June 06, 2011

Grocery Store Observations

Now that I've started cooking again, I'm trying to eat at home a little more often. I had some leftovers in the fridge, but I needed a little something more to go with them, so off to the grocery store I went.

I enjoy grocery shopping. I know lots of people hate it, but I just love it. I can wander around, up and down every aisle (sometimes more than once), checking out what's new, what's on sale, that kind of thing. I also consider it exercise, given that most grocery stores around here are pretty big and I cover a lot of ground in a shopping trip.

I made some observations while I was shopping tonight and I thought I'd share them with you. And a recipe! Because I ended up making something completely different than what I set out to shop for, and it came out pretty darned well.

1. The price of frozen vegetables has gotten ridiculous. This won't come as a surprise to some of you, I'm sure, but it sure was a shock to me. I went looking for frozen chopped onions (because I really don't like chopping onions) and was stunned to see a low-end brand priced at $3.00 for one small bag...on sale! I looked at some of the other vegetables and they were all relatively expensive, even the in-house store brands.

2. A $3 bag of onions will make even someone who hates chopping onions go back to the produce section and buy a $.66 onion. Just sayin'.

3. The amount of processed foods in our stores is also ridiculous. I know we all value convenience but with all the attention being paid to childhood and adult obesity, it's not hard to see how we've gotten there. Don't get me wrong, I'm as guilty of it as the next person (if not more so over the years) but when you really start reading labels and looking at foods critically, it's an eye-opener.

4. Unless you buy a lot of it, fresh meat is really pricey when it's not on sale. This makes it challenging for a solo diner. I wanted to get a little bit of protein to go with my leftover stir-fry, as what was left had little meat in it. I couldn't bring myself to buy a $9 steak that was more than I could eat, or a pack of pork chops that was four times what I needed. (My freezer is maxed out, so freezing the extra isn't a good option.) So I started looking at everything, trying to find a deal. I ended up with a $2 package of pork for stew. Did you know they even had stew pork cubes? I can't say as I've ever seen it before. Beef for stew was over $6 for the smallest package...which wasn't all that small.

5. Having a smart phone with a data plan is a wonderful thing in a grocery store. I had the stew meat, so now I needed some stuff to, you know, make a stew. Having made few stews in my life, I wasn't entirely sure what I absolutely needed. I parked in an empty area of the produce section and whipped out my phone. Three minutes later, I knew what I needed to know and got to it.

6. Oblivious people with cell phones in a grocery store aren't such a wonderful thing. Not the most original observation, I realize, but it has to be said.

7. Some people are simply not cut out to use the self-checkout lane. They simply aren't. But, of course, they do. I won't bore you with the tale; suffice it to say that if the death stare worked, California would be minus one shopper tonight.

8. Remembering to bring your own bag in to the grocery store gets easier with time. I used to suck at it, to be frank. Stores that remind you to bring them before you get inside are hug-worthy.

9. Grocery store parking lots were designed by car insurance companies. They have to be. They're like white-lined death traps, preying on the unwary and the parking-impaired.

10. When you buy a bunch of ingredients and don't exactly know what you're going to make with them, the results can be fantastic.

That brings us to the recipe I promised. I found a few recipes when I checked on my phone, but none were exactly what I wanted. So I did what I often do: I combined parts from a few different recipes that sound good, to come up with something original. My friend, PsychMamma, coined the term "Frankenstew" on Twitter when I was talking about it, so that's what it's called!

If you try it, I hope you like it and encourage you to improvise and add or substitute ingredients you already have or like better; just know their cooking times and throw them in accordingly.


1 1/2 lbs stew pork, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 1/2 T. flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. black pepper
1 t. paprika
1 1/2 T. olive oil
8 oz. sliced baby portabella mushrooms
1 yellow onion, sliced
1 T. chopped shallots
1 T. chopped garlic
1 can reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1 t. dried Italian seasoning
1 T. dried parsley
2 yellow potatoes, cubed
3 carrots, chopped
1/2 t. lemon zest or 2 T. fresh lemon juice
parsley (to garnish)

1. In a bowl, combine flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Toss the pork cubes in the flour mixture until completely coated.

2. In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat and brown the coated pork cubes in the olive oil.

3. Add the portabella mushrooms, sliced onion, shallots and garlic and sauté for 5 more minutes.

4. Stir in the chicken broth, wine and spices, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the potatoes and stir.

5. Cover the stew and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. Add carrots, re-cover and cook for 15 more minutes. Uncover, (add zest here if you’re using it) stir and cook for another 15 minutes or until the liquid thickens up a little.

6. Just before serving, stir in the fresh lemon juice (if you didn’t add the zest); garnish with fresh parsley (or cilantro, if you swing that way)

(Here is the original recipe that was the base for mine, from Food.com)

June 04, 2011

Mystery: Solved?

I can't really explain my daily blogging all of a sudden, except to say that it feels like some sort of dam has broken and I'm just enjoying writing again. It's also nice to know that people are reading and enjoying the posts, so thank you for your feedback.

Not that I expected anyone to catch it, but the title of the last post was a play on the title of one of my all-time favorite books, Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout. There was a reason I chose it, as the Nero Wolfe novels played a huge part in that teenage desire to learn "real cooking." Aside from the fact that I have always just loved food and both my parents were good cooks, the lavish attention paid to the cuisine prepared by Wolfe's chef, Fritz, and the passion that the über-intelligent Wolfe displayed toward that food made an impression.

My dad, who was a big mystery novel fan, introduced me to Nero Wolfe around the time I was 12 and I was completely hooked. I read every one I could find -- which wasn't terribly easy at the time because the
vast majority of them were published prior to 1970 and many were out of print -- in record time and then dove into the 600+ page biography of Rex Stout over a summer vacation as I was semi-obsessed with all things Nero Wolfe by that point. Many of you might only know the series from the A&E show in the last decade, but I didn't watch much of it because it couldn't compare to the what my imagination had created out of the books. I did watch the short-lived series in 1981, and was crushed when NBC canceled it because it came a lot closer to how the world of Wolfe's brownstone existed in my head. But still, it was the books that held me in thrall.

It's hard to convey just how much influence these books had on me. In addition to sparking a desire to learn about food and how to cook, they got me interested in orchids (and flowers in general) and, more importantly, opened up a world of vocabulary and expression that had a major impact. The characters were created in the 1930s and continued on into the 1970s and, while they don't age in the series, they do adapt to the time periods in which the books were written, so you have a wide spectrum of language and a character who loved words and used them with precision. As Wolfe's confidential assistant and the stories' narrator, Archie Goodwin, once said, "Which he loves most, food or words, is a tossup." And he was unapologetic about his love for them both.

Nero Wolfe was, among other things, a blazing eccentric and I think the series taught me that it was okay to be my own person and have my own beliefs and way of doing things, and to stick by them, even if they weren't the way "everybody else" did them. That's a pretty powerful lesson as a teenager, I'd say. It probably took another decade or so for that to translate into genuine confidence because I don't know if any books can conquer teenage angst completely.

I do believe, however, that the books did one me one grave disservice, and it's something that has only occurred to me over the last few hours while I've been writing this. I fell in love with Archie Goodwin some thirty years ago and I think that I've been looking for him in real life ever since. Needless to say, I haven't found him.


June 03, 2011

Some Buried Scent

Last night while cooking dinner, I was overcome with such a strong sense memory that it almost brought me to my knees.

I had sautéed shallots and garlic in olive oil, then put in some broccoli florets and was pouring in some white wine, when the wave of scent hit me so forcefully and took me back some 30 years or so. It was the smell of learning to cook; "real cooking," as I thought of it as a teen.

It packed such a powerful nostalgic punch that I was brought up short and stood there, trying to capture the threads of recollection as they wafted on by in the steam from the pan, lost in memory for a few minutes.

Long enough to overcook the broccoli on one side, at least.

I brought my focus back to what I was doing, rescued my dinner and continued making whatever it was what you would call the concoction I ended up with. I had a bunch of ingredients and very little plan, making up each step as I went along until it just looked and felt right. I didn't taste anything until I had it on my plate, but I knew that the result would all come together and taste delicious. And it did.

But the gulf between that result and the structure of "real cooking" was as vast as the many years between being that teen who thought she knew so much (and yet had so much to learn) and the woman who tossed things in knowing it would work out.

As I sat down to eat my dinner, I thought about what the difference was between 30 years ago and now. Then, "real cooking" meant "gourmet" and was straight out of a cookbook or serious magazine. The directions and measurements were to be followed precisely and to the letter. Those shallots were chopped by hand, as was the garlic, and each piece of broccoli was cut to almost the exact same size so that they would cook evenly, as instructed. The wine had to be dry and there had to be wine in it for it to be grown-up. There was a list of herbs that had been tracked down and purchased, then lined up in order on the counter along with the ones that were scooped out of the cupboard. Once the mise en place was set up, things were added to the pan with a double-check of the cookbook. The timer was set as accurately as possible on those hand-turn dial ones from the 70s.

And always, there was the scent that rose up as the wine went in and started to evaporate. Heavenly.

The resulting meals? Not always so heavenly -- probably killed by over-attention to the letter of the recipe and not the spirit of the cooking -- but they got better and sometimes were even good. I think.

The technique for this meal, however, had been about 180° from that starting place: Glug some olive oil into the pan and crank up the heat. Spoon up chopped shallots from a jar out of the fridge and toss them in; repeat with the garlic and throw in some salt. Hurriedly finish cutting up the least expensive boneless chicken I could find at the store and slide that in. After a few minutes of cooking, decide that starting with the chicken wasn't really the right move; it will be petrified by the time it's all ready. Scoop out the chicken, put it on a small plate and set it aside.Grab the bag of frozen broccoli and a handful goes into the pan. Realize there's not going to be enough liquid and go back to the fridge. A-ha! I have some Riesling in there, might as well have some of that with dinner, too. In it goes.


That's when the scent hits me and the little trip down memory lane starts. Cue the broccoli beginning to overcook; scoop that out onto another small plate and re-assess. Chicken goes back in...hey! There's a lemon; squeeze half of it over the chicken and pluck a few spices from the cupboard to sprinkle in. Thyme sounds good. More garlic? Why not?

Some rice, mix it up, back in goes the broccoli, add some tomatoes that I destroyed with a not-sharp-enough knife. Oh crap, I forgot all about the mushrooms. Make a hole in the middle of the pan (where the hell is my wok?), add a pat of butter and do a quick sauté of the pre-sliced mushrooms. A little more salt, mix it all up...oh, right, I was going to add egg to make it more of a stir fry and get some more protein in it. Make another hole (there's just enough room, the pan is starting to get kind of full...where the hell is my wok??) and crack in an egg. Use a spatula to scramble it a bit...crap, the chicken and broccoli are falling into the middle, pull them out; as I do, more fall in. Oh, forget it, just mix it all up and hope the egg is cooked enough because I'm hungry and I'm sure these are non-salmonella eggs, right? Right? Okay, let it cook for another minute. Done!

As I take my plate out to the living room, I spy the cipollini onions that are still sitting in the bag, forgotten.

So now I'm chowing down and thinking about all of the above. How did I get from there to here? What happened to the recipe-following girl who was determined to do it "right"? When did precision and structure break down into whatever comes to hand? Where along the line did I start to believe that I could improvise and make it up as I go along and expect it to actually work? And why does it taste so much better, virtually effortlessly? (Effortlessly if you don't count the three plates, two chopping boards, one pot, one pan and multiple utensils that now need to be cleaned, that is.)

The answer was so obvious and so simple: I've become my mother...in the kitchen.

And I couldn't be happier about it.

June 01, 2011

Me vs. The Voice

Note: There's nothing a writer likes hearing more than "Write more!" so thanks, Neena. (She said "blog more!" but that's how I heard it :-) It inspired me to go ahead and come back today to get down the post that was rattling around in my head all day.

Out running errands after lunch, I spy Specialty's Cafe and immediately the word pops into my head: Cookie.

That voice. The relentless voice of impulse.  

Cookie. Cookie. Cookie.

"Hush. I'm not having a cookie right now."


"No. No cookie."

Cookie. Cookie cookie cookie!

"I don't need a cookie. I know those cookies are really good, but they're also really big, really caloric and kind of expensive."


"No. Cookie. Not gonna happen."

Cookie cookie cookie cookie cookie cookie cookie cookie cookiecookiecookiecookiecookiecookie.


[Rinse and repeat for the next embarrassing number of hours.]


"You're killing me. No cookie. We're three towns away now, in any case."


"Still no. It's time for dinner. Good, healthy food. No cookie."

Headache looming, I'm more than ready for dinner at my favorite Mediterranean restaurant. It was delicious and filling and I hoped that would be the end of it. As I'm leaving, I make the mistake of glancing at the display near the register.



P.S. I won. No cookie. No baklava. Nothing.

P.P.S. Tomorrow is another day...