For the three people who read this blog, I am sorry for not posting in the past week, my husband has passed along a horrendous virus. Pulsing headaches that feel as if they can shatter the skull and break apart teeth have ripped through my cortex, shivers run down my spine, my skin tingles with fever and various discharges of varying color and sorts run freely from every available facial opening. I hope that final summation doesn’t completely ruin your interest in my cooking.
The past few days have consisted of the usual leper colony fair, saltines, ginger tea and brothy soup. Last night, wracked with nausea and able to barely sit up in bed, I managed a few sips of stingingly hot and peppery tea and a spoonful of turmeric yellow brine, leftovers from days before when I had nursed my husband back to health. I had come home from a long, jittery ride on the subway to find him coiled in a fetal position under a mountain of blankets. I hadn’t even taken off my shoes before I said, “I’m going to the store to get you some good food.” He looked up at me with red-rimmed eyes, puffy from fever, “You don’t have to. It’s dark out. You just got home.” “Nonsense,” I replied. Surely nothing, and I mean nothing, is better for the sick than to be tended to sincerely and served very good food.
Determined, I trudged through the dense fog as the sky threatened rain and made it to the grocery store for all of the victuals needed for proper caregiving, fresh lemons, cartons of broth, carrots, celery, garlic, a knot of ginger, tissues, fresh rosemary, noodles and tea. The prominent thought on my mind was to make a very good soup, a soup with sufficient salt to help the body retain fluid, with fresh herbs to heighten the olfactory sense and bring about appetite, ample vegetables for nutrition, with enough bite to help drain the sinuses and loaded with savory garlic for its anti-viral effects. As Chris groaned in the background I prepared the soup by sauteeing the carrots, onions and celery in olive oil. When the onions were beginning the carmelize and the carrots had softened I coarsely chopped two, bright green and fragrant sprigs of rosemary and added them to the vegetables. Next, I added four cups of broth (you can choose either chicken or vegetable but make sure it’s organic) and a half cup of wide egg noodles. I let that come to a boil and when the noodles were just about soft I sliced two large, raw cloves of garlic and added them too, along with a good tablespoon of cracked black pepper. I ladled it into a bowl and served with some bread that had been laying around in the kitchen.
My poor, sweet husband sat up in bed and took the first spoonful. It was good. He tucked into the soup and seemed to gain strength as the bowl slowly drained. When, the following day, he was feeling considerably better, I like to think the soup worked its magic. Let’s hope it does the same for me.
As I am writing this, Spring in Chicago has officially sprung. The newly unfurled leaves of the oak trees ruffle and flutter. The park behind my house is filled with shouts and bellows of laughter as children play baseball and soccer. Little dogs run around off their leashes and dash after ground squirrels. Tulips bloom along the sidewalks, and not a single cloud hangs in the sky.
What a perfect day to lounge in bed with the window wide open, sip a cup of coffee and nibble at chocolate brownies covered in ganache. Decadence. Utter decadence.
But I’m not going to write about the brownies. Partly because I made them last night from a box (yikes), and also because I am just not a great baker. In fact, me and baking have a long history of not really getting along. In high school, I perfected a recipe for chocolate chip pecan cookies, and I have always shown great skill with pancakes, but when my baking projects go wrong, they go so, so wrong. I always seem to wind up with a sunken hole in the middle of my cakes, or biscuits that crack teeth in half.
I am also the kind of home cook who prefers to not use recipes. I am in possession of a creative disposition and truly disdain measuring. Rulers are the bain of my existence, I detest templates of any sort and I was never good with comma usage in creative writing (as I am sure you have already noticed). I am made to feel suffocated by rules.
In the delicate chemistry of baking, one slip in your measurements and you’re done for. Accidentally added too much baking powder? Forget about it.
Which provides the explanation for why I have wound up with clumps of chewy, tasteless dough whenever I have attempted to bake without a recipe. The only exception to this would have to be cobblers. Throw some fruit and sugar in a dish and cover it with a crumbly mix of sugar, butter, oats and flour and you’re good to go. Not only do stewed fruits taste outstanding, but they are so elegant in their simplicity.
So when I found four, somewhat bruised pears that had lingered in the back of the vegetable crisper I thought of only one thing to do with them, carmelize those suckers and serve then with vanilla bean ice cream.
The great thing about this recipe is that there is no recipe.
Take your pears and peel them. Slice them in half and scoop out the core, retain the stem for its aesthetic appeal. Cover the bottom of a pie dish (or any other small baking dish) with a layer of brown sugar (approx. 1/4 cup). Now pour in enough brandy to make a thick paste (1-2Tbsp). You can substitute the brandy with orange or apple juice. Put your pears in the dish and coat with the mixture. Sprinkle with cinnamon and ginger and top with a few pats of butter. Cover. Put in a pre-heated oven at 450. Bake for 15-20mins until liquid condenses to a thick syrup.
Let cool until warm and serve with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.
No one can mess this up. Doesn’t it look amazing?
Growing up, I didn’t know the slightest thing about Mediterranean cuisine. I had never heard of dolmas, there was no knowledge of falafel in my house and had no idea what hummus was or what it even could be. In fact, the word “hummus” sounded like something akin to the plaster used in drywall. The word “tahini” sounded like an exotic, Caribbean island. When I got to college, my very first roommate (and I would have to say best) Rachel, taught me a thing or two about international dining. I had my first taste of pita and falafel at a tiny restaurant in Flagstaff called “Mountain Oasis.” Not a top notch restaurant, but their famous “Mediterranean Plate” was the beginning of a very long love affair. I immediately fell head-over-heels for the spices and flavors of the Mediterranean. Luckily, I was not alone.
As we were smart, inquisitive young women, we did what any nerdy scholar would do when faced with a new obsession: we read books. This was the time when I began my cookbook collection and unlike so many people who flip through and drool, we actually cooked from the cookbooks. Well, Rachel cooked from the cookbooks and I mostly ate whatever she cooked.
Rachel learned to make every possible Mediterranean dish she could find. I remember coming home to a giant bag of fermenting dough in the fridge, waiting to be patted out into pita, and dolmas steaming on the stove and filling the apartment with the smell of lemon and grape leaves. Our other roommates decided to throw a “Greek” party and instead of a blow-out, drunken, college rager the likes of Animal House, we researched Greek dishes, lounged around in our togas made from sheets and gorged on pita and feta (and I think at this time me and Rachel were vegan and I had made fake feta from frozen tofu dressed with balsamic). Oh the times we had in the kitchen.
I still have not learned to make pita from scratch. I generally shy away from making my own breads. I know I’m not supposed to admit that on this here food blog, but making bread from scratch is my idea of hell. The same way that I wouldn’t want to grind my own sesame seeds for tahini, or pick my own sugar beets, boil them down and process them into granules for my own sugar. Some things are better left to other people. I love a classic pita and I have to say that homemade pita is the most delicious bread possible, soft and chewy. I would even say that Rachel’s homemade pita is better than French pain au levain. Seriously. But if you don’t have several hours of free time, or the inclination to deal with that strange biological mass known as yeast, then just pick up some quality pita at the grocery and don’t think too much about what you might be missing.
Roasted Vegetables for Pita:
1-2 zucchini, I like to slice on the diagonal
1 red pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 red onion
2Tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt and pepper
Pre-heat oven to 450. High heat is necessary to carmelize the vegetables. Toss the veggies in a 9×9 baking dish and coat with oil and spices. Cook for 18-20 mins until browned. (Honestly, I don’t think a recipe is necessary for this, but I feel obliged).
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
3 gloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Mix tahini, garlic and salt. Add olive oil, lemon juice and parsley. I find this is better made in a food processor or blender. You can thin with a bit of water but be careful, water will make the oils in the tahini coagulate and turn into a lumpy mess.
You can add feta, shredded lettuce or cabbage, pickles, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, sprouts, just about anything to your pita. It never gets old.
Pita sandwiches are still a reliably healthy, quick meal. Even after arriving home from the dirty, smelly, Chicago subway at 8:30 in the evening, I can still muster the strength to roast some veggies and whip up a bowl of tahini sauce for a satisfying pita pocket. It’s true that I have never actually been to the Mediterranean, and for all I know my pitas are on par with the American PB&J. I honestly don’t get too hung up on authenticity. When it’s good, it’s good. There will always be a place in my heart for (Americanized) Mediterranean.
When my husband and I were first in the throes of wooing each other, he invited me over to his place for dinner. He already confessed that most of his meals consisted of ramen and jell-o, and I had surprised him with a vegetarian cookbook to help him improve his kitchen skills. We were about a month in to our relationship and there had already been several well planned homemade dinners at my place. I will always remember arriving that night to Chris, sweating profusely and running between his cutting board and a few steaming pots on the stove, seemingly an anxious wreck. He served me a glass of wine and a bowl of salad, which consisted of salad greens from a bag and ranch dressing. I found his fussing outstandingly cute. He was beaming with pride when he finally placed before me the plate of spaghetti in marinara tossed with cucumbers. The recipe, I later found out, called for zucchini, sauteed and carmelized. Chris had mistakenly picked up cucumbers instead and of course, left the peels on. Years later, I still tell the story of how I picked leathery cucumber skins out of my teeth all night while we laughed at his goof.
Now Chris is in school and I work, yet the meals are still overwhelmingly my responsibility. We’re all about equality in our house, so I have decided it’s about time that he step up to the plate and learn how to make a few dinners. In my humble opinion, everyone can learn to make a basic casserole and even the most obstinate kitchen klutz can make a casserole from three to four pre-made ingredients.
The always popular, housewife-friendly, cream of mushroom soup concoction provides just the right amount of ease. Since the 1950s, families everywhere have enjoyed the combination of condensed soup and noodles baked under a breadcrumb crust. This is the kind of meal perfect for a cozy night in a Cold-War bunker, served up with other post-apocalyptic fare such as Tang and Velveeta cheese. Back then, casserole was the future of food. Someday, we would all have meals that never spoiled and that could provide nourishment even after a nuclear winter. Sure, some loyal foodies would claim that in today’s market, saturated with shelf stable, chemical saturated foodstuffs, what we need is a return to natural ingredients. They would admonish me for providing a recipe that does not require actual cooking. For the most part, I am in agreement with these aspects of contemporary foodie thought, but I am trying to introduce basic food prep to someone who is terrified of kitchen failure. You simply can’t go wrong with good ol’ casserole. It is nostalgia in a baking dish, greasy, fat laden nostalgia that feels downright good.
I don’t really use a recipe for this one, as the ingredients are so basic that a recipe would only slow you down. Here’s the gist:
Basic Casserole Ingredients:
About 2 cups pasta of choice (I like ziti noodles)
2 cans of condensed mushroom soup
1 1/2 cans milk (or water or soy milk)
1 onion, chopped
2 cups of ground meat (in our case, soy burger alternative)
1 cup of peas (canned or frozen, take your pick)
1 tsp of sage
2 Tbsp paprika
1 tsp oregano
2 cups of bread crumbs (of course they’re pre-prepared)
pre-heat oven to 425. Cook the noodles for about 8mins, remove them while they are still a bit tough as they will continue cooking and absorbing liquid in the oven. In a hot, oiled skillet, sautee the onion and garlic until soft (approx. 2-3mins). Add meat and spices. Cook until browned (in our case, until hot as the soy burger comes dyed brown). Add peas if using. I always use frozen peas, these just need to be heated through. As meat browns, dump out the soup into a large mixing bowl and add the 1 1/2 cans of liquid. Whisk until smooth.
The next step requires minimal assembly. Noodles first into a 9×9 baking dish, then the meat mixture and finally the soup. Fold to not break the noodles. Top with crumbs and cover with foil. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes until brown and bubbly, this will condense the soup into a thick, hearty gravy that will stick to your ribs and put hair on your chest.
For Chris, the most difficult moments of assembling the casserole included chopping the onion and folding the noodles gently so they did not fall apart. These are really the only two times when actual cooking skills come into play. I stood over his shoulder and guided him through every step. And wouldn’t you know, when it was all said and done, he made some decent casserole.
This is proof that anyone can make casserole. Today we conquer casserole, tomorrow, the world.