be let out of desk drawers, needing a new adventure. :)