12.30.2010

Red Beans and Rice

A few weeks ago I was craving something hot, healthy, and hearty. Oh yeah, and spicy too. And then it hit me. Red Beans and Rice. The first dish ever mastered by me and my beloved. Click here (scroll down almost to the end) for the full story or forge ahead. Either way.

As I gathered the ingredients my Florida friend called and I of course announced my dinner plans to her. "We make that dish all the time," she said. "Remember you sent me the recipe years ago?" For a moment I felt warm and happy inside, how I always get when friends speak in such terms, but then I thought, Wow, had it really been years? I guess so. Circa 1995 I believe. Will someone please pass me my cane?

Meanwhile, Florida Friend continued on to say she freezes the leftovers since her kids currently show no interest in such culinary sophistication. Our leftovers go in the fridge and the next day husband Todd and I fight over who gets it for lunch. Whatever happens to your leftovers, I hope this oldie but goodie satisfies next time you crave hot, hearty, and all that other jibber jab from paragraph one.

Recipe

This recipe originally came from The Great American Cookbook which I bought "years ago" from a door to door salesman.

Part 1:

Let's talk rice* before even looking at the "Red Beans" part, shall we?  If you are a committed instant, frozen, or some other shortcut person, skip to Part 2 below and make your rice accordingly.

If you plan to go the old fashioned way, do so before you start Part 2.

Here's how I cook rice after years of mess ups. These directions are directly from the Joy of Cooking's section on cooking grains. If you plan to use a different type of rice, ask Google or if you own Joy of Cooking check out this section.

In a medium pot bring to a boil 2 1/4 for chewy rice (2 1/2 for softer, stickier rice) cups water or broth (chicken or vegetable) with 1 tablespoon butter or oil, and 1/4-1/2 teaspoon salt. Then add 1 cup long-grain brown rice, stir once with a fork, cover and while it cooks go to Part 2. (DO NOT STIR until end of cook time. If pot top isn't clear it's okay to lift lid after about 20 minutes to see how it's doing). Keep heat on low so rice simmers until all liquid is absorbed, about 35 minutes. Let stand, covered, 10 minutes. Fluff with fork.

Part 2:

In a deep skillet or large dutch oven cook over medium heat until hot*:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Then add (amounts need not be exact, I usually use a bit more):
  • 1/2 cup each, chopped into 1 inch pieces: onion (red or yellow), celery, green pepper

Stir and cook for 3-5 minutes, until veggies are cooked but still crisp*. 

Add and cook, stirring, for one minute or until fragrant:
  • 2 cloves minced garlic

Stir in:
  • 4 links cooked sausage* (one package) sliced into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 30 oz. tomato sauce
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Simmer for about 15 minutes over low heat, covered, stirring once or twice.

Stir in:
  • 30 oz. canned red or kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Continue cooking until beans are hot, 2 minutes or so. I add them at the end so they don't get mushy.

If it seems too thick add water, 2 tablespoons at a time until it looks soupy enough for you, if that's how you like it. You can put the lid back on, turn off heat and let it sit for a while until you're ready. Nothing bad will happen, promise.

Serve over hot cooked rice. About 2-3 cups worth should be enough.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Anyone else mess up rice about a hundred times before finally deciding the frozen boxed at TJ's or instant was just plain easier? Yeah, me too. But let's face facts, those don't taste as good as cooking plain old rice, packaged or from bulk, with some salt and/or butter or oil, maybe a hunk of ginger or some herbs thrown in for aroma.
  • Oil should shimmer a bit. I sometimes hold my hand close to the surface to feel for hotness. Not the safest move, so be careful.
  • Taste a piece or two. There's more cooking to go so don't overcook and end up with mushy veggies later. Saute at least 3 minutes for best flavor, when color changes a bit you should be good.
  • I tend to use Amy's brand chicken sausage, any type. For this recipe I've used several different brands and flavors, all have worked.

12.12.2010

A Cornucopia of Recipes

We all have issues, right? Even people with perfect hair and makeup, neat houses, and well behaved children. Actually, especially those people...

My issue of the moment is how to keep the four slices of bacon I just cooked from being consumed between now and the time I want to crumble it on my salad. Good thing I'm well-skilled in the hide-the-food game, a matter of survival when you live with three men.

My grandmother too roomed with three males (18 plus years) and taught me to hide cooled cookies stat (in closet behind Drano) and chocolate chips (same place) as soon as purchased because, as legend has it, if you trapped my father in a room filled with chocolate chips floor to ceiling he would eat his way out in minutes. Go figure, I married a guy with similar habits (only for all sugared foods) so when my girlfriend sent me a birthday gift of truffles from a fancy foodie candy maker, I acted fast when package was received in a home alone moment. The boxes were unmarked (score!), a start. Then, as per candy people's directions, I placed each box in a Ziploc, which I sealed meticulously and buried under a bag of peas and two boxes of spare butter, a final safeguard of frozen chicken breasts in front. I was blessed to eat all 44 pieces over the course of 4 weeks BY MYSELF. Meanwhile, the bacon needs a hiding spot...

I ended up wrapping the strips in plastic wrap which I stashed in a white bag that went on a pantry closet shelf behind nothing. Living on the edge today, with my kids eating wings and watching football and endless inappropriate commercials in the basement, I may just pull this one off.

Now for the purpose of today's post. Friends are constantly asking for my recipes, which are nearly never mine and almost always a quick click away. Perfectionist that I am, posting all will take, well, forever, since I'm constantly discovering new ones and because it takes a while to "dumb down" recipes for the cooking phobic. However many are not afraid of a stove (shout out to Maryland!) so today I am listing a bunch of linky dinks, no directions, so the intermediate/advanced crowd can live it up.

Still afraid? Look away, or jump off the cliff. Either way. Bottom line, I cannot hide these recipes from the experts any longer. It just isn't fair.

So in no particular order, with no regard for ingredient list, easy to make-ness, or course type I present the following recipes with no instructions whatsoever. I hope to eventually add to this list and dumb them down but in the meantime I say go for it. Post questions in the comments section below if you want some guidance.

Good luck, we're all counting on you.

Gluten-Free Goddess (GFG)* Roasted Winter Vegetable Ragout
GFG Cider Roasted Vegetables
GFG Sweet Potato Black Bean Enchiladas
GFG Pasta with Roasted Vegetables
GFG Baked Chicken
GFG Quinoa Chocolate Chip Cookies
Epicurious Marinated Grilled Swordfish
Yukon Gold Potatoes with Thyme and Garlic
Tyler Florence Bolognese Sauce (from lasagna recipe)
Tyler Florence Brisket
101 Cookbooks Honey Balsamic Bean Salad
Barefoot Contessa Parmesan Chicken
Barefoot Contessa Rack of Lamb
Emeril Caramelized Salmon with Bok Choy and Asian Citrus Sauce

**Extra! Extra!**
  • I love the Gluten-Free Goddess (GFG) with a passion. I first discovered her while Googling "What to do with two sweet potatoes on last legs" and found an enchilada recipe (see above) we fell over ourselves eating. After a year I've made zero "not great dishes" using her recipes.
  • On another GFG note, don't worry about using dairy/gluten/sugar-free options in the cooking recipes if you don't need to and/or don't have those ingredients on hand. If you wander over to her baking sections follow her tips and substitutions carefully.

12.06.2010

Dear Gertrude

My brother was going through a box of old papers (really old, like from the 70s) and came across a few of mine from elementary school. Aside from the “Good!!” written across the top in red pen, I’ve reprinted this one verbatim.

January 18, 1978
Lisa W.
Gertrude’s Gossip
Dear Gertrude,
            My mother won’t let me have
eat candy before lunch. What should
I do?
                                    Sweet Tooth

Dear Sweet Tooth,
            I think your mother is right.
You should not have candy before
lunch. You should only have it for dessert.

                                   Your friend,
                                    Gertrude


I decided to follow up with Gertrude, just to see if she’s changed her mind. Amazingly she’s still around.

November 29, 2010
Dear Gertrude,
            Are you sure my mother is right?
I mean, eating candy after lunch is really just
eating it before the next day's lunch.

                                    Sweet Tooth

Dear Sweet Tooth,
           Good point. Candy before lunch is okay, as long it's 
fair trade, or locally produced, or purchased at the candy
shop down the block from your house.

                                     Your friend,
                                      Gertrude

That settles it.

12.01.2010

Matzah Ball Soup, hold the matzah balls

About a month ago my son asked me to make matzah ball soup. Next shopping trip I returned with a box of matzah ball mix, which he saw and asked, "What's this?" I said, "Soon to be matzah balls for your soup." He shook his head. "No, I don't like matzah balls, I only like the soup part, you know, and the noodles." And so Matzah Ball Soup, hold the matzoh balls, was born.

Recipe

Chop and dice into 1/2 squares, measuring about 1 cup each:
  • 2 parsnips*
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 1 onion

In 8 quart pot pour:
  • 3-4 tablespoons olive oil

Heat pot on medium heat until hot, 3-5 minutes. Saute onions until translucent, about 3-5 minutes Add parsnips, carrots, celery and stir well.

Sprinkle in:
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh

Cook about two minutes, stirring every 10-20 seconds, adjusting the heat to keep them sizzling while you stir, until veggies look nice and shiny.

Pour in:
  • About 1 cup Imagine vegetable broth, enough to cover the veggies completely.

Turn heat up to high to get it boiling, then turn heat back down so broth simmers well. Vegetables will absorb much of the broth after about 3 minutes, let liquid reduce* by about half.

Add:
  • 2 more cups vegetable broth
  • 5 cups Imagine chicken broth, low sodium or regular
  • 1 bay leaf

Bring back to a boil, put on lid part way, leaving it a crack open, and reduce heat so broth simmers.

After about 10 minutes add:
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper

Simmer uncovered another 10 or so minutes. Taste and add more salt (1/4 teaspoon at a time) and pepper, if needed. Spoon out the bay leaf and toss it. Cover and let sit until ready to serve.

What about the noodles? What about the chicken?

If you plan to add noodles prepare them (al dente) add to each bowl before you add the soup.

If you like, add cooked chicken near the end of cooking the soup.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Parsnips used to scare me too. First peel it like you would a carrot, then chop the skinny end into 1/2 inch pieces. Cut the fat end lengthwise, then in half, then slice out as much of the tough center portion as you can, then chop your 1/2 inch pieces.

11.24.2010

Roasted Turkey

Roasting a turkey always seemed like such madness: the giblets, the basting, the constant urge to call the turkey hotline. I only agreed to roast a bird one Thanksgiving because sister-in-law Amy would be staying at our house for the holiday weekend. Only she could keep our family safe from a full on, turkey disaster.

So on game day, before taking one step in the turkey’s direction, I brewed coffee, deliberately clanking around the kitchen to wake and lure Amy to her post. I needed my assistant to keep my anxiety from pulling me back to bed and under the covers. She shuffled into the kitchen, clad in her monkey pajamas (monkey-jammas as husband Todd calls them), popped open a diet coke, and said, “Are you ready?” Her eyes twinkled.

“No,” I said. “Yeah, well, let’s get started anyway," she said. "I’ll get the turkey.”

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” I said as Amy hoisted the bird out of the fridge, onto the counter. “I’m just glad one of us has done this before.”

“Lisa,” she said, looking at me, rolling up her sleeves. “I told you...I’ve never made a turkey.”

“What about Thanksgiving at your house that year...when was that?”

“Don’t you remember? That was the year my parents brought the ‘Set-it-and-Forget-It’.”

I should have remembered. For days leading up to that Thanksgiving Todd and I tormented Amy and my brother, Larry, repeatedly bellowing, “How are we gonna cook the turkey? What’s that you say? We’re gonna set it…and forget it!”

Then the “Day Of” we shifted to Amy’s dad. “Hey John, did you set it? Well don’t forget to ‘forget it’! Ha!” and “Step away from the turkey, Grandpa John! You’re supposed to set it…and forget it!” We laughed all day long.

There would be no laughing this year, I thought. Even with Amy by my side, I feared a bloody, undercooked, salmonella of a bird, or, no less appealing, an over-cooked, desert dry, hunk of meat. I was betting on the latter, wishing John will magically appear, “Set it and Forget It” in tow, stuffing and dessert my only responsibility. That was not to be, so I faced the music.

My first line of business was to remove the giblets. “They’re in a bag in the turkey’s cavity,” the butcher had told me two days earlier. “You can't miss it!” And yes, the “can’t miss it” bag was right where he said it’d be. I reached into the bird, grabbed the bag and held it out as far away from my body as possible."Now what do I do?” I said, praying she'd say, “Throw it away.”

“Well, my mom always uses them for gravy,” she said, “but makes no difference to me.” So I trashed it. “Do you want me to do the rinsing?” she offered, deepening my love for her. "Of course," I said.

As Amy practically dove into the sink after the turkey, I watched her vigorously hose down our dinner, all the while (disturbingly) smiling. She lifted the bird out of the sink and into the pan. I supervised her hand washing technique.

My friend, Gayle was to roast a turkey that year, too. For weeks she and I had discussed strategy: number of pounds, organic or not, frozen or fresh, where to buy, how to avoid grocery store crowds. We both were using the Williams-Sonoma recipe so I figured collaboration was inevitable. When the phone rang that morning at 8:30, I knew it had to be her.

“I’m about to put my bird in the oven,” she said. “How’s it going over there?”

“Fine,” I said. “So far. Amy’s helping me.”

“Oh! Good! How nice! Okay, just checkin’ in. Happy basting!”

Back at the bird we washed herbs, cut a lemon, and stuffed the cavity. I pondered whether the final step, tying those darn legs together, was necessary as my instincts told me, "Do not blow this off." Amy and I twined the turkey closed as imperfectly as we possibly could and began the roasting process.

Just as we sat to finish our morning jolts and discuss being thankful, the phone rings. It's Gayle.

“Do you have a meat thermometer?” she asked. How in the world is her turkey ready for a temp check? I wonder. “Yes,” I told her.

“Can I borrow it? I just took my bird out of the oven and it looks good, but I don’t want to give anyone salmonella.” Who could blame her?

Amy and I left our husbands to man the oven so we could make the delivery two-blocks away. The trees were barren and it was an unseasonable 80 degrees. The warm sun calmed me, temporarily disintegrating my turkey insecurity. We chatted, stomping on crunchy leaves, hearing children laughing and playing at the park we pass. But when I opened the door to Gayle’s building, a waft of butter, onion, and chicken-broth hits me. My house doesn’t smell this good, I thought, wanting to run home to baste.

“Hello!” she said, throwing open the door and walking back into her kitchen. “Ya’ gotta come look at my bird!”

Smells like a bubbe’s house, I thought as I spotted the aroma source resting peacefully in the pan on the counter, golden-brown, crispy looking skin, legs perfectly together, green herbs strewn about. My mouth watered.

“Now that is a good looking bird,” I said. “Much prettier than ours. What did you do?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Basted a lot, I guess.”

On her counter I noticed a cookbook open to a page with step-by-step instructions, diagrams and all, on how to tie turkey legs together, which, to do so effectively, keeps in the herbs, spices and the like during the course of roasting: the nuance separating the men from the boys.

“So that’s how you do it!” I said, regretting the last two hours of my life.

I showed her the thermometer but she shook her head and said, “You know...I’m actually thinking I don’t need the thermometer. What do you think?”

“You are asking the wrong person,” I said. She should have know better.

Amy smiled and said, “I think it looks good.” Go ahead, maverick," I thought, "be blamed for salmonella-later-to-poison-Gayle’s-family!

Anyway, our turkey ended up, well, a tad undercooked at first, then after further roasting, a bit overcooked but who really cared by the time we all sat down? Gayle's did turn out great, no one got sick and she went on to roast many more birds, successfully. No repeats for me, however. One and done? Maybe. If I can get away with it.

11.19.2010

Brussel Sprouts

A few years ago I found a bunch of brussel sprouts in my CSA box and panicked. My mother used to nuke these babies until mushy (or so I remember). The result was a bitter dish I would rather not eat, and didn't.

But I sensed this time would be different. In Farmer Vicki's weekly emails that previewed the upcoming CSA box, she touted her vegetables, prepared simply by steaming or sauteing, as "yum!" She inspired me to keep it simple. I headed to the Joy of Cooking book for guidance.

A winner was crowned: Becker's Brussel Sprouts, prepared 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, devoured by me and Todd in less than ten minutes. Why cook brussel sprouts before noon? you ask. So when they turn out bad I can start over with a different vegetable at dinner, of course. If tasty, my plan was to throw 'em in the fridge, reheat later. If not, into the trash and onto the next bunch of veggies in the box. No harm, no foul. I was not, however, banking on brussel sprouts for breakfast. Who knew?

Recipe

Rinse, trim stems, remove outer leaves from and slice in half lengthwise:
  • About 12 brussel sprouts

Heat in medium skillet over medium low heat:
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

Add and cook, stirring, until beginning to brown:
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, crushed with the back of a knife into a few pieces

Remove garlic and discard, reserving butter/oil in pan. Place sprouts cut side down in pan, cover and cook over low heat, 15-20 minutes. Keep it simmering. If the pan looks too dry pour in a little more oil by pouring a little on a spoon and distributing around pan (you don't want to disturb the delicate browning process).

When cut side down is browned, flip them over and stir them around a minute or two. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Joy of Cooking suggests serving with a sprinkling with parmesan but I never do. Sometimes I squeeze fresh lemon juice over them.

11.09.2010

Weighing In

I’m sitting on the exam table scantily clad when my mother unabashedly tells the pediatrician, “I’m concerned she’s gained weight this year but hasn’t gotten any taller. What should I do?” The doc ponders not, and, clearly overlooking my non-obese state says, “Cut back on the junk food. And when she gets hungry in the afternoons, give her a diet Coke instead of a snack.” My mother nods as though she’s just received instructions from God and accepts the caffeine/chemicals-in-lieu-of-food prescription. Before leaving the room he makes one last suggestion. “Try sending her to school with smaller lunches.”

So went my first foray into the diet world. Before that moment I was like every other prepubescent girl as far as lunch was concerned: bologna or peanut butter sandwich, baggie of Cheetos or potato chips, apple (sometimes), three Oreos, carton o’ milk. New lunch for this medium boned, average-sized-girl-who-alarmingly-gained-poundage-without-height-previous-12-months: a half sandwich, dill pickle instead of chips (can you imagine?), one cookie echoing in a baggie, carton o’ milk. Though my lunch was now smaller than any third grader's in the western world, I acted cool about it. Sure I missed the other two cookies and second half of a sandwich, but I did love pickles, and I still had my milk. I wasn't too distressed. My mother provided me with less food so I wouldn’t be fat. It all made sense to me.

At the next weigh-in, Mom and the doc were so pleased with the number on the scale, permission was granted to resume eating potato chips and more than one cookie per sitting. With my mother’s encouragement (“better to throw food away than overeat!”) I managed to stay an acceptable size until I was a junior in high school. I had just returned from a week at my grandmother's house in Florida where there was little to do besides tanning, eating, and going to see a movie.

When the cab pulls up to my grandmother's building, you see her waving from the balcony, donned in the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking. You enter the lobby. She goes in to put out her cigarette. You take the elevator to the second floor where you are enveloped by wafts of cinnamon-sugar, chocolate, butter, toasted almond, and ash. Her short, soft, salt and pepper hair brushes your nose as you hug. She’s shrunk since the last time for sure, but no matter. Treasures await in her 4 x 4, linoleum-floored kitchen. The two feet of counter space are laden with yellow and black Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee cans and Tupperware containers stocked with spritz cookies, mandel bread, sweet rolls and cupcakes, and possibly (in the refrigerator) cream puffs, her Michael Jordan of desserts. If you don’t find what you desire (how could you not?) she’ll bake what you do, if you ask her nicely.

Grabbing no less than three of something, you sit at the dining room table and down the first of hundreds of sweets to be consumed that week. You ask yourself, do I want more now, or later? Later, you think, pace yourself.  Remember, nothing to do but tanning and eating. Want to fit into jeans when return to Chicago. But “later” ends up being no more than an hour, usually less.

Bored at the pool? Throw on your cover up, slip on those flip-flops, time for a sugar fix. Standing in her freezing cold kitchen you inhale cookies, shiver in your wet swimsuit. You'd think being barely dressed would trigger your brain to administer the “stop eating!” message, but no. You are in a stupor. Vanished is the word “cellulite” from your vocabulary. The only escape is a plane heading north in a week to ten days.

“Your tan looks very nice,” is how my mother greets me at the airport, “but it looks like you’ve put on some weight.” Ouch, I say to myself, nice to see you too. Guess you don’t want to hear about the riveting game of Jai-Alai I lost 20 bucks on. Let’s talk fat instead. “Really?” I say, knowing she’s right. Damn those cookies were good. Her eyes dart up and down my body, front to back, landing on my face. “Your cheeks look...puffy.”

This from a woman who later won’t notice me smoking in her backyard or in her car, or stumbling home from a party, falling asleep fully clothed, puking in the middle of the night, still smashed the next day. Nor will she notice my boyfriend in my room until 3 a.m. as she sleeps soundly, filled with glee I finally have a boyfriend. “See?" she says to my father the next day. "We stopped her from spiraling into morbid obesity and now she has a boyfriend! Thank goodness for that brilliant doctor! Thank God for the diet Coke!”

But I have long since grown out of the pediatrician’s office so my mother needs a new solution and finds it: Weight Watchers. Meetings held Wednesday nights at the Sheraton Hotel in Northbrook, Illinois, ten minutes from our house. I decide to go alone.

Down the winding staircase of the hotel I follow the rumbling voices to a small conference room and join the line of people waiting to be weighed. I make eye contact with no one. Wearing my heavy clothes, chocolate brown corduroys, a white blouse and a bulky salmon-colored cotton knit sweater I am trying to “get in” to the program. The minimum weight loss goal is ten pounds and I’ll just barely make it. The scale tips at 128 ½ pounds. I am accepted.

The next three months involve a mother-daughter effort of weighing and measuring portions, counting exchanges, eating McDonald’s chef salads. My mom promises me a new wardrobe from my favorite expensive-clothes store after I slim down. Dieting is in the air at school, on the streets; two of my girlfriends are on the same plan. A friend and I go to my house for lunch a few days a week, discuss what we ate yesterday, will eat that day and tomorrow, mentally calculating the other’s calorie intake, for motivational purposes, only. Fifteen pounds fly off my body. The one and only shopping day ever to be bicker-free occurs. Purchases include royal blue leggings and a short sleeved, yellow/red/blue floral print blouse, a sweater or two, and a new swimsuit.

My mother is driving me to the airport. My face is pale. My stomach is flat. I am off to Florida for spring break. There will be no gorging on cookies this time, I tell myself, only tanning and movies. But when the cab pulls up at my grandmother’s building, she’s waving from her balcony, wearing the blue and red housecoat, leaning against the railing, smoking.

10.29.2010

Tuna Salad

Ah, yes, the ever safe tuna salad. I don't know about you, but this used to be my go-to in sandwich shops where I don't trust the turkey. I mean, how bad can a chunk of albacore* mixed with a few dollops of mayo be? And then as I bite into the sandwich, mayo drips, onions overtake the flavor, and I feel like I should have just gotten a Big Mac instead. Blech.

Then I discovered the very expensive yellow fin tuna salad at Whole Foods. Too yummy. My son used to eat a half pound per week. But then I got tired of it and started making my own less tasty version. Until I was inspired one lunch while eating Kopi Cafe's tuna which goes something like this: very little mayo, small diced carrots and other veggies, and no blechy feeling afterwards. I immediately tried to replicate, using TJ's yellow fin tuna packed in oil and mixing in whatever I already had at home. The result was light and fluffy and made me happy.

This one is an "I don't follow a recipe" recipe. Angel/sister-in-law Amy trained me in this process (no recipe, that is) and continues to baffle me with her no-recipe creations. She, however, is from Iowa (heaven?) and therefore blessed with special powers in the kitchen. Upcoming posts on her, I promise.

Recipe

In a large bowl empty as many cans of TJ's yellow fin tuna (undrained) as you wantSpoon out a tablespoon or so of oil if you like it less oily*. Lightly stir tuna to break it up, not too much. Keep it chunky.

The following amounts are your choice. Go by the way it looks first (make it pretty!) then taste as you go. Add and stir in:

  • Carrots, celery, cooked green beans or peas (or other cooked, leftover veggies from last night's dinner), or whatever crunchy veggies you find, diced into bite-sized pieces
  • Minced shallot or red onion
  • Fresh or dried thyme (use less if it's dried, maybe 1/4 teaspoon per can)

Squeeze lemon (however much you like, a bit at a time, taste as you go) all over. Stir. You can also add a dash or two of red wine vinegar if you want, not necessary though.

If you want it to stick together for a sandwich, add one tablespoon (or less) mayo per can.

Taste again. Add more of the above if need be.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Dolphin safe, of course, but as husband Todd always asks, "What about the tuna?"
  • Yeah, I grew up on tuna in water too, because, you know, calories from oil big fat no-no. Well what do you think happens when you add all that mayo to make a creamy tuna salad? Yeah that's right, big fat calories. Try this instead and see which one feels better.

This was late August. Can't you tell from the tomato?

10.23.2010

Grilling the Gamble

When I attended University of Wisconsin-Madison, post winter grilling season resumed the first day you could stand outside in short sleeves without shivering. The guys set up charcoal grills, even buy the food, and we’d gather ‘round the open fire to drink beer and pretend to be cheese-heads. Dinner, cooked by the guys, was always delicious, solidifying my belief men are born with grill skill. Steak, when I was kid, a sure thing. Hamburgers cooked by college friends Steve, Dan, and Mike—four stars.

So when Todd and I looked for our first apartment together, I insisted on one with a balcony, for the Weber of course. If I was going to share my living space with a guy, the least he could do is grill me a decent piece of chicken. Our parents bought us the charcoal variety as a housewarming gift. I envisioned juicy steaks/burgers/chicken hot off the fire.

After my fiancé took the duration of a Kol Nidre service to assemble the thing, I watched as he added the coals, lit the fire, and peered through the grates. Hours passed (okay, maybe 15 or 20 minutes) before smoking commenced.

“How’s it going out there?” I ask, not really wanting the answer.

“Good, good,” he says. He is cheerful and unconvincing. “Really?” I ask.

“No, not really. It needs to heat up more, so we have to wait.” For thirty minutes he is on and off the balcony, lifting the lid, putting it back. I am sitting on the couch staring at a tray of raw chicken, wondering how long before salmonella sets in. I consider a nap.

“Can we cook yet?” I ask. “No, not yet,” he says. “But soon.”

So went our early grilling career. As I prepped the food, he’d mess with the coals, study the situation. Bored and hungry, I’d eat up all the side dishes before laying my eyes on done, mediocre-tasting meat.

“What is taking so long?” I ask my now husband. “Well, it’s really difficult to get the coals hot enough. I think this thing must be defective.” What he really means is “I do not know what I’m doing.”

The final blow was when friends come for dinner and we decide to grill chicken. Todd once again takes forever (the coals, the fire, the smoke) and conversation ceases due to everyone’s low blood sugar. Lame chicken, which we wolf down too hungry to care, is finally served. Our guests suggest heading downtown to Ghirardelli for ice cream sundaes to round out an otherwise pathetic evening of food. “Yes!” we cheer. “Who wants to drive?”

Three years in that one bedroom apartment and never once a great meal was eaten off the balcony. On moving day we gave the “non-working” (according to Todd) grill to the movers--for free. They were thrilled, but ask, “Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” Yes, I tell them, take us out of our misery. Their faces (we scored, dude!) imply at least one of them serves up a mean, hot burger. Our first Weber will be in good hands, I tell myself.

Yet my search for the road to fine steak continued. I wondered after a while if a gas grill might work better for us. So I researched, asking my dad, my brother, and a few guy friends, gas or charcoal? Weber or other? After tabulation a Weber gas grill was the answer. Maybe Todd can figure out one of those, I thought.

Instead, I ended up taking over at the grill. Sadly my results were no better.

“It needs to cook longer,” Todd would say every time. “Seriously?” my response.

“What do you want me to say?” he says as he opens the grill. “It isn’t done enough for me. And it’s not hot inside.”

“Hogwash!” I say, cutting into my steak. “Wait. Don’t close it. I’m throwing mine back on too.”

The struggle continued for the next three years. Moving day, January 2001, I resisted donating our second Weber to the movers and chant, I will figure out how to cook meat on a grill. I will. I will. I will. With four to six months to prepare in a new house with new aura, I was as hopeful as ever.

A month in the new house I came across the never been touched Weber Grill Instruction Manual/Cookbook, something I probably should have looked at a long time ago. I read the “How to cook every kind of meat imaginable” section. The Weber people are adamant about not lifting the lid to “peek” during the 5 or 10 minutes “on each side.” They practically swear on the bible that if you follow their method, all will be good and hot. So I decided to do what they said. I reread the “Cook Time” section each time I was about to cook a burger, steak, or a piece of chicken. I was tired of eating badly done meat, convinced this was the way to enlightenment.

But after more botched attempts, Todd was getting up from the table seconds after meat was placed in front of him. “Needs to go back on,” he would say. “You haven’t even cut into it!” my defense.

“I don’t need to.”

“Your brother always gets it so hot in the inside,” Todd says one day while eating steak at brother Larry’s house in Maryland. “Mm, mm, mm, look at the steam coming out of the middle,” he points out. “Why can’t you do this?” Larry sits there smiling, pompous.

My brother cooks all the meat in his house like every good husband should. He is as passionate about seasoning steak as he is about not crossing a picket line. He calls me a “communist” when I ask for mine “well-done.” If you don’t see blood, he says, it’s not worth eating.

When his wife Amy asks permission to roast peppers alongside steaks, he explains, yet again, that there’s not room on the grate for everyone. The suggestion to cook the steaks first, then the peppers is met with fury, usually. Once I watched him consider such a request. He pressed his lips together, cocked his head back and forth and said, “Okay, but this is going to throw the timing of our meal way off.” Do not speak to him while he grills, at least not if you want him to respond. He seems to go deaf as smoke engulfs his face, eyes locked on his dinner. The fact that he’s cooking for others is secondary, and why it will be perfect.

Only with a closed lid will he pay you any attention for a second, maybe two. “How do you know when it’s done?” I ask on one such occasion. “I don’t know,” he says, gazing into the distance, magic spatula in hand. “I just do.” Then he opens the lid, transfers the meat to a tray, serves himself and puts down the tray next to him.

“Larry!” yells Amy. “How about the rest of us?” “Oh, yeah,” he says, passing the steak. “Knock yourselves out.”

Moments later Larry looks up from his plate and asks, “How is it?” knowing full well the answer. “Perfect!” we say like we always do.

My sister-in-law is one lucky woman.

10.18.2010

Pork Tenderloin

I eat pork. I am a Jew. I'm a Jew who eats pork. It is said it is done (medium rare).

The only period of my life I didn't eat pork was for a few years in high school. After dissecting a pig in sophomore biology, a girlfriend and I went MIA around all animal flesh. We blamed the stench of the pig for turning us off from meat of any kind (aside from hot dogs at Wrigley Field). Nevermind the aroma was formaldehyde. Wasted years. I eventually caved when I was a counselor at an overnight camp and hamburgers were the only choice on the menu during a camping trip dinner. I've been catching up ever since.

Let's get to the good stuff, shall we? Pork tenderloin. When cooked to perfection all is right with the world. I have conducted extensive Google research on how cook this one just right. Took some digging, excavation, tenacity, and patience. You know, like finding the lost ark.

Recipe

I always make two pork tenderloins at once, because my boys eat meat like boys eat meat, like animals. We are also leftover junkies; my husband would rather snack on a hunk of meat than a bowl of chips. Wouldn't you?

I buy mine at Whole Foods because the sliver skin (Google it) is already removed. At Paulina Meat Market ask them to do this for you. If you buy at TJ's, you're on your own, so add at 5-10 minutes to your prep time.

Here's a marinade if you're a planner. For "I bought this meat ten minutes ago and would like to eat today" folks, take two pork tenderloins, any size, lay them on a cookie sheet or plate, and rub on (with your hands, yes!):
  • Olive oil to coat well, about* one tablespoon per loin, nice and greasy.

Sprinkle all over, for each loin:
  • About 1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
  • About 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • About 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, if fresh use more, maybe 1/2 teaspoon

Let sit at least ten minutes at room temperature*.

Now for the cooking. Several ways to go here, this is my fave, and will take you, from grate to plate to eat, about 30 minutes. I gave up on meat thermometers which many recipes suggest using so you can confirm meat temp is a "safe" 150 degrees. They never worked for me. What did work was making this a few times to get the hang of it. But once I did, all was right with the world.

No grill? Try same technique in oven (400 degrees) or broiler (on low, if an option).
  1. Preheat grill to about 400.
  2. Take a few paper towels and fold them together. Saturate with any type of cooking oil. Glove up (oven mits) and grease grates quickly*. Place meat on grill.
  3. Close lid. Look at temp gauge. If heat is not swiftly rising back to 350-400, turn up the heat! When it reaches desired temp, turn heat back to where you had it before to stabilize temperature*.
  4. After 5 minutes, rotate meat slightly, either direction. (The goal is to treat the loin like it has 3 or 4 sides.)
  5. Repeat step 3. Then four. Repeat until all sides have cooked for about 5 minutes.
  6. Remove to a plate and cover with foil. Let sit at least 10 minutes before slicing.
  7. Slice into 1 inch pieces. Cut the short way, against grain (the lines in the meat).

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Ah, yes, the overused "about" chimed by every Food Network pro. Right along with "to taste." For those needing "exactly" in lieu of "about," wish granted. Experienced souls, salt and pepper and thyme away! No one needs to know how much but you.
  • No, meat will not salmonella, I promise.
  • Move like lightening so paper towels don't ignite, or get the extinguisher ready.
  • I use the indirect heat method, ala Weber Grill Instruction Manual: turn off middle flame and set other burners to medium. This works for my grill, though often I turn on the middle burner to achieve the right temperature. Every grill is so different, learn yours and your meat will rock. See Grilling the Gamble for more on this.

Pork Tenderloin Marinade

I found this recipe somewhere in the land of Google (maybe Cooks.com) and changed it a bit.

Whisk together in a bowl:
  • 1/4 cup low sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon white wine
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary (1 teaspoon dried)
  • 1 tablespoon minced shallots*
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger*

Place a one-pound pork tenderloin in Ziploc. Marinate at least two hours or overnight. Double recipe for two loins.

Follow these cooking instructions (see "Now for the Cooking," past the seasoning instructions).

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Shallots? Yeah, me too. Probably next to the garlic, above the potatoes and onions, in an itty bitty basket. Or ask the produce guy.
  • Fresh ginger is in the produce section, usually in that special place reserved for "things only chefs know what do do with." Again, ask the guy.
  • Here's how to deal with ginger: with a veggie peeler, peel off brown skin until you get to the flesh, then peel a few slices and mince it up. Lazy? No problem, get the jarred version (in Asian section) and chop it up. Keeps fresh in your fridge for, dare I say, years?



10.16.2010

A Friend and An Angel

I saw and heard my future friend and angel many times, on the playground and the streets, before we actually met. The official introduction happened winter 2002 at a toddler park district class where the munchkins run around, ride little plastic cars, and fight.

“Hi!” she said, pushing a double stroller past me, chicken necking to look back. "I'm Gayle."

“Hi, I'm Lisa, nice to meet you. Are they twins?” I asked of her same-sized stroller passengers.

“Nope,” she said. “Fifteen months apart.” She noticed my wide eyes and said, “Yeah, it’s crazy…having two babies. I don’t even know how I got pregnant. This one was six months old when we found out."

Later that week I spotted her out my living room window. She was bopping down the street, her brown, curly top-of-the-head ponytail cocked slightly to one side and swaying to and fro. I opened my door, yelled her name and she crossed the street to say hi.

“This is where you live!?” she said, not really asking.

“This is where I live,” I stated.

“Lovely,” she said. “This is my route to the park every day. From now on I’ll walk on this side of the street and look for you on your doorstep!” Great, I thought, a peeping Tom.

Her stroller was loaded up with more supplies than I pack for a weekend out of town. “When I hit the streets,” she said, “I load up. Toys, snacks, drinks--the works. And if it’s above 50 degrees, we don’t go home for lunch.”

After that we kept running into each other all around the neighborhood. Her stroller was always overflowing, kids almost always smiling. A friendship began. As did phone calls, lots of them. Early morning. Late at night. Whenever.

I answered with, “Hello.” She answered talking full details of the scene at hand, usually about food in various forms. “I’m mincing an onion for turkey chili!” or “I’m browning meatballs for Barefoot Contessa’s spaghetti and meatballs!”

When she greeted me one morning with, “It smells delicious in my house--I’m sautéing leeks!” I decided she was in fact a lunatic. What in the world was she doing, sautéing leeks (or anything else?) at 8 a.m.? I didn’t even know what a leek was, and so I asked, “Leeks? What are those?”

“Are you kidding me?” she blasted back. “They are de-li-cious…you can never have enough leeks in a soup!” I was flabbergasted. “You make homemade soup?” I asked. No one born after 1950 made homemade soup.

“Of course, I love soup!” So did I. From the can, or a restaurant.

Later that day Gayle showed up at my house, unannounced, holding a plastic cup with aluminum foil covering the top. “I had to bring you a taste,” she said. “This is the butternut squash soup I was making when you called earlier. It is spectacular!”

Never before had a friend appeared on my doorstep with such an offering. I was touched, impressed and a bit confused: did she not have enough room in her refrigerator, or a compulsion to feed those who call when she is mid-sauté? Whatever the case, I took a taste. She was right. It was spectacular.

✳ ✳ ✳

Seven years later I'm in the produce section at Whole Foods bagging turnips and parsnips when a man turns to me and asks, “What are you going to do with those? How will you prepare them?”

Shocked, I nearly forget why I’m buying them in the first place. “Oh, I’m, uh, going to sauté them and serve them as a side dish,” I reply. “Sounds good!” he says, and walks away.

Why in the world is this man talking to me? I ask myself. Doesn’t he know I’m a terrible cook? "Don’t be deceived by my confident exterior!" I wanted to shout. "I don’t really know what I’m doing, just because I’m buying parsnips!"

On my next grocery shopping trip (really, the following week), I grab a bunch of leeks and as I toss them in my cart I see a woman looking my way. “What are those?” she asks.

“Leeks,” I reply.

“What do you do with leeks?”

“I’m using them for a soup.” Two weeks in a row a stranger has spoken to me in a grocery store. Asking me questions about cooking. What is happening?

At checkout as I loaded my items onto the belt I smiled and recalled my former self. Was I now the expert? Are others now watching me? Shadowing me? Or did I just look old?

Returning home from the grocery store and unloading my items onto the counter, I felt old yet victorious, embracing the former as a fair trade for the latter, and looking forward to dinner.

But first I needed to call Gayle for directions on the best way to wash a leek.

Two Markets and a Baby

The first Chicago Whole Foods Market was located two blocks from the apartment we moved to in 1994. The heavenly aromas I inhaled walking past the store seemed to promise deliciousness, though I stayed away, initially. The place seemed too fancy for people like us. Until one Saturday I succumbed, walking through the automatic doors instead of past them, into the wafts of sweet, warm sustenance.

Dizzied, I floated up and down every aisle. I’ve long forgotten exactly what I bought that day, but this I remember: I left holding only one bag of food. All I could carry and conveniently, all I could afford. Unloading the three, maybe four items onto the kitchen table I reminisced. The salad bar with no iceberg lettuce, beautiful photographs of delicious looking everything, the word organic. Until then Todd and I had only shopped in “grocery stores.” Whole Foods was no grocery store, it was a market. A market where we would we spend large sums on enough food for one meal and possibly a snack. 

In June 1997, Todd and I moved into a condo and began our quest to procreate. This replaced grocery shopping as number one on our list of “scary things.” As if having children wasn’t enough, I decided practicing the aforementioned eating habits (If You Can Read, You Can Cook) was fine while we were still DINKS (Double Income No Kids), but not fine when we become parents. By then Todd had proclaimed he would rather eat deli meats every night than to participate in cooking another meal in his life. He promised to clean up as I furthered our dinner horizons. I decided to give myself five more years, thinking if we had a baby soon, it couldn’t possibly remember family meals prior to kindergarten.

By the time son number one was born in June of 1999, I had made zero progress. With three years left in my five year plan, I was now consumed with changing diapers and schlepping baby boy to play dates. My inner voice, which seemed to intensify in my postpartum state, chanted, “learn to cook…be a good mother.” One evening I told the voice to "shut up!" so I could focus on the Giordano's menu and decide what kind of pizza to order.

Of course the voice came back, the next day and the next, elaborating which while helpful, was quite annoying. “You can do it! Remember, if you can read, you can cook. Unpack those cookbooks in the basement closet, you know, the ones in the box next to the uncomfortable shoes you will never wear again. And while you’re at it, donate those shoes to charity.” So I read the cookbooks (donated the shoes). The voice even persuaded me to purchase unusual ingredients and use spices instead of Lawry’s Salt, which by the way my cousin believes is God’s gift to edibles and probably sprinkles it on chocolate. I identified with his position, but listened to the voice instead.

Regardless, “The best chicken according to my mother-in-law” was a bust and the “savory braised lamb with delectable mint sauce” was just okay. They were supposed to be delicious and fantastic, according to the recipes. Yet not a single meal I cooked was drop-your-fork-to-applaud great. Why was this happening? I kept asking myself. I was following the recipes meticulously, timing how long I sautéed the onions and simmered the sauce.

After a while Todd began putting my attempts into three categories. There was, “Not bad…not bad…I would eat this again, but add more salt next time.” Then, “It’s just okay, but not a repeater.” And most often, “Don’t ever make this again. Ever. Do we have any peanut butter?” When he started telling dinner guests my cooking was “50/50: half the time it sucks and half the time it’s edible, depending on your hunger level,” I nearly gave up.

Then new hope arrived by way of the farmers’ market. How I loved where the peaches for sale really do ripen by sundown, the tomatoes are devoured on the walk home, the ten year-old cheddar costing more than a movie ticket is so worth it, all sold by smiling people withstanding rain, sweltering heat, and swarming bees. Not a bad place to spend a morning, particularly in lieu of a grocery store. I longed to stand before the local farmer grabbing everything in sight intending to whip up a magnificent meal that would send my husband and I (and guests?) reeling.

Unfortunately, the scene so often overwhelmed me I usually left with a bunch of flowers and nothing else. (Did you say two bunches of daisies for $3, or three bunches for $2?) Or aimlessly spend $40 on produce that later sat rotting in the fridge as I spent days perusing cookbooks for a recipe calling for those exact ingredients. Neither scenario worked for me, but I kept at it. I suspected there was a “farmers market code” that might just translate into cooking prowess. So I returned week after week and eventually, I hatched a plan involving my fellow shoppers.

My new approach was to study the "experts": grinning 40-something women donned in long, flowing colorfully patterned skirts and t-shirts, khaki hats, espadrilles or sandals, sporting fabric eco-friendly recyclable bags. Confidently they marched along, gripping lists, purchasing unfamiliar (to me) fruits, vegetables and herbs. I shadowed them, bought what they bought, even if I hadn’t a clue what to do with a spaghetti squash and never before purchased a fresh beet. I would go home with my exotic vegetables and again, attempt to cook yummy meals. This had to work.

If You Can Read, You Can Cook

The first six months of dating my husband, Todd, I have no recollection of consuming anything but tiramisu and Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. It was 1991 and those were the desserts of the decade. Later into courting other foods were consumed, like ordered-in, Carmen’s stuffed spinach pizza.  There were also meals at moderately priced, mediocre restaurants and, when our parents took us out, at slightly higher priced, pretty good restaurants.

The moment we started cohabitating (about three years dating then) was when we began expecting more, or at least something different, from our evening meal.  Dinner, we decided, should be quality time spent together, feasting on non-dessert, non-junk foods prepared by non-professionals, as in us, in the 70s style kitchen of our rental apartment.

On the first night of our new venture we searched the kitchen for dinner fixings, but the cupboards were bare, aside from a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread. “Where is the food with which we are to make our fantastic meal?” we asked each other, holding back the urge to blame one another for not taking on the household chore we both dreaded equally: grocery shopping.  For Todd this phrase conjured up unpleasant college memories of spending $100 on food that disappeared in three days while his always-broke roommate spent $50 and ate for the month.  (Apparently this guy was an artist who worked exclusively in the medium of Ramen, noodles that is.)  I too dreaded food shopping with little idea what to buy or how to cook. Given our deficits, what was the point?  To quote my friend, Jackie, who at the time had never cooked a meal in her life, “why not just leave it to the professionals?”

But instead, we set aside our fears and persevered. We wrote lists, shopped and assembled nightly dinners. Sure, there were occasional restaurant meals and takeout orders, but usually we made dinner together at home in our first shared kitchen. Lots of turkey sandwiches, soup from the can, and salads made with iceberg lettuce.

In 1994 Todd put a ring on my finger. And I have a theory that nearly every bride-to-be comes down with a virus (causing delirium) only curable by saying “I do.” I was no exception, as evidenced by my affirmative response to the question, “How about four bridal showers in two months?”  Sure, I heard myself say. Bring it on.

As small appliances, kitchen gadgets, dishware, flatware, and glassware piled up in our apartment, so did the thank you notes. After I’d written, say, 40 of them, I realized the magnitude of the situation. “Why the hell did I register for a Cuisinart?” I asked fiancé Todd. “Or any of this other crap?  I suck at cooking…what was I thinking?!”

Sitting before our personalized stationary and gift list, pen in hand, I scribbled false claims. “Dear so and so…thank you very much for the meat thermometer. It will really help me take the temperature of our Thanksgiving turkey’s ass so we don’t get salmonella…” All went downhill from there.

Shower number three. I unwrap cookbook number five of the afternoon, look into the crowd of menopausal women and make the following announcement: “Thank you so much…these will never see the outside of our storage unit.” Polite laughter follows.

“No, really,” I say. “I am a terrible, terrible cook.  Even with directions.”

And that was when I heard it for the first time. “If you can read, you can cook,” proclaimed one of my mother’s friends, nodding her head, pointing her chin at me with authority.

Ha! I thought, you probably tell your friend who needs to lose ten pounds she’ll lose weight if she stops eating so much. Well neither of us believes you! So I shoved those cookbooks on a high shelf to sit and collect dust.

Nevertheless, newlyweds we were, and now owners of enough cooking tools to fill our kitchen twice, we felt obligated to put a little more effort into cooking, or at least into making it look like we were, even if only to prove to a cousin of mine who, upon seeing our registry, asked my mother if we would in fact use the $400 Calphalon cookware set for anything other than heating a can of soup. My mother convinced her yes. I wrote the cousin a thank you note promising extensive usage “for years to come.”

The truth was, we liked using our new stuff. The new pots and pans were heavier than the old ones. The big dishes matched the little dishes. There were 12 forks and knives. As long as we didn’t burn down the building, we figured we had to at least try. Some meal, sometime, ought to turn out tasty.

So in our overflowing galley kitchen we proceeded as follows: Monday was pasta night; boiled spaghetti and Prego sauce from the jar and voila…a hot meal cooked by us. Tuesday, a big salad with crusty bread. On Wednesdays, too spent from all the cooking we already did that week, we’d pour bowls of cereal, hit the couch and watch TV. On Thursdays, the blockbuster NBC lineup of Mad About You, Friends, Frasier, Caroline in the City and ER motivated us to start our first cooking tradition: Thursday Night Pizza and TV. We would labor over a mound of homemade dough until it resembled a pizza crust, artfully load it with toppings, and wonder as it baked during Friends, will the result be good, bad, or even edible? Usually it was “just okay,” highly acceptable in the world of pizza, especially for two 26-years-olds. But sometimes it was downright terrible, the crust undercooked or burnt, forcing us to order a pizza, not eating until the second half of ER. Eventually we discovered the Boboli pre-made crust, which was to us what Lipton Onion Soup Mix was to our mothers’ generation: the greatest processed shortcut ever to be found on a grocery store shelf. We never ate past Caroline in the City again.

On Friday nights we decompressed from our 9 to 5 week by eating whatever was left of the Thursday night pizza. Saturday, date night. Out to the latest unaffordable trendy restaurant in Lincoln Park. And on Sundays, another restaurant meal with, and hopefully, paid for by the folks.

This pattern continued for months or maybe a year. Until one Wednesday evening (circa 1996) my husband announced, “I would love me a chicken pot pie.” You have got to be kidding me, I thought. “A what?” I said. “A chicken pot pie!” he said again. What he really meant was “Woman, I would love for you to make a chicken pot pie for me to eat.” No chance, I thought. But he looked so hopeful and hungry. “A chicken pot pie, huh?” I glanced at the top of the bookshelf. There sat our cookbooks, coated with dust as predicted.

If you can read, you can cook! I thought, and then, No! It’s a cliché, a farce of a statement, a form of entrapment from the older generation! Still, like a mantra it continued. If you can read you can cook. If you can read you can cook. I wanted to run to the nearest Boston Chicken.  “Fine,” I said. “But you are helping me.”

I found the recipe in The Great American Cookbook, the cover of which was plastered with food company logos like Lipton, Land ‘O’ Lakes, and Heinz, each recipe listing no less than one sponsor’s product. (Eventually I would use competing brands just to outsmart the book.) Anyway, the chicken potpie was made and I would not see my husband prouder until the day our first child was born. Unfortunately, the kitchen was destroyed and we did not sit down to eat until hours after the project began. Delicious as it was, we never made it again.

The next recipe we tried was Red Pepper Fettuccine found in the same cookbook. We followed the directions carefully and in 30 minutes the dish appeared tasty, hot and colorful with its real red peppers, chicken pieces, and basil. Too bad it was only hot and colorful. Todd said it tasted like ass. “That was the worst thing I have ever tasted in my life,” announced my soul mate. “This is what food must be like in prison.” So we dumped every bit of it. Maybe what my mother’s friend should have said was, “If you can read, you can cook, but what you cook might suck.” Wounded, we went back to our pasta-salad-cereal-pizza routine to recover.

A few months later I was flipping through the Great American Cookbook hoping (again) to add to our repertoire when I found a recipe for Red Beans and Rice that didn’t scare me. Sounded easy, only involving two cans of beans, tomato sauce, some sausage and very little chopping. I read off the ingredients to Todd. “I’m in,” he said. “Let’s serve it up!” Termed a “One-Pot Meal” it was actually a two-pot meal, the rice cooking separately from the other ingredients. But no matter, we chopped, sautéed, and simmered the onion, celery, sausage, and beans. And to our utter delight, it wasn’t bad, or just okay; it was really good! We served it up in bowls and devoured every morsel, patted each other on the back and agreed it was fit to be served to company, if we ever had any.

Red Beans and Rice became our signature dish. After eating it for the 20th time or so, Todd made the realization it might just be the only fantastic meal we would ever prepare. “Like the author, Calvin Trillin,” he said. "He wrote an essay about only being able to cook one great dish. Let me see if I can find it." He ran to the bookshelf and scanned the titles until he found Trillin’s memoir Too Soon To Tell, then quickly found his case in point. "Here it is!" he said, pointing to the passage. “…I do have a recipe for a splendid monkfish dish. Here’s how special it is: it’s the only dish I can make. I don’t mean the only monkfish dish; I mean the only dish.” Our Red Beans and Rice was no burnt monkfish, which according to Trillin took all day to make, but it was the only meal we cooked that consistently tasted delicious.

No more eating cookie dough ice cream for dinner, tiramisu for dessert. We had graduated to the next level for sure. But I wanted more. Much more.

10.15.2010

Trader Joe's

I buy many processed foods at Trader Joe’s. The prices are low and ingredient lists short. I’m not a fan of the prepared fresh or frozen meals, but in a pinch you can do worse.

TJ’s is good for stocking up on nonperishables and freezer friendly foods like meat, cheese, and bread. There's an array of nitrate free meats (careful, some do list them), lower sodium items, and ones you’ll find at Whole Foods at higher prices (i.e. Applegate, Environkids cereals). Beware of the produce. Though many of my cohorts buy produce at TJ’s without incident, I think their vegetables don’t last long or taste as good as Whole Foods or Farmer’s Market produce. But I’m super picky (great ingredients equal great results). So I only buy TJ’s produce in a pinch. Bananas, apples and oranges are usually pretty good. Study the bags of lettuce well. Look for expiration dates and slimy looking leaves. If that bag of mini carrots has too much water in it the carrots may be slimy. RETURN bad tasting food. Save receipts at least a week.

Resist shopping last minutes of the weekend. The shelves will be bare and your favorite turkey may be gone, causing you to blow off packing a sack lunch. Then you'll end up eating greasy pizza the next day from the joint across from your office and suffer late afternoon regret. Monday’s are not much better, particularly in the morning. They are often restocking. Get there Saturday or Sunday morning, or, if you don't work 9 to 5, wait until Tuesday.

Shopping List

I couldn't possibly list every item I ever bought at TJ's, so I listed some I buy regularly and really like. All are TJ's house brand unless otherwise stated.
  • Applegate Farms hot dogs
  • Applegate Farms turkey/bologna
  • Fully cooked bacon (in a box)
  • Whipped cream cheese
  • String cheese, regular fat content, mozzarella and cheddar
  • Tillamook cheddar cheese
  • Veggie chips
  • Sweet potato and root veggie chips
  • Hibiscus cranberry juice
  • Yellowfin tuna in olive oil (yeah, I grew up on tuna in water too, but trust me on this one, recipe coming soon)
  • Canned salmon, Alaskan Pink (wild), no salt added
  • Plain rice cakes
  • Whole wheat crackers (like triscuits)
  • Frozen artichoke hearts
  • Organic creamy salted peanut butter made with Valencia peanuts
  • Rice spaghetti pasta
  • Regular pastas
  • Precooked polenta
  • Whole wheat hot dog/hamburger buns
  • Organic honey whole wheat bread
  • English muffins
  • Frozen fish: tilapia, swordfish, tuna


**Extra! Extra!**

For unfortunate souls who do not live within 30 minutes of a Trader Joe’s (shout out to Florida) your regular grocery store probably has cordoned off a teeny tiny bit of shelf space in various aisles for nonevil processed food. Watch the prices. Whole Foods sells many of those items cheaper, by a lot.

You may notice elderly folk throughout the aisles, a clue this place is all about convenience and value. If you hit it when the bus from the home pulls up, you’ll get to see your future. My grandmother actually introduced me to Trader Joe’s “years ago” when I was a shiny new college graduate visiting her in California. She used a walker at the time, but at TJ's she'd throw it in the cart, lay her forearms on the handle, one on top the other like a genie, and push slowly down the aisles stopping unexpectedly. Now when I see a blue haired at TJ's, I cry a little and fight the urge to hug her, particularly if she’s less than 5 feet tall and has 3 items in her cart. If she's wearing cataract sunglasses even better.


Whole Foods (WF)

I know, I know, Whole Paycheck. Heard that one a million times, but please, work with me. Release your fear of spending all your money on nothing. You can conquer the beast without maxing out your Visa. I promise. (And if you don't shop at Whole Foods, read on anyway and apply to wherever you do.)

When I first started grocery shopping I was told, "make a list and stick to it and you won't run out of money." I believed this just as I believed, "If you can read, you cook" and not only did I run out of money, but my cooking produced scary results (see The Journey). Let's try a different approach, shall we?

The goal is simple, but not easy, as my husband likes to say. You must learn to shop WF, not let it shop you. Visit the store with a full stomach, relaxed body, open mind and a list to stray from. "But how will I know when to stray from the list?" you ask. With practice, my friend, lots o' help from The Google, and reading on.


Produce

Be an inspector. How do those strawberries look? Open the package. Move a few around. Any mold? Even if you get to check out and realize the melon you chose looks sad, hand it to the checker and say, “I changed my mind.” He won’t shoot you, I swear.

Focus on sale items first, often the best choice for quality as well as price. Reaching for the romaine (on the list) and see red leaf is on sale? Red leaf it is. Buy the apple variety on sale even if your recipe calls for a different type (for cooking, not baking). And so on.

Taste what you can. Grapes are easy, and don’t miss samples. If an apple variety you’ve never tasted is on sale ask the produce guy for a slice. Then if you don’t like it, don’t buy it!

Take a moment and search for the cheapest, most local produce you can find and buy a small amount. Find a use for them later (The Google). See what you can find for three bucks or less.

Big bags of carrots or lemons can be tempting. Only buy them if you need them all, soon, because they may not last as long as ones you hand pick.

Now for a word on my favorite pastime, returning produce. I know people who would sooner stand naked in the parking lot than bring back a partially eaten watermelon that’s as mealy as a matzah ball. If this is you, think of the prices to give you strength, take a deep breath and march to the customer service counter and say, “Hi. This watermelon is bad.” Forty-five seconds later, five dollars are back in your pocket. That pays for a grande latte, my friend. (On a non-produce note, I once bit into a rotten piece of WF fish. After I finished gagging I called the store and the guy told me to toss the fish, bring the receipt and get a refund, no evidence necessary. These are reasonable people!)

Returning is inconvenient, I know. Reduce the pain by keeping receipts in your car, and/or storing returns in your trunk (weather permitting, depending on the item) so you can run in on your way around town.

Fish

Tilapia is a good value, easy and fast to cook. White fish is also cheap but not always available. Try the frozen tilapia or fresh sold in bulk (wrap each piece in plastic wrap, then in a Ziploc, then freeze for later).
  • Learned this trick from a couple of angels: defrost fish by placing wrapped pieces in a large bowl and fill with cold water. Let sit 15 minutes or more until no longer frozen. I used to defrost everything overnight in the fridge but often changed my mind about what to cook or forgot about it. This process works better for me.

Frozen Shrimp: I finally started buying the deveined, shelled, tail-on version (uncooked $8.99/bag) because I simply could not take the cleaning one more minute. Lazy me. Then I realized the ones in need of deveining are the same price (do'h!).
  • An entire bag feeds three of us (because my son loves shrimp). Place shrimp in a bowl, cover in cold water and let sit 10-15 minutes, drain, rinse, drain, dry. No cleaning whatsoever. Score. Then saute or boil (recipes coming soon).

Meat

If cows and chickens were legal to keep out back in these here parts, my property would smell like a barn. Seriously, though, meat glorious meat is the saying around here. Whole Foods is my favorite place to buy, though I occasionally run into Paulina Meat Market when meat is all I need. Trader Joe's is fine, but not where I go when I need an undertow (lots!).

Look for sales. Skinless, boneless breast of chicken, grass fed ground beef, and steak often sell in three pound packages for a few bucks off per pound. If you don't see it prepackaged, ask the butcher what the specials are. They may have run out of the packages and will kindly make one up for you.
  • Freeze some for later: separate ground beef into two or three hunks, wrap each in plastic wrap, and freeze in a Ziploc. Also wrap chicken pieces and steaks if you plan to use one or two at a time.
  • To defrost: place frozen meat, still in bag or wrapped in plastic, in a big bowl and fill with cold water. Chicken can actually go right in the water sans plastic. Steaks and chicken take about an hour, sometimes less, but ground beef takes a while. (As mentioned in Fish section above, I used to defrost meat overnight in the fridge but often changed my mind or forgot about it.)

A word on contaminated meat. Salmonella and ecoli are creepy words and mentioning them at all gives me the willies. After limited research, I have concluded that buying meat from high quality butchers alleviates the urge to cook the daylights out of your dinner, as my roommates and I did in college. Rubber chickens are for decoration, not for eating. Anyway, do your own research on the topic if you wish.

Now take a brisk walk around the block to regain your appetite and make a chicken recipe from my blog and enjoy.


Deals of the Day

Two of my angels (Gayle and Chrysa) went through a phase of hunting down dinner deals across the city for their five fold families and sharing the load. One afternoon in front of our kids' school, Gayle screamed at me from 1/2 block away, "Ya gotta come smell my car! I’ve got two Whole Foods chickens in there! It smells delicious! Like a restaurant! Have you seen Chrysa? I’ve got her dinner.” Shortly thereafter Chrysa walked up to my car holding a pizza. "Hey," she said. "Would you mind dropping this off at Gayle's house for me?" Sure, I told her, in 30 minutes or less.

The following Wednesday I happen to call Chrysa while she's at Whole Foods picking up dinner. She offered to buy me a pizza. I declined, but take note. If you have friends like I do, use them well.
  • Chicken Tuesday Rotisserie Chicken 5.99, $2 off. Jewel and Costco’s inferior counterparts are a buck or so less, but no thanks to MSG and artificial colors in theirs (last I checked) and pay two more dollars for the WF version. Cut out your afternoon latte (or make one yourself) and you, my friend, break even.
  • Pizza Wednesday Pizza, $8.99, $2 off, cheaper, better tasting and healthier than any ordered in version, and you can call ahead and pretend they're Dominoes.

This information applies to stores near me and the deals do change periodically. Also, I believe Thursday is a panini special and Friday, California rolls. The breakfast bar is discounted on Saturday and Sunday mornings, last I checked. Ask your store for details.

Okay, you don’t have kids and no time to run to Whole Foods. Think again. When there's no food in your house, what would you rather do, order in greasy pizza or sushi that takes an hour and a half for delivery, or run into WF to pick up? You decide.

Cheese Department

Grow a set of balls and ask that cheese gal behind the counter for a taste of any cheese (sold by the pound) before you buy. You know, those fancy looking ones displayed in the nirvana-esque case I previously considered sensory overload.

Here’s the fun part. If the hunk you pick costs more than you can or want to pay, or it’s simply too big, ask the cheese dude to cut it to your liking. They reweigh and voila! Cheese you like and can afford. Then hide fancy cheese from roommate or anyone who comes to your home on a regular basis who will bite into your treasure like it’s a slab of Velveeta, which, by the way, is labeled “cheese product” instead of “cheese.” No refrigeration necessary. Ouch.

Parmesan Reggiano is a must. Don’t be scared off by the $20/per pound price tag. Again, if you are single or know you’ll hardly use it, find a small one and ask cheese dude to do his thing. Avoid the rind unless you need it for a sauce (many cookbooks suggest this). When you get home, wrap the hunk in aluminum foil and refrigerate. I have tried several techniques and found this works the best.

My Greek friends balk at me, but I love WF’s sheep and goat feta. My Greek Salad never goes without. The flavor is velvety, rich, and less salty than many Greek cheeses I have sampled.

*Extra! Extra!*
One Sunday a man and his daughter stood next to me in front of the cheese case in search of feta, as per mom. “There’s a lot to choose from, here,” he says to the kid, who is no help at all. He picks up a package of the sheep’s feta. Just as I'm applauding in my head, he sees the price, and before you can say cheese product he's switching it out for the crumbled one in the plastic tub (NO!). “I’m sure this’ll be fine,” he says. Yes, I thought, fine is exactly what it’ll be. If you wanted great, you missed out.