Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cooking in Miniature

I've been looking at my refrigerator. It's small. Not the smallest I've ever had in an apartment, but not really big enough for someone who cooks from scratch. I've also been reading Cooking for Two 2009 from Cook's Illustrated magazine. It occurred to me that an answer that would allow me to tackle a variety of projects, but still have a theme, is to work on scaling recipes for two people.

I always cook large amounts of food. It's partly because I cooked for a family with two growing boys for so many years. And it's partly my Italian heritage. We Italians seem to have a mission to feed the world. You couldn't walk into my grandmother's house without her offering you food. But now there's only two of us to cook for. So, I cut recipes in half and we still end up getting 2-3 meals out of them because everything is super-sized.

Cooking in Miniature would go right along with Weight Watchers, too. I'm learning what portion sizes I need to eat if I want to be a healthy weight. And they're a lot smaller than what is served in restaurants or found in cookbooks. I think if you made recipes from cookbooks published during my childhood and divided them up into the number of servings the recipe says it makes, you'd think you'd stumbled upon a kid's cookbook because the portions would seem so small.

I think miniaturizing recipes is the perfect challenge for me at this time in my life. The question remains, though, whether to revisit the basics or go international. Maybe I could alternate. Choose basic techniques to practice one month, including using them in recipes. The next month, I could visit a new cuisine. I think I'd get bored with just practicing basic techniques, so alternating would allow me to improve my basic skills and stretch my cooking comfort zone.

I think I may have found my challenge. But, there's one more thing I want to think about before I start planning it. When my Amazon order gets here, it will be easier to figure it all out.

I've got food simmering on the stove. I took stuff I had in the fridge and put it in a pot. It's black beans, salsa verde, vegetable stock, and roasted spicy vegetables. It didn't work for what I originally planned, but I put some of it together, spooned it over a steamed corn tortilla, and topped it with a poached egg, making huevos rancheros with a green sauce. It's not too dry to eat as a soup, especially if you top it with some cheese. I may try that for lunch tomorrow. I think of it as a serendipity recipe. It's serendipity that I found another use for the ingredients since my original idea didn't work.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Musings on Advance Prep Cooking

I was really tired today, so I made the simplest dinner. We had Mushroom-tarragon soup that I made a couple of days ago. Melon with berries. Toast with butter. And eggs scrambled with some of the vegetables I roasted. It took about ten minutes to put together and was yummy.

One of the things I'm trying to do is to make food when I have more time. Then do only the last minute stuff on the busy days. My biggest problem with that is that I have an apartment-sized refrigerator and freezer, which limits the amount of food I can store. People who have family-sized appliances don't know how lucky they are to have space for storing both ingredients and finished dishes. Upon considering the problem, I've thought of two things that could help.

One is to make half recipes whenever possible, which means fewer leftovers to store. The benefit of half recipes is that Paul and I won't be eating the same meal every day for a month. That's obviously an exaggeration, but sometimes it feels that way. I'm noticing that portion sizes in recipes, particularly from books written by restaurant chefs, are growing, just as they are in restaurants. So, a half recipe is about perfect for two meals.

The drawback to half recipes is that I'll have to cook more often. There will be less food I can freeze to reheat on busier days. I'm thinking of getting one of those food saving devices that vacuum seals the food. Then my freezer won't be filled up with packages that are half food and half air. I could fit more stuff in there.

The other thing I can do is to use some of my evening time for prep work. I'd rather just cook on the weekends, which is what I've done the two times I've tried achieving this goal. But since I don't have space to store a whole week's worth of food, I'm going to have to spread the cooking out more. I only go into the office three days a week--Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. I do the rest of my work from home. Every other week I visit a woman from our church. I prefer to do that on Tuesdays and have Fridays for catching up with household chores. But, I think I'm going to have to change my visits to Fridays so I can have Tuesdays, and whatever time I can scrape out of the weekend, and maybe an hour or so occasionally in the evenings for advance prep work. Of course, the weeks I don't do the visit, I'll have Tuesdays and Fridays available. So maybe I could plan two weeks at a time and spread the work out so that the most time-consuming work is planned for the weeks I only have to go out three days.

Then there's the weekend schedule issue. This weekend, for example, I have a wedding Saturday afternoon and something scheduled Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening. And next weekend are two orchestra concerts, plus my usual Sunday church time. So, I'm going to have to schedule fairly simple food for next week. These types of scheduling issues crop up fairly regularly. It means I'm going to have to plan and use my time as efficiently as possible. That will be crucial if I'm going to combine the necessary everyday cooking with a special cooking project.

My Friday deadline for figuring out what my project will be may have to be put off. I found an interesting gizmo that I've ordered from Amazon. It may help me figure out what I want to do, so unless it gets here sooner than I expect, it will be next week before I choose what I'm going to do. On the other hand, it may end up being just a good research tool for the post on local eating that I started earlier today. I have to do some research before I can finish my other post, choose my project, and get a schedule going.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to Your Reglarly Scheduled Foodie Program

Now that the jeans rant is out of the way, back to food.

Last night I recreated a favorite meal from Left Bank Brasserie, located at Santana Row in San Jose. I really love their food and have always had a good experience at their restaurant.

One of my favorite things for brunch is the SALADE LYONNAISE: frisée, warm poached egg, bacon, mustard vinaigrette & FONDUE AU FROMAGE brie, blue and goat cheeses. That's the meal I decided to recreate last night.

The Weight Watcher thing means making adjustments to recipes re: portion sizes, how much fat and higher calorie ingredients I use, and so on. So I often add veggies to fill me up without adding extra calories. One of my favorite ways to do that is to make soup. A half cup is the perfect size to go with a meal. Last night I filled in with a Mushroom-Tarragon Soup.

For the meal itself, I used a very small amount of dressing on the salad, just enough to coat the frisee and give me the flavor I'm looking for. The bacon was thick sliced so I only used a half slice per serving. More would have overwhelmed the other flavors in the salad. I discovered that the eggs I buy, which are super fresh, are simple to poach. They are the first eggs I've poached that look like the pictures of poached eggs.

A quarter cup of the cheese fondue was plenty, maybe even too much. I served it with one slice of olive bread and steamed orange cauliflower. The olive bread went very well with the brie, roquefort, and goat cheese blend in the fondue. The cauliflower was wonderful with the cheese. The pale orange color looked good and cheese sauce really enhances the mild flavor of cauliflower.

The meal was easier than I thought it would be to make. After I test some changes, including the portion sizes, I'll post the recipes. I think a smaller serving of fondue and a half slice of bread, along with the cauliflower, would be enough food. I'd like to add some berries, peaches, or apricots to the meal. I think that would make it a more complete light meal.

Note on the lack of pictures: I need to get a better camera so I can take pictures for this blog. Bad food pictures are NOT better than no pictures. Trust me. I've seen blogs with bad food pictures and I never go back to the blog because bad photography makes the food look disgusting. But, I'm picky about photography, anyway. My dad was a professional and my oldest son, David, is also a photographer. So is Paul. When we were dating, we used to take our cameras and go on photo shoots. My family would give me grief if I posted bad food pictures, even if they never read it. And, since no one else is reading this blog, it doesn't really matter whether I post pictures right now, since I know what it looks like.

Jeans & Clothes--a little rant

I, like every other woman I know, hate buying jeans. As soon as you find some that fit, they stop making them. My problem: I cannot find jeans that sit properly at my waist and aren't too long. I can't wear petite sizes because the rise is too short. But I walk on the hems of average length jeans. And my new jeans fit perfectly, except they're too short in the back and my underwear sticks out the top.

And what's with the 'boot leg' jeans? I can't find straight leg jeans that have normal waists. They all fit below the waistline. Not a good look for me. Can you say "super muffin top"? I hate spending the kind of money they charge for clothes that don't fit or need mending after one wearing.

I have two shirts I need to buy buttons for because the buttons are too small for the buttonholes. So, they don't stay buttoned. I have one shirt that needs the facing ironed because it folds back in the wash. And the style has fabric hooks instead of buttonholes, so there's a gap and my stomach shows through. It's frustrating to dig out the iron for a 1" strip of fabric.

My consolation is that as I lose weight, these clothes will get too big and have to be replaced. Maybe with clothes that fit properly? Or maybe I'll have to buy a sewing machine and start making my own again. At least I can alter the patterns so they fit. And choose colors, fabrics, etc. that appeal to me, rather than being a compromise I've spent too much money on. If I really get ambitious, I could dig out my flat pattern design book and design some of my clothes from scratch. No time these day, but maybe in the future?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Suggestion from Paul & Musings

Paul had another suggestion that really surprised me. He suggested that rather than creating meals around the protein, I start with seasonal vegetables. Instead of saying, "We're having chicken. How do I want to cook it and what goes with it?", he suggested saying, "We're having asparagus. How do I want to cook it and what goes with it?" It's an interesting approach, especially since he's not suggesting going vegetarian, just thinking of the meat, fish, chicken, etc. as one of the "go withs" not the "main deal".

I like that suggestion because it will force me to think differently about how I cook, and that will get me to try new techniques and push myself to be a better cook. It surprised me that he made it, though, because when he gets a salad in a restaurant, he never finishes the lettuce. What he does is pick through for the "good stuff", which he defines as the chicken, shrimp, etc.--in other words, the protein. I'm wondering if maybe he's wanting a change.

I'm leaning toward doing a World Tour, cooking my way around the world. It could fit into Paul's suggestion, since so many of the world cuisines are based on beans, rice, vegetables, etc. And the variety is infinite, especially when you look at regional cuisine. I bet if I separated it into regional cuisine, I could cook a year's worth of cuisines, doing one a month, without leaving the United States (or any other country), which is yet another idea. This doesn't feel like a project with an end, though, unless I do something like exploring one cuisine a month for a year. Or maybe it would be better to do that as year two and revisit the basics for year one.

The world tour seems more interesting than the basics, but I can't help but think I need to go back to basics every so often and refine those techniques. Plus, there are some I've never really learned as well as I could because I don't use them often enough. On the other hand, cooking different cuisines from around the world will require learning the basics of those cuisines. Learning what ingredients define those cuisines and how to work with them and what they taste like and so on.

I see research in my future. But researching something I'm interested in is fun. The hard part is stopping the research. Once I start googling for stuff, time tends to slip away. I slip into "the zone" or "flow" or whatever you prefer to call it way too easily.

Hmmm....I see a foray into new restaurants, too, because that's the best way I can think of to taste food I'm unfamiliar with. The problem is knowing which restaurants have good examples of authentic cuisine from various places around the globe. I'm lucky to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I doubt it's possible to find a cuisine that you can't find a restaurant to go to or ingredients to use to cook it yourself. It's foodie heaven, which is probably one reason I love living here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

More on Julie/Julia

I've been trying really hard not to think badly of Julie Powell, the blogger who cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But it's kind of hard not to agree with Julia, who was quoted in this LA Times article as having said:
"she just doesn't seem very serious, does she?

"I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don't understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook."

Case in point: I was reading Julie's blog and she complained about having to boil the bacon for a recipe. She said she did it because Julia said to, but she had no idea why. Well, if she'd bothered to read the chapter on Ingredients she'd have known that the bacon Julia was used to in France wasn't smoked and wasn't readily available in America. She recommended parboiling it to get the smoky taste out so the dish didn't taste only of bacon.

That kind of inattention to detail, which is something I noticed cropping up again and again as I read through Julie's book, is what I think made Julia respond the way she did. If you read My Life in France, you see that Julia takes an engineer's approach to her recipes. Everything was carefully thought out and tested over and over to make it repeatable and to ensure the cook gets the result she expects. Yet Julie kept making beginner mistakes like not reading through the recipe and I very much doubt she did her mise en place. I get the feeling that Julie is kind of a dabbler in cooking. She enjoys it, but lacks the passion Julia had. Any project that had a deadline to keep her motivated and was interesting enough to write about would have done.

The reason I'm choosing to pay more attention to my cooking and to trying to find a good cooking project is because I've been a passionate cook since I was a teenager. My mom wouldn't let me cook when I was a kid, unfortunately, because I've always been interested in food and cooking. I've never dug into it the way I'm thinking about doing now because of the weight thing. I had this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that if I really went for it as a cook, people would say that if I didn't cook, I'd be thin. And I didn't want to have more blame heaped on my head. I realize now that my fear is a stupid one. Neither has anything to do with the other. Great cooks come in all sizes. And without that issue to deal with, the question comes back to where to start?

Considering Ideas

I'm still considering ideas for some type of cooking project. Paul suggested a couple of things. He suggested I cook recipes from the cookbooks I have that were written by great chefs. There seems to be something missing in this idea. I can't figure out what I could do to flesh it out into something I could get excited about.

And he suggested I could focus on making recipes with lower fat and calorie content. He says I'm good at it. I'm always having problems with the recipes when magazines like Cooking Light or Eating Well or Weight Watchers recreate recipes. I know they're following the current health guidelines, but they insist on using food I call "fake ingredients". I'm not eating Jello sugar-free pudding made with nonfat milk and topped with fat free Cool Whip. I'd rather eat a fresh peach, plain.

Or the finished dish is so different from the original that the flavors aren't what the person who gave them the original were looking for. When I reduce the calories and fat in dishes, they're lower than the original, but usually not what you'd consider "diet food". This is something I'm doing a lot of these days, though, because I signed up for Weight Watchers online and have lost 13.5 pounds. (Go, me!)

The main problem with this as a project is that it doesn't really excite me as a fun project. And it doesn't really tie into my goal of learning to be a better cook. It uses my current skills in a different way. That's a good thing, but not what I'm after for this project. I think this one is more my everyday cooking life, not a special project.

Another thing I've been noticing about my cooking interests is that I've been cooking a lot more vegetarian meals these days. Good quality meat, poultry, and fish are not cheap meals anymore. So by cooking more vegetarian meals, I can stretch my budget. I'd rather eat top quality less often than poor quality every day. So maybe focusing on more variety in my vegetarian food would be a good project.

I read the New York Times health section on a regular basis. I love both Mark Bittman's blog and Martha Rose Schulman's healthy recipes. I have Mark Bittman's books. I've been looking for Martha's but apparently I'm going to have to buy them online. I could do their food, but it has the same problem as Paul's first idea. I can't figure out what that would do to improve my cooking skills, although it might give me ideas for new recipes.

I also would like to explore Asian cuisine more. I love to eat it, but am pretty unfamiliar with cooking it. I have a few Asian cookbooks, but I have no idea how authentic or good they are. I don't know how to choose Asian cookbooks that would be good for a student to learn from.

World cuisine is appealing to me. I love variety and trying new things. I have several international cookbooks. I could choose one cuisine I'm unfamiliar with every month or two and explore their food. That would be fun and definitely improve my skills as I try techniques unfamiliar to the food I've learned to make so far in my life.

See what I mean about having too many ideas? I've always been an idea person. It does me in every time because I can't choose one. Maybe I need to list pros and cons of each idea with regards to how they fit into my goal of cooking better. Then choose the one that fits the goal best.

I think I need to give myself a week to research and consider various ideas for my project. I'm going to pick one by next Friday. If I don't set myself a deadline, I'll dither for weeks and never get started on it.

Meantime, I need to go start the tomatoes I'm roasting. Tom Colicchio's recipe takes three to four hours to do properly. Today I don't need to bake bread, so I can use my oven for the tomatoes without worrying that the bread will need to go into the oven. I'm planning to use the tomatoes to make a black bean and roasted green tomato chili. I'm roasting pasillas and jalapeños with the tomatoes. We'll see how the whole thing turns out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Julie/Julia & Foodie Me

I've been very foodie lately. I know, what else is new? I read Julie/Julia during the past couple of weeks. I also read Tom Colicchio's How to Think Like a Chef. And I'm reading My Life in France by Julia Child. I saw the film Julie & Julia last weekend.

The main thing I came away with from the books and film is that Julia is more interesting to me than Julie. And as good a cook as I am, I still have a lot to learn. I feel very frustrated because I don't know how to learn it. I could cook my way through the cookbooks of the best chefs. I can cook their recipes as many times as it takes until I'm satisfied with the results. But that only will tell me if I like it. It doesn't tell me whether they'd think I've got it right.

I want to be Julia Child, in a way, because she had the food career I've wanted from the time I figured out what brings out the passion in my foodie side. I've always wished I could be good enough to teach cooking and have my cooking taken seriously enough to sell cookbooks.

What I lack, first of all, is credentials. I could never afford cooking school and I didn't & don't want to cook in restaurants. My thing isn't cooking the same thing, exactly the same way, day after day, so customers get the same experience no matter how many times they eat in your place. That's what a restaurant chef does.

My thing is making great food for people. I love cooking for friends and family. I love creating recipes and honing them until they're just right. I love figuring out the best words to use to communicate how I made something to other people so they can make it, too.

Another thing I lack is a budget that would allow me to make a recipe over and over until it's just right, even if I end up with more than we can eat or have to toss some because they're awful. That limits my creativity. I can't take the chance that something I think might work doesn't and has to be thrown away.

The third thing I lack is large blocks of time in which to work in the kitchen. I'm thinking I could probably find some blocks of time I could use to work on a regular basis, if not every day. But that doesn't solve the other two problems.

Since I can't teach or write cookbooks right now, I'll take a cue from how Julia handled difficult situations. She did what she could without whining. So, I'll do the thing I can do. I can work on getting better at cooking the best way I know how--by cooking, but in a more scructured way than I usually approach the subject. I think what will work best is to set specific goals geared toward improving my skills, rather than just cooking what I'm in the mood for right now. As for my other two issues, I think I can manage the budget by adjusting my priorities and choices. As for not having teachers or going to cooking school, I guess I'll just have to trust my own instincts. I learned a lot from the chefs when I worked at HomeChef and I'll have to trust that I developed good enough instincts to know when it's right.

The difficult aspect of this idea for me is figuring out where to start. I'm, as usual, full of too many ideas. I don't know whether to dig out my technique books and cook my way through the basic stocks and sauces and so on or pick something I've always wanted to be able to make and try different people's versions until I feel I've mastered it or pick variations of interesting recipes and figure out my favorite. Or maybe there's some other approach I can use, if only I could figure out what it is. Whatever I choose, when I'm satisfied with the result, I want to create variations of the recipes because I can't leave a recipe alone. Ask my family who always complains that I never cook a recipe the same way twice. Not true, by the way. I cook my favorites the same way and then they complain I don't cook them often enough because I love variety.

If anyone's reading this, I wouldn't object to suggestions as to an approach to take. If you make a suggestion and I love it, it will give me a starting point. If I hate it, at least I'll know where I don't want to start.