Sunday, May 31, 2015

A Vegetable That Makes Me Feel Guilty

Photo by Sam Mills
At this very moment I have three major league zucchini staring at me on the kitchen counter.   There used to be four.  I put one out of its misery by slicing it up and frying it for a few minutes in butter.  Zucchini seem impervious to rot and if not cooked would probably last forever.

I didn’t buy these zucchini.  They were a gift from Kenny, a softball buddy of Bart’s.  I can barely grow cherry tomatoes in my pathetic garden (a gaggle of pots on my deck), but Kenny, who lives just a few miles away, raises baseball bat-size zucchini and then gives them all away.  Kenny doesn’t cook.

It’s not in me to throw away edibles, so several years ago when Kenny’s offerings began piling up, I decided to make him some soup.  I cut up some of the zucchini, a large onion and a few potatoes, added some garlic, curry powder and water and cooked it.  I poured it into a blender, pushed a button and ended up with a mixture that looked like baby food.  Surprisingly, it tasted good.  It reminded me of a very expensive bowl of soup I once ate in Paris.

I should have named my version Potage aux L├ęgumes Verts, but in our house it’s simply Green Soup, and it’s frequently on the menu.  Kenny likes it too, which means zucchini decorate my counter all summer long.  In the winter, when Kenny’s garden is on hiatus, I’ll even buy zucchini to keep the tradition going.

                                                        Green Soup (photo by Andy Mills)
Green Soup - serves 4-6 
1 large onion
1 1/2 – 2 pounds zucchini
2-3 medium potatoes
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 teaspoon chopped garlic (see Mom Cooking Tip 2)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3 cups water
1 tablespoon concentrated chicken or vegetable base (Mom Cooking Tip 5) – optional 
Peel the onion and cut it into 1-inch pieces.  Wash the zucchini, trim and discard the ends and cut it into 1/2-inch slices.  Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/4-inch slices.  
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add the onion and garlic and stir for about 3 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften.  Add the curry powder, salt and black pepper and stir until dissolved.  
Add the zucchini, potatoes, water and chicken or vegetable base, if using.  Bring the mixture to a boil, turn down the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 20 minutes, or until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a knife.  Turn off the heat, remove the lid and let cool for about 10 minutes.  
Transfer to a blender and blend until smooth.  If the mixture seems too thick, add more water, 1/2 cup at a time.  Return the soup to the pot, reheat and serve.  This soup is also good served cold.  

Mom Cooking Tip 4

Can’t face another dinner of leftovers? Instead of tossing them in the trash or shoving them to the back of the fridge and waiting for the mold to grow, divide them into one-person portions. Transfer to freezer bags or wrap each portion in foil, attach a label of the contents + a date and pop into the freezer. In a few weeks, you’ll be thrilled to discover a pre-cooked meal waiting for you. Just don’t wait a few years to defrost it.

See all my Cooking Tips!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 3

Every week grocery stores have sales on select items like these: whole chickens for 99 cents per pound, 8 ears corn for $2, 3 8-ounce cans tomato sauce for $1. Shopping these sales can save you considerable money over time. But some stores quietly offer daily sales of perishables—meat and fish, fresh fruit and vegetables and bakery items—if you know where to look. They’re usually hidden in some obscure corner at the back of the store. If the expiration date is close at hand, you can pick up items at half-price or less, although you will need to cook or freeze them within 24 hours.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Soup As a Meal

Bean, Vegetable and Sausage Soup (photo by Andy Mills)
I used to associate soup with being sick.  I’d be lying in bed, and my grandmother would bring me a bowl of homemade chicken soup.  I’d slurp it up and feel better.

Actually, I think this is a false memory.  My grandmother lived too far away to bring me soup, although whenever we visited her chicken soup was invariably on the menu.  My mother’s go-to remedy for illness was canned tomato soup, which had its own distinctive taste.  Neither soup will I ever willingly eat again.

Bacon and Tomato Soup is another matter.  I first tasted it in a cooking class, and it was magical.  I ate three bowls on the spot and then made it for dinner that very night.  Sometime later I discovered the joy of canned lentil soup, and it also became a go-to meal. 

My food world really opened up when Bart and I moved to London.  At first I was distraught because English bacon didn’t taste like American bacon, and I couldn’t find canned lentil soup. 

How silly I was.  Can I blame it on youth?  Eventually I discovered that Sainsbury’s, my local grocery store, sold bags of dried lentils and that bookstores sold cookbooks that included recipes for lentil soup. 

I also stumbled across Elizabeth David, a noted British food writer who helped transform British food from stodgy to distinctive.  Soon I was trying her recipes for Oeufs a la Monteynard (an egg/rice casserole) and Coq au Vin (Chicken in Wine Sauce) from her French Country Cooking. 

Living in another country did wonders for my cooking.  Heavy-duty dishes like Split Pea Soup, Pasta and Bean Soup, Clam Chowder and Tortilla Soup became family traditions.  They’re easy to make and filling – perfect one-dish meals.  When I worried there wouldn’t be enough to fill us up, I added some crusty French bread and a salad. 

In honor of my first favorite soup, here’s the recipe:
Bacon and Tomato Soup - serves 2 (adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen”
4 slices bacon
1 small onion
1 tablespoon olive or canola oil (if needed)
2 tablespoons flour
1 15-ounce ready-cut tomatoes
Dash ground black pepper
Dash salt
1 bay leaf
2 cups milk

Cook the bacon in a medium-size pot over medium-high heat.  When the bacon is crisp, about 10 minutes, remove and drain on a paper towel.  Pour the bacon fat left in the pot into an empty can and discard it.  Or, if you’re not worrying about cholesterol, leave it in the pot and use it instead of the oil called for.

Peel the onion and chop it into 1/2-inch pieces.  Add the oil to the pot (if not using the bacon fat) and begin heating over medium heat.  Add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften.  Add the flour and stir until fully absorbed.

Add the tomatoes and their liquid, black pepper, salt and bay leaf and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat.  Turn down the heat to medium and cook, uncovered, for 2 minutes.  Stir occasionally.  The mixture will begin to thicken.  Add the milk and heat until the soup is hot but not boiling.  Cut or break the cooked bacon into bite-size pieces and drop into the soup.  Remove and discard the bay leaf.  Serve.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 3

Is your dinner tasting blah? Want a quick fix? Add a few dashes of soy sauce. This trick is especially good with tomato-based sauces, but you can put it on just about anything. I wouldn’t try it with a chocolate dessert, though.

See all my Cooking Tips!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 2

When you go to the grocery store, the best way to save money is to have a list and buy only what’s on it. Don’t be tempted by the cookie aisle. No ice cream today. Unfortunately I don’t always listen to my own advice. Just yesterday I noticed cans of black beans on sale for 50 cents each. I could barely carry my 10-can purchase to the car.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Need Something New to Cook?

Days go by when I’m on autopilot in the kitchen.  It’s roast chicken one night, followed by chicken fajitas the next.  If there’s still chicken left, it becomes chicken salad. 

Then I turn to spaghetti for a night or two, and after that, lentil soup and salad.  Veggie burgers or turkey burgers might pop up occasionally, and I try to keep a bag of frozen shrimp handy.

What snaps me out of this routine is the need for a grocery run and the pleading look in my husband’s eyes: “Can’t we have something new?” 

So I give in and search through the hodgepodge of clipped recipes decorating the door of my fridge.  They inspired me when I first saw them, but now I wonder, “What possessed me to save a recipe for Rockfish Soup with Fennel and Potatoes since I hate licorice, which is what fennel it tastes like?  Or, did I realize it has to marinate for 24 hours?  Sure, I like duck breasts, but do I want to drive 15 miles to get them?”

I’ll keep looking until I find a recipe that meets some simple criteria. I ask myself

1) Do I already have most of the ingredients?
2) Do I really want to eat this?
3) How much time will it take to make?

It would be a bonus if the recipe took just a few minutes to cook, but I am willing to spend an hour trying something new just to break my routine.  Here is a recipe I’d been saving for years and finally got around to trying.  It’s become a family favorite, especially since half the family is vegetarian.
White Bean Spread – serves 4 as an appetizer

1 15-ounce can white kidney beans or other white beans
1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white or black ground pepper
1/4 cup virgin olive oil
1 crusty loaf of bread or 2 pita bread pockets

Drain the beans and rinse thoroughly.  Add them to a food processor or blender, along with the garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil.  Process until smooth.  Transfer to a bowl and serve on sliced or torn-off pieces of bread.

This spread could also be used for a sandwich.  Just add lettuce and slices of tomatoes and/or cucumbers.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Do You Speak Chocolate?

I was never good at languages, but speaking chocolate comes naturally. It dates back to my childhood, when my father, a dentist no less, designated the top drawer of the dining room bureau as “the candy drawer.” He had a sweet tooth, and never did a day go by when he, my brother and I didn’t visit this special hideout. I don’t know why he told us about it. Maybe we caught him sneaking into it one evening, and we promised not to tell our mother IF we could visit the drawer ourselves.

I was interested only in the chocolate candy, and over the years I got to sample everything from the basic Hershey Bar to Whitman’s Sampler and store-bought fudge. As a teenager, I tried making fudge myself, but I never managed to get it to firm up. I didn’t care because it was just as tasty eating it with a spoon.

I have fond memories of a product called SWEL Fudge. It came in a can, and you mixed it with water and butter and cooked it for about 5 minutes. Sadly it’s long gone from grocery shelves, but the thrill of eating it out of the pot while reading Nancy Drew mysteries lingers.

As a teenager, I tried baking chocolate cakes from a box mix. They tasted pretty good, but I really had nothing to compare them to. Only when I got an apartment and began cooking for myself did I start trying to make chocolate cake and brownies from actual recipes. The directions always made me nervous because they invariably called for a double boiler to melt the chocolate. If you weren’t careful, said the recipe, you would either burn the chocolate or cause the melting chocolate to clump because you got a drop of water into it. Who needed to worry about that? I started making non-chocolate desserts.

Eventually, though, I was drawn again to chocolate. By then I was living in London and had purchased a tiny cast iron frying pan. I decided to see what would happen if I tried to melt a bar of Cadbury Bournville Classic Dark Chocolate in this pan. I kept the heat low, I stirred the bar and, amazingly enough, it melted without incident. My diet hasn’t been the same since.

Over the years I have cooked hundreds of chocolate desserts and have even co-written a book, “Chocolate on the Brain,” with my son Kevin. Here is the simplest chocolate recipe in that book—Surprisingly Easy Fudge. It requires just 2 ingredients plus butter for greasing the pan. It’s impossible to mess up.
Surprisingly Easy Fudge – makes 36 1-inch square pieces (adapted from “Chocolate on the Brain”)

Butter for greasing the pan
16 squares or 16 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 cup chocolate ice cream

Line an 8- or 9-inch square pan with aluminum foil, making sure that two ends of the foil overhang the pan by about 2 inches so that you can easily lift the fudge out of the pan later. Lightly rub the bottom and sides of the foil with butter. Set aside.

Melt the chocolate in a large, heavy frying pan over very low heat, stirring constantly. When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside to cool. The heat of the pan will melt the remaining chocolate.

Stir in the ice cream. When it has melted, pour the fudge into the prepared pan, smoothing it into the corners with the back of a spoon. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.

Carefully lift the ends of the foil and remove the fudge from the pan. Peel off and discard the foil. Place the fudge on a cutting board and, using a large knife, cut it into 36 pieces. Store at room temperature in a closed container or wrapped in foil or plastic.
           For more chocolate recipes get “Chocolate on the Brain”  

Monday, May 11, 2015

Are You Afraid of Spices?

Cauliflower with Potatoes
When I was growing up, I didn’t know what a spice was.  I don’t think I heard the word “garlic” until I got my first full-time job at 21.  I grew up in a coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, and my mother’s cooking consisted of bland dishes—boiled chicken, meatloaf, brisket, sardine salad and grilled cheese sandwiches.  Spaghetti came out of a Chef Boyardee can.  Sitting down for dinner was a duty, not a delight.

Dorm food wasn’t much better.  The highlight was toasted English muffins, served about once every two weeks for breakfast.  Food was fuel, nothing more.

Once I graduated and got a job on a magazine in New York City, my taste buds perked up.  I had a not-very-good meal at a Mexican restaurant, but it had flavors I’d never imagined existed.  My neighbor took me out to his favorite Indian restaurant, but the Madras-style curry was so burningly spicy that I downed about 10 glasses of water before I’d cleaned my plate.  Better was my visit to a Lebanese restaurant, where I had my first taste of Tabouli Salad, which features fresh parsley and mint. 

Suddenly I had a mission: finding out as much as I could about spices.  For my 22nd birthday, my mother bought me “The Spice Cookbook,” and for many years it was my food bible.  It still shares space with more recent favorites: Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything”; “The Silver Spoon”; and the 1997 edition of “Joy of Cooking,” edited by Maria Guarnaschelli.  I like this edition because it includes a lot of popular, spicy ethnic dishes such as Szechuan Spicy Noodles, Shrimp Pad Thai and Taramasalata.

I also love Madhur Jaffrey’s cookbooks.  Despite my disastrous first Indian meal, I have come to favor Indian food, and I make it frequently.  I’m no longer afraid of spices. 

Below is a semi-spicy Jaffrey recipe for Cauliflower with Potatoes, adapted slightly, from “Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery.”

Meanwhile, here are 3 key things to remember about spices:

* Many spices, including basil, rosemary, oregano, dill, mint, parsley, cilantro (known as coriander in its ground form) and ginger, are available fresh.  Their flavor is wonderful, but be aware that if you use the dried and ground spices, they have a much stronger taste, so use just half as much.

* Better to add too little spice than too much.  You can always add more, but you can’t remove it.

* Dried and ground spices lose their punch as they age, so try to use up what you have within 6 months.  You can continue using them after that, but you may have to add more to get the original taste.
Cauliflower with Potatoes – serves 4-6

1/2 pound potatoes
1 medium-sized cauliflower
2 tablespoons canola or corn oil or more if needed
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 
Boil the potatoes in their skins and allow them to cool.  (Leftover cooked potatoes work well for this dish.)  Peel the potatoes and cut them into 3/4-inch cubes.  Set aside. 
Break up the cauliflower into chunky florets, about 1 1/2 inches top to bottom and side to side.  Rinse in running water and drain. 
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat.  When hot, put in the whole cumin seeds and let sizzle for 3-4 seconds.  Add the cauliflower and stir it for about 2 minutes.  Let the cauliflower brown in spots.  Cover, turn the heat to low and cook for about 4-6 minutes or until the cauliflower is almost done but still has a hint of crispness. 
Add the potatoes, ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and black pepper.  Stir gently to mix.  Continue to cook uncovered on low heat for about 3 minutes or until the potatoes are heated through.  Serve immediately.  This dish is also good cold.

Friday, May 8, 2015

What's Your Emergency Meal?

Spaghetti with Clam Sauce
Everyone needs to have an emergency meal—something you can make at the last minute when dining-out plans fall through, your phone service is dead or it’s 3 a.m. and you’re too hungry to sleep.

College students fall back on ramen soup and cereal. No refrigeration is necessary. Who needs milk on your cereal if you’re desperate?

However, you can do much better if you plan just a little. Just don’t do what my friend Michael did. He knew he wanted to eat chicken at some point during the week so he went out and bought some. Then he forgot it was in the fridge. A week or two later, he noticed it and decided to make it for dinner. He was sick for a couple of days. A few years later he did it again. I wonder if he still keeps his doctor’s number on speed-dial?

If you’re going to buy meat for an emergency meal, keep it in the freezer and thaw it in the microwave. The freezer is a wonderful place. Store flour tortillas there. Toss in packages of frozen veggies, bread and ice cream. Keep some basics on hand in the cupboard. Here are 3 of my favorite emergency meals.

1) Pre-Cooked Sausages, and I don’t mean hot dogs--although if you love hot dogs, I guess they count. I like Bruce Aidells sausages. My favorite is Habanero & Green Chile, which is on the spicy side, although I’m also happy to eat Chicken & Apple or any of the others the company makes. Just make sure the label says “pre-cooked.” They come in 4-sausage packages at the grocery store or in bigger amounts at warehouses like Costco and Sam’s Club. Cost varies from $1 to $2 per sausage, depending whether or not they’re on sale. Keep them in the freezer. When you need one, heat it up in a pot of boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. You can eat it immediately with or without a bun. If you want to get fancy, fry up a sliced onion and red bell pepper. Then thinly slice the sausage, add it to the vegetables and eat.

2) Black Bean Tortillas couldn’t be simpler. All you need are flour tortillas (you can store them for months in the freezer), a can of cooked black beans and a jar of salsa. Grated cheese and chopped lettuce would be nice additions but not necessary.

Drain the black beans in a sieve, rinse thoroughly and put in a bowl. Get out the salsa, grated cheese and chopped lettuce, if using. If you have any left-over vegetables, you could also include them.

To make the tortilla taste better, heat it in a dry frying pan over medium high heat for about 30 seconds per side, or until the surface of the tortilla is still bendable but has developed some brown spots. Remove from the frying pan and lay on a plate. Cover with beans and salsa and cheese and lettuce, if available. Fold the tortilla in half or roll it up and eat it.

3) Spaghetti with Clam Sauce is the one dish my husband Bart can cook. It’s easy to make, filling, cheap and ready to eat in 20-25 minutes. Here is the recipe, adapted from “Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen.”
Spaghetti with Clam Sauce – serves 2

1 small onion
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (see Mom Cooking Tip 2)
1 15-ounce can ready-cut tomatoes
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 6-ounce can chopped or minced clams
1/2 pound (8 ounces) spaghetti
Salt & black pepper to taste
Half-fill a large pot with water, cover and begin heating over high heat.

Make the sauce. Peel the onion and cut it into small pieces. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir for about 3 minutes, or until the onion begins to soften. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the soy sauce and the liquid from the can of clams. Save the clams to add at the end.

By now, the water should be boiling. Add the spaghetti to the water and stir to keep the noodles from sticking together. Check to see how long the noodles should cook, and set the timer accordingly. Continue stirring the sauce. It will gradually thicken.

When the timer rings, add the clams to the sauce and stir. Test the noodles to see if they’re done, and if they are, drain them in a colander. To serve, either transfer the noodles to a large bowl and pour the clam sauce over the top or divide the noodles into 2 bowls and cover with sauce. Pass the salt and black pepper.

Mom Money-Saving Tip 1

If you use a lot of cheese, it's cheaper to buy a two-pound block and then slice or grate it yourself as needed. Store it in an airtight container.

See all my Money-Saving Tips!

Mom Cooking Tip 2

Fancy cooks may say, “I use only fresh garlic!” Well, I say, feel free to use bottled chopped garlic. No peeling cloves, no mashing pulp,and no scraping a garlic press. And no stinky garlic fingers! (You might have stinky garlic breath, though.)

See all my Cooking Tips!