Category Archives: Cooking

Blog Neglect and Corn Chowder

I certainly have been neglecting this blog, haven’t I? I started this blog many years ago, when I had a lot of extra time on my hands, I wanted to learn blogging, and I wanted to become a better cook. Keeping up the blog helped achieve those goals. Researching cooking techniques and writing down recipes reinforced them in my head, so that now I can do a lot of cooking without consulting a book or a recipe. I also feel more confident in the kitchen and more inclined to experiment or go off the recipe. But that kind of cooking isn’t very bloggable, especially since I’m not one to take a lot of photos of my food.

(Speaking of photos, my husband has taken up photography as a hobby. If he wanted to do some food photography, I would happily showcase his work on this blog.)

Let’s take last night’s dinner, for instance. It was cold and drizzly, and I wanted to make corn chowder. The first recipe I consulted sounded good, but it called for a pre-baked potato. I didn’t have any on hand, and I certainly wasn’t going to bake a potato for an hour just to put it in a soup. But I marked the recipe as something to try when I had leftover baked potatoes, and I also took note of some of the additions it suggested.

The second recipe was in Joy of Cooking. It was much simpler, but I didn’t care for the idea of a soup with a milk base. I’m trying to reduce my dairy intake these days. Still, it was a good base to build on. Here’s what I did.

I fried 3 strips of bacon until crispy and put them on paper towels to drain. I put a spoonful of the bacon grease into my soup pot, along with about half an onion, diced, and 2 celery stalks, sliced. I let them cook a little while over medium-low until they had gotten tender. Then I added 1 baking potato, peeled and diced, about 1 cup of frozen corn kernels, and about 2½ cups chicken stock. I use the word about because I didn’t measure; I just added things to the pot until I had what looked like a good amount of soup. I seasoned the soup with a healthy amount of Southwest seasoning mix (Penzey’s). I brought it to a boil, covered it, and let it simmer for about 15 minutes, or until the potatoes were cooked. Using a stick blender, I pureed the soup to thicken it up, but I left it relatively chunky.

To serve, I let each person add what they wanted: crumbled bacon; dollop of sour cream; and grated cheddar-jack cheese. It served 3 people with some left over. I thought it was pretty tasty, but when and if I make it again, I doubt I’ll make it the exact same way.

As a matter of fact, this basic formula would work for any potato-based soup. Instead of corn, you could add leeks, tomatoes, carrots, greens, peas–almost any vegetable you like, really. You could vary the seasoning and garnishes as you wish.

After you get experience and confidence cooking, recipes start to seem superfluous–at least for everyday cooking. I’ll still follow a recipe religiously when I’m trying a new and challenging dish. But when I’m trying to get dinner on the table, I tend to follow my instincts and build a dish as a cook, based on the ingredients I’ve got around and how much work I feel like doing.

How do you cook? Do you follow recipes to the letter, or do you improvise as you go along?

Menu Planning for November

I’ve recently started planning out a whole month of menus at a time. It somehow seems easier to sit down and figure out a month’s worth of menus all at once, rather than turn it into a weekly chore to be done just before grocery shopping or a daily scramble to figure out what’s for dinner that night. Doing a month at a time forces me to sit down, take my time, and think about our home-cooked meals in a more holistic way.

For instance, this month leads up to the Season of Eating, aka the holidays. Before Thanksgiving, I always like to eat leaner and as healthfully as possible to try to counteract the inevitable excess that’s coming. I also want to focus on meals I can prepare quickly, that are heavy on the vegetables and low on the carbs, and that my family will find tasty, of course.

I decided to pick one of my cookbooks and cook most of the meals out of it for the month. This simplifies things — I always find it easier to consult just one book rather than several when I’m making dinner — and it enables me to really give the cookbook a workout and figure out if it’s one I want taking up limited space on my bookshelf. This month, I chose Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater. In the past, I’ve mostly only made snacks and quick lunches from this cookbook, so it should be interesting to see what it offers for dinner.

In the book, he recommends accompanying each meal with a green salad and following it with fruit for dessert, plus cheese if the supper was a particularly light one. So many times, it seems, the simple and easy solution also is the healthiest and tastiest.

Thoughts on Meal Planning

I’ve gone back and forth on the question of how much meal planning to do for everyday cooking, or whether a plan is even needed. I’ve tried lots of approaches, but I’ve finally come back to the opinion that it is best to have a plan, albeit a flexible one.

For a long time, I planned a menu for every dinner in the week. However, with this approach, I often found food going to waste. The unexpected happens frequently enough that we should really expect it. Sometimes, we’d go out for dinner, or conflicting schedules required a meal on the run. I usually didn’t get a chance to cook every meal in my carefully chosen seven-day plan.

The other problem with this approach is that it was overwhelming. In my cookbooks alone, I have thousands of recipes to choose from, and that’s not considering the millions of recipes available online. Trying to pick just a handful of those multitudes to cook for the week led to decision paralysis. I do much better when I can choose from just a few options, rather than unlimited ones.

Next, I tried a looser menu plan in which we had roughly the same meal on the same night of the week. So Monday was chicken night, Tuesday was frittata, Wednesday was tacos, and so on. This plan certainly limited my choices, but I have to admit, it got boring fast. Roasted chicken breasts again? I found myself falling into a rut, and I lost the sense of creativity I get when I’m cooking.

Then, I abandoned menus altogether. I bought what looked good and was on sale at the store that week and then found recipes to use those ingredients, with the help of a searchable database. It was a good idea in theory, but it was problematic in practice. I was often scrambling to come up with an idea of what to cook each night. I wanted to make certain recipes but often didn’t have a necessary ingredient, so I’d fall back on what I know and bam! Back in the rut again.

Now I am back to stricter meal planning, but with some changes. I am planning the entire month’s meals in advance, but only four dinners per week. This builds in some flexibility to be spontaneous, go out to dinner, or just eat leftovers for dinner. To help me make recipe choices, I use a preplanned menu, usually from a magazine, for inspiration. Often I have to substitute similar dishes that my family will actually eat for their selections, but at least I have a starting point. This also helps me build in variety and, if I choose a current magazine, stay seasonal. And it seems more manageable to make the plan once a month, rather than every week.

Depending on the cook and the family, I think any of these meal-planning approaches could work well. Some people enjoy a more freeform style; others need a more regimented approach to make efficient use of limited time. I do think it’s best to have a minimal plan, so we don’t wander through the grocery store aimlessly, but we should build flexibility and spontaneity into the plan. In other words, if something looks delicious in the store, get it and fit it into the plan later.

Do you have a system for planning meals? What works for you?

I’m Back

To tell you the truth, I’ve been afraid to peek back in here. I know it’s been a while. Now I see that I haven’t been here since April. Whew, that’s longer than I thought.

The reason why I haven’t been around is that my creativity in the kitchen has been stalled over the last few months. It feels like I’ve been making endless meals of chicken and broccoli, chicken and broccoli. It’s boring but it’s what my customers — I mean, my family — will eat.

Well, I think we all need a kick in the patootie. The past two weeks have been spent remodeling my kitchen, from floors to countertop. New sink, new stove, new cooking configuration. Right now, it looks like a holy mess, but I am promised that in just a few days, I will be living the dream kitchen. And if that doesn’t inspire me to start cooking interesting meals again–meals worth writing about–then I guess I should just shutter this blog for good.

Thanks for hanging in there with me.

The Vegetable Plate

Years ago, when I was a full-time vegetarian living in the South before vegetarianism was an accepted thing, I got accustomed to ordering the vegetable plate when going out to dinner. At many diners and home-style restaurants, the vegetable plate is usually a plate of three or four sides, often accompanied by a roll, biscuit or piece of cornbread. It was offered because no one knew how to do vegetarian entrees back then, at least not in non-ethnic restaurants in the South.

I actually enjoyed the vegetable plate a lot, because it enabled me to sample several different sides, which can make for a more interesting dinner. Now that I do eat meat (but not a lot of it), I find myself gravitating back toward the vegetable plate — but as a way of eating at home, usually for lunch, rather than when I go out. I enjoy the variety of flavors, textures and colors on one plate, and I feel virtuous for eating my vegetables. (Well, they taste good too.)

It can seem onerous to the home cook to make four side dishes for a weeknight meal. The idea behind the home-based vegetable plate is to cook one or two dishes a day that will keep well and can either be reheated or served cold. As the week goes on, the options for the vegetable plate increase. I also try to prep and pre-cook plain vegetables ahead of time so I can quickly assemble a full plate when I’m ready to eat.

Salads of all descriptions are a natural choice for the vegetable plate, especially non-green salads. Homemade salad dressings usually keep for a week or more in the refrigerator, and can be used to quickly assemble a salad from any pre-cut or grated vegetables on hand. Surprisingly, cooked greens like spinach and kale make a great cold salad when dressed with some lemon juice or vinegar.

Roasted and grilled vegetables reheat well or make tasty ingredients for cold salads. If you’re firing up the grill or preheating the oven anyway, throw on more cut-up veggies than you think you can possibly eat. Gratins also reheat well, and a little cheese makes everything taste better.

Vegetable soups are another option. Of course, they must go in a bowl instead of on the plate, but they are easy to make ahead in quantity and often taste even better reheated. Combining a vegetable soup with a salad or two makes a very satisfying meal.

It’s usually nice to have some crusty French or sourdough bread in the house to accompany the vegetable plate. I also plan to experiment more with incorporating whole grains into my made-ahead options, such as farro or wheat berries. Pasta salad is a natural addition, but I am trying to reduce my pasta consumption these days in favor of whole grains.

Since I started doing this, I feel like I am eating better and taking more advantage of seasonal vegetables as they appear in the markets. I don’t feel like I am cooking that much more, but it seems like I am throwing out spoiled vegetables far less often, because I am eating a little bit at every meal, rather than trying to use it all up on one meal. It’s also fun to try different vegetables and different ways of preparing them.

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to enjoy the vegetable plate. I think it’s making a comeback.

In Praise of Comfort Foods

Macaroni and cheese is an American comfort food

Macaroni and cheese is an American comfort food (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The New York Times dining section this week had an article on comfort foods: Comfort Without Color – In Praise of Pale Food – We all have our beloved comfort foods, those foods that typically remind us of childhood, and are usually white, fattening and delicious. Macaroni and cheese is one of my favorites; the article also gives recipes for rice pudding and potpie.

I’m thinking I might have to make a batch of mac and cheese tonight, just to kick winter’s butt out the door. We’ve had an unusually cold week for the last week of March, and I am so ready for spring.

What are your favorite comfort foods?

Iceberg Lettuce: Love It or Hate It?

(nl: IJssla krop)Iceberg lettuce

(nl: IJssla krop)Iceberg lettuce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1940s, iceberg lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country shipping, which is why it became ubiquitous in American salad bowls. Its name came from the piles of ice it was packed in for shipping. Now, with so many kinds of salad greens available, iceberg remains popular on restaurant menus.

I can’t stand the stuff, unless it’s slathered with blue cheese dressing. My husband, however, prefers tasteless iceberg over any lettuce that has a modicum of flavor, although he will eat romaine if he has to. What’s your go-to salad green?

Read: Tip of the Iceberg: Our Love-Hate Relationship With the Nation’s Blandest Vegetable | Food & Think.

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