Sandwiches and Potato Chips: Feeding our Elderly

After a bad fall, my 92-year old mother, Lois Bartlett, is convalescing at a hospital in her hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Despite her many ills, she is sharp mentally and interested in getting better. It’s her appetite that’s gone.

A slim and tall woman (she seemed like a tree when I was little), she has always eaten just about everything enthusiastically and until now, has done her own cooking and shopping.

“The food is awful here!” she wailed. I had to agree that the overdone purees and tough slabs of meat were nearly inedible.

“Just give it a good try.” I advised. She had a better idea.

A few days later, she explained, “Christina is bringing me food.” Christina Minielly has known my mother for over 30 years and most recently, has been a caregiver and lunch provider.

“What is she bringing you?” I asked, thinking about some nutritious soup or perhaps some vegetables or fish.

“Sandwiches and potato chips!” she chirped. “And usually, there’s enough for my dinner too!”

Your ten-year old probably shouldn’t have a steady diet of sandwiches and potato chips but at 92? I think it’s great. She’s back to eating and in fact, that sandwich probably has everything she needs, as least for now.

About 20 years ago, my father was dying of lung cancer. I was appalled by his diet of canned soups and frozen food and wanted to make sure that he was eating ‘correctly’. Who knows? Maybe I thought I could cure him. I tried to tempt him by cooking various dishes with delicate sauces and special vegetables. Sometimes, he’d say, “Don’t bother too much with lunch. Isn’t there some Campbell’s soup on the shelf?”

Ha! I’d think. Nothing like that for my dad! No sirree. Everything from scratch.

On another occasion, he was more forthright. “I’d really like some Stouffer’s Turkey Tetrazzini”. Suddenly, I was caught short. Why wasn’t I feeding him what he wanted? His life was really down to weeks at that point. Shopping and cooking was eating into some nice time we could spend together, sitting and reading or reminiscing.

So, I learned a lesson. Throughout your life, eating well is important for many reasons and health is only one of them. But at the end of life, all the constraints of keeping yourself alive are not so important. If my mother wants potato chips, she should have them. When she’s stronger, maybe she’ll go for that nutritious soup I’d like to make her but I can wait.

If you have an elderly relative or friend who you’d like to cook for, it is a wonderful act of kindness. My mother’s young artist friend Rhonda Davis often brings her tasty treats. “You know this stuff, hummous, is really good!”, my mother commented one day, fishing around for more pita bread. Bear in mind, that your older friend won’t eat much and heavy pots or bowls will be hard for a frail person to handle easily. A pint of soup, a small container of stew, or a slice of pie will be just right.

If you’re cooking for a sick friend, bear in mind that lots of food that smells and tastes so good when you’re well has the opposite effect when you’re sick. Spicy or rich foods, dairy (especially cheese and cream), strong tasting fish or meat are the culprits here. Also, the texture of certain foods, such as steak, can be hard to handle. Salads and salad dressing can taste much more acidic when you’re not feeling up to par.

So what’s left? Soup is a good bet with clear broth and some good vegetables, a bit of rice, and a little chicken. Some folks like rice pudding or applesauce. Using a mild cheese, a warm grilled cheese sandwich can be tempting.

My husband’s mother, Mary Allman, also had a poor appetite in her last weeks. One day, I made her a simple egg custard. It was plain and digestible and she ate some of it. It sparked some memories of her childhood which she recounted with quiet pleasure. I enjoyed the stories and was glad that the custard coaxed them out and had given her a little energy.

This dark time of year certainly brings out wonderful generosity and kindness. I am grateful to Christina and my mother’s neighbors who have taken time to bring a very old lady things that she likes to eat.

xoxo, Mary

Here are a few recipes for our older friends.

Egg Custard                                                                                                                                                                                           Also called cup custard or baked custard, this makes a simple dessert for any age and is especially good topped with fruit.

2 cups milk                                                                                                                                                                               3 tablespoons  sugar                                                                                                                                                        pinch salt                                                                                                                                                                                  4 yolks (or 2 whole eggs)                                                                                                                                                   1/2 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

In a medium-sized bowl, combine the milk, sugar and eggs. Beat well. Add flavoring.

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Pour the custard into 5 or 6 individual ramekins or small Pyrex cups and set them in a baking pan. Pour about an inch of hot water into the baking pan and bake about 45 minutes.

Test for doneness by sticking a knife in the custard. If it comes out clean, the custard is done. Don’t overbake as it will get tough.

Green Soup                                                                                                                                                                                          For when you’re feeling a bit low. Homemade broth makes a big difference here, especially if well-skimmed of fat and not too salty. You may leave out the egg but it adds some protein.

2 cups broth (chicken, beef. or vegetable)

1 cup spinach or chard, chopped or shredded finely

1 egg, slightly beaten

Heat the broth to the boiling point and stir in the greens. Cook over low heat a few minutes until the greens are wilted and tender. Stir in the egg.

Serve with plain toast or crackers.

Makes 2 small servings.

Baked Chicken

Breast of chicken can be pleasant enough for a sick person but it can easily be tough or too bland. A little lemon juice helps to keep the chicken tender.

1 boneless chicken breast

½  lemon

1 teaspoon dried dill or tarragon

Butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the chicken in a very small baking dish and squeeze some lemon juice over it. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with dill or tarragon. You can also use fresh parsley, if you prefer. Dot with a little butter and cover the dish tightly with foil.

Bake for 20 minutes and check for doneness. Cook a few more minutes if necessary.

Makes one serving.

Milk Toast

I read M.F.K. Fisher’s glowing words about milk toast a few years ago and at the time, thought they were a bit ridiculous. But then I came across this pencilled notation in an old cookbook of my mother’s next to the recipe for milk toast:

“Mama likes this.”

No doubt she was referring to her own very elderly mom.  Milk toast is a lovely soother for anyone who is ailing but especially nice for babies, young children and the elderly.

1 cup milk

2 slices bread

Butter

Heat the milk until it is simmering but not boiling. Toast the bread and butter it (sparingly or generously depending on the condition of the sick one). Pour the hot milk in a large bowl, break up the toast into pieces and serve at once with a spoon.

There are versions where cinnamon and raisins and a little sugar are added.

Orts and Leavings and Remembering Peg Bracken

If you do crossword puzzles, the word ort, like erne or oast, is familiar. To the question, “What’s for dinner?” my response was frequently, “Orts and leavings.” Which is to say, scraps. And scraps can be the basis of awfully good food. I enjoy a meal of orts. It forces me to clean out my refrigerator, makes me feel a little smug about saving money, and keeps me from making a trip to the store.

I also feel I’ve paid respect to the food huddled on the refrigerator shelves. I like to think those withered lettuce leaves and leathery squash enjoy this treatment. “No trash can for you, my pretties!”

Let’s explore this path. To begin, examine the terrain. What happens to be in my refrigerator right now is the following: a handful of celery leaves, a wilting head of lettuce, a piece of cooked chicken, 2 strips of bacon, 2 leeks, a half dozen eggs, a cupful of rice, and some very smelly cheese. These orts shall start with salad.

My Salad of Orts

For 2 or 3 servings. Can be easily doubled.

Wilted lettuce can be revived by pulling off and discarding the outer leaves and then soaking the whole head in a sinkful of cold water for 20 or 30 minutes. The sand and dirt will drop to the bottom. Separate the leaves and then lift them out and dry them in a salad spinner. Refrigerate about a half hour and the lettuce should be crisp and fresh.

  1. In a salad bowl, combine lettuce and other greens you may have hanging around such as, several sprigs of parsley, mint, basil, celery leaves.
  2. Shred the cooked chicken breast. Fry the bacon slices and crumble.
  3. Hard-boil 2 eggs. Cut in halves.
  4. Prepare a vinaigrette. I use some Dijon mustard, one part red wine vinegar and 2-3 parts olive oil. Toss the greens with the vinaigrette, saving a few spoonfuls.
  5. Toss the chicken with the remaining vinaigrette and some salt and pepper. This seasons the chicken, which may have become dry.
  6. Divide the greens between 2 plates and put the chicken, crumbled bacon and egg on top.

Your Salad of Orts

Composed salads, as the cookbooks are fond of calling them, can be custom fit to your orts and provide you with a meal in one dish. The basic components are:

protein, crunch, and greens.

The protein: nearly any bit of cooked meat, fish, ham, cheese, or tofu cut in strips, cubes, or shredded is useful in salads. Plan on about ¼ cup per serving. I added the hardboiled eggs because I didn’t have quite enough shredded chicken.

Crunch in my salad comes from the bacon but you could use chopped nuts or croutons instead. About a tablespoon per serving. The fat in the crunch adds flavor but to keep a salad lean, you might choose chopped celery, carrots, or sprouts.

Adding a few leaves of herbs such as basil, mint, or parsley makes for very interesting and tasty salads. Just try to balance bitter or tough greens with enough lettuce so that eating the salad doesn’t sound like dinner in the horse barn.

Serve your salad with French bread, pita, whole-wheat toast, Swedish crispbread or whatever you have on hand.

Just how smelly is that cheese?

Leftover cheese can be the basis for many a meal of orts and leavings. A good way to deal with it, especially if you have several small pieces of different types, is to make a quiche. For interesting reading about quiches, what they are and where they come from, read Julia Child’s discussion about them in the Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. She has a nifty method for the basic custard mixture to which she adds all sorts of ingredients.

Quiche de Fromage Scraps

About 8 slices

If you like so doing so, make your own pie dough, otherwise buy a rolled out commercial one.

  • 1 sheet of pie dough
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup milk or cream
  • pepper, nutmeg
  • 2 cups shredded or crumbled mixed cheeses
  • Optional: 2 slices bacon, fried and crumbled or ¼ cup chopped ham

Press the dough in a pie pan and pre-bake the shell according to package instructions. Set the oven to 375 degrees.In a bowl, whisk the eggs, milk or cream, several grindings of pepper and a few dashes of nutmeg until light. Put the optional ham or bacon in the bottom of the pie shell and cover with the shredded cheeses. Pour the egg mixture over top.Bake for about 30 minutes. It should be puffed and browned on top.

Your Quiche de Scraps

About 8 slices

The orts in the recipe above were cheese and bacon. Root through your refrigerator to see what you have. Quiche does not need to contain cheese. The custard is the important part to which many other ingredients may be added. A cup of chopped cooked vegetables (such as spinach, onions, red peppers, asparagus, zucchini, or a mixture), or cooked chopped chicken, salmon, or shrimp make fine quiches.

  • 1 – 1 ½ cups cooked chopped vegetables and/or meats or fish
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup milk or cream
  • pepper and nutmeg
  • 1 cup shredded, grated or crumbled cheese (optional)

Following the above method, pre-bake the pie shell and prepare the egg and milk (or cream) custard. Spread the cooked and chopped vegetable or meat mixture in the pie shell and pour the egg mixture over the top.Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes.Serve quiche hot or cold.

Remembering Peg

Last week, Peg Bracken, author of the I Hate to Cookbook died at her home in Portland, Oregon at the age of 89. In the 1950s and early 60s, a full-time working mother was not the norm. ‘Participating’ dads were not either so after a day’s work, women had to get something on the table. The way Peg tells it, she and her friends pooled recipes that were fast, easy, and edible. This was the basis of her book and it was an instant success. Published in 1960, it sold 3 million copies.Here’s how it starts:

Some women, it is said, like to cook.

This book is not for them.

This book is for those of us who hate to, who have learned, through hard experience, that some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking. This book is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.

Peg has been one of my all-time heroes (and I love to cook.). What appealed to me was her humor, lack of pretension, and love of life. Read a book! Have a cocktail! See friends! Eat something tasty! She didn’t hate food and she didn’t mind cooking. She just hated being thrust into a role where daily cooking was somehow sacred. That thinking became obsolete but Peg was ahead of her time.

From my perspective (as a fierce advocate of home cooking), I think Peg was onto something. You don’t need to adore cooking to get a good meal on the table.

When I first moved to Portland, I found out that Peg lived there. Through her stepson, Jack Ohmans (the cartoonist for the Oregonian), I got in touch with her. She invited me to her home and the minute I got there, she offered me a spice cookie.

“Elevator Lady Spice Cookies!” I nearly shouted.

“Nope, but those were really good too.” she replied.

We had a great afternoon. She was as candid, funny, and warmhearted as I figured she would be. Her books are still around, canned soups and all. Peg loved what passed for convenience foods in the ‘60s but don’t be put off. She had some terrific recipes and that’s why my copies are falling apart. She wrote many books but my favorite is The I Hate to Housekeep Book (which tells you something).

Here’s one of Peg Bracken’s recipes that uses up the final ort in my refrigerator: the cupful of rice. It’s a large recipe but can be divided easily and is a meal in itself.

Hellzapoppin’ Cheese Rice

4 cups cooked rice
4 eggs
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons salt
1 pound grated sharp Cheddar
small pinch each of thyme and marjoram
1 package chopped frozen spinach
1 cup milk
4 tablespoons melted butter

This is copied verbatim from Bracken’s book. She is referring to Sugar Belle, (possibly a fictional character) who gave her the recipe.

She beats the eggs till they’re light. Then she adds the milk and all the seasonings. Finally, she folds in the cheese, spinach and rice and pours the whole works into a greased casserole. After she pours the melted butter over it, she sets it in a 375 degree oven to bake for thirty-five minutes and she takes off her apron.

That’s all, friends!

xoxo, Mary

HOME COOKING II: Okay, I’ll Cook! Now what?

So let’s say you’ve decided that home cooking is a sweet deal after all and you’re giving those clam shells and pizza boxes a quiet funeral out in the back yard. But now what? How to make the switch from someone else (or hundreds of someones) feeding you to your own efforts?

Start by making dinner for a week – or let’s say, six out of seven days. To achieve this, you need some food in the house and a plan. What happens if you’re invited out during this home-cooking week? This isn’t a problem: of course, go out! The goal here is to make home cooking a desirable habit not a condition of house arrest.

This is a 5 step plan.

  1. The Master List.
  2. A Week’s Menu.
  3. A Shopping List
  4. Shopping
  5. Cooking

The Master List (you only do this part once)

The Master List contains everything you always want to have on hand. Whether it’s diapers, bird seed or aspirin, what you need in the house should be on your list. When it’s time to shop, consulting the master list will remind you what you’re out of. It will also remind you what not to buy. For example, by consulting the Master List, you will recall that you already have 3 different kinds of cheese in your refrigerator and the Frugal You will determine to use those up before buying more. Tape the list to the inside of one of your cabinets.

Here’s a brief example. Your list can be as extensive as you wish – but remember it’s not really a shopping list. It’s an inventory.

Dairy
Milk
Butter
Eggs
Yoghurt
Vegetables/Fruits
Onions, garlic
Lettuce
Lemons
Bananas
Apples
Staples
Coffee
Olive oil
Cereal
Household
Paper towels
Toilet paper
Cleaning supplies
Misc.
Tuna fish
Peanut butter
Spices, salt, pepper

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Menu

The key here is keeping your menu very, very simple. Don’t stress over recipes, cookbooks or whether you think you’ll really want eggplant on Wednesday. Just write down some basic meals. In the following example, the menus may look slightly skeletal in their simplicity. This is on purpose.

If you find yourself toiling away composing menus, you won’t get to Tuesday in your home cooking plan. So just ponder briefly: Do I want fish twice this week? What about beets? Chicken? Okay. Plug some of these general choices into your menu. Just don’t repeat meals. A couple of salads are great but don’t count on eating the same vegetable every night. You’ll feel a lot more excited seeing a range of possibilities in the crisper than of 5 pounds of limp carrots.

A good tip: Keep a small notebook. Write the week’s menus on one page and the shopping list on the other.

Monday: Chicken, rice, salad

Tuesday: Turkey tacos, broccoli

Wednesday: Fish, red peppers, slaw

Thursday: Pasta with sausage, string beans

Friday: Pork chops, potatoes, spinach

Saturday: White pizza with artichokes, salad or… Something A Lot More Exciting

Sunday: Soup, grilled cheese sandwiches

Desserts for the week: Yogurt, fruit, ice cream, cookies

On to your Shopping List

Organize your shopping list by category following your Master List . This will save a lot of time in the grocery. Here’s a short sample list using the master list and the bare bones menu.

Dairy: Milk, yogurt, cheddar, Parmesan

Vegetables/Fruits: Onions, garlic, lettuce, cabbage, red peppers, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, potatoes, pears, bananas

Meat: Turkey, chicken breasts, pork chops, fish, sausage

Staples: Salt, cereal, peppercorns

Household: Paper towels, soap

Misc: Bread, tortillas, canned artichokes (in water)

The Actual Shopping

Here’s where things get a bit more creative. You’re in the store with your list but friends, you don’t need to be a slave to the list. Choose what looks good to you: you’ll be much more likely to cook it. You might think you want salmon but if the halibut is more appealing, that’s what you should get.

In other words, the list serves to remind you that you need food in the house. What’s available at your store really determines your choice. And be choosy: don’t buy produce that doesn’t look fresh. Don’t hesitate to make the guy in produce your friend. He will be more than happy to open a new case of string beans or (those magic words) ‘look in the back’ for more spinach.

Where to shop? If you want to get a jump on the week and cross a lot off your list, by all means, do a ‘big’ shopping trip. But once the basics are covered, you might make short trips to stores with high quality vegetables and meats. Stores like Whole Foods have quality meat, produce and fish but the prices are unreasonable and unfortunately, they’re looking more like cafeterias these days with all the troughs of prepared foods. Still, there are fewer aisles than the supermarkets. Bottom line: wherever you shop, hug the perimeter.

If you are fortunate enough to live in an area with farmers’ markets, CSAs*, food co-ops, or other stores that carry local products, your shopping may involve a few trips in order to complete your list.

How much should you buy? Not much but a lot of variety. For meat and fish, plan on 4 to 6 ounces per person. That means for a family of four, buy about 1 1/4 pounds of boneless chicken or one 3 1/2 pound roasting chicken. Pork chops? One each (not huge ones). When it comes to vegetables: indulge. Your salads can have 2 or 3 kinds of lettuce, some sliced fennel, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Buy lots of greens. One bunch of chard or kale will serve two generously.

What about your budget? If you cook at home for a week and limit your purchases to mostly fresh food, you’ll save money. And here’s an important part of the plan: spend more for your food but buy less of it. Anyone who has grown a tomato or eaten a fresh caught fish knows that quality counts.

Cooking

Knuckle-cracking time! There’s food in the fridge but still, dinner seems hazy. If you’re really stuck for ideas, now is the time to get out a cookbook or go to a website like Epicurious. It’s amazing how quickly you can come up with something just by typing in an ingredient. If the recipe looks good, read a few of the reviews. Some are definitely wacky but you’ll get some ideas all the same. It’s 21st century back fence neighbor talk. If the dish turns out well, save a copy – it may become a favorite and of course, easier to make each time.

Say the idea of ground turkey tacos isn’t that thrilling. A few minutes of research later… Spicy turkey burgers! (See the recipe below) Sounds promising and the broccoli is good with that too.

But maybe, plain old broccoli is beginning to pall and this is where you pull out your stash of ‘accompaniments’. Toss it with some toasted pine nuts you keep in the freezer or make a little dressing with soy sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil. Even a generous squeeze of lemon juice, a small clove of chopped garlic and a spoonful of olive oil can make a big difference.

For our hypothetical week, I have purposely kept the menu, well, nearly generic. Depending on your time and how you feel, the ‘chicken-rice-salad’ might appear on the table as a zesty stir-fry or a cozy baked dish with salad on the side. Sundays are good nights for soup and a sandwich or – as they did in my family- breakfast for dinner: waffles or pancakes. After a long weekend and looking ahead to work and school, a simple homely supper is just right.

But hang on! What about Saturday night? Why not make things a little more exciting? If you have kids, feed them the pizza (see how below) and put them to bed. Shed the sweat pants and make yourselves oysters Rockefeller!

Did I mention dessert? It’s a good idea. If you’re eating meals with less meat and more vegetables and sticking to one helping, dessert makes a satisfying finish. If there are children in your house, the thought of dessert really does help that broccoli disappear. Plain yogurt with a spoonful of jam, honey, maple syrup or cinnamon sugar along with a couple of cookies (not huge) makes a good simple dessert. I’ve included a cookie recipe below. A dollop of ice cream on cooked or fresh fruit is another sweet idea.

Final Thoughts

Home cooking means real food, un-processed and cooked by you. Heating up the fancy deli’s lasagna doesn’t count. Neither does adding water to the Tandoori Rice Bowl.

Just to be clear: I’m not battling oatmeal, smoked salmon, olive oil or dried apricots. These are, of course, processed foods. What I’m talking about is what Michael Pollan, in an article in the Sunday New York Times magazine (January 28, 2007) “Unhappy Meals” describes:

“Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. (Sorry, but at this point Moms are as confused as the rest of us, which is why we have to go back a couple of generations, to a time before the advent of modern food products.) There are a great many foodlike items in the supermarket your ancestors wouldn’t recognize as food (Go-Gurt? Breakfast-cereal bars? Nondairy creamer?); stay away from these.”

Good luck with your cooking, I hope my suggestions help and that your week of home cooking turns into a second and then a third week. This is a challenging time of year to make a big change since we’re all beginning to get a little weary of winter. But take heart! Spring is just around the corner and in many areas, that means the farmers markets will be starting up and you may be planting your own garden. Soon there will be strawberries and asparagus and mushrooms… but for now, enjoy some soups and stews and the last of the season’s juicy grapefruits. Bon appetit!

*CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. Customers buy a subscription or a ‘share’ of locally grown produce. Subscribers receive a weekly box of high quality, super fresh food directly from the farms which are, in turn, supported financially by the shareholders.

Here’s a good website to learn more:http://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Spicy Turkey Burgers

One kitchen gadget I have used constantly is the food processor. Grinding meat is one of the easiest things to do with this handy machine and you instantly have the best, freshest hamburger anywhere. Try this with turkey.

For 4

  • 1 1/4 pounds turkey filets or ground turkey
  • 2 plum (Roma) tomatoes
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 1 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil

Chop up the tomatoes, onion, garlic and half the cilantro to make a salsa. Use a food processor for this step if you have one but don’t make the mixture too smooth. Add the olive oil and seasonings and taste, adding more seasoning if necessary. Set aside.

If you’re using fresh turkey, cut it in a few pieces, put it into the food processor and pulse until ground but not minced. Combine the turkey and the salsa and shape into 4 burgers.

Heat the oil in a skillet and saute the burgers for about 3 minutes per side. Serve with lettuce and the extra cilantro and pass the hot sauce.

String Beans with ‘Accompaniments’

It’s the middle of July. You’ve just come in from your garden, your hair flowing in the breeze, a slight flush on your cheeks. In your arms, there are green beans. Minutes later, you and your loved ones are swooning over these perfect beans which are unclothed save for a dab of butter and a little salt and pepper.

Wait a minute! Stop the cameras! It’s February: add some flavoring and texture to fully clothe your beans and help everyone have a good meal. Keep a stash of various nuts, spices, and exotic things like lime or lemon oil (a tiny bottle lasts for ages). Fresh ginger, by the way, keeps a long time in the fridge if you wrap it in paper towel and then in a small closeable plastic bag.

for 4

  • 1 pound green beans
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, almonds or hazelnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1 small piece of ginger, peeled and grated
  • A few drops of lemon oil
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Bring a big pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, wash the beans and snap off the ends. Cook the beans for 5 to 8 minutes or until just tender. (Check by fishing one out and tasting it) Drain the beans and put them back in the pot.

Toss with the remaining ingredients and taste for seasoning. Can be served hot or room temperature.

Super Fast Pizza for the Kids

Grown-ups like this too!

for 2 servings

  • 1 -2 small whole wheat pitas
  • 1 can artichokes (you’ll only need 1/2 can)
  • 1 slice ham or prosciutto, diced (optional)
  • 4 tablespoons grated Parmesan or shredded mozzarella
  • Olive oil

Heat the oven to 325. Split the pita into two halves, brush with a little olive oil and warm it up a few minutes on a cookie sheet. If you have trouble separating the pita or if it’s very thin, use two. Drain and chop up about half of artichokes. Divide them between the 2 pita halves, add the optional ham or prosciutto and top with the cheese. Bake about 5 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly. Serve with a few cherry tomatoes on the side.

p.s. the extra artichokes? Halve them and wrap in a slice of prosciutto, ham or cheese. This can be your hors d’oeuvre while you make the oysters….

Oysters Rockefeller

This Saturday night special serves two but you can easily double it or make a lot for a party. Buy your oysters the same day you cook them. My take on this classic involves a lot of spinach. Serve with champagne.

For 2

  • 6 to 8 large fresh oysters
  • 2 slices bacon
  • 1 bunch spinach
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 tablespoons Pernod or Herbsaint liqueur
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1/4 cup panko or fresh bread crumbs

Fry the bacon until it is about halfway done. Drain on a paper towel.

Wash the spinach thoroughly, cut off the stems and chop roughly. Saute the shallot in the butter until soft and add the spinach stirring until it is wilted. In a strainer, drain and squeeze out the water with the back of a spoon. Put the spinach back in the pan, warm it, stirring and add the Pernod, cooking a minute or two to evaporate the alcohol. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Turn the oven on to broil. Arrange the oysters, rounded side down, on a baking sheet. Broil just until the shells ‘pop’ or look open. Remove from the oven, loosen the oysters with a knife, taking care not to spill the juice and discard the upper flat shell.

Place a mound of spinach on each oyster, a spoonful of the crumbs and top with a square of bacon. Broil the oysters (not too close to the heat) just until the bacon is crisp. Watch it like a hawk!!

Pop the champagne cork, tuck a white napkin into your pearls and dive in!

My friend Valerie’s Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

Valerie Hill was the pastry chef at the Morrison Clark Inn in Washington, DC when I worked there. This is her incredibly good recipe, and you’ll find it makes several rolls which store well in the freezer. These are buttery but not overly sweet little cookies that melt in your mouth.

  • 1 1/2 pounds butter, unsalted, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 5 cups (1 1/4 lbs) cake flour, sifted
  • 4 3/4 (15 oz) cups oats
  • 2 1/4 cups (12 oz) golden raisins

Cream butter and sugar. Sift baking soda over mixture and blend thorougly. Mix in the remaining ingredients. I use a mixer for this. Shape into long rolls and wrap in plastic wrap or waxed paper and refrigerate until firm. Slice into about 1/4 inch rounds and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. I bake cookies on parchment paper so I don’t have to grease the cookie sheet.

The rolls can be frozen and baked as needed.

Cheers and xoxo, Mary

HOME COOKING I: A Hard Sell or a Sweet Deal?

Much as I like to cook, I’ve got to admit home cooking today is a hard sell.  With so many restaurants and take-out options, rattling those pots and pans in your own kitchen is way down on the list of options.  And did I mention clean up?  Despite all kinds of gloomy news about diet, health, and mass-produced foods, home cooking will not seem like a sweet deal unless it feels convenient and easy. 

So here are some Persuasive Tips:

  • Enjoy being the Boss of your table.  Cooking at home means you control the taste, the portions and the ingredients.  Even if you aren’t in love with your own cooking now, you know what you like to eat and with a little practice, that will translate into tasty meals.

Overheard: “I love pear, spinach and gorgonzola salad but I hate the candied pecans and cranberries”.   The Home Cook thinks: “Hmmm, make it at home with salty pecans, no cranberries and save about 6 bucks.”

  •  Avoid huge weekly shopping trips.  Buy less and you’ll have less to haul in the house, put away and feel guilty about when you throw it away 10 days later.  A young professional woman I know told me this: 

 “Almost by accident, I started picking up a few things for dinner on my way home from work.  It has become a habit because I found that I could put a meal together quickly and everything was so fresh.  And here’s a bonus: I do very little impulse shopping when I’m in a hurry to get home!” 

  • Keep some ingredients on hand and have a couple of ‘pantry’ recipes so you’re never stuck without something for a meal.  What should be ‘on hand’? One or two types of pasta, some rice, canned beans, tomatoes, tuna fish, some frozen vegetables – those are staples.  Also have a small stash of  the slightly exotic (you know what you like) such as: hearts of palm, olives, capers, pine nuts and Parmesan (these last two can be frozen).

  • Instead of no time … more time.  While you’re stirring the pot, the kids can do homework, set the table or take the dog for a walk.  The thirty minutes your meal is in the oven is time for you to read the mail, call a friend or watch the news.  All of which beats sitting at a table, waiting for the pizza to arrive.

“Alex hates eating out!” my daughter-in-law told me about her 12 year old.  Not all children feel that way but for many people, regular meals at restaurants are time-consuming, stressful and so, public. 

  • Save $…. for a really nice restaurant (or a vacation or lots of other stuff)  rather than twenty trips to the ‘family friendly’ joint down the street.  Bottom line: it’s cheaper to eat at home.

So, strap on an apron and try these fast ‘n easy menus.

The Roast Chicken Meal

The Pantry Pasta Meal

The Cozy Casserole Meal

The Roast Chicken Meal

Roasting a cut-up chicken takes half the time of a whole chicken and is just as juicy and crisp. Omit the mustard to make things even simpler.  Serve this with French bread (you can keep some in the freezer), a green salad or the following green bean salad.  A simple dessert: baked bananas.

Roasted Chicken

Serves 4, generously

4 chicken leg quarters or 1 cut-up chicken

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat the over to 450 degrees.

Place the chicken in a  baking dish or roasting pan and smear each piece with a little mustard. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

Roast for 30 minutes. The chicken skin will be well browned and crackly. Lightly salt the chicken, remove from the oven and let sit for 5 minutes.

Green Bean salad with Walnuts and Red Onion

When I cook vegetables like green beans or broccoli, I think it’s very important to test them as they cook rather than rely on specific timing.  I like beans well cooked but a lot of people like them crunchy.  Suit yourself!

1 pound green beans, fresh or frozen

2 tablespoons walnuts, broken up

1/4 red onion, thinly sliced  (or 2 Tablespoons minced shallot or regular onion)

Vinaigrette:

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

If using fresh green beans, wash them and snip off the tips.  Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the beans for about 6 minutes.  Fish one out and check for doneness.  When done, drain the beans in a colander and run cold water over them.  If using frozen beans, follow package instructions cooking for the least recommended time and let cool a few minutes.

Toast the walnuts quickly  in the microwave for about 40 seconds.

In a bowl large enough for the beans, make the vinaigrette by stirring the olive oil into the vinegar in a thin stream.  Add a couple of good sized pinches of salt and pepper.  Add the beans, walnuts and onion and toss to coat.  Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper if necessary.

Baked Bananas

for each serving: (children and light eaters will eat 1/2 a banana)

1 banana

Brown sugar

Butter

Preheat oven to 375. Slice the bananas lengthwise and then cut each half crossways into one inch sections without going through the peel.  Arrange in a baking dish, sprinkle a little brown sugar (about 1 teaspoon) on each half and dot with a little butter.  Bake about 15 minutes or until the surfaces are bubbling.  The peel will turn black.   Serve the bananas in their peel with a spoon, pouring over any of the accumulated syrup.

The Pasta Pantry Meal

The challenge? A meal in 30 minutes with what you’ve got on hand.  Guess what?  It’s no sweat!  The menu: Pasta with tomato sauce, spinach and dried fruit compote.

Pasta with Tomato Herb Sauce

This is about as simple as it gets but you end up with a tasty sauce.  Adding the extra olive oil at the end is very important for the flavor.   If you have an onion, sauté it for a few minutes before adding the tomatoes.  If you can unearth some Parmesan cheese, by all means, pass that around.

1 pound pasta (whatever you’ve got but spaghetti or linguine is a good choice)

Olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed or ½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)

1 can tomatoes

1 teaspoon dried herbs: oregano, basil, rosemary or marjoram (or a few pinches of each)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  In the meantime, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and if using fresh garlic, sauté it for a minute and then add the tomatoes and their juice, breaking them up with a spoon.  Add the dried herbs of your choice and garlic powder if desired. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Cook the pasta according to package directions but be sure to taste it for doneness rather than rely slavishly on the instruction time.  Drain and put in a large bowl or on individual plates.

Add 2 additional tablespoons of olive oil to the sauce, stir and pour over the pasta.

Spinach

For a pantry meal, I always try to have some kind of frozen vegetable on hand and spinach is a favorite.  I cook it as little as possible, drain it and serve with a drizzle of olive oil, a dash of vinegar and a pinch of dry red pepper flakes.

Dried Fruit Compote

This can simmer alongside your tomato sauce and be ready in time for dessert.

2 cups dried fruits: apricots, apples, pears, prunes

1 fresh apple or pear (optional), peeled, cored and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped almonds, walnuts or pecans

A piece of cinnamon stick, orange peel or vanilla bean

Juice, wine or water

Put the fruits (a mix of your choice), the optional fresh fruit and flavorings in a saucepan.  Cover barely with water, juice (diluted by half with water) or wine.  Simmer gently until softened.  Serve warm or cold.  A dollop of ice cream or yogurt is good on top.

The Cozy Casserole Meal

It takes several minutes of sauteeing to put this together, but it’s still a speedy dinner.  Serve with a green salad and chocolate pudding.

Sausage Gratin*

A cozy winter or autumn meal.  This is another recipe can be adapted for what you have on hand. The mushrooms, leeks and apples give the dish a very smooth texture and good taste but you can substitute 2 onions for the leeks and omit the mushrooms if you wish.

Serves 4 

1 pound Italian sausages (pork or turkey)

¼ pound mushrooms, quartered

4 medium leeks

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 apples, peeled, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup grated cheese (Gruyère or Swiss are good choices) 

In a skillet, brown the sausages briefly and set aside.  Sauté mushrooms lightly in the same pan, adding a little olive oil if necessary. Set aside.

Wash off the leeks, cut off the green ends and slice the white and pale green parts into thin rounds.  Put the sliced leeks in a big bowl of water and stir them around with your hands. Let soak a minute or two so that any remaining sand will fall to the bottom of the bowl.  Scoop the leeks up and out of the water.

Using the same pan as for the mushrooms and sausages,  heat the olive oil and cook the leeks covered on low/medium heat until soft, about 10 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

In a baking or gratin dish, place a layer of cooked leeks followed by the sautéed mushrooms, the chopped apple, the sausages and the cheese. Bake at 350 for 20 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbling.  

* French Lesson! ‘Gratin’ in French means crust.  A dish that is ‘au gratin’ often has melted cheese or breadcrumbs on top.  In English, we have an expression ‘the upper crust’ for rich people.  In French, it is similar: high society folks are referred to as the ‘gratin’. 

 Chocolate Pudding: Homemade and Speedy The famous chef, Michel Richard, has a recipe called ‘Happy Kid Pudding’ in his recent book Happy in the Kitchen and my recipe closely follows his.  It is simple and delicious.Serves 4 

2 cups milk

4 egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 cup honey

4 ounces dark chocolate, cut in small pieces

In a big bowl (microwaveable), mix the milk, egg yolks, cornstarch and honey together, stirring with a whisk until well-blended.  Add the chocolate and microwave on high for 2 minutes.  Whisk up the mixture and microwave again for 2 minutes.  Stir again well and by now, the chocolate should be melted.  Microwave again for 2 minutes.

At this point, the mixture should be boiling and thick but if not, microwave again for about a minute.  Cool for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Enjoy your home-cooking and write with any questions!

Cheers, and xoxo, Mary