Cooking can feel like exercise sometimes.


If conditions aren’t perfect, maybe it’s cold or wet or dark outside or you’re busy or sleepy or sad, you might not want to do it, but once you get started, you’re glad you did.


The Texas Book Festival comes during a time of so many uncertainties, with both the election and the pandemic, that the virtual cooking classes spread out over a week might be just what we all need to inspire a little liveliness in our homes.


I’ve got all of the food sessions bookmarked on my calendar, including the cooking classes from Esteban Castillo, the Southern California-based blogger behind the uber-vibrant website and book "Chicano Eats," and Melissa M. Martin, who runs a supper club restaurant in New Orleans called Mosquito Supper Club.


During this year of quarantine, Castillo has been teaching virtual classes that you can find on chicanoeats.com. Martin reopened her restaurant a few months ago, but she’s had to close it on and off to deal with all the hurricanes that have blown through southern Louisiana during that same time.


I’m also looking forward to catching the session with Austinite Jam Sanitchat, whose Thai Fresh restaurant has long been one of my favorite spots in South Austin to find a quiet moment and a delightful meal.


Her new "Thai Fresh" cookbook isn’t her first cookbook — she wrote "The Everything Thai Cookbook" in 2013 — but this is the first with such high production value. She crowdsourced the funds to publish the book and teamed up with co-author Kim Lane and noted local photographer Jody Horton, whose work appeared in the James Beard-winning "Smoke" and countless other magazines and publications.


Together, they created a stunning collection, designed by another highly respected creative, Julie Savasky, that showcases some of the restaurant’s top dishes as well as the family favorites that Sanitchat grew up eating in Thailand.


I pulled three recipes from their new books, all of which are filled with evocative stories and incredible photos that can provide a much-needed respite, no matter how much cooking you actually do from them. Although I do suggest turning on the stove or the oven and getting started, even when you don’t feel like it. Feeding ourselves is a primal form of self-care, which we need more than ever as we head into the winter months.


You can RSVP for these free sessions through texasbookfestival.org.


Mi Abuelita’s Tacos de Papa (Esteban’s Grandma’s Potato Tacos)


One of the things I missed the most about visiting Mexico was mi abuelita Mami Nina’s cooking. She used to sell raspados (a shaved-ice treat made with fresh fruit syrups) and sopes on the weekends to help make ends meet. It took more than ten years to get back to Mexico, and during that first visit back, I noticed things hadn’t changed: She still opens up her house on the weekends to anyone who’s hungry, serving pozole, sopitos, and the crunchiest tacos de papa I’ve ever had, served with a big pile of lettuce and queso Cotija.


— Esteban Castillo


For the taco filling:


1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cubed


5 garlic cloves, peeled


1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste


1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


For the sauce:


4 large whole Roma tomatoes


1/4 small yellow onion


1 tomatillo, husked and rinsed


2 garlic cloves, peeled


1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or sub in your favorite veggie broth to make this vegan)


3/4 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste


1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


For assembly:


12 corn tortillas


Vegetable oil for frying


Shredded cabbage or lettuce


Sliced tomato


Diced white onion


Sliced radishes


Cotija cheese (or your favorite vegan substitute)


Hot sauce


Make the filling: In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine the potatoes, garlic and water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes.


Transfer the potatoes and garlic to a bowl, add the salt and pepper, and mash. Adjust the salt to taste.


Make the sauce: Wipe out the large pot or Dutch oven you used for the potatoes and add the tomatoes, onion, tomatillo and garlic. Add water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Simmer until the tomatoes soften, 10 to 15 minutes.


Drain the vegetables, then transfer to a blender and add the chicken stock, salt, and black pepper. Blend (be sure to open the steam vent/center cap and cover with a towel to avoid explosive hot liquid) until smooth. Adjust the salt to taste.


Return the mixture to the pot, place the lid on, and simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes to cook the salsa through. Remove from the heat and set aside while you fry the tacos.


To assemble: Working in batches of 3 to 4, pop the tortillas in the microwave for about 45 seconds, or heat them up on a comal over medium heat for about 1 minute on each side. (Cold tortillas will rip.)


In a large skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil over medium-low heat. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the mashed potatoes to a tortilla, fold the tortilla in half, and fry until crispy and golden brown on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side.


Fill each taco with a little shredded cabbage and a tomato slice, then ladle some of the tomato sauce over it. Finish by garnishing with some onion, radishes, Cotija, and your favorite hot sauce. Makes 12 tacos.


— From "Chicano Eats: Recipes From My Mexican-American Kitchen" by Esteban Castillo (Harper Design, $35)


Mom’s Chicken


For the chicken and stock:


1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds)


3 garlic cloves, crushed


10 cilantro stems


5 ginger slices (about 1/4 inch thick)


2 teaspoons salt


For the rice:


1/4 cup chicken fat (or substitute vegetable oil)


2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic


2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger


1 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro stems (or, if you have cilantro roots, use 1 chopped root)


6 cups uncooked jasmine rice


8 cups reserved chicken stock, divided


For the sauce:


2 tablespoons finely chopped ginger


2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic


2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Thai chiles


1 1/3 cups light soy sauce


1/4 cup dark soy sauce


1/4 cup soybean paste


1/4 cup granulated sugar


1/4 cup lime juice


1/4 cup water


1/2 cup white vinegar


For garnish:


1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves


3 sliced cucumbers


To make the chicken and stock, place all of the ingredients in a large stockpot and add enough water just to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low, cover and let simmer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove the chicken to a platter to cool. Pour the stock through a fine-mesh strainer, discard the solids and set the stock aside. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, pull and/or slice the meat from the bones.


Cover the meat to keep it from drying out and set aside. You may not need to use all the stock for this recipe, so refrigerate or freeze the excess.


To make the rice, heat the chicken fat or oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger and cilantro stems and fry until fragrant and golden brown. Add the rice and fry for about a minute. Add 1/2 cup of the stock and continue to stir-fry until the rice is golden brown, about 1 minute.


Transfer the rice mixture to a large pot, add the remaining 7 1/2 cups of stock, and stir to mix and level the rice. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer and cover with a lid or foil until the rice is cooked, about 15 minutes.


To make the sauce, combine all of the ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings, if needed. To serve, place the rice on a large serving platter, top with the chicken meat and garnish with the fresh cilantro leaves. Serve the sauce on the side in a large bowl with a spoon so guests can sauce their own portion. Serve with the sliced cucumbers on the side.


— From "Thai Fresh: Beloved Recipes From a South Austin Icon" by Jam Sanitchat and Kim Lane (Thai Fresh, $40)


Lucien’s Shrimp Spaghetti


Shrimp spaghetti is to bayou kids what spaghetti and meatballs is to kids in the rest of the United States. This was my son Lucien’s favorite meal, which he would eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s a near-perfect meal — simple, sweet, perfectly balanced — and it’ll feed a big family or a crowd of friends. The recipe draws from the Creole cooking technique of smothering tomatoes long and slow. This version is made with store-bought sauce, but you can certainly make your own tomato sauce and cook it down in the same manner. Homemade tomato sauce tends to be thinner, so you might have to thicken it a bit with tomato paste to get the right consistency.


Buy canned tomato sauce (not pasta sauce) with no added sugar or salt. This is important, because canned tomatoes are often racked with sugar and sodium. Try to buy organic, if possible. I like making this recipe with organic Muir Glen tomato sauce; my mom uses Del Monte sauce.


If you’d like one less pot to wash, cook the spaghetti right in the sauce the way some Cajuns do: 8 to 10 minutes before the sauce is done, crack the spaghetti in half and add it to the pot along with 1/4 cup water. The pasta’s starch helps to thicken the sauce. Cover the pot and simmer the noodles in the sauce for about 15 minutes.


When I was growing up, there was no real cheese in the grocery aisles down the bayou — only the "Parmesan cheese" that came in a green can. We all know that what comes out of that green can isn’t true cheese, so get a nice chunk of the real stuff and smother your spaghetti with freshly grated Parmesan.


— Melissa M. Martin


1/2 cup canola oil


2 1/4 pounds yellow onions, finely diced


1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt


1 garlic clove, minced


1/2 cup finely diced celery


1/2 cup finely diced green bell pepper


5 cups canned tomato sauce (from three 14.5-ounce cans)


5 teaspoons sugar


2 1/2 pounds peeled and deveined small or medium shrimp


1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper


Pinch of cayenne pepper


1 tablespoon hot sauce, preferably Original Louisiana Hot Sauce


1 pound spaghetti, cooked as directed on the package


2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish


2 tablespoons finely chopped green onion, for garnish


Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving


Warm a wide, heavy-bottomed 15-quart Dutch oven or a large stockpot over medium-high heat for 2minutes, then add the oil and heat for 30seconds. Add the onions — you should hear a sizzle when they hit the oil — and season with the salt. Stir well to coat the onions with the oil, then cook, stirring often, for about 25minutes, until the onions are soft and golden (they should not have a lot of color at this point).


Add the garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the celery and bell pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 45minutes.


Now you’re going to add the tomato sauce 1/2cup at a time. Each time you add tomato sauce, add 1/2teaspoon sugar. (Scandalous, I know.) So, let’s begin. Add 1/2cup of the sauce and 1/2teaspoon of the sugar, stir, and heat until the sauce is simmering and bubbling but not boiling, then simmer for 15 to 20minutes. Repeat this process until you’ve added all the sauce and all the sugar, then reduce the heat to its lowest setting and cook, stirring every 10minutes, for 45minutes more.


Meanwhile, put the shrimp in a large bowl and season it with the black pepper, cayenne, and hot sauce. Let it marinate on the counter while the sauce simmers.


When the sauce has simmered for 45 minutes, add the shrimp and 4cups hot water to the pot and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium-high to bring the tomato sauce back up to a simmer, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook for 20minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of pizza sauce and no longer looks watery. Turn off the heat and let everything sit together for 30minutes to allow the flavors to marry.


Serve the sauce over the cooked spaghetti, garnished with the parsley and green onion and topped with Parmesan. Serves 6 to 8.


— From "Mosquito Supper Club: Cajun Recipes From a Disappearing Bayou" by Melissa M. Martin (Artisan, $35)