TASTING EVERYTHING – Marilyn Armstrong

I’m a firm believer in tasting each item on your plate separately. Why? Because I put effort into cooking each part of the meal and I want you to taste it.

I’m in favor of not mixing your whole meal into one gloppy mess. If I’ve made the effort to cook three or four separate components to make a meal for example 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 mixes everything into one 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 what is wrong. In considerable detail, probably more detail than you want to hear.

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 “But that’s the way I like it” will win you an invitation to go buy an everything pizza. You are not worthy of my table. If you have, perchance, put ketchup on it, just back away from the table and leave quietly. It’s for your own safety.

I have figured out that I’m not “typical” as far as this style of eating goes. I often feel like I should never bother to cook anything more complex than pasta or chili. Or stew. Why bother to make separate items if no one can tell which is which? Why not just throw it all in one pot and cook the hell out of it? It’s one of many reasons I’ve lost my interest in cooking.

THE JOY OF COOKING SHOWS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

The less I cook, the more I watch cooking shows on TV. I particularly love baking shows and I haven’t baked in years. But I’m obviously not watching these shows to improve my cooking skills or to learn new techniques or even to collect new recipes. I think for me, it’s more of an outlet.

I did once replay a Bobby Flay show a few times so I could write down his recipe for baked meatballs. We still use this as our go-to meatball recipe and it comes out great every time. But that was the exception, not the rule.

Bobby Flay

Since menopause, I’ve had to watch my weight (I fortunately never had to before).

I gain easily so I had to pay attention to what and how much I ate. Then over a year ago, I had to start taking Prednisone and I slowly gained ten pounds over the course of 15 months. This is a common side effect of Prednisone. Most people gain a lot more than I did, but I was actively ‘dieting’ to keep the weight gain down to a minimum.

This is particularly frustrating because I love food – I love to eat and I love to cook. I once created a whole line of baked goods for a business that never took off. I’ve put together several of my own cookbooks and I used to constantly look for new recipes to add to them.

One of my own recipe collections

I tried to cook something ‘interesting’ every night when my husband was still working and I came up with creative ways to use leftovers. Recently my husband was warned he was about to become pre-diabetic. He had to lose weight, cut down on sugar and alcohol to prevent it from happening.

He lost 30-pounds and is now as obsessed with maintaining his weight as I am. So no more rich sauces and cheesy dishes for us!

Recipes I adapted or created for my defunct English Dessert business

We got an air fryer (which I highly recommend) so we can still have French Fries and crispy chicken wings without any fat. But most nights we eat plain grilled meat, a baked potato, and vegetables.

Tom does the grilling and I occasionally roast something in the oven or cook an actual vegetable recipe, as opposed to plain, boiled or steamed veggies.

Air Fryer

But my love of food and creative cooking has not diminished. So I get my foodie fix by watching TV. My favorite shows these days are The Great British Baking Show, The Best Baker in America, Masterchef, and Masterchef Junior and Top Chef. I find that these shows have the best cooks and bakers and the nicest contestants.

The level of skill and knowledge is very high, as is the spirit of camaraderie as well as competition. The plating and decorating is usually impeccable and creative. Also, the shows have the classiest hosts and judges and the best production values.

Best Baker in America winner last season

I’m still amazed that an eight or nine-year-old can bake a macaroon or an éclair without a recipe, in one hour, even if they’ve never made one before. The amount of baseline skill and knowledge this implies is mind-boggling. The complex and imaginative dishes the food show contestants come up within an hour or less blows me away. I can’t seem to create dishes in anything in less than an hour and my dishes are far from sophisticated, mouth-watering of beautiful to look at.

Masterchef Junior contestants

These cooking competitions are at a level way above mine. I couldn’t even begin to copy any of their recipes. Tom and I have always longed to learn how to plate elegantly, but we’ve never gone beyond making a vegetable puree and serving it under each piece of protein, a common practice on cooking shows.

The decorations on TV seem to require lots of planning and extra ingredients and we never seem to get around to even trying. I wouldn’t know where to start making those colorful ‘drops’ that appear on so many artistic plates. And who keeps fresh parsley around just to use as a garnish? I buy it if I need it for a specific dish and it only lasts a day or so in the fridge before it wilts and becomes useless.

I love watching skilled people, even amateurs, do their magic in the kitchen. I love hearing the judges’ critiques, which teach me what the dishes are supposed to look and taste like.

While I’m not going to try to duplicate what I see, I am a more educated restaurant goer and a more attentive home cook. That, along with the hours of enjoyment I get watching my cooking shows, is enough.

RDP Saturday: GOURMAND

BUT ANYONE COULD DO IT … Marilyn Armstrong

We all have friends who do stuff we can’t do.

They make a perfect pie crust and the filling is great, too. They build and refinish their furniture. They tune the car and rewire the basement on Saturday afternoon and still have time to make dinner for company.

You love them, with just a hint of hate because they can do it all and you can barely drag yourself out of bed, brush your hair, and have coffee before mid-afternoon.

They do a little painting, a bit of carving. Frame their own pictures. Repair anything that breaks. They are never worried about anything because they know exactly what to do.

apple pie

These are the woman who breezily raises two children after dad leaves while working full-time and never do they seem overwhelmed or even tired. The men build corporations, sell them, build another one — and don’t know why you can’t do the same.

It’s so easy.

They throw great dinner parties and the food is delicious. The dishes match or are charmingly casual yet coördinated to look casual in a fashion magazine sort of way. But you know they are supposed to look that way and no matter how hard you try, your version of “casual” just looks … well … casual.

Because that look takes work and an “eye.” It’s an art form.

stove and kitchen counter

When you ask about that wonderful pie crust, they say “Oh, it’s nothing. Just a bit of butter and flour. A bit of sugar. Cut everything up with a couple of butter knives, roll it out, and there you are.” If you are lucky, you get a demonstration and it does look easy.

You go home, get all the ingredients together and give it a try. Which results in an unusable lump of muck which ultimately, you toss in the trash.

After which you buy a pie crust or better yet, buy the whole pie. Because it isn’t so easy. Not for you, anyway.

Modest, humble people who do brilliant stuff about which they are completely offhand. They seem baffled why you would think any of it is a big deal. Apparently, it isn’t. To them.

To you, it would be a minor miracle if you could accomplish one little piece of it. Yet they will always say “But it’s so easy. Anyone could do it.”

Anyone except me. I can’t do it.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE LITTLE VICTORIES – Marilyn Armstrong

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.

This was a little victory, but still, a victory and all mine. A simple dinner in which 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.

WIFED OUT – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Paltry

I opened the freezer. It was empty.

Not completely empty. There’s always some kind of stuff in there. Freezer pouches for our next picnic, should we ever take one. Some frozen French fries. A pouch of frozen clams and a packet of minced beef. Miscellaneous English muffins and a loaf of bread.

The refrigerator is a lot more full. Mostly with drinks. Fruit juice, Powerade, Ginger Ale. Potatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, eggs. Lunch meat.

Leftovers for the dogs or what we call “the important food.” So even if we weren’t having company tomorrow, we’d have had to shop today because we had none of the makings of what I humorously call “dinner.” I’ve considered switching to the British style for the evening meal and calling it “Tea,” then serving tea with toast. I don’t think that would go over really big.

I used to like grocery shopping or at least like it a lot more than I do now. Probably I liked it more because I liked cooking more. I can hardly remember liking cooking less than I currently do.

Ironically I am a better cook than I was. I’m faster, neater, very sure-handed and I do not make a mess. But when the time comes to extract myself from whatever I’m doing, regardless of how paltry and meaningless the activity is, I don’t want to.

I’m cooked out. Whatever you can make easily for two people from any food you can readily buy at normal prices in Uxbridge, we’ve eaten it too many times. We are suffering from a serious case of diner’s ennui.

A few months back, I subscribed to Martha Stewart’s Cooking newsletter because I thought maybe it might give me a bright and shiny idea for something to make in the kitchen.

I won’t read the newsletter. I see the word “cook” and instantly delete it. Apparently, I do not want to be stimulated to greater creativity in the kitchen. What I really want is to be excused from cooking. Completely. Permanently.

I’ve been making meals for me and a husband, kids, friends, and family for more than 50 years. From now until forever, I could live on sandwiches and air-fried onion rings and be content.

Sad, but true.

I’m all wifed out.

OPTIONAL SUNDAY – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Optional

After getting up a dozen times this morning to try and convince Bonnie to stop barking — which only something crunchy will accomplish, it would seem — I began to wish I was deaf, too.

Normally when I get up in the morning, I take out something to defrost for dinner but I decided today is optional. I’m not doing squat. I am tired. I’m frustrated. I don’t want to cook dinner, put away laundry, or clean anything.

I’m sure by tomorrow, I’ll manage to get past this, but right now, I am feeling as un-housewifely as I ever have. Am I the last woman of my age who cooks dinner — a hot dinner — every night unless I’m hospitalized? Do other people get a day off sometimes?

Is any woman married to a man who actually recognizes that dirt is not something to be ignored because you-know-who will take care of it, but actually cleans it? Just wondering.

So today in Optional Sunday. I will do as little as I can. I might even go TWO days and option Monday, too. I think I’ll call it “Marilyn’s Weekend.”

EFFORT OR DOING IT THE HARD WAY – Marilyn Armstrong

RDP Saturday: EFFORT

As one of those people who has usually found an “easy” or at least “easier” way to do things, I’ve noticed as the year advanced, there are no more easy ways. The shortcuts don’t seem to work anymore and one is left with effort, or as I call it, doing it the hard way.

Let’s take cooking as an example. Back in the very long ago old days, I threw stuff together and it tasted pretty good, or so everyone said. I used a ton of prepared — cans and packaged — ingredients. That was just fine.

Maybe it’s the quality of prepared food that has degenerated. Or maybe my taste has become more discerning, but I use as little prepared stuff in my cooking as I can manage without getting weird about it. I cook food in the least amount of time I can and make sure to clean as I go to avoid leaving a mess behind, but I cook foods from scratch or very close to it.

I don’t, for example, peel my own tomatoes for sauces or grate the parmesan personally. but I use prepared marinades and breadcrumbs from jars and cans. I’m not a masochist, but I know how it should taste and something “kind of close” doesn’t work for me.

Then there’s reading. I can read very quickly. Not speed-reading, but fast reading. I always could … but eventually, I found that I wasn’t enjoying books when I read them that fast. One of my reasons for listening rather than reading was pacing. A book that is read out loud can’t be hurried. It’s a lot harder to skip a chapter and see what’s coming next. I didn’t know I’d become addicted to narrators and the charms of oral performance, but it’s funny how often you get more (or less) than you intended, isn’t it?

What brings this up? I’m now four books backed up in the review department. People — not just other bloggers, but actual authors — get in touch with me and ask me to review their books and unless it’s a close friend, I say yes. Close friends are a problem because what if I hate it? I can’t say that to someone I really like … so I try to never review a book for someone I really care for unless they are the kind of writer I know is going to give me a good book to read.

Writers are thin-skinned. I don’t care what you say on your blog. We are all thin-skinned about our art, whatever it may be. We put a lot of our souls into our work. We aren’t neutral and we tend to hold grudges. Don’t say you don’t. We all do. It’s hard to not get cranky when someone doesn’t like our book. Or painting. Or sculpture. Or dinner.

And the strangest part of all of this? I don’t remember how to do things any other way.

KITCHEN GADGETS – BY 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 sous vide machine and a 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 ensure 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 fudgy 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 about 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.

NEW ENGLAND CLAM CHOWDER – Marilyn Armstrong

A long chatty recipe with notes

I cook dinner every night, but my usual efforts are sleek little dinners that are easy to cook and even easier to clean up. Every once in a while, I get a buzz and decide I need to try something new.

Last week, I bought some frozen New England clam chowder. It wasn’t bad. I added a bit of extra half-and-half (that would be a 50-50 combination of milk and cream) and some za’atar and it was pretty good. But it wasn’t great and for $5.99 for a pint, I figured I could do that. Better and a lot cheaper.

Today we went to the grocery store. We picked up all the stuff I was supposed to buy the last time I shopped but forgot. Then I bought what I needed for the clam chowder.

Let me start by saying — there isn’t a recipe for New England clam chowder. There is a recipe for each person who ever cooked it. Sometimes two or three. After reviewing a dozen or so, I realized that they all included the same ingredients in various amounts which didn’t seem particularly precise:

Chopped onions  I diced up one-and-a-half big onions.

Chopped celery About a cup or a bit more.

Bacon (cut into small pieces) It was whatever I had left over from the last time I made a big breakfast … about 6 slices.

3 cups (more or less) of clams with clam juice *

* Long note: All the recipes I found used canned clams. I don’t like canned clams. They taste like the tin they came in. I used frozen, pre-cooked clams. Canned clams come in clam juice. Frozen clams don’t. And I forgot to buy clam broth. To create something liquid and clammy, I defrosted the frozen clams in chicken broth. I figured that soaking the clams in the broth was bound to make it taste clammy. It worked.

2 cups of half-and-half  OR cream. Most people use half-and-half to keep from everyone from getting sick from all that fat. Full cream? I wasn’t sure we’d live through the experience, though we would die happy.

An undesignated amount of potatoes, cooked, peeled, and diced. The recipes called for you to boil the potatoes in the clam broth — followed by a lot of comments from people complaining the potatoes were insufficiently cooked.

I hate it when the potatoes are hard. I cooked the potatoes separately, peeled them after they were cooked. This is usually easier than peeling them before cooking, though this time because I was using small golden potatoes, not so much. Then I cut them into cubes.

At this point, I had a big bowl of chopped celery and onions, a bowl of chopped up raw bacon, a bowl of defrosted cooked clams soaking in chicken broth. A jar of chopped garlic. A bottle of za’atar. Sea salt. White pepper. Butter.

I put the pot on the heat, threw in the bacon, added a lump of butter and waited for the bacon to brown, which it didn’t seem interested in doing. I got tired of waiting, so I added the onions and celery. Stirred and waited. More waiting. More stirring.

I turned down the heat to medium. Stirred some more. Eventually, I got tired of standing there so I turned up the heat and added the potatoes and clams. Stirred some more.

The phone rang. Did I know how to clear a used (my used) Roku so my granddaughter could use it? No, I didn’t, but they probably would have instructions on the Roku website.

I took the phone with me to the kitchen making a quick stop to rinse the potatoes off my fingers. Peeling the potatoes was messy.

The phone rang again. Kaity thought she’d found the information on the box in which the Roku came. It sounded right to me and I wasn’t in a good place to start googling how to reboot a Roku.

Meanwhile, I decided to use cornstarch instead of flour as a thickener. I have not had good results using flour as a thickener. Maybe it’s me, but it always turns into a gloppy, lumpy mess. But I’m great with cornstarch. I put a couple of tablespoons of starch into a cup, added a bit of cold water and stirred it. I set it aside for when I would need it.

I added half the clammy chicken broth to barely cover the vegetables, clams, and potatoes. That was when I tripped over Bonnie and knocked the liquid starch all over the kitchen. Not her fault, but still, there was cornstarch everywhere. Cabinets, floor, dishwasher, me.

Garry wiped. I appreciated his wiping.

When everything seemed to be barely boiling, I added the two cups of half-and-half, salt, pepper, and za’atar.

I stirred it and left it to simmer. I put together another batch of starch and water (two tablespoons cornstarch and just enough cold water to mix it). I did not knock this one on the floor.

This was also when I realized I needed to heat up the rolls (nice crusty ones) and I needed Garry to come and taste. He came. He tasted. He said: “Hey, that’s good.” Great praise indeed, though to be fair, Garry is a really good eater as long as it doesn’t contain peas, lima beans, oatmeal, or cut corn.

So I tasted it too. It was good. It is rare for me to make something from scratch without a real go-to recipe and have it come out better than I expected. Usually, my first try is disastrous or at least, not quite right.

I turned up the heat and when the liquid was thinking about boiling, I added the starch and it thickened up. The toaster bell went off. Dinner! I had created some better than average New England clam chowder. We ate. We ate more than we usually eat and it was delicious. A bit heavy. And there’s enough for another meal. I’m not going to do that much cooking for one little meal, after all. But tomorrow night? Frozen pizza. I don’t think my stomach could handle two days in a row of chowder.

We have to make choices, don’t we? Sometimes, the price of something especially yummy is a borborygmus tummy.

Don’t you love that word?

Editorial addition:

I think I’m going to try and find a non-cream-based shrimp bisque. Shrimp is always available frozen and usually pre-cooked and relatively inexpensive. if I can keep the cream out of it, Garry’s gut won’t explode and I won’t feel like a blimp after dinner.

So far, though, all the bisque recipes are as full of cream as the chowder. There’s gotta be another way! More research!

FOOD QUESTIONS – THANKS TO WHOEVER IT WAS I COPIED THE QUESTIONS FROM – Marilyn Armstrong

The QUESTIONS:

1. Do you enjoy food from countries that are not your own?

Absolutely. Most American food is boring. It is particularly boring locally. I have learned to cook Chinese, some West Indies dishes. Italian. Some Creole and French cuisine.

We both love Japanese food, but it’s expensive and most of the other food you can buy locally is awful. It’s not only not worth the money, it isn’t worth leaving home and going somewhere to eat it.

2. When you prepare a salad for yourself, do you rip your greens (lettuce, spinach, etc), or do you cut them?

It depends on how I feel at the moment. I’ve done both. But I do like the pieces small and tearing them seems to make them bigger than I find convenient.

3. There’s a saying that goes: “Life is short, eat dessert first.”  What do you think of that advice?

I think you are going to get fat that way.

4. Have you ever thrown spaghetti against the wall to test for doneness? — If it sticks, it’s done (so they say) — What other such kitchen habits might you have?

Yes. It turns out, it’s not the best way to test for the doneness of spaghetti, but it’s more fun than burning your fingers and getting a piece into your mouth to taste. Best way?

Time it. How long it should take is printed on the back of the bag or box. I like it NOT al dente, so I add a minute. Timers are great!

When it goes “ding,” it’s done. Remarkably, it works. No spaghetti stuck to the wall, no burned fingers or tongue. And the spaghetti or pasta is exactly the way you like it all the time.

5. How often do you eat fish?

At least two or three times a week. It depends on what is available at what price. It has been getting more and more expensive and if we keep polluting our oceans, fish may become a real delicacy.

6. When purchasing food for yourself, do you check the nutritional label? If so, what are you checking for?

No, because I buy raw food. I don’t buy almost any packaged food except for bread and pasta.

7. How often do you eat salad as a meal?

Almost never. I have it on the side, but too much roughage makes me sick.

8. Do you have any food quirks? For example: do you arrange a particular food in a certain way before eating? Or eat certain foods in a particular way every time? (i.e.: bite the heads off of gummy bears).

I don’t like anchovies, olives, or okra. I’m not overly fond of chocolate. I like vanilla and I like dessert sometimes. But I don’t need it and I don’t feel deprived if there’s no dessert.

9. When boiling water for pasta or whatnot, what are your “tricks” for keeping the water from boiling over?

Umm … don’t fill it up so high that it boils over?

10. Are there any recipes that have been passed down through the generations in your family? Have you passed them to anyone outside of your family? or are they a closely guarded secret?

No. My mother was an awful cook. Her best legacy was making it easier to learn to cook than eat her cooking. I bet that was the idea, too. She didn’t like cooking and by the time we were 10 or 11, we could all make our own meals. Anything but mom’s cooking.

11. In general, how do you feel about “diet” foods? Meaning: foods with artificial sweeteners or alternative fats in them. For example diet soda or low-fat muffins.

I use Splenda in my coffee. Otherwise, I don’t use any artificial sweeteners. It doesn’t help you keep thin. I have been my fattest when I was eating the most “diet food.” That stuff is evil.

12. Have you purchased food online? What do you think about that idea?

I buy spices online because I can buy large packages and it saves a ton of money. I also get better quality. Sometimes I buy fancy jams or marmalade from England, but that’s a special treat.

 

I also buy dog biscuits and dog food online because some of it isn’t available any other way. I can get larger quantities for less money — AND they deliver. I love delivery.

13. When cooking for you and yours, what kinds of experiments have you tried?

I try different kinds of spices, but I’m pretty good about knowing what goes with what, so it’s not much of an experiment. More like deciding how I want it to taste.

14. Do you now, or have you ever, grown or raised any of the food you eat?

No.

15. Are you a vegetarian? If not, has the idea of becoming one ever crossed your mind?

I’ve thought about it, but haven’t done it. I probably never will, though we eat a lot less meat than we did.

16. When arranging the food on your plate, does everything have to be separated, or is it okay for your food to touch?

My pasta bowls

I don’t mind if food touches other food, but I hate mixing it all together. If I wanted it to taste like a stew, I would have cooked it that way.

17. When eating out, what foods on the menu might push you out of your comfort zone? (For example, pineapple on pizza makes some people twitch).

I just ate pineapple on a pizza. It was a first. It was okay. It’s not really my idea of pizza, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Just skip the olives, okra, or anchovies.

18. Do you have a sweet tooth? If so, what kinds of foods generally satisfy the craving?

I love dried fruit. And fresh fruit mixed with yogurt.

19. What foods (if any) do you like to mix that other people might find strange?

Nothing really. I like some things other people might not like, but that doesn’t make them strange. We all have specific taste and not liking — or liking — something different isn’t odd or strange. Unique maybe.

20. When eating out, at what kind of restaurant do you prefer to dine?

Sushi.

21. In general, how do you feel about organic food?

Nice when affordable. All our locally grown food is organic. It’s a valley “thing.” I think it’s because the water table is very high and everyone has a well. Fertilizer and insecticide are bad for well, river, and all water. I suspect that we are organic because we don’t want to poison our water.

22. What foods (if any) do you eat when you are happy or unhappy?

I sometimes forget to eat if I’m really happy. But I don’t eat for soul satisfaction anymore. My eating habits have changed a huge amount over the years. If you’d asked me these same question 10 or 15 years ago, you’d have gotten entirely different answers.

IT’S SO EASY …

We all have friends who do stuff we can’t do. They make a perfect pie crust and the filling is damned good too. They build their own furniture. Tune the car and reupholster the furniture.  They do a little painting, a bit of carving. Frame their own pictures. Repair anything that breaks. They are never worried about any problem because they know exactly what to do about it.

apple pie

These are the woman who breezily raise two kids after dad left while working full-time and never seemed overwhelmed … or even tired. Men who build companies, sell them, build another and don’t know why you can’t do the same. It’s so easy.

They throw great dinner parties where the food is delicious. The dishes match or are delightfully casual yet coördinated to look casual,– but you know they are designed to look that way. Because the casual look takes work.

stove and kitchen counter

When you ask about that wonderful pie crust, they say “Oh, it’s so easy. It’s just a bit of butter and flour. A bit of sugar. Cut everything up with a couple of butter knives, roll it out, and there you are.” If you are lucky, you get a demonstration and it does look easy. So, you go home, get all the ingredients together and give it a try. Which results in an unusable lump of muck which ultimately, you toss in the trash.

Thanksgiving dinner

After which you buy a pie crust or better yet, buy the whole pie. Because it isn’t so easy. Not for you, anyway.

Modest, humble people who do brilliant stuff about which they are completely offhand. They seem baffled why you would think any of it is a big deal. Apparently, it isn’t. To them.

To you, it would be a minor miracle if you could accomplish one little piece of it. Yet they will always say “It’s so easy. Anyone could do it.”

Except me. I can’t do it.

AN INKLING OF GREAT DINING — ELSEWHERE

If you are looking for a great meal and a fantastic place to eat it, the Blackstone Valley isn’t IT.

We can find a few diners that are good and at least one interesting hot dog joint in Worcester … but otherwise? Let me give you a hint — an inkling — of great dining you won’t find here. Or anywhere in the area, including Boston.

Rich’s post today on his home blog brought me waves of nostalgia about food in Jerusalem. When I first moved there, I was lost. I couldn’t cook because I didn’t recognize the packaging and things were usually just a little different that they had been back in the States. Eventually, I worked it out and became a better cook than I’d been at home because I no long relied on prepackaged ingredients. I learned to make everything “from scratch.”

When I first got to Israel, I didn’t even know what good food meant. Eventually I discovered a million tiny restaurants tucked into neighborhoods all over the city, all with the name “Mother” in title.

Sure enough, Mom was the head cook. She had a few daughters and maybe a niece or two working their way up — as well as half a dozen sons and nephews handling the serving, busing, management, shopping … and cleaning. Restaurants — the good ones — were family affairs and ALL of them were good.

Dishes were some version of Middle Eastern Jewish — meaning no pork or dairy in it, but that was no problem. Muslims don’t eat pork either and dairy isn’t generally a part of dinner anyway.

The absolutely best food EVER was served by friends and neighbors on Shabbat.  Our Moroccan neighbors with whom Owen played could cook. I don’t know if every family were quite as brilliant as those neighbors on Hebron Road, but … OH my LORD.

Owen got to eat out pretty much every Friday night. His friends mothers loved him. “Look at that tall skinny kid — doesn’t anybody FEED HIM?” They could feed him to death and he’d roll home and tell us about it. I’d drool.

Middle eastern food is labor intensive to a degree that is hard to explain. It takes days to make all those little chopped up dishes that are wrapped in couscous or grape leaves or some light yet delightfully crunchy cover. Served plain — with a sauce — or as part of a soup.

We called those skinny roll-ups in thin filo dough “cigarettes” which they resembled in form, but too delicious to describe.

Everything was chopped, seasoned, sometimes cooked, sometimes semi-raw or entirely raw, and  wrapped. Then there were the sauces ranging from red (hot) to green (blow your head off hot). Owen learned to love ALL of it. I never quite made it to the green stuff, but I loved the red sauce.

It’s a very short hop to vegetarian or Vegan cooking, too. Meat isn’t the big issue in any of these dishes. In these native lands, meat was in short supply, which is why is was shredded and chopped. A single chicken could serve a lot of people that way.

There were some other foods, too. Israel adopted a bunch of Vietnam boat people who had nowhere else to go, so they took over opening oriental restaurants. Some were pretty good, some not so great, but at least it was different.

Italian was popular:  Kosher which meant meatless because the cheese was more important than the meat — or non Kosher. But it wasn’t as good as Italian restaurants in New York. Then again, few Italian restaurants are as good as they were in NY, unless you went to Italy where my mother assured me you would find the BEST food in the world. She used to diet in advance of traveling to Italy because she always came back 10 pounds heavier.

In Israel, though, the  great food was “tribally” local. Moroccan, Tunisian, Syrian, Persian, Algerian and sometimes Kenyan or generally Arabian — everything was GREAT. Also expensive. Eating out was surprisingly expensive, so getting an invitation from a neighbor was like getting invited to the best restaurant in town. Better, really.

I miss the food. I can make just about the best humus you’ve ever eaten, but the rest of it the food requires mother and three well-trained daughters — and about a week to prepare it. You don’t see that around here. Maybe in other cities, but not in New England.

We settle for good Japanese food. Sushi and tempura and anything that comes in rolls. But so far, not very good Chinese. There were some wonderful Chinese restaurants in Boston, but not out here.

That both Garry and I have eaten some amazing food in amazing places probably explains why we find most of the local eateries uninspiring, to say the least. Other than a couple of Japanese places, we haven’t found anywhere worth the price. Food is bland and the preparation is uninspiring. As for Italian, try mine. Much better. For that matter, try my son’s. His is much better, too. We do not live in great dining out territory.

I’m told there are good Indian places in Worcester and in Providence, but we don’t like a lot of traveling for dinner. I don’t mind going, but when we’re full of food, we don’t want a long trip home.

Retirement, you know?

A TRIP IN THE NIGHT

Roommates, by Rich Paschall, a roommate in the dark


At some point you may have had a roommate other than your parents and siblings. They do not count for this consideration as you did not pick them.  You had to deal with them or endure them according to the rules of family. If you lived with a brother or sister after you moved out of your parents’ house, however, then what follows is all on you. By that point in life, you knew what you were getting into. If your brother left his dirty socks wherever he took them off in the apartment, you should have know that would happen. There’s no use to carp about it now.

My first roommate was while I was in college. We did not go to college together. We were high school chums. This actually worked out well as he was rarely around. I think that he had a girlfriend to keep warm and when our lease was up, off he went. I found another apartment for myself.

After a year, I had a friend ask me to be roommates at a time when my lease was ending. He wanted to move out of his parents’ house. We found a spot and that too lasted a year. We got along well. He moved out to get married and I moved on.

I moved to another building where I live now.  I had two roommates at different times.  One got married and I moved to another apartment in the building. He lived there a year after that and left.  You may think there is something about me that encourages roommates to get married and move.

Then I had an on and off relationship with an on and off roommate. We were good friends until we lived together. Everything we did seemed to bother one of us. He liked shopping tours, I didn’t. He liked reruns of certain comedies, I didn’t. Seriously, how often can you watch Three’s Company in your life, especially if you know how every episode ends. I liked the Golden Girls, but not every night of the week. Soon I knew every one of those episodes too. If I did not sit down to watch them with my roommate, he was pissed. We are better friends in recent years, probably because he lives in another state.

In South America

My most recent and much younger roommate came from South America and is likely in culture shock at the US Midwest. In his part of the world it is 85 degrees every day and 65 every night on average. If it hits 90 they are having a heat wave and if it hits 59 they are freezing. He has advised that he does not like air conditioning and helped me remove my air conditioner from the bedroom window. “No like,” he declared. Since it was already Fall when we removed it, I thought it was fine. He’ll like it if he is here in the summer when it is 100 and humid.

As the weather got colder he told me he was freezing when it got to 68 or 69 in the house. Since most places had no need of heat in his town, there were no thermostats.

kitchen

Now that he understands what the arrow up button does on the thermostat, I think we are in for higher gas bills. I have already warned my neighbor in another apartment as the heat by us controls both apartments. Neighbor does not like it so warm, but at least he can voice his concerns to roomie in Spanish and I will be left out of the conversation.

Before roomie left South America, he declared he was the chef. As an athlete and workout freak, he eats 4 or 5 meals a day and is particular about what he eats. This was no problem to me as I would gladly hand over whatever chores and duties he would like. There is a small problem with this, or a big one depending on how you would like to eat. Aside from breakfast which could be fruit, yogurt, cereal, sweet breads or pancakes, if I would make them, everything else was pretty much the same.

He prepared meals as he did in the poor suburban town of a big South American city. Everything was served with white rice, which we bought in large bags. Rice is a staple in many parts of the world as you can keep it a long time and it is relatively cheap. We usually have potatoes cooked with onions and diced up tomatoes and what little bit of meat was thrown in. As for vegetables of color, “No like.” We share the dishwashing duties and in truth I would rather do it. When I see the job he has done, “No like.”

At times we get a little frustrated with one another as mates, partners or spouses sometimes do. Although it is not funny at the time, we must look like a comedy routine. When roomie is a bit excited, he is babbling at me in Spanish and I am doing the same to him in English. It looks like Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from the I Love Lucy sitcom, and unfortunately, I am playing the part of Lucy.

In his small apartment in South America, which I visited on two occasions, I could see that shoes were left by the door of the two room apartment.  One big room was the living room and bedroom, and the other large room was the kitchen.  There was a tiny bathroom and shower.  There was a certain order to this that did not fit well for us.  Roomie thought it would be fine to leave his large gym shoes at the bedroom door as always.  The bedroom door opens to a small passage with an archway to the kitchen, a closet door and a bathroom door. 

In other words, it was not the front door.  I have now tripped over the shoes often enough in the night, that I have convinced roomie in terms he probably did not understand, to leave them elsewhere.  That seems to be everywhere else in the apartment.  Some things you just have to live with.

MY BEST-EVER COOKIE RECIPE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

For a short while, many years ago, I had the fantasy that I could start a dessert catering business from home. I spent a year collecting and testing recipes and producing marketing materials. After all that, I discovered that my town didn’t allow any type of commercial cooking from a residence without a professionally licensed kitchen. I had been given misinformation when I inquired before starting this process.

The cover of my marketing flyer

The year of experimenting with and tweaking recipes was a wonderful time for me. I threw myself into the process of education and invention. My concept was to adapt old-fashioned English desserts into exciting and new American treats.

I first discovered English ‘puddings’ (the English word for desserts) on a canal boat trip through the countryside of England. The local pubs we ate at served glorious dessert concoctions that were different from the average American dessert. I was infatuated and became obsessed with these recipes. I bought some English cookbooks specializing in this genre of English baking.

One of the paperback cookbooks I bought in England

One very popular English treat is called a ‘Flapjack Bar’. It has no relationship to the pancake that we refer to as a Flapjack. This bar has more in common with our Rice Krispie Treats. It’s a soft and chewy, sweet bar made from oats rather than Rice Krispies.

Flapjack Bar

Everyone who tried my Flapjack Bar loved it. We especially loved the crispy bits around the edges of the bar. It occurred to me that I could get an all crispy snack if I flattened the ‘bar’ into a cookie. I experimented with different recipes and finally came up with the perfect ‘Flapjack Cookie’ recipe. I checked with my friend in London. No one in England has come up with my idea, so I’m very proud of my invention.

This cookie became the most popular item when I tested my recipes on family and friends. People went crazy for this chewy, crunchy, tasty, unique cookie. When I was invited for dinner, I was often asked to bring some of my addictive cookies.

I consider this cookie to be one of my most creative and successful ideas. I would like to share the recipe with you so you can enjoy it too.

My Flapjack Cookies

The recipe is incredibly simple, quick and easy to make. It’s pretty foolproof too. However, the key ingredient is something that is very popular in England but is not always easy to find in America. It’s called Lyle’s Golden Syrup. It’s the brown sugar version of clear corn syrup. It has the delicious flavor that makes this cookie unique. It also insures the right texture. I’ve tried to replace it with honey or corn syrup and it just isn’t the same.

NOTE: You can find half a dozen versions of this for sale on Amazon, so don’t give up. Just type “Lyle Golden Syrup” into the Amazon finder and it will pop up … in bottles, cans, and various sizes.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup in can and plastic bottle

I can get Lyle’s Golden Syrup in the honey and maple syrup section of my supermarket. I have also found it in the English/Irish part of the international aisle in other supermarkets. Some gourmet food stores will also sell it. If you can’t find it locally, go online and order it. You can use it in dessert recipes instead of honey or corn syrup. It gives everything a wonderfully different taste.

These cookies will last for up to a week if you keep them well covered. You can also freeze them and defrost them naturally (no microwave). Another option is to freeze extra balls of the pre measured batter and take them out when you want to make a fresh batch of the cookies. Just add a minute or so to the cooking time if you’re cooking them frozen.

Ready to bake frozen balls of cookie dough

You can also add chopped dried fruit or nuts to the batter to vary the flavor if you want some variety. I used chopped dried cranberries or chopped skinless almonds (I started with the diced almonds and further cut them down a bit).

Here is the recipe. I hope you like it as much as I do!


FLAPJACK COOKIES


5 oz. butter (unsalted)
3 oz. Lyle’s Golden Syrup
7 oz. light brown sugar
2 ½ cups (8 oz.) quick oatmeal oats
¼ cup (1 oz.) shredded sweetened coconut
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350. Put parchment paper on cookie sheets.
  2. Heat the butter, brown sugar and syrup until butter has completely melted. Add the vanilla and mix through.
  3. Mix the oatmeal and the coconut together.
  4. Stir the sauce into the dry ingredients and blend thoroughly.
  5. Cool slightly till batter thickens a bit.
  6. Place heaping teaspoons of the batter (about .5 oz per cookie) on the cookie sheets. Place cookies at least 2” apart.
  7. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until edges are a dark caramel color.
  8.  Cool completely till firm and crisp before removing from sheet.

Notes: (1) For Cranberry Flapjack Cookies, add 2.5 oz. chopped cranberries to dry mix. (2) For Almond Flapjack Cookies, add 1.25 oz. chopped almonds to dry mix.

THE BAKING BUSINESS FIASCO – BY ELLIN CURLEY

For several years I tried to start a baking business. I knew nothing about the food industry or marketing. I should have known I was doomed from the start. But I got sucked in gradually and ended up way over my head.

It all started on a trip through the English countryside. We ate at some marvelous pubs and local restaurants and I fell in love with the desserts. I discovered a whole world of lightly textured but densely flavored desserts that were nothing like anything I had eaten before. And I’m a dessert fanatic. These cake-like creations are called Traditional English Puddings. ‘Pudding’ is the English word for dessert. It does not refer to the custardy dessert we call ‘pudding’ in America.

Cover of my marketing brochure

So I came home with some English pudding cookbooks and started to experiment. I focused on dishes that were different from the conventional American fare. Many of these desserts were steamed, not baked. Many were served with delicious sauces instead of icing, usually what we call a crème anglais. The ones I chose were fantastic confections that didn’t taste or feel like a typical American cake.

I adapted many of the recipes to accommodate American tastes and preferences, like more sugar and less fruitcake fruit. I even invented some new cookies and bar recipes that used some of the English ingredients and techniques.

I checked with a friend who worked at the town hall and she told me that I could start a baking business from home without any permits from the town. So I made some basic marketing flyers and in 2006 I started doing dessert displays at friends’ parties or at events, like a home jewelry show. I called my business Sticky Pudding.

Inside page of my marketing brochure

People loved my desserts but I wasn’t getting many customers. I hired a marketing person and developed a more professional flyer as well as some additional marketing materials. I paid for a professional food photographer to take photos for my brochure. We placed an ad in the local paper.

My very first phone call was the town, shutting me down. Apparently my friend was misinformed. You cannot bake and sell from home in most towns today unless you have a fully professional kitchen that meets all the health code regulations of a restaurant kitchen. I was devastated and furious. My friend at the town hall hadn’t bothered to double-check with the proper authorities, even though they were just a few doors down from her office.

Back of my brochure

I had already put in over a year of time and plenty of money. For nothing.

Then a friend told me about a baker she knew who had a factory in Queens, NY. She thought he might be able to work with me. So I met with him. Lo and behold, he said that he would help me develop some of my desserts from home scale recipes to mass production recipes. I just agreed to give him a percentage of my profits from the sale of any goods baked at his bakery. We signed a written agreement.

So I developed a whole line of cookies, bars and cakes, sixteen different products in all. I thought it was smart to give buyers a wide range of choices. In the development process, I also had to design and pay for packaging for every individual product. I also had to learn all the arcane rules relating to labeling the packages. I had to hire someone to do the analysis of ingredient percentages and calorie count that are required on all commercial labeling.

This is the cookie I developed, based on some English recipes

It was a lot of work, a lot of money and a steep learning curve. But I managed to overcome every obstacle that was thrown at me in the one and a half-year process.

The only problem was that I had no idea how the industry worked. The baker I partnered with sold to name places like Dean & Deluca’s, Zabar’s and Fairway Market. I ASSUMED that he had hired me to create a line of baked goods that he planned to sell to his established customers. I had no clients of my own and no concept of marketing. Certainly not on this large a scale. For example, each run of each individual flavor of cookies produced 900 cookies. All had to be sold within a few days of baking in order to make money. Multiply this by twelve! That’s how much product I had to sell, quickly, if I didn’t want to lose money on each run.

I also planned to sell frozen cookie dough that you just put in the oven

When I was finally ready to start production, to my dismay, I discovered that the baker had ASSUMED that I had done my own marketing and had my own, large-scale customers lined up to buy my products! It turned out that he couldn’t even guarantee that his regular customers would buy anything from me.

He got me a few introductions, which allowed me to APPLY to his clients as a potential supplier. None of them was interested in anything in my line.

Some chocolate bars. I also invented the recipe for these.

Most people build a business from the bottom up. You develop a customer base and increase production as demand increases. I started out using that model but had to stop. I then jumped ten steps ahead and went right to mass production before I even had a small customer base. What was I thinking?

At this point, if I wanted to move forward, I would have to invest serious money into professional marketing on a large-scale. And even then there was no guarantee of success in the limited time frame I had boxed myself into. Then the financial market crash of 2008 happened. Any money I might have had to put into the business was now gone. I had to pull the plug on the whole enterprise.

And that was the end of my ignominious career in the food industry!

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.