The Cook’s Thesaurus: Lori Alden

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Those of us who work with food rely on a variety of reference tools. There’s a plethora of wonderful books to learn about culinary history, how to use ingredients, and smart substitutions. I love Food Lover’s Companion, for example, and Kurt recently sang the praises of Waverly Root’s classic Food: An Authoritative Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. Both deserve a place on your cookbook shelf.

Truth is, though, if you want to learn more about how to use an ingredient or find a substitution, you’ll probably start with the Internet. My first stop is The Cook’s Thesaurus, a site I learned about a few years ago from a colleague. It has a homey, unfussy design, a vast range of reliable food information, and great navigation. I’ve consulted it on my iPhone while at the farmers’ market and when I needed to make substitutions on the fly in a busy pastry kitchen. It’s rare that I don’t find what I seek in The Cook’s Thesaurus, and every time, I’m impressed anew by the site’s breadth and depth.

food-subs-postIt’s also a remarkable labor of love. Founder Lori Alden created the site 1995, back in the early days of the Internet, as way to practice her HTML skills. An economist who spent 20 years teaching in the California State University system, Alden is also an adventuresome cook. She worked in kitchens as a student and did a short stint as a short-order cook, but it was during her time as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa that she became a pro at substituting one food for another. “We had to improvise all the time with limited ingredients,” she says.

Improvising is exactly what she designed The Cook’s Thesaurus to give novice cooks the confidence to do. The site was inspired by a friend who complained of searching high and low for hazelnuts, not realizing that they’re often labeled “filberts” and could be swapped for almonds, walnuts, macadamias, pecans or Brazil nuts. Alden approached the project with academic rigor, and the result is an online reference that covers everything from the Indian spice aamchur to the crisp bread zwieback–with all of their alternative names and potential substitutions. To round it out, Alden gathered ingredients, set up a home studio and snapped pictures of just about everything.

But you don’t have to be novice to benefit from Alden’s efforts. For example, I can never remember which types of potatoes are starchy and which are waxy. So, of course, I visited the site before developing this potato-leek soup and was reminded that a lovely medium-starch potato like the Yukon gold would work beautifully.

Thanks again, Lori.

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Colcannon Soup with Oven-Roasted Kale

This soup is inspired by colcannon, a traditional Irish dish of mashed potatoes and cabbage or kale. Buttery Yukon golds are medium-starch potatoes, which makes them particularly versatile. You could use russets or fingerlings instead. Leeks, too, have a wonderfully complex flavor and are a traditional component in colcannon. If you can’t find them, sub two yellow onions in the recipe. Yellow onions have more intricate flavor than white onions (and they tend to be cheaper). Roasting the kale enhances its flavor and yields a crunchy texture that makes it a pretty garnish for the soup. Use any variety of kale you find, from curly to dinosaur (also known as lacinato).


Colcannon Soup with Oven-Roasted Kale

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Total Time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings


  1. Soup:
  2. 1 tablespoon butter
  3. 2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  4. 2 leeks, thinly sliced (white portion only)
  5. 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
  6. 3-1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  7. 1/4 cup heavy cream
  8. sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  9. Kale:
  10. 1 (5-ounce) bunch kale, rinsed, trimmed, and coarsely chopped
  11. 1 tablespoon canola oil
  12. sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks, onion, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook 3 minutes or until tender (do not brown). Add potatoes and broth; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 15 minutes or until potato is tender. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup (or transfer the soup to a food processor or blender). Stir in cream, salt and pepper (to taste). Heat soup until hot.

Toss kale with oil, salt and pepper. Spread kale on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until kale is crispy and slightly browned on the edges, stirring every 5 minutes.

Ladle soup into 6 bowls; garnish evenly with roasted kale.

  • Rose

    Fantastic recommendation! I look forward to referencing this site again and again!

  • Jacqueline Church

    Have been dying to make potato kale soup for a couple weeks now. This puts me over the top. Love toasted kale and what a nice way to use them.

    I have used Lori’s site for ages. Love it.

    I’ve also recommended it to many new cooks.

  • Cheryl Sternman Rule

    Lori’s site wasn’t on my radar until now, so thanks for such an enthusiastic recommendation. Plus, I now know that she’s a fellow returned Peace Corps Volunteer, so I’m definitely going to stop by and give her some love.

  • horst woitalla

    Re: Additional substitute for “lovage” (ref.: Just use a few drops of Maggi.

    Connection: In German the word for lovage is “Liebstöckel” also referred to as “Maggikraut”, i.e., Herb of Maggi because of the similarity of taste; however, Maggi does not contain lovage*.


    *Source: and (English and German).

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