Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen & Arugula Salad with Roasted Squash, Currants, and Pine Nuts

Too few of us were taught how to cook and, as a result, there’s now a lost generation of cooks.  Basic kitchen skills that were once commonplace have been replaced by frozen conveniences and take-out orders, making the act of cooking and the kitchen daunting.  This book aims to change that. ~ Aida Mollenkamp

It does seem that with all the focus on food, food television, chefs, and food festivals, Americans would be cooking more at home.  However, more people are dining out and when they do cook, they are using convenience items to prepare their meals.

Just take a look at the shelves and refrigerated cases at your local grocery store.  Boiled and peeled hard boiled eggs, sliced apples in snack size bags, cooked meats in sauces, and most every store now has prepared meals that require no more than a quick visit to the microwave before making it to the dinner table.

Aida Mollenkamp (Photo – Robin Jolin)

This is one of the reasons that I decided to write about Aida Mollenkamp’s new book, Keys to the Kitchen.  She had me when she wrote at the very beginning of the book, “The minute you buy food, you’re voting with your food dollars, so, use that vote wisely and responsibly.”  I could not agree more.  If you are not familiar with Aida Mollenkamp, you can read more about her here.

I was sorry that I could not meet Aida while she was in my hometown of Atlanta a few weeks ago promoting her book.  I was invited to a luncheon she was hosting, but unfortunately, we were traveling at that time.  Aida was still kind enough to mail me a copy of her new book, Keys to the Kitchen, for my review.

I really appreciated the personal touch when I received a copy of her book

After going through the book, I was excited to see a cookbook that was written for a beginner cook that could also be used as a reference guide with recipes for a more seasoned home cook.  Aida has addressed almost any question that could arise when learning to cook, improving your skills, or needing a refresher in the kitchen.  There are quick and thoughtful illustrations and some helpful photographs to use for reference.

The book is divided into four sections: The Set-Up, The How-To, The Recipes, and The Riff.  In these sections, Aida talks about the importance of the ingredients, what to look for when shopping, where to shop, and how to know what is ripe or good and then how to store it properly.  She explains the difference in proteins in detail (like cuts of meat, poultry, and fish and the difference between organic, farmed or wild seafood).

She suggests ways to set up your kitchen and the cooking essentials you need as well as tools that may be optional, but helpful to have.  There are photographs and instructions for basics like cutting up a chicken, trussing a bird, and skinning a fish.  There is a also a section for “Fundamental Recipes” where you can quickly learn how to prepare a basic risotto, vegetable soup, or something as simple as caramelized onions.

The recipe section in the book offered many creative and interesting recipes which incorporate fresh, seasonal, and healthy ingredients.  Aida rates them from easy to difficult so you have an idea of what you are committing to before purchasing everything for a dish.  There are great tips and helpful hints in the margins for easy reference while you are preparing the recipe.  There are also, as she calls them, “Riffs”, which are substitutions or additions to the basic recipe.

Arugula Salad with Roasted Squash, Currants, and Pine Nuts

The final chapter gives guidance on how to become a better cook, how to approach the kitchen without a specific recipe, menu planning, entertaining advice, and some other useful information on cooking from the pantry and what to do with leftovers.  I suggest keeping the book handy in your kitchen as it will be one you refer to over and over again.

If you are just learning to cook, reading this book will put things in perspective and make the kitchen a friendlier place and preparing food at home less daunting.  If you have been cooking for many years, the book is great as an all-in-one quick reference guide for frequently asked questions.  It will also encourage you to prepare better and healthier meals at home for your family.  I put a place holder in many pages of the recipe section, so I am looking forward to working my way through many of these recipes in the coming weeks.

The balsamic dressing adds a nice tangy contrast to the peppery arugula

The holiday season is rapidly approaching.  This might be the perfect gift to help guide a friend or family member that is new to the kitchen or one that is adept in the kitchen, but appreciates helpful tips to improve their skills.  The instructional value of this book is certainly as important, if not more so, than the recipes.

I decided to make one of the “easy” recipes, since so many people appreciate something that is simple to make, yet is enticing and attractive to serve.  Arugula Salad with Roasted Squash, Currants, and Pine Nuts is a perfect fall salad.  I enjoyed the combination of peppery arugula with its bite, blended with the tangy balsamic dressing along with the crunch of the nuts and sugary small bites of the currants.  The delicata squash was a nice addition, roasted to bring out the sweetness of the squash.

I love the textures and flavors in the salad

One of Aida’s “Riffs” for the salad was to add either feta, goat cheese, or blue cheese.  I think the feta would have been an excellent “Riff” with the crumbly texture and saltiness of the cheese.  I will be including this salad in my list of go-to recipes for fall and winter.

This salad is perfect for fall and holiday menu planning

Enjoy!

* I received Keys to the Kitchen for my review.  I was not asked to write any articles about the book and have in no way been compensated.  The opinions expressed regarding this book are my own.

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Arugula Salad with Roasted Squash, Currants, and Pine Nuts

Ingredients:

Balsamic-Mustard Vinaigrette:

2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 Tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon packed light brown sugar

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Arugula salad:

1 pound butternut or delicata squash, trimmed, halved lengthwise, and seeded

1 Tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 ounces (about 2 handfuls) baby arugula leaves

1/3 cup toasted pine nuts

1/2 cup dried currants


Directions:

For the Vinaigrette:

1. Combine the vinegars in medium nonreactive bowl with the mustard, brown sugar, and Worcestershire and whisk to evenly combine. Set aside to let the flavors meld, at least 5 minutes. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until completely combined. Season with salt and pepper and serve.


For the Salad:

1. Heat oven to 450 degrees and arrange a rack in the middle.


2. Cut the squash halves crosswise into semicircles that are 1/2 inch thick (you’ll have about 8). Toss the squash with the oil, salt, and pepper, and spread out on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast until the undersides and browned and lightly blistered, 10 to 15 minutes.


3. To assemble, place a portion of greens in each serving bowl, top with a scattering of pine nuts and currants, then add a couple squash piece. Finish with a few cranks of freshly ground black pepper, as desired. Drizzle with a few teaspoons of dressing and pass the extra on the side.


Riffs:

Swap sweet potato for the squash.

Top with crumbled feta, goat cheese, or bleu cheese.

Add some sautéed mushrooms.


Recipe reprinted from:

Aida Mollenkamp

Keys to the Kitchen