DINNER ‘CHEZ KAISER’ – BY ELLIN CURLEY

Sometimes things happen that everyone involved remembers fondly. These events become part of a family’s oral history – one of the stories retold and enjoyed. Our family has a very special ‘Remember when …” story. It’s special because it involves two families and three generations.

In August of 1996, our close friends, the Millers, were visiting us in Connecticut, from England, with their two children. The parents were Christine and Jay and the kids were Sam, age 17 and Katie, age 15. My husband at the time was Larry Kaiser and our kids were David, age 16 and Sarah, age 11. So now you know all the main characters in this tale.

Christine, Jay and I decided to take a day trip to a preserved Quaker village in Massachusetts. That left Larry alone with the kids all day, at home. Larry decided that they all needed a project to work on. So he decided that they would surprise the traveling parents with a fancy dinner, “Chez Kaiser” when they returned home.

Larry was a fun, energetic guy so he made this into a big adventure for the kids. They all went crazy in the local gourmet supermarket, Stew Leonard’s. They bought tons and tons of food! They planned five courses, from corn on the cob to seafood to two choices of beef, then cheese and fruit and finally, dessert. They bought much of the food ready-made, but they still had to do some cooking and lots of prep work. This also required serious organizing in order to pull this off well.

They set a beautiful table with the good china. They plated everything with style and flair. Larry paired wines with each course. Katie knew some French, so she printed out a full menu, in French!

Menu plus Sarah and Katie on right and Larry on bottom left, Christine, Larry’s Dad and me, all at dinner party

Since they were going to all this trouble already, they decided to invite my kids’ grandparents too, who lived nearby. So my mother was invited and so was Larry’s father and step-mother. Now it was dinner for eleven!

When Christine, Jay and I arrived home, we were ceremoniously ushered into the fully set up dining room. We were overwhelmed. It was also a great surprise to see the grandparents there. And the kids were so excited!

Larry and the kids did all the serving, with great bravado. They cleared the table after each course and brought out and served the following course throughout the meal. No grown-up, other than Larry, was allowed to help. The kids even poured the wine for us! It was a classy event all around.

Larry and Katie serving

It was an epic evening. Everyone had a wonderful time. The enthusiasm and pride that the kids exuded made everything more delicious and more special. This was one of Larry’s stellar moments as a parent.

We all remember it as a joyful time of bonding, between families and between generations. It is a cherished memory for all of us.

Dinner table – My mom, Sam and Christine on left, Larry’s Dad, then Me, Sarah and Larry’s step-mom on right.

SMALL VICTORIES

Last night, dinner was perfect. I cook dinner every night except for the few when we are away from home, order in, or actually go out to dinner. Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of time pondering what to cook.

When we lived in Boston, we ate out. A lot. There were so many good places to eat, too. A lot of our choices took us down to the wharf where they had some great places for fish and lobster and clams. A lot of them were shorts and sandals kinds of places and some of these rather rough little restaurants had the best seafood you could imagine.

Dinner, anyone?

Then came The Big Dig. Between the construction which seemed to have closed every street in Boston and turned the usually difficult traffic into a calamity, those restaurants disappeared. Some of them reopened in other places in the city. They kept the same name, but they weren’t the same restaurants. They got fancy. All the effort that had previously gone into creating great food now went into dining room decor.

We left Boston. Of the many things we never imagined we’d miss was food.

The Blackstone Valley has its wonders. A beautiful place … with such pathetic restaurants. It must be something about we the people. Food is drab. No spices. Anything stronger than salt is regarded with deep suspicion, so bland is the name of the game. When anyone asks what we’ve got in the way of dining, I say “white bread and brown gravy.” But that’s not fair. A few places also make really good hamburgers.

We stopped going out to dinner except for very special occasions. I’m pretty sure there were better restaurants some years back, but they closed down. So we eat at home and periodically, we develop an intense boredom with food. It isn’t lack of appetite, though we don’t eat as much as we used to. It’s more that I can’t think of one more way to make chicken that doesn’t seem drab.

My goal in home food preparation is to keep feeding us without boring us into starvation.

Last night, I made “breakfast for dinner.” We don’t eat breakfast. We have coffee. I have an English muffin too. Garry just drinks a lot of coffee. Sandwiches suffice for lunch. This week, we’ve had chili, one of my standards. Sweet-and-sour chicken. Baked salmon. Shrimp with onions and peppers over rice. And frozen pizza.

I had cheese, bacon, and eggs in the fridge. Time to do something with them.

I make bacon in the microwave. Do not judge me. I do not like cleaning grease off half the kitchen after frying bacon, so I have developed a way of cooking it in the microwave that skips most of the grease and still turns out a pretty good platter. Timing has been the major issue, but last night I got it perfect. For 8 slices of bacon, two layers of paper towels on a platter (make sure it is small enough to rotate). Another double layer of towels on top of the raw bacon. Cook at full power for five minutes. Let it sit for a minute or two. Turn it back on for another 2-1/2 minutes at full power. Perfect and not all wrinkly. Chewy, but not raw. Everything was still hot when it got to the plate —  a small miracle in its own right.

Even the cheese omelets were perfect. I was still congratulating myself on dinner as we were going to bed.

It has been a long month and it’s not over. This was a little victory, but a victory. One dinner where each piece was as close to perfect as it could make it. Easy to clean up after, too. If I have to spend an hour cleaning up the mess, I feel a lot less victorious.

It’s the small things, you know? Big things can be overwhelming. These days, in a time when there is far too much “big stuff” blowing in the wind, my world is complete if dinner is perfect. Small victories help keep the wheels of life rolling smoothly.

MEN AND THEIR KITCHEN GADGETS – ELLIN CURLEY

My adult son has always been cooking averse. Kitchen challenged. He would grill when weather permitted, but otherwise he ate food that came in packages. His culinary interest ranged from heating something in the microwave to heating something in the oven. When he discovered that frozen vegetables come in microwaveable steamer bags, his stove top became obsolete.

Then he discovered modern kitchen technology. He is now the proud owner of a sous vide machine and vacuum sealer (explanation coming), an air fryer (self-explanatory) and a pressure cooker (see “Top Chef” and other Food Network shows). Each contraption comes with its own recipes, manuals and propaganda.

Every day now I hear about the wonders of these amazing machines. I also hear about the equally amazing culinary wonders they create. Each gadget has its own strengths and weaknesses and you have to learn what works well in each one.

For example, the sous vide machine is a device that cooks vacuum sealed food in a water bath. You can bring food to precisely controlled temperatures and the water is circulated to insure consistent temperatures throughout. The benefit of this technique is that the food is very slowly steamed, which seals in the moisture and enhances the flavors.

sous-vide-machineMeat comes out particularly well this way, cooked in marinades, sauces or just plain. In conventional ovens and grills, meat shrinks quite a bit in the cooking process because it loses liquid, and therefore flavor. This doesn’t happen with the sous vide (or with the pressure cooker). Oddly enough, the sous vide also excels at making puddings (including crème brûlée) and cakes (including cheesecakes).

My son’s next big boy toy, the pressure cooker, cooks food in liquid, under pressure, in a sealed container. This results in very rapid cooking, similar to braising. The pot roast that would take four hours on the stove or in an oven, would take just one hour in the pressure cooker. The process also locks in flavor and moisture, as does the sous vide. The pressure cooker also bakes and makes other unexpected dishes. My son said that the brownies he made in it were moist and fudgey and awesome!

The air fryer sounds amazing to me. It cooks by circulating hot air around the food. So you can use a small amount of oil to create wonderfully crispy foods like fries and chips. Apparently you use 80% less fat and get 95% of the flavor and crispness of regular frying. You can bake in this device as well.

air-fryer

If all this isn’t techie enough for you, these gadgets can also be connected to your iPhone or iPad. You can set temperatures and times on your phone and the phone will tell you when your food is done. This level of technology excites my son and terrifies me.

Anyway, now my son calls me several times a day to discuss the night’s meal. First I hear about the menu and techniques planned for dinner. Later I get a progress report or a call for help. Finally I get the review of the finished meal. We talk about any shortcomings or failures and try to figure out how to make it turn out better the next time. Sometimes this involves referencing a cookbook or an appliance manual.

I am thrilled that my son has discovered the joy of cooking. He has branched out and is now looking at cookbooks and recipes online. He has actually used the stove. He’s learning the proper way to sear meat and sauté onions. He’s thrilled that he’s eating healthy (he’s on a diet). He’s even more thrilled that he’s saving money. He rarely eats out when he used to go out several times a week. He’s also saving money because buying raw ingredients is cheaper than buying prepared foods. He can’t believe how much money he used to waste!

I’m happy to be able to talk food and cooking with my son. I love cooking and have been a foodie since before that was an actual word. But it was not a subject I could share with my son. Now we share recipes

So, if you want to share your love of cooking with your non-cooking son, son-in-law or husband, go out and get them a cool kitchen appliance and sit back and enjoy the show.

COTTAGE FRIES

This ultimate comfort food is called by various names, depending on where you live. Home fries, cottage fries, etc. The recipe began as a way to use leftover potatoes, but it has become a staple of diner breakfasts all across America.

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You can use leftover potatoes if you happen to have some. You could also, in theory, use canned boiled potatoes but I think they taste kind of tinny. I cut up whatever potatoes I have in the house … there are always some potatoes in the bin.

Tonight, I used the remainder of a big bag of Idahos. They were too old to bake. I had to pick out the eyes which were barely this side of becoming a plant. There were a few bad spots to remove, too. Nonetheless, I had more than enough to make home fries that would generously serve four adults.

So here’s the recipe. It’s a seat-of-your-pants recipe, so you need to have kitchen courage in place. Be bold.

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

I prefer corn oil because it’s pretty heavy-duty as a lubricant and doesn’t easily burn. It tastes okay and won’t kill you with cholesterol. Olive oil doesn’t taste right in this recipe and other oils burn too easily, at least in my opinion.

You can use potatoes that are past their prime. You don’t have to peel them. I don’t peel potatoes; it’s against my principles.

Wash the potatoes, remove eyes and bad spots. Cut them into pieces suitable for frying.

Boil the potatoes until they are fork tender. Don’t abandon them and wander off to the computer or television. If you over-cook them, they’ll be good for mashing, but not frying.  The hardest part of this is getting the potatoes soft enough to eat, but not mushy. After 10 minutes, start checking until you think you’ve got it.

my skillet

You’re going to need a deep-frying pan. I used to cook with cast iron, but it’s too heavy for me now. I have had to rethink it, so I’m trying heavy Calphalon. I miss cast iron, but I can’t manage it anymore.

While potatoes are boiling, fry the garlic, onions and peppers.  When the potatoes are ready, rinse them with cold water, drain very thoroughly (pat them dry with paper towels if necessary) and 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.

home fries 6

It’s done when you think it is, when it tastes the way you want it to taste … and the rest of the meal is ready. As long as you add oil as needed and keep the heat moderate … and don’t walk away and leave it to scorch — this is a dish that will wait for you. Keep moving it around with a spatula.

It’s delicious. If you have leftovers, you can reheat them for another meal or freeze them for one of your “I don’t feel like cooking” days. Great with eggs or anything else.

One of my favorite comfort foods.

FOOD NETWORK ADDICTION – ELLIN CURLEY

I love Food Network. Not the informative, “how to” shows. I only watch cooking competitions, like Masterchef, Top Chef, Food Network Star, The Taste, Food Truck Race, Chopped, Worst Cook in America, Cupcake Wars, Cake Wars, etc. I think my obsession with cooking competitions comes from my basic approach to cooking.

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Most meals for me are along the lines of Chopped. Here’s what I have in my kitchen. What can I make in under an hour that my family will eat and maybe even like? It’s all about improvising on the fly. Inventing things, putting things together that don’t normally go and making it work.

For me, every night has the intellectual and technical challenges of a cooking competition. I’m always racing the clock with limited ingredients trying to please the tough and brutally honest critics and judges I call my family. I think that’s why I really get off watching other people, usually more knowledgeable and skilled than I am, doing the same thing.

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One of my favorite shows is Masterchef Jr. and I even got my husband hooked on this one. Here 8-14 year olds do everything the adults do but with better attitudes and sportsmanship, less arrogance and a cuteness quotient that is off the charts.

What I can’t wrap my head around is how a child that young has had enough hours in their short lives to learn how to make souffle, macaroons, beef Wellington and fancy fresh pasta dishes in one hour and without a recipe. Granted a kid’s brain is not clogged with all the esoteric information, to do lists, worries and song lyrics that fill adult brains. It means that the complex recipes don’t have to fight through a hoarder’s nightmare of irrelevant data to come to the surface.

Other than an hour or two of homework only part of the year, nothing is stopping these kids from spending 11 hours a day reading cookbooks, working in the kitchen and watching Food Network. To be fair to myself, this is not an option for me.

corn in kitchen

When I watch these kids, I feel inadequate and embarrassed for me and my kids, who had no such superpowers when they were that age. But I also feel pride and hope. It’s wonderful to know that some kids today have discipline, drive and passion and can become experts in any field that interests them. That gives me hope for humanity’s future.

As for my cooking competition addiction; that serves no higher purpose than to give me something with some redeeming value to watch while my husband plays video games. I may get a few ideas for recipes or learn a new technique here and there. But basically I’m okay with just calling this “my guilty pleasure.”

MY FAMILY COOKBOOK – ELLIN CURLEY

I have a home-made family cookbook that spans three generations and two continents. It is as much a family album as it is a cookbook. It contains recipes from my teens through today. It contains recipes from many people, including my grandmother, mother, and others who played a big part in my life.

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The cookbook started when I was getting ready to leave home for the first time to go to law school. While I was growing up, my mother had many cooks, none of whom had the patience to teach an eager little girl. So at the age of 22, I could barely boil water.

But I loved food. I was dying to finally learn how to cook. My mother, though she rarely chopped or seared anything herself, was obsessed with food. She went to bed reading cookbooks and magazine recipes and when she died I found boxes of clipped out recipes that had never made it into her personal cookbooks. The recipes that had made it had been lovingly pasted into large three-ring binders, divided into categories like a regular cookbook.

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I realized that getting my apartment gave me the opportunity to learn how to cook while I was also learning how to be a lawyer. Before I left home, Mom and I went through all of her cookbooks and we picked out the recipes that were the best, simplest and hopefully the most fool-proof for me to take with me. I photocopied or typed these recipes at a time when the new, revolutionary feature on my electric typewriter was white-out! The advantage of the photocopied recipes (other than not having to type them) was that they have my mother’s handwritten notes all over them. “More garlic” and “more seasoning” were common comments. Suggestions to “try” this or that were also scattered throughout.

These days, when I look through MY giant cookbook, I see her handwriting and hear her words and share the recipes with her again and again.

I learned to be a decent cook during my 1970’s law school years, though many of my best desserts involved jello products. Since then I have collected recipes from various sources, including from loved ones.

kitchen in hadley

My kids’ other grandmother and their Aunt are well represented in my book, as are friends and restaurants whose dishes we loved so much we had to make them at home.

“Christine’s Beef with Horseradish Sauce” brings back memories of a family picnic with four young children in the idyllic English countryside. “Meryl’s Passover Cookies” evoke memories of shared holidays over the years.

Now I have a separate dessert cookbook, with no jello in it at all. Most of my newer recipes are printed out from the internet. Looking through my cookbook is not only a way to decide what to have for dinner. It’s also a way for me to reconnect with my past and with the people who made me the person — and cook — I am today.

WHAT’S COOKING

Multi-tasking is a great concept. I’m usually pretty good at it. I can listen to an audiobook while I edit photographs, or play a simple game ( but I can’t listen to a book while I write or read). I can also listen to an audiobook, edit pictures, and cook. Usually.

As look as I remember what’s cooking.

Chicken soup 1

A lot of the cooking devices I use these days turn themselves off. They’re on timers. Both my oven, the big one that’s part of the range, and the convection oven. The rice cooker, and my microwave have timers too.

Which is how come I forgot, yesterday, that I was steaming shrimp while rice cooked. And while I was listening and assembling a photo post.

Until the moment when I smelled that old familiar acrid smell drifting on the breeze. The scent of torched food.

I haven’t burned anything that badly in a long time, probably more than 20 years. But I did it thoroughly. So completely I had to throw the entire pound of shrimp and worse, I had to toss the pot. That’s a major loss. I hope I can replace it.

Lechmere advert

I’ve had it so long. I bought it at Lechmere, a great store which was put out of business for no good reason 20 some odd years ago. It sold all kinds of appliances and housewares … good stuff, not junk. None of the stores that rushed to fill the gap are half as good or carry the quality and variety you could find at Lechmere.

The moral of the story? When multi-tasking, remember what’s cooking.