COOKING WITH MARK BITTMAN UPDATE: MIKE’S BIRTHDAY AND SUPER BOWL SUNDAY

This Christmas, the one present my daughter Shannon really wanted was How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. (For more about this, read “Shannon’s Plan: Cooking with Mark Bittman.”) I am happy to report that this is one cookbook that’s not languishing on the bookshelf, and Shannon has already begun tackling this cooking tome. (What else can you call a cookbook that has 960 pages?)

She’s had some failures. The breading on the fried chicken was too doughy (she thinks perhaps the frying oil wasn’t hot enough) and a lentil soup with homemade broth was “inedible.” (She’s not exactly sure what the problem was with the soup.)

But there have been successes—notably chicken wings, with two different sauces—mustard-honey and a spicy one; garlic roasted chickpeas and pistachios, and tortilla chips made from corn tortillas. Shannon made all these things on Super Bowl Sunday, which also turned out to be the day we celebrated her fiancé Mike’s twenty-seventh birthday.

“Eat up,” she said, as she put the food on the table. We didn’t have to be urged twice. We are, after all, good eaters. By the time we were done, there were only a scattering of chicken wings left, a handful of chickpeas and pistachios, and a few chips. Some thoughts about the chips: Mark Bittman recommends frying them in lard, and Shannon followed his suggestion. They were utterly delicious—far better than packaged chips. The chips can be fried in vegetable oil, and I’ll be soon trying them this way. But let’s be honest. Lard gives fried food that certain something that vegetable oil just doesn’t have. I’m not suggesting that cooks should switch from vegetable oil to lard, but it would be dishonest of me to pretend that lard doesn’t taste better.

The roasted chickpeas and pistachios were my favorite. Shannon made this for the first time at Christmas, and at odd hungry moments, I daydream about them. A very simple combination—chickpeas and pistachio tossed with chopped garlic and oil—but I find them irresistible. They don’t keep well, but who wants to keep them anyway? In a week or so, my friend Diane will be coming over for dinner, and I plan to make these as an appetizer.

But back to Super Bowl Sunday. We ate until most of the food was gone. Mike opened his presents. There was an ice cream cake. Then we settled in to watch the Super Bowl. I know almost nothing about football, and Mike had to explain what was going on. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for the Saints. (I most always tend to go for the underdogs.)

And, by gosh, the Saints won. Go, Saints, go! And go New Orleans!

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FRUGALITY IN TWO ACTS: PART TWO

Well, this piece was supposed to be posted on Saturday, January 23rd, and here it is Tuesday, January 26th. Every year I think that after December, things will slow down. They do, of course, but January is still pretty busy. However, this is a story definitely worth sharing, even if it is a little late.

Last week, the heating element in my oven broke, and I mean this literally—it was in two pieces. I discovered this when I was about to bake some shells with a cheese sauce. Upon finding the broken heating element, I immediately changed my plan, and into the microwave went the shells and cheese. A good save, but the shells would have tasted better had they been baked. 

It is never a good thing for a home cook to be without an oven, especially when that cook makes the family’s bread. Therefore, the following morning, I did not procrastinate. I called Dave’s Appliance, a small in-town shop where we have bought all our appliances.  And why not? They are local, their prices are competitive with the big box stores, and they make house calls not only to deliver new appliances but also to fix broken ones. 

So I called Dave’s, and the man who answered listened as I explained what had happened. When I asked if someone could come fix the stove, he said, “You know, those heating elements are easy to replace. If you do it yourself, then you’ll save yourself $90.” He had a record of the stove we bought, way back in 1991, and he had heating elements in stock for that stove. 

Unfortunately, I am about as handy as our dog, Liam. But luckily, my husband, Clif, is pretty handy. So I said, “I’ll be in to pick up an element.” 

On Friday, a day Clif works at home, I made my great circle run of errands, which included the Transfer Station, where I found two books in the book box; the bottle redemption center, where I asked after the owner’s three dogs—Tex, Babs, and Cody, who were all napping in his car; and finally Dave’s Appliance. 

On the way to the parts department, I saw some pretty impressive gas stoves with some pretty impressive prices. My favorite was a white enameled gas stove designed to look like an old-fashioned wood cookstove. A complete conceit, but if I had the money and the space, that’s the one I’d get when our Whirlpool finally goes to stove heaven. 

I sadly left that white enameled beauty and bought a new heating element for $40. The man in the parts department gave me careful and involved instructions to give to Clif so that he wouldn’t zing himself when installing the element. “One man zapped himself good trying to install one of these heating elements. It won’t kill you, but it will give you a nasty jolt. If that man had just followed my instructions and had flipped the right switch at the fuse box, using the oven light as a test, then it wouldn’t have happened. But he didn’t flip the right switch. Then, he was so afraid that something was wrong that he insisted on paying $500 for a new stove. $500 when he could have spent $40. We tried to talk him out of it. The old stove was perfectly good. But he insisted on getting a new one.” The man, a little younger than I am, shook his head over the foolishness of spending $500 when all it took was $40 and some care with the fuse box. 

I didn’t take notes, but I listened attentively and passed on the instructions to Clif, which he diligently followed and more or less already knew. He didn’t get zapped, and I am now in the baking business again. The new heating element has only been in my oven for two days, and it’s already baked a batch of biscuits, some gingerbread, and a loaf of bread. They all turned out exactly the way they should. 

I’ve always been very satisfied with Dave’s Appliance and their service. Now, I am even more impressed. They could have easily made a house call and charged me the extra $90. I wouldn’t have complained. Not at all. But frugality runs deep in central Maine, and an honest business will never try to charge you more than is necessary. Not all central Maine businesses are like this—we’ve been stung a few times—but quite a few of them are, and when we find a place like Dave’s, we become loyal customers. 

Frugality, honesty, and loyalty might sound corny to the point of being New England clichés, but here they are in central Maine, at Dave’s Appliance, in the twenty-first century. Maybe we aren’t going to hell in a handbasket after all.

FRUGALITY IN TWO ACTS: PART ONE

frypan on stoveAfter the previous post, which was a little bleak, I thought I would go with something a little more inspirational—two incidents designed to tickle the frugal cook, which I most certainly am. Indeed, sometimes I wonder if the title of this blog should have been The Frugal Cook rather than A Good Eater. But The Frugal Cook has already been taken, and A Good Eater, in fact, gives me quite a bit of latitude. I can focus on frugality as much as I like, but I can also move on to other topics.

Part One

My father was a child of the Great Depression, and like many children of that era, he grew up in a very poor family. While my father and his family never actually starved, I think it is fair to say that there were years when they didn’t have quite as much food as they would have liked. One time, upon hearing that his aunt and her family wouldn’t be staying for dinner, my father replied, “Good. That means there will be more for the rest of us.” And he wasn’t joking. My grandmother, of course, was mortified, but I can’t help sympathizing with my father, who, I suspect, was always a little hungry as a child.

Not surprisingly, my father grew up to be very frugal, and he delighted in scrounging, in finding use for things that might be tossed into the rubbish. Our barns and sheds were filled with things he had scavenged and saved. “That might be useful,” he would say, tucking away another scrap of wood or a bit of metal. My father had the same philosophy when it came to leftovers. Throw good food away? Never!

Fried Potato and carotI am a father’s daughter, and he has passed on to me his love of frugality and scrounging. I thought of him the other night after I had made a veggie soup stock, following a recipe in one of my Moosewood cookbooks. The stock consisted of carrots, potatoes, celery, an onion, garlic—the usual suspects. After the stock had simmered for a few hours, I strained it, and I was about to throw the vegetables into the compost bucket. After all, the onion, garlic, and celery were like mush, and even in my frugal world, there didn’t seem to be much use for them. But the potatoes and the carrots were another matter. They were cooked but still reasonably firm. They looked good enough to eat. When I nibbled the edge of a potato, a little spicy from the stock, I discovered it was good enough to eat. So rather than going into the compost bucket, the carrots and potatoes went into a bowl in the refrigerator. But, I wondered, what should I do with them? Make them into home fries, came the immediate answer. Well, why not? I often make home-fried potatoes, and while I have never made home-fried carrots, I figured they were worth trying.

Readers, they were delicious, and Clif and I gobbled them in our usual good eater fashion, with gusto and pleasure. The potatoes tasted pretty much the way any home-fried potatoes do, and the carrots were crispy and sweet and good. So good, that I have since boiled carrots with the sole purpose of making them into home fries. “They taste a little like sweet potatoes,” Clif said, and he was right.

My father, who has been dead for over twenty years, would have been proud of me. I must admit that I was more than a little tickled to turn food destined for the compost bucket into something utterly delicious.

A final note on my father’s frugality. As an adult, he outgrew his childish selfishness to become a generous father, husband, and friend. Guests were always welcome in our house at mealtimes. Along with instilling in me a love of frugality and scrounging, he also illustrated how it was possible to be generous as well. A good lesson.

Tomorrow: Frugality in two acts, Part Two

A GRAY DAY

Yesterday was another snowy day, another day to shovel the driveway and the paths around the house. The night before, the heating element in my oven broke, and I mean this literally—it’s in two pieces. We had to microwave the shells and cheese that I made for dinner. They were all right but not as good as they would have been had they been baked in the oven. As soon as possible, we will be replacing that heating element. 

Yesterday morning, I woke up to hear how Massachusetts had voted, how they had elected Scott Brown, a Republican who is dead-set against the current health care bill making its way through Congress. What an insult to Senator Kennedy, whose place Brown will be taking. Until the very end, Senator Kennedy worked long and hard on a health care bill that would provide coverage for the middle class and the poor, for every American, not just those who could afford it or who were lucky enough to work in jobs that provided good coverage. Like Moses, Senator Kennedy died before reaching the Promised Land and did not live to see such a bill passed. At the rate things are going, I’m beginning to think most of my generation—the baby boomers—will die before reaching the Promised Land, too. The pundits predict that some kind of health care bill will pass, and I hope they are right. But after yesterday’s election, I’m not so sure. After all, Massachusetts is supposed to be the bluest of states—liberal and progressive. And now this—a stunning reminder of how fast things can turn. 

So gray, gray, and gray. What a difference a day can make. The day before the election, I was so thankful for all that I have, and I wrote about it in a posting. Now, I feel apprehensive. 

I know this is supposed to be a blog about food and eating, and this posting might be regarded as a digression. But is it really? Consider this: According to Reuters, in the United States, one in eight people receives food stamps. One in eight. In supposedly one of the richest countries in the world, this is a shocking statistic. And here’s an even more shocking statistic. A recent article in the New York Times reported, “About one in 50 Americans now lives in a household with a reported income that consists of nothing but a food-stamp card.” This means that every day—at work, at the supermarket, at the library—you will come across someone who uses food stamps. “They” are not only out there; “they” are among us. And, if your luck turns bad, you might become one of “them.” 

So how do food stamps tie-in with health care? In a just society, it’s all of one piece, and what it boils down to is security for everyone, not just for those who are rich or fortunate. Two essential pieces of security are food and health care, and chances are if you have a hard time paying for one, then you have a hard time paying for the other. Conservatives and independents are forever warning liberals about the perils of the United States becoming like “nanny-state” Europe, as though Europe were some kind of hellhole to be avoided at all cost. Funny, but I’ve been to nanny-state Europe, and far from being a hellhole, it is a very nice place to visit, and it seems to be a good place to live, tool.  As many other Americans like to vacation there as well, I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Another interesting fact: Conservatives and independents never mention countries that provide minimal or no social services—countries such as Sudan or Somalia, where life is hard, brutal, and short. Perhaps those who are opposed to social services should plan a vacation in a country that doesn’t provide them. Then they can report back to the rest of us. 

Last night, my husband, Clif, and I discussed the Massachusetts election and the opposition to the health care bill. Clif thinks it all boils down to one thing—overpopulation and a corresponding scarcity of resources. (Indeed, those who oppose the health care bill are primarily those who have good coverage and are afraid their benefits won’t be as good if there is health care for all.) Instead of trying to figure out how to share resources, some people in this country get selfish and downright mean in the face of scarcity. In a way, I can understand it. None of us like to think about living in an age of less. We all like the idea of more, of abundance. But with world population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, I expect our days of more are coming to an end, if they haven’t already. (I haven’t even touched on the subject of peak oil.) 

So how are we going to deal with it? Like nanny-state Europe, which makes an attempt to share resources and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor? Or, are we going to descend into the worst kind of individualism and disregard the larger community? It really is our choice, and the direction this country is taking is not a promising one. 

A big subject for a gloomy day, and one that is definitely beyond the scope of this posting. Yet it is something we all must be thinking about in the years to come. You can bet I will be, and, of course, writing about it from time to time.

ON THIS SNOWY DAY

January in Maine means deep winter with the landscape suspended in a tight freeze of snow and quiet. Today, when I look out my office window I see snow falling on trees already white from yesterday’s storm. While it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the landscape is monochrome, the colors are definitely limited—the dark green of the conifers, the brown trunks of leafless trees, and, of course, white everywhere.  

With its service sector economy, Maine is not an easy place to live in the winter when the fuel bills are high, and tight budgets must be stretched even tighter so that families can stay warm. Still, when we compare our situation to, say, the situation of those living in Haiti, we have much to be thankful for. And we cannot help but be moved by the suffering of the thousands and thousands of people who are grief-stricken, hungry, thirsty, and homeless. My husband and I have done our small part to help, and I know this is true for many Mainers as well as for Americans in every state. 

Somehow, then, it seems appropriate in this posting to give thanks for what I have. First and foremost, I want to give thanks that I live in a country with a strong central government that at least provides a certain measure of social services. As my friend Brian Hannon put it in a recent email, “Without our strong, stable central government, we’d be no better off than Haiti or any other messed-up country. Obviously we don’t want to become some North Korean dictatorship, but without strong leadership in Washington, we’d have a lot more problems than we do, social, financial, security, etc.” Yes, we would, and those who huff and puff about the evils of the nanny state should take a long, hard look at what it’s like in countries where governments do as little as possible. Would these huffers and puffers really want to live in such countries? Unless they were tremendously wealthy and could thus insulate themselves from everyday life, I suspect they would not.  

I give thanks for my little house in the big woods. Modest though it is, our house has sheltered my family and me, and it has been a place where our friends can gather. Even though it is small, it has given me “a room of my own” and the quiet I need to work. 

Naturally I give thanks for my family and friends, and I shudder to think what Haitians are going through right now. Bad enough to lose your house; far worse to lose family and friends. 

Finally, I give thanks for my full cupboards, for the bags of beans, nuts, and rice. For the pasta and spices and flour. For the sugar and molasses. For the eggs that come from a local farm. For the big bag of apples in the guest room, which is closed off and cold. For the basket of squash also in the guest room. For the interest, time, and ability to turn these staples into hearty, satisfying meals. Like our house, these meals are not fancy, but they are tasty and nourishing, and they help keep my husband, Clif, and me healthy. 

So much to be thankful for in this long, cold month when slowly, slowly the days begin to get longer.

SHANNON’S PLAN: COOKING WITH MARK BITTMAN

Once in a while, even as an adult, there is a Christmas gift that you really long for, one that you fervently hope you will find under the tree. So it was this Christmas for our daughter Shannon, and the present was How to Cook Everything by the inimitable Mark Bittman, who writes about food for the New York Times. It might be going too far to say that Shannon and I are Mark Bittman groupies. However, we are certainly enthusiastic fans, and we have both come to rely on and trust his cooking advice. Bittman advocates cooking at home and cooking from scratch using fresh ingredients, but he realizes that in this busy world, few home cooks have the luxury or the time to spend all day with a recipe. Therefore, his recipes are relatively quick—most take no more than an hour to prepare. They are also healthy and delicious. Bittman’s moniker is “the minimalist,” and his recipes are proof that fast food doesn’t have to be bad. 

Shannon works full time and has a fairly lengthy commute—about an hour each way. She and her fiancé, Mike, usually get home at about 6:00, and except for the occasional pizza, they cook dinner almost every night. Therefore, Shannon felt as though she really needed Mark Bittman’s book to expand her repertoire of tasty but relatively quick meals. 

“Do you think Mom got it for me for Christmas?” Shannon asked her sister, Dee, when the two of them went shopping just before Christmas. 

Dee, in turn, tried not to laugh because she was the one who had bought it for Shannon. But all Dee said was, “I don’t know what Mom got you, Shannon.” 

“Well,” came the retort, “if I don’t get it for Christmas, then I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and buy it for myself.” 

When Dee later related the conversation to me, I said, “Oh, she’ll be looking for it among the presents.” 

How to Cook Everything is a big book. After all, it has to be if it’s going to live up to its title. We both knew Shannon would spot in a flash if it was under the tree. 

“Let’s hide it in the entertainment center,” I suggested.  “We can give it to her after all the presents have been opened.” 

This we did, and I must say that after all the gifts were opened, and How to Cook Everything was not among her pile of presents, Shannon’s expression was still cheerful. “I decided to be philosophical about it,” Shannon would say later. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she had received a couple of gift cards that could be used for the book’s purchase. 

Naturally, Shannon was delighted when we retrieved the book from its hiding place, and we gave it to her. She didn’t even scold us for tucking it away where she couldn’t see it.

Now, the older we get, the more we know that presents come and presents go, and even longed-for gifts sometimes lose their luster as time goes by. However, unless I am very much mistaken, How to Cook Everything will be a present that is used for years and years. 

In fact, Shannon has a plan, slightly reminiscent of Julie and Julia. In a recent email to me, she wrote, “I’m creating an Excel spreadsheet and putting all of the recipes and their variations that are in Mark Bittman’s book (excluding anything that Michael and I are either allergic to or know that we’re not going to like—no onion or peanut butter soups!). I’m also breaking them up by the chapters in the book to make them easier to find. I’m up to page 500 in the cookbook right now (I think there’s almost 1000 pages—so about half way there!). And in that Excel spreadsheet I also have for each recipe a column to put the page number it’s on, if Michael liked it, if I liked it, and whether I thought the recipe was good for company or just us. And so there’s no timeline for this—some of the recipes (like a lot of the seafood) are ones that we can’t afford to make right now. But I’m just going to try to make at least two or three new recipes a week and note them down in the Excel spreadsheet so that I can keep track of what I’ve done and what I haven’t. I thought about just writing notes in the book—but with the spreadsheet, it seemed easier to see what had been done and what hadn’t. And also I don’t like to write in books.” 

Shannon has promised to share some of these meals with us, and I will be reporting on how they turn out. 

And based on Shannon’s plans, How to Cook Everything certainly seems to be a gift that, as the saying goes, will keep giving.

USING LEFTOVERS: BISCUIT PIZZA

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to make better use of leftovers, to regularly scan the refrigerator, take stock of what we have, and then use what’s there before it goes bad. Filled with the energy that comes from a new resolve, a few days ago I rummaged through the refrigerator and found a jar of pizza sauce that Shannon had brought for New Year’s. It was one-third full, not enough for a pasta meal, especially not for my husband, Clif, who could fairly be classified as a pasta hound. Biscuit PizzaThat much sauce on pasta would be the merest appetizer for him, and there would be nothing left for me. But I thought there would be enough for a small pizza, which doesn’t need as much sauce as pasta. However, on the day I was considering the sauce, I had many errands to do and not much time to make pizza dough. Then I spied a carton of milk, also about one-third full. “What about biscuit pizza?” I asked myself.

What about it? Certainly, it’s not as good as one with traditional pizza dough, but it’s not bad, either. In fact, it’s pretty tasty. And quick, which on that busy day was a plus. Biscuit pizza it would be, then. All that was left to worry about was the cheese. I didn’t have mozzarella or any other kind of mild cheese. Instead, I had a leftover block of cheddar, which was getting a little hard and needed to be used. Again, not necessarily the first choice, but in the spirit of using leftovers, it was a good one.

Because biscuit dough is softer and more absorbent than pizza dough, I decided to cook it in stages rather than put it together all at once, the way a traditional pizza is assembled. I made a batch of biscuits, using my mother’s recipe. (Oh, she was a great biscuit maker! Mine are good, but they don’t even come close to hers.) I patted the dough into an 11 x 7 ungreased  pan and baked it for 20 minutes at 450° F, just until the top was beginning to brown. Then, I put on the pizza sauce and let it cook for another five minutes. Finally, I added the cheese and baked the pizza until the cheese was nicely melted, another five minutes or so.

Readers, this impromptu pizza came out just the way I had envisioned, with a nice biscuit layer that was moist but not soggy, the right amount of sauce, and cheese that was not too brown. As an added bonus, the cheddar turned out to be a great topping for the biscuit pizza. Somehow, the sharpness worked very well. If I had had mozzarella, then I would have used it, but I have a feeling that in terms of absolutes, the cheddar was a better choice.

Now, I expect no true pizza lover would have gotten excited about this pizza, and it was certainly a humble dish. But, by making biscuit pizza, I used up leftover milk, cheese, and pizza sauce that might have gone to waste. The results were not a gourmet’s delight, but the pizza was hearty and warm, a tasty supper that both Clif and I both enjoyed. It also reheated well when we had the leftovers for lunch the next day. I expect I will be making it again sometime, and when I do, I will probably use a tomato sauce that I make using Muir Glen organic crushed tomatoes with basil, to which I add plenty of chopped garlic and a little red pepper flakes.

Biscuit Pizza step1 For those who want to give this pizza a try, here is my mother’s biscuit recipe. I suppose there is no need to add that biscuits go with just about any meal, but I’ll do it anyway.

Rochelle’s Biscuits

2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 heaping teaspoons baking powder (I use a regular spoon rather than a proper measuring spoon.)
4 tablespoons of shortening
1 cup milk

Combine flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the shortening and with

either a fork or pastry blender, cut into the four mixture until it is crumbly. Add the milk. (Note: biscuits are best when the dough is very moist. I use what old timers would call “1 cup milk, strong. That is, slightly more than a cup.)

Put the dough onto a floured surface and knead a few times. Don’t overknead, or biscuits will be tough.

Then, the dough can be pressed into a pan for the pizza. Or, cut into biscuits for biscuits. If making biscuits, put a bit of butter on the tops and bake at 450° F for twenty minutes or until brown.

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