There are many reasons to eat, and most of those reasons to eat are also reasons to cook. Furthermore, there are reasons for cooking that aren't directly related to eating, at least the cook's eating. When I cook, the reasons are basically two: I cook as a hobby, and I cook to make supper.
Cooking as a hobby is fun for me, and it's an important creative outlet as well. My cooking-as-hobby manifests all the distractibility that is such a big part of my nature. It is this impulse that has led to most (not all) of my cookbook purchases and the drive to play with exotic ingredients. And, with my distractibility, cooking-as-hobby waxes and wanes, not with the tides but in sync with interior movements I have never even begun to understand.
Cooking to make supper is a different kettle of fish, or perhaps a different bowl of soup. "Supper" is an interesting word, because what Americans call their evening meal is one of those linguistic markers that depend largely on where they were raised and where their parents were raised. In my family, "dinner" was a special occasion meal, such as Thanksgiving dinner. The meal we ate some time after my dad got home from work was called supper. If cooking as a hobby appeals to my mind, cooking to make supper appeals to my soul.
(Confession: I've seen so many cooking shows that I now think of "dinner" instead of "supper". But "supper" works well for this post. Even though I call it something different, supper is still what I'm thinking of.)
So what is "supper" to me? Well, those at home didn't always meet this standard (we also ate a lot of sandwiches), but a good supper in my view is simple, nutritious, and easy. It's filling and homey. It doesn't require advanced prep beyond getting something out of the freezer. It doesn't have do be 'delicious' - 'pretty good' is good enough, but it's a big bonus if I look forward to whatever I've planned during the day. Leftovers for lunch the next day are another bonus.
Do I cook 'supper' every night? No: I'm still getting there. But when I pull it off? It's victory.
At the store yesterday, I noticed they had some Ugli fruit. I bought one as an experiment.
Ugli fruit (which turns out to be a trademark for a hybrid from Jamaica) looks something like a grapefruit in serious need of a dermatologist. I found a couple of different approaches to eating it (including this helpful article, which covers selection as well as eating), and decided to eat it as I would a grapefruit by cutting it in half at the 'equator' and digging the sections out with a spoon.
The Ugli fruit is something like a grapefruit inside, too, with sections separated by a thick membrane that doesn't seem all that edible. The flesh, however, is juicy and delicious, tasting quite a bit like a canned mandarin orange.
It's yummy. I wouldn't hesitate to get another one.
My favorite recipes are those that can be regarded as starting points, or templates, rather than precise instructions. With hot weather coming, I wanted to have such a template for bean salads. Bean salads are prepared cold, they're eaten cold, they keep for a while, and they're filling. My hope is to be able to make one that's delicious as well.
The starting point I used was the "Essential Bean Salad" from Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian". I urge you to consult it if it's available to you: I have and love the app. However, I made enough changes to feel free to share what I did.
All measured ingredients are approximate. The optional ingredients are there to provide the variation in texture and flavor I value.
After the recipe itself, I'll provide the template for this recipe as I see it.
2 cans beans, rinsed and drained, or 2 to 3 cups of cook dried beans. I used one can of black beans and one can of cannellini beans. Use the beans you like.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp vinegar (I used red wine vinegar, I think, but don't think it matters. Lemon juice would also work.)
1 tbsp minced shallot (red onion would be great)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp minced Fresno chile, not using seeds or ribs (optional)
1 tbsp chopped refrigerated sun-dried tomato
Gently stir the chile (if using) and the sun-tried tomato ( if using) and the shallot into the beans.
Combine the oil and vinegar and add salt and pepper until it tastes good.
Gentily stir the oil/vinegar mix into the beans. Refrigerate.
Here's the essence of this recipe: Combine enough beans for the people you need to feed with salad dressing, either homemade (as above) or purchased. Add other ingredients you think will help it taste great.
Isn't that easy?
There are some foods that exist simultaneously on several levels. Hamburgers, for example can be bought by the bag at a greasy spoon, enjoyed at a good diner or casual restaurant, or indulged in at a 'white tablecloth' joint.
Such it is with ramen noodles. Most Americans know ramen through the cheap little packets that sustain so many college students between pizzas. Ramen soup (BETTER ramen soup) can also be consumed at the noodle restaurants many cities have. But, increasingly, there's a middle path. Packaged ramen costing $1 to $2 a pack can be purchased at Asian markets, and some companies making Asian foods for American consumers are producing similarly-priced offerings found in some supermarkets.
I've eaten a lot of cheap ramen. Before my diagnosis, I often had a pack or two as a meal. I didn't eat it as a soup, though: I'd cook it, drain it, add butter and part of the seasoning packet and eat it like pasta. For several years, I've rarely had it: it just hasn't seemed like a good idea to get back into that.
Lately, though, I've been getting back into it, although in different ways. Ramen soup is a nice quick meatless meal (although meat can certainly be added), and I have discovered that a ramen soup supper is pretty easy on the rumbly on my tumbly. Plus, it's quick – I can get home, put the water on the stove, and decide exactly what I'm doing while it comes to a boil.
So, after a lifetime of the cheap packets, I've been exploring some of these mid-priced brands. I began by visiting my local Asian market armed with this list (which, you will notice, has PICTURES) and wandered up and down the aisles looking for listed brands – I actually found several. A local supermarket had some other options.
Thus far, I have to say that while I like the flavorings better in the mid-priced options, and the texture of the noodles is better, I'm not sure the difference is worth the additional trouble for me in getting them – especially since I'm inclined to add stuff to my soup anyway.
So what can be added? All sorts of spices, seasonings, and condiments can be added. Precooked or quick-cooking vegetables can be added – scallions are a good option, and I like frozen peas. Precooked meat can be added, if you like. Many people like to stir an egg in right before adding the seasoning packet. Think of it like a sandwich - this is not a time for a recipe, this is a time for figuring out what you like.
Updated to correct a botched hyperlink.
The last few days, as happens to me occasionally, I've been in a frame of mind that cooking just felt like something I want to do. To peg the level for you, I'd rather cook than have my teeth cleaned, but I'd rather clean my bathroom than cook.
For whatever reason, I don't tend to notice that I'm in this situation until I reflect and note that I've eaten almost all my meals away from home. This pattern of eating is not good because of the tendency to grow my waistline and shrink my wallet. So, it's a positive that I've noticed my lack of culinary motivation and plan accordingly.
Sometimes, I've responded to this by buying a loaf of bread (or package of sandwich this), a package of sliced ham, and a package of sliced cheese. I can go for days at a time on little beyond ham and cheese sammiches. But, since I'm trying to eat less meat these days, I'd prefer to do it differently.
I'm leaving for the store in a few minutes. Here are some of the things I plan to pick up:
- ready to eat fruit
- raw veggies, such as celery and green beans, that don't require cooking
- hummus, for dipping veggies or sandwich makings
- salad stuff
- a frozen meal or two
Supplemented by some stuff I already have, this should feed me for a few more lazy days.
I had a cooking epiphany last night.
When I was a kid, my family didn’t eat out too much. When we did, it was likely to be drive-in burgers. But, once in a while, we would go to a “sit down” restaurant called King’s Food Host (see picture of the ACTUAL restaurant below). A hamburger platter from King’s came with a little sprig of parsley on it. My parents explained that the parsley was really there to add color and, though you could eat it, it wasn’t really intended to be part of the meal.
(Photo from http://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2011/05/04/frenchies-oui-oui/. I find it astonishing that I found this.)
Nowadays, many chefs are offended by the notion that garnishes aren’t intended as part of the meal, and many recipes include garnishes. Even though I’ve sort of understood that it wasn’t true, I’ve usually translated “for garnish” on a recipe as meaning “optional”, and I’ve chosen to ignore it most of the time.
One of the things I cooked over the weekend was a chile corn chowder (from a recipe at http://www.food.com/recipe/chile-corn-chowder-284361). When I had a bowl of it last night, I wondered if some of the roasted red peppers I pickled a while back would be good. So I dug out a few pieces of the pepper, sliced them into largish pieces, blotted most of the brine off, and tossed them in my soup.
The peppers were delicious in the soup.They provided a contrast in flavor and texture, and they also provided a hit of freshness.
And it hit me. Garnishments aren’t about adding color (though they can certainly do that, too). Garnishments are about completing a dish by adding contrasting elements that would lose their value if cooked into the dish.
That’s important. And it can’t be accomplished by a sprig of parsley tossed next to the French fries.
I’ll probably continue to ignore garnishes from time to time, especially when they’re in the form of fresh herbs, which (other than a few basics I can buy loos) cost me $2.99 a pop at my grocery store.
But, I’ll be ‘garnishing as directed’ a lot more often.
Because I cook only for myself, I have experimented in the past with cooking on the weekend and eating the results throughout the week. This has not always worked very well.
Currently, I’m working on freezing some things that can be used to make up some quick meals. I have brown rice frozen in serving-sized amounts, and I have ginger and several kinds of fresh chiles frozen in small amounts so that I can add these things to a dish without a lot of waste.
Today, I made up a bunch of what’s called trinity or mirepoix, the combination of 2 parts onion, 1 part carrots, and 1 part celery that makes a good vegetable base for soups and other dishes. (A number of different cuisines have their own takes on the trinity: Cajun and Creole cooking, I understand, uses a “holy trinity” made up of roughly equal portions of green pepper, onion, and celery.) Following the advice of a friend, I sauteed this in a little oil with some salt until the veggies had softened some and then cooled in a metal bowl set in a larger bowl of ice water.
Once cool, I put 1/2 cup portions into plastic bags, flattened them for quick thawing, and put them in a larger freezer bag and into my freezer.
I hope that this shortcut will help me make quick, hot meals with less weeknight time investment.
I regard Thanksgiving as the 'birthday' of my stepping up my cooking, so I'd been thinking for several weeks about what I might cook yesterday. I'm subject to periods of grayness in my life, however, and as the holiday approached, I just didn't feel up to a big project. I did buy a duck, however: I can get one this time of year, it's special enough to be festive, and I knew I could roast it without a lot of fuss. I also bought the makings for a side dish I've wanted to try that I didn't think would tax my somewhat-frayed nerves.
As it turned out, it was a better day cooking than I'd had in some time. I wound up doing three dishes, all of which were reasonably successful. This wasn't as much as I've often tried to do, and I didn't end the day frustrated or exhausted.
A Foul Deed
I roasted the duck according to Mark Bittman's recipe in the iPad version of "How to Cook Everything". The method is fairly similar to roasting a chicken, the biggest difference being piercing the skin to render off some of the bird's fat. (Fat, after all is a big part of how it stays afloat. Duck is a very rich meat.) Basting with a little soy sauce provided both flavor and color.
I found the duck to be quite tasty. I had a leg and a breast with my meal. I used some of the leftovers in a salad this afternoon and plan to use the rest in a hash tonight.
The Root of the Matter
A couple of decades ago, I shared a holiday meal with the family of my brother-in-law. One of his aunts brought a dish of mashed carrots and parsnips. I was hesitant to try it, not even being sure what a parsnip was, but it was good. I've thought about that dish from time to time in recent years, and decided that it would be at my Thanksgiving meal yesterday.
I did look at a recipe online (I don't know where: my apologies to the author) and adopted the method. I chunked up roughly equal amounts of the carrots and parsnips and boiled them until quite tender. I then mashed them with butter, salt, and a little nutmeg.
As simple as it is, this dish is my favorite of the day. It is tasty, and has the warm, comforting feel of mashed potatoes at half the carbs. It's easy enough for a weeknight, and my stepmother (who, as it turns out, grew up with the dish and used to make it regularly) says it reheats beautifully. (As part of my experiment, I only made enough for my meal.)
A Little Dessert
I haven't done any baking in a long time, and I decided yesterday afternoon that I'd try to find a recipe that seemed doable and didn't call for anything I didn't have on hand. I chose the "Easy Pound Cake" from the America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book and used the recipe variation for "Ginger Pound Cake". (I did, after a bit of research online, substitute nutmeg for the mace I didn't have.)
It wasn't quite trouble free. I had almost all the flour incorporated into the batter when I started wondering when I was supposed to add salt. I checked the recipe and found that I had omitted not only the salt but baking powder. (Oops.) The out-of-order addition of the leavener may be why I didn't get all the rise I think I was supposed to. But it was delicious anyway, and felt quite light, in contrast to the heaviness I associate with pound cake.
(I'm sure the pound cake had nothing to do with a certain number I saw before bed. But most of the cake is now in my freezer, destined to be shared with my coworkers.)
As I said: it was a good day cooking.
When I first wrote about making pasta a couple of weeks ago, I'd mentioned that I didn't like the flavor of my pasta. Last weekend, as part of an effort to make ravioli, I made pasta again, and again didn't like it. It tasted a little earthy, even a little earthy. I started to wonder if something was wrong.
I did a little research, and I also sought advice on cookingforums.net. I identified three possible problems. First is that I was using unbleached flour. This didn't seem likely, because there isn't much of a taste difference for most people, but who knows? My flour could have gone a little bad. I didn't like that option much, either, since I'd bought it only this spring and kept it sealed since, but I couldn't disprove it. Finally, there might be contaminants in my pasta machine - not unlikely, since it had been sitting unused on various shelves for years. I had run it though the dishwasher (a mistake apparently) but again, who knows?
Yes, I probably should have eliminated one possibility at a time, but I didn't have the patience. I figured out how to dissemble my pasta machine enough to give it a good cleaning and did so. I also bought fresh, bleached all purpose flour. Finally, I eliminated one other variable by choosing a recipe using only flour, water, salt, and a little butter.
I made my dough and set it to rest. I faked together a filling from ground chicken, salt, egg, fresh parsley, some fresh thyme I had (see below), bread crumbs, and crushed red pepper.
I rolled out my dough, more successfully than last time, and made the raviolis. I put some of the raviolis in boiling water and the rest on a baking sheet in the freezer. When those in the pot floated, I removed them and dressed them with butter and some commercial spaghetti sauce I like.
My ravioli were tasty, the pasta tasted find, and the use of the bleached flour even made them look more appetizing.
I love the taste of victory. Also the taste of ravioli.
We had a retirement party for a colleague on Thursday, and her boss asked me to contribute something. After looking at a bunch of recipes, I chose to make the bacon-wrapped dates from the iPad app "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. This was harder than I anticipated. Stripping thyme leaves was not as straightforward as the instructions straightforward, the dates were sticky, and the raw bacon was (surprise!) greasy. I was a mess, and I was sure that as the fat melted during roasting the bacon would fall off the toothpicks.
In fact, it worked great. The bacon tightened up around the dates very nicely, and the thyme inside the dates was a very nice touch. They disappeared instantly at the party, all the praise a beginning cook really needs. Yay!
As it happens, two of my very favorite food memories involve dishes called 'goulash'.