Braised Lentils + Writing a Cookbook
The book (Date Night In, for those who are fairly new around these parts) came out just over a year ago and it’s only now that I feel as if I have the perspective to speak clearly about the entire process. Enough time has passed that the emotions I wrapped around it with a tight, almost life arresting grip, have eased up enough to give me a view that is a bit more, well, rational I guess.
Before jumping into actually writing the book I had always planned on taking you all with me on the journey and then I started and I just poured all of me into the book. I was in too deep but now I have more clarity and still would love to share a bit about the process and how I experienced it.
Let’s start from the beginning.
This part of the process took the longest but most of my time was spent wrestling with my own self-doubt. It was of course very exciting to be working on a document that could have the potential to launch one of my biggest life goals, I think you can also imagine the pressure that came with that. I’m not naturally a sales person and that is the task that is required when writing a book proposal. This is your chance to sell your concept and tell people why the world is lacking without this book. It’s a huge ask and for me that looked like 80 pages of photos, sample recipes, statistics, my career history, and book comparisons. (Check the resource section at the end of this post for more of an in depth understanding of what the book proposal is).
I started seriously working on the proposal when my babies were 5, 3, and 1. Setting aside the time I needed to write, think and plan for the book was not only difficult to manage as I constantly battled the maddening voice of my internal critic but it felt like a huge sacrifice for my family. One that left me feeling incredibly guilty. Looking back I’m disappointed that I wasted a moment of my time feeling guilty about working on the book, but I get it, I’m a woman and a mom – guilt comes far too easy.
My husband and biggest pom pom holding cheerleader was always the one to push me out of the lego cluttered and dirty diaper littered house to go write. But I still struggled with the hour here and there writing chunks. I mean it would literally take most of that time to silence the inner voice long enough to be brave enough to put pen to paper. I struggled with the “what if’s” with the biggest one being “what if nothing ever comes of all this work?”
It wasn’t until Gabe gifted me with two nights in a hotel room alone for my 30th birthday that I was able to finish. In that room I gave myself the permission, freedom and space to write and I got it done. I now ask for a hotel room alone for my birthday – book proposal or not.
If you are at this beginning stage in the book process or quite frankly starting any new project, do this: Put the pen to the paper. Silence any and all voices that tell you that you are wasting your time or that nothing will ever come from the work you are putting in at this stage. Just start. Create the time you need to put in the work and if that means putting yourself in a hotel room for two days then do it.
My good friend Tara recently wrote about the writing/creating process and she says “It will never be perfect—nothing ever is. Do it anyway.”. I love that. Don’t be paralyzed by the “not good enoughs” be satisfied in the “I’m doing it!”. The refining and fine tuning will come later. Although perfection will never come so just throw that concept out. Be your own biggest cheerleader and commend your bravery for simply doing it. The first step is the hardest but you will be so glad you took that step when you look back at yourself much further down the path.
(the writing/shooting/recipe development part)
I’m going to spare you the nitty gritty here but if you like that sort of thing and are interested in hearing about all the details I would be more than happy to share. Feel free to ask a question in the comments and/or I’ll set aside a space on my Facebook page for a nitty gritty book related conversation.
What I do want to say about this part of the process is that I loooooooved it. Like giddy, jump out of bed in the morning, can’t wipe the smile off my face loved it. I mean, I was working on something that I had desired for so long. All my life I’ve had a great respect for books and I was given the opportunity to add my very own to the pile. It felt surreal, magical, and big.
I have a terrible memory but this scene is forever embedded in my mind: I was sitting at my parent’s kitchen table – away from the distractions of my towering laundry pile and sink of dirty dishes. As I sat at the table, first draft recipes surrounding me and fingers pounding at the keys of my laptop when I heard/felt a whisper. It wasn’t audible but I sensed its truth deep in my bones. It said “Right now, this is exactly what you should be doing.” Tears splattered the ink on my paper while a feeling of peace, confidence and joy overwhelmed me.
Now, don’t be fooled – that confidence vanished almost as quickly as it came but I continually clung to that moment when the inevitable doubts crept in.
So many friends of mine paved the book writing path ahead of me. I overwhelmed them with questions which led me on my own path with very realistic expectations of what the process would be. In one word: hard. But please allow me to be a hopeful voice on this subject: I LOVED writing this book. It was incredibly hard but the sort of hard that pushes you to be better. At the end of it all I was a better writer, photographer, and recipe developer.
On a very personal level, with a signed book contract and people depending on me to do the work I finally took myself and my work seriously. I wish it hadn’t taken other people’s expectations of me to take my work seriously but that was what I needed. Now I no longer needed Gabe to push me out of the house to go write, I did it on my own. I felt free to pursue this project with my whole heart. Sure, the laundry suffered, the state of the house suffered, I made very rare appearances in my kid’s school rooms but I was and am a better person, wife, and mom when I am living out of freedom instead of guilt.
Trust yourself and the path you are on. If you have the desire to write a book let that be enough permission you need to do it. Honor the desire. If you are willing to struggle through the epic workload and time required to make a book than you are the perfect person for the task. Follow your curiosity and try it on. You never know where it will lead especially if you don’t follow its lead.
The most practical lesson I learned in this phase is to surround yourself with people who are good at the things you are not good at. The final book will be much better if you simply focus on your strengths, acknowledge your weaknesses and bring in help when needed. I loved the quiet moments of cooking, tweaking recipes and coming up with the menus but organizing the recipe testers, refining the recipes further and keeping me on schedule, that was all thanks to my my spreadsheet loving friend, Julie. She helped to break down the enormous task of creating a book into three parts; the writing, the photography and the recipes. Each of these parts had specific deadlines.
I kept our date nights sacred during the whole process, wanting to write about how those evenings changed our marriage from a place of genuine honesty. From there we worked seasonally, sending out recipes to the testers on a 6 week cycle. I photographed no more than two menus at a time so that I didn’t get too visually exhausted, keeping the images vibrant and fresh. It was also important to me that the light in the images matched the light of the season so that summer really felt like summer and winter, with its cool grays and blues, felt like winter.
Find a rhythm and routine that works for you or find the right person to help get you on that rhythm. It takes a village to raise a child and make a book. Find your village.
Releasing the book.
This is the part where I had to share my book. Time to release it from my tight grip and let you all see it; see me. This. This was the hardest part. This phase is why I’m a year post publication and am just now writing about it. This is where I began to understand when my friends warned me of the difficulty in writing a book. Some people love this part – the events, the stage, the signings, the press. I thought I would love it too but I made a terrible mistake somewhere in the process – I didn’t separate me from the book. The book was me and I was it. I wore every critique or failed press mention or empty seat at a signing as a personal failure. Don’t do this.
The first time I saw a copy of my book I shrieked in delight. We were right in the middle of filming the trailer for the book when my brother, coming in from grabbing a piece of camera equipment, nonchalantly handed me the book. He handed it to me the way a two year old passes off a spent candy wrapper then he stood back and laughed as I simultaneously started shaking, crying and laughing.
I will never forget that moment; what it felt like to hold a tangible object that represented three years of work. And more than that, it represented my marriage and my heart for encouraging others to pour into their relationships at the table.
It’s a rare moment in an artist’s life when you are fully and completely satisfied with your work. I wasn’t simply satisfied, I was thrilled, proud even. I’m learning now that that is enough.
I let every empty seat and less than wonderful review hit me like a punch in the gut failing to remember pleasing everyone is not only impossible, it’s not my job. While I was busy remarking on the failures of the book I was neglecting the fact that the first printing sold out before the book was even released or when the New York Times praised the book and most importantly to me, the amazing emails I received about successful meals and relationships healed. I was far too busy worrying if the book was enough – if I was enough.
Next time I will attempt to be a better cheerleader for myself; praising the success and quick to overlook the critics. I will work hard to create another book that I am proud of and release it without me wrapped up in it so tightly.
I will read this (and believe it) again and again:
“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
I will be satisfied in the creation of the work, content to have created and let the work have the life it needs to live.
Make it and move on. Then do it again.
Doing it again.
At so many points in the process I felt like I was blindfolded, walking about a room stubbing my toes on the coffee table and bumping chairs in my path. I had no idea what was in front of me and couldn’t see the whole picture. Some of that brought blissful naivety and sometimes it made me overly cautious.
As I think about starting the process again it feels like a second pregnancy. Some of the excitement is lessened because I actually know how this whole thing will go down. When I was pregnant with my second and third I knew all gory details; how little sleep I’ll get, how many diapers I’ll be changing, how many fits I’ll have to attempt to calm. But with that also comes the reality of really knowing how quickly those sweet smelling and sausage-legged, snuggle bombs become tantrum throwing toddlers. I understand more deeply that the joy is in the process and the release is simply to let it go and live the life it was created to live.
It may not ever be a number one all time best seller but if we work hard to create something we are proud of I have confidence that it will find an audience. And even if it doesn’t let’s let the joy of the process and the fact that we created be enough. It is enough. You being you is enough.
I do have a favor to ask of you as I finish this epic post. So I’m thinking about writing another book. This is scary, exciting, terrifying, and thrilling. But before I get too far into the process I would be so delighted to hear what you would like to see. I recognize that there are thousands and thousands of cookbooks already born so it can be a bit daunting to think about adding another one to the mix. All I know is that I have more to share, more to give and so much more to cook. But I would love to hear what you enjoy in a cookbook. Simple food? Celebration food? Both? Menus? Seasonal?
Ultimately the book will be what it needs to be from me but some input in this stage of the game feels right.
I hope you found this glimpse into my process helpful and again, please, let’s continue the conversation. Ask your questions. I’m happy to help.
ME! I’m happy to answer any and all questions to the best of my ability. Leave a comment below, email me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org – although this may take me a bit to respond), or head to my facebook or instagram pages to ask questions. I’m really excited to get a great discussion going.
Talk to your friends who have already walked this path. Have them share their proposal with you. I have found that cookbook authors are a generous bunch and are totally willing to share their journey.
101 Cookbooks: Writing A Book Proposal
Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More This book and Dianne Jacob’s website is an amazing resource for those interested in writing a cookbook. She regularly interviews editors, agents and other cookbook authors. She is a kind, sincere and very honest person who paints a realistic picture of what the entire process looks like.
David Lebovitz is always so generous with his time and words. He’s an amazing resource.
Dianne Morgan has a great slideshow presentation from IFBC about the specifics of a book proposal.
Books on facing your fears and creating in spite of them:
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Braised Lentils WITH Mushrooms AND Kale
The number one question I was asked while promoting the book, “What is your favorite recipe?” I get it. I always want to know the author’s answer to that question too but the thing is every single time I couldn’t think of one. Sometimes I would talk about the fried chicken and biscuit sandwich and the pretzel crusted ice cream pie with bourbon butterscotch and smokey chocolate covered pecans. Other times it was the Pozole or the cookies or the chilaquiles or the Flemish stew with frites or the Raclette date with hot chocolate so thick you may want a spoon!! Perhaps people thought my most common answer insincere: “I really love them all!” But it was the truth. My answer varied with the seasons, my mood and my cravings. Today I’m sharing another favorite from the book because the current weather demands it.
It’s the sort of dish that is perfectly suited for date night or weeknight (as are many of the recipes in the book quite frankly). Lentils, mushrooms and kale lean towards the ever popular and necessary nutritional side while the cream and frilly edged, runny yolked egg remind us that a little comfort is needed along with the nutrition.
Before writing this book I had kept this recipe in my back pocket, keeping it off the pages of the blog so that one day I could tuck it into the pages of a book. And now we’ve come full circle because I want you to have it here and in the book. It’s that good.
Recipe from Date Night In
1⁄2 cup / 80 g dry French green lentils
3 cups / 710 ml low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, diced (1⁄4 cup / 40 g)
8 ounces / 230 g assorted mushrooms (such as cremini, porcini, and button), cleaned and diced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
3 garlic cloves, minced
1⁄4 cup / 60 ml dry white wine
3⁄4 cup / 180 ml heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1⁄2 bunch kale, stems removed and chopped into quarter-size pieces
Parmesan, for finishing (optional)
Rinse lentils thoroughly. Place the chicken stock in a medium pot with the lentils and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, until al dente. Drain, and if you’re making the lentils ahead of time, pour them out onto a baking sheet to cool quickly. This step can be done 1 to 2 days ahead, and the lentils can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator.
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the butter and brown it (see page 11). Then add the shallot and cook for 1 minute.
Add the mushrooms and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt in an even layer to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook the mushrooms until deeply caramelized, about 7 to 9 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with white wine, scraping up all the flavorful brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine until no liquid remains.
Decrease the heat to medium-low and add the cream. Bring to a simmer and reduce for 2 minutes, then add the cooked lentils and remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt. Cover the pan with a lid and simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare your eggs. I like mine sunny-side up so the yolk helps to sauce the lentils. In a nonstick skillet over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon oil. When the pan is nice and hot, crack in the eggs and sprinkle with salt. Turn down the heat and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the whites are set. The eggs will do some carryover cooking, so turn off the heat before you think they are done. Remove the eggs to a clean plate to wait while you finish the lentils.
Add the chopped kale to the lentils. Cover and cook until tender but still bright green, about 3 to 5 minutes.
Taste and add more salt, if desired. Divide lentils into two bowls and top each with an egg. Finish with freshly grated Parmesan, if desired.