3 Rules to Make You a Better Cook

Squashes Growing Out of the Garden and Into The Yard

As July trails into August, the rainy weather continues a good deal of the time, with sunny days here and there. According to a local paper, we’ve received over 10 inches of rain this month vs. an average of 2.95, and last year’s low of just 1.9 inches. Even when the weather predicts sun, we see bouts of rain that hurls itself into the already-soaked ground. Other than a few basil plants I have not lost any garden plants yet, and most seem to be thriving, but I’m watching them all carefully.

The Ipswich River, where we canoe, has never been so high on the banks in my memory. Our paddles are peaceful and lovely, but the usual plethora of turtles and wildlife seem to have retreated. Hopefully just until the water table is lower.

Teddy objects to my ‘no jumping off the canoe into the water’ rule. Like the other members of my family, he acknowledges me as our household Fun Sponge, diminishing all the joy of wet dog in car. Photo by Eli 5 Stone

We are starting to hunker down again, with the Delta variant spreading. I’m grateful we got our vacations in this year, and some time to feel almost normal. And it’s time to turn inward anyway – not only is our prime food preservation time coming, but it’s time to focus on preparatory chores for the fall and winter. Getting our septic system pumped, cleaning windows, taking down some trees, and scheduling chimney sweeps and furnace maintenance are the top of the list. And then there is the back to school supplies that need to get ordered and the summer reading to be managed. All in all, we’ve got plenty to keep us busy at home, with occasional weekend hours devoted to hiking, canoeing, family activities or just doing nothing.

The first few zucchini have ripened in our garden, and more will follow soon enough. We still have shredded zucchini in the freezer from last year’s batch, but I’ve been rushing to use up the preserved everything so that I have space in the freezer for this year’s bounty. I am expanding my zucchini repertoire, so last night we tried a slightly modified version of this Zucchini Involtini. Instead of the pesto being spicy I used spicy italian sausage from our meat share. It was delicious, but it shows the benefits of recipe modification. I didn’t have the chicken sausage the recipe called for, but I had a perfect alternative.

Photo of Dinner by Eli 5 Stone

I am tending to devote one day per weekend to inside chores and one day to outside (this primarily consists of weeding, which I could do 24/7 for weeks and still have work to do). On weekends I prep much of the week’s food. Yesterday I roasted eggplant and beets, cooked up sausage to go in our dinner, made a batch of fresh Pesto, and worked on Healthy Blueberry Cake, a favorite of Eli’s.

But I am working harder on a double challenge – to limit food waste (I’ve written about our food waste strategies here) and to get creative when I am out of something rather than just running to the store. This is a lifelong challenge for me – I love a good challenge, but sometimes lack of time impedes me flexing my creative muscles. On the weekends though, that’s often less true, and so I try out more complex meals, and work to get ahead of the week. Still recipe modification inherently limits food waste because you are using something you already have.

And more importantly it will make you a more confident cook. Which is really the goal. In order to get there, there’s just 3 rules to follow.

I made the pesto early in the morning after my walk, and then later in the afternoon I got to work on the rest. The eggplant was roasted for Baba Ghanoush, the beets to be Balsamic Roasted Beets for tonight’s dinner.

When it came time to make the Blueberry Cake I had to get more creative. I didn’t actually have applesauce, but I did have apples, having had a craving for them the last time we grocery shopped. So I peeled 3, chopped them up and cooked the apple pieces down in water.

The peels go to the chickens, the cores to the bunnies, the homemade applesauce into the cake. For us, apples are the perfect zero-waste food. Same with kale, where the leaves are food to humans and the stems are delicious bunny food. I also didn’t have 2 cups of plain yogurt as the recipe called for, so one of them is a cup of strawberry yogurt, and we’ll see how that goes, but I wasn’t driving to the store for a cup of yogurt.

I think key to the ability to modify a recipe is that rule 1 is: ‘what do I have’ vs. ‘what is it telling me to buy’. I could have mashed some bananas I have in the freezer as an alternative to applesauce as well. Would it have changed the flavor? Oh, sure maybe some. Probably it would have tasted just fine. Which leads me to rule 2: Who cares? So what if it changes it some? Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be fine, maybe you’ll decide it isn’t your favorite, but it’s food, not your best friend. Changing it up is just dandy.

We live in a world of celebrity cooks who write cookbooks that are full of good and interesting recipes and have lots of TV shows to tell us how to cook and also show us. I’m a huge fan of street foods and foods that mash up multiple cultural influences. I learn from other cooks all the time and I am grateful for it. But at the end of the day, learning how to chop onions really fast or certain kitchen tips is wonderful, empowering – but if it makes you think you aren’t chopping onions right and therefore not qualified to cook – then it’s time for rule 3: It’s what you want that matters because you, my friend, are the eater here. Gordon Ramsey or Ina Gartner are not cooking for you tonight, you are (I mean unless they are in which case, can I come over?).

You have pots, pans, food stuffs and a stomach. Don’t like pine nuts? Swap them for walnuts. No malt powder for your recipe? Try Ovaltine. Hate chestnuts in your stuffing or giblets in your gravy? Don’t add them. Love them? Add more! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Recipes and guidance from cookbooks and videos are awesome and can help.

But like all things in life, apply the universal wisdom of a checkout counter ‘penny dish’: take what you need and leave the rest.

Eat What You Have…and Eat Well

Iguana Island, Turks and Caicos

After 16 months of isolating from almost everything and everyone, we rolled the dice – with 3 out of 4 of us fully vaccinated, we went on vacation for a week. A big, splurge-y vacation to Turks and Caicos, complete with snorkeling, a day trip on a boat to see Iguanas and snorkel shipwrecks, and meals out on sandy beachfront outdoor restaurants. To keep it as safe as possible, we put my son, the only one of us that can’t yet get vaccinated, in the window seat on the planes and rented a house with access to a private beach in order to limit the people around us.

We returned home pleased with ourselves but very tired, and having spent more than we had all together in multiple preceding years on trips, which are mostly local for us. Still, it was on the pre-adoption list to bundle us all off to an exotic locale (which was supposed to be Paris last spring, but alas, pandemic) and this was just perfect for us – just enough of being in the world, but also somewhat isolated.

It was also enough traditional expensive vacation fun for several years. Our RV will hold us for a good long while, quite contentedly. I love to travel, and although beach vacations aren’t my typical thing, they are good for the soul now and then. And I discovered Conch Fritters, which are otherworldly.

After we got home we did our usual grocery stock up, and prepared to tighten our belts to hit some of our big goals over the next few years. We have a couple RV trips this summer, but cooking in is the name of the game most of the time, and once we’re there, most of the things we want to do are free or pretty cheap.

So – the kids have their first passport stamp of each of their lifetimes, we have a house full of groceries, and now it’s my job to both stretch everything, and start to clear out the freezers.

They are full to the brim, so that’s going to take a while, but it should be fun. Supplementing will be easy – we have our CSA just starting up, which includes a fruit share, the garden will start producing shortly, and we prepaid 6 months of our local meat delivery service. We’ll still need milk and some basics, but it’s my plan that we’ll be able to eat on what we have until the end of July.

In order to do that, meal planning, and the shopping I did for the next 6 weeks, falls into 3 distinct ingredient categories.

Staple meals we cook regularly, such as enchiladas and Bulgogi

A few special meals, based on recipes I want to try or create

Simple, seasonal meals

The last category is the really important one if you want to use up what you have and save money. I love cooking blogs as much as the next person, but if you try to make meals with specific, new ingredient lists all the time, you will end up spending a lot of money. It’s the simple, seasonal or sale stuff that will really save you.

For example, as part of our monthly meat delivery, we get a fair amount of sausage, more than we consistently eat. So tonight I took a package of sausage, put a can of diced tomatoes over it with a little salt, pepper and lemon juice over it, and baked it at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. To this I added deviled eggs that I had made earlier in the day, a cucumber, tomato and onion salad, and some sauteed cauliflower rice.


I bought the cucumber and cherry tomatoes for the salad, but we had the eggs, cauliflower rice, sausage and diced tomatoes from previous shopping excursions, along with all the condiments we needed. The leftover salad will keep for a couple days, and serve as the basis for my lunch tomorrow at least.

Other than the deviled eggs, which take about 8 minutes to prepare, and the salad, which took less than that, there was really no work, and at the end a healthy, filling dinner was on the table.

There’s lots of tricks to saving money on food, but the ones that work for me are to keep it simple, and to plan ahead. I had spent a chunk of our plane ride home making a meal plan, so I knew what I was going to cook. I’ll spend a chunk of the weekend making food for the week, so it will be ready when we’re hungry.

What are some other meals we’ll make? We’ll, it’s grill season, so a basket of seasonal grilled vegetables along with our protein of choice will be a frequent thing. When it’s not too hot, popovers or bread to go with it. For bread that’s already been baked, put a little olive oil on the bread and grill that, too. Chicken leg quarters have been piling up in the freezer, so I’ll take a bunch out and marinate them, and cook them for dinner and lunches. This weekend I’ll make and freeze some pizza dough for Friday pizza night (it’s on my list to try to make tandoori chicken pizza for our next foray into the odd and possibly palatable). Homemade paninis are on the list too, especially when there’s the opportunity to choose your filling for each kid. Tacos, enchiladas, stir fry, and, when tomatoes are finally in season later this year, gazpacho. Lots of salads of varying kinds.

Will these meals require cookbooks and recipes? Some, maybe. I’m always on the lookout for a good marinade, or use for CSA and garden produce, which is how I learned to make Garlic Scape Pesto and all sorts of other things. But often it will be simple.

Which is exactly how summer should be.

Holiday Traditions

 

IMG-2067The bitter cold that had followed repeated snowfall and settled over New England for a week or so finally broke here yesterday, just in time for Christmas.

At nearly 40 degrees yesterday, it felt positively balmy as I was out shopping with my Mom, getting us stocked on groceries for the holiday and after.

With just a couple days left, it’s finally feeling like I might be ready for this holiday.  My shopping is done, the packages and (most of) the cards are mailed, and while I’m still wrapping gifts, it’s getting there.  I have one more day of work and then I’m on vacation through New Year’s, which I’m so ready for.

Christmas dinner is at my house this year.  My former husband and I divide the day – someone gets morning, the kids waking up, and a leisurely breakfast, and someone gets the afternoon, Christmas dinner and a lazy December 26th. I like both, and I miss the kids for whatever part I don’t have, but I’m also at peace, knowing that they get a great day without either parent missing out on everything.  Technically it was my year to have the morning,  but seeing as my ex-husband just settled into his new house and is building traditions there, it seemed like the best thing.  Traditions are great, everyone should have some, and none should be so set in stone that you can’t flex for changing situations.

Dinner this year is turkey, one of my more favorite winter dishes.  I try to roast at least one a year.  Making a big meal while trying to pull off Christmas magic can mean one person spends most of their day in the kitchen, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to hone what can be done in advance.  And the answer is that a lot can be done.  My four-cheese mashed potatoes will be made tomorrow and refridgerated overnight, to be baked just before eating.  Sausage for the stuffing can be cooked tonight and left in the fridge to chill.  Vegetables can be chopped and prepped the night before, as the turkey brines.  Even stuffing bread can be cubed and bagged.  And then there’s the benefit of keeping things simple – this year, just a very nice cheese board, with lots of little snacks such as marinated cippolini onions and mushrooms, olives, and feta spread, will precede dinner.  Pretty, and easy to make, a cheese board is just the thing for a busy day.

But the simplest thing to prepare and serve, popular with even the kids, is my sister Sharon’s Cranberry-Raspberry sauce.  This is our family variation of the traditional jellied stuff, and let me just say – it blows the doors off it.  Not only is it beautiful, easy to make and delicious, the leftovers can be swirled into scones, muffins or quick breads, or used as a spread on toast instead of jam.  I’ve never tried it as a cake filling between layers, but I’ve been mulling it over.  In short, this is not a sauce that will sit and moulder in the back of the fridge, until it finally gets deposited in the trash (or in our case, the chicken coop) once it becomes a science experiment, complete with green fuzz.

You’ll want to eat this stuff, trust me.

And it couldn’t be easier.

You will need:

2 16-ounce bags of fresh cranberries
1 16 ounce package of fresh raspberries or the same amount frozen
2 ounces of water
Sprinkling of sugar
1/3 cup raspberry liqueur, such as Chambord

You put it in a pot.  You boil it for a while on low heat until the raspberries break apart and the cranberries are soft.

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Let it cool, give a whir with an immersion blender, and pop it in the fridge.  You can skip the sugar if you want, but I don’t recommend skipping the liqueur – it’s what gives it the depth of flavor, and the alcohol will cook off.  If it’s a little sweet, a dollop of lemon juice will help.

May you have a low stress and delicious holiday!

 

Final Harvest

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November arrived with a huge windstorm that both postponed Trick-or-Treating until Saturday and brought down the leaves in volume from the maple, oak and ash trees.  Their final display of gold and red regularly causes me to catch my breath, but the weather is turning cold this weekend, with our first frost, so that beauty will turn into the beginnings of winter, more stark than lush.

Our lawn has a leaf coat on it now, but I don’t really like to rake, and honestly leaving it until spring is the environmentally sound thing to do, so I’m considering whether to leave it messy or not.  I try not to trade environmental soundness for appearances, but I hate being the only messy lawn on the block.  Still, I’m working on living with my discomfort.

The last pumpkin is out of the garden, and I pulled the last batch of Tomatillos, plus a few ripening tomatoes this morning in advance of the upcoming cold.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap our fledgling fruit trees in their winter fleece coats, and next weekend I’ll be pulling up all the plants and vines, spreading a layer of compost on the beds and calling it a day until next spring.

I feel like a squirrel at this time of year, stocking up for the winter.  A bushel of apples from our local orchard is in the fridge, while I wait for the delivery of my new dehydrator, bought with a wedding gift card.  I love dried apple chips, on salads and just to munch on, and I will make a batch of apple sauce, which we mostly use for baking.

In a few weeks we’ll head to a farm near my sister in upstate New York and buy bushels of squash, sweet potatoes, and at least 20 lbs of onions, which should hold us until around February.  Our farm share ended last week, and the last of the kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, garlic and shallots are being used up.  In October, November and December the food bill spikes while we stockpile and fill the kitchen with holiday goodies, and then it winds down through February.  While I know the grocery store will still be there, I think this is the way we humans are supposed to live, storing and preserving our food.  I do it imperfectly.  We can’t live on what we put up and store, and we’ll never have enough land to grow it all.   And that’s ok, because part of the strategy is investment in local farms.   This year, Vermont cheese fills my fridge, my vegetables and apples vary between zero and 6 food miles, I haven’t actually purchased an egg in months, and my meats now come within a 150-mile radius, which while it sounds like a lot, is 1/10th of the average of transported food and vegetables.  That doesn’t necessarily outweigh the chips in the pantry or the other purchases, but I’d rather do this imperfectly and incrementally than all at once.  For the same reason that diets fail, so does massive lifestyle change.  My daughter and I spent some time at the local grocery store last weekend, and this weekend we are headed to HMart to stockpile some our Asian pantry and freezer staples.

The cold draws me to the kitchen, always.  With the onset of chill, I feel pulled into the warmth of the oven.  Last weekend it was cold and rainy, so I spent as much of my time in the kitchen as I could.  This weekend will be the same – one last batch of Salsa Verde for holiday gifts, homemade potstickers, maybe a pot of chili.

One thing that happens at this time of year is that my fridge is filled with root veggies. With the final CSA pickup, and me not cooking as much due to some back-to-back travel it was time to use some things up – leeks, a very large golden beet, red and yellow onions, parsnip, carrots, mushrooms, a fennel bulb and a couple sweet potatoes went into the oiled pan, got covered in more olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then into the oven at 400 degrees F under aluminum foil. Roasted veggies are simple and delicious, needing only time and just a tiny bit of seasoning.

After about an hour, I tossed them a little, but left them covered.  After hour two I uncover them, and then roast them for another hour or two more, until the veggies are soft and caramelized.

While they roasted, I moved on to the pint of Peppadew peppers I picked at the farm this week.  Marinated stuffed Peppadews are a favorite of mine, but they are expensive.  These, on the other hand, are not and it’s the same thing.  I used this recipe, and now they are in the garage fridge waiting to be seeded and stuffed with goat cheese.

None of these recipes are particularly complex, which is part of the appeal.  There’s a place for intricate food preparation, but during stocking up season, the key is to keep the food moving into it’s final form, so when winter comes, you still have a touch of spring and summer to sustain you, literally and figuratively.