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.