Imagine looking into your pantry or fridge and, other than a few staples and garnishes, finding nothing but fish, plums, and vinegar. Unless one was feeling especially imaginative, one may not have even found a dish to prepare, let alone a meal; however, Glenda Keenan, Pap Spud’s customer and owner of Blue Sky Oil and Vinegar, saw the beginning of a recipe book. Personally, these ingredients coming on the tail of a long day at work could very well result in take-out. For Glenda Keenan, these ingredients came on the tail of an unexpected divorce, a flood, the death of a beloved pet, and, let’s not forget, cancer . For her, the result was seared tuna with plums (p. 48 of her book, Cooking with Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar). And just like the creation of this recipe, Keenan’s book uses the principles of health, quick preparation, minimal ingredients, creativity, and topping with flavor to create dishes that are mind bogglingly tasty.
So what exactly is Glenda Keenan’s book Cooking with Olive Oil and Vinegar? At its core, the book is a collection of recipes and advice for creating delicious yet astounding simple dishes using only a few ingredients along with flavorful balsamic vinegars and olive oils of the highest quality. But deeper than that, the book teaches principles of preparing amazing meals through creativity and adapting to what one has on hand.
Her inspiration for the book started with people coming into Blue Sky Oil and Vinegar and, staggered by the variety and selection, wondering what all the olive oils and balsamic vinegars could be used for. Looking at her book, I’d say everything from appetizers to desserts plus pickling and anything between. Glenda has used olive oil and balsamic vinegar in her cooking every day for the last five years, and she pairs this with her personal philosophy of cooking to create a book that anyone using it can be excited about.
Keenan wanted to base the book on how she cooks at the end of a long day at work: combining the elements of health, quick preparation, topping with flavor, and only a handful of ingredients. When it comes to these few ingredients, Glenda finds seasonal and local produce to be best. Availability may be an issue with seasonal and local produce, so adaptability in cooking plays a big role in Glenda’s kitchen. As Keenan says, what she makes is based around what she has and how’s she’s going to use it. If tomatoes and arugula are what’s available, Glenda has around 30 options for making salad dressing at the ready. If sweet potatoes are in season, she’ll bake them with maple balsamic vinegar.
While what one has on hand plays a big role in cooking Keenan style, adaptation comes into play in more than just the ‘main ingredients’. Imagination, options, and substitutions are all emphasized in her book, including advice about substituting fennel for water chestnuts at the rarer end of ingredients, to a table for subbing olive oil for butter on the everyday end. The book even contains suggestions for repurposing leftovers, like turning leftovers from the Brussels sprouts and fennel salad on page 72 into a cooked dish.
On the subject of adaptive cooking, I asked Keenan what it was like cooking from a Papa Spud’s box. To her it’s “nirvana”. But the joy of cooking from a box goes beyond the convenience of not having to go grocery shopping after a long day at her store. One aspect is sharing boxes with her daughter, the executive chef at Olio & Aceto Café in Chapel Hill. I asked Glenda whether she plans her meals before she orders her box or orders her box and what she orders inspires her. For her, it’s both. A great example is her Sunday afternoon cookouts with friends. She keeps brats, hotdogs, and ground beef on hand in the freezer, and forms her sides based on what’s locally available. If she gets extra of something in a box, Keenan has a plan for that, too. One option is to make and freeze individual dinners with the ingredients. The other is to pickle them in a favorite balsamic vinegar.
Keenan’s favorite recipe in the book is the Chicken Marbella on page 30. Unfortunately, this is one of the least attempted recipes due being the most complicated. So if time constraints bar the way or olives aren’t in your flavor profile, Glenda recommends the Chicken Picata on page 32 or the lemon chicken with dried cherries on page 38. If one pursues a vegetarian way of life, the main dishes section contains options like the Portabella Tacos on page 46 or the sweet potato gnocchi on page 52.
In her book, Glenda Keenan takes her personal philosophy of cooking and uses it to teach principles that everyone can use in the kitchen. Cooking with Olive Oil and Vinegar not only gives tried and tested recipes for any occasion, but it also teaches people to cook on their feet and perhaps even flying by the strings of their apron. You can borrow Glenda’s book through the Papa Spud’s cookbook swap, we will have 5 copies available for circulation starting next week (October 27th/28th deliveries) – or from her store, Blue Sky Oil and Vinegar in Chapel Hill (www.blueskyoilandvinegar.com), where you can get the oils and vinegar for any recipe in the book! I’m fairly certain we’re all familiar with the adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish; in a way, Glenda Keenan’s recipe book does both. If you find yourself in a predicament with a few random ingredients, remember that without imagination and creativity, none of our favorite recipes would exist. Knowledge comes from experience and experimentation, though if you’d rather reserve said experimentation for when guest aren’t coming over, we understand!