Category Archives: Food & Cooking

A Picky Eater Grows Up

The year is 1974.  My family is making the annual pilgrimage from Illinois to Florida in our trusty Oldsmobile, Mom and Dad chain-smoking in the front while my brother and I fight for prime real estate in the back seat.  We finally arrive in Georgia, and I put my family through a familiar scenario:

We pull up to the drive-through window of McDonald’s.  My dad calls out the orders, three variations of hamburgers-with-everything plus French fries and drinks.  Then he adds, “And one plain hamburger.”

My brother groans and slumps back.  My mom taps her nails on the window trim.  The inevitable request comes.  “Uh, sir, can you pull over and wait?”

This was no ‘have it your way’ situation.  My plain hamburger meant that we waited an extra 10 or 15 minutes for it to be cooked and slapped between a bun sans all the junk that turned my stomach.

I’m sure many people can tell tales of their childhood food aversions.  If you’re a parent, you probably deal with this sort of thing from your own children.  What we often don’t talk about, though, is when this pickiness extends into adulthood.

I’m 51 years old, and I still don’t eat salad (or raw vegetables of any kind).  If you try to sneak Parmesan cheese into my food, I will smell it and push it aside.  I’ve come a long way, though.  Mushrooms, fennel, balsamic vinegar and Havarti cheese all now have a place in my life.  It was a long, nose-wrinkling process, however, and some foods still didn’t make the cut (sorry Gruyère – you just smell too nasty).

I was lucky enough to visit France in my late 20s.  After days spent wandering Versailles, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and watching artists at work in Montmartre, I was often famished.  I am ashamed to admit that the restaurant that most frequently got my business was none other than McDonald’s.  I was thrilled to tuck into an order of chicken nuggets with a side order of barbecue sauce.  Some days it was all I ate, after a breakfast of coffee and toast.

In front of Notre Dame Cathedral, most likely thinking of the chicken nuggets I'd eat that night - 1988

In front of Notre Dame Cathedral, 1988 – most likely thinking of the Mickey D’s I’d eat that night

I don’t know what it’s like now, but Paris in 1988 was a challenge for someone who didn’t speak French.  Add a hearing loss and inherent shyness to that, and ordering from a restaurant was fraught with peril.  After ordering a pizza that inexplicably arrived at the table with a topping of runny eggs, I avoided cafes and looked for the golden arches.

Things started changing for me around the time I had my cochlear implant surgery in 2008.  It’s fairly common for the nerves that control taste to be damaged during surgery, and I was not spared.  For about a year and a half, things like bread, cookies and cake had a strange, spongy texture and no flavor.  Water was oily; most flavors were flat.  The front center area of my tongue was most affected, so I tried to skip that area and quickly get the food to the back of my tongue.  I drank beverages through a straw.

I found that adding heat and spice livened up some of the dead flavors, so for the first time in my life I gravitated toward hot, spicy foods.  (I kept that preference once my taste buds were back to normal.)  While I was busy looking for ways to burn some life into my taste buds, we also started watching more cooking shows on TV.  I learned how to prepare and cook things I’d never even heard of before, like jicama.  I discovered Ruth Reichl’s books, and found myself curious about some of the more exotic dishes she described.

As I slowly started trying things that were new to me (and enjoying most of them), I decided to really push myself out of my comfort zone.  I signed up to become a recipe tester for Cook’s Illustrated, with the caveat that I had to try recipes with at least one new ingredient.  Testing a recipe means I have to follow everything to the letter – the ingredients, cooking method, pan size, and so on.  Instead of, say, substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream, I have to use exactly what the recipe calls for.

I admit that just last year I sat in a restaurant, ordered a dish that had pasta salad on the side (something I’ve never eaten because I hate mayonnaise), and told myself that if my kids could follow the ‘just take one bite and try it’ rule, then so could I.  It was made with aioli, which I’d never had but assumed tasted like mayonnaise.  For whatever reason, I loved it.  Maybe I like aioli better than mayonnaise, or maybe aioli tastes nothing like mayo, or maybe I actually don’t mind mayo anymore.  Who knows.  But I tried it!

So I’ve come a long way, food-wise.  In all honesty, I still wouldn’t order a burger with everything on it.  But ordering it plain wouldn’t even cross my mind these days.

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Jammin’

According to the On This Day app on Facebook, Dave and I signed the lease for our house a year ago today. June 2015 has been much more calm and stress-free than June 2014, thank God.

Even though the house was ours as of July 1, we had so much still to do at the old house that we didn’t move until the last week of July. We drove here a few times during the month, though, bringing things with us each time (to lessen the possibility of not having enough room in the Relocubes for all our stuff). We had to come out to pick up the keys, get the gas turned on, get the cable set up – that kind of stuff. During one of the visits for setting up utilities, we wandered the yard and picked a bunch of berries, then brought them back and froze them.

At the time, I didn’t really pay attention to the difference between mulberries and raspberries; I just knew we had them both, and they were both a dark purple color. When we picked them, I just tossed all the berries in the same bucket. Now I can easily tell the difference – mulberries grow on trees, raspberries on bushes. Mulberries, to me, have kind of a flat, sweet flavor (and no seeds). Raspberries have an acidic, tart note to go along with their sweet berry flavor, and tons of seeds. Plus they look totally different, now that I know what I’m doing.

This year it was fun to walk around and keep tabs on the berries as they ripened. I watched the mulberries as they first formed, saw the raspberry brambles fill with life. The mulberries ripened first, and we entertained ideas of harvesting them (put a sheet under the tree, then shake the tree … which always makes me think of the song The Joker). Then we kind of wimped out and decided it wasn’t worth it – all those little stems, and the fruit is okay but (in my opinion) would need to be mixed with something else, like rhubarb, to brighten the taste.

Raspberries, though – I just love them. Dave isn’t crazy about the seeds, but he likes them too. I’ve been watching the berries turn red for the past week or two, and now the berries are turning purple hand over fist.

Ripening raspberries (not pictured: all the daddy long leg spiders that hang out in these bushes, ugh)

Ripening raspberries (not pictured: all the daddy long leg spiders that hang out in these bushes, ugh)

Before raspberries, though, strawberries came into season here. (They don’t call this area the Fruit Belt for nothing!) We picked up a couple pints from a local farm stand, then a quart from a farmer’s market, and then we went all in with a flat from Shelton’s Farm Market when they went on sale. We froze most of them, made strawberry shortcake, made strawberry rhubarb compote more than once, and then I decided I wanted to make strawberry jam.

Dave is the one that does the canning around here, although I’ve gotten more involved in recent years. This time, though, I wanted to try it myself. I didn’t want to actually can the jam in a water bath though; we should really use a canning element on the electric stove here, and we don’t have one. (If we do any heavy duty canning this year, it will probably be outside on a camp stove.) I found an all-purpose jam recipe that made a smaller quantity, and I figured I’d throw a half pint in the fridge, and put the rest in the freezer.

I cooked the heck out of the strawberry puree (the recipe didn’t use pectin) and even though I cooked it far longer than the recipe called for, it never really set up like jam. It was more like a compote or sauce; it was delicious, but it wasn’t jam. (It kicks ass on vanilla ice cream and vanilla yogurt, however.)

I did some searching on strawberry freezer jam, trying to find out what I did wrong. I figured that was what freezer jam was – you cooked it up, and then put it in the freezer instead of canning it. Instead I found an even easier method, better suited for hot summer days because you don’t cook it at all.

So that was experiment #2. I picked up some instant pectin at the store (I love how easy it is to find things like that at the stores around here; I even found rennet tablets the other day so now I can finally try making cheese other than ricotta) and gave it a shot. All you do is mash/puree the fruit, add some sugar (far less than you do if you’re cooking it) and the pectin, pour it into jars and you are DONE.

Can I say again how much I love the fact that I can make jam without heating the house up in the summer, when all the berries are in season? When you don’t have central air, you embrace all the non-hot cooking methods you can.

The flavor is all fruit – it stays bright and fresh-tasting because it isn’t cooked down. (Not that I mind the flavor of traditional jams, mind you!) I like that you can be flexible with flavor combinations; this afternoon I’m making a mixed berry jam using blueberries and raspberries. Cherries are in season next; last year we missed cherry season by about one week, which was heartbreaking.

We just bought a chest freezer and if I’m not careful, it’s going to be full of nothing but jam and frozen fruit. 😉

Quick Takes, Holiday Edition

1.  They say our area has a 90% chance of snow on Christmas. It seems hard to believe, with a high today of 48 degrees and Christmas only two days away. But we’ll see – stranger things have happened. The main thing is that the snow they swear we’ll have tomorrow night is not supposed to be of the ‘well, we might get your road plowed by next week’ variety. Just a dusting, not enough to mess up the roads on Christmas Day.

2.  We’re in good shape as far as preparations go, with the exception of one gift for Dave that is obviously not going to arrive by Christmas Eve (or ever, apparently). I’ve already warned him that he’ll be helping me choose a replacement gift on Dec. 26th, hopefully from a seller that actually plans to ship things.

3.  I realized I hadn’t gotten anything for the cats. In the old house we actually hung stockings for them from the stair railing on the second floor. In this house I barely had room for the stockings that belonged to humans (I turned our large hope chest into a makeshift mantel next to the Christmas tree), much less room for the cats’ stockings. I guess not having the stockings out made me blank out on getting them a gift. Yes, I know they are cats. Yes, I know they don’t know it’s Christmas and expect no gift from us. But what kind of mother would I be if I forgot them?!

So I got them some Yeowww! catnip bananas, after seeing photographic evidence of my friend Kellie’s cat loving on his banana. (That sounds wrong, but you know what I mean.) I’ve gotten them Cosmic Catnip toys before but this is a new brand for us. I ordered them from Amazon because I knew they’d get here in time using their Prime shipping and, remember, I waited until the last minute to order them. They arrived promptly and I put them on a high shelf in the kitchen pantry, which is really just shelves off the kitchen that I’ve covered with a curtain.

The cats are now going crazy, pacing in front of the pantry, sticking their heads up inside the curtain, meowing, etc. This is for catnip toys that are in their packaging AND inside their shipping materials. I can’t wait to see what they do when we actually give them their bananas. (Go bananas, maybe? ahem)

4.  We’re in charge of Christmas cookies for dinner at my mom’s on Christmas Day, and I’ve been making a few types each day so we’ll have a nice variety to bring. Yesterday I made Italian anise cookies, which I remember fondly from my childhood. I can’t believe I’ve never made these before, because Dave loves licorice I don’t even know what made me decide to make them – I think the recipe popped up in an Allrecipes email or something.

There are wildly different recipes out there and I was really torn between them; finally I chose one from Food.com and crossed my fingers. If you’ve never had them before, they are almost like a little cake/biscuit type cookie with a glaze on top. We had to go to two stores to find anise extract, but it was worth it – I doubled the amount of extract in the frosting from 1/8 to ¼ tsp (we like the flavor) and they are so good. Dave’s face when he tasted the first one was priceless. He handed me a piece, I took a bite and said, “Oh my gosh, this brings back memories,” and then my eyes filled with tears. Crying over a cookie! But it just reminded me so much of Christmas Eve at my Aunt DeeDee’s house, my dad (who loved anise anything – cookies, biscotti, anisette liquor), and just all those Christmases of my youth when a platter of those cookies always seemed to be present. I am so glad I made them.

Italian Anise Cookies

Our Italian anise cookies — I remember the ones with round sprinkles the best.

This year we have a full day on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and I already know I won’t be writing again until Friday. So I want to take this moment to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a wonderful holiday season, no matter what holiday you celebrate. Thanks for being my friends, for sticking around even when I don’t write for weeks, for your valued feedback and comments and perspective. I hope all your wishes come true!

Older and Wiser: Christmas Cookies

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Christmas and how it was celebrated in other countries. I used to check out library books on the subject. It was hard to imagine following some of the traditions I read about – I distinctly remember being amazed that some people didn’t put up a Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, and then Santa was the one who decorated it. (Looking back as an adult, I can only imagine how tiring that must be for the parents. There it is, 11 pm or whenever they managed to get the kids soundly to sleep, and now they have to quietly drag out boxes of ornaments and decorate the tree without being caught … not to mention actually setting out the Santa gifts and filling stockings.)

Obviously we weren’t going to be changing our family traditions just because I thought it was cool how people in Denmark celebrated Christmas or whatever, but one thing I could do was bake some of the traditional cookies made in various countries. I remember dog-earing pages of a book called Christmas Cookies of the World (or something similar), just certain that I was going to make ALL of these cookies and try them out.

My eyes were bigger than my ambition, and I only actually tried a few of the recipes. Still, though, it was fun to read about and dream. As an adult, I still have a bit of a problem where Christmas cookies are concerned. Now it’s not so much about trying Christmas cookies from around the world as it is about trying Christmas cookies that just look so gorgeous and sound so delicious.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I tend to go overboard when I plan my baking days. When I was in my early 20s, I failed to take into consideration which recipes were the type that needed to be made and then refrigerated for hours before I could bake them. I’d get the dough made up and then get to the line that said ‘refrigerate for three hours or more’ and just sigh. Now what?!

Other times I’d be more organized; I’d make the ‘refrigerate for freaking ever’ cookie dough first, and while it was chilling I’d move on to something I could bake right away. But I’d plan to make a whole list of cookies in one day, an endeavor that would take me hours and leave me with a sore back and aching feet.

I also learned that I have no patience for cookies that have to be rolled out and decorated. Those were the types that they always pushed on young mothers as a great way to involve your children in cookie baking. Neither of my kids had any interest in this, even though they both liked to cook and Paige, especially, was into crafts. By the time we made the dough and rolled it out and started using the cookie cutters, they were getting bored. They’d wander off while the cookies were baking; usually I could coax them back to decorate a few once they cooled off, but I always felt like I was forcing the kids to join me in an activity they really didn’t care about. Decorated sugar cookies got taken off the list after a couple years of listless participation.

Really it was like this for any kind of cookie. “Want to make cookies?” I’d ask. They would shout, “Yes!” and by the time we were scooping out the dough, they’d be leaning on their elbows, sighing, looking around the room. “If you want to stop, you can,” I’d say, then watch them happily skip off to read or build Legos or whatever while I scooped and baked.

So here I am, 50 years old, and I’d like to think I’ve reached the ‘wiser’ part of ‘older and wiser.’ Okay, yes, I do have at least ten types of cookies I’d like to make this year – I have my tried and true recipes, like chocolate chips and Russian Tea Balls (also known as Snowballs, Mexican Wedding Cookies, etc. etc. – basically they should be called Round White Balls of Buttery Deliciousness Covered in Powdered Sugar). I have a couple of new recipes, because I always like to try a few new ones each year. (Congo Bars, how have I not made you before now?!) And I usually try to make at least one traditional Italian cookie – sometimes it’s pizzelles, sometimes biscotti; this year it’s frosted anise cookies. But I don’t try to make them all in one day. Now I spread the cookie-making joy over a few days, sometimes a week.

I’ll leave you with a recipe that has just three ingredients – butter, brown sugar, flour – and tastes absolutely amazing. This is one of my new recipes for this year because I’d never made shortbread before and wanted to see how they would turn out. Mine looked nothing like the photo accompanying the recipe; they would fit better in a ‘Pinterest Fail’ meme. But how they look doesn’t matter. They are simply amazing – buttery, not too sweet, and very addictive: Scottish Shortbread

Happy baking!

On Making Pies and Doing Math in My Head

Dave and I were grocery shopping for Thanksgiving yesterday, and I needed heavy cream.  It’s not something I usually buy but I don’t count calories on Thanksgiving, so there I was, peering at the carton of whipping cream and trying to do math in my head.  “Hey hon, how much is a half pint?”

Dave looked up from the dairy case, thought for a moment, and then walked over.  Taking the little carton from my hand, he said, “Oh, there — it’s 236 milliliters.”

I tilted my head and gave him my best, “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” look.  “HONEY.  If I knew how much 236 milliliters was, would I be asking you this question?!  How many cups are in a half pint?”

Dave laughed.  “Well, it’s one cup, see?”  He turned the carton over and over, then said, “Well, huh, I guess it doesn’t say.  But it’s one cup.”

“Why don’t they just put ONE CUP on here instead of a half pint?!”  I shook my head in wonderment and placed the carton in the shopping cart.  One of these days I’m going to associate ‘half pint’ with one cup instead of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Things are gearing up to be busy here, and as I made my pie crusts yesterday I started thinking about this entry from almost a year ago.  I’m going to repost it here today; I think it’s a good time of the year for it.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

* * * *

Either last year or the year before, I can’t remember, I set a goal to learn how to make pie crust.  I knew it was simple ingredient-wise, but something in the actual technique just eluded me.

Every now and then I’d make my own crust, and it was okay…nothing to write home about.  I’d flop it into my dish and smash in all the pieces that broke off so that they actually covered the surface of the dish.  It made a huge mess and was basically a pain in the ass and, to me, it didn’t taste any better than a store-bought pie crust.  Why go to all the bother?

I make a couple of savory dishes that use pie crust (chicken pot pie, sombrero pie) and we like fruit pies as well, so I make pie crust often enough that it started to bother me that I couldn’t conquer this simple recipe.  I mean … flour, water, a fat of some kind, and salt (sometimes sugar).  Why is it so hard?

So anyway, I set this goal:  I was not going to be afraid of pie crust anymore.  Every time I read about people succeeding in their pie crust endeavors, they would say you need to practice.  After a while you get the feel of it.  That makes sense, so I decided I would not buy any more pie crust.  I would make all of them, and I would learn from my mistakes, and I would not give up.

And so it goes.  I did some reading to figure out what recipe might become my go-to recipe.  What fats are better:  all butter, all shortening, all lard, or a mix?  I tried them all to see what tasted better.  As I did this, I worked on my technique.  Did I find it easier to mix everything by hand, or did I prefer doing it in the food processor?

It was slow going, folks.  I made a lot of pie crusts that were, um, interesting.  I learned that I need some shorter countertops in our next house because, at barely 5’1”, I can’t get the leverage I need to work the fats into the flour by hand.  (I would often take the bowl and pastry cutter over to the kitchen table, which is 6-8” shorter than the countertops.)  That’s why I avoid anything that involves kneading or rolling things out – Dave makes all the bread, and sometimes I need to get a step stool out when I roll out the pie crust.  Frustrating!

But I didn’t give up.  I chose my food processor as my preferred mixing method.  The pie crusts slowly got better, and I narrowed my recipes down to two and then one, which was simple and quick.  I fairly quickly eschewed shortening in favor of butter and leaf lard.  I did a lot of reading on lard, an ingredient that used to make me gag when I thought of it.  I found out the grocery store lard is very different (and very bad for you!) compared to lard that you render yourself (or buy from someone who renders it).  We tried rendering lard from regular pork fat, which wasn’t bad, and then we happened to find a local meat packing place that had ever-elusive leaf lard for a really good price.  Dave and I were shocked to find out how easy it was (and inexpensive!) to render our own leaf lard, especially after we researched prices and locations to buy it already-rendered.

In November, I was getting ready to make an impromptu apple pie and a King Arthur Flour catalog happened to be lying on the counter.  There was a recipe for pie crust inside and I figured, what the heck … I’ll give this a try since it’s right here.  I’d had months and months of pie crust success, and it was going to my head a bit.  I got started and right off I noticed that their recipe used less fat in relation to flour than my usual recipe.  It didn’t stop me though; after all, King Arthur Flour had to have a good pie crust recipe, right?!  So I went along, and as I worked the fat into the flour I could tell something was wrong.  I should have just added more butter and lard but nah, I stubbornly pressed on.  I added the amount of ice water the recipe called for and still just had a big floury mound.  I finally added about four times the water in the recipe before I could get it to hold together.  The kitchen was a mess from all the fussing I was doing with this dough, I was frustrated and pissed off, and I had a bad feeling as I slung the round Saran-wrap covered disks into the fridge to chill.

When it came time to roll out the crust, I really knew something was off.  All that practice was paying off, to the point where I could just feel the way the dough should be as I rolled it out.  The texture was wrong, it was too stiff … hoo boy.  I still made the pie, but I warned Dave that we might be picking out the filling and tossing the crust in the garbage when we ate it.

My friends, it was the worst pie crust I’ve ever made in my life.  It was a shining example of how truly bad a pie crust could be.  We could barely cut through it with a knife, much less a fork.  You had to vigorously chomp down and tear the crust like a wild animal just to get a bite.  It was bad.

I really needed that, you know?  I needed to see how much I’d learned in my pie crust education, and I needed to realize it was better to trust my instincts than to just blindly accept what I knew was probably not right.  I knew that I’d finally reached that point where I could tell how a pie crust dough should look and behave.  I went back to my tried and true recipe.

So last night, New Years Eve 2012, I made an apple pie.  I had another new recipe, one that came at the end of a very informative article on why pie crust behaves the way it does, how to achieve the flakiness, how and why you want the fat incorporated into the flour.  I liked the article – it made sense – and the recipe appealed to me because it gave the flour quantity by weight rather than cups, which I think is more accurate.  It was just a touch fussier than my go-to recipe but not enough to put me off.  I was wary as I went along, knowing what happened the last time I tried a new pie crust recipe, but as I shaped the two balls into discs to be refrigerated, I knew it would be okay.

That was my best-ever pie crust.  It was what I’ve been working toward all this time – flaky and tender and delicious.  It confirms that I will never again say that store-bought pie crust is just as good as homemade.  Practice makes perfect.  (Or pretty darn good, anyway.)

Here’s to 2013 and more perseverance, more knowledge, and reaping the good rewards they bring.

We call this one 'Angry Pie'

We call this one ‘Angry Pie’

Canning Food – A Neophyte’s Perspective

My first exposure to canning came early in my relationship with Dave.  He’s from Michigan, and every fall we took the kids apple picking in his home state.  (He was still living there until early 2000 so originally we’d go to his apartment in Buchanan and travel to local orchards from there.)  The kids were always enthusiastic and we’d bring back huge quantities of apples.

The first year, as we stood in the kitchen surrounded by sacks and boxes of apples, I realized we could not possibly eat enough fresh apples, apple pie or apple crisp to get through them all before they went bad.  Dave, however, didn’t even blink an eye.  The next day he put us all to work, peeling and slicing apples.  Then he made applesauce.

Up ’til then, I was a Motts girl.  It really never occurred to me that you could make your own applesauce; why would you, when you could buy it in the store?  Then we tasted Dave’s applesauce.  The kids went NUTS and I was just stunned into silence, it was that good.  We probably could have finished all his applesauce between the four of us, but he took it a step further and brought up canning jars from our candle workshop.  (Clean jars, not ones we’d made candles in!)  He set to work canning all but one quart of applesauce, and at the end of the weekend we had enough applesauce and apple slices canned to last us until the following autumn.

I didn’t participate in the canning; he kind of shooed me out of the kitchen and I was only too happy to oblige.  Like gardening, I figured this was his domain.  It felt a little like witchcraft, with the boiling cauldron and possibility of grave bodily harm if done incorrectly.  Better him than me!

Canning wasn’t something he did every fall, but he’d pull the equipment out every few years and can some goodies.  Once we started gardening more (a few years ago) he started canning tomatoes every year in late August or September.  The tomatoes were really a godsend – the flavor was incredible, and we use store-bought canned tomatoes ALL the time so we went through our home-canned tomatoes fairly quickly.

Around the start of August this year, Dave got that gleam in his eye and started talking about all the things he wanted to make with our tomatoes, canning-wise.  I had tried to get more involved with the garden this year, but it just isn’t my thing; my participation pretty much involved helping pick out the seeds we ordered, and helping with the initial seed planting in little peat pots.  Dave took over from there and I, having lost interest at that point, was only too happy to let him.

But canning … canning is more on the cooking spectrum, and I love to cook.  I realized this might be something we could do together, something I wouldn’t wimp out on less than halfway through.  So I told Dave I wanted him to teach me all about canning this year.  No shooing me out of the kitchen!

We stopped at Goodwill and I was lucky enough to find a great book for just 89 cents –Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda Amendt.  I sat down and read the whole first section, before the recipes, so I could really understand what was involved and why certain procedures were followed.  I started learning the lingo (Headspace!  Hot and cold pack!  Boiling water and pressure canners!) and as I read, I realized it wasn’t as hard as I originally thought.

Speaking as a complete neophyte, here are some of the things I learned:

The lids, those round things with the red rubber around the bottom, don’t get reused.

The rings, the part that screws on, come off after processing is done and you can reuse them on your next batch of jars (after you clean them, of course).

Confession:  I keep calling everything ‘lids’ and confusing Dave.  I’ll say, “Hon, can you get me some lids from the dishwasher?” when I really mean rings.  (The lids stay in a little pot of water on the stove, simmering, and get pulled out one at a time as you need them.)

When we went shopping for our canning supplies this year, I laughed at the idea of using a lid wand (a plastic stick with a magnet at the end).  It was only 97 cents but I thought that was ridiculous.  (Even funnier considering we were buying a pressure canner at the time … 97 cents was a pittance compared to what that cost!)  After our first canning session, I turned to Dave and pleaded, “PLEASE can we go back and buy a lid wand?!”  Ugh, trying to get those slippery lids out with tongs is a huge pain.  Pay the 97 cents and get the lid wand!

You can’t just can your own recipes.  I had no idea how this all worked, but recipes need to be tested for a certain acidity to determine their safety when canning.  It’s worth it to buy a specific book with canning recipes (check Goodwill).  Another great recipe resource is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.  We got our (current) copy when we bought our canning supplies at Wal-Mart; it was less than seven bucks.  Don’t try to mess with the recipes!  You can add dry spices fairly safely, but anything else is playing with fire.  This is not the time to get creative; follow the recipe as it’s written so you don’t mess with the acidity level and accidentally serve a big batch o’ botulism to your dinner guests.

Canning is NOT hard.  I mean, seriously – not rocket science.  You just have to follow the rules; there’s not that many of them and they aren’t hard to remember.  Follow your recipe and you’re good to go – it will tell you everything you need to know, and the best method for processing your food, so there’s no guesswork.

It’s not hard, but it is time-consuming.  More than once so far we’ve had grand plans for the day (we’ll can glazed carrots AND apple slices AND apple jelly AND caramel apple butter wheeee!!) and then after one batch is done, we realize it’s halfway through the afternoon and Dave’s eyes are shutting.  (He’s a morning person and prefers to do all of this earlier in the day; by 2 pm he’s ready for a nap.)

If the recipe says you have to pressure can the jars, you can’t use a boiling water canner.  You also can’t use a regular pressure cooker; it has to specifically be a pressure CANNER.  (The pressure canner, however, can do triple duty:  it serves as a canner, pressure cooker, and boiling water canner.)  Pressure canning is not scary for us; I use a pressure cooker fairly regularly so I’m used to how they work.  It’s just on a bigger scale.

You don’t need fancy equipment to can, so it’s budget-friendly after the first big expenditure to buy what you need.  Since we wanted to can veggies, we did buy the pressure canner (you need that for low-acid foods) and that was our biggest expense, at less than 70 bucks.  We already had a lot of jars and lids/rings, a jar lifter, funnel, food mill, sieve and a water bath canner with rack (found that at Goodwill).  We did buy the bubble remover/headspace measuring tool (we use that ALL the time, and it was only 97 cents) and, eventually, the lid wand.  We picked up some liquid pectin for when we do jams/jellies, and some Fruit Fresh.  Next year all we’ll have to do is buy replacement lids, basically, since we can’t reuse those.

Everyone wants to know how hard it is and I’m here to tell you, it’s so easy to can your own food.  If you can set aside a block of time on a weekend, you’re good to go.  Give yourself 30 minutes to read up on how it’s done (the Ball Blue Book, again, has all of that info plus the recipes), get some basic supplies and give it a shot!  It’s a great feeling to see all those jars when you’re done, to know exactly what’s gone into each one; even better if it’s food you grew in your own garden, but we’ve taken advantage of great prices on bulk local produce when it’s in season and canned that as well.

And homemade ketchup?  OMG.  It tastes SO good.  We made that last weekend and I was kind of thinking I probably wouldn’t like the way it tasted, with my picky tendencies.  I sampled some after we were done filling the jars and I couldn’t get over how delicious it was.  (I’m deliberately adding roasted potatoes to our dinner menu tonight so we can have ketchup with them!)  Also, the faux pineapple recipe, where you peel and dice zucchini and then can it in pineapple juice and lemon juice?  Tastes exactly like pineapple.  It even feels like pineapple when you’re chewing.  We highly recommend that if you’re drowning in zucchini and want to put some up for the winter months.  It’s delicious!

Today we made glazed carrots; our apple plans got pushed to tomorrow (Dave is napping as I type this).  So far in the past few weeks we’ve canned applesauce, green beans, tomatoes, ketchup, faux pineapple and glazed carrots.  We’re canning barbeque sauce tomorrow morning, then moving on to the apples:  slices (for pies and crumbles and such), jelly and caramel apple butter.  Next weekend we should have more tomatoes so we’re going to try a hot pack with those, since they’re paste/roma tomatoes and should hold their shape okay.

The fruits of last weekend's labor:  Ketchup (three pint jars in front, still with lids because they'd just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back)

The fruits of last weekend’s labor: Ketchup (three pint jars in front, with rings still on because they’d just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back).

Ironically, most places recommend starting with a basic jam (strawberry is popular) and I have yet to make jam of any kind!

If you’re like me and really like to study up on something before you start, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great, FREE online course called ‘Preserving Food at Home:  A Self- Study.’  Sign up at https://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/food/nchfp_elc/ and then wait a few days; they’ll send you an email with login information.  I’m on the third section right now and I love it!

Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down

I’ve noticed a distressing new trend in banner ads lately.  The first place to display this was the Accuweather app on my tablet.  At the very top, a text banner ad was displayed … and a very, VERY realistic-looking spider was moving across the text at a healthy pace.  I get it – I know the movement is supposed to catch my eye and make me pay attention to the ad.  But a freaking SPIDER?!  Nothing will give me a negative association faster than seeing a spider.  I don’t care if the ad is for bacon, or kittens, or a hot fudge sundae … make a spider crawl across those things and I am instantly grossed out and turned off.

Then this tactic started showing up in my Words With Friends app.  NOT COOL.  I don’t spend all that much time on Accuweather – just a quick check to see what I can expect weather-wise for the coming week.  But I can spend a good 20 minutes catching up with my Words With Friends games, and having a damn spider crawling across my screen … a real-looking spider, not a cartoon-funny spider … is making me want to never open the app again.  As it is, I cover that side of the screen now, either with a piece of paper or my hand.  I can’t stand to look at it; it seriously makes my skin crawl.  (I’ll confess – I usually do the piece of paper because putting my hand over it, even though it’s not real, is just too close for comfort.)

I know they can achieve this stupid trick with other images; I’ve see a bouncing red ball and a swimming fish (shark?) in the past.  But lately, all I ever see is the spider.  BAD MARKETING MOVE.

* * *

There’s this new 30 minute comedy on Fox called Brooklyn Nine-Nine; it just started on Tuesday.  We’ve been seeing promos for it for a couple of weeks on TV, and Entertainment Weekly magazine gave it rave reviews.  Every time we saw a promo, though, Dave and I would just look at each other, grimace and say, “No way.”  It just looked so, so stupid and sophomoric.  We usually don’t go for that kind of humor; I’m more of a deadpan, dry, witty humor kind of gal.  I don’t go in much for sight gags and really immature stuff.

Even with the thumbs up from EW, I wasn’t convinced.  They have a hard-on for Scandal; when we watched the pilot, we couldn’t even finish the episode.  It just seemed ridiculous and like it was trying too hard.  On the other hand, they seem to have nothing but hate for The Newsroom, and that is seriously one of our absolute favorite shows.  Because of that, I take their recommendations and disparagement with a grain of salt; usually I give a show at least one chance so I can form my own opinion.

Then I started seeing good reviews from other sources, including entertainment sites and just regular folks watching at home.  It was compared to Barney Miller, which I enjoyed back in the day.  So I told Dave, wincing and waiting for his wrath, that I was going to just put the pilot episode on TiVo so we could see what the fuss was about.  He laughed and said he’d been reading about it in EW earlier that day, and agreed it was worth a shot.  They replayed the pilot episode on Thursday and darned if it wasn’t terrific!  It comes off much better than it looks in the promos, trust me.  Usually a new comedy needs a few episodes (or a whole season) to really come together and gel, but this one seems to be well-seasoned already.  If you were turned off, like we were, from the early ads on TV, I would give it a shot.  You might be pleasantly surprised.

* * *

I’ll probably write a full blog entry on this at some point, but I’m learning how to can food and holy cow, I’m hooked.  Dave has repeatedly had to gently lay his hand on my arm, while I breathlessly obsess over all the things I want to make, and soothingly say, “Just take it easy … we don’t have time to do all of this stuff at once.  Pace yourself.”

Last weekend we started with green beans, tomatoes and applesauce.  Tomorrow we’re doing a whole bunch more tomatoes, plus KETCHUP OMG (I am v. v. excited about this!!) and faux pineapple, made from … wait for it … zucchini.  Yes, zucchini.  Earlier in the week when I was freaking out on Facebook about the things we’ve canned, one of my friends jokingly asked, “What, no zucchini?”  And seriously, I had been looking for a canned zucchini recipe!  Our zucchini plants are all pulled up for the season (may they rest in peace) but I still have five zucchini left, including one monster that was taking up a quarter of my produce drawer.  All the zucchini recipes I found were for pickled zucchini, and ewwww.  I hate pickles.  The consensus (from NCHFP, National Center for Home Food Preservation) seemed to be that it’s too hard to determine processing times for plain old zucchini so they recommend freezing instead.

Then I happened across a recipe, from the NCHFP no less, for faux pineapple.  And it got good reviews from enough people that I couldn’t resist; I just have to try it.  I already know zucchini is a master at mimicking other things, like apples in the zucchini apple pie I made.  In this case, you peel and dice the zucchini and then can it in pineapple juice.  It’s genius, really.  I probably wouldn’t just snack on it (maybe I would, who knows) but my goal is to use it in stir fries and other savory dishes.  We make a grilled chicken, peppers and pineapple quesadilla that kicks ass, and, well, chicken and peppers and pineapple go well together in general.

I may take pictures as we go along, we’ll see.  Just know that tomorrow I will be quivering with excitement, clucking like a proud mother hen over my pint and quart jars full of goodies.

* * *

Last night we watched This is the End and, well, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.  I had a general idea what it was about but it took a dark (and gory) turn that I wasn’t expecting, and that just pleased me to no end.  I thought it was going to be more talk and conversation, hanging out in this house while the world was ending outside, but it was much more action-packed and it was VERY funny.  Two big thumbs up from Wendi and Dave.

* * *

Finally, I had one thing I meant to write here, something that happened this morning during a conversation with Dave.  We both got such a kick out of it and I remember thinking it would be a cute anecdote for my blog, and now I can’t remember anything at all.  Not even the general subject of our conversation.  All I can remember is that I made a fool of myself and Dave was very kind when he pointed it out, and see?  This is why I need to write blog ideas down.

Over and out.

Zucchini – All Day, Every Day

Earlier this year, I nervously watched as Dave planted three (yes, THREE) zucchini plants in the garden.  “Are you sure you want to plant three?” I fretted.  “I mean, I could barely keep up with one zucchini plant last year.”

“Oh, this is nothing…it’ll be fine.”  He grinned as he patted the dirt around the last plant, then stood up and confidently clapped his hands clean.

Fast forward to August, NOW, and let’s just say the zucchini plants are very happy.  They are large and productive and gleefully giving up zucchini left and right.

Luckily, I like zucchini.  It’s one of those veggies that’s very easy to add to just about anything; it doesn’t have a strong flavor that overwhelms everything else, and it’s pretty forgiving.  There’s just so MUCH of it, man.

When I finish this post, I’m going to make some banana-zucchini bread (with a streusel topping, because yum).  Yesterday I made a pot of chicken and noodles, and tossed a nice-sized zucchini in with the carrots, celery and onion.  It was awesome.  So far this week we’ve had zucchini brownies, grilled zucchini and corn (tossed with olive oil and spices – delicious), shredded zucchini added to the spaghetti gravy (you’d never even know it’s there), and the pièce de résistance:  an apple pie, made with zucchini and no apples.

I’d seen this recipe before, and everyone who tried it insisted you couldn’t tell it wasn’t apple inside.  Still, though, I didn’t want to waste time making pie crust just to have a sweet zucchini pie, ya know?  But the pile of zucchini on my counter called to me, and I had a pie crust already made and hanging out in the freezer, and I thought, Okay, we’re gonna do this.

The recipe was basically exactly like my regular apple pie recipe – scarily so – except for one change, which was the addition of 1-1/2 teaspoons of cream of tartar.  Dave and I puzzled over the role it played in the zucchini/apple magic, and couldn’t really figure it out.  In the end we decided it must have served to thicken the liquid a bit.  When we added all the ingredients to the peeled and sliced zucchini, it did get very watery.  The recipe instructions mentioned this and said it would be fine, so I decided not to worry.  And it was!  It was fine!  More than fine, really – even the next day, the filling was thick and delicious, and it tastes JUST like apple.  I mean, it’s really weird.  And I know it’s zucchini, so I keep expecting it to taste like zucchini, and it just does not.

Dave claims he can tell it’s not apple because of the texture (to me, the texture is just like apple…but he’s more of an apple connoisseur than I am).  However, he didn’t think it tasted like zucchini, or that he would know it was zucchini if I hadn’t told him; he just would have asked me what kind of apple I used.  (!!)

Here’s the pie (with a crumble topping, since I didn’t feel like making a second crust):

Crappy cellphone pic of apple...er...zucchini pie

Crappy cellphone pic of apple…er…zucchini pie

We’ve actually been keeping up with the zucchini really well; three plants’ worth, for heaven’s sake.  (Not that I want three plants next year.  Are you paying attention, dear husband of mine?!)  I like them smaller, so we try to catch them before they turn into caveman clubs.  (It doesn’t always work, but we try!)

I’m also trying not to freeze any, not just yet.  It’s fine if you use frozen zucchini within a couple months, but any longer and it starts to taste weird.  Since I have so much zucchini coming in, if I freeze it now then I won’t need to use the frozen stuff until November or so.  I’d rather wait for the end of harvest and then put up a few bags of sliced and shredded zucchini for the winter months.  That way they won’t be so ‘old’ by the time I get to them.

We discovered that we really like grilled zucchini (all this time and I never tried that), and I have yet to make a big pot of pasta primavera, which is a terrific way to use zucchini.  I also have a really yummy creamy zucchini soup recipe that I haven’t broken out yet this season, because it’s been too hot.  All in good time.

I have a potato zucchini frittata recipe I want to try, and zucchini bread to make (my regular recipe, loaded with zucchini, carrots and pineapple, which is more like a cake and has a delicious cream cheese frosting).  I haven’t yet made stuffed zucchini, which is great – I stuff it with onions, mushrooms, bacon and cheese (and, of course, the chopped zucchini that’s been scooped out).  Not to mention bruschetta with roasted tomatoes and zucchini (gotta wait for the tomatoes to ripen before I can make that).  Geez, I really need more zucchini if I’m going to make everything I want to.

Who would believe that, in my previous picky-eater life, I never, ever used to eat zucchini?!

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Testing Recipes

I’ve mentioned before that we test recipes for Cook’s Illustrated.  It’s not as glamorous as it sounds – totally voluntary, no payment or glory or anything.  I just thought it sounded like fun; it would give me a chance to maybe learn some new cooking techniques and try some new ingredients, since I’m trying to reform my picky-eating ways.

It was fairly easy to join; I just watched their Twitter feed until they announced they were looking for new recipe testers, and I applied via the link they provided.  Within a couple days they were welcoming me to the team.

Every now and then, they send me an email with a recipe to test.  There’s a link to a survey that you fill out after you test the recipe, as well as a link to the recipe itself.  They ask that you not share the recipe when it’s in the testing phase, although once it’s been published you can share as long as you give them credit.  They ask you not to test the recipe if it’s something you normally wouldn’t like (and I avoid anything with fish, since Dave is allergic to it).  They give you a deadline, usually 2 or 3 weeks away, and ask that you test the recipe and fill out the survey before that date.

So that’s how it works.  Pretty simple!  So far I’ve probably tested 2/3 of the recipes they send me.  I learned the hard way to take a pass on recipes that are loaded with unusual ingredients.  At first I was drawn to them, since one of my goals is to broaden my culinary horizons.  After a couple recipes that cost me around $20 in ingredients that are now languishing in my pantry, I’m now more discerning in the recipes I test.

Sometimes the ingredients are new-to-me but not expensive and/or hard to find, like the bean dip that used pink beans.  I’d never heard of them, but there they were, cheap and easy to find, right there with the canned pinto and navy beans.  (The recipe also called for frozen lima beans, which I HATE; they were great in the dip (mashed up, thankfully) but the rest of the bag hung out in the freezer until The Great Derecho/Almost-Four-Day Power Outage/Heatwave of 2012, when we lost everything in our fridge and freezer.  I was not sad to see them go.)

Usually what happens is the recipe will call for a miniscule amount of a really expensive ingredient that you can only get in a big size.  Or a miniscule amount of an ingredient that I can’t figure out what to use in anything else.  Perfect example:  I have a bag of cracked wheat, sitting in my pantry for over a year, from a really horrible vegetarian chili that we tested.  The chili was so bad that I’m scared to even look up ways to use cracked wheat in other recipes.

Sometimes I just can’t find the ingredient they’re calling for.  Off the top of my head, I can remember this happening with a specific type of vinegar and also French green lentils.  We shop at an international produce/grocery store that has just about everything, but I could not find either of those things.  I’m not willing to drive 40 minutes to Whole Foods, so I crossed those recipes off my list.

Normally I would just substitute that ingredient for something similar that I could get my hands on.  When I’m testing a recipe, though, I follow it religiously:  no ingredient substitutions; I time all the steps to see if they match what the recipe says; and I make sure the pans and skillets and such are all the same size and type called for in the recipe.  (Case in point:  I just got a cheese soufflé recipe to test that I had to pass on because we don’t have a soufflé pan.  Plus, the cheeses were Parmesan and Gruyere, and I absolutely detest both of them.)

Usually we like the recipes we test, and we’ve kept quite a few.  I tested an amazing filled peanut butter cookie and delicious Italian Florentine cookie, the aforementioned bean dip, pan roasted potatoes, berry trifle, steak and, oh, the cauliflower soup with little vinegar-soaked roasted cauliflower pieces as a garnish.  I really went out on a limb with that one, because although I’m fine with vinegar as an ingredient, I don’t eat it ‘raw’ (as in a salad dressing, for example).  The smell just gags me, and I can’t get past it.  But I really wanted to do the whole recipe, including the garnish, so I started out with just two little florets floating on top of my soup.  The vinegar smell was overpowering and I was afraid it would make me hate the soup, so I ate the florets first to get them out of the way.  And I loved them!  (And went back for more).  I couldn’t believe it.  Why does vinegar have to smell so bad?!  I would probably eat it more if it smelled better.

We tested a few recipes that were good but just such a hassle that we would never make them again.  One of those was for turkey burgers, which required us to buy a turkey leg and cut it into pieces and then put them in the food processor with butter to make the ‘ground turkey.’  The butter completely coated the food processor, it took Dave 30-45 minutes to cut up the damn turkey leg, and the other ingredients I had to mix in just didn’t want to mix – the butter repelled them.  We finally got the burgers made and they were delicious, but I had to report that I’d never make it again (and why).

By the way, when that recipe finally got published, it was nothing like the recipe I tested.  I noticed right away that the butter was gone (I can’t remember what they ended up using in the final recipe, maybe gelatin).  I don’t always see the final, published version of the recipes I test, but all of the ones I’ve seen have been changed in some way from the version that I had.  Even the ones that I gave rave reviews – which makes me wonder if other people complained about things that I thought were perfectly yummy.

Now, some of these recipes are duds.  It happens rarely, but for some reason, the vegetarian recipes I’ve tested have not been good.  It seems like they really want to make it seem NOT vegetarian (the cracked wheat was supposed to simulate the mouthfeel of ground beef, for instance) and it ends up being too convoluted.  After we worked all afternoon on the vegetarian chili recipe (and had a huge vat of it to show for our efforts), Dave took one taste, made a face and spit in the garbage.  I tasted it and thought it was pretty icky but not necessarily inedible.  Dave, however, was grievously offended…and he’s not even the picky eater in the family!  He’s like Mikey…he’ll eat anything.  We decided to toss it; there was no way it was all going to be eaten.

And then a couple nights ago, I tested a vegetarian bean enchilada recipe.  We have a couple of bean burrito recipes that we really like, so I thought it sounded promising.  I showed the recipe to Dave, and he immediately agreed that we should test it; he especially liked the ‘mole-type sauce’ that we were going to make to go with it, since he’s never had mole sauce.  (Neither have I.)

I should have known, just by reading the ingredients and the recipe steps, that I wasn’t going to like it.  There were some unusual ingredients that we don’t normally keep on hand (pumpkin seeds, guajillo chiles, canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce) but that didn’t deter me because I can think of lots of other things I would use those (leftover) ingredients in.  Mainly the enchilada consisted of the sauce (pureed smooth in a blender) and a can of pinto beans.  There was nothing else inside – no fresh veggies, no cheese (other than what was blended into the sauce).  As we cooked the beans and sauce together, most of the beans smushed and it was just a brown puree-type filling with no other texture.  Because of the bittersweet chocolate in the sauce, it was an unappealing dark brown color and it truly looked like we were smearing the contents of a baby diaper on the corn tortillas.  But we kept on, following the recipe exactly, baking the enchiladas in a bath of the nasty brown sauce.  We pulled them out and topped them with a chopped scallion from our garden (finally, a fresh vegetable, and some COLOR!) and some crumbled queso fresco, which was a new cheese for both of us.  (We loved it, thankfully – this was one good outcome from the recipe, since we now have a new cheese to enjoy.)

We sat down to eat, and I wasn’t optimistic but I tried to hide it.  I jokingly said, “Hopefully they’ll taste better than they look!”  I took a bite, chewed, and contemplated the flavor:  muddy and murky were the two words that came to mind.  There was no texture (beyond a slight crunch from the ends of the corn tortilla, although most of it was soggy from the sauce on top and bottom).  The flavor was bitter and just flat-out horrible.  I looked at Dave and said, “You try it.  If you like them, I’ll finish mine.  But otherwise I’m going to recommend that we order a pizza for dinner.”

Dave took a bite and started chewing.  And chewing.  And chewing.  After he finally swallowed that bite with a big gulp, he said, “Um, yeah…let’s order a pizza.  These are terrible.”

It was a wasted hour in the kitchen, meticulously testing each step of this recipe, but that’s what we signed up for so we were just bemused.  I gave this recipe the worst review I’ve ever bestowed, and recommended that they ditch the sauce altogether and just use fresh vegetables with the beans.  (Of course, that makes it a burrito and not an enchilada, but whew, the sauce was bad!)  I’m kind of hoping I get to see the final recipe when it’s published; I’d love to see if there are big changes.  I have to wonder if I’m the only one who had such a bad result.

Now I’m eyeing the zucchini lining my counter, thanks to our bountiful garden.  Hopefully they’ll be sending some tester zucchini recipes my way soon…

How I Learned to Stop Ordering and Love to Cook

I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I wasn’t always that good at it.  I was enthusiastic, yes, but I didn’t have enough practice or years of tasting behind me.  I cooked here and there (mainly sweets) when I lived at home, and I was just shy of 21 when I got married the first time.  I was still a very picky eater; corn and green beans were the only vegetables I didn’t consider to be suspicious.

I copied some recipes from my mom and had a few things I made regularly for dinner.  The first cookbook I remember buying was The Frugal Gourmet – I liked the word ‘frugal’ in the title.  I learned how to make a decent Chicken Marsala and how to make chicken and beef stock.  I followed recipes precisely.

For all those years, cooking was just a thing I did – I was working full time and didn’t feel like experimenting or devoting a lot of time to cooking once I got home.  Then the kids came along, and dinner became an afterthought.  Once I became a single mom, working full time, dinner for me was always after the kids were fed and in bed, and it often reflected my exhaustion – usually a bowl of cereal or soup.

It wasn’t until the kids grew older, I was remarried and working from home that I started getting interested in food beyond what I absolutely needed to do to keep my family nourished.  I have to give some credit to food blogs and cooking shows – I was introduced to so many ingredients I’d never heard of or never thought to cook with.  Things like fennel, jicama, leeks, kale…and I have to sheepishly admit that it wasn’t until just a couple years ago that I cooked with fresh mushrooms, broccoli, squash or cauliflower.  (I told you I was picky!)  The internet filled in when I wasn’t sure how to chop or prepare a certain vegetable.  (Bok choy, I’m looking at you.)

I can’t tell you how many nights I was prepared to make a certain meal and then realized I was missing just one crucial ingredient.  Those were the nights we ended up ordering takeout.  (A local pasta/pizza place kept us fed for a few very busy years in the early days of the candle business.  They’ve since gone out of business, probably because we stopped ordering from them when I started cooking more.)  There were also nights I planned on making something that I just couldn’t even consider cooking when the day rolled around, usually because it was just too hot to cook.

We were starting to order out just a little too much for my comfort, and I was getting frustrated by the many times my plans to cook were thwarted by missing ingredients.  I did get more creative, learning what I could and couldn’t substitute…but sometimes you just NEED that item and nothing else will do.  So I decided it was time to get more organized.

What has saved my sanity over the past few years, helped our budget and kept me from recipe burnout and the What the heck should I make for dinner tonight? conundrum is this:  A spreadsheet of menus.  It took me maybe 30 minutes to initially put together.  I sat down with my cookbook and went through all the recipes I knew my family liked.  I made sections on the spreadsheet for Beef, Chicken, Grill, Soup, Pasta, and Other.  In each section I typed in the names of the recipes that used that main ingredient.  (‘Other’ has things like homemade pizza, vegetarian dishes, grilled cheese, breakfast for dinner.)  To the left of the recipes, I have the days of the week listed, Monday through Sunday, and a space next to each day where I type in the recipe I’m planning to make.

To plan menus, I open the spreadsheet and I open the weather forecast in my browser.  I take a look at the temperatures coming up and plan my weekly menu accordingly.  I also have a tab in that spreadsheet that lists all the extra things I have in my freezer – any veggies, meat, etc. that I already have, so I know what I have on hand to work with.  If it’s going to be warm but not warm enough to have the A/C on, I pick something that we can cook on the grill, in the slow cooker or oven…basically anything except the gas stovetop, which heats our house up like a bonfire.  If it’s going to be really cold, I plug in something warm and hearty like chili, beef stew or soup.  I alternate so we aren’t eating chicken three days in a row, and so that at least two or three days are meat-free.  Once I nail down the menu for the week, I type a shopping list in another tab of the spreadsheet.  By now I have a lot of my recipes memorized, but if not, I reference the recipe and check my cabinets/fridge to make sure I have what I need.  Anything missing goes on the shopping list, along with any staples we’re getting low on.

Since I’ve started this, I almost never have a night when I either don’t feel like cooking or can’t make what I planned.  I get those meals set ahead of time and don’t have to think about what to make for dinner on a daily basis.  The most I might do is switch some meals around if the weather changes drastically or we have something planned that’s going to prevent me from having the time to cook.  If I know we have a busy afternoon planned, I’ll plug in a crockpot recipe so I can get dinner started in the morning before we go out.  I always have the ingredients I need on hand, and I don’t end up with three bottles of vanilla because I forgot I already had some in the pantry.  (Not anymore, anyway.)

If things start getting boring, I check around on my favorite cooking/recipe sites and add some new recipes to the mix.  In my quest to try more vegetables and ingredients I’ve never cooked with before, I’ve come across some recipes that are now family favorites.  I also signed up to test recipes for Cooks Illustrated, as a way to make myself try new things and practice new cooking techniques.

A big part of what makes cooking so fun is the appreciation of my family.  The kids aren’t living at home now but when they did, they never hesitated to rave about a meal they liked (and they still do this when they’re here for dinner).  It makes me feel good when they request certain meals; I know now that they have fond memories of mom’s cooking, and that they look forward to the things I make.  Dave is my biggest fan, really.  He will just stop eating, look at me and say, “This is AMAZING.”  He’ll rave about the flavor or the meal in general.  Positive reinforcement really works…it’s so much more fun to cook for someone who absolutely appreciates it and lets me know.

I know his praise is genuine because he doesn’t hesitate to tell me when he doesn’t like something; he would never lie and tell me something was tasty just to keep from hurting my feelings.  I always warn him when we’re trying a new recipe, “Tell me the truth now, because if you like it then it’s going in the repertoire and you’ll be eating it again!”  In other words, if you secretly hate it, you’re going to be stuck eating it again in the future unless you speak up.

I think the biggest complaint I hear from friends and family who don’t like to cook is doing the dishes that it creates.  For whatever reason, doing dishes just doesn’t bother me.  I find it kind of relaxing.  I tend to clean as I go, and Dave is almost always there with me in the kitchen (he’s a great sous-chef) so between the two of us, we have most of the dishes cleaned up before we even sit down to eat.  Sometimes we do the whole ‘whoever doesn’t cook is the one who does the dishes’ thing, but since we generally work together on a meal, we work together on doing dishes too.

We don’t always eat fancy, but we do always eat good and yummy.  Tonight it’s just homemade sloppy joes (I used to use Manwich until I found a simple, delicious recipe that puts it to shame) with potato wedges roasted in the oven.  In the summer, we’ll be eating zucchini and tomatoes in almost everything, as long as our plants thrive.  Some days we just throw together a scramble (eggs, diced potatoes, sweet peppers, onions, maybe mushrooms) and call it dinner.  Sometimes it’s lasagna – something that seems so fancy but is really very simple to put together.  For all of it, though, the key for me is organization.  I can’t make that lasagna if there’s no ricotta cheese in the fridge, and the scramble isn’t possible without eggs.

If spreadsheets aren’t your thing, or you just aren’t that into meal planning, I can highly recommend finding a recipe site that lets you search by ingredients.  (I know my favorite site, Allrecipes, has this feature, and I’m sure there are others out there too.)  If you’re feeling like having a chicken dish with a few key ingredients, you just plug those in and you’ll get a bunch of recipes to choose from.  Anything to make dinner time easier, right?

By the way, I found the homemade sloppy joe recipe because I didn’t have Manwich on hand…so sometimes it works out well when an ingredient is missing!

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