At a recent holiday party I was confronted by a woman who, though she admitted to not having read it yet, felt the need to critique certain aspects of my new book.  “What right did you have,” she shouted above the din, “to impose your style of cooking on those poor African women?  They don’t even have indoor kitchens!”


Crowded, noisy, boozy parties – like combat zones, come to think of it – are among the worst places in the world to carry on calm, meaningful conversations.  Some things just can’t be reduced to high decibel sound bytes.  And if I’d been born with a gift for verbal jousting, I would never have become a writer in the first place.  “You’ll just have to read my book,” I said, as, just in time, someone else sidled up to her to clink wine glasses.



My accuser had a point, of course; but my argument is it just doesn’t apply to the true stories in How to Cook a Crocodile.  If she thought I’d spent my time in Gabon teaching such Western exoticisms as soufflé baking to people who don’t even own ovens, she’d have reason to find fault from afar.  But, in fact, the free cooking lessons I gave at the women’s center at my Peace Corps post in Lastoursville – to the delight of all the local women who voluntarily attended – were practical and the recipe ingredients simple and affordable.  I taught healthy soups and stews easily prepared on their outdoor cookstoves.  The entire effort was sustainable.



And that’s the key, isn’t it:  sustainability.  Just ask any Peace Corps volunteer or development worker.  If you can’t adapt your teaching methods to the realities on the ground so that the project – whatever it might be – can and will go forward, without your fancy, costly gear, you’re basically wasting everybody’s time.



This simple principle applies equally to us here at home, especially at this time of year.  Let’s face it:  New Year’s resolutions are doomed if they’re not downright doable.

Even my beloved New York Times did a feature in the current Week in Review section called “A Sustainable Life,” providing a guide to “a healthier, happier 2011.”  One segment of this section, by the Times’ food writer Mark Bittman, points out that “real food is cooked by real people” and “real people are cooking less than ever before.”  A cooking repertoire of three basic recipes, Bittman contends, “can get anyone into the kitchen and beyond the realm of takeout food, microwaved popcorn and bologna sandwiches in a few days.”  (For the entire, worthwhile article, go to:


So let’s say a couple of your New Year’s resolutions involve eating healthier meals (more veg’s, for example) and doing more cooking at home.  Definitely doable.  Just dust off the old wok, chop up some fresh colorful veggies (or do what I do and use a whole packet of frozen stir-fry vegetables available everywhere), add a cup or so of water and a dash of sauce (such a soy sauce or Thai peanut sauce), a packet of Ramen noodles (minus the flavor packet, please), and some chopped leftover chicken, turkey, or beef.  Voila, a simple, sustainable, veg-filled, healthy, tasty meal at home, in less time than it takes to call your nearest Chinese takeout.



Mark Bittman provides a fancier stir-fry recipe with his “Sustainable Food” article, which I’ll pass along in its entirety here.  I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.


Broccoli Stir-Fry with Chicken and Mushrooms

(from the New York Times, 12/31/10)

Time: 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings.

2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

4 scallions, chopped

1 pound broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces, the stems no more than 1/4-inch thick

8 ounces button mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced


8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks or thin slices and blotted dry

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Freshly ground black pepper.

1. Put a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add half the oil, swirl it around, and immediately add half the garlic and ginger. Cook for 15 seconds, stirring, then add the broccoli, mushrooms and all but a sprinkling of the scallions. Raise heat to high, and cook, stirring, until mushrooms release their water and broccoli is bright green and beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes.

2. Sprinkle with salt; add 1 cup water. Stir and cook until almost all liquid evaporates and broccoli is almost tender, another minute or two more, then transfer everything to a plate.

3. Turn heat to medium, add remaining oil, then remaining garlic and ginger. Stir, then add chicken and turn heat to high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken has lost its pink color, three to five minutes.

4. Turn heat to medium. Return broccoli, mushrooms and juices to the pan, and stir. Add soy sauce, sprinkle with more salt and some pepper; add a little more water if mixture is dry. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced slightly and you’ve scraped up all the bits of chicken. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnish with remaining scallion and serve.


Stir-fries work with virtually any combination of vegetables; protein-dense food (meat, poultry, fish, tofu, etc.) is optional. Use pork (like shoulder), shrimp, beef (like sirloin), or tofu instead of chicken; slice the meat thinly or the tofu into cubes.

Use cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, carrots or spinach in place of either the broccoli or the mushrooms or both. Or use other mushrooms.  Use fish sauce instead of soy sauce and finish with a squeeze of lime to give it a Southeast Asian flavor.  

Use olive oil, skip the ginger, use onion instead of scallion, and substitute 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary or thyme to give it a Mediterranean flavor profile. Use coconut milk instead of stock; 1 tablespoon curry powder instead of soy sauce to give it an Indian flavor.