Category Archives: cooking

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.

Who’s Useless?

I saw a meme the other day that defined the laundry cycle as wash, 45 min.; dry, 60 minutes; fold and put away, 7-10 business days. That would be optimistic for me and my husband. We are useless people.

We started calling ourselves that when we were so exhausted at the end of the day that we were physically and emotionally unable to cook. So we turned to what we called “Useless People Meals” – ones that come in a box or bag or tray and only need to be microwaved. We eat them in the trays they come in or share them out of a single bowl since we are also too useless to wash many dishes. Paper towels are our napkins, and I’m sorry to report that we have been known on occasion to use paper plates and plastic cutlery. At least the plates are biodegradable.

We took another step towards uselessness when we found the perfect furniture for us – a coffee table that magically rises upward to become a dining table and an end table that swings out over the sofa to make a tray. With these in place, we can happily watch TV while we eat. (We still have meaningful conversations, mostly over who will be the next chef to be Chopped. But I digress.)

As noted above, laundry is another place to practice uselessness. All our clothing is wash-and-wear. We don’t even own an iron (or if we do, I have no idea where it’s gotten itself off to). If we ever do find the iron and would actually need to iron something, we’d have to lay it on the coffee table, which would also magically transform into an ironing board. Much easier just to toss a garment in the dryer with a dryer sheet or a damp washcloth.

I admit we’re useless. We want to skate through life doing as little physical labor as possible. And there are a lot of products designed to make life easier for people like us. The meal kits that are so popular nowadays are not for completely useless people. Some of them require actual chopping and cooking. The most recent one we tried, though, had ready-prepped meals that were microwaveable. And since we didn’t know what any of the delivery meals would taste like when we ordered them, there was something to be said for not spending much time preparing them.

But there are those who mock and deride what they see as completely useless practices, gizmos, and packaging.

They are wrong. My husband and I may be slackers, but some inventions actually make life easier for people with disabilities, who are not useless but merely incapacitated in some way. Imagine a person with rheumatoid arthritis trying to shell an egg or peel an orange and suddenly those egg-cooking gizmos and individually wrapped, already-peeled oranges in vending machines make sense. It is ableist privilege that makes people view such innovations as useless.

Even some of what my husband and I think of as for the useless would actually be great for people who are handicapped. Our “useless people coffee table” makes perfect sense if you think of someone who uses a wheelchair. And our “useless people” heat-and-eat meals are dandy for people who do not have the physical stamina to stand at a counter or a stove, chopping, mixing, stirring, straining, and all the other steps that are needed for a simple plate of spaghetti.

So we’re right to call ourselves useless people, but wrong to call our time- and step-saving practices and devices useless. The tools themselves are immensely useful and many people who use them, unlike us, are not useless at all. More and more, as the Baby Boomers age and we face illness and mobility issues, we will need to use those sock-puller-uppers and canes that stand by themselves and grippers to reach the stuff on the high shelves or on the ground. Whatever the need, it seems some clever soul has come up with a fix or a work-around.

I guess what I mean is that my husband and I are useless because we take advantage of these helpful tools just because we don’t want to do the work. There are those who use them because they need to and we will likely join them someday. At least we’ll have the tools already in place.

Magic in the Kitchen

It’s amazing what you can find in a kitchen. I admire people who have matching containers for flour, sugar, and mixing spoons. They usually also have kitchen gadgets that I can’t even name, let alone operate. Then there’s the ubiquitous kitchen junk drawer, which as a friend of mine noted, contains “rabies vaccination tags for cats that ran away” and “a dozen mangled twistie ties from last year’s Wonder Bread.” (He also called it “The Mother of All Clutter” and “Perfection’s Perfect Safety Valve.”)

But the most amazing thing you can find in the kitchen is a new life. A new start. A new purpose. Redemption.

I first realized this when my husband and I were watching the TV show Chopped. We couldn’t remember the names of the contestants, so we gave them nicknames: Who’s getting chopped this round? Red-beard guy! No, kerchief lady! Pickles everything dude! (We do the same with Forged in Fire. Santa Claus guy! Teenage upstart! Tattoo-neck! But I digress.)

One night there was a man on Chopped we took to calling “The Old Drunk,” because he was, well, old-looking and called himself a drunk when the judges asked him to tell a little bit about himself. He told how he had spent years as a hopeless alcoholic and how, after he got sober, cooking had saved him. I don’t remember whether he won Chopped, but now, I understand, he has cooking videos on YouTube and has appeared on other Food Network shows like Beat Bobby Flay. He seems to have done pretty well for himself on his journey up from rock bottom.

Then I started noticing other contestants with equally compelling stories. There have been more than a few who have credited cooking with saving their lives or giving them a way out of alcoholism or other addictions. Men have said that their lives started in gangs or ended in jail until they discovered cooking. One woman said it helped her escape from domestic abuse. Any number have said that cooking helped them feel pride in themselves when their families disapproved of their lifestyle or career choices. And quite a few competitors have said they used cooking to help overcome challenges such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other physical and mental difficulties.

This is not something that occurs only on TV, either. My husband used to work in community-based corrections. (And no, that’s not where we met.) As he counseled prisoners (inmates? clients?), he routinely heard that there were two professions that they wanted to explore when they were back on the streets: hairdressing and cooking.

(I don’t think there are any competitive hairdressing TV shows, but as soon as I say that, someone is bound to prove me wrong.)

What makes cooking such a redemptive pursuit? I think there are several answers. Cooking takes time, attention, and creativity when it’s done well. Even non-professional (or non-competitive) cooks can take pride in the idea that they are nourishing someone else – or even themselves.

I’m not saying that cooking will solve all a person’s problems or replace AA. But I do think that cooking, whether it’s at the level of professional or amateur, art or craft, hobby or necessity, speaks to something vital inside us. Food is necessary for life, after all, and making that into something expressive and loving and creative is transformative, of both the food and the self. It feeds not just bodies, but sometimes the soul.

I’m not sure about Forged in Fire. I don’t know whether bladesmithing is a redemptive act, too, though I imagine if done with sufficient commitment, pride, and artistry it could be. The same is likely true of many of the other competition-type shows. (Except Cupcake Wars. I may be wrong, but I can’t imagine anyone redeemed by cupcakes.)

One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time is The Joy of Cooking. I think it’s the joy as well as the struggle, the stumbles and disappointments, the cuts and burns, the standing rib roasts and the fallen soufflés, that give cooking its power to feed us all, and especially those who practice it with passion.

And those people I really admire, whether they’ve got their canisters in a row or not.

 

 

Kiffles and Kugel, Facebook and Google

Dan was trying to remember the name of the holiday cookies he and his mother liked so much, but neither of them could recall it. “We used to have them at Uncle Rudy’s house,” Dan said. But no bells rang. Uncle Rudy was no longer available to provide any suggestions.

“What were they like?” I asked.

“They were rolled up and had walnuts in them.”

“Sounds a lot like rugelach,” I said. Strictly speaking, rugelach don’t have to be made with walnuts. They can have jam or other fillings inside. Along with hamentaschen, they’re a staple of Jewish baked goods. Dan had some Jewish relatives, so it seemed a good place to start the search.

“I think it began with a ‘k,'” he said.  “Maybe kugels?”

“No,” I said. “Kugel is a baked noodle dish. It’s not remotely like a cookie.”

So, as with most modern problems, we turned to Google. (At least it rhymes with kugel.) In fairly short order we found that the cookies in question were kiffles, and their origin was Hungarian. We found a recipe that sounded reasonably simple on Allrecipes.com.

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/235921/hungarian-kiffles/

I decided to check it out with a Hungarian friend to see if the recipe was authentic.  He said he didn’t remember them from childhood, but he added, “You had me at ‘a pound of butter.'” (Actually, they had me at “a pound of cream cheese.” The recipe made 36 cookies. It was clear that this was not a heart-healthy recipe, but what holiday baked goods are, really?)

Well, I suppose you can write the ending to this one. There is now half a batch of kiffle dough resting overnight in our fridge. Tomorrow we bake! And evaluate. And tweak if necessary for a second batch.

But the kiffle saga had me thinking. What other cookies or treats did people have in their childhood or from their heritage that they could no longer get or could barely remember? Naturally, this time I turned to Facebook. A quick post brought some interesting answers. And a lot of warm memories.

Jean remembered a cookie called Springerlies and thought they were Italian. “Mom’s friend made them. They were a real treat when we got them.”  Gwen replied that Springerlies are German, though most likely multicultural. “A friend spends days making them and other German cookies every year,” she said. “Awesome cookies!”

So here for you, Jean and Gwen, is a recipe:

https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/9922/springerle-i/

Trish voted for Spritz cookies. “My mom used to make them, I think my Nana did too. I don’t have a recipe….” Well Trish, now you do! The recipe comes straight from Gold Medal Flour, so it ought to be authentic.

http://www.goldmedalflour.com/recipes/classic-spritz-cookies/ccd9d7f3-6075-4593-be61-7b0aeb02bc88

Lisa remembered, “My mom used to make these cookies called Spice of Life. They were a soft, dark molasses cookie, rolled in sugar. She’s lost the recipe, unfortunately, and I haven’t been able to recreate it.” Here you go, Lisa. This recipe actually appeared in a murder mystery by Diane Mott Davidson. It sounds fantastic! You had me at molasses and spices.

http://recipecircus.com/recipes/Stella/COOKIES/Spice-of-Life_Cookies.html

Jane’s favorite was date nut cookies.  They involved sweet dough, covered with dates and nuts, rolled like a jelly roll, sliced, and baked. “People are not into dates anymore, although about five years ago I saw the very same recipe in a magazine, and couldn’t believe it.” She also mentioned pizelles, very thin butter cookies, covered in powdered sugar. “They sell them in fancy shops, but you can make them pretty easily,” she added. They do require a special machine to make, which I’m guessing costs a packet at Williams Sonoma.

Melissa, whose background is Swiss-German, mentioned Mailänderli, Spitzbuebe, Basler Läckerli, and Züri Tirggel. “No one is ever going to make them like my grandmother did, and no place is ever going to be as comfortable as the chair in the tiny spot between the radiator and the kitchen table.” She’s been experimenting with recreating two of the cookies, but says she hasn’t got the texture quite right yet. Here’s a recipe for the Basler Läckerli:

https://www.epicurious.com/recipes/member/views/basler-leckerli-566387f7424bb12207dbef07

Gwen also told about a holiday cake – makowiac, or poppyseed roll, with filling 1/2″ thick. She says she has her grandmom’s recipe, but that it’s labor intensive. (I looked at a recipe and is she ever right!) Gwen ordered one from a specialty bakery and is hoping it lives up to the legendary dessert of memory.

Peggy said that her mom didn’t make cookies, instead making fudge and peanut butter balls for teacher gifts. Robbin makes rum balls that can knock you on your ass.

Other friends fondly remembered treats that are not uncommon nowadays but don’t always live up to memories. Michael mentioned Toll House cookies – the chewy kind. (I’m with him on that.) And Wendy was fond of Scooter Pies – Moon Pies, readily available, just aren’t the same, she says.

It was fun hearing the stories and chasing down recipes. To all my friends I wish fond memories and a lovely, treat-filled holiday! You’ve made mine a little bit sweeter.