Salty Spoon Challenges


This is an origami star.

I first started folding origami when I was 9 or 10 and quickly became completely addicted.  My nimble fingers flew quickly over mountain and valley folds, inside reverse folds, and more.  Somewhere along the way, I picked up a pattern for this star. I folded dozens of them. Maybe hundreds.

And as these things tend to go, I found myself folding less and less as things like college, boys, jobs, pets, travel, law school, and all the other parts of this grown-up life I lead got in the way.  One day I realized I hadn’t made anything out of paper in a long time.  I bought a pack of origami paper at a craft store and promptly stuck it in a closet for a year.

A few weeks ago, I found the paper again.  Thinking it would give me something to do with my hands while I listen to conference calls, I tucked the little cellophane packet in my purse and brought it to my office. Upon unfurling the first sheet, a sickening realization sunk in: I couldn’t remember how to make anything.

origami stars

A bit of tinkering brought back some favorites - a crane, a box, a frog. Soon, my desk was littered with little paper creatures and containers.

I didn’t remember the star until about a week later. It was as though my memory of this piece of origami had completely vanished, only to return suddenly and take me by surprise. I couldn’t believe that I had forgotten all about it. It was my favorite design for years. Years. And here I was, staring at a piece of whisper thin paper without the faintest clue how to recreate it.

I struggled and stumbled. Over the course of another week or two I picked it up and set it aside a half dozen times with little success. Bits and bobs of the process would come to me in disjointed flashes, but never in the right order. Finally, I remembered a critical aspect of the way it needed to look before the final eight folds. An hour later, I threw a rough but complete star onto my desk and shouted HA! Somehow, through a winding abyss of folds and creases and guesses, I had done it. Unfolding the finished product, a glimpse of something less meandering method peeked out at me. A few more tries over the ensuing days brought me back, finally, to the original design.


At first, I couldn’t quite explain why this little star mattered to me so much.  It hit me when I opened a box my mom sent me, full of books from my childhood. This star was a part of my life that has been settling, slowly, into closets and storage bins. But that star was a part of me, of who I am. I left Salt Lake City when I was 16, and since then have lived in Montana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and finally California. Every move marked a new phase, a major change, another step away from the chrysalis of youth and into full-fledged, dusty-winged adulthood.  I gathered so many skills and experiences and friends and qualities along that path that it shouldn’t have surprised me to find I dropped a few things along the way; my arms were full.

But they aren’t so full that I can’t make room for a beautiful little star.  Neither are yours. This month, let’s look back and see what else we dropped along the way.

Challenge 3 - Brainstorming

Before we dig into the third challenge, let’s recap where you should be at this point.  Last month, we worked with four different proteins.  In addition, we cooked an additional meal each week.  Both of these challenges remain cumulative for this month; you should be cooking a minimum of three times per week now, and you should be working with four different proteins.  More advanced? Find a minimum of three things per week that you would normally purchase and make it yourself (stock, tomato sauce, bread, vinaigrette, etc.), and cook your proteins two different ways.

This month, I want you to focus on making food you really want to eat.  It’s great to work with whatever you have on hand to piece together a meal, and in the coming months we’ll get to work stocking pantries and fridges to make that happen more efficiently. This month, however, I want to cultivate a process of thinking about things we really love to eat, finding a recipe, and making it.  This is satisfaction on a plate, literally.

At least once each week, find a quiet place and take a few moments to think about the food you love.  If possible, think specifically about food from another time in your life - your childhood, college, that breathless time when you were living in your first apartment.  Let your mind wander to holidays, special meals, long-forgotten restaurants.  Think about the food, and when a dish crystallizes in your mind, write it down.  Generate a list of a at least three or four things, then decide which one you’re going to make for yourself that week.

Stumped? Here’s a sample brainstorm of mine: the first time I met John’s extended family was at his cousin’s wedding. It was also my first trip to DC. After the reception, we joined the adults for dinner (the rest of our generation went camping with the bride and groom, but we had to pass due to an early flight the next day).  We went to The Capitol Grille, and it was one of the most wonderful dinners of my life. I felt so welcome, so warmly embraced by this family whom I had just met.  Their warmth was magnified by the rich heat of the French onion soup everyone ordered with their meal.  It was the first and best French onion soup I’ve ever had, and I want to make it for myself.  So, first on my list? French onion soup.

Need help finding recipes to match your brainstorm list? Leave me a note here in the comments or drop me an email and I’ll be more than happy to offer some suggestions. Let’s go!


Last month, Michael Ruhlman challenged food bloggers to join him in thinking about why we cook. His post has received over 200 comments and has inspired many blog posts in response. Here is mine.

Why I Cook

I cook because I love to eat. At the heart of all my reasons, my cooking is primarily an extension of my deep love of food. Eating involves my senses - the sight of the food, its aroma, its heft in my hand and texture in my mouth, the sounds it made as it was prepared - all of this before it even reaches the deep ocean of the experience of taste. Cooking literally feeds my joyful affection for food.


I cook because I like to work with my hands. I relish relating to the world kinesthetically; when I cook, I manipulate ingredients with my hands until they become something else, something wonderful. Everything I create a work is cerebral, words on a page.  Cooking lets me make something I can touch and feel and experience more fully.

I cook because I need a creative outlet. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t created things. Drawing, painting, dancing, sewing, knitting, acting, writing, building, quilting, beading, sculpting…it has always been something. As I have noted here many times, I often work long hours. This leaves me with little time for hobbies, especially during the week. Since we have to eat, I have always felt like cooking dinner each night kills two birds with one stone. I get to spend time doing something I love, and it happens to fill our bellies at the end. Win-win.


I cook because there are endless lessons to learn and skills to master. In some ways, the world of cooking presents an impossibly steep mountain that reaches into the heavens. But I set out for a climb anyway, knowing I won’t ever reach the summit. I teach myself new techniques and concepts along the way, and every success pays dividends.

I cook as a way to relate to people. Food is a way to show love, affection, friendship, kindness. I feel like I can express my support for those close to me so much more eloquently through a well-timed chocolate babka than I can with words. When I cook for others, the food speaks for me. It tells them that they are worth my time, worth the effort.


I cook because it fascinates me. Cooking is the perfect storm of science, art, and magic. There is so much to know about the physical and chemical properties of my ingredients; the more I learn, the more enthralled I become. This was what first attracted me to baking (well, that and the wonder of frosting). Combine a whole lot of nothing - flour, water, yeast, salt - and end up with a crusty loaf of bread, one very special something. Add the hearty beauty of roasted garlic and fresh herbs, and that simple bread becomes something unforgettable, craveable. Cube it, toss with tomatoes and cheese, douse with oil and vinegar and a beautiful panzanella jumps out. There are endless combinations and variations on limitless themes, each more delicious than the last. When I step into my kitchen and begin to cook, I feel as though I’m trying to throw my arms around a glorious expanse of wonder and discovery. With each new dish, my enthusiasm grows. I use cooking to feed both my belly and my soul.

What about you? Why do you cook?

(Keep reading Salty Spoon Challenge, Month 2…)

Is there anything more effervescently exciting to send out into the world than an invitation? Regardless of the event, I find a certain kind of lime green, spine-buzzing energy every time I nudge one out for consideration.  By saying to your recipients here, come share this with me, you open a piece of yourself to them and wordlessly communicate your (hopefully) very best intentions.  It’s a magical practice and I hope I never tire of it.

So I am very, very excited to invite you today to join me for the coming year in the Salty Spoon Challenge.  Each month, I will pose a new kitchen challenge that is designed to help you adopt the basic habit of cooking for yourself.  We will start small and build from there.  The challenges will be cumulative; part of each month’s new challenge will be to maintain the goals of the preceding challenges, unless otherwise indicated.  We’ll do this for a year.  You can join any time.  You can quit any time.  All you have to do is try.  The challenges are open to anyone and everyone, regardless of experience.  The point here is not to follow a specific learn-to-cook curriculum, but rather to increase your skills and comfort in the kitchen by challenging yourself with one new parameter a month.  As we work through the challenges, we’ll think critically about how and what we feed ourselves.  At the end of a year, we’ll have made incremental but meaningful changes to our approach to our food.

The challenges will begin on (or around) the first day of each month.  There will be a post on the Salty Spoon home page announcing the challenge, and the Salty Spoon Challenge page (links at the top right) will list links to past challenges.  We can discuss ideas, tips, progress, and frustrations in the challenge post for the current month - comments will always stay open.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of food blogs in this vast internet of ours. I am proud to be a part of such a vibrant, expansive community.  In a bout of January reflection, I gave extensive and serious consideration to what exactly I want to bring to this landscape.  I thought about why I started The Salty Spoon in the first place: to help inspire other busy people to get in their kitchens and start cooking.  I thought about how I felt about cooking when I was living in my first apartment after college.  The thought of preparing the majority of my meals for myself was overwhelming.  I liked to bake, but that was about it.  My arrival at my present state of cooking most of my food at home came gradually, over a period of several years.


Looking back, I wish I had taken a more purposeful approach from the beginning.  And that’s what I’ve decided to offer you through the Salty Spoon Challenge - a purposeful approach to adopting the habit of cooking for yourself.  Stick with it, and in a year you will find yourself in your kitchen more often, preparing better food, and enjoying it.  We’ll get there, I promise.

Let’s start with a few guidelines.  First, stay positive.  Cooking is about learning, thinking, experimenting, and indulging.  I do not accept the statement “I can’t cook.”  If you can read and follow directions with a basic helping of common sense, you can cook.  This isn’t about turning out Michelin-worthy covers for 200 dinner guests; it’s about feeding yourself good food at home.

Second, be open to new ideas.  We’re going to share our experiences with each other here, and we have a lot to learn from each other - myself included.  One of the things I love most about cooking is its essential, communal aspect.  Let’s help each other grow as cooks.

Finally, have fun with it.  Push yourself, but don’t get bogged down in the details.  There is no shame in simple food as long as it’s good food.  Make what you love to eat.  If you aren’t an experienced home cook, or you’ve found yourself in a cooking rut that has left you bored and uninspired, get ready to surprise and delight yourself.  There is an indescribable satisfaction in the ability to think of something you really want to eat, turn to your kitchen, and make it.  Explore, stretch, enjoy.

Are you ready?  Let’s cook something.
Keep reading Salty Spoon Challenge, Month 1…)