I love cooking, but I hate recipes.

Cover courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

Perhaps “hate” is too strong a word. I’m just not very good at following them. A perfect recipe to me is one I can read once or twice, and then never have to reference as I am cooking. (This predilection explains why I am pretty bad at baking.) I think I don’t want too many rules to overwhelm or distract from my experience in the kitchen.

So when I first opened “Cook90: The 30-Day Plan for Faster, Healthier, Happier Meals” by David Tamarkin and the editors of Epicurious, I balked. Really, I thought, “This cookbook comes with too many rules.”

“Cook90” challenges readers to cook all their meals for 30 days. Tamarkin made a resolution to do just that in January 2016, and tens of thousands of people have joined him since then. I had seen the trend on Instagram (search #Cook90), and the premise didn’t scare me away when I picked up the cookbook. My husband and I almost never eat out or order food in, and I like to cook.

Then I hit the list of requirements for “Cook90.” Cook every breakfast, lunch and dinner in a monthlong period. Never cook anything more than twice. Breakfast is the exception to the rule about repeats, but it still must be cooked. Rely on leftovers, but not too much.

A book of recipes that comes with extra rules? That idea might be right for people who really want to change their cooking lives, but I didn’t have that goal. Plus, I like to eat cereal and yogurt for breakfast. I closed the book and only returned weeks later when I was scrounging for meal ideas for an upcoming week.

I flipped past the rules and kept reading. The plan includes a guide for writing meal plans and making a big weekly shop. Though I already do those things, I still found helpful suggestions. For example, the writer mentioned a colleague who includes a “Do Not Buy” section on her grocery list. I reflexively buy garlic every single time I am at the grocery store, whether or not I need it. I adopted the idea.

And then I got to the recipes. The instructions are written as though you and I are in my kitchen, and you are instructing me as we cook together. The 271-page book is divided into breakfast recipes (mostly variations on oatmeal or granola, which can be made ahead and without a lot of money), lunch recipes (mostly easy to prep and pack even a couple days in advance), and weeknight and weekend dinners.

I have to confess that I haven’t yet embarked on a purposeful 30-day cooking adventure. But I found the book helpful to support my existing cooking routine. Tamarkin wrote that he doesn’t let one missing ingredient bomb a meal plan, and I embraced that idea. When my Hannaford was out of cilantro for the Pan-Seared Steak with Cilantro Salsa Verde, I bought parsley instead. I wanted to try a “nextover” recipe, referring to one meal that helps create another. The Pan-Seared Steak contributes to a Steak Soba Salad, which also calls for cilantro (parsley again). I cooked and tasted and barely glanced at my open cookbook. The result was pretty good – one day and the next.

In the opening chapters, Tamarkin addresses a question: What happens when Cook90 is over?

“You’ll continue to do the things that you found most useful (meal plans for me), and drop the things that just aren’t realistic for your life (back to the coffee shop!),” he writes. “And you’ll find that even when you’re not officially doing Cook90, that one intensive month of cooking improves the way you cook the rest of the year.”

So maybe I’m just making excuses again to not follow the rules, or maybe I’m just writing my own.

PAN-SEARED STEAK WITH CILANTRO SALSA VERDE AND CRISPY BROCCOLI

David Tamarkin describes this as a “magic recipe,” which “has not one but two nextovers in it.” (I made just one, however.) The book credits the recipe to Mindy Fox. (Guess what? She happens to live in Portland, my editor informed me.)

Serves 4

3 large heads broccoli (3-1/2 to 4 pounds total), trimmed, cut into florets with some stalk attached, florets cut in half or quarters, if large

1/2 cup plus 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup finely chopped shallot or red onion

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2-1/2 to 3 pounds sirloin, boneless rib eye, or New York strip steaks (about 1-1/4 inches thick)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped

1-1/2 teaspoons seeded and finely chopped jalapeño pepper 

Set the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat it to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide the broccoli between the sheets, arranging them in a single layer. Drizzle each sheet of broccoli with 1/4 cup oil, then season each with 1/2 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Roast, stirring once and rotating the sheets halfway through, until the broccoli is crispy and charred in spots, 35 to 40 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if desired, starting with 1/8 teaspoon each salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, stir together the shallot, lime juice, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let stand while you cook the steaks.

Season the steaks generously on all sides with salt and pepper, pressing the seasoning into the meat so that it sticks. Heat a large skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat until very hot. Add the vegetable oil and swirl the pan to coat.

Blot the steaks on both sides with paper towels to absorb excess moisture, then add no more than two steaks to the hot pan. Cook the steaks, undisturbed, until the undersides are deeply golden and a crust has formed, about 5 minutes. Flip the steaks and cook until the other side is also deeply golden and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 130 degrees F for medium rare, about 5 minutes more. Sear the sides of the steaks, if they have a fat cap on them. Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and let them rest for 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and wipe out any excess fat, leaving just enough behind to coat the pan. Repeat with any remaining steaks.

While the steaks are resting, finish the salsa verde: Add the remaining 6 tablespoons of olive oil, cilantro, capers and jalapeño to the shallot mixture; stir to combine.

Set aside about 1/3 of the steak for the Steak Soba Salad. Coarsely chop and set aside 3 cups of broccoli for another use.

Thinly slice the remaining steak against the grain. Serve warm with the remaining broccoli, spooning the salsa verde on top of both.

Steak Soba Salad Photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

STEAK SOBA SALAD

“Cook90” notes that you can substitute “any thinly sliced crunchy vegetable – kale, snow or snap peas, even celery”– for the cabbage and radishes. All combined vegetables should add up to about 4 cups.

Serves 4

1 (8.8-ounce) package soba (Japanese-style noodles)

1 tablespoon finely chopped ginger root

1 small garlic clove, chopped

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

2 tablespoons white miso paste

4 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon sugar

3 cups thinly sliced red or green cabbage

10 to 12 ounces nextover’d Pan-Seared Steak (see previous recipe), thinly sliced (about 2 cups)

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus more for serving

4 large radishes, halved and thinly sliced

2 large scallions, thinly sliced

1/4 cup toasted salted pumpkin seeds (pepitas), or any roasted and salted nut, such as almonds or pistachios

Cook the soba noodles according to the package directions.

Meanwhile, mound the ginger, garlic and salt on a cutting board. Give the garlic and ginger a rough chop, then use the flat side of the knife to smush them all together. Continue chopping and smushing until a paste forms. Transfer the paste to a large mixing bowl. Add the sesame oil, miso paste, lemon juice, sugar and 1 tablespoon warm water; whisk to combine.

Drain the noodles, rinse with cold water, and add to the miso mixture; taste and adjust the salt if you like. Add the cabbage, steak, cilantro, radishes, and scallions; toss to combine. Top with the pepitas and sprinkle with more cilantro.


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