Friday, December 24, 2010
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
If you think I’m being melodramatic about this, allow me to create a scene for you:
Super Bowl Sunday Potluck, 2009. Group of close friends gather to watch the big game at a friends apartment and are asked to bring a dish to share. 6:00 pm. Friends begin filtering in the apartment, carrying tupperware items, corningware items or store bought items. When the dish is placed on the kitchen bar, all other attendees gather around it, wait for it to be revealed. They wait to ooh and aah. One by one, the dishes are uncovered:
Rotisserie chicken: store bought, little effort, but still, an MVP of a food. Ooh, aah.
Homemade miniature calzones: innovative, tedious to create. Extra points because miniature things are permanently cute. Ooh, aah.
Tossed salad: finely-chopped ingredients, an array of dressings and salad toppings, aptness at gauging what attendees want in their salad. Extra points for appealing to the 3 vegan attendees. Ooh, aah.
TGI-Fridays Frozen Potato Skins: uncooked, still in box: processed, fattening, uninventive. Deduct 5 points because there is nothing redeemable about frozen, fatty, knock-off chain restaurant skins, ESPECIALLY if the host has to preheat the oven to 400 and cook them for 20 minutes to give them their due.
I am not being melodramatic. I brought the skins, and my friends have yet to let me live it down.
With that said, Christmas is approaching and it is the end all be all of potlucks. If you embarrass yourself at Christmas, you have two choices: 1) accept that you will be subject to lines such as “Remember when you brought (insert unacceptable dinner inclusion here) last year? That was so weird.” or 2) go ahead and uninvite yourself to Christmas dinner for the next, say, 5 years? Everyone will probably have forgotten by then.
Over Thanksgiving, while we were preparing to travel to Latta, SC to spend time with my Dad’s side of the family, I asked my Mom for a little insight on how to “choose the right dish” for a potluck. I was prepared for a step-by-step guide, a formula with a little rhyme and reason.
“That’s easy,” she said, “You bring broccoli bread.” Just like that. Mom always brings broccoli bread.
Perhaps the key is: find a dish you’re good at, one that is difficult to ruin, just in case you’re crunched for time. Prepare it enough so the dish becomes second nature. For example, I have seen my mother mix broccoli batter and put on makeup in intervals, without breaking a sweat.
Eventually, after trial-and-error and probably a bit of public embarrassment, you will find a dish you can depend on, and you will immediately know. My mother says, “For my potlucks, I bring broccoli bread, and if I didn't, they wouldn't let me in the door."
So, this Christmas, don't go anywhere near the TGI-Fridays freezer section at the grocery store, unless, of course, it's located beside the chopped broccoli.
1 box Jiffy cornbread mix
1 package chopped broccoli, cooked and drained
4 eggs, beaten
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup low fat cottage cheese (small curds)
1 tsp salt
1 stick Smart Balance butter
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Here’s my thing about squash: if you put 7 squash dishes in a room and prepared them totally differently from one another, added cinnamon sugar to this dish, and pimento cheese to that, you will find that no two dishes will taste the same. You can very easily add variety, while still maintaining the seedy goodness of the vegetable, because squash is a chameleon of a food. In short, squash lets you transform it however you want to transform it and doesn’t say, “This isn’t me at all.”
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas for about ten years, my mother has made a squash casserole that is TO DIE FOR. She mixes pureed squash, sour cream, pimento cheese, butter, and tops it with a breadcrumb mixture, bakes it for 45 minutes. The product is this dynamic, crumble of a casserole with a fanbase. On holidays, both sides of the family know it’s coming, and when she walks in the door, holding the Tupperware dish with two potholders, they clear a space for it with a sort of urgency I didn’t know a side dish deserved. But, it does deserve a place cleared for it, and if I can continue being dramatic about how good it is: it deserves to be right by the turkey. (Maybe even ahead of it) If she had a specialty, squash casserole would be it. Because of this, I will not be making the casserole, because it isn’t mine to make. But while I’m home for the holidays, I will document the magic, and post it for you--recipe, flip-flop print cooking aprons and all.
This Thanksgiving, I’m going to be trying out another squash recipe on my family, bringing it with me to Dillon, SC, where we go for lunch. I’m bringing it as a sort of sister-wife to the casserole, because, while it is squash, it is worlds away from my mother’s dish. They are (after getting word of my food blog) expecting something inventive and tangible. I'm proving myself this year. So, I will give them the acorn squash.
Just a note: If I were to categorize this recipe, I would place it under dessert or whatever category sweet potatoes fall under.
Hazelnut Acorn Squash
1 large acorn squash
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp brown sugar
small package of chopped hazelnuts
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Me: I haven’t really tried out a lot of places since I’ve been here. In fact, I think I’ve been out to dinner like, three times since I moved, and two of the times, I went to Olive Garden.
Him: You unironically go to Olive Garden?
While I’m sure all the Indian restaurants and Vietnamese restaurants are to die for, and I would even go so far as to say, I can’t wait to try them, I doubt I’ll ever make Olive Garden a secondary option. The reason being: I-am-head-over-heels-can’t-get-enough-of-could-survive-for-a-year-off-of PASTA.
Pasta is the everything dish. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want, it is more versatile than any food has any right to be, it pairs well with everything, it makes for a good leftover and it’s pretty to look at pre or post-preparation. Did I mention the versatility?
Before I could even say “spaghetti’, I was eating it weekly. When I was 6, it was “psketti” or simply, “sketti”. On “Psketti Night”, my mother would suggest I put “old clothes” on before dinner, just in case I spilled, and we ate it with corn and applesauce. As a young teenager, I still changed my clothes before dinner, and we ate it with salad and garlic bread. And then, in my late teens, we began using wheat noodles instead of white, spaghetti became “spawheati," I stopped changing my clothes and started being cautious instead, and we simply had salad.
It is necessary to say I haven’t grown out of pasta, but I did (a few months ago) grow tired of the ways in which I prepared it. In my kitchen, I knew pasta noodles to be fashioned one way: smothered in Ragu and bits of hamburger meat. There were a million other quick, healthy and inventive ways to use noodles. There had to be.
My Goal: find one easy pasta recipe that makes as much sense in my kitchen as spawheati
Qualities I’m Looking For: no spaghetti sauce, near-impossible to mess up, no obscure ingredients, healthy.
I began talking to people about pasta. As bizarre and/or annoying as that sounds, my friends have accepted that I have become less Lindsey: Their Friend Who Cooks and more Lindsey: The Food Blogger. Specifically, my friend Ryan: graduate student in Chicago, omnipresent Facebook persona, and naysayer-turned-supporter of The Walnut Street Eats. We were talking one afternoon, not about my blog, not even about pasta, when he said, “I made a great white wine pasta last night.”
“What’s it like?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” he said, “good.”
He began to list off ingredients, a step-by-step recipe and immediately I knew this was the answer to all my pasta woes. I bought ingredients that afternoon, made the dish in under thirty minutes, and was fanatical over the result. So, this week I’m thanking you, Ryan, for experimenting in your kitchen, so I could make magic in mine.
Ryan's White Wine Pasta
1 defrosted boneless, skinless chicken breast
1/2 cup white wine (of your choice)
1/2 cup water
thin whole grain spaghetti
1/2 yellow squash
pinch or two of flour
tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Friday, November 5, 2010
“I can start college next year!” I cried.
They told me to stop being silly, and waved from behind the windows until they were out of sight.
That afternoon, I wasn’t crying about how terrible I was at feeding myself, but I should have been. In the following year, I perused the grocery store for two hours, buying virtually nothing of any substance, and leaving with 75 dollars less than when I’d entered.
Sitting in front of the TV, canned ravioli atop a television tray, I’d wonder where all my money was going. Why was I coming home, bags of food lining my arms, and running back to the store a week later for the same routine? In an alternate universe where adults with supermarket-intuition all lived together, there was, I assumed, a more successful way to eat.
Self-sufficiency is funny that way. I was never aware of how young I was, how underprepared to take good care of myself, until I was eighteen years old, in a dorm room beside my best friend, eating ramen noodles and drinking apple juice for dinner. In a house where my parents lived, some 100 miles south, dinner made sense, and it may have been because I never saw it in process, only complete, on the table waiting to be eaten.
I’d like to say “it was all so tough, and then I grew up”, like learning how to cook was this transformative thing, and the right ways to do it came to me in a dream, but that’s not true. I ate terribly for years: processed food, easy food, fast food, inexpensive food. There are nights that I ate “dinner sides”, a bowl of mashed potatoes, for example
In 2007, I met Emily Brown, a creative writing major like me, a native of Suffolk, Virginia, and a self-proclaimed cooking queen. We became instant friends. On weeknights after class, she’d invite me over and we’d experiment in the kitchen. Sometimes, we’d make “throw-together meals”, a way to use food in the refrigerator before it went bad. Other nights, we’d plan a meal ahead of time, go to the grocery store together and split the cost. We had potlucks, and soup cook offs, and grill outs. We made cinnamon acorn squash, tons of pasta, and homemade pizza. Over the years I spent in Emily Brown’s kitchen, I learned many things: how to use a garlic press, the versatility of spaghetti sauce, and the glory of leftovers. Most of all, though, and I have kept this with me ever since, I learned how to feed myself.
There is something to be said about being a serious cook. I don’t mean a Rachel Ray type, or a behind-the-scenes culinary artist at a high-end restaurant you love. I mean, grocery shopping like its an artform: preparing your meals for the week, compiling a list of ingredients that can be used again and again, and sticking to your guns in the middle of the aisle: buying what you need, and only what you need (Maybe a treat or two!) Then, having that same seriousness carry over into your own kitchen, allowing yourself time to learn and to burn things, but believing that, eventually, you will remove something outstanding from your oven. Not anyone else’s oven, yours.
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
About two weeks ago, she drove from Raleigh, NC to come visit me here in Fairfax. She wanted to explore the city, so we did. She wanted to meet my friends, so she did. But most of all, she wanted to cook all of our favorite meals, so of course, we did.
The last night she was here, we made her favorite meal: chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese. We hand-breaded the chicken tenders with bread crumbs to put a healthy spin on it, cooked whole grain macaroni and cheese from a box. As we worked side-by-side in the kitchen, I thought about the simplicity of the meal, the hardly-noteworthy, difficult-to-ruin components of the dinner.
As she poured dry noodles into boiling water, I asked her, “Why is this your favorite?” even though I knew the answer.
“Duh!” she said, “The food man.”
We both laughed at the mysticism of The Food Man, who was actually a representative from Five Star Distributing and drove from house to house in a mobile-freezer. He’d stop by once a month and Mom would order big boxes of food: danishes, hamburgers, chicken tenders, and then The Food Man would let us go out to the freezer truck to help find the food. We loved everything about it: how he’d show up in all white holding a note pad to write down our order, the plastic hanging strips that separated the door of the truck and the freezer, how frosty they were, how majestic of an entrance.
Meredith said, “Chicken tenders and macaroni and cheese is just a perfect combination of food. Oh, and the barbeque sauce!”
She’s talking about Dad’s own concoction: a mixture of two different barbeque sauces combined into a plastic bottle with a spout. We use it for most meat: the tanginess of it perfect for chicken, the smoky spice ideal for coating pork chops.
When I suggested rolling chicken tenders in Italian breadcrumbs and baking them, just to try it out, I was sure she’d be hesitant to modify any characteristic of her favorite meal. It was, I suspected, a tradition she felt required to pay homage to, because her love for it had evolved as she had: it started as a meal she loved because The Food Man was a nice person, and developed into a meal Mom fixed after not having seen her for a while. It became a meal she fixed because she’d missed us over time.
“Well,” Meredith said, stirring cheese into her pot of noodles, “Do you have breadcrumbs in the pantry?”
Homemade Chicken Tenders
- boneless, skinless chicken tenders
- italian breadcrumbs
- 1 egg
- 2 tbs light melted butter
- 1/2 cup light italian dressingCompletely defrost chicken tenders. Combine melted butter, italian dressing and egg into a mixture. Whisk, whisk, whisk! The mixture should form a sort of hurricane of liquid. Like this:Now, set up your chicken tender station. Grease a baking pan, pour breadcrumbs into a bowl, right next to the mixture you just whisked.Fully coat the chicken tenders in the egg mixture, roll them around in the breadcrumbs until you feel satisfied, and place on your baking pan.Bake on 425 for 12 minutes. Afterward, they will essentially look the same as they did before the 12 minutes, only cooked, which is always nice.If you're interested in making the barbeque sauce, too, it's: Carolina Treet Original Barbeque Sauce+Kraft Original Barbeque Sauce. And you should! It's the bomb.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
My grandparents were minimalists. For them, it was a way of staying healthy—eating meals that have long been familiar, occasionally spicing, but never straying too far from tradition. Granddaddy did most of the cooking for Nana, egg beaters and turkey bacon in the morning, chicken chow mein at night as they watched Murder She Wrote on TV trays. He cooked what she liked, simple food with few ingredients, but it was what they loved, what they never grew tired of, and so, it was what they ate for years.
I’ve decided to make sausage balls this week, partly in accordance with my classmates’ request, and partly because lately I’ve been thinking about how poignant it is to eat the same dishes year after year with a person you really love. Never experimenting, but never wanting to, the delight of your company a primary joy, the food, an added bonus.
Even now, years after their deaths, we eat sausage balls every Christmas, before dinner as an appetizer. I can’t remember a Christmas without them on the kitchen table, swaddled in paper towels inside a tin. They have three ingredients: hot sausage, cheddar cheese, Bisquick. There are ways to complicate them (onions, for example), but I never wanted to alter the recipe, afraid they may lose some of their luster, taint my years of memory somehow. When combined into a dough, these three ingredients result in a crispy biscuit, all of the flavors distinct and utilized, pleasing and delicious.
This time, I replaced regular hot sausage with lean sausage, used Heart Smart Bisquick, and reduced fat cheddar cheese. The sausage balls tasted the same as I remember, which, as you can probably assume, was a relief to me.
1 lb. lean hot sausage
3 cups Heart Smart Bisquick
12 oz. reduced fat sharp cheddar cheese