Friday, February 19, 2010

I Cook, Therefore I Am

There are many different reasons why people cook.

On Michael Ruhlman's latest blog entry he asked, Can I encourage other bloggers to post about why you cook? Spell it out. Writing it down forces you to know what you think.

In response to Michael's request, I will try to spell it out. And I challenge others to do the same, because I think he's right, writing it down does force you to know what you think.

I cook because:

I am hungry.
It's fun.
I refuse to let a corporation feed me and my family.
One of my kids is allergic to food additives, dyes and preservatives.
It tastes better.
For the smiles I get from my family when they eat healthy, satisfying meals.
It's a creative outlet.
Most restaurants are noisy, overpriced, and serve mediocre food.
Le Crueset. It's not just for room decor.
There's nothing more comforting and homey than a big pot of soup bubbling on the stove.
I love to shop for food.
It gives me a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic, haphazard world.

And as I posted on Ruhlman's blog:
I cook, therefore I am.

I would love to hear why you cook.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mason Cash

On a recent errand through the city, I spied a kitchenware store with a big red sign out front that said SALE.

I was in the wrong lane. I couldn't get over. I didn't know what to do. So I did what any normal Okie would do in a situation like that; I tailgated then cut off the car in front of me, whipped a U and headed back to the store. Not really(!). But I did turn around and go back to the sale. Which turned out to be a fortuitous trip indeed.

First it is important to note that I have a thing for bowls. Some women collect purses and shoes. I happen to like bowls. It's weird. Everywhere I go, I feel compelled to look at bowls. I have a sister and a friend with this same affliction, so I am wondering if it is a girl thing?

I have been admiring Mason Cash bowls for about as long as I can remember. They are made in England by a company that's been around for over one hundred years and they have a rim that you can grip and a flat edge on the bottom for easy tilting and stirring. They are the Roll-Royce of bowls.

I have spotted these bowls in countless movies and TV shows. But have never seen one in a store in my area before. So you can imagine how happy I was to find this bowl. I had considered ordering online, but didn't want to pay the high cost of shipping.

A nice lady steered me toward the sale isle where I also found an olive pitter; a dish towel; a Henckels serving spoon, fork and butter knife set. All for less than twenty dollars!

Then, just as I was about to leave the store, I beheld some splendid bowls.

My heart stopped. At first I couldn't believe it. Could this be the elusive British bowl of my dreams?  I had forgotten my reading glasses, so had to ask the nice lady to read the emblem on the bottom of the bowl just to make sure. The bowl was made in England, Mason and Cash, and the price wasn't bad either, about ten dollars less than online. And the best thing was, no lines at the checkout.
The nice lady wrote up a ticket the old fashioned way and I smiled with glee. "My husband is buying me a bowl for Valentine's Day." I said.

And the lady said, I hope he likes it.

And I said, Oh, he will because I will bake him a cake.

My bowl and I are now very happy together.
And I am certain we will have many more happy years to come.
But occasionally, I still look at other bowls.
I can't help myself.
I am only human, after all.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Italian Wedding Soup

It's been a while since I've shared a good soup recipe. But before I go any further, let me explain.

When the sun is shining and the sky is blue, there are people who like to play hooky and skip school or work.

Not me. I am the opposite.

If it is a sunny day, I have no problem staying focused on my work.

But if the skies are dreary and gray, and especially if it is raining or snowing, I daydream about being at home making soup. Actually, I daydream about that almost every day. But gray, cloudy days are the worst. I cannot concentrate. All I can think about is puttering about the house, listening to it rain or watching it snow, perhaps putting on some soft music or one of my favorite movies, slipping into some comfy clothes, and seeing what concoctions I can bubble up in the kitchen. There's something so primordially satisfying about stirring up a big pot of soup. And this explains my fondness for Le Crueset - it's the closest thing I have to a cauldron.

This winter has been especially rough. On one hand, it's a soup makers dream, we've seen more dreary days than I care to remember. On the other hand, who wants to work on such glorious, soup-making days(!)?

And today just happens to be one of those days. So I played hooky from work, avoided the dusting and laundry, and made The Barefoot Contessa's Italian Wedding Soup.

Well a version of it anyway, after I drove to three different grocery stores in the middle of a snowstorm searching for ingredients. Ina, I assume, has better food connections than I do.

The recipe called for ground chicken and chicken sausage to make the meatballs. Finally, I settled for a package of ground turkey as a replacement. I thought about grinding my own chicken and making my own sausage, but I wanted to enjoy this soup today, and who wants to clean up after all that raw chicken?

I began by making the meatballs - ground turkey, breadcrumbs, egg, parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, grated Parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheese - mixed lightly with a fork, formed into 1 inch meatballs, and baked in a 350 degree oven on a parchment lined baking sheet for 30 minutes.

Next I precooked the small tube shaped pasta in salted boiling water until al dente, then rinsed with cold water and set aside. Ina's recipe called for cooking the pasta directly in the soup, but I wanted a nice, clear broth, and was worried that the starchy pasta would cloud the soup, so I cooked the pasta separately before hand.

For the soup, I sauteed carrot, onion and celery until soft, added 1/2 cup white wine, 10 cups chicken stock and simmered for 10 minutes. Then added a good handful of fresh clean spinach along with the cooked pasta and meatballs and simmered another minute or two until the meatballs were heated through and the spinach wilted.

Lastly, I added 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill and ladled the soup into bowls and topped with more grated cheese.

Even though I strayed from Ina's original recipe, this soup really hit the spot(!).

For some reason, I wasn't in the mood for anything too heavy or with tomatoes, and the meatballs added a nice heartiness to the light but flavorful broth. The dill was a nice touch, too. The soup got rave reviews from my entire family, which is high praise coming from my hubby the soup-isn't-actually-a-meal man. And we finished the entire pot.

I was so happy with Ina's soup that I decided to make her Lemon Angel Food Cake as well. I am sorry I didn't get a picture of that - it's already half eaten. The first time I made this cake, years ago, it seemed like a lot of effort in comparison to the easy box mix. But the last time I made a box mix, it tasted chemically and sticky. This cake is light and perfect and has turned into one of my favorite "go to" desserts.

Once again, Ina saves the day. I have dreams of me and Ina hanging out in the Hamptons, chilling with some wine, eating spectacular food. Maybe we could make it an all girls party and I could invite my blog friends Marie and Linda along. You gals up for that? I'm sure Ina would love it if we came knocking on her door. I'll bring the cake. :)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Post Traumatic Sandwich Disorder

It was the seventies and the height of bad food. A time when anything soft, soggy and squishy reigned. Insipid meatloaves, canned peas, goulash, Cheez Whiz, boxed macaroni and cheese, and that bane of my existence, mushy sandwiches on soft white bread. Reluctantly, I consumed one almost every day of my childhood: Peanut butter and jelly on squishy Wonder Bread lightly macerated with red Kool-aid from a leaky thermos, plopped into a metal Scooby-Doo lunch box. For me, the best part was the crust. Yes, I was that weird kid who liked the crust. Eventually, I omitted the jelly, though. Cold, gelatinous foods weren't appetizing to me.

The worst sandwiches, by far, were the ones my Dad used to slap together when there was nothing else to eat. After a few beers on Saturday night, Dad would stare into a fridge of unidentifiable leftovers and proclaim, There's plenty to eat in here! Then pull out a piece of petrified breakfast sausage, slap it between two pieces of moldy bread, dribble some watery ketchup on top and call it a meal. I gasped in revulsion.

Dad liked his sandwiches. They soaked up the alcohol and curbed the appetite. Olive Loaf and mustard were his favorite. But a greasy fried egg would do in a pinch, along with Tuna Salad (which always made the house smell like cat food) and sometimes pimento cheese. Most of the time Dad just scrounged around and made a sandwich out of whatever he could find. Sides, such as pickles and potato chips were a luxury. But I always liked the crunch that potato chips lent to a bologna sandwich.

For me, bread is the most important part of a sandwich.

And my mother was notorious for never tossing out old bread. Even after the entire loaf turned furry green, it still enjoyed a cozy place to thrive in our deserted kitchen cabinets.

Once, in the eleventh grade, I woke up in a panic, realizing that I had procrastinated and never did the required science experiment.

Quickly I rummaged through the kitchen cabinets and spied an entire loaf of penicillic Roman Meal. Perfect! When I handed my "experiement" over to my teacher, he smiled and stated aloud, Now that's a person who was planning ahead!!

That night, my mother chuckled when I told her the story about the bread.

By the time I graduated high school, I was sandwiched out, and the thought of a another squishy, soggy, thrown-together meal was more than I could bear. I was experiencing what I call PTSD: Post Traumatic Sandwich Disorder. And it was years before I could even look at another sandwich, let alone eat one.

Eventually, on a trip south, I discovered the Muffaletta with its spicy salami, tangy olive salad, and crusty bread. I never knew a sandwich could be so good. I couldn't get enough. Soon I was hanging out at cafes and deli's, bringing home different breads and fillings, trying to duplicate this extraordinary sandwich at home. It was then I realized, I was cured. No more PTSD. Muffaletta's are powerful medicine. And I now enjoy all types of sandwiches: Panini's, Ruebens, Submarines. Except, occasionally, when my husband makes a fried egg sandwich and slathers it with Miracle Whip. No amount of therapy is going to help me get over that one.