Category Archives: let’s eat

(question): in the kitchen…

How about another reader question? Nancy asked me to write about dirt – kidding, although I appreciated the compliment. There are several Nancys that read and comment here, but this Nancy has known me since we were roommates in college. I’m pretty sure neither of us ever cooked in our senior year apartment – the only real memory I have of that kitchen is that another roommate used to leave typewritten notes of warning about relocating the dish drying rack to an unapproved location. There was a definite passive-aggressive vibe in that room; Nancy and I survived it by fleeing to Copenhagen and Genoa, respectively, and we don’t regret those decisions one bit.

Backing up in time just a little – back to my freshman year of college, the only other time I had a kitchen at my disposal. These were the olden days, when college students were stuck into shoebox size dorm rooms with roommates and you had to “loft” your bed on cinder blocks to fit your rubbermaid clothes storage beneath it. None of these elaborate suites with full kitchens and laundry rooms and private bedrooms and bathrooms for each student that kids get these days!

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I did get lucky as a freshman, and scored a choice room on an honors floor in a dorm on a hill that had formerly been faculty housing in the fifties and sixties. (I thought that black and white photo of Clemson House I found online really drives home how old I am!) The suites weren’t large, especially with three girls in one room, but we had a tiny galley kitchen with ancient appliances, a pass thru closet area that held a couple of dressers, and our own bathroom! So it seemed super plush. The dorm was co-ed, and mostly upperclassmen (smart upperclassmen), and we had our own smaller dining hall restaurant on the first floor. It felt like a small community on a larger campus, and I’m completely grateful for that setting. It was like instant-belonging, without having to seek it out in other social groups or party scenes.

My dad worked for Procter & Gamble, and we seemed to always have an endless supply of Duncan Hines mixes on hand at home. My parents would bring me a case of them when they would visit, and I’d buy eggs and vegetable oil at the grocery store (Bi-Lo, I think? There used to be a Piggly Wiggly there too). Most evenings I’d stir up a batch of chocolate chunk brownies or cinnamon swirl coffee cake, and the wide, carpeted hallways would fill up with students studying and talking. The smell would fill the floor, and it only took a week or two before our snacks became legendary. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one in the building that dared to use the oven, outside of the unsuccessful grilled cheese smoke-offs that forced building evacuations at least twice a month.

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(I also managed to find a photo of a typical kitchen in my dorm online! Although that oven ^^ looks a lot cleaner than ours did.)

There was very little skill involved in these baking sessions, outside of vigilance on the bake times – the thermostat was busted, and the timer only rattled a bit instead of buzzing or dinging. I became very skilled at judging doneness by smell; to this day, I equate comfort and belonging with the smell of fresh baked brownies. I’ve upped my game a bit on the recipes, but the end result is just as rewarding.

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So Nancy asked me about my strengths and weaknesses in the kitchen. I think my strengths list has grown over the years from constant practice. I’m very comfortable with a knife – and love my really large chef knife, the sharper the better. With my contacts in, onion slicing doesn’t bother me too much, and I’ve gotten pretty efficient at slicing and dicing. We have a mandolin and a food processor with slicing attachments. We even have an apple slicer. I never use any of those. I much prefer a knife and a cutting board – easy to use and easy to clean.

I don’t enjoy peeling the papery skins off garlic, but I just got something similar to this and it works pretty well. I love my garlic press, so I never have to mince garlic and smell like it for days.

The biggest change I’ve made to my kitchen habits is to thoroughly read through recipes multiple times before buying ingredients and again before starting the prep work. I often reread them the night before, just to make sure I’m not missing some “make ahead” step, like overnight soaking or marinating. I prep absolutely everything in advance, and it makes all the difference in the world. No matter how much faster I think I can be if I start the cooking process while still prepping ingredients – it always comes back to bite me. I’m not a great under-pressure cook. I like organization and calm in the kitchen. I’ve found this also makes the cleanup process much simpler too. If I start with a clean countertop, everything prepped and ready, then I can place the used bowls and tools directly into the dishwasher as I go. It’s so much nicer than working around an overflowing sink.

Something I’m terrible at is making conversation while cooking. I have trouble focusing on two things at one time, and I always make mistakes. I’d like to be better at this – when family comes to visit they like to hang out while I’m cooking, and I’m notorious for losing track of where I am in a recipe. (Or losing the thread of conversation completely.)

Also related to focus – I’d like to get better at coordinating larger dinners with multiple dishes. The thought is completely intimidating to me, and as a result, we typically have one dish dinners versus a main dish and a bunch of sides. I would also like to find the time to do more cooking and baking – but for now I’ll have to be content with putting a good dinner on the table 6-7 nights a week.

Weird things? I don’t like looking at recipes on devices, like tablets or my phone. I like cookbooks or printed recipes. I love zesting things. I despise having to peel off the skins of roasted peppers, gross. (Although I love roasted peppers.) I get frustrated with my current appliances – my limitations on high heat for browning, and the cold spots in my refrigerator that do mean things to my produce. I’m past ready for a kitchen makeover, but I’m having a hard time getting out of the kitchen and into the studio to make it happen. I’m a pretty neat cook – I rarely wear an apron, and rarely make a mess of myself. We only use cloth napkins and towels, and now I don’t like using paper products other places. I read Cook’s Illustrated from cover to cover, even the recipes I know I’ll never make. My kids do not enjoy everything I make, and there are still complaints. But no one is starving, and pushing them out of their comfort zone is a good thing, and a healthy one. I’m 100% convinced that eating real food makes a tremendous difference in all aspects of our lives, and I’d rather cook dinner (and clean up after it) than go out to dinner. That’s a seismic shift for me over the past seven-eight years.

I owe a lot to those box brownies, I think.

on my counter, lately

I feel like doing a happy dance most days – the increase in daylight hours means I’m back on the running trail again. I was a little worried about the effects of my winter hibernation, but I’m pleased that the indoor work I’ve put in since November seems to have really helped my overall strength and endurance. E has a confirmation class / youth group meeting on Sundays just three blocks from Forest Park, which gives me ninety minutes of late afternoon sunshine to run my heart out. Last weekend I measured the perimeter + those extra blocks at 6.5 miles; if I add in an additional inner route I like, I can get in 10 miles in that stretch of time. Which means I’m hungry these days since I’m running off the rough equivalent of lunch and dinner several times a week.

My dear friend (and running mentor), Sam, reminded me a few months ago that distance running and high intensity workouts would require some additional fueling. This is a good reminder, because I’m not much of a snacker, and I’m pretty set in my eating habits. It has made me more conscious of our weekly menu at home – I’m trying to focus on eating really great dinners (and resulting leftover lunches) rather than throwing in additional snacks to the mix. I’ve noticed that my sweet tooth is almost gone – I’m craving dinners with flavor, grains like farro (which I could eat every night, I think), earthy flavors like mushrooms, and especially bitter greens coupled with citrus. Outside of my pregnancies (which were decidedly not food happy times in my life), I can’t remember having cravings like this. It’s kind of strange, and I wonder if it’s normal. Maybe I’m just getting older – everyone, particularly my doctors these days, like to remind me of that.

I can tend to go off on tangents fairly easily on certain topics, but I’m going to avoid that here, and instead just point to a few interesting articles and radio bits on the subject that have been interesting to me. I feel like cooking and eating and food topics in general can get to be touchy subjects sometimes, so I try to write about it (and photograph it) as a conversation piece on a topic that interests me rather than from a position of knowing all the answers about food. I like to be inspired in the kitchen, and reading and listening to others talk about food does that for me, and maybe it does a bit for you as well. As Michael Pollan puts it, “Eat food, not too much, and mostly plants.” I subscribe wholeheartedly to this mantra, and I build on it with the idea that there’s no reason it can’t be delicious and fun and different every single night.

Run Less, Run Faster – this book really speaks to me at this stage of my life. I’m committed to being healthy and building a good platform moving forward as I age (get old, I know – I get it), but I’m a realist about how I spend my time. I’ve said all along that I don’t care about being an elite runner, but I also know that I like to study and improve and throw 110% into most things I do, so this gives me an avenue to do that at a personal level which helps to keep me engaged, i.e. lacing up my shoes and actually doing it. I also thought the chapter on a runner’s diet was interesting – particularly because it states that a highly varied, plant-based diet (little to no meat) is optimal. (Another great rec from Sam, marathon runner extraordinaire and all around nice gal.)

–Anything by Michael Pollan, but specifically Cooked. The new documentary series makes me sad (again) that we gave up Netflix. However, giving up Netflix also means I actually have time to put these goals into action.

–First Bite by Bee Wilson, as discussed on Fresh Air – I thought this interview was interesting, and I am always fascinated about how babies and children learn to eat, but I’m even more interested in her discussions on how adults can also learn (re-learn) how to eat in healthier ways.

Here are some of the best things we’ve been eating lately:

Stellar Quinoa Burger from Bon Appetit (Feb 2016) – this was definitely a weekend dish, and as many of the commenters pointed out, the burger didn’t hold together very well, but it was SO delicious that I’m determined to figure out a better binder. Or just resign myself to a messy dinner again. I made a spiced tomato chutney and sliced avocados for the top of the burger and it was divine.

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This Blue Apron meal was DELICIOUS. I was all, what? Cheese? Lemons? Together, on a sandwich? And then I ate it. It hit all the crave points and the salad was spot on fantastic and I’m going to serve it at my first dinner party in our new dining room because I basically daydream about dinners with friends in the new space 24-7.

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An old standby, but such a good weeknight dinner, particularly post-workout. M improvised a bit by making bread crumbs with leftover focaccia and it was delicious. Watch the salt on this one – add slowly. I don’t smash it in with the garlic like it says in the recipe.

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And we hosted a table at trivia night last weekend, and I made a crowd favorite, the ginger-chocolate-apricot cookies from here, plus three sandwiches: Prosciutto-Pear-Brie with lightly dressed arugula, Roast Beef (cajun spice, rare, thinly sliced)-Aged Cheddar-Mayo/Dijon Mustard blend on bottom-Mango spread on top-Pickled Red Onions-Watercress, and Egg Salad-Watercress/Arugula blend-Pretzel Roll. They went over well, and we had a few leftover for Sunday lunch.

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Spring is coming – I can feel it, and I’m fueling up and ready. Asparagus and rhubarb are on the horizon…

let’s eat: the basics

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One of the things I mentioned in the post about my New Year’s goals / intentions, was to push myself a little more in the kitchen this year. (Before pushing myself out of the kitchen for awhile while the RENOVATION is going on.) I’m feeling more confident in my amateur skills related to baking and meal-making, and I’m in a constant state of mental note-making on how the new kitchen can work to support those roles and accommodate more people comfortably. I’m not going to lie – I enjoy the solitude of the kitchen quite a bit, but I also really like it when everyone is participating. So what I’m really ready for is stations!

I’m trying to build my skills a little more, and I’m also trying to push myself further at the basic ingredient level. We’re most certainly not a whole foods kitchen – we’re a fairly “unprocessed” kitchen, but if we’re making dinner that includes bread, we purchase the bread, we don’t make it. I’m also realistic about time – and I don’t have lofty goals of scratch-made everything. But there are simple ways to make better use of the ingredients we have on hand that will also improve the flavors of the finished product.

I took that first photo after finishing up dinner prep one night. I do all of my prep on an 18″ wide countertop between the range and the sink. Now that I think of it – it might actually just be 15″. Whatever, it’s small.

I chop everything and as I’m doing that I sweep the scraps off the cutting board and into this colander that I place in the sink. When I’m completely done with prep, I carry the scraps to the garbage can and dump them. If I had the time (and yard) for a garden, I’d most certainly compost everything, but for now, this is all just waste.

I decided I’d start a freezer bag for these throw-aways, and then I’d make my own veggie broth. I found a handy list of what to include / not include, and now I divide up my ingredients I’m prepping into two piles. I chop up the ‘include’ ingredients first, and throw those into the freezer bag, then I toss the rest.

Turns out we generate a LOT of scraps each week. So I now have enough vegetable broth to feed the planet.

After simmering and straining (and cooling), I filled muffin tins with a 1/4 cup of broth each and froze them. I did this in several shifts throughout the day and evening Saturday. It reminded me of my baby food making days – they seem like forever ago.

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And now I’ve got ready to use, easy to measure, veggie broth at hand.

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I used the first bit to make the Saffron Rice in this recipe. I highly recommend this dish, especially on these cold, snowy evenings. And most especially when your (veggie broth) cup runneth over.

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I’m curious what sort of pantry staples you make. We don’t buy salad dressing anymore, and I’d like to make more of our extracts.