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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.

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!

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!

The Runny Egg Yolk Experiment

“You know, we really should eat this bread today.  I made it a while ago.”  Dave pulled the bread keeper towards him and brandished the loaf in my direction.  There wasn’t much left, maybe one-fourth, but he was right – it had been sitting there for a while.

“French toast?  Um…maybe Toad in the Hole?”

Before he finished speaking, I was waving my hands at him in excitement.  “How did you know I was going to say that?!  Oh my God, I was totally going to suggest that!”  The weird thing is, we’ve never ever had Toad in the Hole for breakfast (or Egg in the Hole, or whatever else it’s called – where you cut a hole out of the middle of a piece of bread, warm some butter in a skillet, then crack an egg into the hole in the bread and let it cook on both sides).  Dave has talked about it before, so I assumed it was something he’s eaten in the past, and I’ve seen my mom make it (and seen it featured on Pioneer Woman’s cooking page).  But I’ve never had it in my life, and it was just so strange that we both happened to be thinking of it this morning.

Turns out that Dave has never made (or eaten) it either, which kind of shocked me.  It just totally seems like the kind of thing he would eat.  So I glanced quickly at Pioneer Woman’s page to make sure we had the right idea, we grabbed the biscuit cutter to cut the holes, and we had enough bread for me to have one slice and Dave to have two.  Then we discussed strategy.

“Now, I want you to cook mine long enough so the yolk isn’t runny.  Just leave it so that it cooks all the way through,” I instructed.  I’ve always been completely grossed out by a runny yolk.  Partly because it just looks like an uncooked egg, which makes me think salmonella.  Partly because the texture thing is just icky…you have this solid section and then a totally liquid section and ewww.  Dave knows this is one of my food quirks so he wasn’t surprised by my request.  He regularly makes fried eggs with runny yolk for himself and he knows if he’s making me an egg, I like it cooked all the way through.

He used the cast iron skillet which can be tricky temperature-wise – it really holds the heat once it gets hot and it’s easy to overcook things if you don’t turn the flame way down.  He started my bread and then cracked in the egg; I added some salt and pepper to the top and also tossed my circle of bread into the pan because I wanted it toasted too.  Dave shook his head at my ‘goofiness’ and then went to flip over my toast circle.  It was already dark brown on the one side, so he flipped my Toad in the Hole and started cursing because he thought it was overcooked.

He turned down the flame and kept cooking until things were starting to get a little smoky.  He was sure he’d burnt the second side (he didn’t) and started offering to make me another one, but I reassured him that it was fine.  It’s kind of like when you make that first pancake and it takes a while to get that groove going between a little too brown/burnt and just right.

So we sat down to eat, and as I cut into the middle of my egg, the yolk started oozing out.  It wasn’t like a gushing river, it was kind of thick, but it was definitely not set.  “Hey look, I have a runny yolk!”  I held up my plate for Dave to see.  I could see the look on his face; he thought I was going to start freaking out, and he was getting ready to apologize and say he’d make me another.  Before he could speak, I added, “I’m kind of excited…I’m going to try it!”

We watch a lot of cooking shows, and at some point almost all of them feature someone cutting into a poached egg and raving about the yolk as it runs all over the food it’s served with.  I’ve seen this enough times that it started to make me curious, wondering if I’ve been missing out on something amazing.  I wasn’t curious enough to deliberately make myself an egg with a runny yolk, but since I’d been accidentally presented with one I decided to make an adventure of it.

So I dipped my toast circle into the yolk, dragged it around and took a bite.  And it was good.  I mean, my eyes weren’t rolling up into my head in ecstasy, but I also wasn’t gagging and regretting my decision to be adventurous.  It was fine and pretty yummy, kind of like having a little gravy or something.  Not a gross, slimy texture the way I imagined it would be.  Not a super strong flavor, either – definitely nothing offensive.  I ate it all, happily, and gave Dave a high five over my “tried something new today” accomplishment.

I’m still a picky eater, but I’m slowly making advances.  On Mother’s Day we were at my mom’s for dinner, and she ordered a few pizzas.  Plain cheese for the kids; for the adults, she got one with half pepperoni and half sausage, and one with fresh spinach, mushrooms, Roma tomatoes and a mixture of mozzarella, Romano and cheddar cheese.  I had one piece from each of the ‘adult’ pizzas on my plate and my brother could not believe I was eating the spinach/mushroom/tomato pizza.  He’d been traumatized by my pickiness on family vacations, having to pull over and wait at Burger King or McDonald’s while they made me a plain hamburger because I wouldn’t eat one with anything other than ketchup.  (Actually, I still eat my hamburgers that way.)  The look on his face when I told him I actually like fresh tomato, spinach and mushrooms on my pizza (as well as onions, green peppers…pretty much anything but anchovies) was priceless!

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