Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Improvisation on vacation

I welcome the opportunity to improvise in the kitchen, but usually that has to do with ingredients and cooking techniques.  When you go on vacation to a rented kitchen, however, you often get to improvise with equipment as well.

We've been going to rented condos for many years and I always take along a box or two of stuff that I might need -- cutting board, good teflon frying pan, sharp knife, lots of kitchen towels, that sort of thing.  Generally if I have brought along a particular tool that means I'll find two of them in the rented kitchen, and if I have failed to bring it along, there won't be one there.

This year our kitchen has been the most sparsely equipped we've seen in a long time.  Only two dishtowels, for instance -- hey, I go through two in a typical meal -- but fortunately I brought ten of my own.

No hot pads (good thing I brought lots of dishtowels).  No salt and pepper (I brought a pepper grinder, but we're cutting down on sodium this week). 

No covers for most of the cooking pans.

No potato masher.

Not to worry.  Improvisation is good for the soul.  In fact, that wine bottle made an excellent potato masher, maybe even better than my orthodox one at home.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Another all-white meal

If not for the red pepper in the cole slaw, this would be 100% white!  It tasted great; if we hadn't wanted to read newspapers during dinner we could have turned the lights down very low and not noticed the utter lack of eye appeal.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Pumpkin tales

You've heard the old joke that the definition of eternity is two people and a ham.  But we're currently in an even longer age with two people and a pumpkin.

My friend bought a huge pale blue pumpkin several weeks ago and after a couple of big meals from it, decided it was going to be too much for the two of them.  She gave me about a quarter of it, which was a really big hunk.  I didn't think to take a picture of the original gift, but here's how it looked later -- beautiful pale bluish-greenish-gray on the outside, big thick bright orange meat on the inside.

I've served plenty of pumpkin in the past from cans, and not just in pie.  And I've made plenty of winter squash of other varieties, but never a big pumpkin like this.  It has been a challenge to come up with new ways to fix it.

Here is it in soup.  Very pretty against the red beans, and just enough taste of its own.

Here it is in pasta, along with cauliflower and black olives.  The combination was surprisingly good for a miscellaneous meal.

I had the oven on to heat up the crab cakes, so I put some pumpkin in too.

Here's another time when I stuck the pumpkin in the oven, but not long enough.  When it was time to serve, I had to turn on the broiler for a few minutes.

When I'm making rice I'll put some pumpkin slices in the steamer basket above the rice cooker.  If the slices are somewhere between a quarter- and half-inch thick, they are done in about 15 minutes, just as the cooker turns itself off.  (With brown rice, wait and put the pumpkin in a half hour after the cooker has started.)

A month after its arrival, one end of the pumpkin was getting a touch of mold so last night I carved off and threw out a big chunk.  But I figure we still have at least two meals left.  Eternity may be finally reaching its end.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Comfort food

High on my list of comfort foods is bread and gravy.  When we had it as a kid there was probably Wonder Bread underneath, but now that I am a grownup food sophisticate I have upgraded to Wonder-Bread-or-anything-else-on-hand.

My mother used to serve my sister and me plates of bread and gravy with the huge enthusiasm of Tom Sawyer inducing suckers to paint the fence.  "We're having such a treat tonight!" she would gush, and we believed it.

In truth, this was probably the cheapest meal she could think of to put on the table during some dark days when my dad was out of work.  I suppose there had to have been a little meat in the house at a previous point, else where would the gravy have come from, but it didn't appear on our plates, nor did we care.

Many decades after I figured it out, I still love bread and gravy.  Stuff from the bottom of the pot roast pan, like today, is great.  Leftover gravy from Thanksgiving dinner is even better.  If there's some meat on the plate too that's fine, but hardly necessary for me to feel comforted.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Say no to Papa

There's a Papa John's pizza store at the end of our street, and we've been patronizing it for years.  The last time was about three weeks ago -- and when I say the last time, I mean it.

Papa John himself, John Schnatter, hates the Affordable Care Act.  He said earlier this year that providing healthcare for workers would add as much as 14 cents to the cost of a pizza.  Many customers opined that they'd be happy to pay it.  This week, now that the election makes implemention of the law a certainty, Papa came back with a new argument: it's likely that fulltime employees will have their hours cut below 30 so they won't have to be covered.

Papa says it will cost as much as $8 million a year to comply with the new law.  To put that in context, the company had revenue of $1.2 billion last year, and net income of $55 million.  John Schnatter's total compensation last year was $2.7 million and his net worth is estimated at slightly under $300 million.  The company is giving away 2 million free pizzas this fall as part of a football promotion.

There's not much I can do to persuade a captain of industry to behave more like a mensch.  I could point out that healthy employees are an asset to a company, particularly one in the food service business (who wants sputum with their pepperoni?).  I could point out that the US has been the only major nation in the world without some kind of universal health care system.  But those arguments probably aren't going to make much of a dent in Papa John's cranium.

What I can do is buy pizza from somebody else.  Which I, and many of my friends, have resolved to do.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dumb ideas in marketing

With much hoopla, our local grocery store has turned its cheese counter into an exclusive outlet for a branded dealer.  I'm pessimistic, having lived through a similar "upgrade" of our deli counter, in which suddenly we could only buy brand-name pastrami, at $2 a pound more than the old no-name store meat. But this morning I had my first up-close-and-personal contact with the new brand.

Last week my husband bought me some havarti cheese, one of my favorites, and this morning I decided to have some for breakfast.  But when I took the new package out of the fridge I was momentarily appalled.

"What -- you bought me cheese that's pervasive, stinky and lingering????" I shrieked.

But on closer examination I realized that some marketing genius had decided to festoon the labels with every conceivable adjective that could be applied to cheese.


It might be a good marketing ploy to label your cheese with an accurate description, especially if you're trying to tempt buyers into trying something new.  But it strikes me as dumb to label your cheese as everything.  I suspect a lot of buyers will -- just as I did -- spy one or two of the adjectives on the label and quickly decide it's not for them.

Meanwhile, the havarti wasn't even as good as the (cheaper) stuff we used to get at the same cheese counter.  I ate it anyway, but will not be returning to the fancy new cheese counter with much enthusiasm.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thinking out of the box

When I was a kid, making things out of boxes was a mainstay of our household cooking repertoire.  Don't think I ever baked a cake that didn't start in a box (I'd say that continues to this very day, except that I've given up either eating or baking cake).  Bisquick, of course.  Rice-A-Roni (I still cook that, or its virtual equivalent, except that I learned long ago to do it from scratch).

As I became a more sophisticated cook and a more suspicious and demanding consumer, I gave up practically everything in boxes.  Except for one, which I couldn't live without -- Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix. It's a small box; two of us usually eat a little more than half a batch, leaving just enough for somebody's breakfast.  It cooks up quickly, 20 minutes in the oven.

It is the perfect complement to chili or bean soup, which appear frequently on our menus.  And did I mention that it's delicious?

In the early postwar days, when cake mixes and similar "labor-saving" products first appeared, they were formulated so you just added water.  But then some marketing genius determined that women didn't want to just add water -- that made them feel useless and uncreative.  But if they had to add milk and an egg, they retained their feminine mystique of being good cooks.  (The next thing you knew, we had pudding cake!)

And so Jiffy still requires milk and an egg.  Which I am happy to supply.  I make it as corn bread rather than muffins -- easier to fix, easier to clean up.  In my nine-inch square pyrex pan, the bread is about five-eighths of an inch tall, just like a garment seam allowance.

I know I could make cornbread from scratch, and perhaps it would be one percent better than Jiffy.  But it would take five minutes longer.  So I continue with my obeisance to the 1950s.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The end of summer

I'm a cold weather girl, coming off a really nasty summer (we had ten days over 100 degrees and 50 more over 90) so I'm rooting for the heat to break.  It's been in the 80s most of this week, but the cold front is due to come through tonight, and they're talking about frost and other wintry weather stuff.  So it seemed like a good day to close down many aspects of our summer way of life (and not a minute too soon in my opinion).

The farmer picked what was left of the basil, and it will probably become pesto tomorrow.  He picked blossoms and leaves from the nasturtiums for our salad tonight.

And we had one last dinner on our screened-in porch.  Our porch is one of those fancies that is glorious when the moment is right, and kind of superfluous all the rest of the time.  Unfortunately we haven't had too many right moments this year; even with a ceiling fan it's been way too hot to eat outside for most of the summer.  Tomorrow it will probably be too late.  But tonight it was beautiful,

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

In the (salmon) pink

I remember to the day(s) when salmon became a staple of our family diet.  It was July of 1980, and we visited my sister-in-law in Alaska.  One day she bought salmon for dinner, and showed me how to cook it (a film of mayonnaise over the top so it wouldn't dry out under the broiler).  This was a new concept to me -- I'd never seen salmon in our grocery stores, and had eaten it only in restaurants.

The salmon was wonderful, of course, fabulously fresh, only a few miles from its fishing grounds.  It was expensive but worth it.  We had it a couple of times during our visit.

When we came home to the landlocked Midwest, we stopped at the grocery on our way from the airport and to my amazement found gorgeous salmon at the fish counter -- at half the price we'd paid in Anchorage!  

Seems that the fishing season had gotten delayed by some ugly disagreement between fishermen and government, and now there was such a backlog of fish in the big salmon ports that airplanes were taking off every three minutes, 24/7.  You could barely give away the fish, hence our bonanza at Kroger; apparently even stores that had never carried it before couldn't refuse.  And it must have been popular, because it's been there ever since.

We bought and ate lots of salmon for the rest of that summer, and forevermore.  I've learned to prepare salmon in many different ways -- broiled, pan-sauteed, baked -- and with many different flavor accents.  But in recent years I've become far more picky about the variety and provenance of my salmon.

We try not to buy farm-raised salmon; it tastes bland and insipid, and we worry about the potential for environmental degradation from the farm pens, not to mention the potential for disease in the closely crammed fish population.  But this year we've been blessed with what seems to be a bumper crop of wild-caught sockeye, more delicious than we remember from previous years.  

I don't know where they come from -- probably Alaska -- or how long we'll enjoy this season's catch.  But we're loving it while it lasts.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Leftovers -- batting 1.000

I always like to do things with leftovers other than just stand there and eat them from the plate, sometimes with the refrigerator door still open.  That's so trashy.  But sometimes my concoctions turn out better than usual.

Last week we had a butternut squash, which I cut in two and baked in the oven.  We ate less than half of it with dinner, leaving a lot of leftovers.  My first thought was to use the rest for risotto, because we hadn't eaten rice for a while.

But as I started to bring out the things for dinner, I was reminded that we had half a red pepper in the fridge, not sweet enough to eat raw.  And that we had a tray full of small red tomatoes, picked just before the vines got taken down for the year.  They had been slowly ripening on the kitchen table for a week, but definitely showing their survivor status.  They had hard dark blotches and tough skin, and inside they weren't the true red of a legitimately ripe tomato.

Sounded like both these red things wanted to become part of the risotto.  I cut up the tomatoes, discarding most of the skin and cutting away some unappetizing parts of the insides.  Cooked them up in a hot pan with olive oil, letting them brown (heck, even a bit beyond that) and then adding marsala to deglaze the pan.  After they had cooked for a while, turning dark brown, I decanted them and sauteed the peppers in the same pan, along with garlic, decanting them as well when they were done.

By this time the vegetable count was getting pretty high, so I took only half the squash.  As the rice cooked away (click here for the basic risotto tutorial), I mashed up the squash and added it to the bubbling pan.  When you add raw bits of squash to risotto they retain their shape and crunch, but if you add cooked squash, it almost dissolves into a rich, creamy orange sauce, which was the mood I wanted now.  Just before serving, I added the tomatoes and peppers along with all the brown liquid that had accumulated in the bottom of the bowl.

The risotto was wonderful, the best I've cooked in months.

But there was still squash left.

Plus some leftover mashed potatoes from an intervening dinner.  Why not put them together for another leftovers du jour?

I mashed up the rest of the squash, added it to the potatoes, and mixed them up with two eggs.  Sauteed a half an onion, then added the vegetables for a frittata/potato pancake.

Some black pepper and a touch of nutmeg tasted good.  I thought of grating cheese over the top, but it seemed like overkill.  The squash gave the frittata a nice warm glow but if you hadn't known that was the secret ingredient, you probably wouldn't have identified it.

Should I quit while I'm ahead and stop cooking leftovers for a while?  All I can say is that our fridge currently holds none and we are feeling exceptionally well fed.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rice cooker epic fail

I mentioned in my last post that I wanted to try making steelcut oatmeal in my rice cooker, supposedly a foolproof method.  I had a different result.

I measured out my regular quantity of ingredients: 1 cup oats, 4 cups water.  I usually make this in a saucepan somewhat smaller than my rice cooker bowl, so I thought it would work out OK.  But when you cook it in a pan, you watch and turn the heat down when it reaches a boil.  The rice cooker knows better, and just boils away till it thinks the food is done.

Unfortunately, as the oatmeal boiled, it boiled right out of the cooker.  Yuk.

I wiped up the mess and somehow finished cooking the oatmeal, which never achieved the proper texture.  Too bad I wasn't doing collage that day, because the goo was a wonderful paste, very difficult to get off the counter even with serious tools.

I don't know whether this was my fault for using too much oatmeal, or whether it happened because the cooker stayed too hot too long.  Also don't know whether I'll even bother to try again.  Steelcut oats take about 45 minutes to cook and I like to make four servings at a time (on subsequent days I heat them in the microwave).  Don't think it would be worth the time and trouble to make smaller batches in the rice cooker, since I can easily make four servings in the good old-fashioned pan.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Rice cooking -- without any hard work

So I made snide comments last week about people who can't cook rice.  In the spirit of improving everybody's lives, let me talk a bit about the helpless cook's best friend -- the rice cooker.

You've probably seen rice cookers in Asian buffet restaurants, big industrial models that do 30 or 60 or 100 cups at a time.  They're available for home use too, in any size appropriate to your family.  My cute little cooker produces two big servings at its smallest quantity, and goes up to six or seven at maximum capacity.

You measure out some rice into the little cup, then fill up the pot with water to the line.  If you used one cup of rice, fill up to "1" and if you used two cups, fill up to "2."  I usually do a can of chicken broth instead of water, which brings the liquid level up above the "1" line, so to compensate I use a bit more rice.  Add a bit of butter or olive oil, and in return the cooker will produce a nice browned crust on the bottom.

After several years of just cooking rice, I've learned to experiment with adding new ingredients as seasoning (one of my favorites is salsa), although I haven't yet gotten to the point of using the cooker to make things like chili or stew.  I have also gotten good results by replacing some of the rice with other rice-like substances such as orzo, quinoa or lentils.

I like my rice on the wet side, like risotto, so often when the cooker flips over to "warm" I'll add a little boiling water from my electric kettle, stir it in, and cook a minute more.

My cooker also includes a steamer basket so you can cook your broccoli or whatever at the same time as your rice, without throwing them all into the same pot.

Probably the greatest rice cooker aficionado is Roger Ebert, the former movie critic (Siskel & Ebert) who took a blog post and expanded it into a book.  His theory is that you need no other cooking mechanism to achieve nirvana -- "the Pot" can do everything.  He endorses its use in the office, in the dorm, in the attic.  I haven't read the book but I am persuaded that I should be more adventurous in my cooking adventures.  My next experiment, following Ebert's lead, will be to make steel-cut oatmeal in the cooker.

With this handy kitchen appliance -- mine cost considerably less than $20, as I recall -- you could theoretically live your life without a stove.  Not sure I want to go that far, but I'm intrigued by how far I can push its capabilities.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Dinner from the past

As frequently happens in the afternoon, I asked my husband if he had any brilliant ideas for dinner.  Was there anything in particular that he would love?

And to my surprise, he suggested -- eatmore!

Eatmore was one of his mother's regular dinners, consisting of ground beef, tomatoes, noodles, and other ingredients that hadn't lasted quite so strongly in memory.  We'd discussed this dish in the past, and I had recalled one of my mother's regular dinners, known as "goulash" but bearing no resemblance to any goulash you would find in Hungary or any cookbook.  Indeed, our "goulash" was very similar to his eatmore -- ground beef, tomatoes, elbow macaroni.

Both eatmore and "goulash" were swimming in a lot of tomato broth.  My mother-in-law would often siphon off the broth and serve it as a separate soup course, thus enabling the main course to be served on a plate.  By contrast, my mother's goulash was served in bowls (I think I'm remembering right) and you slurped up the broth with a spoon.

I used to hate goulash night.  Not that it tasted bad, but I didn't like that juice.  It made the whole entree seem insipid and washed out.  On goulash night I would volunteer to serve out the plates, giving my own plate as little of the juice as possible. 

My husband, on the other hand, thought the broth was wonderful.

When he expressed the surprising desire for eatmore it was even more surprising that I said why not -- the first time in 42 years of marriage that I had done so.  I asked whether eatmore ever included bell peppers (we owned two big red peppers that were perilously near the end of their shelf life) and he said he thought it did.  Since this was a nostalgia trip, I asked whether it included onions (he thought yes) and asked him to find the closest possible noodle from our pasta shelf.

I found a pack of already cooked ground beef in the freezer, which made life much easier.  Cut up the peppers and an onion, added a fresh tomato that was also in dire need of being eaten plus a can of diced tomatoes.  Set it all to cooking.

Next question: what seasonings were used in eatmore?  He searched his memory and thought none.  Which is exactly what seasonings were used in "goulash."  But that sounded inadequate, so I took the liberty of adding some garlic and some marsala wine to wash out the tomato can. 

I'm sure both our mothers would have cooked the pasta in a separate pot, but I almost always cook pasta in with its sauce.  Fewer pans to wash, and the pasta absorbs good flavor instead of just serving as a neutral base.  

Old habits die hard.  I served up my husband's bowl with lots of juice, but kept mine as dry as possible.  He loved his.  I thought mine was insipid and washed out.  Maybe it was the peppers -- plenty of them, and so sweet that they dominated the dish.  (Probably my mother-in-law would have used green peppers; maybe they would have tasted better.)  Maybe it was the memory of "goulash" hanging over my head.

But at least one of us was really happy!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Rice cooking -- without all the hard work (!)

Prowling around in the middle of the grocery the other day I found this product -- ready-to-eat, just-warm-up rice!  It comes in a little plastic dish, to go in the microwave for two minutes.

The label reads, "We understand cooking rice can be a chore, that's why we have done all the hard work for you.  Rice so good, you will never need to cook it from scratch again."

This made me laugh.  Cooking rice is so far from being a chore that I can't conceive of the two ideas in the same universe.  With a rice cooker it's totally foolproof, as well as endlessly flexible to add ingredients and variations on the theme.  Even without a cooker, plain boiled rice is pretty simple, as long as you can use a measuring cup and multiply by two (or three if you like brown rice).

But I'm willing to admit that there are probably plenty of people out there who can't deal with this "chore," and for them the cute little dish full of rice is probably an appealing buy for those times when they absolutely have to pretend they know how to cook, and don't mind paying $1 a serving, compared to 8 cents or less if the rice comes from a bag.

What intrigued me was the corporate info on the label, indicating that the rice comes from the UK.  A google expedition revealed that the company is apparently headquartered in London but owned largely from India, a venture started 25 years ago by Indian farmers who wanted to get into the European market. They grow the rice, but process it in the UK to qualify for lower import duties.

Veetee has been selling microwave rice in Europe for some time, both in groceries and to restaurants, but has only sold in the US for a few years.  Which goes to prove that not all the technological "advances" in overprocessed food for lazy or clueless diners come from this side of the ocean.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Wine glass angst

Reading the USA Weekend magazine on Sunday, I realize that I have not been giving sufficient concern to an important subject -- my wine glasses.

The magazine instructs, "With wine consumption per person on the rise in the USA, 'red or white?' is no longer the question.  Instead ask, 'Which glass?'

A sommelier at a New York wine bar explains further:  "Having a Burgundy glass and a Bordeaux glass is absolutely necessary."  In addition, you need a white wine glass and a champagne flute.

                                           Photo -- USA Weekend 

But not to worry, the article goes on.  You probably don't need eight to twelve glasses of each style; you can probably get away with two.  "And don't overspend: A good rule of thumb is spend as much per glass as you would for the bottle you're drinking."

I was curious about this advice, for many reasons.

First, I would expect this kind of article from a magazine with ads for Cartier watches and Kiawah Island real estate, not from one with ads for $4.95 Mitt Romney commemorative coins.  I checked the audience demographics of this magazine and sure enough, 30 percent of its readers have household income under $40,000.  I wonder how many people were truly grateful for the advice.

Second, I wonder how many people who care enough to buy four kinds of wine glasses never have company.

Third, I wonder which glass you use for Malbec or Shiraz.

Finally, I wonder if you plan your wineglass spending based on the most expensive bottle of wine you ever bought in your life (because who knows, you might want to do that again some time) or based on what you usually drink.  If the latter, I can breathe a sign of budgetary relief, because we really like three-buck Chuck.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Tomato bust

I wrote last week about a tomato bonanza.  That was great, but it was thanks to the farmers market, not to our own gardening prowess.  This week I will focus on the flip side, our homegrown tomato bust.

I brought it on myself, by boasting in June about our early tomato crop (two cherry tomatoes).  The gods listened and punished.  Although we had decent weather and no drought, and the plants looked fairly healthy, we never got any fruit from that point on.  A few times, big green tomatoes fell prey to some kind of critters -- here today, on the ground with bites taken out tomorrow.  Then as summer wore on, even the green tomatoes stopped coming.

We got a few cherry tomatoes now and then, but not a single big one from two plants.  Finally the last week of August we noticed one nice green tomato.  We desperately wanted to keep it for ourselves, so we wrapped it in a mesh vegetable bag and waited for it to ripen.  Finally we would outsmart the critters.

Several days later I stopped by the vegetable patch to check on the tomato. Sure enough, it was turning red -- but it was no longer attached to the vine!

Had a critter jumped on it with enough oomph to detach it?  Are people actually smarter than rodents?

We brought the tomato in and let it ripen on the counter.  A week later it was ready.

Absolutely delicious -- summer distilled into a single bite.  Our entire year's crop on a single small plate.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


In the olden days it was no big deal to get a new appliance.  You opened the front door wide, they maneuvered it in and dollied it into the kitchen.  But twelve years ago when we did just that with a new refrigerator, we hit a snag.  We opened the front door wide, the fridge came in -- and stalled.  All three doors into the kitchen were 29 inches wide, whereas the fridge was 31 by 33.  What if you take the doors off the fridge?  Nah, won't help.

We were sheepish -- it hadn't occurred to us that buying a refrigerator could be like building a boat in the basement.  They took the fridge back and we promised to come by the next day and choose a new, smaller model.  But fortunately that night our son the math wizard came over for dinner.  After he heard our tale of woe, he skulked about the kitchen thinking, then asked us, Can the shelves in that closet come out?

Sure enough, he had discovered what two homeowners and three delivery guys had failed to notice -- we have a double closet that opens to both the kitchen and the dining room, and it is 34 inches wide.  And yes, the shelves come out.  So we re-bought the refrigerator we had sent back, cleared out the closet, and were pleased to see that with some careful maneuvering the fridge came in through the secret passageway.

So Sunday night we knew exactly what to do in preparation for our new appliance.  Everything from the double closet migrated to the dining room table, the shelves came out in order.  The gateway was open.

When the guys came with the new refrigerator we showed them the secret passageway.  Nah, we can just take off the doors and bring it straight through.

Uh, don't think that will work -- twelve years ago it didn't.

But they already had their screwdrivers out and were busy disassembling both refrigerators.  And guess what -- both of them went straight through the 29-inch door!

We were happy to get the furniture moving done so effortlessly.  We were retroactively unhappy at the stupid and/or lazy Sears service guys who wouldn't take the doors off with the last fridge.

And right now we were unhappy about the dining room table needlessly full of kitchenware.  With every dish I moved, I had contemplated how rarely if ever many of them got used.  Yet they all had sentimental value for one reason or another and I was NOT about to throw them in the trash or even take them to the storage locker.  They still need to be loved.

The pile looked like a garage sale.  Which made me think -- what if it could also act like a garage sale?  So we called up our son the cook and invited him to come over and choose some stuff to take home.

Two trips later he had filled up two big boxes, and two smaller boxes, plus some huge pots and serving bowls that rode home in the back seat unboxed.  As he made his choices, we talked about which dishes had belonged to his grandparents, which had been brought home by his father from Europe in 1952, which silver bowls had been awards at a competition.
Best of all, he promised to love and use them.

Now my closet is clean, the shelves newly washed, the remaining dishes much more airily distributed.
The new refrigerator is purring away, much quieter than its predecessor.  On balance, not a bad weekend's work.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cold snap

Came home from a party last night and needed something cold to drink before turning in.  Reached in for some ice cubes and my hand sloshed around in water.  Not a good omen.

That very afternoon my husband had commented on how the fridge seemed to be running noisier than usual.

Sure enough, the refrigerator had died.  The temperature in the freezer was about 40, and in the refrigerator about 50.  Not warm enough for any of the food to spoil, but certainly warm enough to write the obituary.

We went into emergency mode, first transferring everything from the indoor freezer to the garage freezer.  Then we tackled the refrigerator, repackaging some things to go into the freezer, throwing out a couple of mystery bits.  Turned off the fan, which was energetically circulating warm air.  Got a 20-pound bag of ice from the grocery and put it into the fridge compartment.

Timing is everything in household emergencies.  The good news was that we had very little perishable in the refrigerator after the triage.  A door full of condiments, of course, drawers full of vegetables and the tail end of a watermelon, but only one package of pastrami in the meat drawer, a little milk, a bit of cheese and a dozen eggs.  Only a week ago, what a different story -- four pounds of newly cooked pork, a pound of fresh fish, a big pack of crab cakes, three kinds of lunch meat, the sort of collection that makes you wake up a son in the middle of the night to open his refrigerator for you.

The bad news was that it was Saturday night on Labor Day weekend.  Would repairmen come out any time before Tuesday?  Did we even want to repair the #@%*& thing?  We checked the appliance notebook and discovered it was twelve years old, and recalled that we'd had several run-ins with Sears service people already.  The last time they came out, they poked around for a while and finally said "sorry, nothing we can do about it, you'll just have to learn to live with it being way too noisy.  That will be $100, please."

My husband made an executive decision: buy a new one.  And his vote counted, since he's in charge of repairmen (our theory is that repairmen are more respectful of men than of women, so he deals with roofers, body shops, furnace guys, etc.).  Rooting through his magazine piles he discovered that Consumer Reports had covered refrigerators just two months ago.

This morning we traipsed off to look at refrigerators.  At our favorite appliance locale there was only one bottom-freezer model on display (bad news) but it was the top-rated model in Consumer Reports (good news). The white model was out of stock and would take nine days to deliver (bad news) but we could get it in stainless steel the next day (good news) for only $125 more (bad news).  Or they could bring us the white floor model the next day (good news).  And it is sufficiently energy-efficient that we can get a $100 rebate from the power company (good news).

An hour later we were on our way home again, feeling considerably happier than we had been.  Every now and then the depraved American consumer culture of too much crap, too many choices and 24/7 instant gratification has its payoffs.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tomato bonanza

Today we have a tomato bonanza.  Not because of our garden -- I'll give you an update on that sorry situation in a later post.  Instead we went to the farmer's market.

Our favorite farmer always has two tables of tomatoes.  On the big front table are perfect tomatoes of several different varieties, at $2.50 a pound.  On the back table are seconds, at $1.20.  I always like to buy the cheap seconds, figuring we'll eat them quickly and what's the difference.  My husband always likes to buy at full price, since he has noted how we often have to cut out a bad spot from the seconds.

I note that we never lose half of the tomato, so we're ahead on price even if some spots go bad.  He notes that it won't kill us to spend another dollar or two.  We have not resolved this issue and I don't suppose we ever will.

Today he announced that he was going to buy full price.  I announced that I was going to buy seconds and roast them in the oven the minute we got home.  So we each did.  Then on the way back to the car we saw two huge heirloom tomatoes on the sidewalk, apparently escaped from some other shopper's bag.  I picked them up, inspected them and found only the damage you would expect when a perfect tomato hits the ground.

So we found ourselves with this haul -- full price on the left, seconds in the middle, and sidewalk finds at the right.

Plus another find: when I was taking some stuff out of the back of my car I found a tomato on the floor, under the front seat.  Can't remember when it got there.  It had started to go bad on one side, but not to the point of ruining my carpet, so I cut out the bad part and put the good half into my roasting pan.

The rosemary is about our only successful crop this year, and I put some big sprigs into the bottom of the pan.  Poured olive oil generously over the cut-up seconds, and roasted them at about 300 degrees for a couple of hours.  There was room in the pan so I threw in an eggplant too.

I love the way tomatoes roast down and caramelize in a slow oven.  You do want to take out the juice every now and then, so they can roast rather than stew, but save it, because it has reduced and sweetened as well.  Finally I deglazed the pan with a bit of marsala wine and added that to the juice.

Here's my bounty: the tomatoes cooked down dramatically, but are enough for a magnificent pasta meal sometime next week.  And plenty of perfect tomatoes to eat raw in the meantime.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Garbanzo delight

I wrote several days ago about finding a new product at the ethnic grocery -- split garbanzo beans -- for which I had high hopes.  I'm back to report that I'm in love!

I used to think of garbanzos, aka chickpeas, aka ceci, as little beige spheres of blandness.  I use them in a wonderful soup which I will tell you about sometime, and I know that they can become hummus, but otherwise they are not on my culinary radar screen.  But a few years ago I became acquainted with a mixed grain product that has become a favorite in our kitchen.  It cooks up in a saucepan on the stove or in the rice cooker, in 20 minutes or so, and it makes an excellent side dish for dinner, with the leftovers perfect for a hearty warm breakfast porridge.

My favorite ingredient in the blend is the baby garbanzo beans, but sad to say, not as many of them as I might like.  At the grocery I could find dried garbanzos but they bore no resemblance to the delicate yellow hemispheres in my Trader Joe's mix.

But at the ethnic grocery I found this bag of split garbanzos among the Indian foods.

At the store I thought the Indian peas were larger than those in the Trader Joe's mix, but a side-by-side comparison found them identical.  Perhaps seeing a whole bag of them made them expand in my mind.

Left, Trader Joe's; center, Indian; right, Kroger.

I've tried my new toys twice: once to augment a batch of Trader Joe's mix and once added to brown rice. Both incarnations were excellent.

So after I brought out all these packages for a photo shoot, I decided to make my own grain mix, altering the proportions to have more of the ingredients I like.  In the bottom of the jar, what was left in the Trader Joe's bag.  On top, more orzo, some Indian garbanzos, more quinoa and for good measure, some red lentils, which also cook quickly.  I think it will taste just as good as Trader Joe's original recipe, but should be healthier and prettier, not to mention cheaper.

Friday, August 24, 2012

French toast

When my kids were still at home, sharing a big breakfast was a common activity on the weekends.  Sometimes we just had eggs with sausage or bacon, other times we'd fix pancakes, waffles or french toast.  Of course I was the cook, while the guys sat at the table salivating for their grub.

With this setup, naturally I was the last to eat.  By the time I fed everybody, then fixed my own food and came to the table, the thrill was gone.  At least one guy was probably done and clamoring to be excused.  I got the pleasure of a nice plate of food, but the companionship of a shared meal was mostly gone.

Well, so much for companionship.  Let's focus in on the food.  The last egg out of the pan isn't qualitatively different from the first, and if you're vigilant in saving enough bacon for yourself, who cares if you're the last to eat?  Pancakes were problematical because you might run out of batter before you fed yourself, but over time you figured out how much to make.

With french toast, though, the first piece is different from the last.

There are two styles of french toast: puffy and crispy.  Puffy comes early in the day, from bread that has soaked up plenty of eggy milk and becomes airy and light in the frying pan.  Crispy comes at the end of the road, when there isn't much eggy milk left and thus the leavening effect of the eggs is weaker.  You get nice fried bread, but it's not exactly french toast.

The cook gets crispy, even when the cook might prefer puffy.

After decades of wanting puffy and getting crispy, I decided to pull the plug on french toast for a crowd.  Since I was the one who loved it the best, and I was the one who never got the perfect plateful, I changed my approach.  Now I make french toast only for myself, and I get the puffy ones.

When it's just me, I use one egg and some milk.  That's good for two or three slices of bread, depending on the size and thickness of the bread.  I usually add a schluck of vanilla to the eggy milk, which gives a nice flavor boost.  I never use syrup, just a bit of salt at the table.  It's delicious, and good enough for dinner if I'm all by myself.