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.

Processed Food: Evil or Not?

First off, let me declare I am not a nutritionist and this info is anecdotal. I consider certain processed foods "evil." I don't mean to sound angry, but...

Here's what I avoid. More exist, for sure, but if you're new to label reading, start with these.

  • High fructose or any variety corn syrup. A few decent brands use a small amount of corn syrup and claim no "high fructose."
  • Red/blue/yellow or any other dyes or artificial colors
  • Artificial vanilla or other flavors
  • Mono sodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils
  • Sodium nitrate
  • Enriched flours of any kind
  • Corn oil (My son is sensitive to corn. Read about this in my upcoming post on food sensitivity.)
  • Fruit juice with added sugar

Then there's Non-Evil Processed Foods. Less than five ingredients, low in sugar, salt and fat. What do I mean by low? Depends on what you’re trying to do. For me, fat is less concerning than sugar and salt, mostly because I don’t like overly sweetened or salted food.

Also, sugar binges cause me jitters, headaches, and I-need-a-nap-right-now moments.* To specify, culprits for me are cane sugar, corn syrup and other processed sugars that spike blood sugar suddenly. Hence I look for items sweetened with fruit juice, agave, beet sugar, palm sugar, coconut, or rice syrup which affect me less so.  I seek out sugar free jam*, cereals with less than five grams sugar per serving, and eat dark chocolate with high cocoa percentage (more than 60% cocoa translates to less sugar).

Now for salt. I’ll hold up two or three bags of chips or salty snacks/crackers, compare salt mg per serving then pick the lowest one only because I prefer the taste. As for fat, most of what I buy isn’t too bad and don't contain hydrogenated oil (let's call them "HOs", shall we?) anyway. For a while I thought the HOs had disappeared, until I was on a road trip and read the ingredients on a crinkly bag of chips at a gas station “grocery store.” It’s out there. Still.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • When mother of the birthday girl offers moist and delicious chocolate butter cream frosting with pink flower piece of cake I accept. Pushing three-year-olds out of my way to jump into bounce house to burn off jitters not my best work. Nor was head bobbing driving home from the party.
  • Recently found sugar free jams at Southport Green Market.  Strawberry rhubarb, mixed berry, and blueberry! I sometimes (okay, often) eat it by the spoonful.
  • Check out Southport Green Market Saturdays June-October. From Wrigley Field take Waveland west from the park, hang a right on Southport, walk toward Music Box sign until you see Blaine School marquee. It is, in the true sense, the "Little Market that Can." With just a few vendors, you won't get overwhelmed. Worth a pop over every Saturday.


10.13.2010

The Israeli and the Onion: A Very Short Story

One summer an Israeli guy lived in my basement for a couple of days. We decided to make a vegetarian lasagna from a recipe so lame, if he had not been there to help, we'd have eaten at Pompeii that night.

I began to follow the directions, per my usual approach, sauteing the onions cluelessly. "Do you think these are done?" I asked him. He was snacking on chips and salsa, sitting at the kitchen island. He got up, walked over and peered into the pot, finished his chip and said, "No, these are not ready. Here, give me the spoon." He stirred away, fixating his big brown eyes on the onions. "See?" he said, holding a weathered piece in his hand. "They should all look like this." He popped it into his mouth and smiled. "Why?" I asked. "I don't know, but that's how my mother does it. I guess it's how you get the most flavor." Thank you, angel.

Dinner was a delight. Partly because the food was good (not great), mostly because of the company. The name of that recipe was Luscious Vegetarian Lasagna. Go figure. I will not be posting it to this site. It was a teaching moment for me, and with that I pass on the following information to see you through chilis, soups, sauces, even a casserole or two. Good luck. We're all counting on you.

Bad directions
Cook and stir onion in hot oil in large skillet over medium high heat until onion is golden. No! Stop, drop and roll!

Better directions
Chop the onion into 1 inch (or so) pieces. Heat the oil over medium high heat until pretty hot. The oil almost starts to look thinner when it's ready. If you see tiny bubbles forming, turn down the heat a little. Stir in onion and cook over medium heat, keep it sizzling, but not too much because you don't want the onion to burn. Cook until translucent, stirring, shaking the pan, keeping them happy. They should all have a little wiggle room in there. As they cook they shrink, which is good, don't be afraid. Keep them cooking (stir! shake!) until they look all loosey goosey and translucent.

10.07.2010

Squash and White Bean Soup

The other day overnight frost was predicted and as I glanced out at my basil wondering if she'd make it through the night, I began craving soup. Those of you who live in Chicago, or the Midwest, might know the old saying, "Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes." High 70s were predicted for the weekend. If I was going to get my crispy fall day soup moment in, I needed to act fast. I put squash on my grocery list and got a move on.

Upon it's Ferniegirl debut a few years back, this soup was served to people other than my immediate family (I simply cannot say company) and a 13 year-old gobbled it down, I assure you not to be polite. Not bad for this former soup-from-a-can-only girl.

The highlight of this soup is the low effort, high quality result ratio. Impressing others is gravy. Makes a ton, well not an actual ton, but enough to get you through a week of cold noses and feet.

Check out Real Simple for the original recipe. My changes are slight.

Recipe

In a big pot (I use an 8 qt. stainless steel pot, but a little smaller will do) pour:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

Heat the oil over medium to high until pretty hot. The oil almost starts to look thinner when it's ready. If you see tiny bubbles forming, turn down the heat a little.  Takes 3-4 minutes.

Then add:
  • 1 medium sized onion, chopped into 1 inch pieces

For those of you who know what you're doing, cook, stirring often, until translucent, 5-6 minutes, blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. For those of you who are me 10 years ago, read The Israeli and the Onion, A Very Short Story, to learn how a 26 year old Israeli man taught me to cook an onion. (See how the know-it-alls miss out on the good stuff?)

Then add:
  • 14 oz. canned diced tomatoes* with juices

Turn heat down and simmer, stirring here and there, about 3 minutes until the liquid boils off a bit. When the onions look meshed with the tomatoes, stir in:
  • 4 cups (about 1 ½ lbs.) butternut squash* cut into ½ pieces
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 5 cups chicken stock or broth(reserve extra for later reheating)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon salt (I use less because I'd rather add more later if need be, also reduce salt if using regular sodium broth)
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper

Bring to boil and reduce heat and simmer uncovered about 15 minutes until squash is fork tender. Taste every few minutes so squash doesn't get mushy. I like to err on the undercooked side. Makes for better leftovers.

Stir in:
  • 15 oz. cannellini or garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • 4 cups kale* (de-ribbed and torn), or shortcut it: box of mixed hearty greens (kale, spinach, chard) or box of baby spinach, if your grocery store carries these

Cook until greens are wilted and beans heated through, about two minutes. Serve with grated Parmesan Reggiano*.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Tomatoes: forget buying crushed, diced or whole tomatoes. Keep at least four, 16 oz. cans of whole ones in your house and use them for everything. I think they are more flavorful than the others anyway. If you need crushed, crush them with a potato masher or a fork in a separate bowl. Diced, quickly chop them in a bowl with the juices. I buy Carmelina, Bella Terra, Muir Glen.
  • Buy fresh squash in produce section, not the frozen kind. Do not I repeat do not attempt to cut and peel a whole butternut squash, at least not until you no longer read this blog. I almost cut off my hand the first time I tried this. Take no chances, splurge on the safe stuff. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods both carry cut up squash in the produce section.
  • Imagine brand broths are my fave, followed by Pacific. I usually use "low sodium" variety. If regular is all I have, I cut way back on salt in recipe.
  • Kale is delicious and has more texture so it holds up better than spinach, but it takes time. You need to wash it in a water bath to remove all the dirt in it's crevices, tear the greens from the ribs, then chop. When I was a CSA member and kale was in my box, I called Gayle for kale guidance and she told me, "You must tear the leaves from the ribs! Don't forget about that part! Oh, and it's dirty, but dirt is good!" Baby spinach from a bag is a quick rinse away from ready, so lately that's what I've done. Whatever floats your root beer.
  • Parmesan Reggiano: the good kind you grate yourself. As far as we're concerned, you have never even heard of the stuff in the green can.

10.03.2010

Salads: Greek, Caesar, & Mixed Greens

Lettuce

I love lettuce. I will eat it on a plane, in a car, on a boat. I will eat it with dressing or without. Romaine, red or green leaf, arugula, mixed greens. All good.

Dressing

I also love salad dressings. Mainly those made from scratch daily at three star restaurants.

I finally stopped buying (and throwing away) bottled salad dressings a after a friend came for dinner with a kick ass salad under her arm and said, "I need olive oil, red wine or balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and sugar." I was flummoxed. Until I watched her concoct a dressing creation in a little bowl, in 90 seconds. I took notes; goodbye Good Seasons!

Greek

As you go
  • From my Greek friend's mouth to this page: "Olive oil, lemon, and just a splash of red wine vinegar. And some oregano or mint. I prefer mint."
  • Here's what I actually do. Sprinkle romaine lettuce with one or two teaspoons of olive oil and toss well, until moistened a bit. Squeeze about 1/2 the lemon (or to taste) over the greens, toss well. Taste a piece. If it needs more lemon or oil, add 1/2 teaspoon at a time. Keep tasting. Then add a splash (1/4-1/2 teaspoon) of red wine vinegar. Toss. Taste. Toss. Taste. Fresh ground pepper? Sure. I skip the salt. The feta's might salty and does the trick.
  • Add peppers, cucumbers, olives and toss. Sprinkle on tomatoes, crumble on feta, sprinkle some oregano or mint on the cheese, toss lightly.


Make ahead Adapted from Rachael Ray's Greek Diner Salad from 30 Minute Meals Cookbook

In an ovensafe bowl, place:
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic and 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Put bowl in 300 degree oven. Remove as soon as it sizzles, or it will burn.

Remove and pour into a bowl or liquid measuring cup. Let cool a bit.

Whisk in:
  • juice of 1 large lemon
  • a pinch of allspice
  • Kosher salt & fresh pepper, to taste

Add peppers, cucumbers, olives and toss. Sprinkle on tomatoes, crumble on the feta, sprinkle some oregano or mint on the cheese, toss lightly.

    Caesar

    Bethany Frankel's recipe, sans the salt.

    Whisk together:
    • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
    • 1/2 tsp minced garlic
    • 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
    • 1 tsp anchovy paste
    • 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
    • 3 tablespoon fresh grated Parmesan cheese
    • 4 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
    • 3-4 turns fresh ground pepper

    This next one is originally from Cooking Light.
    Whisk together:
    • 1/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt
    • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
    • 1 tablespoon olive oil
    • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
    • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
    • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
    • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
    • 1 garlic clove, minced

    Arugula or other mixed greens

    Toss with greens olive oil and lemon. Taste. Toss. Taste. Then add salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese to taste.

    Meatloaf

    This recipe is from Foodworks II, the Sisterhood Cookbook from my childhood synagogue. My changes include nonfat milk instead of whole, less salt, and double the glaze because husband Todd LOVES glaze. I actually glaze half the loaf because the children turn up their noses at saucy goodness but love it plain.

    Since first posting this, a friend asked for a different meatloaf recipe (she's made mine several times). So in her honor I'm adding Real Simple's Grilled Meatloaf which we love. These directions are simple, but of course, so I'm not posting them but a few tips: you can bake this in the oven in a loaf pan, use 1/2 onion for the loaf, and skip the onions and potatoes on the side (to keep it really simple).  Bake at 350 for about an hour, maybe a tad less. To check doneness, press the top of the loaf and look for clear juice. Let it rest, as the recipe says, before slicing.

    Now, back to the first meatloaf I ever made.

    Recipe

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    In a large bowl lightly beat with a fork or whisk:
    • 2 eggs

    Then add:
    • 1.5 pounds (give or take) ground beef (any fat content, I use grass fed 87ish %)
    • 3/4 cup milk, any fat % (or 1/2 cup water plus 1/4 cup ketchup or 1/2 cup vegetable or chicken broth)
    • 2/3 cup regular (not panko) plain bread crumbs
    • 2-4 tablespoons finely minced yellow or white onion (or a shallot)
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt
    • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
    • 1/2 teaspoon chili powder

    Mix with a fork or your hands* until just combined.  Press mixture into a loaf pan* spreading it flat and filling the pan.

    Place pan on middle oven rack. Set timer for 1 hour.

    Meanwhile, combine in small bowl:
    • 1/2 cup ketchup
    • 2-4 tablespoons brown sugar
    • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder (try the bulk section)

    Take out loaf when hour's up, or after 50 minutes if it looks done. Spoon off fat from top, if any.  Pour out liquid that's collected around the sides (careful, don't let the loaf come flying out!). Spread glaze mixture on the loaf. Bake 5-10 more minutes.

    Let sit 5 minutes or more before slicing.

    **Extra! Extra!**
    • Yes, with your hands! If you're going to make meatloaf, own it, and hand mixing is key. Why do you think your grandmother's food always tasted so good? And she didn't even have gallons of hand sanitizer at her disposal. My grandmother used to cook my father his favorite, tongue, (yes, from a cow) at her house. Now how do you feel about digging your hands into ground round?
    • Spend the money on an Emile Henry pan. Your loaves will thank you.

      In case you don't believe I glaze half the loaf, here ya go. 
      Also, take note, the uglier the meatloaf the better it probably tastes.

      10.02.2010

      Ron and Jeremy's Flank Steak

      A few years ago, two of my favorite families came for dinner and I made my "famous" flank steak*. Yummy noises from husbands Ron and Jeremy drowned out all conversation. Nevermind their mockery of my all-natural, local, organic tendencies.

      This recipe is dedicated to them, nevermind they went ahead and had third children without my consent, making our get togethers louder and messier. I forgive you. Now take a bite of steak.

      Recipe

      Combine and whisk until smooth:
      • 1/2 cup low sodium soy sauce (cruelty-free)
      • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (organic)
      • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from a family farm lemon)
      • 1 teaspoon ground ginger (fair trade)
      • 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt (from Yiddish-speaking grocer) 

      Stir in:
      • 1 clove garlic, crushed or minced (with Made-In-USA knife)

      In a Ziploc bag, place:
      • One 2-2 1/2 pound* flank steak or two steaks equal (from a grass fed cow)

      Pour marinade over steak. Close bag completely and thoroughly* pressing out air. Place bag on a plate, or in a bowl to catch any leakage. Refrigerate overnight or 3 hours minimum. Turn bag over once in a while, if you can.

      Remove steak from marinade 15-30 minutes before cooking. Toss marinade. Place steak on broiler pan just before cooking. Broil 10 minutes on each side. Then flip once more and broil for another 5 minutes (or to desired doneness). Same instructions for grilling.

      Place steak on cutting board and cover loosely w/foil. Let sit for at least ten minutes. Cut across the grain at angle and do not cut off Ron’s fingers as he reaches for a piece.

      Take a portion for yourself before boys get to it. Save last scraps for Jeremy.

      **Extra! Extra!**
      • I originally found this recipe in my sons' preschool cookbook and cut back a bit on the sugar and salt.
      • Halve ingredients for smaller than a 2 pound steak.
      • My sister in-law grabbed marinating chicken from the fridge and the bag was open. Raw liquid flew from the stove to the floor to the wall to the baseboards. Don't let this happen to you!

      10.01.2010

      Chicken Salad

      Warning: the following recipe involves a food processor.

      With leftover Whole Foods rotisserie chicken (don't forget Chicken Tuesdays at Whole Foods! $5.99, savings of 2 bucks) I threw together a pesto chicken salad that impressed my lunch guest more than it should. I made the dressing from a Barefoot Contessa recipe for Roasted Artichoke Heart Salad, tossed it on the chicken, and that was it.

      First I chopped up romaine leaves from my lettuce plants, well, from my next door neighbor's lettuce plants he put on my deck while he was away and never took back after his return. Then I tossed them in olive oil and fresh lemon juice and scattered the chicken salad about. Beautiful and delicious.

      Recipe

      Take leftover chicken, from anywhere, really, chop it up, and throw it in a big bowl.

      Then, in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade, add:
      • 1 shallot, minced
      • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
      • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
      • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar (I use champagne. You know, to feel fancy.)
      • 1 teaspoon salt
      • 1/2 teaspoon pepper

      Process 5 seconds. Then add and process into green puree:
      • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves (from your basil plant of course)

      With the processor running, slowly pour in through the feed tube until finely pureed:
      • 1/2 cup olive oil

      Toss the chicken with:
      • 1-2 tablespoons vinegar you're using, just to moisten
      • chopped roasted red peppers*, artichoke hearts*, and capers to taste
      • finished dressing, poured over a bit at a time, tasting as you mix, save leftover if any*


      **Extra! Extra!**
      • Use any kind of jarred, roasted red peppers (I like Trader Joe's), and any canned, jarred, or frozen artichoke hearts.
      • Use leftover dressing on greens, pasta, whatever.

      Check out Barefoot Contessa's original recipe. I love her, by the way.
      http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-artichoke-salad-recipe/index.html