Category Archives: cooking

The Tender-Hearted Carnivore

gray steel cooking pan near orange lobster
Photo by Toa Heftiba Şinca on Pexels.com

My husband is a carnivore, or actually an omnivore, like the bear that he resembles. But if he tried to live like a bear, he would never survive. He’s just too sensitive about what he eats.

He’s not a member of PETA, but he has certain qualities in common with them. He won’t eat veal or goose liver because he objects to the conditions in which the animals are raised – closely confined and force-fed. It’s no life for an animal, he says. Neither is being slaughtered, sauteed, and served for supper, for that matter, but let’s leave that aside for the moment. I can sympathize with his position.

When he’s forced to participate in said slaughter, he’s even more uncomfortable. My mother was raised in the country and delighted in fishing. She also delighted in frying and eating her catch. Dan can tolerate fishing if it’s catch-and-release (though just barely). And he would refrain from commenting when my mother served up her self-caught delights. But on the way home, he would look positively morose.

He had an even more extreme reaction when we were on a sailing vacation off the coast of Maine. We anchored at a tiny, uninhabited island and the ship’s cook started a fire.  A huge pot of seawater and seaweed sat ominously nearby. So did a container of live lobsters.

Now, Dan doesn’t even like to watch live lobsters being prepared on television. He began referring to Emeril Lagasse as “the Evil Cook” when he saw the TV chef throw live crayfish into a hot skillet and laugh about it.  If I’m watching a cooking show, I have to tell him to cover his eyes whenever a live crustacean is going to be sacrificed.

Anyway, when the cook in Maine got ready to drop the lobsters in the pot, Dan took a melancholy walk around the island. Mind you, when he returned and found the lobsters bright red and safely dead, he devoured three of them, banging their bodies against rocks to get them open, proper lobster-cracking tools not having been provided. Lobster juice ran down his face into his beard. He wasn’t squeamish about that.

I began to think he was carrying his sensitivity too far, however, when he started objecting to barbecue restaurants whose signs featured happy pigs serving up platters of ribs. “They’re showing smiling pigs serving themselves up to be devoured,” he asserted. No amount of reassurance that the signs were merely illustrations could suppress his uneasiness. It was the principle of the thing.

When I totally lost sympathy for his obsession, though, was when he started objecting to TV commercials that showed cereal squares eating other cereal squares (and licking their nonexistent lips). He objected to the cannibalistic element, which he found offensive.

“They’re cereal,” I pointed out. “And they’re animated. No grain suffered in the production of the cereal. Nothing alive was harmed in the production of the commercial.” It didn’t matter.

“They’re presented as sentient,” he said, “and they’re eating their own kind.”

Well, there’s really no way to argue with that, so I just roll my eyes and don’t even try.

Oddly, Dan loves movies and shows about mountain men who hunt and forage for their food under harsh, primitive conditions. He doesn’t like it when the animals get their paws caught in traps and suffer because of it, but he suddenly doesn’t object to the killing of a sentient being and the subsequent devouring of it.

Despite his affinity with mountain men, I try to point out that he would be lousy at it. “Not if I was hungry enough,” he replies. “Then I could do it.” He’s eaten venison, but personally, I can’t picture him shooting, skinning, and butchering a deer. He might have to become a vegetarian at that point and his career as a mountain man would be over.

Until a moose was magically transformed into moose steaks and presented to him wrapped in styrofoam and plastic at the local grocery, I doubt he’d survive.

Which Meal Kit(s) Did We Like Best?

brown fish fillet on white ceramic plate
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Not too long ago I decided I would try a few meal delivery kits, the kind that send you a box of fresh ingredients with enough food for three dinners, plus recipes.

I was curious and I had heard that meal kits could help reduce grocery bills and food waste, both of which can be problems in our household.

Full disclosure: I did not tell anyone that I was doing this, most particularly not the producers of the meal kits. I did not set out to rank the kits and I am receiving nothing in exchange for my opinions.

The services I tried were Home Chef, Hello Fresh, SunBasket, EveryPlate, and Dinnerly. I took advantage of introductory offers to order a different kit every week for a month. Here’s what I found.

From Home Chef we selected the shrimp yakisoba noodle bowl, New England fish cakes, and Italian pork wedding pasta.

Our selections from Hello Fresh were orzo and sausage with veggies, shrimp with zucchini ribbons, and sweet and smoky pork tenderloin.

The SunBasket meals we ordered were salmon with white bean artichoke salad, coconut shrimp, and a skillet version of moussaka.

From EveryPlate we chose spicy chicken tacos and slaw, chicken cutlets with mashed sweet potato, and Asian bbq pork with rice and broccoli.

Dinnerly provided mole chile and rice, caprese pasta, and spicy egg rolls with Thai sauce.

Now on to the comparisons.

Delivery

Each box arrived in a timely fashion, most of them by noon and all before dinner. The boxes were sturdy cardboard with cold packs inside to keep the fresh ingredients that way. The boxes were left on the doorstep without our having to sign for them, which was good, except when it rained and the bottom of the box became soggy.  But I prefer that to needing to be home when the box arrives.

Packaging

Packaging evidently makes a difference to some users of the services. Three of them packed the ingredients for each meal in a separate bag, Hello Fresh and SunBasket’s in brown paper bags, Home Chef’s in plastic (though reusable) bags. Dinnerly and EveryPlate went the grocery cart route, with all the ingredients somewhere in the box, making the user sort them into each meal’s supplies.

Ingredients

All the ingredients arrived in satisfactory condition, although the chard in one box was slightly limp but usable. Sauces and such came in little restaurant packages or cute little jars.  The pesto for the caprese pasta and the dipping sauce for the eggrolls were in lidded plastic cups inside plastic bags, which made me nervous, but held up despite the potential for mess. The one egg called for in a recipe came in a cunning little individual egg box and, amazingly, arrived safely.  If garlic was required, a whole head arrived, with instructions to use two cloves and save the rest for later.

I was generally satisfied with the amount of ingredients, although all of the services should look at sending more tomatoes than they do, especially since they provide roma tomatoes and tell you to seed and core them, leaving very little actual tomato flesh.

I was surprised that shrimp featured in so many dishes. Pork and chicken were other prominent proteins. The lack of beef was explained when I noticed that most beef dishes cost extra – keep an eye peeled, because these premium prices aren’t prominently marked.

Recipes

Detailed recipes are included with each box, except for Dinnerly, which asks you to download the recipes from their website. Home Chef’s recipes came packed in a notebook binder, making it easy to save the hole-punched instructions. The recipes all included five or six steps, mostly evenly divided between prep and cooking. My husband had been worried that the dishes might not be filling, but he was wrong. He was satisfied with the portions.

The meal delivery services assume you have some standard pantry ingredients like salt, pepper, and flour, and common kitchen implements such as knives and colanders. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a vegetable peeler, which meant our zucchini ribbons were less than uniform, or a grater, so the carrots in our slaw were rather larger than recommended.

Flavor

I’d have to say that the results here were hit or miss. There were excellent dishes from each service, and less successful ones as well.  Particular favorites were Hello Fresh’s sausage with orzo, which was more flavorful than Home Chef’s similar Italian wedding pasta. SunBasket had one real winner, the salmon with white-bean/artichoke salad, and one not so great, the coconut shrimp. Overall, we liked the Dinnerly dishes the best, though of course we had no way to judge the flavor when ordering. You’re totally dependent on the pictures and descriptions, though some are thoughtfully labeled “spicy,” which may or may not be accurate.

We found many of the dinners a little bland, probably because they recommend adding a fair amount of salt, which we don’t for health reasons (the sodium levels in the nutrition information can be quite high). We had to supplement with Mrs. Dash or ingredients like chili flakes left over from previous meals.

Price

Here’s where the meal services really differ. Although all of them do seem to reduce food waste, and you probably do save money by not buying a whole bunch of carrots instead of just two or two ounces of Thai chili sauce instead of a whole bottle, the dinner boxes are not inexpensive. EveryPlate and Dinnerly were the most economical, with prices around $5 per person per meal, which is not unreasonable.  The other meal services were as high as $11 per person per meal, which means they’re comparable to eating out at a casual dining restaurant, something we couldn’t do three times a week.  Add to that the delivery charges, and the prices are more appropriate for someone with a higher income than we have.

EveryPlate and Dinnerly suffer, though, by offering a choice of only five and six different meals per week, respectively. Perhaps that’s how they keep costs down. Other services offer up to 18 choices per week.

Bottom line? If we were more financially stable, EveryPlate or Dinnerly would get my vote. There might be fewer choices per week, but since I never really know how any recipe will taste, that doesn’t seem a complete drawback. Plus, if nothing appeals, I can always skip a week.

 

The Great Meal Kit Experiment

We have had trouble with our meals.  Well, that’s not quite true. We’ve had trouble with our grocery budget. Actually, both those things are true.

The first part of the problem is shopping. My husband works in a store that sells, among other things, groceries. And he just can’t resist meats which, while on special, are still so expensive I’m tempted to take out a meat loan to get them. Plus, he’s unable to resist the Manager’s Special, Close-Out, and Day Old tables.

That might seem like frugal shopping, but it results in a variety of bizarre foods that we would never otherwise have purchased. Vanilla butter. Bourbon-apple salsa. Snacks that taste like sesame-flavored cardboard. And the “reduced” prices don’t mean they’re cheap. You should have seen the price tags the week the store cleared out the “Imported from Italy” section. Imported pesto isn’t cheap, let me tell you.

Our next problem is waste. We waste a lot of food. Our refrigerator is so unreliable that it regularly freezes any produce we buy and turns it into unidentifiable slimy green goo. This is good neither for our budget nor for our appetites. We are reduced to buying prepared deli salads – which are hideously expensive but can be eaten the same day – or getting bags of cole slaw mix that are hideously expensive but can be eaten with my special slaw dressing (mayonnaise and pickle juice) which my husband loves. That we devour in a day or two. Frozen peas and corn and canned tomatoes are the most vegetable-like things we can keep on hand. And sometime V-8 juice.

Anyway, our food expenditures are outrageous. I’ve tried setting a budget, but my husband does the shopping and is unable to understand the concept. I’ve tried splitting the shopping with him, but every night when he gets off work he picks up a few more (or even more) items that he seems psychologically unable to resist.

So, in the hope of reducing both the amount we spend and the amount we waste, I have decided to try an experiment. Those meal kits we hear so much about on TV and online promise solutions to budget, preparation, shopping, and variety of meals. They are said to provide good nutrition, reduce waste, and be ever so yummy.

So each week for the next six weeks, I am ordering one of those yuppie, home-delivered meal kits. I am taking advantage of special promotional deals, as there is no way that paying the full price would produce any actual savings. I am not receiving any freebies or reduced prices by promising to blog about any of them.

The services I have chosen for this experiment are:

Home Chef

Blue Apron

Hello Fresh

EveryPlate

SunBasket

and Dinnerly.

Each week will receive three recipes and sets of appropriate ingredients for the making thereof. My husband is dubious of this experiment, as he claims (rightly) that the portion sizes they will deliver will not match the portion sizes of meals that he prepares. I try to point out that this is not necessarily a bad thing and that we can always supplement with appetizers, yogurt, pretzels, or popcorn should we feel unsatisfied.

I am trying to select a range of meals that will be filling yet different from our usual fare, involving ingredients we don’t usually have on hand and international cuisines we don’t make at home.

For the rest of the meals for the week, hubby can shop for whatever he chooses, though I fervently hope he will stick to staples like chicken, ground beef, fish, rice, beans, canned tomatoes, mushrooms, frozen vegetables, potatoes, pasta, eggs, bread, and the like. He makes an awesome frittata, an amazing shepherd’s pie, and a killer deconstructed mac-n-cheeseburger.

At the end of this experiment, I will report back on the results. My goals are variety in cuisine, reduced waste, lower grocery bills, and fewer odd ingredients that go with nothing else.

Our first delivery is arriving on our doorstep Tuesday.

Wish us luck.

Weird Food Faves and Fails

I admire adventurous cooks. Especially ones who make something out of what’s already in the house instead of going to the store for a double rack or ribs, which requires taking out a meat loan. If it’s in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, it’s fair game. Unless it’s game in the pantry, in which case you have bigger problems than what to eat.

People who cook this way inspired me and my husband to start cooking again after a long spell of frozen, pre-cooked Useless People Meals™. Tom and Leslie had a dish called “Experimental Chicken,” which, as you can probably guess, never came out the same way twice. It did, however, have a consistent theory – chicken, salt, pepper, garlic, and some kind of sauce. Any kind of sauce. Chili. Thai. Mexican. Indian. Martian. (They are both science fiction fans.)

My husband and I were inspired. Our dishes were not just experiments; at times they seemed straight out of a mad scientist’s lab. The trend was encouraged by the fact that my husband likes the one-of-a-kind and slight-irregulars tables at the stores where he shops. He’ll bring home a “unique” ingredient and then try to build a dish around it.

For example, he recently brought home spaghetti sauce in two flavors: regular and chipotle. The only problem was, the sauces weren’t tomato-based. They used pumpkin as the main ingredient. And he decided to try them out not with regular spaghetti, but with spaghetti squash.

Now, I’m not a big fan of spaghetti squash, which I find watery and tasteless. And the pumpkin sauces looked, shall we say, dubious. I instantly knew why they had appeared on the “Manager’s Special” table. But there they were, so in the interest of science and encourage culinary courage, I agreed to try it.

Given the bland nature of spaghetti squash, I picked the pumpkin-chipotle sauce to go with it. We figured out how to solve the wet-noodle problem thanks to Google, which has replaced cookbooks in our kitchen. And Dan decided to add some bite-sized chunks of leftover pork chop because he feels that every meal should contain meat, unless he has to kill it himself.

The first forkful was not inspiring. It was definitely pumpkiny, with a brief finish of chipotle on the back of the tongue. The more we ate of it, the less odd it seemed to get. The result was what I like to call a “Work in Progress” – something that’s survivable but needs either tweaking or a major overhaul before it enters our regular repertoire. I still hope the manager never finds that sauce “special” again, though.

Another one-of-a-kind item that appeared in the grocery bag was apple-bourbon salsa. It struck me as an awful combination for salsa, though I do enjoy peach or mango salsa. But, valiantly, I dipped in a chip and made a discovery. “This is horrible salsa,” I said. It reminded me of all those weird new alcoholic drinks like cranapple schnapps and birthday cake tequila and whatever that liqueur is that comes in a bottle that looks like Oil of Olay.

“But,” I added, “it tastes like pretty good barbecue sauce.” We tried it out on a handy pork loin that had survived in our freezer, and declared it delicious. Now I wish we could find another jar of it.

Our best culinary invention came when my husband, disappointed by a frozen cheeseburger mac that contained only ground meat, macaroni, and cheese, declared, “We can do better than this!”

Our new, improved version included those basics, plus garlic, diced onion, diced tomatoes with green chiles, and diced dill pickles. And way too much cheese – our theory is that everything should come with way too much cheese. Occasionally we add mushrooms or bacon if some happens to be around.

But the ingredient that really makes the dish – and makes it taste like a real cheeseburger – is a drizzle of ketchup over the top. As over the top (sorry, not sorry) as that may sound, it brings the whole dish together. Even I, ketchup lover that I am, had my doubts, but once I tried it I loved it and we have never made this one-skillet meal without it since.

Unfortunately, not every experimental dish goes that well. A man I once knew had a “signature dish” that he regularly made. It started innocently enough, with ground beef and rice in a stew pot. Then it started to get weird. Knorr instant split-pea soup was the next ingredient. After that all cooked together to a porridge-y consistency, at the last moment before serving, he added pineapple chunks “for the contrast in flavor, texture, and temperature.”

And that wasn’t even the worst of it. He made huge batches of it and kept adding things as the days went by. The most, uh, memorable addition was leftover Chinese food. The actual “recipe” has not survived, and neither did the relationship.

The porridge may not have actually ended the romance, but it’s surely no accident that I ended up with a man who at least understands the concept of flavor profiles, even if he does shop from the quick-sale table.

The Not-So-Traditional Cookie Challenge

Make three different cookies – a dozen of each – inspired by your family holiday memories and traditions.

That was the assignment on a recent holiday baking show I watched.

It occurred to me that I would have failed miserably. It’s not that I can’t bake, or that I can’t bake cookies. I just have no family memories or traditions associated with cookies.

My family never baked at the holidays. Occasionally we’d get a tin or box of assorted cookies – chocolate and plain shortbreads, butter cookies, and so forth – that we kids called “kind-a-wanna cookies” because we could each choose the kind we wanted.

My mother’s baking exploits centered around box cake mixes, lemon meringue pies for my father (his favorite dessert), and slice-n-bake chocolate chip cookies. (I notice that now the company that makes these believes even slicing to be too much to task the modern baker with.)

I did have one holiday cookie-baking ritual in my teens, however. I would go over to my friend Peggy’s house and we would make either chocolate chip cookies (from scratch, no slicing involved) or sugar cookies.

The chocolate chip cookies were ones we had learned how to bake in home ec class and Peggy still had the original recipe on the original 3″ x 5″ index card. (I know she recopied the card when it became old and ragged, and I think she may have laminated it.) Actually, Peggy did the baking. I helped with the math (2/3 cup butter times 2 is 4/3 cup is 1-1/3 cups) and ate some of the raw cookie dough, this being back in the days before that was dangerous or if it was, we didn’t know it.

Our other holiday cookie tradition was Christmas sugar cookies. Again, these were from scratch and my assignment was to sprinkle the cut-out Santas and bells and stars with red and green sugar sprinkles. We’d listen to the radio (but not Christmas carols) and tuck the cookies lovingly away in colorful tin boxes with layers of wax paper. After eating just a couple ourselves, of course.

So, were I to be magically transported to a holiday baking contest, what could I make? Chocolate chip and sugar cookies, of course. Though I’d have to think up trendy flavors like bourbon-guava-cinnamon-chip cookies and sugar cookies adorned with fondant and gum paste and decorative isomalt shards.

But what would my third cookie be?

As a young adult, I had a recipe for a spice cake with raisins that I adored. Back in the day my friends and I were always broke, so I made small loaf pans of spice cake and my husband made miniature banana cakes from his Grammy’s recipe. So I suppose I  might have to fudge a little and make banana-spice cookies with raisins. (Fudge! Now there’s an idea!) Not a childhood memory, but sort of a family tradition, of a new family just starting out anyway.

I suppose I could make some kind of peanut butter cookie. That was one my mother did make from scratch, and I loved pressing the fork into the dough to make the criss-cross on top. (I suppose today we would call them “hashtag cookies.”) They’re not very “holiday,” but at least they represent a family memory.

Or, if I was a really accomplished baker, I could invent some kind of lemon-bar cookie with a toasted meringue on top, in honor of my father’s favorite, but non-holiday, pie. My mother would slip the pie into the oven to brown the meringue, but nowadays I see people using blowtorches. I still think of blowtorches as things that belong in the garage, though, not the kitchen.

No, this year I’ll do the same as ever. I don’t have children and Peggy’s son is now grown, but when she comes to town for the holidays, I fully expect we’ll both make time in our schedules for a cookie-baking fest. Chocolate chip cookies and sugar cookies with red and green sprinkles. They won’t win any competitions, but I can honestly say they are holiday traditions.

 

 

The Great Thanksgiving Ratatouille

One Thanksgiving, the thing I was most grateful for was my husband’s only friend. John became Dan’s only friend when Dan was on his way to ultimate burn-out at work. John was there to listen, which he did exceedingly well. He was my friend as well because we shared similar tastes in books and music.

John was a welcome addition to our small family holiday gatherings. Often the guest list was me, my mother, Dan, and John. All of us lacked other family in the area, so we’d gather at my mother’s and order in Mr. Kroger’s holiday fixin’s.

Occasionally, one of us would cook. That year I felt ambitious. Not Martha-Stewart-huge-turkey ambitious, but I thought I could manage a one-pot meal – ratatouille. I was in the habit of preparing non-traditional holiday meals because they annoyed my sister, who was old-school in her thinking: Thanksgiving and Christmas must feature turkey, Easter is for ham, Fourth of July is for hamburgers and hot dogs, and Earth Day is for, I don’t know, mud pies? She wasn’t present that year, but it’s the principle of the thing.

So I chopped eggplant and onions and zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms and tomatoes and put them in a large pot, along with stock and garlic and assorted herbs and spices, and left it to simmer until all the ingredients got acquainted and agreed to play nicely together. Because John was a committed carnivore, I added some kielbasa as well. I like to think the kielbasa would have added a level of outrage had my sister been there, but really, the ratatouille would have been enough to set her off.

Dan was visiting his mother that year, so my Mom and John and I gathered in the living room for chat and shrimp cocktail. So far, so good.

Eventually we moved into the kitchen and I dished up heaping bowls of fragrant, chunky ratatouille. I watched in anticipation as John dipped his spoon in and lifted it to his lips.

He swallowed. Then he raised his hands to his throat and started making hacking noises.

Now, most cooks would be alarmed by this sort of thing. And I was.

I rushed around the table and attempted the Heimlich Maneuver, but discovered my arms were too short to Maneuver properly. “Do you want us to call an ambulance?” I asked.

“Yes,” John croaked. (This actually calmed me an infinitesimal fraction. A person who can talk under those circumstances is not going to die right then.)

Shortly a fire truck, an ambulance, and two police cars pulled up in front of the house. It must have been a slow Thanksgiving. Emergency personnel trooped in as each vehicle arrived, decided that John was unlikely to die in the next few minutes, and turned their attention to the aromas wafting from the kitchen.

“Wow! That smells good! What is it?” each asked.

“Ratatouille,” I would reply.

“What’s that?”

“A Mediterranean vegetable stew made with eggplant.”

“Maybe he’s choking on a bone.”

“An eggplant doesn’t have bones,” I would explain. This entire conversation was repeated, verbatim, each time another would-be rescuer walked in.

John was hauled off to the emergency room and I followed. Medical-type events ensued. John was asked to cough, substances were sprayed into his throat, and an x-ray was taken. It took a while.

It took so long that our friends, the ambulance people, brought in another patient, saw us in our little cubicle, and said in amazement, “You’re still here?”

At this point I gave up and went to the hospital cafeteria for a festive Thanksgiving cheeseburger, and thought about my sister while I ate it. When I returned, John was still waiting patiently (no pun intended).

Finally, a truly clever doctor arrived and looked down John’s throat with a scope. “There’s something lying on top of his vocal cords,” he reported. “It looks like … some kind of leaf.”

Instantly I knew what had happened. “It’s the fucking bay leaf,” I said. John had swallowed it with his first spoonful of ratatouille, and it had lodged in his windpipe. The doctor asked John to cough really hard, and the bay leaf came flying out. It was the first time the doctor had ever encountered a bay-leaf-related emergency, he told us. It was our first, too.

We went back to my mother’s house, fed John some ice cream for his poor, abused throat, and he left to go home and lie down. As the door closed behind him, my mother turned to me and said, “I don’t think he’s going to sue us.”

Forever after, the dish was known as my killer ratatouille recipe. Not many people ask for it, for some reason.

This year, I’ll use a bouquet garni! Then I can be thankful that everyone will live through Thanksgiving dinner.

___

This is a revision of a post from a couple of years ago, but I thought it was worth resurrecting.

 

 

Mold and Fungus – Yum!

I understand that eating crickets (possibly chocolate-covered) is a recent foodie thing.(1) I’m in no hurry to try it, despite what I see on the Food Network.

But I must admit that two of my favorite foods are mold and fungus.(2)

Cheese would not exist without mold (or bacteria, or curdling, or the lining of various animals’ stomachs), and mushrooms are fungus, plain and simple. Still, most people would find it odd to see a frittata recipe that said, “Add chopped fungus, then grate moldy milk over the top.”

Blue cheese slices closeupI believe, however, that cheese should keep its origins secret. That is to say, I do not like cheese that reminds me that it has moldy origins. As far as I’m concerned, blue veins belong beneath aging skin, and are not for human consumption. And nothing that smells like old sweat socks, including old sweat socks, should be put in my mouth.

That being said, American, Swiss, colby, jack, muenster, havarti, boursin, mozzarella, parmesan, ricotta, gouda, marscapone, provolone, asiago, feta, neufchâtel, paneer, brick, farmer, brie, and the entire family of cheddars are welcome on my palate or in my recipes. In fact, all my recipes contain the instruction, “Add way too much cheese.”(3)

The world should come with too much cheese. I’ve tried to think of a food that isn’t better with cheese, and aside from Asian dishes, all I’ve come up with is ice cream. Now that I think about it, though, I can picture brie and blueberry ice cream being worth a try. Or maybe cheddar and bacon.

I suspect my love of cheese springs from a childhood in a meat-and-potato, cheese-poor home. And when I say “cheese-poor,” I mean “poor cheese” –  Velveeta, those rubbery orange bricks good only for grilled cheese sandwiches and giving pills to gullible dogs.

Photo by Dan Reily
Photo by Dan Reily

The other category of dubious food is fungus. Mushrooms have two marks mark against them for squeamish eaters: They are fungi and they grow in manure.(4)

Our family kitchen also lacked mushrooms, which I didn’t discover until I read Lord of the Rings and learned that they were hobbits’ favorite food. After cautiously trying a few at salad bars, I was a convert.(5) Now I like them raw, marinated, sautéed in butter or wine, or in sauces and gravies – morels, chanterelles, woodear, oyster, cremini, shitake, porcini, or, failing all else, button mushrooms.

These days my favorite fungus is the mighty, meaty portobello. I introduced my husband to these at an Italian restaurant. I informed him that we were having the stuffed portobello as an appetizer, and that he was not allowed to ask the server how many were in an order. I knew his head would explode if he found out that one mushroom cap equaled a serving. When it arrived, imposing and luscious and overflowing with bread crumbs and mold, his taste buds exploded with delight instead.

You may deduce from all this that one of my favorite foods is a pizza with a six-cheese blend and double mushrooms, which I hardly ever get, as my husband is a dedicated carnivore and a fan of veggies.(6)

In fact, I believe mushroom pizza is nature’s nearly-perfect food. I say “nearly perfect,” because it does not contain all four of the food groups: salty, sticky, sweet, and crunchy.(7) Using those criteria, nature’s perfect food is the chocolate-covered pretzel – hold the crickets, please. It contains no cheese or mushrooms, but nothing’s that perfect. You could always eat it for dessert. No, wait, the perfect dessert is a cheese plate.

 

(1) Although it’s been a thing in many countries for thousands of years. They skip the chocolate in favor of toasting, I believe.

(2) Not the sort that one finds in unsavory locker rooms, though.

(3) It’s about the only way I get calcium, aside from the little chewy supplements.

(4) A relative once had a job picking mushrooms in a cave, a job for which, unsurprisingly, no experience is required. She didn’t last a day. I thought about getting her one of those grow-your-own mushroom kits for Christmas, but restrained myself. Now I wish I hadn’t.

(5) During my Girl Scout days, I would occasionally forage for delectable, easily identifiable morels, but now I indulge in mushrooms for which other people can be blamed, and sued, if I die.

(6) Really, he’ll eat anything you put in front of him, except veal (for ethical reasons). He even taught himself to tolerate okra, which he formerly hated. I don’t understand why he did this, but perhaps it was an exercise in overcoming prejudice, or maybe sliminess.

(7) You can get the crunchy element by making a frico, or by overbaking mac-n-cheese, which I heartily recommend.

A Marriage Made in the Kitchen

I think it all started with the naked Julia Child impressions. We were newly married and everything was fun. We weren’t entirely naked while cooking, of course – aprons were a requirement and oven mitts (worn wherever) were allowed. There were other rules, too – no deep-frying, for example, for obvious reasons. Using plummy, authoritative voices we would do a fictitious play-by-play of dinner preparation: “Place the turkey in the oven for 350 minutes at 120 degrees. Oopsie! [take slug of wine].”

Flour, eggs and Love

Of course, at that stage it wasn’t really a turkey. We were the newly married poor and subsisted on mac-n-cheese, frozen burritos, and anything else that cost $.27 or less. Cooking was simple, fun, and entertaining. Not that we could afford to entertain. All of our friends should be grateful for that.

We didn’t get serious about cooking until years later, when friends of ours came up with a recipe they called “Experimental Chicken.” It was wonderful, and was wonderfully different every time they cooked it. “By God,” I said, “if Tom and Leslie can cook, so can we!”

At the time, we weren’t foodies. Either they didn’t exist yet, or hadn’t made their presence known to the likes of us. Our early attempts at cooking were really “modifying” existing products. We’d take Hamburger Helper “Beef Stroganoff,” substitute stew meat for hamburger, and use real sour cream instead of the packaged powder that was supposed to morph somehow into a sauce. It may not have been actual cooking, but it was an improvement over the boxed version. We also improved mac-n-cheese by adding tuna and peas to it. Protein and veggies! What a great idea!

Then we branched out into original one-pot meals. (We still prefer one-pot meals. Both of us hate to do dishes.) “Cowboy beans” was one of our specialties: ground beef, pork-n-beans, and cheese. Call it minimalist cooking if you want to be kind. As we became more adventurous we began to add ingredients like refried beans, tomatoes, chiles, green peppers, onions, and assorted spices, then serve them with tortillas and salsa for do-it-yourself burritos. We never went back to the $.27 frozen ones.

At last the Food Network came into our lives. Stuck at the time in severe depression, I watched the shows endlessly for the calm voices and helpful tips. I finally learned the term “flavor profiles.” Our cooking life was revitalized. I became the chef and my husband was the sous-chef.

We seldom used recipes. The experimental nature of the original chicken inspiration had stuck with us. We belonged to the look-in-the-fridge-and-pantry-and-go from-there school. “Cut that chicken into bite-sized pieces,” I would say. “No, my bite-sized, not yours. Now pass me the paprika, please. The smoky paprika. Now, everyone into the pool! Mixy-mixy!” We developed our food repertoire to include a killer ratatouille (see wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and something that resembled a quiche.

Then came a bigger change – my back wouldn’t allow me to stand at the stove and the tremor in my hands made me dangerous with a knife. So Dan took over as head chef, and I became the food consultant. His first attempts were a little sad. “A casserole needs some moisture in it – milk, stock, or something – to hold it together, especially if there’s rice or noodles involved,” I would gently suggest.

Gradually Dan came into his own. I only had to answer questions about whether I wanted my fish baked or broiled, or whether sage or lemon pepper was needed. Once I explained them, he instantly caught on to shepherd’s pie and frittata. They’re now his signature dishes, so lovely that we could post pictures on the Internet if we were into food porn, and tastier than many a restaurant meal.

I still fondly remember those days of naked Julia Child impressions, though I have no particular desire to recreate them. But since then, our cooking partnership has evolved just as our marriage has – for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, with laughter and spice, and a willingness to let each other take the lead at different times. All in all, a tasty recipe for two.

 

This post first appeared on BlogHer, on March 26, 2016.

Love, Hate, and Food Fights

I don’t watch much sports. Except on the Food Network. Those competitions are the sports I both love and hate.

I love them because they are eerily involving. Even my husband, not a big fan of cooking shows, gets caught up in the action. “Chop the woman!” he’ll yell. “She left off the Japanese eggplant! Aw, I thought the old hippie was going to win!” (1)

I love them because people actually have to do something real to win, unlike many “reality” shows. There’s no prize for snagging a millionaire or pressuring small girls to dress like floozies and perform.(2)

I love them because people get the chance to try again. Many of the shows have “Redemption” episodes, or let eliminated contestants return as surprise competitors or sous-chefs. And many of the chefs appear on more than one of the shows. I’m sure I saw the Ukrainian woman from Beat Bobby Flay on Chopped and the uppity blonde with a posh accent from Chopped on Next Food Network Star.

But I hate the food competitions for the same reasons I hate most sports.(3)

The bragging, for one. Over-inflated self-confidence is so unappealing. And you hear the same inane platitudes from food competitors that you do from professional athletes. It makes me contrary.(4)

Just once I want someone to be realistic or unexpected or at least modest:

I brought my B- game today!

I’m going to give 75 percent!

I came to prove to my family I’m mediocre!

I’m not going to settle for anything less than 4th place!

I came to lose!

The war and violence metaphors. Most of these are clearly borrowed from the vocabulary of professional sports, and most of them just sound silly. Cupcake Wars – now there’s an oxymoron! Chopped. Cutthroat Kitchen.(5) Can we please have food without blood and mayhem? At least Guy has Grocery Games, and the violence is limited to (mostly) accidental ramming of shopping carts.

The snot factor. Settle down, now. Not in the food – in the contestants. One Top Chef contestant was so bad we took to calling him Snothead the Sommelier for his incessant unwelcome lectures on wine, whether the dish called for it or not.(6) One Next Food Network Star contestant got bounced because he smirked when he was pronounced safe. A judge changed her vote and we all cheered.

Sabotage. We’ll leave Cutthroat Kitchen out of this, since sabotage is its whole raison d’être. But honestly, there’s a lot of throwing people under the bus, especially when the chefs are supposed to work in teams.(7)  Then there’s plain pettiness – keeping all of an ingredient, refusing to clean the ice cream machine, pointing out that your dish doesn’t have the flaw the judges just dinged someone for.

One last general gripe: Food Network used to show you how to cook things.(8) Now such actually useful shows are relegated to daytime hours, while prime time is filled with competitions, road shows, and “Please Save My Business” shows.(9)

Still, with all their flaws, I can’t stop watching food sports. They’re addictive, like potato chips or cookies. Mmmm, cookies. ::drools::

 

(1) Unless my husband isn’t watching because they have to prepare live seafood. Then he goes all Buddhist until the crustaceans are cooked, when he’ll dig right in. (He still calls Emeril Lagasse “The Evil Cook” and refuses to watch him since he threw live crayfish into a hot pan and laughed about it.)

(2) Think Jon-Benet Ramsey. (What narcissist father names his daughter after him like that anyway, without adding “ette,” “ine,” or “le”?) And don’t tell me that pageants build self-esteem. Only for the winners.

(3) Except the Olympics. I don’t usually hate the Olympics. Just the media coverage of them. And the bikinis they make the women beach volleyball players wear while the men wear baggy shorts. At least on the Food Network, everyone wears chef jackets and aprons.

(4) Okay. Contrarier. (I like the sound of that word. Trademark!)

(5) I actually like Cutthroat Kitchen. Goofy and evil at the same time, like most of my friends. Although the Camp Cutthroat episodes were just over-the-top WRONG! I could barely watch them.

(6) Marcel Vigneron was a close second for sheer annoyance factor – so much so that the other Top Chef contestants tried to shave his head – but he improved with a little perspective and less extreme hair styling. Now he’s engagingly weird without pissing everyone off. Still has ego issues, but for chefs, TV personalities, and sports figures, that’s practically a requirement.

(7) Hosts make this worse when they set up the contestants by asking “Who do you think should go home?” or “Why do you deserve to win?”

(8) Not that I actually ever made any of the recipes from them. Except once I tried to make The Barefoot Contessa’s triple ginger cookies. I actually learned something from that experience, too: When she says, “jumbo eggs,” she really means jumbo eggs. Medium ones don’t work at all.

(9) Here again, there’s one I like – Restaurant Impossible. Part cooking, part decorating, part group (or family) therapy. Not to mention the theatrical sledgehammer scenes, which may be a metaphor for the whole show.