Friday, October 25, 2013

Youth Without Pasta

I never ate pasta as a youngster. "Pasta" did not exist as a food name. I ate noodles in chicken soup and in kugel; I ate macaroni with cheese; I ate spaghetti and meatballs; and that was about the extent of it. I never tried lasagna until I dated a man who loved the lasagna served at a restaurant near Amherst College. I never tasted homemade pasta until I joined a dinner group as an adult. And I avoided ravioli until recently, because I thought it was an invention of Chef Boyardee.

So many wasted years!

Although I still don't order pasta at restaurants (because I prefer to order complicated dishes that I don't usually eat), I have it often at home. This week, my daughter gave me some penne, chicken, and broccoli she had made.  A few days later, I made myself some chicken florentine ravioli with roasted tomato sauce. And last week I had fettuccine with shrimp, artichoke hearts, and peas.

These dishes have several features in common: they are relatively quick to make; they are inexpensive; they are very tasty and satisfying; they don't require a trip to the store for special ingredients. I always have something in my freezer or cupboard that I can pair with pasta. Also, pasta—like pizza—is a good way to use up odds and ends. Two mushrooms alone aren't good for much, but they make a great addition to most pasta sauces. So does a teaspoon of capers, or a few stalks of asparagus.

About once a month, I try some new pasta. Last month, it was Buitoni's Wild Mushroom Agnolotti. How bad could it be, I thought. Well, it was so good that I wrote them an unsolicited letter, extolling the virtues of this previously-unknown food. I had served it with a very simple tomato sauce plus some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. It tasted as if I had slaved over the stove for hours. I wished I had bought more than one package.

No one knows for sure how many different types of pasta exist. Some sources say 10; some say 150; one said 600. If the last number is true, I'm going to have years of experimenting. I can hardly wait.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Versatile Cabbage

the type of cabbage I grew up with

A friend stopped by this week bearing a large, gorgeous head of cabbage. It was a gift bought at a Polish farm stand, where my friend had gone to buy sausage. Mine was one of the smaller cabbages, my friend said, and one of the few she could lift and carry easily. I was thrilled.

I grew up eating cabbage both raw and cooked. Raw cabbage was made into coleslaw, a dish I have yet to master, and sauerkraut. Cooked cabbage was served braised ( I published a recipe for braised red cabbage last year), steamed, or made into two similar dishes: sweet and sour cabbage soup and stuffed cabbage.

Both of these dishes came from my mother's side of the family. These relatives had come to the United States around the turn of century, to escape anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia. The soup and stuffed cabbage were very tasty and used little meat, thus allowing a poor family to serve many people inexpensively. I haven't made my mother's soup in years, mainly because I prefer the stuffed cabbage, and the two dishes are similar, so why make both. When my mother made her soup, she used something called sour salt, an ingredient that I have seldom seen in anyone else's kitchen. Today, you can buy it online. I use lemon juice instead.

The recipe for stuffed cabbage is long and involved, so I won't print it. Instead, I will include a link to  a recipe similar to mine. One main difference is that after I have removed the larger outside leaves from the head of cabbage, I shred the inner leaves and make a bed of them for the cabbage rolls to lie on. (With a head of cabbage as large as my gift one, this might not work, so I may have leftover cabbage, which I can use in borscht.) Also, after the cabbage leaves have been separated from the head, and before rolling, cut out the thick vein from the stem end of the leaves to make rolling easier.

I adore good stuffed cabbage; it's one of those complete foods, containing vegetables, meat, and starch. This recipe makes quite a bit, but it does freeze well. Just leave plenty of time to make it. Steaming the entire head of cabbage, pulling off a few outer leaves and then repeating the process enough times to get 20 or so good-sized leaves takes quite a bit of time. Once that's done, though, everything moves relatively quickly.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Knives

When I was a kid, my father would begin many dinners by standing at the dining room table, brandishing a long knife and a sword-shaped sharpening steel. He would quickly run the blade along the steel and then proceed to carve the meat, while the rest of us watched impatiently.

Knives played a large part in our kitchen. We had a giant butcher block counter along one wall, as well as a large assortment of knives. Some of the knives had been handed down from my father's grandfather, and I have two of them still.

Although I have a food processor and use it for quantity cooking, I use it very infrequently. I actually enjoy cutting and chopping food. First, I select the correct knife for the task: paring, boning, slicing, chopping, or carving. Using the right knife is probably what makes the task enjoyable. It's hard to bone a chicken with a paring knife, and it would be impossible to slice ham well with a boning knife.

I never cut on hard surfaces but use my knives on a wooden board, despite some rather dire warnings from family members. (They feared I would poison everyone if I didn't use plastic, which they thought was more hygienic. Science is now on my side, and wood is considered perfectly safe if kept clean.) Afterwards, if the knife is one of my carbon steel ones, I wash it immediately and then dry it. Only my stainless steel knives with plastic handles go into the dishwasher.

I tried using a drawer with slots for each knife, but I have way too many knives and I'm just not organized enough. So I keep them all higgelty-piggelty in a drawer. Although I keep them nice and sharp, I rarely cut myself.

A good knife lasts for years, and some of mine have lasted for generations. I have three or four favorites that I use every single day. A few, like my carving set, are used only once a year or so, but I welcome it like an old friend.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Brussel Sprouts are Newly Popular

Is any other vegetable cuter than a brussel sprout? I don't think so. Brussel sprouts look like miniature cabbages and are just the right size to pop into your mouth. However, for many years they were reviled as being smelly, strong-tasting, and just plain evil. Yet today, their popularity is surging.

What's changed? Well, for one thing, people have learned that these vegetables are healthful, packed with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber. They are said to help lower cholesterol and perhaps even prevent certain cancers. Secondly, I think people have developed better ways of cooking this vegetable. When I was younger, brussel sprouts were boiled, and they emerged a bit soggy. Today, sprouts are often roasted, sometimes with bacon and maple syrup. These have a wonderful crunchy mouth-feel and sweet-salt taste.

If possible, choose small sprouts, since they tend to be sweeter. If you select them from a bin, try to get sprouts that are similar in size, because then they will cook evenly. If you buy prepackaged sprouts, cut large ones in half or even in quarters so they will cook faster.

If you haven't tried sprouts recently, do so. The internet is filled with good recipes, including the one I linked to above. Don't be surprised if you really like them. Just don't go overboard, like the poor Scot who overdosed on them last Christmas and wound up in the hospital. It seems that his prescription blood thinner interacted with the Vitamin K in his sprouts. The doctors said that anyone on blood thinner should be moderate in their consumption of leafy greens.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Cooking for One

a recent lunch—no bread, no dessert, lots of salad
I didn't learn to cook as a kid; I never made much beyond brownies until I got married, and then I learned in a hurry. I was horrified by the prospect of having to spend the rest of my life eating my own food if I didn't know how to cook.

Luckily, I had cookbooks aplenty and a husband who would try almost anything, so I learned quickly. For years, I had a quotation on my kitchen wall from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook: "Bad cooking diminishes happiness and shortens life." That about sums up my philosophy.

Fast forward several decades to a point where I am living alone. At first, I didn't feel like cooking much. What's the point? I wondered. Then one day it strikes me: Who enjoys food more than I do? Why should I forgo that daily pleasure? So I started cooking again.

Cooking for one has little support. Several cookbooks are written for couples, figuring, I guess, that new partners and spouses need to feed each other. I think many folks assume that single folk just eat out or eat prepared foods.  So I don't see much about cooking for one person. (The exception is a great book I received this year called The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones.) I get tired of eating out at the sorts of modest places I can afford often; also, I don't like most prepackaged foods, except very occasionally. So I started cooking for one.

The first problem I ran into was waste; you can't find small sizes at discount stores, and supermarkets often package things for families. One solution is planning ahead, deciding beforehand what to do with the leftovers. Will you turn your roast chicken into sandwiches, chicken salad, and chicken soup, or will you freeze half of it? If you make chicken salad, you will need celery, and if you make soup, you will need carrots.

Another solution to excess food is to invite a friend for dinner, or drop off dinner at someone's house. Who doesn't enjoy receiving a home-cooked meal? Best, though, is to shop at places that feature unpackaged foods, such as farmer's markets, farm stands, and fish markets. I used to have trouble with salad greens, because I like variety and couldn't finish off several heads before one went bad. Now I can buy mixed greens at most places, so that's no longer an issue.

The advantages of cooking for one are legion. For example, I don't really have to worry about cost, because how much can one person eat? My most expensive extravagance is smoked salmon; a small package costs me about $5 and lasts for two breakfasts, pretty reasonable for a treat. Also, I can try any food or recipe without fear of arguments, snide comments, or horrified expressions. Curious about quinoa? I can make some. Ditto Korean hot sauce, oven roasted green beans, or anything else that strikes my fancy. If the food's no good, I had the fun of making it and no compunctions whatsoever about dumping uneaten portions. Finally, I can make a dish exactly the way I like it: soft scrambled eggs, juicy pink pork, vegetables galore, loads of garlic, and no desserts.

Deciding to actually cook for myself was a good choice. Not only do I eat well every single day, looking forward to almost every meal, but I also enjoy the act of preparing food. Making myself a 3-vegetable quiche or a delicious pot of soup is deeply satisfying. And I get to take pictures....