My hand shook as I reached into the bin of deep purple eggplants. None of them were farm-fresh or locally grown. With bruises and scars, they certainly weren’t Instagram-worthy. But that’s not why I was trembling.
After more than a decade in Washington, I had just moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, with my soon-to-be husband, JP, and the enormousness of it all had kept me awake for the entire overnight flight. So now, as I picked through the eggplant, I shook from exhaustion, caffeine, excitement and anxiety. My entire body vibrated.
I wandered through the grocery store, a glorified 7-Eleven, picking up supplies to get us through our first few meals in corporate housing and resolving to find a wine shop immediately and a proper market the next day.
That night, in our Ikea-dressed apartment, I diced the eggplant and sprinkled it with salt to draw out the bitter juices. I chopped an onion and a few cloves of garlic and sauteed all three until they softened. I added a can of diced tomatoes and let everything simmer, for a poor-man’s ratatouille served over pasta. We sat on the patio and, as the spring sky darkened, drank a bottle of wine and toasted to our first meal in our new country.
Cooking in Switzerland wouldn’t be that easy again for months. Grocery stores are smaller, with fewer options. They close early on Saturdays and completely on Sundays. With fewer preservatives, meat and produce spoil much faster. Spicy and ethnic ingredients are rare. And translating pounds to grams, dollars to francs and English to French turns asking the butcher for a filet of lamb into a calculus-level endeavor with the potential to seriously offend.
But the biggest challenge in becoming Frau Chef was the frau herself. In the District, work schedules, fantastic restaurants and too-easy-to-grab takeout meant I cooked only twice a week. Because I waited until I had the time to spend, my cooking sessions were often experimental and fun. Now that I was cooking every night, I quickly found myself bored with my limited repertoire of easy, healthful weeknight meals. Suddenly, finally, I knew firsthand what so many home cooks are really up against.
My first step in breaking the kitchen monotony: I got organized. I downloaded Paprika, a recipe manager app, imported the stack of recipes ripped from magazines and bookmarked on my computer, tagged them as “Untried” and started making at least two new dishes a week.
My regular market is small enough that new items stand out, so I started playing with seasonal ingredients. Persimmon would arrive, and I would sift through Google and develop a salsa for grilled chicken or pork. But finding some things I considered staples was surprisingly difficult. So on trips to the States, I would bring back ingredients that are super-expensive or impossible to find here: chia seeds, canned pumpkin, even brown sugar.
I also taught myself to make the things I missed. Spicy ethnic food topped the list, so I experimented with pad thai, General Tso’s chicken and tikka masala, making substitutions where necessary and rejoicing when I discovered a small Asian market that stocked fish sauce. Unearthing Rasika chef Vikram Sunderam’s recipe for lamb rogan josh in Food & Wine was cause for champagne.
Then, just as I would hit culinary burnout again, we would slip out of town, often because I had a freelance assignment. After a quick train ride to Paris or a cheap flight to Rome, I’d binge on restaurants, cafes and tiny food stands and return home reinvigorated. For a story on Barcelona, I bellied up to Bar Pinotxo at La Boqueria, the city’s vibrant market. A dish of chickpeas and botifarra, a Catalan white sausage, inspired me once I returned to Lausanne to hunt down a spicy Italian sausage at an out-of-the-way meat shop that supplies restaurants and try to create something similar, in salad form.
In Greece, I ordered grilled octopus at almost every meal, savoring the fresh seafood I couldn’t find in landlocked Switzerland. Back at home, I started exploring Greek cooking, and I developed a lighter version of moussaka, a layered eggplant-and-meat dish.
When we returned from our honeymoon in Turkey, I played with the chicken kebab. I ditched the idea of the flatbread we’d eaten it with in Istanbul and added pomegranates and crushed pistachios for a kebab-inspired chicken salad.
Not all of my travel-inspired dishes work out well, of course. A joyful discovery of frozen calamari at our supermarket after our Greece trip quickly turned into a flaming disaster on the grill. And after multiple attempts, my farinata pizza crust, inspired by a weekend in Cinque Terre, Italy, remains mushy in the middle.
The recipes I’ve collected and created — even the mistakes — have done more than bust me out of a culinary rut. They are tangible proof that this dream experience is real. And it’s why that simple ratatouille-like dish still makes an appearance in the rotation: It kicked off my love affair with Switzerland, and one bite is all it takes to recall the exhilarating taste of an adventure about to begin.