Flashback Friday – Book Report

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 4/13/09 at Exit 51.

Book Report

On our first date, SFC asked me what I like to do.  My answer could have doomed the relationship before it even got started.  I said, “I like to read”.  I’ve always been a reader, as long as I can remember.  Books take me to places filled with color and life, interesting people, and grand adventures.  They take me outside of myself.

book

My earliest literary memories are of my grandmother reading stories about Abercrombie, Benjamin, and Christopher or Babbar the Elephant at bedtime.  Once I could read the words on the pages for myself, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Nancy Drew, and Judy Blume all followed.  It is my opinion that Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret should be considered the official adolescent girls’ handbook.

Even now, I can be transported back to points in time just thinking of certain books.  There was my obsession with Stephen King from about 7th to 10th grade.  The Talisman?  Could not put it down.  Christine?  I started reading it in the afternoon and did not go to bed until I had finished it around 3:30am.  The Shining?  Scared the bejezzus out of me in a way the movie could not.  In fact, I scared myself so bad reading It that I could never bring myself to watch the movie.  Ever.  Put a Stephen King book in my hands now and I’m once again a 13 year old with feathered hair, sitting in my bedroom with purple as far as the eye can see, the obligitory unicorn artwork, and a rockin’ Steve Perry poster.  What can I say, 13 was a period of transition for me.

My taste in books expands and contracts over time.  Some, like Atlas Shrugged, will always be a favorite and have a permanent place on the bookshelf.  Others, like  The Sweet Potato Queens’ Book of Love, or the latest Vince Flynn thriller, fill a momentary void and are soon passed on.

So books and me, we go way back. Cooking, on the other hand, is relatively new in comparison.  Before I met SFC, cooking wasn’t really on my radar.  My meals consisted mostly of Lean Cuisine this and spaghetti that.  It just wasn’t a focus.  When I did try and cook, the results were not what I would call successful.  I still have not recovered from my first attempt to cook a ham.  No matter how long it stayed in the oven, that thing just would not get done.  Hours later, when the thermometer still refused to get to 160 degrees,  it was a lost cause since it had been pretty well ingrained into me that you don’t eat undercooked pork or chicken.  So when a recipe tells me to cook for so many minutes per pound, I move on to the next option.  This is why at our house there is no turkey on Thanksgiving and no ham on Easter.  Just so you know.

I would have to say it was after SFC and I started dating that my inner foodie surfaced.  Yes, I wanted to impress him with mad cooking skills.  I also wanted to stop eating out of boxes and cans.  So I rolled up my sleeves and got cooking.  If someone were to ask me now what I like to do, I would have to say that I like to read and I like to cook.

Usually, most cookbooks don’t make for enjoyable reading.  And most novels don’t add to your recipe collection. But sometimes, those two interests intersect.  When they do, I’m all over it.  Take A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

You’ve heard me talk about Molly.  She’s the woman behind the curtain at Orangette.  I can’t remember how I found her blog.  But it was the first food site that I ever bookmarked.  Before Food Network and before The Minimalist even.  Sorry Ina, Alton, and Mark.

Molly’s blog is full of stories from real life.  Her real life.  The exciting days and the ordinary ones.  But there is  joy and beauty in even the most ordinary day that comes across in her stories.  And passion.  Passion for the people she loves and passion for the food that they share.   For me, reading her is like talking to an old friend.  Even if I don’t come around to visit for while, we pick right up where we left off like not a day has gone by.

In her book we are an angst ridden teenager.  We spend holidays with her family. We leave college and move to Paris.    Later, we move to Seattle and start a blog.  We meet our future husband courtesy of the blog.  We also lose our father, an aunt, and an uncle.  We get married.  And we cook.

Each chapter in the book ends with a recipe.  While I’ve never had a pickled carrot before, reading about how it was only natural for Molly and Brandon to make homemade pickled carrots for their wedding, I could almost taste them in my mouth.  Here, I’ll let her tell you…”…spindly and sweet, as small and delicate as a lady’s pinky and just the right height to stand, shoulder to shoulder, in a quart sized Mason jar.”  As soon as I find two Mason jars, I will be trying the recipe on page 290.

Each recipe tells a story and each story holds a recipe.  Molly brings the two together in a way that will make you cry as much as it will make you laugh.  Don’t be surprised if you find that this book calls out for a permanent spot on your bookshelf.

Flashback Friday – Bon Appetit

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 4/8/09 at Exit 51.

Bon Appetit

You knew it was too good to last right?  I mean my recent downsizing of the cookbooks.  It started innocently enough with the new Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.  But since I won that, does it really count?  And then there was Bon Appetit: Fast, Easy, Fresh.

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I blame Molly of Orangette for this one.  If I hadn’t been so fired up to get her book, A Homemade Life, I would have never walked into the bookstore.  If I had never walked into the bookstore, I would not have come face to face with 700 pages of recipes.   If I had never come face to face with 700 pages of recipes, it would not be sitting on the dining room table right now.

I’m hopeful that some of these recipes will become old friends.  And I’m pretty sure there will be others that will never be invited back to the table.  How long do you think it will take to get through 700 pages of recipes?  I may never need to buy another cookbook again.  Right, who am I trying to kid?

And when the cookbook is not in use, it makes a lovely place for the cat to rest, don’t you think?

shadow-reading

Flashback Friday – In The Bag

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 4/6/09 at Exit 51.

In The Bag

I am one of THOSE people.  You know what I mean, the ones who bring their own bags to the store.  I have a stash of them in my trunk; my favorites would have to be the old Trader Joe’s bags.  They hold an incredible amount of stuff.  And not only is my handmade market bag from B-More Bags great for produce, but it’s also terribly fashionable.  Who said that utility has to be ugly?

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blue avacado's gro-pak

I will admit that I remember when plastic bags became fashionable.  And I was thankful.  I remember lugging in brown bags full of groceries as a kid.  Of course, without those brown bags, my school books would have gone naked.  But I could never carry more than two of them in a single trip.  I think that’s what I hated most, all those trips up and down the steps on grocery day.  So when blue bags took the world by storm, I rejoiced.  I could now load myself up with as many bags as I could carry.  And if I distributed the weight between my forearms and hands just right, I could make it in one trip.  I probably looked ridiculous shuffling up the walk, and getting the front door unlocked was a challenge, but I only made one trip for a week’s worth of supplies.

Then blue bags became the enemy.  Their versatility to hold just about anything and everything couldn’t make up for their environmental impact.  So people started to look for reusable alternatives.  I recall that those brown bags from my childhood were also reused.  As soon as the groceries were unloaded, the bags would be folded and put in the pantry for the next trip.  My grandparents were thrifty like that;  it had nothing to do with the environment.

Thankfully, the awareness of ‘byob’ has increased. When I first started to carry my own bags, people did not quite understand what they were for.  The bags would ride up the belt and the cashier would promptly move them aside and start putting scanned items into their plastic bags.  Or they would try and ring them up as though they were part of my purchase.  Most stores finally get it.  I still get funny looks when I bring my own bags some places – yeah, that would be you Target and Macy’s – but I figure they that eventually will figure it out.

In my mind, all of this begs the question ‘how much is too much’?  How many bags does one person need?  I would say that I have nearly one dozen reusable bags.  They are all different shapes and sizes and some serve specialized purposes.  Like that cute little bag with cubbies for bottles of wine…genius.  But specialty items like that aside, am I obsessed with shopping bags?  Maybe.

Because despite knowing that I do not have a need for another single grocery bag, I am really finding it hard not to order one of these gro-pak kits from blue avacado. I love the all in one system they designed so that everything breaks down for easy storage.  Some even look small enough to fit easily in a purse.  Because  really, nothing is more frustrating than getting to the checkout and realizing that I forgot to bring in a bag.

Now, if only the cashiers would understand that just because the bags are sturdier it doesn’t make them less heavy when they put every single canned good into a single bag.  I will never understand that.  Is there some unwritten rule among cashiers to make the bags as heavy as possible?  So if you happen to be in line behind me at Harris Teeter, don’t be surprised if I ask for some bags to be repacked.  I’m just that kind of a person.

Flashback Friday – Happy April Food Day

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 4/1/09 at Exit 51.

Happy April Food Day

No, that is not a typo.  I really want to wish everyone a Happy April Food Day.  Because many of us are fortunate enough not to have to be worried about where our next meal will come from.

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However, I can still remember days when grocery shopping was an exercise in creativity.  It would usually happen towards the end of the month.  Always the end of the freaking month.  No matter how many generic substitutions we made, it seemed there was never enough money for everything on the list.  And that was shopping at the sketchy grocery store, the one where there were no brand names and all the canned goods were dented.  This manner of trying to make ends meet has resulted in some dishes being permanently banned from my adult life.  Yes, that’s why BBQ Chicken, Tuna Melts, and Tacos are never served at our house.  Even if you ask nicely, the answer will still be no.

For many, the economic turmoil has turned everyday into the end of the freaking month…there’s not enough food or money to go around.  The safety nets that used to act as the main line of support have been overwhelmed by need and number.  Here in Maryland, 54,013 people lost their jobs in 2008.  Our unemployment rate sits at 6.2% according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  And we’re a small state.  What happens when places like California, Texas, and New York post 6%, 7%, or even 10% unemployment?

It may not have been ideal that I got to know exactly why government cheese had a bad name.  But at least we had that block of processed cheese food to complain about.  What do you do when even ghetto Velveeta is a luxury? Like missing the forest for the trees, the irony of going from shopping on food stamps to shopping at Whole Foods or Wegman’s is just now coming into focus.

Easy & Elegant Life and Pigtown Design have dubbed April 1st as April Food Day to raise awareness of the need facing our food banks across the country.  If you are able, even a small donation to either your local food bank or Feeding America (formerly Second Harvest), can have an impact.  For what I spend in one average trip to Wegmans, a food bank can provide 450 meals. For real, that is a Happy Food Day.

Please, contribute if you can.  And spread the word so that others may have a  Happy Food Day as well.

Flashback Friday – V I C T O R Y

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 3/30/09 at Exit 51.

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y

Given enough time, and the right circumstances, just about any trend can come back into fashion.  Except maybe the mullet.  I don’t know when that would ever be considered a good idea.

During WWII when food was rationed, people were urged by the government to plant Victory Gardens.  All across the United States, and in Europe, citizens planted fruits and vegetables.  It was considered patriotic. In 2009, the economic recession combined with a growing consumer movement of searching for locally grown food.  One result seems to be a resurgence of the Victory Garden.  Who knew that our grandparents were such trendsetters?

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Me, I’d love to be able to plant a Victory Garden of my own.  But, like many urban dwellers, I have no yard to speak of.  The back “yard” is a concrete pad.  Neither dirt nor shade can be found there. Yes, there is a small planting bed on the side of the house.  My rose bushes currently reside there.  They are rather fond of that location and I’m inclined to let them remain.

Reason #1 ….because I have the blackest thumb known to man. It is only because those roses thrive on neglect that they have endured.  They have survived in spite of me, certainly not because of me.

Reason #2 …because the animals in my neighborhood will not be deterred from using that area as their own personal comfort station.  They laughed at the cayenne pepper, the orange peels just shriveled up withered away, and I would almost swear that they dabbed that expensive potion of all things stinky behind their ears like cologne.  I even tried setting out itty bitty spikes crafted from bamboo skewers.  Guess who suffered most with those?  That would have been me.

Reason #3 …because of the meddling kids.  I feel so old saying that, but it’s true.  I can’t keep them from pulling the flowers out of the beds.  How the heck would I keep them from walking off with the (literal) fruits of my labor?

Reason #4…did I mention I have a servere case of black thumb?

So don’t look for me to be tending the garden.  Instead, I will do my best to support the local farmers and growers and stimulate the economy.  I think it makes more sense to buy something that someone else grew than to throw away good money on the idea of being thrifty and victorious.

What about you?  Are you lucky enough to be able to grow your own?  Or are you, like me, an economic stimulator?  Thing thing is, they are both important.  I just wish we, the buyers, had cool graphics like the growers.

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Flashback Friday – Notes On Cooking With SFC

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 3/25/09 at Exit 51.

Notes On Cooking With SFC

Each week, SFC picks one meal that he will cook.  As hard as it is for me not to jump in and take over on these nights, I really do like the days when I’m just the sous chef.  I’m much happier sitting on the couch turning the pages of a book than standing over a stove whisking or reducing.

Chili Rub

We did have to establish one major rule though.  The first time we make a recipe, we do not deviate from it as written.  No substitutions, no omission, no tinkering with technique.  Ok, so maybe we do allow minor substitution and omissions.  But we do not deviate from technique.  It may sound a bit harsh but how can someone new to cooking know what steps are critical and what steps are negotiable?  I’ve been standing at the stove for years and I still try and stick to this rule anytime I try a new recipe.

And here’s why.  If I don’t try and create a dish as specified by the author, how can I form an accurate opinion about whether it’s worth making again?  If I don’t like the results, is it because of the recipe itself or is it because in tinkering with it, I broke something that did not need fixing?

SFC’s most recent meal is my latest case study.  In theory, it should have been outstanding.  But after dinner, we both looked at each other and said it was missing something.  I’m not sure what this elusive something is.  Maybe more spice?  Maybe more heat?  But it definitely needs the volume turned up.  And I don’t understand what the marinade really does for the dish, besides give you the 20 minutes to make the salsa.  Maybe next time we will make more spice rub and skip the marinading.

For now, this recipe is tagged with a question mark and goes back into the test folder.  It’s got one more chance to impress me because in my kitchen, a recipe rarely gets a third try.

Chili Rubbed Salmon with Pineapple Avocado Salsa

From washingtonpost.com

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon light brown sugar
  • 2 (4 to 6 ounces each) skin-on or skinless salmon fillets, pin bones removed
  • 1 lime, for garnish
  • 4 ounces fresh or canned pineapple, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice (1/2 cup)
  • Flesh of half a medium avocado, cut into 1/4- to 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 scallion, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into thin slices (about 2 to 3 teaspoons)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • Juice of 1 to 2 limes (to yield 1 tablespoon)

Combine the oil and vinegar in a shallow dish.

Combine the chili powder, salt and sugar in a small bowl. Use it to rub the salmon fillets all over, gently pressing it into the flesh, then place the fillets in the oil-vinegar mixture. Turn them over so both sides are coated; let them marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes while you prepare the salsa.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the pineapple, avocado, scallion, pepper, salt and the tablespoon of lime juice in a mixing bowl; toss to mix well.

Heat a medium nonstick skillet that is ovenproof over medium-high heat. (Alternatively, lightly grease an ovenproof baking dish with nonstick cooking oil spray.)

When the pan is hot, add the fillets (if skin-on, place them skin side up) and cook for 1 minute. Turn them over, then transfer the skillet to the oven. Roast for 8 to 10 minutes per inch of thickness or to desired degree of doneness.

Remove from the oven; use a wide spatula to transfer each piece to individual plates. Spoon the salsa on top of each fillet. Cut the remaining lime in half and squeeze over each portion. Serve immediately.

Flashback Friday – Blind Date

Flashback Friday

The following originally appeared on 3/16/09 at Exit 51

Blind Date

Recipe testing is the culinary equivalent of blind dating.  You hear about a hot new recipe and instantly know you are meant to be together.  You begin to doodle your initials  and “I Heart” on grocery lists and daydream how wonderful your life together will be.  You get lost thinking about how intoxicating he will smell and what it will be like when your lips finally meet.  Will you be able to control yourself?  Or will you just have to go back for more?

blind-date

Then, the day of the date, you get everything together just so and count down the minutes until the bell rings.  Finally, the moment has arrived.  You open the door with eager anticipation and there he is.  But it’s downhill from there.  You want to like him.  Really, you do.  But despite all the positive things you heard from other people, he’s not what you expected.  To put it another way, you’re just not that into him.

That describes my brief relationship with Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp.  I first came across the recipe at Orangette and it piqued my curiousity.  And then I bumped into it again at The Amateur Gourmet.   And in an ‘all roads lead back to Roasted Broccoli and Shrimp instant’, I decided that fate wanted us to be together.

Boy, did fate get that one wrong.  I can’t say there is  any one reason in particular why I don’t love this dish.  I know I should.  It took all of about five minutes to prep and in less time than it takes for Rachel Ray to drive me to find the remote, the entire meal is done.  So it’s quick.  And the ingredient list is about as minimal as you can get for a one dish meal…broccoli, meet shrimp…shrimp, meet broccoli.  The cooking technique could not get any easier…heat oven, open oven door, insert sheet pan…lather, rinse, repeat.

But seriously, I just am not that into it.  Maybe with some different spices, or more of them, I would have that lovin’ feeling.  Or maybe  it just wasn’t meant to be for me and Broccoli and Roasted Shrimp.  Perhaps the two of you would enjoy each other’s company?  Let me know how it goes, I love a good blind date story.

Roasted Broccoli with Shrimp

thewednesdaychef.com

  • 2 pounds broccoli, cut into bite-size florets
  • 4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds (or 1/2 teaspoon ground)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon hot chili powder
  • 1 pound large shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)
  • Lemon wedges, for serving

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, toss broccoli with 2 tablespoons oil, coriander, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper and chili powder. In a separate bowl, combine shrimp, remaining 2 tablespoons oil, lemon zest, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and remaining 1/2 teaspoon pepper.

Spread broccoli in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 10 minutes. Add shrimp to baking sheet and toss with broccoli. Roast, tossing once halfway through, until shrimp are just opaque and broccoli is tender and golden around edges, about 10 minutes more. Serve with lemon wedges, or squeeze lemon juice all over shrimp and broccoli just before serving.