Category Archives: eating well

Salmon Dinner Brings Up an Interesting Question

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One night while shopping for a salmon dinner I had an interesting encounter.  I was living in Stamford, New York; a small village in Delaware County. I had a diner there called The Hungry Moon.  It was a small diner, in what I already mentioned was a small town. There was one bank, one grocery store, a disproportionate number of bars, and two diners. Owning one of the two local diners made me highly visible, and I quickly found out that everyone knew everyone else’s business, which naturally had its advantages as well as it’s drawbacks. But this story is about my salmon dinner.

I was at the Grand Union, the only grocery store in town, and since a good deal of my food was provided by the diner, I was picking up just a few things. I had a small basket in my hands and was waiting in line behind two women who each had full carts, and seemed to be friends. Among other things in my basket was some broccoli, and a piece of salmon. I love looking in other peoples’ carts and baskets to see what they are buying, in my Whole Foods Market days I loved bagging groceries- it gives me a glimpse into who someone is, to see what they like to eat, and this is also a fun way to see new products (yes, I freely admit to being a grocery nerd). Anyway, with that in mind, it didn’t bother me that one of the women in front of me checked out my basket, though the conversation that followed did.

Woman #1, turned to her friend, made an unpleasant face, and chin point to me and said full voice, “Huh, I wish I could afford to eat salmon for dinner”. When I then looked into her cart—and not the least bit sneakily—I was surprised to find it filled with frozen dinners as well as all kinds of other junk. Her friend took a look and said “Yeah, must be nice to be rich”. (Which I certainly was not.) I wanted to tell them that contrary to what they thought, my salmon dinner was a much more economical option as well as nutritionally sound choice that the crap in their carts, but I didn’t, I just got embarrassed, looked away and pretended to read the magazines in the rack.

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I don’t fault these women for their beliefs, though they were rather rude…. We live in a world filled with cheap calories.  One in which people are led to believe that a $3.00 frozen meal is a good value, where fast food seems like a wholesome economical way to feed a family, and where people are too tired, stressed or don’t know how, to cook. Salmon may be a luxury to many people, but the irony is that so is a frozen meal. It’s really a shame that schools no longer teach home-economics, to both boys and girls! The practical skills that kids could learn in a semester or two of home-ec would be skills with a lifetime of rewards.

I have always been conscious of the ingredients in my food, and lately I have been reading more and more about what is happening to our food supply   I have become more acutely aware of the ads in print and on television touting the wholesomeness of all types of frozen and prepared meals that are far from wholesome, and certainly not whole.  I wish I had been more open to talking to those women at the store so long ago.  I wish I had been able to talk to them kindly and honestly about their choices compared to mine, but that’s not really so easy.  I wish I could reach more people and show them how simple and how much less expensive it is to cook a real meal rather than to buy what a huge company fashions for them in a huge factory, and only resembles food.  I wish it was easier to feed a family fresh, real food, than to grab a box of empty calories from the freezer section of any grocery store including the ones selling ‘natural’ and ‘health’ foods!

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9/16/2013

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Some Great Meals

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I don’t consider myself a great cook. I have been trained so I understand technique and cooking methods, and am not afraid or intimidated by recipes, but like art school, or music conservatories, culinary school can teach you technique, but no one can teach you to be talented. That being said, I have made some really great meals that stand out in my mind as wonderful and delicious memories.

What makes a great meal? Years ago I was part of a supper club. We agreed on a budget, and each month we met at a different home. I was pretty excited and enthusiastic— this was going to be awesome! Everyone involved was really into food, knew the best restaurants, and was taking this whole thing seriously and in fact a bit competitively too. I had high hopes for the meals to come, and they were dashed from the start.

It takes more than good components to make a great meal. All the dishes need to be complementary; timing is critical, seasonality is important, and of course execution and presentation are key. For a meal to be great it doesn’t have to be complicated or elaborate, almost anyone will say that a good roast chicken with mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach is a great meal, and that’s a pretty simple endeavor.

Here are my best and most unforgettable meals. You can easily make any of them, and I will provide the sources and/or recipes.
1.For Christmas one year I made a Chouroute Garnie. The main thing this requires is a really large pot and a lot of time. It is a one-pot meal of pork and sausages and sauerkraut cooked in white wine until the flavors meld, the fat is rendered into the cooking liquid and the sauerkraut is like silk. I got the recipe from Bon Appetite magazine. Promise me you will only serve this from November through March

2.A southwestern style brisket– this is another time consuming, but easy dish. The recipe is from The Sheila Lukins (from the Silver Palate) USA Cookbook, and I served it with sweet potato pancakes and collard greens. I have made this meal a few times, always to rave reviews!

3.Roast chicken with goat cheese and wild rice stuffing. I served this dish years ago when I was a guest at a friend’s house on Fire Island. A salad was the only accompaniment. The cheese melted into the stuffing making it creamy, and a bit tangy. No cookbook, just me, a chicken and a small grocery store with not a lot of choices.
(Recipe pending)

4.Veal Cutlets Marsala, with fettuccine was the first meal I cooked entirely on my own, for company. I think I was about fourteen, and this was many years before it became shameful to eat veal, feel free to substitute chicken breast if you care to make this. My grandmother was staying with our family and a friend of hers was there as well. Every time I saw my grandmother’s friend Mabel she talked about this meal.
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My best advice for tackling an important meal, or impressing guests is don’t over- reach; use techniques you feel confident with. Plan ahead; when I am having company I make a timing schedule so I have a pretty good chance at everything being ready at the same time. If I am serving many dishes, like for Thanksgiving, I take out all my serving bowls and platters and put notes in each one for what food goes in which. Don’t make more than one labor- intensive item per meal, why make yourself crazy(er).

I’m a firm believer that anyone can cook. Most of success in cooking comes down to using good ingredients, good preparation, and accurately following directions. I once spoke to someone who worked at a cooking magazine, and she told me that most of the complaints she got were from people who didn’t follow the recipe and then were unhappy with the results, hmmm. If a recipe doesn’t make sense to you don’t use it, it was probably badly written. What was the best meal you ever made? Was it for a special occasion, or a family diner? Let me know or share it in the comments!

7/31/2013

Inside My Fridge

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I am not the best planner. If you’re having a party and you’d like me to cater it, then yes, I am a great planner; if we need to complete a big project with a deadline, I can do it, but what am I going to have for dinner tomorrow- I have no idea, and though at the moment I do have a decent amount of food in my fridge (which is unusual) that is mainly because I just smoked a lot of stuff experimenting with my new smoker.

I recently bought some really cool menu planning pages for my planner- yes I still use the kind of calendar you write in- and on one side are places to plan meals for the week, and on the flip side a place for a shopping list. It seemed like this was just what I’d need to plan better, eat better, and waste less food because I failed to consume it before it spoiled. I’ve had these sheets for about two months, and used one so far. Part of the problem is that what I think I’ll want this Tuesday, may not be what I actually want Tuesday, I have a hard time planning what I will feel like eating. And I hard time eating what I’m not in the mood for.

For some reason having a plan, even if I plan to eat something I really like, I feel like I’m on a diet. I guess planning feels like dieting, and dieting makes me want to rebel, and so planning makes me want to rebel, so I throw out more food than I care to think about. One solution of course is to shop daily, and for the fourteen years I worked in a grocery store, that is essentially what I did. It might be different if I had to plan meals for a family, but I only do that half the time, and the family is just two of us, so unlike some of my friends who keep an amazing amount of food on hand, I rarely do.

My intentions are good, but you know what they say about good intentions… I plan to plan, I mean to plan, I want to plan, but somehow I don’t plan, or I plan badly. It’s all pretty embarrassing! Even reading what I’ve written makes me annoyed at myself for talking about this like its a real problem. And yet, it feels like something I should fix. I sometimes think it’s because I’m alone so much, or come up with some other excuse, but it’s like all those years I claimed I was messy because I didn’t have enough space to put things away, and now that I have plenty of room I’m still messy! Can a messy person metamorphose into a neat one? Can a poor planner actually develop better planning skills? I have been eating my vegetables like I promised!

So, is the haphazardly stocked inside of my fridge like the inside of my head? My mom used to say that my messy room was an indication of my messy mind. If I put a more conscious effort- a more mindful approach into shopping, and planning and filling my fridge, will that create a more structured mind space for me? Will my whole house get neater? Will I be a kinder, gentler person? Who knows what potential I could unlock by planning my meals for the week? At this very moment, I am sitting next to some menu planning sheets, and as soon as I wrap this post up, and proof read it, I will give it a try. As with all the resolutions I share here, stay tuned!
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Indoor Smoking

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As you know (if you’ve been reading along) my Stove Top Smoker arrived yesterday. I bought it on the advice of my friend Dan who uses his smoker all the time, and was on his way home to smoke some shrimp when we last spoke. I planned to smoke a half chicken, and a half rack of ribs (I prefer St. Louis style but you can baby-back all you want) and had brined the chicken and rubbed the ribs, which perhaps for the sake of pure experimentation, and taste I shouldn’t have done, but I did. I did the chicken first, I removed it from the brine, cut it (I had to or the wing stuck up too high) set up the smoker, followed the simple directions, and let it smoke for 35 minutes, at which point it was fully cooked. The ribs went for 45 minutes. Both emerged from the smoker smelling wonderful, but not very pretty. The smoker essentially steams the product, while bathing it in an atmosphere of smoke provided by tiny woodchips.

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The ribs came out looking only a little better, but I finished them off in the oven with some barbeque sauce. They were extremely tender and juicy, with a less pronounced smoke flavor than the chicken. I had the ribs for dinner with a tomato and arugula salad.
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Though I would call both a success, I will continue to tinker and adjust everything from the amount of chips, to heat and time in the smoke. I will smoke more stuff and talk about it, and I will try to keep good notes on what does and doesn’t work. Today I made some cold noodles with peanut sauce and topped it with cucumber and some shredded smoked chicken. It was tasty, and the smoked chicken worked well with it, but I am still not happy enough with my peanut sauce recipe to share it here. If you have a really good recipe I’d love to try it, so please send it along. The recipe I used was from the Sunday NY Times from April of ’07. I came across it the other day while looking for who know what, and it looked promising, but the result was way too salty, and then I added more peanut butter and then more chili sauce, and then…well I’m sure you get the picture.
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I think I will make a smoked chicken salad with the rest of the chicken. If it turns out well I will post the recipe, and more photos.
This weekend seems like a good time to play around some more with the smoker, and I think I’m going to try some eggplant for baba ganoush, some tomatoes for a sauce, and mozzarella. Maybe next week I’ll move on to fish and shellfish, but I’m going to try to pace myself!

If you’re an indoor smoker I’d love to hear about your successes, so please post them in the comments! If you’re thinking about it, I recommend it!

Chasing Flavor

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Any minute now my postman is going to arrive with my new Stovetop Smoker. I’ve been getting ready for it’s arrival; I have been brining a half chicken since yesterday, I have some St. Louis Ribs that have been dry rubbed, and some corn all ready to smoke. Both my daughter and I love the flavor of smoked food, and though I dream of one day buying a Big Green Egg, this seems s bit more practical. I am planning on smoking everything from meat to fish, cheese to vegetables. So now I sit here waiting… Look for my debut results tomorrow!

Anyone who loves food is a flavor chaser. I may not love super spicy food, but I love food loaded with spice. In culinary school we were taught that three things flavor food; salt, sugar and fat, and though that is true, herbs and spices really bring a lot to the table (so to speak). When I cook I like to plan what my dish will taste like, what will go well with it, and what can I do to bring out the most flavor. A critical part of that is how you treat your ingredients, from how and when you add them to your dish to how you combine different flavor types.

Most spices are fat (not water) soluble, which means if you want the most from your spices, as well as your aromatics such as carrots, garlic, onion, peppers, you should sauté them in some fat before adding them to your main ingredient. Dried herbs can go right into the water, sauce, or whatever, and they can stand up to cooking time, in fact they need it to rehydrate, while fresh herbs really need to go in at the last minute, and I generally don’t add them until the food is off the heat. Vinegar and citrus really brighten flavor, and are a great addition to heavy and starchy legumes, like a lentil or bean dish, I love to use the fresh juice of an orange in any black bean soup. If you are looking to add depth of flavor- umami, soy, tamari, or Worcestershire can do this, I am also a fan of powdered mushroom to add some meaty flavor to vegetarian dishes.

You might think, reading this that my spice rack is jammed, but it’s not. I have my go-to flavorings, and don’t like to keep dried herbs and spices too long, as they get a flat taste that won’t cook out, so I try not to keep too much on hand. I always have smoked paprika, garam masala, saffron, a few spice blends I like and a few dried herbs. I like flavored salts, and I have a bunch of vinegars, flavored oils, and some spirits for cooking; brandy, sherry, mirin, and sake. I even have hot sauce and crushed red pepper. If a recipe calls for a small amount of something I don’t have I am willing to substitute or omit it- I am not a particularly strict recipe follower, and often I use a recipe more as a guide than a map.

There are so many ways to build flavor, and building is the way I like to look at it. As you prepare your food, you layer technique and ingredients together to enhance your main ingredient. Before you even start cooking you might marinate, or brine or use a dry rub. Then you grill, smoke,brown or sear; add aromatics like carrots, onion, celery, garlic, peppers (hot or sweet) or ginger, and spices. Your next layer may be some flavored liquid such as tomatoes or tomato sauce or paste, wine, soy sauce, or stock. Then you start adding herbs, and salt and pepper to finish. Obviously you don’t need to go through all these steps, if you have a great steak all you need to do is season with salt and pepper, throw it on a hot grill, and don’t overcook it. What is important to remember is that just because garlic and strawberries are your two favorite flavors doesn’t mean they work well together!

Well, my parcels have arrived, and I’m ready to get started smoking! Tomorrow’s post will likely be a mix of triumph and tragedy, so stay tuned!!
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Eating; the Movie

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In 1990 Henry Jaglom made a movie called Eating: A Very Serious Comedy About Women and Food. I saw the movie when it was released twenty three years ago, and as a result of writing this blog it’s been on my mind lately, so I just watched it again Sunday. Though there is much about it that is dated, and there isn’t much of a story line, the best parts of the movie are the short interviews with individual women talking about their relationships with food, and the part that food plays in their lives. Watching this I was reminded that so many people-especially women; beautiful, confident, thin, accomplished women, struggle with food, and eating; it’s not just me, and it’s not just people who struggle with weight, or people with eating disorders.

The movie centers around a birthday party being thrown by one woman for herself and two friends, she is turning forty, and one friend is turning thirty the other fifty. One of the scenes that really struck a chord with me was when birthday cake is being served; a plate of cake goes around the circle of women (there must be at least twenty five) from one hand to another, arrives back at the start and is passed through again, no one will eat it.

How often do we let the cake pass by? Literally or metaphorically, there will always be cake, and there will always be choices, and if you really want that cake why don’t you have some? There is a young woman in the film (she is the daughter of the woman turning fifty) who can’t seem to stop eating cake, but she hides to eat it; on the stairs, in the bathroom; only once does she eat in front of someone, and by then she’s had several pieces… Does cake have to be an all or nothing proposition? What does our desire for food, a desire beyond need, say about us? Does appetite define character?

Though many of the women in the movie describe themselves as fat not one of them is. Why do women think of themselves as fat when they clearly aren’t, and what does it mean to call yourself fat regardless of whether or not you are? Does fat define character? If you are overweight is that a signal to the world that your character is weak? I think for some people it is, and like so many things we all rush to judgment on, all I can offer is ‘it’s a lot more complicated than that’. A long time ago I saw a TV interview with Rosie O’Donnell, she was talking about a conversation she’d had with her agent about getting more movie roles; the agent said Rosie should think about losing some weight- to which Rosie replied ‘Wow, what a great idea, I can’t believe I never thought of that’ which I’m sure caused every woman watching that interview to laugh almost as hard as I did. It’s all most of us ever think about, no matter how hard we try not to, and most of us don’t try all that hard.

What I want to do through this blog, and through talking to women is to change the subject. How about if we stop talking about how fat we are, and eat a piece of birthday cake. The ceiling will not cave in, and you will not gain an instant 25 pounds even if you swear you will. The less we talk and obsess about it, the less we engage in shaming ourselves and calling ourselves names, the more time and energy we’ll have to truly enjoy our lives, our families and friends, and I bet we’ll all smile a lot more too. Think how much time you’d have to think about your next vacation, plan a party, or taking over the world, if you weren’t obsessing about how many calories you consumed at lunch, and if you really should skip dinner. I dare you to try it for one day- take twenty four hours, and free yourself from your diet, you have so much more to gain, than you do to lose!

Breakfast for Dinner

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When we were kids every once in a while we would have breakfast for dinner. It was upside down, it was a break from the norm, it was exciting, and it was fun! My daughter loves breakfast for dinner, as do most kids I know. Even I feel like a kid again when I make myself an omelet, or something breakfast-y at night. In my younger days-when I could still stay up until 2 a.m. we loved going to the diner for a big, messy, greasy pre-dawn breakfast, now, sadly, I think that combination might be more than I could manage, but breakfast in the middle of the night is as at least as much fun as it is at 6:00 p.m.

A few years ago I went to Seattle for four days to interview for a job. Because it was a short trip, and I was travelling alone, I did my best to stay on Eastern time, going to bed early and waking early as well. On my last morning, the day of my interview, I awoke around 3:00, I was nervous, and had to get ready for the interview as well as pack to leave. Of course all of this took much less time than I expected, so there I was all dressed up and ready for breakfast at 4:00 a.m. local time. I Yelped, and found a bar in walking distance from my hotel that served food all night and set off. When I called my friend Nicole for some last minute advice and to chat, and told her where I was she was quite surprised to hear I was alone at a bar at 4:00, this scenario being quite out of character for me. It was a great breakfast, chicken fried steak, eggs and probably some kind of potatoes and coffee, and though I don’t think it was related to my meal, I didn’t get the job…

When I think of breakfast for dinner, I want more than a scrambled egg and a slice of toast, I want pancakes, or waffles, I want corn fritters with syrup and sausage or bacon. I can’t recall the last time we had breakfast for dinner, but shaking things up can bring out some creativity and challenge our notions of what a specific meal should be. Lately I have been having a more dinner-y lunch, and a salad for dinner. I haven’t done any metrics, but the results seem interesting. I think I eat less for my dinner/lunch at midday, and my salad dinner is certainly less than my usual dinners, and about the same as my lunch salad. I go to bed feeling lighter, and not feeling hungry. I can’t say I did this with any plan or purpose, though it may be a factor of my effort to consume more fruits and veggies (I have yet to hit ten, but am managing a solid 7-8 per day). In any case, for now it feels right, and lately I’m going with that for all kinds of things.

Even the most creative and adventurous cooks can fall into a mealtime rut. Our bodies, working on an internal timer seem to say “lunchtime” at a certain time, maybe 12:30, or 1:00 depending on our habits, and before we even check to see if we feel hungry, we eat, and then we do it again at 6:30 or 7:00. Of course for many of us these time as prescribed by our jobs, spouses, children, etc, but it is probably worth at least taking notice.

Time isn’t the only rut we’re subject to though. Do you eat the same breakfast or lunch every day? Do you even notice what you are eating? Do you enjoy it? You probably have more variety at dinner, but do you have 5-6 standard meals you kind of rotate through? Many people do, I do, and why do we so often rely on restaurants to provide variety? If you’ve got some great home cooking ideas please share them here, as I will as I start to expand my rotation of regular meals.