Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fundraiser Dinner is Coming Up Soon

At the beginning of the year, our church youth had a fundraising dinner. A group of ladies paid a lot of money for me to cook them a dinner with the main course being Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon. I'm making the dinner in the beginning of November, so I'm recipe testing everything throughout the next month to make sure all the flavors go well and I like the way the recipes turn out.

The dinner will be a lot of fun. Paul is going to don his tux and play waiter. He's also gathering the music and setting it up to run in the background. I know what I want to do for decorations, which are very simple and won't take a long time to do. That's a good thing because once I get in cook mode, it's hard for me to focus on the ambiance. The meal is for eight people. My current menu is:

Creamy Beet Soup-half made from red beets and half made from golden beets: I'm not sure whether I'll pour them both into the bowl at the same time to make it half-and-half or pour one into a small glass then top it with the other. I'm going to try it both ways and see which one tastes better and works better for presentation with the salad. The other issue is whether or not I need my bowls for something else. I only have eight of each size dish/bowl and I don't want my guests to have to wait while I wash dishes between courses.

Fall Salad: I'm testing the salad with Asian Pears, walnuts or pecans or almonds, mushrooms, spinach, and either feta, blue, or goat cheese. The dressing is a honey-poppy seed dressing. I'm substituting extra-virgin olive oil for the canola. I'm not sure which vinegar I will end up with. I'm testing pomegranate champagne, citrus champagne, champagne, and white balsamic. I'm also thinking maybe lime juice would work better than vinegar. But I want to taste them before I choose. I'm also considering the mustard. I have a Maple-Champagne mustard that I think would be very nice. I often think recipe writers get boring and just automatically grab the Dijon. Dijon is a very nice mustard, but there are a lot of others out there you can use to vary the flavor.

Herb & Onion Bread: People like bread with soup and salad, plus they like to mop up the sauce in the stew. So I'm doing an herb and onion bread I can make in advance. The herbs will complement the flavors in the soup and the stew.

Julia Child's Boeuf Bourgingnon: Because of my work schedule, it would be great if this recipe could work in my crock pot. So, I'm making it this week in the crock pot and if it's not as amazing as when it cooks in the oven, I'll use the oven for the party. I've made it before, so I have a benchmark to test it by. The main issue with the crock pot is that you end up with more liquid, so getting it to thicken properly is the main problem.

Side dishes: I'm doing a simple green bean saute with bacon and garlic, topped with crispy shallots. Since the stew is pretty soft, texturally speaking, I wanted some crunch in the veggies. And the green beans look nice with the brown stew.

Thinking about the bland color of the stew led me to a pretty nontraditional starchy side dish. The traditional is boiled potatoes or noodles, and they're white. The stew is brown. The plate looks boring. So I chose for my other side an unusual dish called Sweet Potato Kisses. It's mashed orange-flavored sweet potatoes piped with a star tip onto an orange slice. The shape resembles a Hershey's kiss, thus the name. They're browned under the broiler and dusted with powdered sugar. I'm thinking the sweet potato color will be wonderful.

I'm not sure the orange flavor will blend well with the stew. The palate in my brain says it should be a nice contrast. But, if upon tasting them together, I find that it clashes, I'll change the flavors of the mash. I'm thinking apples with maple syrup instead of sugar may be a good substitute, if I want to keep the emphasis on the sweet in the sweet potato. I can substitute precooked apple rings for the orange slices. If the emphasis on the sweetness turns out to be the problem, I'll do savory flavors and top them with a very fine dust of hard cheese--an Asiago, Parmesan, Romano or dry Jack.

If I decide that the sweet potatoes just won't work and use noodles or traditional mashed potatoes for my starchy side, I'll do baked tomatoes with a flavored bread crumb topping to add more color to the plate. If I don't want to do an additional dish, I'll add tomatoes to the green bean saute or do braised green beans with tomatoes instead of the saute. The braise can be made further ahead of time, but the saute has more crunch.

I'm leaning toward adding tomatoes to the saute as my backup plan. Doing the braise further ahead of time isn't as much of an issue with this meal, since almost everything is done ahead of time. The only last minute items are piping and broiling the sweet potatoes, assembling and dressing the salad, and the green bean saute. All the prep can be done in advance. Then it's just getting it on the plates and serving. Plus being aware of the timing so people don't feel rushed, but aren't annoyed because the food is coming out too slow. On to the final dish.

Dessert: I'm doing a very spicy gingerbread with a lemon curd cream topping. This is one of my favorite recipes. It uses fresh ginger and freshly ground black pepper, which gives it a bit of a bite. It's a wonderful contrast with the lemon topping. I found a recipe that makes the topping from scratch. I have a recipe that uses jarred lemon curd. I've noticed that different brands of lemon curd act differently in the recipe. Some of them blend nicely with the whipped cream and some seem to break down the cream and I end up with a thick lemon sauce. It tastes good, but isn't the texture I'm looking for. And both the gingerbread and the lemon topping recipes were from David Lebovitz (but he didn't write the cookbook I got them from), which is why they're so good. He's a genius at doing recipes that work for a cook in a home kitchen with home kitchen equipment.

Tonight I'm testing the beet soup and fall salad. We're having leftover chicken and baked potatoes, so I can focus on cooking my test recipes. I'm going to try the salad two different ways tonight. And continue with different combinations until I've found the one I want. Maybe it will be one of the two I do tonight and I won't need to test further. We'll see.

Game Night 1-Final Menu

Children never believe you when you tell them that when they grow up they don't get to do whatever they want to do. Hence, my plan is on hold. I've decided Game World Dinner Night will be on the weekend-Friday, Saturday or Sunday, whichever life allows me to do. This week, I'd originally planned for tonight, but my three errands to do this morning turned into an all-day marathon because my mom needed us to help her with her errands.

I started this post way back at the beginning of the month. Since then, the folks at Zynga have made some changes in Cafe World that I'm not enjoying. So, I'm not playing anymore, which kind of makes it hard to do my whimsical idea. Except I have some friends who are still playing, so maybe I'll just help them with their games and not worry about finishing the catering jobs for myself.

I'll be working on the recipes for this menu a little at a time. When I get them the way I want them, I'll put them all together in a meal.

The Final Menu

I'm calling it: Italian Pancetta-Provolone Burgers

Burgers:

  1. Burger

    • lean ground beef

    • pancetta

    • provolone cheese

    • sun-dried tomato pesto

    • whole wheat semolina buns w/black olives


  2. Pasta Caprese Salad

    • whole wheat orzo pasta

    • heirloom tomatoes

    • fresh mozzarella cheese

    • home-grown purple basil

    • roasted garlic yogurt-mayo aoli


  3. Caesar Salad w/a Twist or Two

    • Traditional Caesar ingredients

    • Mushrooms

    • Pickled Peppers

    • Stuffed Green Olives


  4. Dessert

    • Gianduja Gelato

    • Very Vanilla Biscotti




Notes:

The Buns:

I'm basing my recipe on a semolina flour bun in a cookbook called Burgermeisters by Marcel Desaulniers. The main change I'm making is to substitute whole wheat flour for some of the bread flour. This will likely mean adding a little more liquid, since whole wheat flour tends to absorb more liquid than white flour. The other change I'm making is to add asiago cheese in the dough and on top, as a garnish.

I made the buns and discovered the recipe needs some tweaking. It came out a bit dry, but that may be due to my addition of white whole wheat flour. Next time, I'm going to start with a bit more water. I'm also going to add another tablespoon of olive oil to the dough, which I think will improve the texture.

The picture in the cookbook resembles a crusty French roll, but the instructions neglect the step of using a pan of water to create steam in the oven. Another method to create steam is to squirt the bread with water, but I've found that the pan of water works better. Regardless of what method you use, you don't get that crust without some steam.

So, before I make the complete menu, I need to work on the recipes.

One recipe that needs no work, however, is the Gianduja Gelato. This is a hazlenut milk chocolate gelato. The hazlenuts are used as a flavoring, so the ice cream ends up being super creamy. I made that recipe the same day I made the buns. It's amazing, as are all of the other recipes I've made from my favorite ice cream cookbook. It's The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Planning

Although I keep a well-stocked pantry and can usually cook a meal without needing to run to the store for one specific ingredient, I won't be able to do Game World Dinner Night meals without plenty of planning. I've been thinking about my bacon cheeseburger and how I want to do it.

The first thing I thought about is what a bacon cheeseburger consists of. The standard diner burger is bun, burger patty, bacon, cheddar or American processed cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and sweet pickles. I'm not making that burger. I'm making an homage to that burger because I don't particularly like the traditional diner bacon cheeseburger. I never order it when I eat out. There are too many more interesting burgers on restaurant menus these days.

I'm starting with flavors I'm in the mood for. I considered Mexican, Asian and Italian. Asian doesn't really go with bacon and cheese, so I'll use those flavors in another meal. I've been eating a lot of Southwestern spicy food the past week, so I decided to go Italian.

I come from an Italian background. My Italian-born grandmother was a superb cook, but alas, not really a teacher, so I only have the memory of the food she made, not the recipes. Traditional Italian flavors include garlic; basil; tomatoes; olive oil; and various cheeses, particularly Parmesan, mozzarella and provolone. When Americans think "Italian" they first think of pizza and pasta, particularly spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce. These days, pesto and Alfredo sauce are also common.

I could make a pizza burger or a calzone, but that strays too far from the original diner burger and defeats my purpose in doing this challenge. I want to make a bacon cheeseburger with a twist, but it has to be a burger on a bun.

Baking bread is one of my passions, so no store-bought buns for my burger. I'm thinking either a bun with semolina flour, which is what they make pasta from, or cornmeal, which is what polenta is made from. The final choice will most likely depend on the other flavors in the burger and on whether I do a pasta salad or a polenta dish as a side. The other Italian ingredient I plan to use in the bun is a hard cheese--Parmesan, asiago, or pecorino romano. I'm leaning toward asiago, which you can get as a hard cheese, which would be lovely grated in the dough, and as a softer cheese I can shred and top the buns with.

The burger itself is easy. Some cookbook writers use blends of meat. I have one recipe that's actually a grilled meatball, and it's not my favorite. I like grilled meat without eggs, bread crumbs, and other binders that are used in meatballs to prevent them from falling apart while they simmer for hours in the tomato sauce. The burger will be made from a simple lean, but not super lean, ground beef to which I will add Italian flavors.

Toppings come next. One no-brainer for me is to replace the lettuce with fresh basil, since Paul has a great container herb garden growing on our terrace. I'm replacing the bacon with pancetta. The cheese is a sticking point. I can't decide whether I want to make a pasta salad with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes or use the mozzarella in the burger. If I do the pasta salad, I'll top the burger with provolone.

The remaining ingredients are red onion, tomato, and sweet pickle. I don't think the sweet pickle will go very well with the Italian flavorings. However, I have a jar of pickled peppers leftover from an antipasto platter. I can use the red onion with sun-dried tomatoes in a pesto to replace the traditional ketchup/mayo/mustard condiments that really won't work with my burger. I'll also add the pickled peppers to the pesto because if I slice them and lay them on top of the burger, they'll tend to fall off. Things falling off my sandwiches is one of my pet peeves when I eat in restaurants and I try to create mine so people can eat them with their fingers and not have bits land on their shirt front.

I think I've got the basics for the burger. It meets my goals of making a burger on a bun with the same type of ingredients as the diner burger and using flavors I prefer to the original--the Italian twist. In my next post, I'll be figuring out the side dishes and refining the herbs and spices in the burger and pesto.

The following post will be devoted to dessert, which is a challenge because it seems the only things people can come up with are tiramisu and more tiramisu, with a side of spumoni ice cream or a canolli. Occasionally you might find a panna cotta on a menu. I need to do research because I know Italians make more than those four things for dessert and I want to do something a bit different from the usual thing. I can't look to my background, though, because my grandmother made American desserts like peach pie. The only Italian dessert I remember her making is grispelli, a fried-dough topped with powdered sugar that's like a doughnut, except you drop spoonfuls of batter into the hot oil. When it's done it looks like two attached balls of dough with little bits hanging on around the edges.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Whimsical Idea

I had a whimsical idea, which is precisely why I like it. It's a purely for fun idea. It lets me play in my kitchen. And I can't think of anything I'd like to do more. It's not serious, like my special project. And I can do it without a lot of planning or designing and creating a web site. So, I'm going to change the look of this blog to a more whimsical one, just so it fits a bit better. Besides, all that green is hard on my eyes.

I'm a big fan of social network games. I don't care whether you like or don't like Farmville and its cohorts. I think there's room in the world for people who like to play and room for those who don't. When Facebook added the ability to hide apps without hiding everything my friends post, that solved the "you're game is spamming my page" problem. If you don't like to play, hide the app and don't whine about me and my friends enjoyment. I'm sure you do things for fun that don't interest me and that's fine.

I'm currently playing Cafe World, with a small group of people who play occasionally. A lot of people I know play Farmville. And some have discovered Frontierville. A lot play other games, but I haven't explored many others because I don't have time. While playing, I get some time to think while I wait for the game to finish various things or load pages, and so on. I was playing Cafe World when I started wondering what the food you make for the cafe would be like in real life.

I thought, "Why don't you try making it?" I couldn't think of a reason not to, so I'm going to slowly cook my way through the cookbooks and recipes in the games I play. And using the food you grow in Farmville or grow/collect in Frontierville. Some things are purely imaginary, so I'll have to come up with an "Earth equivalent". I doubt I can summon Mystic Pizza or bring Sirius Sorbet down from outer space. I also doubt my ability to find bear meat and some of the other things used on the frontier in this game that imagines a more palatable frontier than it was really like.

My schedule doesn't have time available to do something as ambitious as cook one recipe every day. Many of the dishes will have to be created by me. Others will have to be researched because I have no idea how to cook them, or even if they're real dishes. Some, like the baked goods in my Farmville Bakery, have weird combinations of ingredients and it will be a challenge to figure out how to use them in a way that creates a dish worth eating.

I decided that Saturday night will be Game World Dinner Night. I'll cook one dish from one of the games I'm playing. To help keep track of them, I'm going to create a schedule that rotates through the games, cooking or baking the dishes used in each game. Farmville and Frontierville have the added interest of growing crops and fruit trees. I want to use those fruits, grains, vegetables, herbs and spices in my finished dishes. I hope to use as many as I can, skipping only those that are not easily available.

The other criteria is that I don't want to just cook the standard "fast food" type dish that is often what appears to be the basis of the images they use. The hash browns in Frontierville look like a breakfast hash brown patty from Mickey D's. And the macaroni and cheese is the orange stuff from a box we all grew up with. I don't cook that way and I don't eat that way. So the challenge is to make the food the way I'd make and serve it if I were running a real restaurant, farm, or feeding my family on the frontier.

The first recipe you get in Cafe World and the first one in their cookbook is a simple bacon cheeseburger. It's on a plain bun with a slice of orange cheese, lettuce, and tomato. It's amusing that the cover of Bon Appetit this month has a hamburger that looks like the one in the Cafe World cookbook. But it's probably nothing like the hamburger the Cafe World designers were thinking about when they created their graphic. Bon Appetit's hamburger has three different cuts of beef, beef suet, and bone marrow in it. Plus red miso. Cheddar cheese. Tomato. Red onion. Watercress instead of lettuce. And a recipe for Red Vinegar pickles and spiced ketchup to go with it. But, interestingly, the buns are not made from scratch.

I cook somewhere in between those two extremes. I'm obviously not a person who doesn't care about the quality of her food, happily scarfing down the latest offering from the local fast-food joint. Nor am I a pro chef looking for the ultimate, perfect burger. I'm somewhere in the middle, a foodie home cook who wants to make food that's made from fresh ingredients, that can be made by a home cook without equipment you can only get at restaurant supply stores, and that tastes as good as I can make it.

Looking at the calendar, my first Game World Dinner Night will be Saturday, September 4. The menu will be Bacon Cheeseburger with appropriate accompaniments. I will post my recipes as I develop them. And my son lent me his old camera, so I can post pictures. YAY!!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Mishucalanza

I haven't had time to post much lately, so this post is a mishucalanza of topics.

Birthday Parties for Kids

My husband and I were at Santana Row recently. We saw a white limo driving down the main drag. That's not unusual. People cruise Santana Row in exotic cars; cars with thumping music that screams, "Look at me;" and the regular folks, in their regular cars, cruise around seeking the elusive parking place. The new parking garage has helped tremendously with the latter, especially if you're willing to park at the top. But, I digress.

The limo had a sign on the windows in pink writing. It said, "Happy 8th Birthday!" Peeking out of the moon roof were several little girls. Obviously, a ride in a limo on your eighth birthday is not over-the-top in some circles. But how do you top this kind of excess, year after year? And how do you instill the idea that it's nice, and special for a special occasion, but you're not entitled to this? And in this economic climate, how do you teach children who are raised with this level of expectation about material goods that it can all go away with one sentence: "I'm sorry, but we're laying you off?" How do you give children this kind of excess and teach them life's realities? How do they learn to cope when their every whim is granted? Or when they know you have the resources to grant it, but won't? I'm glad I didn't have to deal with those questions, but I wonder sometimes whether parents who do even ask them.

My Secret Project

I'm slowly making progress with it. I think I have a name. I need to do a bit of searching with other starting points besides Google, but it's based on something we made up as a family and I've never heard it used by anyone else, so it's likely no one else has anything with a similar name. I have a logo, too. It's in my head, but I know what it's going to look like. And, I borrowed the camera David's not using so I can practice taking photos for the blog.

I need to design the look of the site. I need to figure out the scope of it and create a backlog of posts. I need to figure out a realistic schedule for new posts. And I need to launch it. It may take a while, but I have a reasonable plan. The main hitch is how much time I have, since my work schedule is not steady. Sometimes I'm really swamped and other times it's slower so I have more time to spend on personal projects.

Vegan Food

I have a cookbook called The Conscious Cook by Tal Ronnen. It has amazing food in it. I am looking forward to trying a lot of the recipes and techniques taught in the book. They look absolutely wonderful and with our budget taking a nosedive as Paul's income becomes his unemployment check until he finds another job or builds that business he's working on, we need to cut back on meat and dairy, since they're the most expensive things I buy. I don't want to cut the overall quality of ingredients I use, so using the most expensive ingredients less often, or in smaller quantities, whenever possible, will allow me to cut the total amount we spend. We're going to eat more vegan and vegetarian meals.

On the other hand, the book also highlights some of the reasons, aside from the fact that I like honey, meat, fish, poultry and dairy, why I don't want to eat exclusively vegan. He uses a lot of food I consider "fake food" because he's trying to mimic haute cuisine without using any of the above list of ingredients. I'm not talking about foods like the cashew cream or cheeses made from nuts he includes recipes for. I'm talking about purchased products like "meat" made from wheat or soy. It seems to me that vegan food should be a celebration of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, not an attempt to mimic the omnivore diet so as to convince people they can switch to a vegan diet without substantially changing the way they eat.

It's been my experience that foods created to substitute for other foods usually fail because they taste like a pale imitation of the original, or are simply completely unpalatable. Something is always missing. Nonfat mayo or salad dressings taste awful. Low-fat and nonfat cheeses are like rubber. But people convince themselves they're good because they think they're getting health benefits from eating those foods. As they eat them, they forget what the real thing tastes like.

But I'm not sure that we really know what a healthy diet looks like. There are a lot of people that make a lot of money selling us on the health benefits of the fake food they're trying to get us to buy. Yet people thrive on a wide variety of foods, including many that are on the experts' current hit list. As long as researchers take the easy way out and study nutrition by taking food apart and studying individual components, they'll never really know the answer to "what's a healthy diet?" because we eat foods in combination and that makes a difference.

Case in point--the glycemic index thing. When you eat a food high on the glycemic index chart by itself, it digests quickly, creating a spike in your blood sugar levels. However, if you eat them in combination with other foods, particularly adding a bit of fat, it slows down the digestion of that food and you don't get that huge spike. So, as an example, the "rule" that you shouldn't eat potatoes because they're high on the glycemic index is not accurate. The rule should be, don't eat a plain baked potato all by itself. Eat it as part of a meal, particularly one that includes some fats. Perhaps our penchant for adding butter and/or sour cream to baked potatoes shows instinctive nutritional wisdom on our part, but we tend to go overboard and put too much. So we overreact and instead of putting a smaller amount, we decide we should forego it altogether.

An example of "fake food" vs. the real thing: I read recently that when you eat salads with no-fat dressing, you don't get the full complement of nutrients from the vegetables when your food is digested. But when you use regular dressing, you do. And again, I think the problem people have when they use any dressing is the amount they add. One other thing that I think makes a difference is making it yourself because when you buy a bottle of salad dressing, it doesn't taste that good, so you tend to use a lot of it. When you make a vinaigrette, which takes about five minutes, it has more flavor, so you can use less and be satisfied.

So maybe the future will look a little like Woody Allen's film, Sleeper, where he wakes up and all the food that was considered bad for you is now considered healthy. However, I doubt we're ever going to get to his exaggerated prediction where vegetables are unhealthy. Good thing because vegetables are amazing. I think the real key to eating healthy is to prepare food from raw ingredients as much as you can. And carefully choose those you do buy prepared, like sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, olives, and so on.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Posting Progress

Project Progress

I've done several things in the last couple of days that will help me move forward with this project.

First, I did some brainstorming by myself. Then I got some ideas from Paul. And I called David and asked him if he, Chris, and Ann, and any of their compatriots would be willing to get together with me for a brainstorming session. I'm starting to get some ideas about the scope this project can take. It won't all happen at once, but I will add things in stages, depending on whether anyone is interested.

Second, I discussed with a friend some ideas for researching whether anyone else is doing anything like this, and if yes, where's my niche? What's different from what I want to do compared with what's already out there? Based on his suggestions, I did some research and found some useful information. I'm not finished with the research. I need to really get creative with search keywords, if I'm going to do a really thorough job.

Third, I realized I need to start a notebook for ideas and planning, plus a file for the computer files that go along with this idea. I made a file on the computer, but haven't done the notebook, yet. That's most likely going to happen this evening or tomorrow, depending on whether I need to help a friend with her computer set up or not.

Other Topics--after all, this blog wouldn't be a mishucalanza if I didn't post on more than on topic.

I found this template and I really like the way it looks. I may not keep it, though, because the gorgeous green text is a bit hard on my eyes after reading it for a while. On the other hand, just reading one post may not be too bad. If I can figure out how, I may change it to white or a lighter green.

I've been reading various interesting books lately. I've been reading Geneen Roth's books about emotional eating and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. The two together kind of mingled around in my brain and I realized that one of the main reasons we don't achieve our goals is that we set them up using rational, logical systems. We create a goal and a projected time line and figure out the steps we need to take to get there and think we're done.

But if we don't consider the emotional component of the goal, we're likely not to complete the steps. And then we get very confused and upset with ourselves. We think we're a failure because we don't do very simple, obvious things. We know what they are. We wrote them on our plan. But sometimes the steps make us feel things we don't want to feel. Or sometimes we just don't feel like doing those things and the emotional side wins that battle.

I'm using my journal to try to look at the emotional side of the changes I thought I wanted to make in my life, but haven't been successful with. Many of them are standard things many people want to do--lose weight, become more organized, pursue artistic or creative interests like writing or art or music--things we tend to fail at, usually because of emotional issues. The thing about what I learned in Switch is that you don't have to fix your emotional issues in order to make changes or reach goals. You can set up things in your environment, for example, that can help nudge you into doing the things you want to do. That's kind of vague, but as I think about the various techniques, I'll figure out how to make it specific enough to actually be useful.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sometimes Progress is in Your Head

I realized why it's often hard to come up with posts to report on progress with creative projects. The main thing I've noticed is when I'm in "musing" mode, pondering possibilities and staring out the window and letting my mind wander over whatever I'm creating, it feels like I'm not doing anything. It seems like progress isn't happening.

But if I don't do that musing, I never figure out what the project is or what the next steps are. So, the past few days I've been musing. I've been trying out various approaches in my head to see which seem to lead to dead ends and which might actually work. I'm starting to want to write it down, which means I'm nearing the end of the current musing and ready to move on to brainstorming.

Musing, however, happens throughout the creative process. It's particularly useful when I'm writing. Doodling is the artistic equivalent, I think. When I'm designing a web site, I grab graph paper and doodle.

The other thing I've been musing on is whether to take a class that would be helpful for my project or take something for fun. I'm thinking I could do something that fits both modes, but I really, really want to take more drawing classes. I think that learning how to draw better would do two things. One, help me to develop a skill I've always wanted to have. Two, when I'm working on computer art or designing a layout for a flyer or web page, being unable to draw decently has really held me back. It would be much easier to learn some of the graphic software if I had a more solid ability to draw.

I know that taking a sketch book and practicing is one of the main things I need to do if I want to draw better. But my monovision creates a challenge that is much easier to overcome with the help of a good teacher. I never thought I could do anything with my interest in art until I took some classes with teachers who understood the challenge having no depth perception poses. I needed to learn how to "see".

And I got better. I was surprised when the class picked one of my drawings as one of the best in the bunch. I'll never be a great artist, but I don't care about that. I just want to be able to draw well enough to make what I want for projects I'm working on. So, I've pretty much decided to pursue drawing right now, assuming I get into the class.

As I move forward with this project, I'll have to work on developing other skills. Some of them I can learn on my own, using the information that's readily available via the internet, books and people in my life who already have the skills I'll need. Others will require more formal training. Mostly, I'll need to pare back some of my other activities so I can carve out time to practice, work on developing the project, and the ongoing work to keep the project going once it launches. It's possible to create it in a way that has an end point or to keep it open-ended and ongoing. I haven't decided which way I want to go, yet.

It's interesting that this post seems to indicate the project has to do with art. But it doesn't. It has to do with cooking, but I need art in order to create the images for the web site. I also need to learn some more advanced skills with photography, particularly with using light when photographing food, and how to style food so it looks appealing.

This is because I noticed that I don't stick around food blogs and web sites if the food looks awful, no matter how good the content is. I'd rather read about food without photos than be looking at food that's not appealing.

I also need to practice a different style of writing than I usually do. Writing will be a major part of this project, but not fiction writing. I think that's one of the main reasons it appeals to me. It uses a variety of the creative arts, plus the more creative aspects of my cooking skills.

So, even if I get impatient and want the project done now, I'm not going to give in to that impulse. I'm not ready to do more than create a reasonably doable, but entirely flexible plan of action, which is my next step.

It's not likely it will be done in a day. I don't want to post "today I worked on the plan" every day until I'm finished. So, I'm going to reserve my posts for whenever there's something worthwhile to report. The boring report about working on the plan today will be relegated to my calendar, just so I don't lose the momentum.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

New Project Progress

Yesterday I signed up for WordPress. My oldest son recommended it as a starting point for creating the blog that will be the center of my project. I envision a much larger site in the future and Blogspot doesn't have the tools to create what I have in mind. I can import this blog into my WordPress site, when I'm ready to do that.

None of their standard themes really fits my project, so I'm going to have to find out how customizable WordPress is. I suspect that with some practice and digging around in the tools, I can do whatever I want with it. If it turns out I can't do what I want, I'll get a host and use my web design skills to create my own.

Today I researched the subject of my project to see if anyone else has done anything similar, but so far, I haven't found anything. I've found blogs and web sites that have the same theme, but not the same approach as the one I want to take. So, I'm encouraged that my idea is unique enough to make it worthwhile to give it a go.

I need to contact a friend who once suggested searching beyond Google, but I need to find out what he meant by that. I suspect that I won't find anything that's not on Google, though, because my idea is mainstream enough that, if they're tech savvy enough, I'd expect anyone who has done it to get it on Google because that's how their audience will most likely search for it. And if it's not on Google, I wonder if their intended audience would be likely to find it?

My goal is to do at least one thing toward getting this project off the ground each day. I've been thinking about doing "lists of 5", which is a list of 5 things I want to do today toward whatever needs to be done in the various areas of my life. If that turns out to be too much, since I like doing so many different things, maybe I'll go with "lists of 3". It's just a way of keeping the projects moving and manageable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

So Much for "Rules"

I love this template. So, I'm going to be using it for a while, at least. I'd design one, now that Blogger has tools that make it easy to upload your own designs, but I'm working on a new project and don't have time to design two blogs. More on that below, but not a lot more.

It's been a while since I posted last and my idea of following Michael Pollan's rules, adding one per week, is a total bust. I'm just not a "follow the rules, no matter what" kind of person. It makes me crazy to do that. So, no more food rules. I'm going to stick with my basic approach to food. Eat food made with the best ingredients I can afford. Cook from scratch whenever possible. And don't sweat it if I can't do those two things. Usually if I can't it's because I'm with friends and family, and they're way more important than anything else.

However, I finally found my food & cooking-related project. It will take a while to get it going, since I need a couple of expensive tools and must save up for them. I'm going to be starting a new blog for that project and keeping this one as a general blog. I'm planning to work on it slowly, so for a while there will be only posts on this blog about how the planning and design and all is going. I'm not going to say specifically what it is for a while. Right now it's pretty much just an idea.

My first step is to work out the parameters of the project. My creative brain wants to get on and design the look and feel of the site, but I can't really do anything about the site itself until I know what the content will be. That tells me that my creative side is being thoroughly neglected.

To regain balance in my life, what I'm planning to do is to cut back on my choir singing in the fall and take some classes in drawing or graphic design or digital photography. And continue in those subjects, one class at a time, until I've taken all the ones I'm interested in. Some of the classes I want to take are to develop skills I need to do my project. Some of them are just to get more creativity back into my life.

The other thing I still want to do is to add more writing to my life, starting with more blogging, because I enjoy doing it. I don't like to blog when I don't have anything to say. Thus, this has become the "Occasional Blog", rather than the "Blog in Which I Wrack my Brain for a Topic so My Nonexistent Audience Doesn't Leave". The first has the advantage of being both more interesting and shorter. I also want to get back to writing more fiction, even if it's just a little bit a few times a week.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Part 2

Well, so far, one new rule each week hasn't happened. I'm making some changes to get better control of my schedule so I can have a better shot at doing the things I need to do to live a healthier life. I've gained a little weight and it's mostly due to stress and too much going on, so I've not been taking the time to plan and track my food and to make sure I get in enough exercise.

So, back to the food rules book. The first rule in part 2 is rule number 22. It says "Eat mostly plants, especially leaves". One thing about that kind of rule is it's lack of specificity. What does "mostly" mean in terms of creating our everyday menus?

When I look at my favorite way to eat, it's full of veggies and fruits. I prefer to have a small bowl of soup, a salad, and one or two vegetables, either as side dishes or incorporated into the main course. I also include a starchy something and meat, cheese, eggs or beans. I like oatmeal or an egg and whole wheat toast in the morning. On the weekends, Paul often makes scrambles with veggies in them. I like to have fruit with each meal. When I do that, I don't crave sweets as much. I pretty much prefer to eat a healthy diet of actual, real food. I suppose that's why this book is so appealing to me. I've been trying to eat that way and it kind of refines the process.

The problem I find with eating that way with is the time issue. The time issue is why a lot of people grab fast food or frozen microwave meals or similarly awful food. I can see that making ingredients during the time I'm not as busy can help. But that requires preplanning and knowing how long it will actually take to do it. I tend to plan, but not allow quite enough time, so I don't get it done. Then I'm scrambling to make good food at the last minute.

So, this week I need to work on making a realistic plan that I can actually follow. One other issue is the whole Weight Watchers thing. I don't cook the same recipes over and over. It takes time, even with the online tools, to figure out the points for a recipe. And time to measure the finished dish to get the proper serving size for the number of points.

I think I need to spend some time every week looking at next week's schedule and seeing where I can do the planning and the prep and the cooking. I can't just set up a routine and follow it because my work schedule varies, but not like when I worked retail and knew each week what my hours would be for the next week. I can set a schedule, but get emails or phone calls from my many employers that require last-minute changes in it. It makes it hard to follow any kind of plan I make for my outside of work life.

I'm making some changes in the way I handle my work life that will help bring some sanity to my life. I'm asking people to tell me when they need a task completed by, which will help me set priorities and get things done when they need to be. If everything is just "do this, please", I have no way of knowing what I can do tomorrow and my hours get crazy. And I'm asking for as much lead time as is possible. Sometimes people don't get things they need to give to me until the last minute. I understand that. But if they know about it a month ahead of time, I'd like them to send it to me. Then I can work on it, a little at a time and say ahead of things instead of contstantly feeling behind.

I hope that will help me manage my whole life better, including being able to stay on track and lose the small amount of weight I gained, as well as continuing to make progress toward that goal.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Pantry Clean-out

I went to my pantry and found one box of organic granola, with a couple of "unpronounceable", but natural ingredients. I found organic vanilla wafers, ditto on the ingredient list. And trail mix bars, ditto again on the ingredient list. Everything else is just food. Dried fruit, pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, oatmeal, etc. I have some condiments like Tabasco sauce and salsas. They're food, too.

My fridge is even better. I didn't find anything that wasn't food in there. I don't keep a stock of frozen dinners. I can make omelettes in less time than cooking a frozen dinner and we'd rather have that.

If I want to be strict about this, I will need to make granola and make my own granola bars. I have the ingredients and plan to make it tonight after dinner. I like a bit of it on top of yogurt and fruit. I use a teaspoon of jam instead of sugar to sweeten the yogurt and it's a really good snack. The brand of jam has to say "fruit spread" because there aren't any fake ingredients in it. Go figure!

I should make my own cookies, if I'm going to eat them. Normally I do that, but these were purchased for one of the recipes I got to test, but had my schedule change and didn't have time to make the recipe.

I guess I'm doing pretty well on the eat food front. I think I have recipes for a lot of the condiments and could make them myself, but I don't see the need, for the most part, because they pretty much are just food and the serving size is so small that I doubt it makes much difference. I like to make that stuff, but it's hard to find the time.

I found out that vegetable stock keeps almost indefinitely in the refrigerator if you boil it for 5 minutes every few days. You also can freeze it. I'm going to make a batch of roasted vegetable stock and a batch of mushroom stock. Some of the vegetable stock I'm giving to my mom so the friend who cooks a lot of her meals can use it. I don't add salt to the stock, so it's better for her salt-restricted diet. And it means that I won't have more in my house than I have space to store and use.

The thing about vegetable stock is that it's a good base for anything. If you need chicken, veal, or beef stock, you can put a little of the appropriate demi-glace in the vegetable stock to get the flavor you're looking for. Demi-glace is concentrated stock. It keeps in the fridge for a very long time. It seems expensive, but the cost per serving is actually pretty small because it's so super concentrated that you don't use very much at a time. It's a great way to boost the flavors of sauces and gravies, too. One thing to note is that you should add the demi-glace before you season the stock, sauce, or gravy. Then taste. Often there's enough salt in the demi-glace to season your dish without adding more.

You can make your own demi-glace. It's very time-consuming. You make a poultry, beef, or veal stock. Then simmer it for a day or two, until it's concentrated down. A woman I used to work with made some and I think 8 or 12 quarts of stock made something like 2-4 cups of demi-glace. And it took 2 or 3 days of simmering. I'm not super comfortable with simmering stock on my stove while I sleep, but I suspect you can simmer it all day, then cover it and store it in the refrigerator overnight. Repeat until you get the stock concentrated enough. But I doubt I'll be doing that any time soon. I need to make better use of my time, so I'm using the demi-glace I bought at Williams-Sonoma.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ingredients & Michael Pollan

I've been really busy and frustrated by not being able to find time to make ingredients. We've been eating more in restaurants than I'd like to. But I'm doing extra cooking now because my mom needs super low-sodium meals and she can't cook for herself. So, I need to revisit this idea and time-shift more of my meal prep to times other than immediately before dinner. My new slow cooker really helps with that.

I made steel cut oatmeal in the slow cooker. Best oatmeal I've ever eaten. And that takes care of breakfast for a while. I know that's not an ingredient, but it gives me ideas for other things I can do.

An online friend made dulce de leche in her slow cooker. You put the can of condensed milk in water and cook it in the cooker on low. I wonder if you can put the finished dulce de leche in freezer containers and freeze it. I'll have to try it sometime when I'm looking for ingredients for dessert, not meals.

I think the first ingredient I want to use my slow-cooker for is beans. Cooked beans freeze really well in plastic bags. Plastic bags take up less space in the freezer than containers, so I prefer to use them whenever I can. Then I can use them instead of canned beans. Dried beans taste so much better and they're so simple that they're worth making and keeping around to use in recipes.

I have a reason for wanting to do dried beans first. Silicon Valley Reads 2010 is reading In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. We went to a free Q & A session with Michael Pollan, hosted by Mike Cassidy, a local newspaper columnist, which was the kickoff event in the 2010 Silicon Valley Reads. There's a video of that conversation on the web site.

The front cover of the book has a seven word phrase that sums up Michael's theme. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He has a new book, Food Rules, which consists of 64 rules that explain how to follow that seven-word theme. I read both books and he makes a lot of sense.

It occurred to me that if you adopt one rule a week, you could be following them all in a bit over a year. It would be an interesting experiment. I probably could do it in a year, since I already do some of them. It makes sense to start with rule number 64-Break the rules once in a while, so I don't go crazy trying to be perfect. Or maybe keep Rule 64 in mind as I add the other ones to my life.

He divides up the book into three parts. Part I is What should I eat? That seems to be the big question of our time. People avidly read nutrition studies looking for what constitutes a healthy diet. But the nutrition studies have one huge flaw-they pull out one nutrient at a time to study because it's easier to study one thing. But we don't eat that way. We eat foods in combination with other foods. And the nutrients get all mixed up in our system, so one may enhance another or cancel it out. That's one reason why it's so hard to figure out what to eat.

It seems like there's the "Nutrient of the Month". A study comes out and suddenly there's fiber being advertised in everything. Or probiotics. Or something else. Then another study comes out and that recedes into the background in favor of the next nutrient. It does get confusing.

Part 2 is Mostly plants. That seems self-explanatory, until you start to think about it. He came up with 21 rules on that subject. One question is which plants? Another is how much of your diet should be plants and how much everything else? This--mostly plants-is why I want to keep more precooked beans around. I see more vegetarian meals in my future. I've been eating less meat lately because of the expense, but I can see that we'll be cutting back a bit more and beans are a really good and easy base for fast vegetarian meals, especially if they're already cooked.

Part 3 is Not too much. There's a sticky one. How much is "not too much"? People really don't want to hear "eat less", but that's his message. And he talks about how to do that.

Anyway, I think it's less likely to hurt my health to follow Michael Pollan's rules than to continue to participate as a guinea pig in the food experiments perpetrated on Western society by the huge food processing companies. I don't eat much processed food anymore, so it's mainly a matter of refining my choices and figuring out how to make them work in the trenches of a busy life.

I think I want to alternate between each section of the book. It will keep a better balance. So, this week I'd start with Rule One. Next week will be Rule 22. The following week would be Rule 44. Then back to Rule 2. And so on. I'll try to post at least once a week on how it's going.

Rule One is Eat food. This rule is about choosing real food, not food created by food processing companies. My task for the week will be to get rid of any fake food that happens to be in my pantry and fridge. I suspect there won't be much, but I won't have time to do this until tomorrow or Saturday.

Pulled Pork & Mashed Potatoes

I thought since I've been writing about food a lot lately, it was time to post a recipe. This is the easiest pulled pork recipe.

Pulled Pork

Ingredients:
1 pork roast, about 2 pounds
1 T olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
2-4 cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups barbeque sauce, approximately

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 400º. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven. Brown the pork roast on all sides. Mix the onions and garlic. Take it out of the pan and spread the onion mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan. Put the pork roast on top of the onions. Pour 2 cups of the barbecue sauce over the roast. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for one hour. Turn the roast over and baste with the sauce, adding more if it's getting too dry. Bake for one hour longer. If the roast is small, it might be done at this point. It's done when it's tender enough all the way through to pull into shreds. If it's not done, turn the roast over and baste with the sauce, adding more if it's too dry. Bake a half hour longer and test for doneness. It takes between two and three hours. When it's done, use two forks and shred it right in the pan. Stir to mix back into the sauce. Serve.

    Notes:
  1. The amount of garlic will depend on how big the cloves are,how much you like garlic, and how much, if any, garlic the sauce has in it.

  2. If your pot doesn't have a really tight lid, it's important that you seal the top with foil or it dries out too much and can burn.

  3. If it starts to dry out or the sauce thickens too much, add liquid. You can add broth, water, or more barbeque sauce, depending on what flavor you want to end up with.

  4. You can use a larger roast. Just add more time, turning and basting every half hour after the first two hours. You will probably need more liquid.

  5. I served this with the roasted garlic mashed potatoes. You can put in on a sandwich roll to make pulled pork sandwiches. You can serve it over pasta or rice, too. It's pretty versatile.

  6. It's simple to change the flavors, too, since you can use whatever sauce you want.



Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes
A lot of healthy cookbooks and magazines recommend using broth instead of milk or cream in mashed potatoes. The problem with it is the potatoes don't get that creaminess that make mashed potatoes so good. Using mostly broth, and adding a little cream, gives the creaminess without adding a lot of calories or fat.

Ingredients:
4 large potatoes, peeled and cut into about 6 pieces
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon roasted garlic, or to taste.
1/2-1 cup vegetable stock, warmed
2-4 tablespoons cream, warmed

Instructions:
Boil potatoes until tender. Pour into a colander and drain. Put back into the pan and cook briefly over low heat, shaking the pan or stirring the potatoes until dry. Put the garlic and potatoes through a ricer or mash with a masher. Add enough stock to make the potatoes almost as moist as you want them. Then add cream, one tablespoon at a time, until the potatoes are creamy. Add salt and pepper, to taste.

    Notes:
  1. It's more important that the potato pieces be approximately the same size than how many pieces you cut them into. Smaller pieces take less time to cook and should be checked for doneness sooner than larger ones.

  2. The type of potato makes a difference, too. Yukon Golds take less time to cook than russets. I don't use any other types for mashing.

  3. The amount of broth and cream depend on how many potatoes you use. Add the broth a little at a time and mix it well before adding more. Stop when the potatoes are still a bit dry. The cream will take care of the dryness.

  4. I didn't add butter, but you could add a little. I had some whipping cream I needed to use and decided that it was enough. If I'd used milk instead, I might have wanted a tablespoon of butter and less milk.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Boeuf Bourguinon a lá Weight Watchers

I'm reading the current issue of Weight Watchers magazine. I turn the page to find an article titled Just Like Julia. The hyperbole at the top of the article states, "If you liked the movie, you'll love our recipes." Ummm...no. Liking the movie has nothing to do with liking their recipes. The next sentence tells the real story. "We've updated the beloved chef's timeless classics, keeping the French flavor, but trimming the fat." The idea was to make Julia's recipes low in points, fitting in with their weight-loss program better than the original one does. But does it really?

I turned to the recipe pages. Their changes were much bigger than the statement in the article implies. I don't have a problem with them making similar recipes that fit the Weight Watchers plan. My problem is with them saying they're "Just Like Julia's", especially considering the technique changes would kill the intense, deep layers of flavor in the original recipes.

Take the Boeuf Bourguinon recipe as an example. They decreased the calories, simplified the techniques, and shortened the cooking time. When you oversimplify the techniques and reduce the cooking time, along with reducing the calories, you end up with less flavor, which doesn't inspire me to want to substitute it for the original.

Here's an analysis of what I see as being the biggest problems with their dish:

  • They omitted the bacon completely. But the bacon added one of the flavors that made it her dish.

  • They reduced the wine to one cup. A cup and a half would be the amount to use if you also reduce the beef from three pounds to two, as they did in their recipe, because it keeps the ratio of ingredients the same.

  • They cut the beef into smaller pieces and toss them with flour before it's browned. The original breaks this into a two-step process of browning the meat, tossing with flour and browning the floured meat in the oven. I'd never tried that technique before this recipe and it's the first time the sauce actually thickened the way it's supposed to.

  • They add the mushrooms, onion, and garlic raw with the liquid, herbs, and seasoning. The original browns the carrots and a yellow onion in the pan after the beef is browned. The mushrooms and pearl onions are cooked separately and added after the meat is cooked.

  • They cooked it on top of the stove for a mere hour, added the raw carrots, and cooked another 30 minutes. The original called for a three to four hour simmer in the oven.


As you can see, there are a lot of steps in the original that the Weight Watchers recipe condenses or skips altogether. The original does have a lot of steps, as is usually the case with classic French cuisine. You wouldn't cook this as a quick weeknight supper. But those steps are necessary to build the flavor layers that gave classic French cuisine its status as one of the finest in the world. And the beauty of it is that if you enjoy cooking, you can take a day when you're at home and make it in advance. It's better after sitting in the fridge overnight, anyway.

I haven't tested the following changes, but here's what I'd do if I wanted to reduce the calories, but retain the flavors of the original:

  • First, I'd decrease the serving size, making the recipe serve eight.

  • Since a half pound of meat is twice as much as anyone needs at one meal, I'd use two pounds of meat for my eight servings, cutting it into the large cubes called for in the original.

  • I'd use four slices of bacon, rather than the six ounces called for. That's two ounces and usually is plenty to give the flavor I'm looking for.

  • I'd reduce the wine to 1-1/2 cups, which maintains the proper ratio for the flavor I want.

  • I'd follow Julia's original techniques for browning the meat, onions, and carrots. She only uses 1 tablespoon of olive oil, which is the same amount in the Weight Watchers recipe. She also pours out the leftover fat after everything's browned.

  • I'd make two small changes to Julia's original recipe--about a minute before the carrots and onions are done browning, I'd toss in the garlic and sauté it to release the oils. Then I'd add the tomato paste and mix it well, cooking until it's a more rusty-red color. It's called the Maillard reaction and it adds to the browning, intensifying the flavor, in the dish.

  • I'd follow the original for cooking the dish.

  • At the end, she strains the sauce and skims off the fat. Skimming fat is a pain and nowadays there's the handy fat separator. I strained the sauce into mine and poured the defatted sauce back into the dish.

  • I'd follow the original recipes for cooking the pearl onions and the mushrooms, reducing the oil/butter for browning them by using olive oil spray in a nonstick pan and a half-teaspoon of butter for flavor.

  • I'd do what I did on New Year's--cook the whole thing in advance and reheat it for serving.


Back to my original question: Does their version really fit better into their plan than the original version? Well, since Julia's recipe has several steps devoted to ridding the dish of excess fat, there must be something else causing it to be 17 points per serving. I keep coming back to the portion size. Weight Watchers calculated the points in Julia's recipe using the number of servings in the cookbook, which is six. But Julia's portion isn't the same size as Weight Watchers portions. I decided to recalculate the points of Julia's basing it on serving the same size portion as Weight Watchers uses in their recipe.

Using the portion size of the meat as a guideline, 1 serving of Julia's recipe contains 8 ounces of meat and 1/6 of everything else. The Weight Watchers version contains 3-ounce portions of meat and 1/6 of everything else. If I increase the number of servings in the original so each serving has 3 ounces of meat and a proportionally smaller serving of the remaining ingredients, it's 16 servings. I did the math and it's 6 points per serving. The Weight Watchers version is 8 points per serving. Hmmm....It looks like Julia's recipe is more of a weight loss winner than Weight Watchers, when you compare the same size serving side-by-side. I guess I can toss my list of calorie-reducing ideas and just make Julia's.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fast Food

One of the things I've noticed about people's reaction to my comments that I cook from scratch is that they think they don't have the time or expertise to cook that way. Many people rely on packaged foods, complete meals frozen by food processing companies, and fast food or restaurant food because they think cooking from scratch is too time-consuming or too hard. But neither is true.

Last fall I had a juxtaposition of things that got me to one of those aha! moments. I read two books that used the idea of preprepping ingredients. They were Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. Judith Jones was Julia Child's editor and Tom Colicchio is one of the judges on Bravo's series, Top Chef. Both of these books are about creating food and using it in multiple ways. They're about making ingredients to be used in the recipe, but having extra to use in another recipe.

Although that seems like a fancy term for "leftovers", they're not like the how to use leftover articles I see in women's magazines after Thanksgiving. Those recipes don't have the creativity I see in the above mentioned books. That creativity is one reason I think of them as ingredients, not leftovers. Another reason is that you can make the food without making the original recipe and just use it in other dishes. That's an ingredient, not a leftover.

The second aspect of the things that got juxtaposed in my mind was when a weekend came up and I had some rare free time. I wasn't using the recipes or cookbooks I mentioned. I don't think I had them yet. I was just trying to be more efficient. So, I cooked granola, oatmeal, rice, beans, baked some potatoes and browned some ground turkey. I don't remember what else I made, maybe some salsa? The next week I was able to prepare meals from scratch in about the same time as if I'd used packaged ingredients from the store. I realized that by time-shifting as much prep work as I can, I can work the odd hours and run the weird schedule I have without sacrificing fresh meals.

Those two things came together in my mind and I realized that cooking from scratch when you don't have hours to spend before dinner making dinner is mainly a matter of planning and having preprepped ingredients, along with a pantry stocked with staples, you can use to create meals.

I've always enjoyed pulling things out of the pantry and fridge and just cooking whatever comes to mind. What's a new concept for me is the idea that I don't have to cook everything at the last minute. Nor do I have to cook entire meals in advance or an extra casserole to freeze for later. I don't like to do that because there are only two of us and we end up eating the same thing for days if the whole meal or main course is completely prepped in advance.

But most people, including me, weren't taught how to break recipes down into prep steps and how to figure out which of those can be done in advance. If people manage to do that, there's the problem of how to prep the ingredients so you can store them without losing flavor and nutrition or having them spoil before you make the dish. That's why it seems hard.

I've learned a lot from professional chefs, experimentation, and research about how to do this. I think I need to practice what I already know and continue to study how to use that knowledge because becoming proficient in planning, making and using preprepped ingredients is the best way I can think of to achieve my personal goal of eating at home and reserving restaurant meals for special occasions. I'd much rather eat out less often, but eat at really good, which usually means more expensive, restaurants.

Sometimes it's not the time to make dinner that makes people go out. It's the added time to clean up the mess from cooking that makes eating in seem like too much work after a long day. Foods like one-skillet dishes from a box or microwaved meals from the freezer or take-out pizza guarantee fast, easy clean up. Planning and prepping ingredients in advance also gives you easy, fast cleanup on the busy nights because most of the cooking mess is from prepping, not cooking the meal.

So, one of my goals for this year is to streamline the planning process, which will allow me more time to do the actual cooking, and use the knowledge gained from my aha! moment to allow me to get meals on the table at a reasonable hour even if I get home from work late.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

2010 & Lots of Changes

My last post was in November. I'd just started my second job at the Steinway Society. I had already made commitments that made December a super busy month. Adding a second job ensured that I was not going to find time to write anything, including this blog, in December. Now it's January and one of the things I'm doing is writing more.

Last month's concerts went really well. I enjoyed every one, whether I was attending or participating. I had the opportunity to hear a local pianist, Sandra Wright Shen, presented by the Steinway Society as part of this season's concert series. She's awesome. The other concert I attended was the San Jose Chamber Orchestra's joint concert with The Choral Project called Winter's Gifts: Hope. Daniel Hughes wrote an awesome Alleluia that I'd love to sing someday.

I sang in three concerts, plus the Christmas Eve service at church. STOCtet sang our annual concert in the lobby at the opening of Ballet San Jose's Nutcracker. That was fun and some people came up to the mezzanine and listened to the whole thing. We sang the same program for our holiday concert. Prince of Peace Sanctuary Choir did Sing Noel, a piece arranged in a similar way to a lessons and carols service. It has readings intermingled with music.

We went to a bunch of holiday parties. Caroling parties, work parties, post-concert parties. We gave a party on New Year's, at which I cooked Julia Child's Beef Bourguinon. I can see why that recipe sold the book to Judith Jones, who became Julia's editor. It was "superb", to quote one of my guests. We attended the Nutcracker,which is a delightful production. We had a great time throughout the season.

Despite the busyness and rushing from one thing to another, I only gained a pound and a half over the holidays. My last weigh in was 2 pounds down, so I lost that plus a half pound more. So my strategy to eat normal days and holiday days worked pretty well. It was the last week of the year where I had problems sticking with my plan. That makes sense because that was when I had the least control over my schedule, my food, my exercise.

I hope to be at least 50 pounds closer to my goal by the end of 2010. But I realize I have no control over that, so my goals are to continue to exercise regularly; to keep track of everything; to continue to eat a healthy diet and see how it goes.

The first concert of 2010, the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and the Cypress String Quartet, is tomorrow. We're almost sold out, so I'm off downtown to work today.