First: the hand with the wooden spoon. While gathering the ingredients to make my zaalouk — a Moroccan salad or dip that’s so perfect for this time of the year, when vegetables are begging to be charred and eaten outside, with friends and bread — I had a deep sense of comfort. I was in familiar territory. Peppers and eggplants, tomatoes and tomato paste, my happy place. Olive oil, tahini, lemon juice and garlic, my home. Spices from the spice rack: cumin, paprika, chile flakes. Herbs freshly gathered: parsley and cilantro.
As I set about charring my eggplants and peppers, I considered all the directions I could take with this set of ingredients: a roasted vegetable soup or a deeply flavored pasta sauce, blitzed or chunky, each with its own result. Spooned on rice, it could be a stew. Cooked in a pan with some eggs, it would be shakshuka, my favorite breakfast. Keeping the tomatoes raw, I could make a sandwich in a pita, adding roasted eggplant, some tahini and parsley sauce.
Warm dips, hot soups, cold salsas, thick sauces, chopped salads: The ingredients’ potential gave me a sort of unthinking ease that I don’t always have when trying out new recipes. We talk about comfort food and comfort eating, but it is in such instances, when you know your ingredients so well and they know one another, that it also makes sense to talk about comfort cooking.
To me, this kind of cooking feels like standing on a firm foundation. It means you can freestyle and play around. Herbs you have on hand can be substituted (dill and basil here, instead of parsley and cilantro); spices can be added or substituted (caraway and cardamom are good candidates here). To top it off, it’s a case of opening the fridge and seeing what’s there: buttermilk and feta dressing, perhaps, instead of tahini, or maybe harissa, pine nuts and eggs, to be poached or fried.
That was the hand with the wooden spoon. The other hand was skipping frantically along Segnit’s “flavor wheel,” the clever device at the heart of this book and its predecessor, “The Flavor Thesaurus.” Choose an ingredient — eggplant! Spin the wheel, and Segnit will remind you of pairings you know work well. (Eggplants “dream of sheep,” she writes. “Their favorite meat is lamb, their chosen yogurt sheep’s.”) She also tells you why they work.