Vietnamese Market Day and the Beauty of Margins

Photograph by Hien Lam Duc, from the exhibition Mékong, histoires d’Hommes

 

 

 When fully ripe, the unopened jackfruit emits a strong disagreeable odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana.

The Jackfruit

I am like a jackfruit on the tree.
To taste you must plug me quick, while fresh:
the skin rough, the pulp thick, yes,
but oh, I warn you against touching —
the rich juice will gush and stain your hands

Ho Xuan Huong, 1772 – 1822,
 translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich 

 Two acts of generosity led to a delightful day.

 The St. Francis dining hall in Portland, Oregon serves dinners daily to “those in need in dignity and peace.” That turns out to be 300 meals per day. At their annual auction, it’s hard to say who is more big hearted: the donors or the recipients. As her auction contribution, Ho Mai Huong, a young accounting student, offered her services as tour guide and chef for a day of Vietnamese cooking. Margo Foeller was the winner and treated me and my friend Trish to a wonderful day.

Visiting the markets

Our first stop: the market Hong Phat where Mai identified and introduced us to a world of fantastic fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish and meats.

Fruits came first. The jackfruit (which can grow to over 80 pounds), banana flower (peel back the outer leaves and slice), four different kinds of mango, litchis, and ‘fragrant fruit’ were just a few. “In Vietnam, there are many more varieties,” explained Mai.

We moved on to a huge assortment of herbs, greens, and vegetables. Many herbs have medicinal applications such as dấp cá or fish mint, used to cure stomachaches, indigestion or, in paste form, for insect bites. The flavor and aroma are strongly fishy. Rau Dắng or bitter herb is used both cooked and fresh. When burned, the vapors are a very effective mosquito repellant.**

Spinach, mustard, and collard? Now these were familiar greens. But hold on! They are not what they seem. Mồng tơi, as an example, sometimes referred to as Ceylon or Malabar spinach, has spinach-like leaves but is a vine and cultivated on a trellis. And might lower your body temperature.

Bitter melon which looks a bit like a cucumber with a ridged dark green skin is used in soups, sautéed or stuffed. Its medicinal qualities are many, including a blood sugar lowering effect for type II diabetics. With each fruit, pod, green, root and fungus, an important therapeutic reason for its purchase was cited. 

                  Will this help my baby grow? Will this cure his cough? Can this ease my pain?

Eat your Gac (gấc)! It is the greatest source of beta-carotene (vitamin A) of any fruit or vegetable. Gac (gấc) has ten times more of the stuff than carrots or sweet potatoes. Did you know that green papaya enhances breast milk production? And, it would appear, that if you have anything wrong at all, just eat a persimmon.

 Gac  (gấc)      
Photograph by Jennifer J Maiser

Moving from vegetables to the grocery aisles, Mai discussed the cross over in cooking techniques and recipes between Asian countries and cultures and their subtle differences. Fish sauce, for dipping, is a good example. In Vietnam, chopped garlic and chilies are added to the sauce which is diluted not with water, but coconut juice, as coconuts are very plentiful in southern Vietnam. 

On that same topic, Mai explained that Vietnam is divided culturally and economically into the North, Central, and Southern parts. The North has less fruit and vegetables and the food tends to be salty. The Central part of Vietnam is the poorest. It is subject to severe weather (especially flooding) and the soil is poor. The cuisine in this area is very salty and spicy which adds flavor to the food and warms the body. The abundance of fruits and vegetables are the hallmark of the southern Vietnamese cuisine. Fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits are used in nearly every preparation in the South.

 Pho, the hugely popular beef noodle soup is believed to have originated in the North, where it is made with fresh rice stick noodles (banh pho tuoi) and flavored with star anise in an oxtail broth. Typically, it is not served with garnishes. In the South, however, the soup is served with herb and bean sprout garnishes. Suffice it say, there are many regional varieties of this soup.

 A package wrapped with a green leaf and tied with red string turned out to be cha lua or Vietnamese ham wrapped in a banana leaf.

“It’s just like spam. That’s what my mother says” a young customer offered.

Among the huge selection of meats (every possible cut of pork and beef) and fishes (including whole frozen fish and about 30 types of frozen shrimp), I was struck by the two types of chicken:

  • Walking chicken (not always tender but very flavorful) and
  • Black chicken (quite a small variety and good for fatigue, back pain and expectant mothers)

 Beautiful and mysterious dishes that Mai alluded to:

  • Coconuts stuffed with Quail
  • Baby clam meat with Jackfruit

 Slightly stomach churning:

  • Duck eggs with embryos
  • Pigs’ udders
  • Silkworm pupae (eaten fried with lime leaves)

 Our market visit ended in the household products aisle. Mai showed us two types of brooms. One of coarser fiber for the yard; the other very fine and soft for the house. The market sold all types of cooking pots, pans, including a special crepe pan that looked very like a Swedish pancake skillet. I bought a coffee drip pot for making one serving of Vietnamese coffee which is brewed with sweetened condensed milk.

Our next stop was Bui Natural Tofu. Originally, fresh tofu was the only product of this family business which was conducted from their home. Now, the busy shop makes not only a great deal of fresh tofu but also fried tofu, tofu pudding, red sticky rice (its color comes from the aforementioned gac fruit), fermented rice (a digestive after a meal), sticky rice balls with a mulberry in the center, and much more.

 Mai had ordered in advance so as we waited as all sorts of containers and packages appeared at the counter. We staggered out to the car.

Lunch at Mai’s Home

 Now came the really fun part: Mai made us lunch at her home.

Step one: she quickly put together some snacks for us to sample.

  •  Using her homemade fish sauce, we sampled the fresh tofu and the fried tofu which contained pieces of fried onion
  • The Red Sticky Rice with pieces of Vietnamese ham
  • The Tofu Pudding, served in small bowls over which she poured a sugar syrup with slivers of ginger and coconut milk
  • A spoonful each of Fermented Rice (the digestion aid)

We were happy to sit and munch but Mai was all business. The fresh spring (or salad) rolls had to be made.

She quickly gathered the ingredients together: lettuce, Thai basil, and mint from her garden, Chinese chives, and slices of the ham. She boiled the dry rice noodles and we helped peel the shrimp. Moistening the rice paper briefly, she showed us her technique for tightly rolling the cylinders with the shrimp with green Chinese chive visible through the wrapper. We each practiced the technique.

 The dipping sauce, (which Mai believes is the whole point of eating the rolls) was a fragrant and delectable mixture of flavors: hoisin, peanut butter, and coconut soda. As a final flourish, Mai added fried shallots and a bit of pickled shredded carrot to the dipping sauce. Wow! Completely different from restaurant salad rolls.

As with any unforgettable meal, the food was only a part of the pleasure. As if each morsel stirred up  an association, Mai spoke of her family, geography, gardens and poetry. In 1954, Mai’s Catholic family moved from the North to South Vietnam to avoid communism. While she has never been in North Vietnam, her parents and grandparents passed on their northern customs and habits.

“I was named for the 18th century poet Ho Xuan Huong but my parents replaced Xuan with Mai so as not to shock my grandparents…”

Known for her independence, intellect, and subtle and sexy wit, this famous poet from Hanoi was also was very irreverent. Rather than classical Chinese, she wrote in Nôm, the Vietnamese language that has nearly disappeared. While more than a thousand years of Vietnamese cultural history was written in this language, less than 100 people  can read Nôm today. The Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation*** hopes to save the language.

Homegardens and Margins

Now, this got me to ruminating about the importance of the margins in culture. Home cooking, home gardens, minor languages, poetry..are these not elements of the margin not the mainstream? I don’t want to offend home cooks, gardeners, translators, and poets by using the word ‘margin’. But I’m not marginalizing anyone, simply acknowledging that certain highly important activities exist and thrive on society’s margins.  

The reason I write about home cooking is that there’s a dearth.

There are two ways to look at marginal activity.

  1. There’s strength in numbers: A custom or habit dies out when it’s not longer necessary. When an activity is marginal, it’s on its way out. (example: the shirt collar button) 
  2. We’re only as strong as our weakest link: When a custom or habit is replaced by a new behavior, the old habit might slip into the margin but will still persist. Sometimes people will attempt a rescue! (example: Nôm)

The second way of looking at this is, to my mind, the optimistic and true approach. Whenever I worry about the ‘branding’ of humanity or fear a dreary sameness leading to decline,   I inevitably come across small, disorganized, whimsical powerhouses of marginality.  

 In Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s book Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers,**** she speaks movingly about marginality and memory with regards to heirloom  gardeners.

“If modernity is ‘forced amnesia’, then there is a need to reinforce the range of dreams and choices that triggers countermemory…Seedsavers pose a subdued but persistent challenge to what those around them take as given and help break the spell of ‘organized forgetting.’…From the margins, seedsavers deploy a message of worth rather than protest wherein the currency is joy instead of anger, the motivation hope instead of frustration.”

In her Germplasm project at the University of Georgia, Nazarea and her associates studied how Vietnamese immigrants arriving in the 1970s reproduced their native gardens with great success. Nhan Couch was a participant in the study and her homegarden below is a delightful example.  I love the entire design of the garden, especially the “BBQ pit with pokeweed growing out of it.”

Outside her kitchen door, Mai has a small but robust garden filled with herbs and greens. I asked Mai about the diagram of Nhan’s garden. “This model of garden is very common in rural areas of Vietnam” she said, adding, “I think they do a very good job of organizing their gardens.”

 
  
  
  Copyright © 2002 Introduced Germplasm From Vietnam: Documentation, Acquisition, and Propagation.  All rights reserved.
 

Trying this at home

Back at home, I was all fired up to make a Vietnamese dinner.

 With Mai’s instructions, I attempted the black chicken, so called because the skin is a deep purplish black. This fierce-looking little bird was to my surprise, very meaty. The other surprise was the flesh with its dark and light striations. Once cooked, the chicken looked a bit like bluefish and I believe, is an acquired taste.

To make this dish, I had purchased a packet of herbs, lotus nuts (which look something like dried hominy) and red dates. At Hong Mai, there was an entire shelf devoted to special herb packets each for different preparations. “Very practical!”

Black Chicken

I attempted to write down the recipe as I remembered it. Fortunately, Mai made some adjustments. Here goes:

  • Soak the lotus nuts overnight.
  • Wash the chicken, removing the head, feet, and innards.
  • Dip the chicken in a pan of boiling water and then rinse in cold water.
  • To cook the chicken:

Method #1: Put the chicken into the bowl. Put all of the herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken or stuff the chicken with the herbs, dates and lotus nuts. Personally, I prefer to put herbs and lotus nuts around the chicken. Pour 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. And then put the bowl into a steam pot. Cook about 1 hour.

Method #2: You can use slow cooker to cook instead of steam pot. Put chicken into the cooker and spread out all of herbs and lotus nut around chicken. Pour 1 can of coconut soda and 1 teaspoon of fish sauce into the chicken. Cook slowly about 2 hours.)

  • Cut up and serve with steamed rice.

 Mai Huong’s Salad Rolls

It takes a little practice to make these rolls but once you’ve got the hang of it, it goes quickly. If you do this a few times, you will begin to arrange and offset the ingredients so that the rolls will looks very pretty with the shrimp and some greenery showing through the wrapper.

 I. For spring rolls: (about 8 to 10 rolls)

Ingredients:

  1. Round rice paper wrappers (banh trang or ‘spring rolls skin’ – Mai used a package with a large red rose on it)
  2. Rice noodle (Mai used a vacuum-packed fresh rice stick noodle -banh pho tuoi in a pink package from the Sincere Orient Food Co.) 
  3. Chinese chives 
  4. Lettuce, several leaves
  5. Mint, basil, cilantro –  small bunch of each
  6. 1/2 pound pork belly ( or thinly sliced roast pork)
  7. 12 – 15 shrimp (double if the shrimp are very small)

Boil rice noodle until it becomes al dente, drain and rinse with cold water. Boil pork belly until well done and slice thinly. Cook shrimp with salt in a dry pan until red and cooked through. Peel  the shrimp and if large, slice into halves. Wash the lettuce and herbs.

 How to wrap the spring roll:

 Fill a large bowl with warm water. Dip one wrapper into the water just to moisten. (Do not soak)

Lay wrapper flat. In a row across the center, place 3 shrimp, 2 pieces of pork, a handful of rice noodle, the lettuce and herbs, leaving about 2 inches uncovered on each side. Fold uncovered sides inward, and then tightly roll the wrapper, beginning at the end with the lettuce. Set aside.

Continue with remaining ingredients until all the rolls are made.

 

II. Dipping Sauce:

  1. Shallot, 2 cloves, sliced thinly
  2. 1 tablespoon cooking oil 
  3. Hoisin sauce (1/2 cup)
  4. Peanut butter (1/2 cup)
  5. Coconut milk (1/2 cup)
  6. Chicken stock or coconut soda (1/2 cup)
  7. Sugar (1 teaspoon)
  8. Chili sauce (optional if you like spicy)

Stir fry the shallots with oil about 2-3 minutes in the pan.  Set aside. Mix hoisin, peanut butter, milk and coconut soda (or any broth such as chicken soup or pork broth that we have from boiling pork) in a bowl. Pour this mixture into the pan. Stir well until everything is a caramel colored blend. Pour some sugar into the sauce. Taste. Add some chili sauce if desired. Stir in the shallots.

A promising start to the year.

My experience with Mai led me down some new paths from jackfruit to poetry to heirloom gardens to a photograph on the Luxembourg garden gates to extraordinary humans. Ho Xuan Huong, Hiên Lam Duc and Virginia Nazarea.

Thank you Mai and Margo.

Almost a year ago exactly, I saw an extraordinary exhibit of photographs of the people of Mekong river. The beautiful photograph at the beginning of this piece is from that exhibit and the photographer, Hiên Lam Duc generously permitted me to display it. (Doubleclick to enlarge the image.) To see more of his work, go to http://www.lamduchien.com/

*This description of jackfruit (word for word) is repeated on at least 50 websites. So everyone agrees.

**For information on Vietnamese culinary and medicinal herbs, go to this website: http://vietherbs.com/

*** For more information on saving the Nôm language, go to http://nomfoundation.org/vnpf_new/index.php

****Dr. Virginia Nazarea’s Heirloom seeds and Their Keepers, Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity , 2005, University of Arizona Press is available through Amazon and other sources.

Word of Mouth or How Recipes Find their Way

 

“What would our lives be like without tradition? What terrible fatigue would overwhelm humanity if it only had to concern itself with the future?

Edouard de Pomiane

“Her last conversation in Sinhala … ended with her crying about missing egg rulang and curd with jaggery.”

from Anil’s Ghostby Michael Ondaatje

At Chronicle Books, Bill Le Blond publishes cookbooks known for their splendid photography. For those hoping to publish however, he has bad news: cookbooks are not the sellers they once were. While there are more writers than ever, readership has dwindled.  These days, finding a recipe is just a click away.

For a while, everyone was reading cookbooks for fun. Salsas! Chocolate! Slow Cooking! The I-Can’t-Chew Cookbook!  You name it, there’s a book all about it.  But this hobby may have run its course. True collectors of cookbooks  are a special and passionate group. A bit like stamp collectors.  My friend Vikki says, “For me, going to eight or nine sources to answer a cooking question is pure pleasure. That these sources are on my bookshelf is icing on the cake.” For the majority of home cooks, however, one or two all-purpose cookbooks, newspaper clippings,  and a couple of local compilations sufficed until recently.

I risk sounding disingenuous. After all, I myself have written a nifty little cookbook  and am always thrilled when someone buys it. Nevertheless, just as Wikipedia and Google are today’s  reference tools, Internet cooking sites are where you find recipes. And from TV chefs.  Cooking shows have  filled the gap for the entertainment minded cook just as Epicurious is there at day’s end when you’re standing in the kitchen wondering what to do with one onion and a package of chicken.

But is that the whole story? Have we simply abandoned the crusty old tomes for (equally) sticky keyboards and remotes? What about word of mouth?

Word of mouth is stronger than ever; its voice perpetuates  food culture, memories, and practical know-how. Thinking over the past few weeks, I come up with at least six situations which could have been resolved through a book or other source but in fact, were imparted word of mouth. These include:

  • explaining why sometimes eggshells stick (a heartbreak when you’ve signed on to bring devilled eggs to a picnic)*
  • asking a friend for her really good soup recipe
  • passing on two simple things to do with fresh figs
  • learning that putting a mound of stiffish herbs, such as thyme and rosemary, under a piece on fish helps avoid sticking to the pan or grill

“How did you make that?” Dedicated cooks love that question and most will go out of the way to share. Even the pros. When I had doubts about a fish recipe from  Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard, I called his restaurant, got the sous-chef and explained my concern. He reassured me the recipe would work. “10 minutes! Not more! Call anytime!” he said and I believed him. The fish turned out perfectly. A word of caution: if you are an adventurous cook and want to call a chef, remember the hours of service are frantic. Call only in the morning or late afternoon if you want to get some attention. 

Asking how a dish is made is perfectly acceptable in a restaurant and, if your waiter is not run off his feet, the information is gladly given. You may not be able to replicate the dish but you will know the ingredients. Skill and imagination, not a recipe, make for glorious food. Which explains why recipes ( that is, the ingredients and measures) can not be copyrighted because you can’t claim ownership of a fact. Apple Pie and Beef Stew are public property. However, the language of recipes is considered original so you can not simply copy and publish someone else’s take on a recipe.

Those How do you make that? conversations are not just about cooking. My father would call regularly asking for the same two recipes: fried chicken and Hollandaise sauce.  I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t he write it down?” but I came to love those requests. It reminded us both of my grandmother (a Hollandaise maker extraordinaire) and of the days when fried chicken was a once-a-week meal. Now, when my grown children request a recipe, I am equally touched.

During World War II, my friend Monna remembers the meager meals at her school outside Paris. “Once a week we’d have a treat of fresh bread from the local baker. With each bite, we’d pretend it was something we really loved. Roast chicken! Chocolate cake!” Longing for full stomachs, the girls dined on their food memories. Her experience brought to mind the poignant  In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, an extraordinary collective memoir by starving prisoners at a Czechoslovakian ghetto/concentration camp. Written by a number of different hands, the original manuscript (now in the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC) contained remembered recipes from their former lives. Attempting to resurrect those lives, these women nourished and somehow sustained themselves through memory. The writing of this collection was no quiet activity either: arguments flared over the correct way to make a certain dish. “We never used eggs! There was much more sugar!” And thus time passed.

My folklorist friend Miriam first told me about interleavings. These are scraps of paper, ticket stubs, old envelopes, receipts, and all manner of jottings found in cookbooks. A treasure trove of information for anyone curious about a family, a community or an area. I knew immediately what she was talking about having gone through many old family cookbooks. In one old book belonging to my mother-in-law, there were letters between friends containing recipes but also plenty of news and gossip. Putting some pieces together, I realized these folks lived no farther than 30 miles apart but rarely used a telephone. Word of mouth via the pen.

Cookbook Interleaving: A French hotel bill with dried flowers Cookbook Interleaving: A French hotel bill with dried flowers

I found the interleaving pictured above in Leslie Forbes’ beautiful book  A Table in Provence.  I might not have remembered that my friend Rolf gave me the book if I hadn’t seen his hotel bill (and the dried flowers). A social scientist might find it interesting that in 1987, an American couple spent the night at the Hotel Beaurivage in Cros-de-Cagnes, had breakfast, and it cost less that $25.00.

Asking questions (Where do you shop? What about farmers’ markets? Where are the bargains?)  eases you into a new neighborhood.  If you’ve just moved, word of mouth information  gives you a jump start in the process of feeling at home. For new parents, the world of baby food is much more compelling to talk about than to read about. Dieters, folks cooking for one, heart patients, party givers, in short, everyone benefits from direct talk about food.

So, don’t forget to ask your Aunt Tilly for that chocolate cake recipe before she gets any older.

Here are a few recipes I pass around frequently.

And happy cooking! xoxo, Mary

* Eggs shells will stick to very fresh eggs. After about a week, the interior of the egg and its membranes will shrink slightly, creating an air space. After hard boiling, the egg is plunged into ice water which slightly contracts the contents and when cracked, it’s shell slips off.

Zucchini salad

I really like zucchini raw and came up with this salad and it’s gotten a lot of raves. I do not add the dressing until just before serving – the salad should remain cool and crisp!

  • 8 small zucchinis cut into a small dice
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped without the stems
  • ½ cup cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 small shallot, minced
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • Pepper
  • Optional: 1 clove garlic minced

In a bowl, toss the zucchini, cilantro, nuts, and shallot.

Combine the remaining ingredients, whisk thoroughly, and mix into the salad.

Variation: Zucchini and Chard Salad

  • 1 bunch Swiss chard
  • 4 small zucchinis cut into a fine dice
  • ¼ cup cashews, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons canola or other oil
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil

Strip the stalks from the Swiss chard leaves and cut them fairly finely. Put in a saucepan with a small amount of water. Cover and bring to a boil. In the meantime, cut the leaves into fine shreds and then crosswise (so that the shreds are not too long). Add these to the pot with the stems and cook a few minutes or until just tender. Drain and cool.

Toss the chard with the zucchini and nuts. Combine the remaining ingredients to make a vinaigrette and pour over the salad. Toss well.

Spicy Peanut Dip

I have been asked for this recipe more than any other.  I got the recipe from my sister-in-law Debbie and changed it a little, using peanuts rather than peanut butter. That’s the secret!

  •  1/4 cup tea, cooled
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 2 cups salted peanuts
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon chili paste (or more, to taste)

 In a food processor, grind nuts until fine.  Add everything else. The dip will become quite thick and can be thinned with water or tea.

Serving suggestions  or Are you ready for this?

Snacks: spread it on celery sticks, apple slices, crackers and flatbreads

Appetizers:to accompany a raw vegetable platter

Wraps: spread on lettuce or rice paper wrappers with various fillings such as rice, chicken, shrimp, fish and bean sprouts

Sandwiches: the PB and J using a jam such as rhubarb, guava, or lime marmalade ; the PBB and J which is the same plus a little crispy bacon

Main dish: as a sauce with cold soba, udon, or rice noodles. Thin the spread with a little water or cold tea just to a pouring consistency. Garnish with chopped peanuts and mint. Also, as a dressing. Thin the spread with tea or water and add diced cooked chicken or turkey, chopped red peppers, carrots, and green onions. Serve on a bed of shredded napa cabbage.

Dessert: use a dollop on top of vanilla or coconut ice cream. Garnish with mint. Or spread a thin layer on ginger cookies and fill with ice cream for ice cream sandwiches.

My Fried Chicken

What I can tell you about fried chicken is that if you make it often, it becomes very easy. The problem is that virtually no one eats fried chicken every week so it’s a bit harder to get practice. I learned this method of frying chicken from Margaret Miles, now in her nineties.  She has lived most of her life in Kentucky and her recipe is, I believe, as genuine as it gets for southern fried chicken.  She always drained her chicken on newspaper and I still do that but you may prefer paper towels.

Serves 4 – (8 pieces)

Ingredients:

  • 1 fryer
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or oregano and basil mixed
  • 2 cups, approximately, oil for frying or Crisco (see note below)

Method:

  1. Cut up the fryer into 8 pieces (2 breast halves, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings), reserving the wing tips, the back, and the giblets for another use.  (Such as chicken stock)
  2. In a paper bag, combine the flour and seasonings. Margaret only used salt, pepper and paprika but I like a bit of dried herb which I rub between my fingers as I add it.
  3. In a large heavy skillet (cast iron is best), heat oil to a depth of about ½ inch.  Heat up to nearly smoking.
  4. As the oil heats, shake several pieces of chicken in the flour mixture.  Carefully, slide a piece into the oil.  If it immediately starts sizzling, the oil is hot enough and you can add the rest.
  5. Cook about one or two minutes just to ‘seize up’ the chicken pieces and then turn them.  Again, cook one to two minutes.
  6. Turn again, lower the heat to very low, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes.
  7. In the middle of the cooking time, carefully turn the chicken (the coating will be soft and fragile).
  8. After the cooking period, turn up the heat all the way, remove the cover and cook on each side until it is as browned and crispy as you like.  This will take about a minute per side. Don’t walk away during this step.
  9. Remove and drain on paper towels.  Salt each piece and serve immediately.  Also good cold.

Just a few caveats:

  • A fresh good quality chicken does make a difference in taste and is worth spending a little extra on.
  • In the US, the thinking now is don’t wash chicken – it just spreads bacteria around the sink.  If you do wash it, it should be lightly patted dry (not bone dry!) before shaking with the flour.
  • Frying: Never drop food into hot oil – always slide it and take care turning it to avoid splashing.  I use metal tongs so that the meat isn’t pierced when I turn it.
  • The oil: it must have a high smoke point such as peanut or canola. Margaret used Crisco and that’s what I use. Crisco is now trans-fat free.
  • Covering the chicken: leave the lid a bit askew so the steam can escape. Otherwise when you remove the lid and turn up the heat, you risk a lot of painful grease popping.
  • Cooking time: 15 minutes covered time is an approximation.  Don’t overcook it or it will be dry. If I’m cooking a lot of chicken, I use two pans and cook the thighs and drumsticks separately from the breast as dark meat takes longer to cook.

Added bonus…..Cream Gravy

Also called milk gravy, this stuff puts you over the top in every way imaginable… it’s good on biscuits, mashed potatoes, or rice. You can also make this gravy using chicken stock (it just won’t be cream gravy).

Ingredients:

  • Crunch and dripping from the frying pan
  • ¼ cup of the seasoned flour from frying the chicken
  • 2 cups milk
  • Salt and pepper

 Drain the oil out of the fried chicken pan reserving all the crunchy bits.  Add the flour and stir over low heat for a few minutes to cook the flour. 

Add the milk, stirring until thick with a whisk or wooden spoon, adding a little more if the gravy is too thick.  Taste and season with salt and pepper

Thank you, Mr. Turkey

Thanksgiving is the same and different every year. For consistency, I thank the turkey and the trimmings. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Rarely solemn, sometimes hilarious (relatives), combative (politics), aggravating (relatives), or poignant (the past), Thanksgiving gets to me year after year.

Has there ever been a more comforting meal? I think of it as a solace (We’re here in this moment. With this turkey. We’ll eat and talk and shore ourselves up a bit.) The clink and clatter, the munch and crunch, the chuckle and the sigh make us content.

Hope and optimism, like turkey and stuffing, are things to count on, and this year, they are particularly honored guests. Grimmer times are hard to ignore but we can take pleasure in our hopes for the future. Pass the gravy!

Mary and Mr. Turkey

Photo by Kelly Miller

And let’s not forget that mischievous guest, Chaos, who always shows up, like it or not, wearing his usual disguises. Sometimes, he’s the burned pie, the thoughtless remark, or the broken heirloom. But, welcome Chaos.* Our world is not perfect and we can be thankful there too.

I don’t think a warehouse would be big enough for all the recipes, methods, and pointers involving the turkey itself. Tips on using Thanksgiving leftovers could fill a silo. Still, it makes for fun reading and adds a little freshness to the grand old meal. I never thought of making an Asian salad with leftover sweet potatoes and red cabbage. Or dumplings out of dressing.

Holiday leftovers present a great opportunity to make some tasty little meals that don’t cost a dime and make use of some great food. My favorite pointer is this:

Don’t eat leftovers right away. And definitely, don’t have warmed-up turkey four days running.

On the other hand, don’t rush your leftovers to the freezer either. You’ll have a mutiny on you hands when the first sandwich seeker can’t locate the turkey. But a careful division of the vegetables, meat, carcass, gravy and any other trimmings is a sound idea. Package, freeze, and store with labels so that when (in a week or so) you feel like making turkey soup for a Sunday night dinner, you will know where to look. And be reasonable. You’ll use up small portions whereas a football-sized lump of mashed potatoes or a pail of gravy could linger in the freezer until the 4th of July.

Cooks in mid-20th century America were advised to conceal leftovers by putting a new face (literally) on yesterday’s meal. Sliced meatloaf, for example, with olive eyes and a ketchup smile. Another visual ploy: the architectural main course. Sausage Stockade leaps to mind. In this dish, mashed potatoes are surrounded by breakfast sausages to form a large rectangle. Heated up with a parsley ‘flag’ stuck in the center and it’s, ‘Hello Fort Dodge!’ But, don’t get me wrong: as funny as some of these concoctions sound, the idea of making up something new from something old is terrific.

Maybe we’re just not as funny now: we don’t want to eat foods that contain words like Surprise, Heavenly, or Chuckwagon. But we also don’t cook as much so we don’t have the same need to doll up last night’s dinner. Nevertheless, from my reading of the news, folks are spending less time and money in restaurants which means that cooking leftovers may be an art in recovery. Seasonal, Warm, or Charred might describe our twice-cooked offerings.

So have a wonderful Thanksgiving and save those bones!

Bon appetit,

Mary

*A tip of the hat to Margaret Wheatley whose book Leadership and the New Science explores the idea of chaos as ‘order without predictablity’. A fascinating book.

Here are a few suggestions for Thanksgiving revisited.

Asian Sweet Potato Slaw

Mix the following ingredients in a large bowl:

  • 2 cups (leftover) cooked sweet potatoes, cubed
  • 1 small red cabbage, shredded
  • 4 tablespoons peanuts, chopped
  • 2 -4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
  • 2-3 scallions, chopped (optional)

Prepare the dressing with the ingredients below and toss.

  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

Turkey Soup with Dumplings

A turkey carcass will yield a good strong broth but don’t over cook it.

  • 1 leftover turkey carcass
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 cloves garlic (optional)
  • 2 or 3 sprigs thyme (or 1/2 teaspoon dried)

Break up the turkey carcass into pieces. Put these into a large pot and just cover the bones with cold water. Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil, skim any froth from the top, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about two hours. Taste. It should be well flavored but will need salt. If it’s too thin in taste, cook a bit longer. Strain and season with salt. Let the broth cool and skim off the fat.

For a richer soup, you may want to add some vegetables and herbs (peas, green beans, finely cubed fresh zucchini, chopped parsley or chives for example).

For the Dumplings

  • 2 cups leftover stuffing
  • 2 eggs

Beat the eggs lightly and mix into the stuffing. Add another egg if the mixture is too dry. Form into medium-sized balls and add to simmering broth. Gently heat and serve.

The Whole Shebang Flat Enchiladas

Here we’re trying to get the most out of leftovers using some concealment practices.

  • gravy, about 1 cup or more
  • 1 teaspoon each: cumin and oregano
  • cooked sliced turkey, 2 cups approximately
  • corn tortillas – 9 or 10
  • 1 can tomatillos, chopped
  • 1 can poblano chiles or other mild chile
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (optional)
  • peas, sweet potatoes and possibly Brussels sprouts, about 1- 2 cups altogether
  • 1 1/2 cups jack cheese, shredded
  • Salt and pepper

Grease a 9 x 12 inch baking dish. If you have the time, fry the tortillas briefly in a small amount of hot oil. Drain and salt lightly.

First, we’ll heat the leftover gravy and season it with some cumin and oregano. If your gravy has a lot of sage in it, you may want to omit the oregano. Adding a lot of different seasonings – or fresh garlic, say- will not make a better sauce. Keep it simple.

Spread about 2 tablespoon of this sauce in the baking dish. Cover the dish with 3 or 4 tortillas (plain or sauteed as described above). Add a layer of turkey. Mix the tomatillos, chiles and cilantro together and spread a few spoonfuls of this mixture to the turkey.

Cut the sweet potatoes and/or the sprouts into small slices or cubes. Mix together with the peas. Add a thin layer of these vegetables and top with another layer of tortillas. Repeat the layering ending with the vegetables. Sprinkle the top with shredded cheese and bake at 350 for 30 minutes or until bubbling.

Serve with a green salad.


Home Cooking IV: Fire up the Stove!

“Lack of time is not the issue. It’s a question of priorities. Look in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I worth 30 minutes? Is my family worth 30 minutes?” That’s what it takes to make a good meal.”

Joyce Goldstein, author, teacher, chef, restauranteur, and home cook

“When I was raising my kids, cooking dinner was the worst part. The question, “What’s for dinner?” still makes me shudder.”

Becky Howe, weight lifter, teacher, and personal trainer

On those occasions when she’s home alone, Joyce Goldstein not only makes herself a tasty dinner, she’s written a book about it (Solo Suppers: Simple Delicious Meals to Cook for Yourself.)

Becky Howe’s idea of a fine solo dinner is a protein bar, a banana, and a good book.

Well, friends, there’s a middle road.

Jessica Glenn, who happens to be my daughter, cooks for a growing family on a daily basis and has this to say:

“With a tight budget, cooking at home is the only choice and I’ve found it gets easier with practice. I can come up with 30 minute meals and also, 15 and 20 minute ones. Everything in my refrigerator is spoken for because I buy only what I need. I think we eat well and lots of times, I get cheers from the crowd, which feels good. But many of my friends don’t cook and for them, the whole process seems horrible.”

Cooking does get easier with practice and easier still once it becomes a routine. If you’re ready to rattle the pots and pans, summer is a great time to get started. There’s a lot less cooking and more salad making. The fruits and vegetables available now make for quick suppers without a lot of kitchen time.

When the first dog days of summer rolled around in Washington, D.C. (often in May), my sister-in-law Debbie Giese would announce, “That’s it! No more cooking for the summer.” Twenty years ago, what this meant was “I’m not going to use the oven.” Dinner still made it to the table on a nightly basis but there were salads rather than stews and we used the charcoal grill rather than the stove.

Even as recently as fifteen years ago, most people I knew made dinner every night and worked full-time. We used processed convenience foods but more often than not, they constituted a small part of the meal, such as bottled salad dressing or a can of soup. Slowly but surely, what was an insignificant part of a home-cooked meal began to take over and from there, it was a quick road to take-out or going out.

I mention all this not to wag my finger at the current state of dining culture but simply to point out that home cooking didn’t go into decline all that long ago and for thousands, it never went away at all.

In other words, the system is not broken or antiquated; it just needs a little dusting off.

So even though we all know that day’s end can be especially chaotic, let’s creep into the kitchen and cook dinner.

Consider the evening meal a set part of every day. Put another way, identify the after-work routine as the reverse of the morning routine. Does it take an hour to dress, have breakfast, and leave the house? Morning activity in most households is focused. In the same way, allow for focused time when you get home. Perhaps you need 15 to 20 minutes when you come in the door to do some or all of the following: check the mail, change clothes, listen to messages, supervise homework and baths, walk the dog, or water the garden.

After that, head for the kitchen. Here are 6 steps, 7 tips and A Week of Menus to ease your way. Bonus section: Equipment and 4 How-Tos.

A Weekly Menu circa 1980 with Shopping List and 5 year old daughter's additions

A Weekly Menu circa 1980 with Shopping List and 5 year old daughter’s additions

Step 1: The Preliminaries. Write up a Week’s Menus and do your Shopping in advance.

When you get home after a long day, dinner can be quickly put together if you have your ingredients and know what you’re making. Son-in-law JB says:

“On Sundays, I write down menus and Rachael helps with the list. Since I’m the cook, I do the shopping. We usually have one take-out meal and one with leftovers and end up making a stop at the store once during the week.”

Not so different from my 1980 menu (see photo above) which is a little hard to read but Sunday is “Out” and Thursday is called “Potluck” (i.e. leftovers.) Hmm, that week we had roast chicken, steak, and hold on! Is that Ranch Dressing on my shopping list?

For inspiration, there are websites to help with the menu planning: At Epicurious.com, go to Articles and Guides and under that Everyday Food. Select ‘Weekly Dinner Planners.’ There’s a different seasonal menu every week plus a shopping list. At This Week For Dinner (www.thisweekfordinner.com) , the author of this blog posts a menu every Sunday and invites anyone to comment or post their own menus. The New York Times now has a cooking newsletter than shoots rapid encouraging recipes to your inbox a few times a week. They are usually quick to make and very tasty.

If you know in advance what’s for dinner, that question doesn’t seem so bad.

Step 2: In the Morning, check the Menu and locate the Ingredients. Defrost any food you will use later.

Run the dishwasher at night and empty it in the morning. That way, everything will be clean for the evening rush. If you have a delay button on your dishwasher, program it for after midnight (you’ll save $$ on energy bills.)

If you have even 5 minutes to spare in the morning, do one small job to make the dinner preparation go faster. This might be peeling some potatoes (leave them in a bowl of cold water), or hard-boiling a couple of eggs. Some advance preparation can be done days in advance such as washing and spin-drying the lettuce.

Step 3: When You Come in the Door, put a large pot of water onto boil and/or light the grill.

In other words, don’t waste time waiting for the grill to heat or water to boil. Start in right away and you’ll save time. If speed is your goal, the week-night meal is not the time to try a new recipe. In fact, don’t use a recipe at all. Use techniques such as grilling, boiling, steaming, chopping, sauteeing, and tossing. Season well, add a little butter or a dash of olive oil, and your food, while perhaps a bit plain, will taste very good.

Step 4: Set the Table (or enlist a member of your household to do this task every night.)

Put out everything you need including salt and pepper, water, plates, glasses, drinks, and condiments. This means that when dinner is ready, the table will be ready too, and the food won’t get cold.

Step 5: Triage or Who gets attention first?

If you have a screaming toddler, this question doesn’t need asking. But don’t be sidetracked. Throw your offspring a piece of fruit, a cracker, or a carrot, and carry on. Believe me, children are impressed by a show of fierce concentration. Likewise, once you begin the cooking, don’t answer the phone, do the laundry, or check your e-mail. We’re only talking about a half hour of concentration.

Step 6: Multi-tasking or How to Cook Everything at Once

It takes practice, but several operations can be done nearly simultaneously in the kitchen. If you’re having something grilled and a salad, get the cooking started first. For example, slap the chicken on the grill, dash back into the kitchen and put the lettuce in the salad bowl. Drizzle with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper, find the salad servers, and put it on the table. Turn the chicken. Slice some tomatoes, arrange on a plate and onto the table. Yell at everyone to come to dinner. (Time: 15 minutes, give or take a few.)

For a cold dinner of salads and cold meat or fish, do all the prep work first. Arrange everything on a platter or in bowls, putting the dressing on last. Vinaigrettes and dressings keep very well refrigerated. Make double portions and save the extra for the next meal.

Now to fine tune the process, here are 7 tips.

Tip 1

Don’t get discouraged. If nightly cooking seems like a terrible chore, keep in mind that repetition and practice will reward you.

Tip 2

Don’t get bogged down by recipes. Start with some dishes that you can cook without running back and forth to check what to do next. “if I use a cookbook, dinner takes 5 times as long.” again from Jessica.

Memorize how to cook rice, how to bake and boil potatoes and how to hardboil eggs. See below *.

Tip 3

Don’t buy too much food. You’ll use what you buy, your refrigerator won’t be bursting, and you’ll save money.

Tip 4

Clear the decks. Try to get some room on the counter to work. Get rid of the mail, your backpack, and anything else that is cluttering up that space.

Tip 5

Trust your own common sense. Don’t be a slave to timing instructions. Pasta is a good example: the box may instruct you to cook the pasta 9 minutes but don’t stand around waiting for it. At about that time, taste a strand. If it’s done, drain it. Otherwise, hold off a minute or two and taste again.

Tip 6

Learn to use high heat when you cook. It is one of the hardest things to convince newer cooks to do but turning up the heat on the stovetop will improve your cooking. Without a hot pan, you can’t sear, stir-fry, saute, or brown foods successfully. Foods will absorb less fat if sauteed in very hot oil.

Tip 7

Use salt and pepper. Plenty of it. Butter, olive oil, and herbs as well. Season your food and taste it before serving.

A Week’s Menus

Monday

Jessica says this dinner take 20 minutes tops! And no complaining from the young ‘uns either.

  • Pork Chops with Rosemary
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Tomato and Cucumber Salad
  • Cookies

Preheat oven to 400. Bring a big pot of water to a boil. Salt and pepper thin sliced pork chops (1 per person, maybe 2 for Dad), sprinkle with rosemary, and put in a baking dish. Bake for 15 minutes turning once.

Chop up a couple of tomatoes and a cucumber, season, and drizzle with olive oil and vinegar.

Meanwhile, shuck corn (1/person, maybe 2 for really hungry folks.) Cook in boiling water 2 minutes only. Have butter and salt on the table.

Tuesday

Salade Nicoise is a composed salad which means lettuce is the bed, the other ingredients are arranged on top in clumps, and the dressing goes on last.

  • Salade Nicoise for 4 or 5 people
  • French bread
  • Cherries

Ingredients: 1 head romaine lettuce, a can of tuna, 2 hardboiled eggs, a big handful of fresh string beans, 4-6 small potatoes, some cherry tomatoes, a can of anchovies, if you like them.

In the morning, boil the eggs and peel the potatoes.

As a first step, boil or steam the potatoes for about 6 minutes. Add the beans to the same pot and cook 5 more minutes. Check the potatoes for doneness. Drain, cool down, and cut the potatoes into halves or wedges. Quarter the eggs. Put the lettuce in a big bowl and strew all the ingredients over the top.

Make a vinaigrette with garlic, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon and drizzle over the salad.

Wednesday

  • Pasta with Pesto
  • Zucchini salad
  • Watermelon

For the salad, use raw zucchini, very thinly sliced or in little cubes. Drizzle with basalmic vinegar, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Fast pesto: Can be made in advance! 2 packed cup of basil leaves, 3 tablespoons of pine nuts (or walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds – whatever you have on hand), 1/2 cup olive oil, pinch salt, a garlic clove, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons butter. Puree all these ingredients in a blender or food processor. At serving time, stir in a few spoonfuls of the hot pasta cooking water.

This can also be frozen in small containers for super quick suppers!

Thursday

Use the grill or a hot oven to roast chicken. I like skin-on chicken with bones; it’s so tasty! It should take about 20 minutes. Mash a few tablespoons of butter with a minced garlic clove. Slice partway through a baguette and drop in some of the butter mixture. Wrap in foil and put to the side of the hot grill (or in the oven) until hot (about 10 minutes or so.)

  • Grilled Chicken
  • Green Salad
  • Garlic Bread
  • Blueberries with ice cream

Friday

You made it through the week! Don’t cook – just put this on a big plate and enjoy your dinner!

  • Hummus, olives, sliced tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, pita bread
  • Green yogurt with honey and walnuts

Fast hummus that’s cheap too: 1 can chickpeas, 2 tablespoons (or more if you like it) sesame tahini, 1 small garlic clove, salt, pepper, juice of 1 lemon, 2 – 4 tablespoons of water. In the food processor or blender, add all the ingredients and puree. Taste for seasoning. Put in a bowl and drizzle olive oil over the top.

Saturday

I’ll write the recipe below but this takes only a few minutes of concentration and the rest is nearly automatic. Relax! It’s the weekend.

  • Fish tacos
  • Mango floats

To make quick fish tacos: Make the slaw and dressing first. Cook fish right before serving.

Slaw: 1 small green cabbage, shredded finely; bunch of cilantro, chopped; a shredded carrot, and a bunch of radishes (optional), chopped. Mix this together, add salt and some squeezes of lime juice.

Sauce: Mix together juice of 1 lime, a couple of tablespoons each of yogurt (or sour cream) and mayonnaise. Pinch salt. Pinch sugar. Garlic clove minced. Hot sauce or a minced chipotle chile.

Fish: Cut 1 pound of white fish filets (I use frozen) in strips. Toss in a bowl containing 2 tablespoons flour and 4 tablespoons cornmeal, several big pinches of cumin, pepper, and salt. Heat a thin layer of vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook until light brown on both sides (about 5 minutes.)

Corn tortillas (flour is ok): Spread with dressing, top with slaw and fish. Put on plates or a big platter. Serve hot sauce on the side. 4 – 5 servings.

Mango (or peach) Floats: slice up the fruit, put in tall glasses with ice cream and club soda. Eat with a spoon.

Sunday

I knew a surgeon who used to save leftover salad, add some tomatoes and presto! he had gazpacho. I don’t often have leftover salad but I still think it’s an original idea.

Soup (from leftovers) – Gazpacho!

  • Crackers and cheese
  • Peaches

Fast gazpacho: use any leftover salad vegetables for this soup or gather up the ingredients in the recipe below.

  • 6 ripe tomatoes
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cucumber, peeled
  • 1 green or red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • salt, pepper
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cups water or tomato juice or V-8, approximately

In a blender or food processor, blend the vegetables until they are in small chunks. Add enough water or juice to thin slightly. Season with salt, pepper, cumin and vinegar. Add a few spoonfuls of olive oil. Let the soup sit a while to develop more flavor. Taste for seasoning before serving.

Knives and Chopping Board

Knives and Chopping Board

Equipment:

Knives: Equip yourself with 3 good knives. In the photo above are the knives I use nearly exclusively. They are (from top to bottom) a small paring knife (serrated, in this case), an all-purpose chef’s knife, a bread knife (used for slicing meat and tomatoes too) and my new favorite a santoku knife. This last replaces my chef’s knife for most purposes and is a reasonable purchase (between $30 and $60). The serrated bread knife and paring knife are dirt cheap but when they get dull (and they will!), you must replace them. The key here is sharp. If you know how to sharpen knives, you are way ahead of the game. It’s easy to chop when you have a sharp knife. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Cutting Board: The knives in the photo are sitting on my cutting board which measures 15 by 20 inches and is made of rubber that is pleasant to chop on and easy to keep clean. No, I can’t fit it in my dishwasher but it is indispensable. Not easy to find in stores but restaurant supply stores have them. These stores are open to the public) and you can find sources on line.

When using a cutting board, anchor it to the counter by setting it on a damp towel or wet paper towel. Small boards that slip around as you chop are an invitation to the First Aid station.

The Everyday Useful Tools

The Everyday Useful Tools

Salad spinner, sieve, metal bowls, tongs, and box grater: I use these all the time. The bowls are very thin and light. I get them in several sizes at my local restaurant supplier for next to nothing. They are so much easier to use than heavy glass bowls and if one drops, so what?

A big pasta pot, a big heavy stew pot, a big frying pan and a medium-sized frying pan: I have assorted other pots and pans but the four mentioned are the ones I use all the time. I’m not too crazy about non-stick or otherwise coated pans but I do have a big one that comes in handy now and then. I like heavy duty stainless steel frying pans because you can really heat them up without damaging them.

2 baking sheets with rims, a roasting pan and a couple of baking dishes:Baking sheets (cookie sheets) can be used for all sorts of baking and lined with non-stick paper, they are a snap to clean. An 8 inch square and a 9 x 13 inch glass pan is a kitchen standard. A heavy duty ceramic or enamelled cast iron baking dish is very useful for roast chicken, potatoes au gratin, and all kinds of baked dishes from leftovers.

Food Processor: In the world of small electronic gadgets, a heavy duty food processor is my favorite. Small one or two cup processors are a waste of money, in my opinion, because they are usually not sturdy and don’t chop well. If you hate chopping onions, this will be a godsend. Likewise, if you have a lots of chopping, slicing, or grating to do (coleslaw, as an example), it will take seconds using a food processor. It’s great for soups sauces; fantastic for pie crusts and currently, I use it to make ground beef. I’ve used a Cusinart model with a lot of success. Ask for one for Christmas. It is so much better than a blender.

*HOW TO….

Bake potatoes: Scrub a russet or other baking potato (yes, there’s a difference! Ask your vegetable person at the store). Bake at 425 (you don’t need to preheat the oven) for an hour. For extra crispy skin, take out the potatoes after about 50 minutes of baking and let them sit a few minutes until the skins are soft and wrinkly). Put them back in the oven for an additional 5- 10 minutes.

Boil potatoes:Scrub boiling potatoes. Peel if desired and cut in halves, quarters, or leave whole. Put in a pan with cold water to cover and a spoonful of salt. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until done – which will take about 15 minutes or so depending on how many potatoes you have. Test for doneness by plunging a knife into the side. Drain.

Make rice: Here it depends on the rice. Again, don’t be a slave to the timing – check your rice and taste a grain or two; when the water is absorbed, it’s done.

For long grain: 1 cup rice, 2 cups water, 1 tsp. salt. Bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the rice, stir once, cover and cook at low heat for 20 minutes.

For basmati, jasmine or Thai: 1 cup rice, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 tsp. salt. Rinse off the rice thoroughly in a strainer. Cook as for long grain but only about 10 minutes.

Hardboil eggs: Put eggs in a pan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, lower heat and cook for about 8 minutes. Drain and cover with cold water (I use ice cubes too sometimes). If an egg cracks during the boiling process, add salt – it will seal the crack.

Have fun in the kitchen!!

xoxo, Mary

Home Cooking III: Getting Out of the Kitchen

Spring is a good time to get out of the kitchen.

As spring fruits and vegetables begin to show up in markets and gardens, it’s an ideal moment to discover how an ingredient can make a difference in your cooking. Much is written about seasonal, fresh produce but what exactly does that mean? How do you determine what’s fresh? Should you only buy organic foods? To be ‘good’, must a meal contain expensive or hard to find ingredients?

Seasonal and Fresh

Some of the answers to these questions can be found by going to a cooking website or your local news source. These are good resources for lists of fruits and vegetables and their seasons. If you have a newspaper, it will list local farmers’ markets and farms. Weekly supermarket ads promote what is most plentiful and will say where it comes from. Eat Local, an NRDC food app (http://www.simplesteps.org/eat-local) lists fruit and vegetable seasons for each state.

Buying local does not necessarily guarantee freshness or quality but it does mean your purchases have made a shorter trip from farm to plate. Recognizing what is in season and what is grown closest to you is a first step. Once you can anticipate a seasonal ingredient, then you are ready to put it to the taste test.

Strawberries are a good example of just how amazing an ingredient can be if it’s fresh. In many parts of the country, late May and June is strawberry season. If you can find a pick-your-own strawberry farm, go pick a flat of strawberries. Of course, as you pick, you’re going to sample some berries and I can assure you your experience will be unforgettable. And that is exactly my point: you don’t want to forget a good thing. A perfectly fresh strawberry smells good, tastes good and is red all the way through.

Once you’ve had this experience, you’ll know what fresh and seasonal means. If you pick berries a few times, you’ll become discriminating and recognize that not every season is perfect. Some years, there’s too much rain or the sun comes a little late which produces berries that are long on juice but shy on sugar. Even then, fresh berries are wonderful and you will pay less for them than at any other time of year.

Lettuce is another spring plant that you can put to a test. Buy a package of pre-washed lettuce and then, find some that just been grown. Maybe your neighbor has a garden and will share or you have a farmers’ market nearby. Make a salad with each of the lettuces and compare. The bag lettuce may be a good mattress for salad dressing but compared with garden lettuce, it will be virtually tasteless. Garden lettuce is loaded with flavor or more accurately, flavors, since there are so many varieties.

Over the next few months, as more vegetables ripen and become available, this local and seasonal business really makes sense. We humans are fortunate to have figured out how to store and dry many of our fruits and vegetables so that we have them in the winter. However, an apple eaten in April doesn’t taste like a fall apple. And why bother to eat grapefruit in July when it’s peach season?

Learning about the seasons is not restricted to produce. If you’re a meat and fish eater, there’s a lot to learn about the seasons. Lambs aren’t born in December and hens don’t lay eggs year round. Blue crabs are a summer thing in Maryland but west coast folks know that Dungeness crabs are a winter treat.

I am grateful for bananas and citrus fruit but the fact that nearly all types of produce are always available is a questionable luxury: not fresh, not tasty, yet costly. This is where personal cooking decisions come into play. If your recipe calls for ingredients that you can’t easily find or are wildly expensive, consider making something else. Of course, I’m not talking about caviar: that’s always expensive. But, back to our strawberries. Eat them in May! Don’t wait for October.

Taste and touch. Go to the store and do just that. I think it’s great that many stores offer you a slice of fruit or a chunk of tomato. How else will you know what you’re buying? If the fruit is rock hard, or the beans are shriveled, ask the produce man if he has better ones. While you’re at it, ask him what’s coming into the market and what he thinks is the best buy that day. It’s not much different than buying shoes. You certainly wouldn’t accept shoes in the wrong size or color, why buy food that isn’t fresh?

Organic and non-organic

Some conventionally grown foods, such as broccoli, asparagus, avocados, onions and bananas are not particularly high in pesticides. Others, like strawberries, potatoes, spinach, peaches and green peppers are loaded with pesticides. Check out the Dirty Dozen vs. the Clean Fifteen, a list which compares organic versus conventionally grown vegetables. See https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/ for a complete list.

If your budget can include some but not all organic food, try to buy organic meat and dairy products and those organic vegetables which would otherwise fall into the ‘dirty dozen’ category.

Knowing who produces your food can make a difference. Getting certified as an organic farmer is difficult and you may have access to local farms that produce lots of fresh healthy foods that are low in pesticides. So don’t ignore your nearby sources and above all, don’t stop eating fruits and vegetables!

Gardening

Growing your own vegetables is the best way I know to learn about fresh food. Even in small spaces, it’s possible to grow herbs or tomatoes in pots. I have neighbor who grows several varieties of lettuce on his apartment window sill.

Radishes are wonderful to plant with children, especially if you can find the long French variety that are not too spicy (although radishes get hotter and hotter as the weather heats up). They almost pop out of the ground before your eyes! I love Swiss chard because it’s easy to grow from seed and will keep growing spring, summer and into the fall. True, it’s not as delicate as spinach but it is a tender and sweet green. I’ve had good luck with green beans (the bush variety) but always had to remember to scurry out and pick them before they got large and leathery.

If you’re new to planting a garden, this is the time to scout out what your neighbors are planting. A long time ago, I started a garden the first spring I moved to a new house. One day, my next door neighbor, Mrs. Corella Taylor came over, looked at my little plot, and said,

“Your tomatoes won’t grow there. Move them next to the garage.”

At first, I was a little irritated but then, I thought, “Hey! She’s lived here for 30 years. She ought to know!” And I had a great crop of Rutgers tomatoes that year.

If spring is the hopeful season, getting outside and seeing what’s growing confirms that for me. I hope you enjoy being outside with food and when you come back to your kitchen, you may want to try a few of the spring recipes below.

xoxo, Mary

 

Peas in Lettuce

Peas are one of the earliest vegetables to appear in the spring and they require a lot of garden space not to mention the time shelling them. If you can find very fresh peas and want a special treat, try this method.

  • 3 pounds peas, unshelled
  • 1 head lettuce such as Boston lettuce or other leafy lettuce, washed
  • butter
  • salt and pepper
  • mint or thyme sprigs, optional

Shell the peas – you should have about 2- 3 cups. Put one or two tablespoon of water in a fairly large saucepan and line it with the outer leaves of the lettuce. Place the peas on top. Season with salt, pepper and a tablespoon of butter. Lay one or two sprigs of mint or thyme on top, if desired. Cover completely with more lettuce leaves. Cover the pan and heat until the peas are simmering. Cook only a few minutes. Taste. Discard the leaves and serve at once.

SWISS CHARD

Swiss chard is one of my very favorite vegetables. It is so easy to grow and unlike spinach which bolts at the first sign of heat, chard will grow all summer.

For 3 or 4 servings

  • 1 bunch chard
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper

Wash the chard. Strip the leaves from the ribs. Chop the ribs into a dice. In a pot large enough to hold the chard, bring about 3 or 4 tablespoons of water to a simmer with 1 tablespoon olive and a little salt. Add the diced ribs, cover and cook over fairly high heat a few minutes. When the ribs are softened somewhat, add all the leaves and stir. Cover, continue to cook quickly. Chard is ready when the leave are wilted and softened. Do not overcook! Drain and taste for seasoning.

Chard Quesadillas

My friend and former chef Susan Lindeborg used to make wonderful chard quesadillas. I remember that she used cooked chopped chard mixed with a few diced tomatoes, some cumin, a little garlic. She mounded this mixture on top of a corn tortilla (which has been briefly sauteed) and then put a little shredded Mexican cheese on top and heated it under the broiler just to melt the cheese. They were served with a little spicy sauce. This makes a great vegetarian meal.

LAMP CHOPS ELEANORE

I got this from Vogue magazine around 1970. Quite rich, very yummy and not a strong liver taste. The recipe called for double rib lamb chops which were so expensive, I often used six single rib but good size chops, seared them and laid them on top of the mushroom/liver mixture and finished the baking that way.

Serves 6

  • 6 chicken livers
  • 1/2 pound mushrooms
  • 4 T butter (or 2 T butter, 2 T cooking oil)
  • salt, pepper
  • 1 T finely chopped parsley
  • 6 rib lamp chops – single or double rib (see above)
  • a little more chopped parsley

Trim and finely chop chicken livers and mushrooms. Saute over low heat in 2 tablespoons of the butter, stirring frequently without letting them brown. Season with salt, pepper and add parsley.

Method 1: For single rib shops, sear them quickly on both sides in the remaining butter or oil, if you prefer. In an ovenproof dish, add the mushroom mixture and lay the chops on top. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes.

Method 2: If you are using double chops, make a slit in each to form a pocket and stuff with the mushroom/liver mixture. Heat remaining butter or oil, add chops and sear on both sides. Place the stuffed chops in the ovenproof dish, cover and bake at 350 over for 25 minutes.

Arrange on platter and sprinkle with a little fresh parsley.

Rhubarb Compote

In spring, rhubarb is at its pinkest! It grows all the summer long but gradually becomes green. It’s delicious no matter what the color but never eat the leaves! (They are toxic.)

The simplest thing to do with rhubarb is make a compote. Cut up about 1 pound in small chunks and put it in a saucepan with a very small amount of water. Add a few tablespoons of sugar, cover and cook over medium heat until it is soft which will take less than 5 minutes! It won’t keep it’s shape and you may have to add more sugar but once it’s cooled, you will have a wonderful dessert to eat plain, with ice cream or heavy cream. In the morning with yogurt, it makes a delicious breakfast.

Rhubarb Crumble

4 servings

  • 6 Tablespoons flour
  • 4 Tablespoons sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 4 Tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
  • 1 pound rhubarb, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon

Pan: any small quart size baking dish

  1. Combine flour, sugar and salt. Cut butter in small pieces and work into the flour mixture with your fingers until it is distributed. DON’T OVERDO this step. It’s a crumble after all.
  2. Arrange the fruit in the pan and mix in the sugar and cinnamon.
  3. Scatter the crumble mixture over the top.
  4. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. The rhubarb should be tender and juicy.

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.

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