Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's up with amounts in your recipes?

I am a casual cook, I don't cook from recipes.  The internet is full of fantastic recipes.  There a million fabulous cook books.  No one needs more recipes.  What people seem to struggle with is how to put the recipes into action every night to make dinner less stressful.  I learned to cook from a bunch of wonderful people, from reading cookbooks like novels, and from watching a whole lot of Julia Child when I was a kid.  If you can learn  a technique or two or ten, and take them into your heart, and apply them to whatever is fresh, local, and affordable you will be much better off than if I make up some new recipes.

One of my favorite examples of this is the series in Fine Cooking magazine where they describe a technique and give you a huge chart of variations. That's why I shop before I make the menu, how can I know what to make until I see what's at the store?  I have three active teen children, and a husband who bikes or walks for over an hour most days.  I cook a lot of food.  You might be cooking for two, so how can my amounts make sense for you?  Instead I try to speak in ratios, or units, rather than measurements.  Cooking for one or two?  Use a small rather than a large onion, cut the fat in half, use less meat.  Nothing is so precise it will matter.  Leftovers make great lunches.  Soup almost always freezes well. Taste as you go, smell if it smells right.  As Shauna James Ahern from one of my favorite blogs Gluten Free Girl and the Chef says: dance in the kitchen.  If precision matters, I will write a real recipe, I promise.

House herb mix

I use a lot of herbs and spices.  I am relatively certain that herbs and spices are beneficial for health, but I am also pretty sure taking them in pill form, chronically, is a bad plan.  How have humans always used herbs? They add them to their food, till it tastes good, or looks pretty.  Seems like a good plan, certainly safe, and possibly healthful.

I love herbs, I love growing them, picking them, smelling them, and cooking with them.  I use a "house herb mix" a lot, especially when I am lazy.  I can't give you a precise recipe.  I grow two or three of every kind of herb they sell at Mother Earth Gardens.  I have an herb garden right outside my kitchen door, and I put a ring of herbs around the edge of my vegetable garden with marigolds every year.  I use fresh herbs and marigold petals in pretty much everything I eat all summer long.  I make a cup of sage tea most mornings in the summer, it's supposed to be good for the nerves, digestion, it's anti-inflammatory, the claims are many.  But mostly, it tastes nice to me, I have always loved sage.  It makes my tummy feel good.  It's a habit I picked up from my Finnish/German host mother, another wonderful cook in my life.  She is the one who started me adding marigold petals to everything.  People make many claims about the health properties of marigold, but mostly it's really pretty and feels fancy to have edible flowers in your food. I love to munch on parsley stems and fresh mint leaves, and lemon balm whenever I am outside.

The best moment of spring is the first day I can pinch a few chives, a leaf or two of lovage, and some sorrel.  I don't especially like lovage, it's a strong celery/soap taste, but I love it in the spring when it is the first fresh green thing peeking up in my yard.  Sorrel is my best friend, I use it as an herb, a salad, I make soup with it. I have 8 separate sorrel patches in my yard, and will probably divide and make more.  It's like the perfect combination of lemon and spinach.   I eat it every day from April to October, but I never dry it, what's the point?  A quick breakfast garnish of sorrel, marigold petals, chives, and a drizzle of olive oil goes with pretty much everything, from eggs, to tomatoes, to grated zucchini.  I wish there were more perennial herbs that grew in Minnesota, because rhubarb, and chives, sorrel, and lovage are hardly enough.  Technically sage, thyme, and parsley can over-winter here, but they never do well the second year unless we get an early deep snow that lasts till April, so I usually plant fresh seedlings of them each year.

When I harvest and dry herbs in the fall I hang them in small bunches in a shady part of the house until they are dry, or lay them on a screen on top of bricks I set on my dining room table.  Sometimes I use a dehydrator, for chives, rosemary, and parsley.  When they are all dry I pull the leaves off the stems and pack the herbs into clear glass jars and organize them in my spice drawer, throwing away any leftovers from the year before, or store-bought herbs I have accumulated during the winter.  But I don't always harvest one jars worth of any given herb.  I usually have more, so the extras go into a big bowl, all together, with some sea salt, and hot pepper flakes.  Sometimes with some ground dehydrated lemon or orange peel, or store bought lavender flowers.  When all the herbs are processed and packed away I mix up the leftovers and portion it into as many jars as I need.  You know what I run out of first every year?  The several jars of mixed herbs.

This year my mix had, in no particular order: chives, parsley, basil, lovage, oregano, epazote, sage, lot's of thyme, marjoram, red pepper flakes, lemon thyme, savory, rosemary - though not much, some marigold petals, some ill considered dried habanero pepper flakes (never again,) and some celtic gray salt.  A very few caraway seeds - I don't know why they never do well here, and some dill seeds from the year before, which I didn't even plant this year because I had so many still.  I had a separate mix of lavender leaves, lemon balm, cat nip, bergamot or bee balm, and several varieties of mint that I use for tea.  And an extra jar of thyme mixed with sage for infusing into honey when someone has a cough - mostly because I like to plant every variety of thyme and sage, and there are many! 

I think a simple go-to herb mix is a good way to start using more herbs.  Buy fresh "poultry herbs" at the store next time you are cooking chicken, and dry the leftovers and put them in a jar.  Next time you buy hot peppers buy a few extra and dehydrate the rest in your oven on it's lowest setting with the door propped open with a wooden spoon.  And next summer, fill every old clay pot you can find at garage sales with potting soil and herbs seedlings from the garden store.  Put them on the edge of your patio, or even in a sunny window and water them lightly every morning.  You will have fresh herbs all summer and in the fall you can make your own house herb mix.

Weekly dinner menu, 2/25/2012

I use a rough template for each night's meal, just to make planning easier and faster. (See sidebar.) I often adjust or change as I go, I have all the ingredients in the house either way. You will notice there is a vegetarian and a meat based main dish every night, vegetable sides, and usually gluten free starch, but sometimes a gluten based starch. Because I have celiac I never eat gluten, but so far my kids test negative for celiac, so they do eat wheat sometimes. I try to minimize the gluten in the house, but if they do eat wheat I try to make it homemade.  My daughter is getting ready to leave for college and wants to learn to bake bread, my younger son is obsessed with biscuits. And my whole family love popovers. When I serve gluten foods I just don't eat them, and that helps keep my carbohydrates down. At least everyone will eat fish!  I make fish on Mondays, since I shop on Sundays.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are always busy, so those are hamburger days, and though dried beans don't seem fast, they are easy, so that's what the vegetarians get.  As for the rest of the days, I just try for variety.

Here is the plan for this week.

Monday: Arctic char curry, brown rice in the rice cooker, roasted sesame broccoli.

Tuesday: Ground beef stroganoff, navy bean soup, sauteed chard, biscuits.

Wednesday: Skillet pork chops and apples, baked potatoes with cheese sauce, steamed broccoli and carrots, buttery oniony white beans. (Using leftover cooked beans from last night.)

Thursday: Scottish style mince and vegetable shepherds pie, creamy tofu shepherds pie, salad.

Friday: Tandoori style baked chicken, dal soup, rice, fruit salad with yogurt, grated carrot salad.

Saturday: Roast eye of round, fritata, mashed sweet potatoes, lettuce salad, crudite.

It's Tuesday night as I type and the char was a hit, and we ate dinner early tonight, so here are the recipes for Monday and Tuesday.

Fish curry, rice, sesame roasted broccoli.

Monday - I started brown rice in the rice cooker when I got home.  I sauteed an onion in coconut oil until it was picking up a fair amount of red-brown color, turned the heat down and added diced ginger (thumb-tip size piece,) the bottom half of a lemongrass stalk, cut into two inch pieces and crushed, juice of a lemon, a table spoon of GF tamari, a few glugs of fish sauce, and a heaping spoon of chili garlic sauce.  I added a can of coconut milk and let the sauce simmer for about ten minutes.  I threw in all of the stems from a bunch of cilantro for the last minute.

While the sauce simmered I peeled half a sweet potato, and cut it in quarters length wise, then 1/4 inch slices crossways. I peeled, halved, and sliced two really fat carrots.  I painstakingly picked out all the bones from the Char because my family is grossed out by fish bones.  I stemmed and quartered a big double handful of mushrooms.  I cut the fish into five serving pieces.

When the sauce seemed infused enough I strained it into a bowl, pressing hard on the solids, and put the fish (skin down,) the sauce, and the carrots, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms back into the clean skillet. I put the lid on and let it hang out while I got the broccoli ready.

I cut the broccoli into spears, tossed them with melted coconut oil, sprinkled them with sesame seeds, red pepper flakes, a bit of salt, and a pinch of raw sugar.  I put them in a cast iron skillet (the one I melted the coconut oil in) and put them in a 450 oven.  I turned the fish on and turned it down to simmer gently until the fish was cooked and the vegetables crisp tender.  The broccoli was done at the same time - like magic!

To serve the food I scooped the rice into a small glass cup (actually, I think it's a votive candle holder) that holds 1/2 cup of rice and has a pleasing shape, and put a timbale of rice in each soup plate, put a piece of fish next to the rice, and a small pile of the root veggies and mushrooms beside that.  I spooned curry sauce over the fish and veggies, there was enough to puddle in the bottom of the plate, and then I put a few broccoli spears between the veggies and the rice. 

I make a variation on this curry about every other week, when they were in season I used kafir limes instead of the lemongrass, and when we have it I use fresh galangal and turmeric.  Sometimes I use commercial curry paste.  My family love curry, and aren't crazy about fish, so this is a good trick to get them to eat fish.  Total cooking time was around 30 minutes.

Beef stroganoff, white bean soup, chard, and cheddar chive biscuits.

Tuesday - I had soaked beans Monday night, so they were plump and good to go when I got home late from work.  I started the beans simmering, and then my husband reminded me I had a dentist appointment, so I dashed out leaving the beans on low.  When I got back with shiny teeth and neither pockets nor cavities I turned off the beans and jumped into high gear to get the kids to dance and choir practice on time.

I sauteed three small onions, diced, half in a skillet, half in a stock pot, both with a rather shocking amount of butter.  Seriously, when my best friend was here the other day and I was cooking she gasped when she saw me put butter in a pan.  Maybe two tablespoons per pan?  While the onions simmered I peeled and diced two carrots, and chopped three stalks of celery, and added them to the stock pot, then I sliced two cups or so of mushrooms and threw them into the skillet.  When everything was picking up some brown and getting soft I crumbled in my house herb mix to both, salted and peppered both lightly, and added a pound of hamburger to the skillet, and about two thirds of the cooked beans and all of their liquid to the stock pot.  I browned the hamburger, and simmered the beans.  I added a half a cup of sour cream to the cooked beef, and pureed a cup or so of the beans with another half cup of sour cream, returning the puree to the turned-off soup.  Both got the juice of half a lemon, and good sprinkle of paprika, and rather more salt, because I always under-salt as I cook.

While all this was going on my son washed a bunch of chard and chopped it and sauteed it in butter, while my daughter set the table and my younger son and husband made a batch of biscuits with chives and grated cheese added.  Everyone but me got a pair of warm biscuits, soup, and the meat eaters got beef stroganoff and chard on top of the split biscuits.  I had chard and stroganoff, but no soup or biscuit.  I wasn't really hungry since I ate lunch at 2:30.  We got the dishes done and the kids out the door by 5:30!

I'll report on the rest of the meals later in the week.

Monday, February 27, 2012

What's in a name?

My grandmother was an amazing cook.  I remember crispy wonderful fried chicken, fried chicken I dreamed about all the long years I was a vegetarian.  I remember delicate, soft, lefse spread thick with butter and a light crunchy coating of sugar.  I could go on for days about the wonderful food I remember my grandmother cooking.  Her name was Alma.  When I was thinking of starting a food blog I thought first of my grandmother Alma, and searched for the meaning of the name, which as fate would have it is: "soul, nourishing."  If that's not a message from the universe I don't know what is.

About that fried chicken, I didn't start eating meat again until I had stopped eating wheat, so that fried chicken is still off the menu.  That is hands down, no exceptions the biggest grief I bear relating to Celiac.  I am sure I will try to create a great gluten free fried chicken some day, but I would give an awful lot to have my grandmother back to make me fried chicken, and to be able to eat it if she did.  It's not looking too good for the lefse either, I have had good gluten free lefse, but it's just the sort of processed starch that sends my blood sugar off the charts.

My grandma Alma was an intuitive, free spirit kind of cook.  Other than for cookies I never saw her use a recipe.  When my grandma tried to teach my mom to cook homemade bread my mom says she had no idea what to do afterwards, because it was a flurry of three big hands of flour, a small palm of salt, kneed till it looks like this, whoosh, we're done.  My grandma was a bit larger than life, with bright red hair, and perhaps a slightly bossy demeanor, she was a classic matriarch.  It's that spirit of cooking by feel, flinging things together, and brash self-confidence that I hope to bring to this blog.

First Post

Welcome!  My goal in starting this blog is to provide an example of a working mom cooking healthful, delicious, organic, mostly local, homemade food without going broke.  I will post my weekly menu each Sunday when I do my shopping and weekly meal planning, and recipes and photos of the food I make along the way.

Cooking for my family is complicated by several factors.  I was an ethical vegetarian for 30 years.  I was proud of making cutting edge choices about food that were in line with all the dietary research.  I read cooking and health magazines, vegetarian cook books and nutrition books.  My husband's genetically high cholesterol dropped about 100 points when I took over his cooking.  My husband and I raised all three of our children from birth as vegetarians.  A few years ago I developed a number of health issues, including Celiac disease, and pre-diabetes/hyperinsulinemia.  Since I had followed a "healthy whole grain" and low fat vegetarian diet for years I was pretty outraged by my ill health.  As I explored the causes and dietary cures for my health problems I gradually came to believe that meat is necessary for me, perhaps for everyone, and that much of what I believed about nutrition was wrong.

So here we are today: one omnivore with familial hypercholesterolemia, one omnivore with celiac and pre-diabetes, an omnivorous kid with pre-diabetes and familial hypercholesterolemia, and two ethical vegetarian kids with familial hypercholesterolemia, trying to figure out what in the world we can all eat.