I like getting better at things. It’s one of my greatest pleasures.
There are two good ways to improve, one more effective than the other. Still, they’re complimentary. One is to read about something, indiscriminately at first, and then with increasing selectivity. I do this often–Google it, read Wikipedia, start following the sources footnoted at the bottom of the page, and then find, or stumble upon, the very information I need. That narrowing down and absorbing is a great pleasure in its own right. The finding of the perfect thing feels something like the moment a ray of sunlight breaks through clouds to illuminate the most beautiful bit of landscape.
The other way to get better is just to do. It helps sometimes to read a little and act on that reading, but sooner or later I always let what I’ve read sink deeper into my mind–where it invisibly seasons my doing like a clove of garlic at the bottom of a murky pot of soup–and just play. There’s no finesse here, no subtlety. It’s just trying things out and seeing what works. And learning from what doesn’t work, taking as much pleasure in the mistakes as in the miraculous, seemingly accidental, successes.
Cooking is like this. I read a recipe, or come across a new technique. I get excited about it. Sometimes, I almost immediately walk into the kitchen in order to purposefully try a new combination of flavours, or practice a different way of cooking an ingredient I love. But more often, I stand at the stove and just play. I add cumin and cinnamon to my tomato sauce and discover the heady pleasure of deep-toned spices underlining the acid kick of good tomatoes. I vaguely recall once reading a suggestion that a couple of spoonfuls of masa improve a pot of polenta, and decide that if two kinds of corn are good, four can only be better—and feast on a bowl of divine polenta made toothsome with coarsely-ground grits, silky with masa, sweet with finely ground cornmeal, and chewy with kernels roasted in the summer and retrieved from the freezer. I let onions blacken by accident and understand Tamar Adler’s assertion that there’s no such thing as a burnt onion. I become, just by doing, a better cook—freer, more willing to take risks, more efficient and more skillful just from practice. I glow with the pleasure of it.
I’m always trying to become a better cook, but I’m also trying to become a better photographer. I love food because it tastes good and smells good and looks good, and part of what I want to share with you is the visual pleasure of what I’m cooking. I started with reading—blogs, magazines, From Plate to Pixel. I learned the basics of what an F-stop is, what ISO means, what increasing the exposure does to an image. For a little while—a very little while, the afternoon I took these photos—I purposefully picked up the camera with the intention of acting on my reading. But very quickly, purposeful turned to playful.
Doesn’t it always?
I set up my sun-lamp (oh so necessary during dark Canadian winters) with a piece of parchment paper as a filter and find that it makes an excellent supplement to the daylight that comes, in limited quantities, through my kitchen windows. I dig Alexis’s tripod out of the basement and discover, to my delight, that using it make my photos improve almost immediately, just by benefit of removing my shaky hands from the equation. I take eight photos of the same bowl of cake batter, each at a different exposure, just to see what will happen. I take photos that start to look almost as good as they taste.
I like this balance between purposeful effort and play. Because somewhere at the intersection of mindfulness and memory, play and perseverance, I get better at things. I get better at cooking, at photographing, at trusting my head and my eyes and my hands to create things that are beautiful and delicious. I also get better at trusting my instincts, at trusting that I know enough that my playing will turn into something edible, something inviting to the eye.
This recipe is perfect for indulging in some mindful play. It’s a blank enough canvas that you can feel free to play and adjust as you like. Don’t have sweet potato? Use pumpkin. Roast other vegetables alongside the sweet potato. Try out the pebbly blackness of beluga lentils instead of black turtle beans. Substitute parsley or chives for cilantro. Add slices of rich avocado instead of sour cream, or add both and a crumble of queso fresco if you’re feeling in the mood for extra richness. Or quickly steep some red onion in lime juice for an extra bit of sour-sharp crunch.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/2-1 tablespoon Mexican chili powder, depending on the heat of your spices
2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into a 1/2 inch dice
1 14-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 tsp cumin seeds, lightly crushed
4 green onions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
Lime wedges, for squeezing
6-8 corn tortillas
Sour cream and salsa, to serve
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. On a large baking sheet, toss the cubed sweet potato with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and the chili powder with your hands to coat. Roast until the sweet potato is tender and the edges caramelized, about 20-30 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat in a large frying pan. Toast the cumin seeds until fragrant. Turn the heat down to low and add the black beans, stirring to coat with the cuminy oil. Keep warm while the potatoes finish cooking.
Warm the tortillas either by heating them briefly in a dry frying pan over medium heat, or by wrapping them in foil and placing them in the oven for the last ten minutes that the potatoes are cooking.
When the potatoes are cooked, add them to the black beans along with half of the green onion. Stir together. Serve wrapped in the warm tortillas, topped with salsa, sour cream, lime juice, and the remaining green onion.