Category Archives: cooking

A Window, Biscuits, a Butter Churn, and a Mule

It was an ordinary farmhouse, located outside Beattyville, Kentucky. But there was a secret inside that we kids loved. The kitchen, of course, was the best room to be in. But getting there was even more fun. The kitchen was obviously an add-on to the house, and the entry points to it included not just a door but a window, leading from one of the bedrooms to the kitchen. Of course, we never used the door like the grownups did.

The house belonged to our Cousins Addie and Jim Mainous. They were old even when we used to visit them during the summers. But every day, Cousin Addie hand-made biscuits and sawmill gravy. (Sawmill gravy is different from redeye gravy. Sawmill gravy uses milk. Redeye gravy uses coffee. But I digress.) The kitchen was painted black, but there was lots of sunshine coming in the windows and the back door. It wasn’t at all gloomy. It was warm and cozy and smelled like the biscuits that were rolled out with a drinking glass and cut to size using the mouth of the same glass.

Addie was a thin woman with a big laugh, who almost never wore her dentures. All I remember ever seeing her wear were dark cotton dresses and white aprons. Cousin Jim always seemed to be sitting at the kitchen table, not talking but drinking coffee and eating biscuits and gravy. We kids used to make butter in the authentic churn, which would now be an expensive antique.

In the living room, we found old paper or cardboard fans that were printed with the names of churches and funeral homes. The beds we slept in were much taller than those we were used to, which made climbing into them a workout. Just beside the house was a kitchen garden, which was endlessly diverting. We pulled up carrots and potatoes (which were usually not full-grown yet).

A little ways from the house was a barn, and it was the site of many adventures. There was a hayloft that contained bales of straw (not hay), but we were too young and timid to jump from it, as kids always do in the movies. There was also a fascinating old iron machine that took the kernels off the cobs of dried corn. We loved using it, though it turned out later that the corn cobs were meant to be left whole. There was also a mule, which I once got to ride bareback. Here’s some advice: Never ride a mule bareback. Their spines are very bony.

Across the road from the farmhouse was a hill that led to an ancient family cemetery. It made a nice walk to swing on the gate across the path and trek up there. I don’t know for sure, but I like to think of Addie and Jim being buried there and not in some huge cemetery far from their home.

Just a ways down the road, there was a drive-in theater, which we could see from the screened-in back porch. It was fun to watch the movies, especially the cartoons, even with no sound. Another nearby attraction was Natural Bridge State Park. There was an impressive lodge that we never stayed in, but where we could buy that sugary white candy that seems mostly made of air and dissolves in your mouth. We took pictures of each other standing under the bridge, though I don’t have them anymore.

If Beattyville had a town center, we never saw it. Down the road from the farm was a small gas station owned by Ollie Dooley, a more distant relative, but you couldn’t really say it was in a populated area. The areas we got to see were in the hill country of Kentucky, which we called “the mountains,” though they were nothing like the mountains they have out west. These were sometimes steep, rolling mountains, grassy and rocky, full of minerals.

Fracking didn’t exist back then, and I am glad. I’m sure the old farmhouse and barn are gone now. They were old when we visited them, and they can’t have survived or been rebuilt. And no one today would want a house with a black kitchen that you could enter through a window from the bedroom.

Bacon, Eggs, and Salt

Once upon a time, bacon, eggs, and salt were thought to be bad for a person’s health. Now they’re all the rage in cooking. They come in all sizes and shapes and colors, and they go with everything from hash to steak to pizza.

Bacon, I think we all agree, is bad for us, but we love it anyway, and any way. And there are so many kinds of bacon to love, in addition to the regular kind that Mom used to make for breakfast. There is thick-cut bacon, slab bacon, turkey bacon, and varieties that sound like bacon but aren’t (Canadian bacon, which is really ham, and pork belly, which is bacon on steroids). Then there are the foreign kinds like pancetta and guanciale, which may not technically be bacon as they come from different parts of the pig, but serve much the same purpose in many recipes.

So, what do you do with your bacon? Make a sandwich of it (with lettuce, tomato, and mayo, please, on whole-wheat toast). Put it on a different sandwich such as a hamburger. Put it on pizza. Make it into jam. Candy it (or if you have Canadian bacon, pour maple syrup on it). Put it on a salad. Put it in an omelet. Drape an egg lovingly atop the crispy (not flabby, please) strips. Or go full Elvis and serve your bacon with peanut butter and bananas, on fried white bread.

There’s been some debate about eggs. For a long time, everyone ate as many as they wanted. Then suddenly they were bad for you. Then, no they weren’t. You didn’t have to avoid eggs anymore. What happened? Did the egg change? Did the human body change? No, apparently some dietary health commission somewhere changed.

Now the debate is how to use the egg, and the answer is as a sauce. No, not in a sauce, as the sauce. This is why you now see hamburgers and all manner of other sandwiches served with a fried egg – mostly sunny side up, but occasionally over easy – resting just under the top bun.

But, wait! (I hear you cry.) The minute you bite the sandwich, the egg will explode and run everywhere! Well, yes, that’s the idea. The egg yolk is the new ketchup or mayo for a burger. Voilà! It has become the sauce. Now you can use words like “unctuous” to describe it, if you want to be taken for a foodie.

Perfectly poached eggs (meaning runny) are used in this way too, or to top steaks, hash, stew, shakshuka, etc. Apparently, if they are sufficiently runny, they improve anything they touch. There is some debate on sunny-side-up eggs. Should they be served au naturel? Or cut out with little round cutters so that they fit more attractively on a biscuit (or whatever)? Personally, I don’t have an opinion, as long as the egg is cooked long enough that the white doesn’t look like snot. That’s ick, not unctuous.

“Farm-fresh” eggs are preferred if you want to get culinary. There are also quail eggs, if you want to get dainty, and emu eggs, which are dark teal and look like they’re going to hatch a dinosaur. “Scotch eggs” are soft-boiled eggs with sausage wrapped all around them and deep-fried. There’s some sort of trick to keeping the yolk unctuous and the sausage crisp, but I don’t know what it is.

And salt? I think we all know by now that salt intake is related to high blood pressure, which is a Bad Thing. But the problem with salt generally only comes up when you eat already-prepared foods like potato chips or cans of soup. Those are loaded with salt. Some ingredients, like cheese, also contain salt, but I think we can all agree that every food should come with too much cheese on it. If you avoid processed foods that contain salt, there is really no need to fear. No one adds enough salt to unprocessed food to be dangerous. Or at least we hope not.

There are, perhaps surprisingly, a number of different kinds of salt to experiment with. In addition to good ol’ table salt, there are salt substitutes (which taste metallic because guess what? There’s potassium in it); kosher salt, sea salt, finishing salt, flake salt, THC salt (in CA anyway), and even Himalayan pink salt. (I own a lamp made of a giant pink Himalayan salt nodule with a light inside. No, I don’t lick it. I will, however, lick salted caramel, enthusiastically. But I digress.)

If you watch as much foodie TV as I do, you quickly learn that when someone says, “Needs seasoning,” they mean, “Needs salt.” Seems everyone puts in enough pepper. And they never mean rosemary or chervil or cumin or garlic, which are also seasonings. No, they mean salt.

My husband used to be of the “Never put salt on anything” school of thought. Every night when he cooked dinner and asked how I liked it, I would invariably reply, “Needs salt.” He at last grudgingly admitted that some things, like mashed potatoes, really do need salt to taste the way they should. But usually, he uses Mrs. Dash as he tries to wean me off salt. It doesn’t always work. Some dishes just need seasoning.

Thanksgiving Memories

It all started with my sister. Once she and my mother and I were driving around and talking about Thanksgiving. She was waxing rhapsodic about how it would be wonderful to give our cats little bites of turkey.

“Actually,” I said, “we’re having lasagna.”

The gasp from the back seat was audible.

“It’s going to have ground turkey in it. Does that count?”

Apparently, it didn’t.

Since that time, we have avoided turkey every year (except the one time Dan’s work was handing them out), just to piss off my sister, the uber-traditionalist.

Fortunately, we now have our own traditions.

Entertainment

This is really the heart and soul of our Thanksgiving. Every year we watch the “Turkeys Away” episode of WKRP in Cincinnati  (thank goodness for the internet!) and listen to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” singing – or rather reciting – along. One year we also had a DVD of a cozy fire in a fireplace. It was so realistic that, in the middle of it, someone from offstage came in and put another log on the fire.

Skype

One year Dan and his mother were particularly lonely, as they lived in different states. We taught her how to Skype – no easy task from hundreds of miles away – then set up our feast on a utility table in my study. At least we were able to have conversation and watch each other eat. (I think that was the turkey year, or at least the turkey breast year.) For an approximation of the Skype problem, go here to listen to my friend Tom Smith’s song (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5XfjUPqj9M).

Food

The lasagna we had has not been our only departure from traditional holiday fare. One year we had spaghetti; another, salmon poached in orange juice. Our most memorable non-turkey meal, though, was the year we had ratatouille. It has been immortalized on my blog in an older post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z), but here’s the gist of it.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so Thanksgiving luncheon would be only me, my mother, and Dan’s best friend John. Doing a whole turkey for three people seemed excessive, and I wanted to make another nontraditional dish, so I settled on ratatouille, with the addition of some sausage for John, a carnivore.

Imagine our surprise when, after taking just one bite, John choked and couldn’t breathe. The rest of the afternoon was a flurry of Heimlichs, emergency equipment, the emergency room, several doctors, and an x-ray. Turns out John had swallowed the bay leaf, which I had neglected to remove, and it had lodged on top of his vocal cords. The highly technical medical procedure required to remove it was a very hard cough. We then went back to my mother’s house for ice cream.

Read the whole thing, if you have time.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

This year, the year of the pandemic, we didn’t have anyone over for Thanksgiving. Not only did we think it was safer, but both my mother and John have passed on. And not from any encounters with rogue bay leaves. I learned my lesson and now use a bouquet garni.

What we did this year combined the traditional and the nontraditional. We didn’t try to teach Mom Reily to Zoom this year. It would take longer to do that than to roast a full-sized turkey.

No, Dan and I continued our nontraditional tradition and at the same time supported a local small business by patronizing them. This year, we had a jolly feast of take-out sushi and Kirin beer. Arlo and Les Nessman were invited, of course. We have to keep up some traditions.

 

 

The “I Never Use a Recipe” Recipes

Once my friend Robbin and I resolved to write a cookbook called the “I Never Use a Cookbook” Cookbook. Alas, this never happened, so I thought the least I could do would be to turn it into a blog post. The basic idea was that, except for baking, neither one of us uses actual recipes when cooking. They’re more like theories than recipes, really.

(Baking is different. Baking is a science. You have to have just the right ingredients in just the right proportions to make everything turn out yummy. Why? Physics, I think, plus chemistry. Ask Alton Brown. But anyway, I digress.)

Most recipes contain the words “to taste.” Add salt and pepper “to taste.” Season with red pepper flake “to taste.” Taken to its logical (or illogical) extreme, all cooking is “to taste” and everyone’s taste is different. That means that if a recipe isn’t right for anyone else at the dinner table, it may still be right for you! That’s a win, in my book.

Of course, there are pitfalls in the “to taste” strategy. Once Robbin and I were making rum balls for a party. She was doing the mixing and I was doing the tasting. Every time she gave me a sample, I said only, “Needs more rum.” It went on like that for a while. By the end, we had true rum balls, with only enough chocolate to hold them together. But, boy, were they a hit at the party!

Rummaging in the pantry is another strategy for avoiding recipes. (Never try the ones on the labels of boxes and cans – fair warning!) One of Robbin’s creations that has entered her regular repertoire is “Tomato Tuna Rice Soup.” (I’ll let you guess what the ingredients are.) She knows it’s done when a spoon stands straight up in the bowl. It’s a hearty one-pot meal for a cold winter’s night and contains all the main food groups.

Pasta is another go-to foundation for a non-recipe meal. My husband likes to create pasta dishes with shredded chicken or ground beef, mushrooms, and whatever’s in the freezer. (Green peppers? Throw them in! Diced onions? In they go! Broccoli? Why not?) Top with any kind of cheese you happen to have. (Parmesan? Great! Co-jack? Sure! Cheddar? Go for it!) Spaghetti? Ziti? Rotini? Elbow macaroni? Doesn’t matter!

Casseroles are yet another occasion for which recipes merely get in the way. Here’s the theory: some kind of meat, some kind of noodles, some kind of vegetables, some kind of sauce. For us, the ultimate expression of this is mac-n-cheese-n-tuna-n-peas, but endless combinations are possible. (I had to convince my husband that some kind of sauce or gravy was necessary, but once he had the hang of that, he was good to go.) Sometimes he even skips the noodles, puts mashed potatoes on top and voilà – some kind of shepherd’s pie!

Using up leftovers is a wellspring of creativity, and one of the most creative ways to do that is to make a frittata. Again, the ingredients are virtually irrelevant, once you’ve got the egg and milk. Diced ham and cheddar cheese. Bacon and mushroom. Peppers and sausage. Some combination of the above, or whatever’s left in the fridge. Call it “Week in Review.” Add garlic, pepper, onion, paprika, chili pepper, or Mrs. Dash “to taste.” Serve with toast. Or bagels. Or English muffins. Or scones. With butter. Or cream cheese. Or jam. Or applesauce. You get the idea.

It’s true that not all your non-recipes may turn out to be hits in their first iteration. But since you’re not using a recipe, that means that every dish is a work in progress. In addition to never using a recipe, my husband and I rarely make a dish exactly the same twice in a row. It’s experimental cooking at its finest.

 

 

Eating Around the World

My mother, my husband, and I (in different combinations) have had some amazing travel experiences. England. Brazil. Croatia. And, like good tourists, we largely ate and drank our way through the various countries. 

There was the trip that my mother and I took to Brazil. When we arrived at our Rio hotel, we were greeted by our guide, who offered us a complimentary local drink – a caipirinha. This is the national cocktail of Brazil, made from lime, sugar, and cachaca (a local spirit reminiscent of, but different from, rum). It’s a pretty potent combination. My mother, who would have the occasional Tom Collins or glass of Mogen David, did not care for it, so she gave it to me. I downed both hers and mine.

Then the other little old ladies who were on the tour (there were a fair number of them) had the same idea and all gave me their caipirinhas rather than let them go to waste. It’s a good thing we had arrived in the evening and had no other events planned for that night, as I sat in the hotel lobby and got thoroughly sozzled.

Mom was not with us when my husband and I went to England (though Dan’s mother was). We lunched at pubs and tried authentic fish and chips, but passed up an Australian restaurant because I insisted we weren’t in Australia. 

But the most interesting culinary attraction there was when I noticed “spotted dick” on the menu at the restaurant we had chosen. (Insert your favorite “spotted dick” joke here.) I had heard of spotted dick before, but never knew what it was, really. Apparently, it’s a dessert, because it was listed under “Puddings” on the menu. (As those of you who’ve seen Harry Potter know, “pudding” is generic British for “dessert.” It doesn’t mean actual pudding.)

Naturally, I couldn’t resist ordering it. I tried to muffle my chuckles, but no doubt the waiter was used to this sort of behavior from tourists. When he brought out the dessert, it was rather disappointingly a sort of spice cake with raisins in it, topped with a thin custard. (I think it might have been crême anglaise, but I didn’t know enough at the time to call it that.) Evidently, the raisins were the spots, though I don’t like to think what parted represented the dick. Especially with that custard sauce.

The best treat of all, though, was one my husband and I had when we were on a tour that featured Venice, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. There was interesting food and drink everywhere. In Slovenia, I ate Brussels sprouts just because they were served with the main dish, and discovered they were wonderful. (Unfortunately, I have not had them prepared the same way since. And I didn’t know how to ask for the recipe in Slovenian. I speak a little Russian, enough to order cabbage or buy books, but I didn’t think that would go over so well.  But I digress.)

In Istria (a peninsula that’s part of Croatia), a few of us from the tour stopped at a local tavern to get a hot buttered rum to ward off the chilly rain that was plaguing us that day. Dan and I, feeling a mite peckish, ordered a fish plate. We thought it might be something like a cheese plate, a small assortment of different kinds of samples.

But no. We were presented with an enormous platter featuring every kind of seafood you can imagine in vast quantities, including a huge, whole fish. Again, this was before Food Network, so I had to try to disassemble the fish without completely shredding it or leaving any treacherous bones. (I remember that I did it rather successfully, though that may just have been the rum punch talking.) Our tour-mates had to dig in to help us make a sizeable dent in all the fish, shellfish, and other marine life (think octopus), so as not to seem ungrateful.

But our best food encounter was on that same trip. In Croatia, there is a city named Split. (I was once trounced by a crossword puzzle that had the clue “Split country.” I thought of Korea or Vietnam, but neither one fit.) Near the end of the tour, Dan and I stopped in at a small restaurant to have a little something-something – not a full meal, just a nibble or a nosh.

There on the menu we saw it – a prosaic, all-American banana split! How could we possibly resist? We had to order one just so we could say, “We split a banana split in Split before we split Split. But we didn’t do the splits. We might have split our pants.” Opportunities like that don’t come along just every day.

The Only Foods That Existed

I won’t say I was a picky eater, but when I was a kid, I definitely had strong food preferences. In fact, only certain foods existed for me – and not just because it was in the days before sushi entered the U.S.

Take milkshakes, for example. Though even at the time strawberry and vanilla milkshakes existed, the only kind I would accept was chocolate. I still have this opinion to some degree. For example, when I eat at Wendy’s, only a chocolate Frosty will do. But when it comes to other milkshakes, my tastes have broadened considerably. I love getting peppermint shakes at Christmas and banana shakes whenever. But my new favorite is the salted caramel milkshake at Red Robin, especially if they add a shot of booze to it, something I never even contemplated as a kid. (Salted caramel wasn’t a thing and booze wasn’t an option.)

Then there was jelly. Grape. And only grape. Not apple. Not strawberry. And certainly not mixed fruit. My toast and my peanut butter sandwiches required grape jelly or none at all. In the absence of grape jelly, toast got butter and PB sandwiches got no J.

Now I sample all the varieties of jams and jellies on offer – orange marmalade, blackberry, peach, and whatever they give me at Waffle House, to name a few, not to mention my all-time favorite, apple butter, which I guess is not really jelly. Strawberry is still my least favorite, but I will eat it when required.

Back in the day, the only lunch meat was bologna. I wouldn’t touch pimento loaf or the salami with those little hard things stuck in it that I later learned were peppercorns and wouldn’t have eaten even if I had known it. And forget head cheese! I inspected lunch meat subs (the only kind then in existence) carefully, and picked off the kinds I didn’t like. That left me with bologna and salami with no peppercorns, not exactly a culinary masterpiece.

Back then, ham and turkey were not so much lunch meats, but a breakfast dish and a Thanksgiving treat, respectively. At least that was the only way they were served in our house. Now I find that ham, turkey, roast beef, and even pastrami are acceptable. Strangely, I can hardly eat bologna anymore. Maybe my palate (such as it is) burned out on it all those years ago.

Other foods I turned up my nose at because of the way they were served. Peas, carrots, corn, beans (especially pinto beans with ketchup), and mashed potatoes were acceptable side dishes. Not so with asparagus. At that time, the only asparagus I knew of came in cans. I had never even seen a fresh stalk. Naturally, I assumed that asparagus was a slimy, icky vegetable, somewhat like okra. (If I recall correctly, all our vegetables came in cans at the time, but, honestly, there’s not much you can do to corn or peas to render them inedible. I actually even liked canned spinach, for some reason.)

Now that I’ve discovered fresh and frozen vegetables, my horizons have expanded considerably. I’ve since had fresh asparagus and liked it enough to have it multiple times. I’ve learned to like Brussels sprouts, if they’re roasted. The same with parsnips. Back in the day, roasting was a thing for, well, roasts, and maybe potatoes and onions with them, but little else.

Now I pride myself on what foods I will actually eat. I love sushi, adore hummus and guacamole, and jump at the chance to eat calamari. I have eaten curried goat, octopus, jackfruit, escargot, and pizza with nearly everything, including anchovies (not as a regular thing, but just to try it). Even my mom, purveyor of all those canned foods, learned to sample the local foods and drinks when we traveled abroad. She didn’t always like them (in which case she gave them to me), but by God, she tried them, and I admired her for that.

One of the only things I refuse to eat now is liver and onions. It’s a texture thing; they make me gag. Literally. Even my mom gave up on making me eat liver and onions when she saw that. I have lived my life happily without them and will continue to do so.

So, if you have a picky eater in the household, just wait and keep introducing new things. I once knew a child that would eat only buttered noodles who is now an expert on all things sushi.

I also know an adult who still won’t eat foods that touch on a plate, but you can’t win them all.

 

Don’t Harsh My Buzz

We all have things we love. We all have things we hate. Where the trouble comes in is when we love something that others hate and they feel compelled to tell us we’re wrong. I’m not talking here about huge social or religious dilemmas or political differences. I mean the stuff that shouldn’t matter, but people get all exercised about.

Like pineapple on pizza. There are those who love it and those who hate it. But for some reason, the haters attack the lovers as though they’ve committed a mortal sin by allowing fruit to touch their Italian dish, which we all love. (Technically, tomato is a fruit too and nobody minds having tomato sauce on pizza. Don’t ask me what that kiwi’s doing there in the photo. I have no strong opinions about kiwi. But I digress.)

Now I admit to liking Hawaiian-style pizza on occasion, the kind that comes with (for some unknown, peculiar, multicultural reason) Canadian bacon and pineapple. It isn’t my very favorite – that’s pepperoni and extra mushrooms. But once in a while, I order pineapple.

This hurts no one. So don’t harsh my buzz. Be like John. I invited John over once and served him pizza. It had pineapple on it. Without making a fuss, John picked the chunks of pineapple off his slices, ate the pizza, then ate the pineapple separately, as a sort of dessert, I suppose. That is what I call a mature, polite approach to pineapple pizza. That’s how I would approach a pizza with kiwi, if I tried it (I would) and didn’t like it. Hell, I even tried anchovies once, just to see.

I find that some people like to harsh other people’s buzzes over a variety of topics. Once, when I posted something about Star Trek, a new Facebook friend replied, “You do know you’re too old for this.” Well, phooey on that. I loved Star Trek when it first came out and I still do.

Yet it seems that loving Star Trek is not enough for some people. I need to love the right kind of Star Trek. These days, Star Trek: The Next Generation gets beat up a lot for its storytelling, plot lines – everything except Patrick Stewart, who everyone admits is pretty great, except when he says, “Engage!” or “Make it so!”

But damnit, I like NextGen (as it’s called, when it’s not called ST:TNG). In some ways, I like it better than the original series (ST:TOS). Don’t ask me to defend why I like it. I shouldn’t have to.

Or take Cats (the movie). Okay, it wasn’t great cinematic art for the ages and it didn’t have much of a plot – which is understandable if you know that the source material is a series of poems. But it had fine singing, incredible dancing, and amazing costumes. It had cats and T.S. Eliot. Why wouldn’t I love it? Even my husband said it was “astonishing.”

Country music is another area that I love that people are determined to knock. It all sounds the same, or it’s the music of racists, or everyone sings through their nose, or some other objection. Or I should spend my time listening to something good (however that’s defined).

This really harshes my buzz. I grew up with country music and, despite it being my parents’ favorite music, I never disowned it, not even when I was in my teens and the Beatles hit it big. I enjoyed both Willie Nelson and Elton John. I even enjoyed John Denver. (There, I said it!)

I don’t know. Maybe it would have been different if I had lived in Texas, but in suburban Ohio at the time, I met with only scorn among my peers. And, I’m sorry to say, that scorn continues to this day. And I can see how easy it is for that scorn to develop. I never listen to modern country music. I’m still stuck at the Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Emmylou Harris stage. (And don’t harsh my buzz about Kris Kristofferson movies, either. I still like them, except the one he made with Sylvester Stallone, whose movies I’ve taken a vow never to see. But if you like him, fine. I won’t hassle you about it.)

I’m hoping that now that Ken Burns has turned his documentary lens on it, country music will regain its status as something that it’s okay to like. In fact, I may listen to Waylon Jennings while eating pineapple pizza, and then relax with a little NextGen.

It’s my choice. Don’t harsh my buzz.

My Husband’s Bananas

Now, I’m not saying my husband’s an ape, but he sure seems to have a thing for bananas. At least recipes containing them.

When I married into his family, I didn’t realize I was also acquiring a sacred banana cake recipe, handed down from Dan’s Grammy. It always seemed like banana bread to me, but Dan calls it banana cake, and I’m not sure what the difference would be, anyway.

I love bananas, but only when they’re close to green. It’s a texture thing. I don’t even like the dark, mushy spots on bruised bananas. But I can’t eat a whole bunch of bananas by myself, so Dan gets the leftovers to leave until they’re the proper mushiness for cooking.

Dan insists on making his banana cake in a bundt cake pan, therefore, I guess, reinforcing the cake-ness of it. He claims that the cake cooks properly only in a bundt pan so the inner part gets as brown as the outside. Once, when we made mini-cakes for Christmas gifts, he acquiesced to the use of mini-loaf pans, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about it. (We also made my signature spice cake, which is notable for having to boil the raisins first, making them plump and juicy. But I digress.)

Dan’s other tasty banana creation is a non-patented, no-bake, sugar-free banana cream pie. The concept is fairly simple: graham cracker crust, slices of too-ripe-for-me bananas lining it, sugar-free banana pudding, more banana slices, then sugar-free whipped topping. Low-fat milk for the pudding, of course.

The pie is good, but we’ve improved it over the years. One time we were low on milk, so we substituted part of it for chocolate milk. It worked moderately well, but there wasn’t a lot of chocolate flavor to the finished pie.

So we began to experiment. This pie was open to variation, unlike the sacred banana cake. We tried different combinations of pudding, different amounts of plain and chocolate milk, and other variations.

In the end, what we came up with was a pie with the same graham cracker crust – no way to improve on that, at least not easily. Then we mix two boxes of banana pudding with two boxes of chocolate pudding, but use only half the milk called for on the boxes. This makes the pie much firmer and easier to slice, though I must confess that sometimes we just grab forks and eat it right out of the aluminum pan. Sliced bananas and whipped topping as before.

My family had their banana idiosyncracies, too, I guess. My mother used to eat bananas with peanut butter, long before Elvis invented or at least popularized the fried banana-and-peanut-butter sandwich. She’d just smear a dollop of peanut butter on top of the banana, bite off the end, and repeat.

Maybe I should suggest to Dan that he try to invent a banana-and-peanut-butter pie. I don’t think peanut butter pudding exists. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong.) So I think it would be a matter of mixing the peanut butter into the banana pudding and tinkering with the milk ratio until the consistency is right.

We’re going to have a house-warming party this spring when our house is rebuilt. Maybe I should consider having a desserts-only buffet and serving all three kinds of pie and the banana cake as well. Of course, anyone allergic to bananas, chocolate, or peanut butter would be out of luck. We’ll have to have some plain old pound cake for them.

Or spice cake. Is anyone allergic to raisins?

 

Before Food Trucks Were a Thing

Food trucks are big business now – or at least a lot of small businesses. A far, far step up from the “roach coaches” that used to deliver pedestrian sandwiches to large businesses with numerous workers, food trucks now provide everything from street food, to gourmet offerings, to not-so-humble cupcakes.

There may not be a taco truck on every corner, but you can find food trucks singly everywhere from tattoo studios to churches, or a whole flock of them at local festivals, colleges, parks, and parking lots. Long lines, few places to sit, and weather conditions can make food trucks not so easy to access and enjoy, but their many temptations keep the people coming back.

Sometimes these mobile purveyors of good food and gluttonous goodies even turn into brick and mortar shops. Our local Zombie Dogz is a good example. A truck offering all-beef hotdogs with outrageous toppings and creepy names (“The Waking Dead” for a breakfast dog, for example) recently reached the end of its useful days and had enough of a following to open a very popular shop in an advantageous downtown location.

Even the food trucks with more humble offerings are tech-savvy. With Facebook and Twitter they let their fans know where they’ll be and when. Groups of such mobile food purveyors even band together in food truck rallies which they advertise widely on social media.

But lest you think that food trucks are modern inventions, way back in the 70s, there was a food truck that staked out Cornell, the university I attended. Operated by a local bar and grill, The Johnnie’s Big Red food truck appeared regularly at locations in North Campus and West Campus. Weary and hungry students could get sandwiches and subs to take back to their dorms and chow down.

When I learned of this phenomenon, which was advertised by word-of-mouth, I had to try it. One evening I walked up to the window and ordered a sub. To my surprise, the man behind the counter asked, “What kind?”

What we had was a failure to communicate. Growing up as I did in a Midwestern suburb, a sub meant only one thing: a lunch meat sub, which varied only slightly by whether it included ham, pimento loaf, or salami with the bologna and whether it had mayo. They usually had slices of American cheese, though that was not necessarily a requirement. Other amenities such as lettuce and tomato were conspicuously absent, making the sell-by date harder to pinpoint (they didn’t mark them back then). The subs were wrapped in clear plastic and served cold. Selling them was often an activity to raise money for sports teams, marching bands, and the like.

The Johnnie’s trucks sold any kind of sub you could imagine, with dozens of choices of meat, cheese, toppings, and accouterments, wrapped in foil and served hot or cold. I had to step out of the line, look at the menu board that I hadn’t expected or noticed, and figure out what I really wanted.

There was a trick to ordering at the truck, too. If you picked up on the lingo, you could get your made-to-order sandwich faster. It was sort of like the old diners where you told them to “run it through the garden” for a burger with everything. Once I got it down pat, my usual order was “RBC on wet garlic with mush” (roast beef and cheese on garlic bread with pizza sauce and mushrooms).

A far cry from bologna, ham, and pimento loaf. Or hot dog with diced green apples, blue cheese, bacon and drizzled with bbq sauce, for that matter.

Our Favorite Meal Kit Has Been Decided

A while back, I wrote a blog post (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-KI) about our experiences with various meal delivery services, the kind where you find a box of food left on your doorstep like an orphaned child. Then you bring it in, cook it, and eat it. (This is apparently turning into a Grimm’s fairy tale.)

Since then, we have had a couple more experiences with meal kits, so I thought I would update the post.

One of the meal services that we hadn’t tried was Freshly. Freshly differs from the other meal delivery kits in that, instead of sending you a bunch of ingredients, they send you already prepared meals for you to microwave. At first this seemed like something that would go with our low-maintenance cooking lifestyle, but then I realized that what we were getting was basically classier TV dinners.

Not that the meals involved Salisbury steak, mixed veg, and a blob of mashed potatoes, with possibly a square of apple un-crisp if you got the fancy kind. We had chicken tikka masala, mahi, and cod cakes as our week’s choices, and they all came out of the ‘wave hot and appealing-looking. They weren’t bad.

The only thing was, they were hard to modify (well, and the portion size was a bit small, too). The tikka masala, for example, we both thought could have used more spice. Of course, we could have sprinkled red pepper flakes on top (if we had any left over from the previous day’s delivery pizza). Or we could have doused it with any of the weird spice blends my husband is in the habit of bringing home from the store. What we couldn’t do, however, was add an ingredient into the sauce and let it mingle with all the other flavors until they decided to play nicely together.

In other words, the Freshly kits took away the cooking, but they also took away the cooking, if you see what I mean.

Then EveryPlate, one of the meal services I had tried before, lured me back with a special offer I couldn’t resist. Our first three meals were chicken fajitas with lime crema, pasta with sausage and squash ribbons, and pork schnitzel with cucumber/potato salad. This week we received honey-glazed pork chops with roasted broccoli, Cajun chicken sausage penne, and lemon-thyme chicken linguine. Next week we’re getting hoisin-glazed meatloaves with wasabi mashed potatoes, sausage-stuffed peppers with couscous, and harissa-roasted chickpea bowls with avocado dressing. (The three-week offer was one thing that made it so appealing.)

These are meals that we can adapt if we want to. For example, I may want to cut back on the amount of wasabi in the mashed potatoes because of my feelings about wasabi and because, since they’ll send it as a separate ingredient, I can. Likewise, we can use less salt than the (included) recipe recommends, as my husband is (supposed to be) on a heart-healthy diet and cutting down on salt is an easy change to make. (So are sensible portion sizes, which the delivery meals provide.)

The meals do require a bit of prep – chopping, peeling, dicing, stirring, creating squash ribbons (not a thing I do regularly). But oddly enough, that has proved to be one of the things that I like best about them. Since I’m no longer allowed to use sharp objects, my husband prepares the mise-en-place (as they say in cooking shows). I take care of tasks such as putting the potatoes or linguine on to boil or heating the oil to fry the schnitzel.

This has taken us back to a time in our lives when we used to cook together, which I often forget was an entertaining and joyful thing (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-kb). And the choices, while limited to eight per week, provide more variety than the old staples that we have fallen into making, like spaghetti, frittata, and cowboy beans (an invention of our own, from our early married days).

(Since I’ve taken EveryPlate up on their offer, they have let me send a free box of food to several friends. I’m curious to see if their reactions are similar to mine.)

All in all, this experience has moved EveryPlate into first place with me in what is thankfully not called The Great Meal Kit Race (not that I want to give Food Network any ideas). It’s also one of the least expensive services, so I might actually be able to afford it once this trial period ends. I’m hoping that the kits will actually save us money in the long run, since we won’t have to buy an entire jar of wasabi or six tomatoes when one is called for.

I had my doubts when I first heard about these meal kit delivery services, but I’m slowly becoming a convert.