Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Cooks, in Theory

by Amy Ambrose

Dish: Toccata à la Daniela (Kaufer)

Toccata: musical form for keyboard instruments, written in a free style that is characterized by full chords, rapid runs, high harmonies, and other virtuoso elements designed to show off the performer’s “touch.1

On September 16, Cooks, in Theory welcomed guest chef neuroscientist Daniela Kaufer, known for her work on reversing dementia and on the role of stress on resilience (that some stress can actually be beneficial).

Daniela took this group of hardened and occasionally stressed theoretical computer scientists through her rendition of lamb wrapped in malawach, a recipe in three-part harmony composed of lamb/chicken, tomato salad, and tahini drizzle.

While the session felt musical in nature, it was not without science and moments of suspense: a short discussion on retinal detachment coincided with the chopping of onions (you may notice that most of our recipes start with the chopping of onions). The recent crop of onions must be particularly strong, as nearly everyone was sobbing by the end.

“Is chopping onions good or bad for the retina?” asked Ran Canetti, blinking hard and waving his Ginsu knife in front of the camera. His voice even sounded foggy.

Tal Rabin, as the only non-cook on the call, and thus with crystal clear vision, remarked hurriedly, “I don’t know, Ran, but don’t be crying with that knife in hand, without looking!”

“Oh, right,” said Ran as he quickly put the knife down, before wiping his eyes again.

(Note to include this vignette in the operatic version of Cooks, in Theory.)

This session covered frequent cooking concerns and their scientific (i.e., provided by a scientist) answers:

Sequence: As this is a three-part dish, start by frying the onions and meat; then make the tomato salad and then the tahini drizzle. At the end, you pile it all on warmed malawach or similar.

Shape and size of frying pan: flat and at least 9 inches in diameter

Size of mixing bowl: “big, if you want a bigger batch”

Temperature: Start on very high heat and then bring it down. “Don’t burn the onions — never burn the onions.”

Colors: “light brown,” “vibrant,” “pretty”

Quantity of ingredients: “Put in as much as you think you need. Who measures ingredients?”

Aroma: “If you can’t smell spices in the kitchen, you have not put in enough spices.”

Shape of cut: “Cut everything in bite-sized portions. If chicken, cubed, but if lamb, ground.” (Tip: Chicken has less fat, so don’t use ground chicken, as it can dry out if fried.)

Cooking concluded, and the chef checked everyone’s moisture and color by a round of “show me your pot.” There was some last-minute tasting to check spice levels, and finally the ingredients were assembled (“piled”) atop warmed malawach.

Other than science talk, the session was punctuated nicely by the voice of a toddler who joined from the West Coast via FaceTime and the story of a dog and its people enjoying a photo shoot for charity.

The result was a splendid dish: three elements that harmonize into a small orchestra of flavors in your mouth. Just the thing to clear the general stress haze that surrounds us.

Daniela has the magic “toccata,” by all accounts.

2 lb. lamb (ground) or boneless, skinless chicken thighs (cubed)
2 onions (chopped)
garlic (pressed)
cumin (3 shakes)
paprika (3 shakes)
turmeric (3 shakes)
salt and pepper to taste

4 good-size tomatoes
1 jalapeño (or other chili)
fresh cilantro or parsley

1 cup tahini paste
1/2 lemon squeezed
more garlic (pressed)
olive oil

Recommended wrap options include malawach, paratha, flour tortilla, or gluten-free/low-carb/keto flatbread.

In a flat pan on high heat, stir-fry the onions and garlic until they are soft and lightly browned. If you like heat, add some chopped jalapeño or red chili. Add the spices to the onions, and allow them to “open.” Next, add ground lamb or cubed chicken thighs. Sauté until the meat browns, but make sure to not dry it out (a special risk with chicken). Taste and add salt, pepper, and spice to taste. The dish should be well spiced. Options: you can add pine nuts, chopped walnuts, raisins, or currants at this stage.

In a separate bowl, cube the tomatoes. For the chili, cut in half and remove the seeds if you want less heat. Dice the chili and add it to the tomatoes. Add the cilantro or parsley for taste and color. Add olive oil, salt, and pepper.

In a separate bowl, mix 1 cup tahini paste with half a cup of water, and add the lemon juice, salt, and pressed garlic.

Heating the wrap
Over medium-low heat, add a drizzle of olive oil to the pan so that the bread doesn't stick; then drop in the cooked malawach, paratha, or other flatbread. Cover the pan (optional) and fry the bread for 3-4 minutes on each side (1 minute for thin breads like tortilla). If you are using malawach, it will get golden and fluffy.

Place the flatbread on a plate. Add a scoop of lamb and a scoop of tomato salad, and drizzle the tahini. Top with some fresh parsley or cilantro. Wrapping optional.

Bon appétit!

If you would like to receive connection details and information on upcoming Cooks, in Theory sessions, please email Raquel Romero at rmromero [at]

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed September 22, 2020.↩︎