Strawberry Shortcake

Remember those strawberries we picked last summer? While we used most of them making jam or just ate them with whipped cream, we squirreled some away in the freezer until just the right moment. Turns out the right moment was me declaring “Tonight I’m making strawberry shortcake.” In the middle of winter, because craving knows no season.

Now I’ve never made shortcake before; I’ve only had the grocery store spongecake variety. If you’re anything like me in that regard (and chances are good), try making your own some day. It’s well worth the small amount of effort. For that matter, make your own whipped cream, too. It’s cheaper and far tastier.

Recipes for shortbread abound, though most use shortening which I didn’t have on hand. Fortunately I found this recipe that uses only butter. Turns out real shortbread is a lot like biscuits, which I bake all the time thanks to my Southern blood. A good tip for this kind of thing: when it comes time to cut the butter into the flour mixture, grate your butter into the flour instead and mix it in by hand. We’ve got one of those rotary cheese graters that are ubiquitous in Italian restaurants, and it makes the task a lot easier.

Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry shortcake may be a traditionally Summer desert, and sure it’s better with fresh strawberries, but there’s nothing wrong with having it when there’s snow outside. Besides, in the frozen months, we could sure use a taste of the sun.

Christmas Cookies

Christmas time means cookies.  This year, we may have too many.  Justin received a cookie cookbook for his birthday, and several accessories to make decorated sugar cookies, spritz cookies, and more.  As a result, we’ve had a very sweet Christmas.

With a Little Help from My Friends: Carrot Cake

It was Justin’s birthday, and I wanted to make him a cake.

There is a reason why he is the baker, and I am more of a cook.  Cooking is improvisational.  You can measure things by flavor and scent.  You can stir it and try it and season it and try it again.  Baking is quite a bit more precise.  I’m not super good at measuring.  Ok, I will come clean.  I don’t measure anything.  Justin is much more careful in the kitchen.

I was confident going into the carrot cake project that I could pull it off.  I would just discipline myself to measure carefully.  I learned to do it once.

I can bake things; I am capable.  I make really good scones.

I have baked things.  I have made cake and bread and pizza dough and cookies.

I set out to make a two-layer carrot cake with a recipe from What to Bake and How to Bake It, our favorite baking book at home.  I opted to (wimp out) use store-bought frosting, so I wouldn’t be as overwhelmed by steps.

Right off the hop, I had a problem.  The recipe offers the option of toasting the pecans before adding them, and I thought, “I can toast pecans,” and dutifully put them on a tray in the oven.  Well, they burned.

Burned Pecans

These were pecans once.

Fine, I thought.  I’ll leave the pecans out.  No big deal.  I mixed the dry ingredients, and then went to work with the wet ingredients.

We had no eggs.  Since I am a good and kind wife, I woke early on Justin’s birthday and made him breakfast.  And I used up the eggs needed for the cake.  It needs 3 eggs.

Without a car available to run to the store and with my nerves beginning to frazzle, I decided it twas time for reinforcements.  When Mel, who is a much better baker and much calmer, offered to help, I naturally said yes.

We went to the store and bought eggs and more pecans, which Mel expertly toasted.  The cake was baked without incident, and I even managed to frost it so it looked pretty.  Eventually, we even got to eat it.  Delicious.

So tasty! Those toasted nuts were the best.

So tasty! Those toasted nuts were the best.

I remember now why I don’t bake, but maybe if I keep trying I’ll get better…

Comfort Food: Tuna Noodles in Cheese Sauce

A good friend of mine is having a hard go of it. It’s been the kind of month were stressful things just keep piling on her plate one after another and she’s got to figure out how to make room for it all. We’ve all been there. It’s no fun.

If she weren’t so far away, I know what I would do: go make dinner for her. Something hot, maybe from the oven, probably with cheese. It isn’t that I believe the best way of dealing with your problems is to start eating your feelings – been there, done that, got the (size XXL) t-shirt. But it is a natural part of being human to desire certain comforts when we are stressed. Familiar, satisfying foods and the companionship of our loved ones can make a difference.

Back when the kids were younger, the days were longer, and the nap times always seemed shorter, I had lots of months like that, where the little things seemed overwhelming. My friend was right there beside me, and after we went for coffee and took the kids to the park, we often made tuna noodles in cheese sauce for lunch. It was quick, it was simple, and doggone it, the kids liked it.

Tonight I had supper alone since Justin is at a Christmas party, and I couldn’t face leftovers. While I’m not as poorly off as my far-away friend, I still felt much better off thanks to her teaching me all those years ago to make cheese sauce. May we all be so lucky, to have such care.

Review: Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix

I ordered Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix right after it was published as a “Happy Birthday to Me” present.  We own three Bittman books, and reference How to Cook Everything on a weekly basis, if not more.  Early reviews of Kitchen Matrix suggested it would be an improviser’s go-to, and the Amazon preview showed me a ton of glossy photos.  I’m a sucker for glossy photos in cookbooks.

First of all, this is a gorgeous book.  The photography is so appealing you’ll try to eat right off the page, and if you don’t want to rush to the store with a list after reading one or two of these, I’d be shocked. There are 2-page spreads on things like beets or cabbages that are as drool-worthy as anything I’ve seen.  This is a cookbook that makes celery look sumptuous.

The basic format is this: Bittman presents a common ingredient, like bell peppers or brown rice, or a dish like paella or ceviche.  Within a couple of pages, he tweaks that ingredient or dish to wind up with a variety of recipes, sometimes as many as 16.  Many of these are beautifully photographed; all are explained step-by-step with Bittman’s candor and encyclopedic knowledge.

The book is broken into sections: Appetizers; Soups and Sandwiches; Vegetables; Pasta, Grains, and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Poultry and Eggs; Meat; Condiments and Seasonings; Fruit; Desserts and Baking.  The emphasis is less on categorizing by ingredient or course and more on creating a quick-reference guide for home cooking.  Bittman maintains in his introduction that an improvisational style to home cooking will expand your repertoire and improve the variety of dishes you are serving; he strives in this book to provide home cooks with a tool that will promote experimentation and creativity.  The book is also designed to serve well for building weeknight meals; its off-the-cuff, use what you have style and quick-reference ingredient index make it a useful tool for making magic with the pantry staples.

Mark Bittman is a big proponent of eating fresh, and cooking fast and at home.  He creates recipes designed to use practical ingredients that are not usually too hard to find and that will maximize flavor while cutting down on prep time.  Whenever you’re cooking at home, there’s some prep work, but I feel like Bittman understands that just because you want to eat well doesn’t mean you want to spend your life in the kitchen.  Also, he gives a lot of options for getting more exotic flavors into your meals without having a huge pantry or spending a lot of money.  I think if you were to make everything in Kitchen Matrix it would be a lot of ingredients, but I feel the point is more to find the flavors you like best and use those ones in a lot of different ways than to buy and use every different flavor.

In the Counter kitchen, we are already fairly improvisational.  Our meal planning often includes the words, “What if we…”  Kitchen Matrix is already inspiring us, however.  The Slow Cooker Beans Recipe Generator is a marvel of possibilities; we’ve already devoured a pot.  We’ve been poring over this book to find the next wonderful idea and improvising more in the kitchen since it found its way in the house.  I know it’s going to be a new reference for us whenever we’re trying to find ideas, inspiration, and something to spice up our everyday (without spending all day in the kitchen).  I highly recommend this book to active at home cooks trying to prepare meals 5-7 days weekly, as it will give you lots of food for thought.

In Defense of Food Ruts

It’s Meal Planning Day in the Counter kitchen, and we hem and haw about what to eat over the next week. Do we try a new recipe? Use up frozen leftovers? Cook old standbys?

Our weeks are not simple; like many families we work, we parent, and we socialize while fitting in couple time and home time and time for hobbies. Although we love cooking together and choosing fun new things to make, there just isn’t always time to be inventive. So when one of us mumbles something about, “Maybe we should just make [insert regular staple meal here],” it is rarely met with dissent.

We have some fallbacks; I bet you have yours. We never quite sink to the level of Kraft Dinner (that’s what Canadian chefs call Kraft Mac-n-Cheese, for all you Yanks) or noodles from a can, but we certainly make almost-convenient foods like grilled sandwiches, eggs for dinner, and pasta. Our real standards, though, keep us coming back for more, and are made with the same principles as the showstoppers we make when we have more time: fresh ingredients, simple preparations, and lotsa love. Here’s a quick list of our favorites:

  • Shepherd’s Pie – Ground beef (lamb if we’re flush), gravy made from scratch, frozen vegetables, and mashed potatoes made with real butter…c’mon, this is not too bad
  • Chili – My secret recipe involves the opening of many, many cans, but we use fresh ingredients and spices, too.
  • Roast Dinner – Pork loin most often, but sometimes other cuts of pork or beef, with potatoes, carrots, other root vegetables, and herbs. This literally takes me minutes to prepare, with so much reward.
  • Fried Chicken – I can’t take credit for this amazing but less than healthy staple in our rotation; Justin says it’s why I married him.
  • Chicken and Dumplings – Chicken thighs or breasts stewed in gravy with dumplings, served with potatoes and vegetables. Another blessing from my Southern husband.
  • Homemade Mac N Cheese, sometimes with Bacon – a favorite of the Little Man

I’d love to say it’s all exotic dishes and chopped salads here, but really one of these pops up on our weekly meal plan at least twice a month. Why? These meals are easy–we can make them on autopilot–and last into leftovers so we can eat them for work lunches.

Tasty

Fried Chicken and Mashed Potatoes. I have mastered the country gravy, despite being a Northerner.

We build our variety around our standards, which shift slightly with the seasons (more smoothies, flatbreads, and salads in summer; more casseroles and stews in winter), but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making the same dishes over and over.

You may have a vision of a 1950’s housewife (“Meatloaf again? Aw, Mom!”) when you think of having a stable of dishes that you march out on schedule, but it definitely reduces stress in the kitchen. We know if we are busy or can’t think of anything new and exciting we want to cook, we will cook one or two of our standards and fill in the extra days with something light, like a salad meal or sandwiches. There is absolutely no pressure in the Counter kitchen to be unique all the time; quite the opposite, in fact, because we have warm associations with our favorites, which seem only to get better in repeating.

Food ruts are really a matter of attitude. Maybe you feel like avocado on everything for a month: so eat it! Maybe fresh spinach or salmon goes on sale and you overbuy and have to put it in everything: so enjoy it! If you dread repeat meals, leftovers, or similar ingredients you are making a choice to put yourself into a rut; instead, put creative spins on your excess, enjoy the luxury of getting more of something delicious, and think of “food rut” days as days to relax and enjoy the time off from worrying about that eternal question: What should we have for dinner?

Thanksgiving, the Duck

Some months ago, my friend Melanie decided to raise ducks.  As in, for food.  Little chickies came by mail, and their peeping turned to quacking, and we enjoyed cookies made with duck eggs and other delicacies.  The Little Man visited the ducks a few times, and one day memorably asked their names.  Melanie answered that the ducks did not have names, because they are food.  Her husband joked, however, that they were named “Christmas, Thanksgiving, My Birthday…”

The Little Man wasn’t sure what he thought of this.  He is generally against killing animals, although not so much that he doesn’t eat meat.  He said he wanted to name them, but Mel warned him against doing so.  He contemplated the issue, wondering whether he would be able to eat these ducks.  He was undecided.

Fast forward to autumn, and slaughter time.  I let the Little Man know that some of the ducks were going to be killed, and that we would be eating duck instead of turkey for the holiday.  He said, “Which duck is it?”  I reminded him it didn’t have a name, and he said, “Oh, I remember.  It’s named ‘Thanksgiving!’  I’m going to try some.”  He smiled before adding, “but first I’m going to hug it.”  Still, I think a brave step for a sensitive kid.  I’m really glad he’s going to be able to connect to his food in this way.

Not the best photo on the iPhone, but you get the delicious point.

The duck was delicious.  Simply prepared with potatoes from Melanie’s garden, stuffed with bread and apples and herbs, and roasted.  Melanie picked the apples with Hidden Harvest, a local initiative that makes the most of food-producing plants in the city.  A neat trick:  after stuffing, cap the bird with the end of the loaf of bread to seal in the moisture.  It worked great.  Thanks were definitely given.