Category Archives: The Reluctant Cook

Cooking The Classics: An Italian Meal, With Reservations

Cooking With Capote is a community-based writing project I am starting for the month of April.  The goal is to encourage bloggers to write about food, but specifically: their emotional attachments, stories and family lore around certain culinary traditions.  It is a way to cull together a collection of well-written food memoirs and recipes.  A sort of writerly version of those dreadful Junior League cookbooks our mothers once purchased and used.

Tuscany.  The name conjures plenty of cliches about sunflowers, vineyards, rolling verdant hills and castles.  Doesn’t everyone in the world imagine themselves meandering through the wine country and beginning a life of cooking and eating well?

I went there myself with the simple idea that because I was in this famous land of enchanted cuisine, the fairy dust of centuries of epicurean excellence would just wear off on me.

We decided to rent a villa with a kitchen in the middle of a vineyard.  I imagined it would look like this:

Sloan Italian Villa

Photo credit: By Samuel Sloan (Modern Architect) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In reality, it looked like this:

Photo credit: Public domain, via Oven Fresh.

I exaggerate, except, not.  The nearest market, a five mile trek through sketchy one lane dirt roads, possessed Buitoni pasta, tomatoes that looked like they were grown in a hothouse and waxy-looking basil.

During our vacation, I cooked pasta that might as well have been produced in Milwaukee.  No offense, Milwaukee.  Your pasta probably tastes loads better.  Our meals sucked, the “villa” sucked, Tuscany sucked.  I tell everyone I know that  I. Hate. Tuscany.  Everyone looks at me like I have seven gelato-shaped heads.

Me, contemplating the bad food, in Tuscany.  I lived in London at the time, and had decided I should look like a walking advert for Burberry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I believe that if you want to go to Tuscany, and really enjoy the experience, either don’t do it on a budget, or stay in a town like Siena or San Gimignano.

All of this is a long-winded tale as to why I have a love-hate relationship with cooking Italiano.

I had this elaborate plan to cook poached salmon with dill tonight.  I was forced to abort that mission rather abruptly when our local market had no dill.  (And they always have dill!).  I decided instead to cook gnocchi, the one Italian pasta I have a love-love relationship with, and so I bought the really expensive $19.99 gnocchi, stuffed with porcini mushrooms.  Imported from Milwaukee Italy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I know, you are blanching at the price.  But, it makes at least three meals worth of dinner.  So says I.

I decided to accompany the gnocchi with rainbow chard.  Now, I am wary of Michael Pollan.  I’ve read “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food”.  I disagree with him on many points.  I agree with him about a few things: CSA farmers and the wonders of rainbow chard.  I LOVE rainbow chard.  It is the most delicious vegetable: in fact, there is a close tie between rainbow chard and brussels sprouts in my mind for BEST vegetable.  (Now I’ve completely lost you.  I probably already lost you at the Tuscany hate.)

I decided to use a wonderful-looking Food and Wine recipe. I pulled out the Chard.  Somehow, our crisper made it REAL crisp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoops!  I thawed it in the strainer with warm water.  Then I worked on the prep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a beautiful vegetable.  The prep was a bit finicky.  I had to cut out the “ribs” and cut the leaves into two-inch strips.

Meanwhile, I picked sage from our herb garden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I boiled the gnocchi until it floated to the top of the water.  I fried the sage in brown butter, then gently cooked the gnocchi in the brown butter.  It looked like this when ready:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was divine.  Take that, Buitoni.

The rainbow chard turned out delicious as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It doesn’t LOOK delicious, because the natural light was gone by the time I finally made it.

All this is a big apology to Italian cooking.  Apparently, I had to return to my native California to be able to cook real Italian food.

Please comment below with a link to your own recipe or dinner.  Share the food love.

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April: Joyful Community Cooking Project!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had this sincere, earnest goal for the month of March: meditate.  It didn’t really happen. Why?

1. I just don’t feel like I have anything new or worthy to say about the subject.  There are much better, more profound teachers who have covered this topic.  I did find my happy place to meditate in; I just didn’t have time to go there.
2. Part of meditating is being in the moment. I had a strange realization the other day: I am almost always COMPLETELY in the moment.   Making breakfast, packing lunch, getting the kids dressed, driving them to school, cleaning, laundry, picking them up from school, getting them to nap, more cleaning, writing, snack time, potty time, supervised play, dinner prep, dinner, play, bath, PJs, bed, listening to Darcy’s day, writing, tweeting, bed.

I don’t have time for my thoughts to wander. I have a hard time even thinking about tomorrow. This is probably the most zen I’ve been in my life.

—-

I did discover one thing that did bring me joy in March, and it’s the most unlikely of things.  I love cooking for my family on Saturdays.  I like bringing back the traditions of my family, my holidays, my youth, and even my travel via food.

In April, this is what I will be focusing on: not just making healthy food or under 30 minute dinners or crazy dining olympic feats of daring, but cooking as a way to bring back the past, create family lore and offer a way to bond community, among small groups and large ones.

I knew it before I got out of bed,” she says, turning away from the window with a purposeful excitement in her eyes. “The courthouse bell sounded so cold and clear.  And there were no birds singing; they’ve gone to warmer country, yes indeed.  Oh, Buddy, stop stuffing biscuit and fetch our buggy.  Help me find my hat.  We’ve thirty cakes to bake.”

Some of my favorite writing, ever, was in “A Christmas Memory”, by Truman Capote.  He describes how he (as a young boy) and a gentle, slow aunt gradually accumulated the fixings, then cooked the Southern Fruitcakes that they send to everyone they liked, including FDR.  So Capote is my figurehead of sorts: my inspiration.

Cooking with Capote, I’m calling it.  Every Sunday, I will be posting the results of my own Saturday meal – the theme, the tradition behind it, the recipes.  And I’d love for this to become a communal thing.  So I’m inviting y’all to post your own meal or just a dish or dessert which has special meaning for you (and explain why).  You are all such fine writers, that I feel we could generate some real, Proustian moments here. (See Lori, I used that word again!)  Link your awesome post to my Sunday entry in the comments.

Even if no one comments, that’s OK.  But it would rad for us to make a cool,writerly version of those stupid Junior League cookbooks everyone’s Mom used to have…

Are you in?

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Filed under Capote Cooking, Discovering joy, Family, Parenting After IF, The Reluctant Cook

Cooking the Classics: Recreating My Grandparents’ Fried Chicken

Perfect Moment Monday is about noticing a perfect moment rather than creating one. Perfect moments can be momentous or ordinary or somewhere in between.

Bookstore (Eugene, Oregon)

Photo credit: By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

We try to eat pretty healthy around here. (Corned beef not withstanding.)  But yesterday I had a hankering for my grandma’s fried chicken.

My grandparents were genetic marvels.  My grandfather smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.  Their daily meal plan began with bacon and fried eggs, and ended, often, with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and corn on the cob.  They both lived well into their late eighties.

My grandparents lived above the bookstore they owned and operated, so my grandfather would flip the open sign closed, and head upstairs for his lunch and dinner.  Their days were completely run by routine, with no level of spontaneity.  My grandmother, a glamorous kind woman, would dress in her everyday attire (usually a beautifully printed dress, with a cocktail pin and earrings, and always, a pretty apron) with full makeup and begin beautifying her lovely home at about 7 AM.  She was the tidiest woman I have ever known, and she mopped her floors everyday and washed the windows three times a week.  She was constantly dusting, polishing and scrubbing.  She made all of her delicious, (if cholesterol-ridden) food from scratch.  She also always made a batch of iced tea every morning.  She would go downstairs with a pitcher, occasionally, to refill Grandpa’s supply.

I’ve made fried chicken before, but I don’t have my grandmother’s recipe, which totally bums me out.  I’m finding as I get older that I am getting more sentimental about food.  Proustian, even.

The next best thing I have is The Carefree Cook’s “Fried Chicken with Blue Cheese Dressing”.  Darcy is a HUGE aficionado of wings, so the dressing is a big hit with him.  I think the title “The Carefree Cook” is somewhat of a misnomer, though.  While not Martha-esque, the prep work in most of the recipes makes me feel a bit careworn.  However, the food usually tastes fantastic, so there’s that.

I’m not very good at pounding down the chicken breasts with the mallet.  If anyone has any tips on how to do that better, that would be great.  Is it purely a time issue?  Maybe I get impatient and leave them too fat.

My favorite part is dredging the chicken in the buttermilk/tabasco mixture, then the flour/salt.  Really messy but satisfying.

Next, the oil prep.  Rick Rogers, the Carefree Cook himself, suggests that you heat the vegetable oil hot, and wait for it to shimmer.  The shimmer looks a bit like the haze on the asphalt of a desert road in August.  Then, he suggests you fry the chicken for 5 minutes on each side.

Yeah, that didn’t work for me, because I suspect the chicken wasn’t flat enough.  I ended up cooking them about 10 minutes on each side, then cut into the biggest piece, to make sure there was no pinkness/salmonella.  Drained on paper towels, the end product looked like this:

The blue cheese dressing was easily made, the weird thing was that you had to keep it at room temperature while you fried the chicken.  It consisted of mayonnaise, Danish blue cheese, garlic and celery seeds so I was a little wary that it would go bad, but it didn’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made mashed potatoes with buttermilk (Joy of Cooking recipe), and a salad with mixed springs greens, pink lady apples, more Danish blue cheese and my mother’s famous vinagrette.  If I shared that recipe, my mother would disown me.

I’m terribly sad that my children will never meet these wonderful folk, their great-grandparents.  (And that’s what they’d want to be called, folk.)  My Grandpa wore bolo ties and western belts, and read Louis L’Amour as well as Hemingway, Faulkner and Bellow.  He used to reserve some ginger ales from the soda bottling company down the street when he knew I was coming for a visit, and he called it “pop”.  I wasn’t allowed to have soda as a girl, so this was a rare treat.  My grandmother was a beautiful person, kind, with an edge of style and reserve: she shyly shared her soap operas with me, and allowed me to sip her iced tea.  Such wonderful memories, these are.  I hope I am passing the whiff, the osmosis of that experience to my children.  Like many things, the scent of old books, the crisp, sweet taste of ginger ale “pop”, the beautiful pearl broach I pinned to my wedding bouquet, these sensory and material experiences bring them back to life, if just for a few transient moments.  I felt their presence as I smelled the kitchen air, redolent with frying.  It was a perfect moment, filled with the the sweet past. And the promise of future moments where family long gone can return to us, if only fleetingly.

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Cooking the Classics: St. Patrick’s Day Revisited

Perfect Moment Monday is about noticing a perfect moment rather than creating one.  Perfect moments can be momentous or ordinary or somewhere in between.

I made our traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner late this year.  There are some reasons for this which don’t particularly make me glad.

I married into a clan and they are very family-oriented.  I have traded in much to fit into this family: my religion, my holidays, my free time.  (Kidding! Sort of.)  Most of the time, for many reasons complicated and varied, I am just fine with that decision.  Happy, even.  I didn’t grow up with extended family around, and my own parents and brother have moved across the country and we see them rarely.  So, family.  Good to have around.

There are some times however when I begin to chafe at the obligations.

I begin cooking my St. Patrick’s Day meal by boiling a large, four pound cut of corned beef.  It simmers with peppercorns and bay leafs for at least three hours.

After we had kids, my big line in the sand was St. Patrick’s Day.  My mom did some genealogical research recently, and it turns out my family is not as Irish as we thought.  In fact, we’re mostly English.  Be that as it may, every year growing up I looked forward to the annual, special St. Patrick’s Day feast.  The food, it was not gourmet.  It was not fancy.  But it was made with love, it was homemade and it was delicious.

While the corned beef is boiling, I start making the Irish Soda Bread.  Just the Joy of Cooking recipe, nothing special.  I whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder and sugar together, then add the raisins and caraway seeds.  I had trouble finding those seeds at the grocery store.  Are they Irish?


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then whisk butter, egg and buttermilk together.  It all looks a bit granular.  Is that OK?


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I mix the buttermilk batter with the dry ingredients, and it seems to be a sticky mess.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I pile it on a baking sheet and hope for the best.

It’s important to me that the kids experience at least one tradition that I had growing up.  So each year, I plan a St. Patty’s Day menu.  This year, the week of St. Patrick’s Day, I had two birthday dinners (one for a family member, one for a friend) and a pre-school religious festival that I helped plan and organize. St. Patrick’s Day got lost in the shuffle.

I have to double the baking time for the Irish Soda Bread.  I think our oven is really old?

I felt horribly guilty about this.  I decided to make the dinner on Sunday night, when Darcy was around to watch the kids.  Sunday night we have a standing date for a family dinner elsewhere.  We have already attended two family occasions this week, so we decided to invite the family over to our house for dinner instead.  I bought the ingredients.  I bought the lilies and Irish bells for the table.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I pick rosemary from our herb garden.  I wash it well.  I don’t want the “je ne sais quoi” of the meal to be radioactivity.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The family, not pleased.  Standing date claimed, the wish to have dinner at their own house cited.  Pressure was exerted.  Darcy held firm.

I roast the fancy small potatoes I got from Whole Foods with our local rosemary, garlic and olive oil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I arrange the corned beef on a platter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I boil the cabbage in the corned beef water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I serve the soda bread, which looked and tasted like a giant scone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And my perfect moment was the following:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My own home-cooked, hard won St Patty’s Day meal, served to my immediate family of four.  Served homemade, and with love.

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Day 29: Trying to Love (or Like?) Cooking; Making Rosti

I don’t love to cook. There, I said it. I think there’s a few reasons why this is:

  • I find even cooking scrambled eggs requires quite a bit of concentration.
  • Rowdy toddler twins don’t always allow me to concentrate. (I can hear you now: “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Like Cuba Gooding Jr.’s teammate when he’s complaining in the locker room in Jerry Maguire.)
  • I am on my own most of the time. (Darcy works crazy hours.)
  • None of these excuses are valid, really.
  • I just don’t have the energy most of the time. Or, I’m lazy?

But, the last few times I’ve tried, it’s been enjoyable during the actual process and the food has been tasty. I guess psyching myself up for the actual cooking is the hardest part, and having Darcy around to run interference with the kids is invaluable.

I’ve been wanting to make this recipe for about a week. Finally last night, I made it.

I cut the recipe by 1/3 because I didn’t have enough hash browns, and I only had a 8×8 pan. This was probably a mistake. I think the potato mixture was too deep and the eggs took forever to “fry”. However, overcooked eggs and all it was DELICIOUS! The combination of eggs, potatoes and cheese is a wholesome tasting, throughly satisfying comfort food.

Grating the onion and the cheese took the longest time (because I grate slowly), about 10 minutes. Then I combined the thawed hash browns, butter, yougurt, salt, pepper with the onions and cheese:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I added the chives, then put the mixture in the baking pan. I cooked the mixture for 45 minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I made impressions in the mixture to cook the eggs, but the whites and yolk did not get firm until 20 minutes. Again, I think that’s because the mixture was piled too high. Here’s what the end product looked like (one of the yolks broke up):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks so much to Mommy Porch for the recipe.

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