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.