IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER

It has been many years since food was all that important to me. I used to eat more than I do. I can’t eat so much — of anything — these days.

Chinese lily

I was a really good cook, back when cooking mattered more than it does now. These days, my goal is to turn out tasty meals that take under half an hour to prepare — half that to clean up. Other than Japanese food, we no long bother to go out to eat. The restaurants in this area are … I’m searching for a polite way to say this … uninspired. Bland. If I want something with a lot of flavor, I make it myself.

I learned to cook Chinese cuisine a long time ago. Way back when I was first married and we went out to eat Chinese several times a week, which on an adjunct professor’s salary (I was still in college), was burdensome.

I figured if millions of Chinese women could do it, I could too. I bought a cookbook. A wok and a cleaver. I found ingredients. It was 1966. There were no oriental grocery stores locally. Nor did I have a home computer or an Internet through which I could buy anything. I winged it.

kitchen condiments

Last night I made a beef stir fry for dinner. These days, I have a rice cooker. It makes preparing rice a no-brainer. I had frozen Chinese veggies, hoisin sauce and four kinds of soy at hand. Fresh ginger, chopped garlic. Broth. I diced the steak earlier in the day.

Cooking was done in a flash. The labor-intensive part is in the slicing and dicing. Cooking is accomplished quickly, at high heat and of course, the rice in the cooker takes care of itself.

I remembered how I labored over those first Chinese meals. The cookbook open on the counter. Timing the rice. Measuring carefully each ingredient. Now I eyeball everything, throw it in the big iron skillet and I know by the way it smells I’ve got it right.

I guess that’s the payoff for forty plus years of cooking daily or nearly so. There ought to be some benefit, right?


Food for the Soul (and the Stomach)

COMFORT FOOD – HOME FRIES

This ultimate comfort food has a variety of names. Cottage fries, home fries, onion fries. Breakfast fries. Whatever they’re called, it’s a way to use leftover potatoes and a staple of diner breakfasts.

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You can use leftover boiled potatoes if have some. You can even use canned potatoes in a pinch. Here’s the recipe. By nature, it is imprecise. And easy.

4 - 5 large, washed unpeeled potatoes, cubed
1 or 2 large onions, chopped
Salt
Paprika
Pepper
Garlic (chopped or powder)
Cumin or chili powder
Optional: 1 - 2 banana peppers (mildly hot Hungarian peppers)
Oil for frying.

All spices are "to taste."

You can use potatoes that are past their prime. Whether or not you peel them is up to you, but you do have to scrub them well, remove eyes and any suspicious spots. Cut them into bite-size pieces. Any shape will do, but it’s easier if the pieces are more or less the same size.

Boil the potatoes until they’re tender, but not mushy. Check after 5 minutes. Keep checking until a fork goes into the potatoes without difficulty. The smaller you cut them up, the faster they cook.

home fries 6

While the potatoes are cooking, fry the garlic, onions, and peppers.  When the potatoes are ready, drain them, rinse with cold water. Pat them dry with a paper towel. Add them to the onion and pepper mix. Add spices. The paprika is for color. If you like things spicy (I do), you can use hot Hungarian paprika.

It’s done when you think it is, when it tastes the way you want it to taste, as browned as you like. Or, when the rest of the meal is ready. As long as you add oil as needed and don’t let them scorch, this dish will wait for you. Keep moving it around the pan with a spatula.

You can make more than you need. You can reheat leftovers or freeze them for one of those “I don’t feel like cooking” days. Great with eggs or any main course.

SAVING SANDY

A bunch of us had gathered at Sandy’s house. She was a cook, aspiring to be a professional. When she invited us for a meal, it was good. Always a good feeding and delicious. We were her test subjects, never knowing what great idea she’d come up with. Whatever, we were happy to eat it.

On this day, Sandy was dressed — as always — in a loose Indian blouse and long skirt. The blouse had angel-wing sleeves. Very pretty, if slightly inappropriate for working in the kitchen. All of us had been smoking a little hashish. Hashish was ubiquitous, available everywhere. The appetizer for dinner to come.

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“Hey,” I said. “Sandy! You are on fire.” Sure enough, the wings of her blouse had passed smoldering — I’d missed that — and were in flames.

“Oh,” said Sandy, flustered.

All the friends stood there, staring at the pretty fire. Dummies, I thought. “Hey,” I yelled, “Don’t just stand there. DO something.”

Then, I put out the fire. Cotton doesn’t flame up quickly and if one is attentive, it’s easy to douse. Sandy thanked me profusely for a perfectly normal thing I’d have done for anyone. What was puzzling was how come the rest of the gang had stood there with their mouths open, apparently at a loss to know what to do. “Not good in a crisis,” I surmised.

“No one else tried to put out the fire,” Sandy pointed out.

“Not a big deal,” I said. And it wasn’t. I don’t know why I was the only one who realized that “Sandy is on fire” should be followed by putting out the fire.

Sandy stopped wearing loose clothing in the kitchen and stopped inviting those particular friends for dinner. Shortly thereafter, following a misunderstanding with the local constabulary about growing certain plants on her balcony, she moved to San Francisco and opened a chain of take-out restaurants.

I visited her there. She’s doing fine and no longer feels obliged to grow her own on the balcony. In any case, it’s legal.


Author’s Note: Today’s Daily Prompt: Daring Do, is another rerun. My original is still posted. This version has been lightly edited. I also changed the picture. I do have to thank WordPress for this unexpected opportunity to get another run out of an archived post.

AFTER THE TURKEY

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I’ve learned a lot over the years. By my calculation, this is my 49th year of making Thanksgiving, not counting a few years when I was a guest at someone else’s table.

I remember when the torch passed and my parents no longer wanted the job. Suddenly, they were just as happy to eat my food. I knew at the time this was a significant change in our relationship, that something important had changed.

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Since then — 40 years later — I’ve been making holidays. Although my son does the cooking, or most of it anyhow, he still doesn’t know how to make the holiday. How to set a table, figure out which dishes to use. Which flatware. Whether or not to put out the “good” glassware (but unlike me, he knows on which side the forks go versus the knives).

And despite them being among the easiest recipes in the world, no one but me can make the cranberry sauces.

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Things I’ve learned after 49 years of family dinners:

  1. Don’t get a big centerpiece. It takes up too much room and will be in the way when people are trying to converse.
  2. Not only do place settings not have to match, making each setting different is a very cool “look” (though I didn’t do it this year).
  3. No matter how many people you have coming to dinner, there will be much more food than even the hungriest crowd can possibly consume.
  4. Don’t save the mashed potatoes. No one is going to eat them.
  5. The turkey will be fully cooked at least an hour before your calculations say it will.
  6. If you cook the turkey to an internal temperature of 180 degrees, it will taste like sawdust and no amount of gravy will make a difference.
  7. Buy a fresh turkey, not a frozen one. It’s worth it. Fresh turkey tastes so much better!
  8. Put a clear plastic cover over your good tablecloth. Your guests won’t mind and gravy does not come out completely, no matter what formula you use to treat the stains.

When I’m feeling ambitious, I get more creative with table settings. I have a lot of “fiesta ware,” bright, solid-color dishes that mix and match with other pottery. I’ve given away my 16-place-setting porcelain. Storing it took up more space than I was willing to devote to something I used maximum twice a year.

I don’t buy expensive stemware. It’s not that kind of crowd.

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I don’t bother to point out no one is going to eat that much food. Don’t mention that nine pies for seven guests is a bit much. My daughter-in-law is Italian. I’m Jewish. My husband is Black. Excessive food is a cultural and genetic mandate. Please eat. Please overeat. If you don’t leave the table feeling slightly ill from over-consumption, I haven’t done my job.

The good news? I can put together a nice looking holiday table in under 20 minutes. Add on another half hour because I have to wash everything. I haven’t used it since last Christmas and dust will have its way. Still, that’s pretty good.

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Gone are the big floral displays, the fragile serving dishes. The stemware broke and was never replaced. Ditto the serving dishes. A nice table is welcoming. A super fancy, overwhelmingly elegant table is less so and can be off-putting.

Less fuss means I don’t end the holiday exhausted and cranky. I might just survive through Christmas. Imagine that!

IT’S NOT PIE WITHOUT CRUST

Pie – Food evokes all the senses: the scent of pastry baking, the sound of a fork clinking on a plate… I don’t think this is going to make anyone’s mouth water, but this is the way it happened. Another true story from the giant closet of memories I call life.


dessert Island

I do not have a hand for pastry. I have had it demonstrated step-by-step and followed along as my gifted friends made pastry. With the flick of a wrist, in no time flat, they had that sucker on a big floured board, rolled out and voilà. Light, perfectly flaky pie crust.

I was glad to discover that the secret ingredient of at least two women whose baking was out of this world was the pre-made crust they bought at the grocery store. It made me feel a little better. They made the filling, but not the crust.

I make great filling.

Yet, I was troubled by my inability to conquer pastry. I’d watched pie crust being made. It appeared easy enough. There seemed no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it myself. I cook well. I make bread. Excellent bread and by hand, if you please. I also make cake and cookies from scratch. You should try my ginger snaps — they are fabulous (if I do say so myself).

My husband comes from a West Indian family. Spicy meat pies are near and dear to his heart and I had just gotten his mother’s secret recipe for filling. She bought pre-made crust and suggested I should too. She even told me what brand to buy.

I was going to make my own pie crust. No store-bought stuff for me!

I did it. On previous attempts, it had fallen apart when I tried to roll it out. By golly, I was not going to let that happen again. I put the flour in the bowl. I added the butter, and a pinch of salt. Mixed it with a fork. I did that multi-knife chopping thing that turns it into dough, but maybe I didn’t do such a great job. And it was too dry.

So, I added (per the recipe) a bit of ice water.

Which made it too wet. So I added a bit more flour. Then a bit more ice water. A bit more butter. Finally, I could roll it out. I couldn’t roll it thin, but I figured a little thicker wouldn’t matter. I was making meat pies … so a slightly heavier crust would be fine. Wouldn’t it?

I made two meat pies and they looked fabulous. When they came out of the oven, they smelled like heaven and the crust was gorgeous, a baked-to-perfection shade of golden brown.

I proudly presented one to Garry, who took a knife and fork and began to dig in. He could not cut the through crust. He couldn’t even scratch it. Finally, he took a knife and stabbed it with both hands. It would have killed a lesser pie.

NOTE: Garry was a Marine. He does 200 push-ups every morning and has for his entire adult life. He’s no sissy. This was more than 10 years ago, so he was even stronger back then.

The knife bounced off leaving the crust unscathed. Garry kept apologizing, as if it were his fault … trying, I suppose, to spare my feelings. It was hopeless.

I eventually pried the top off both pies and we ate the filling. The crust could have been used as a building material. The one thing it was not, was food.

Is anyone surprised to learn this was my last, absolutely final, attempt to make my own pie crust?

Share Your World – 2014 Week 38

If you could be a tree or plant, what would you be?

aloe veraI think I’d like to be something useful. Maybe aloe vera. Good for skin, burns, hair. A very useful plant and it smells good too.

If you could have a servant come to your house every day for one hour, what would you have them do?

Cook dinner!

kitchen condiments

If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?

Salmon, probably. It’s my favorite fish. I’d honestly prefer shrimp, but my cholesterol wouldn’t hear of it.

atlantic_salmon

What was one of your first moneymaking jobs (other than babysitting or newspaper delivery)?

I washed poodles. By the time I was done with that job, I never wanted to bathe another animal of any kind. But I have. I have scrubbed many, many dogs, cats and other critters over many decades. But I never use poodle shampoo or paint their nails some weird color.

ANOTHER WEEK OF SHARING MY WORLD

EACH IN ITS PLACE ON PLATE AND PALATE

Unlikely Pairing – Bacon and chocolate, caramel and cheddar… Is there an unorthodox food pairing you really enjoy? Share with us the weirdest combo you’re willing to admit that you like — and how you discovered it.


Unorthodox food pairing? What, pray tell, would orthodox be? Is there a dogmatic approach to food consumption of which I am unaware?

spices in the kitchenI don’t put sugar on my eggs, or eat bacon with my ice cream. I don’t eat bacon at all, really. It’s unhealthy, despite it having become terribly (and I said terribly with intentional punniness) trendy.

I’m a food conservative. If you need to put a classification on my relationship to cuisine. I’m in favor of not mixing it all up into a gloppy mess. If I’ve taken the trouble to cook three or four components to create a meal — perhaps chicken limone, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh asparagus with a hint of butter sauce — I want to be able to taste each part of the meal separately. I want YOU to taste each of them separately, too. If you are one of those people who likes to mix everything into one yucky heap, I will sit across the table and glare malevolently at you until you finally ask me what’s wrong.

I will then tell you. In considerable detail, probably far more detail than you wanted to hear.  If you argue, I will explain the intricacies of the preparation — not to mention the labor I put into producing these gourmet delights.  And how by mixing them, you have nullified my efforts and personally offended me.

Telling me something like “But that’s the way I like it” will win you an invitation to go buy an everything pizza downtown. You are not worthy of my table. If you have, perchance, put ketchup on it, back away from the table and leave quietly before I kill you.

I guess the answer is that I don’t eat weird combinations of foods because I like every dish in its proper place on plate and palate.

Should I apologize for this? I don’t think so.

Back on the Chain Gang

Last night I calculated I have been cooking dinners for me and a husband and/or children, other family and friends for just shy of 50 years. Half a century.

I’m a good cook. I like food and since I can’t afford to order in or eat out very often, I have to make it myself. That’s why I learned to prepare Chinese cuisine. I figured if all those Chinese women can do it, I probably can too. As it turns out, while I’m not a fancy Chinese cook, I can produce credible Chinese-style dishes. I can also cook pretty good Caribbean and Italian food, thanks to Garry’s mom and a long list of Italian co-workers armed with grandma’s best recipes.

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I’ve got a “to die for” chili recipe from Grandma Kraus, adapted for current tastes and some traditional Jewish recipes gotten from family, friends and miscellaneous Israeli pals during my sojourn abroad.

So I cook well. If I make an effort, I cook very well. I just don’t want to.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a festival, company coming, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover or Arbor Day. I do not want to cook. As a result? I cook pretty much every day because Garry doesn’t. If I don’t cook, he won’t eat. He’s already too thin (would he care to take a few of my spare pounds? I’m willing and eager to share). Meanwhile, if I don’t come up with tempting dishes, he will fade to nothing.

So I cook. What he is going to do while I’m not kitchen-able is interesting to contemplate. My daughter-in-law has promised to make sure he doesn’t became a wraith. That would be good.

What is it about cooking I don’t like? Mostly, having to do it. It’s late. I’m tired. I want to eat. I don’t feel like peeling, chopping, sautéing, whatever-ing. There’s no specific part of the process I particularly loathe. I’m just done with cooking and if I never have to do it again, that would be fine with me. Something tells me that’s not going to happen.

Morning light in my kitchen as coffee brews ...

My mother was smart. A terrible cook. The food she prepared was tasteless. Dry. At its finest, unimaginative and bland. At its worst, inedible. No one ever begged her to make that special dish of hers. If she said she didn’t care to cook that night (usually because she was involved in some other project, like hooking a rug or glazing a pot or completing an oil painting), we all leapt to our feet and volunteered to find our own lunch or dinner. “Please, Mom, don’t worry. We’ll take care of it.”

Anything to avoid Mom’s home cooking.

I should have followed her example. She was really a very smart lady. I didn’t realize how smart until long after I’d moved away from home. Oh well. Too soon old. Too late smart, eh?

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PERMANENT K. P.