Saturday, March 26, 2011

2 slaps in the face: 1 a cause, the other a cure

Years ago, we ran into a problem with an old friend--we invited her and her kid for dinner, and she complained, quite snootily, that our main course, French toast, was "breakfast food, not dinner food."

So the next time we invited her and her kid, we went out to a local restaurant. Unfortunately, we'd underestimated the cost, and, though we offered to cover the "excess," since she was on a tight budget at the time, she refused, and went home quite angry.

The next time we tried to get together, our old buddy put her foot down--she told us, in no uncertain times, that since she didn't care for my cooking, she would never come to our home again, and that, any time that we wanted to get together, we'd have to go to her home.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it occurs to me that it was probably after that last incident that I stopped inviting people to our home on a regular basis. Being insulted by my own guest was pretty rough on my ego.

And so it went for roughly the following 15 years--we became known as the people who brought chips and dips, and/or pita bread, baby carrots, and chummus, and/or dessert, and/or gave our hosts money to help defray the cost of meals.

That "work-around" came to a screeching halt just a few weeks ago, when another old friend of ours invited us to a pot-luck dinner. Much to our shock, and despite our protest that even the two of us together can barely boil water, our host adamantly insisted that what she needed from us was a main course big enough to feed 12 people.

It's a good thing that the other guests really scarfed up the food we'd brought in from a kosher restaurant that our host had recommended. It's an even better thing that our host had the tact not to ask how much our contribution to the dinner had cost. It would have been quite mortifying to have to admit that we'd probably paid at least three times the amount of money that any of the other guests had spent.

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line: I'm simply going to have to put past insult behind me and work on my cooking skills in order to avoid future financial injury, because once my husband retires, we simply won't be able to afford to sustain our social lives on take-out.


Anonymous TOTJ Steve said...

Cooking is only intimidating because you haven't done enough of it. In fact, with the right state of mind, it's fun. It requires some basic commonsense and a willingness to experiment. Don NOT be afraid to try things. Here are a few pointers, in no particular order:

1. Buy a good cookbook that focuses on HOW to cook things, rather than on recipes. Mark Bittman's How to Cook Anything comes to mind. It's one big hulking comprehensive guide to basic technique explained in easy to understand language and appropriately illustrated. It even explains equipment -- we're not talking "fancy" here, its focus is the home cook. Are there treif recipes? Of course. But your knowledge of kashrut will let you make the necessary substitutions.
2. Cooking is craft. Once you know basic techniques, and how things should "be", you'll concentrate on things to combine, rather than on actual recipes. Baking, however, is science. As a considerable amount of chemistry is involved in baking, you must follow the recipes until proficient.
3. Cooking requires a well-stocked pantry. Even though its only the two of you at home, you should take the time to stroll your supermarket aisles and familiarize yourself with what's available. You will be amazed at the building blocks presented. Remember, most supermarkets in the greater metropolitan NY area have far more kosher items than those just displayed in the actual kosher section.
4. Here's an example. Did you know you can make a really scrumptious pasta salad (we're talking main course, here) just be cooking your favorite shape of pasta, adding your selection of chopped vegetables (steam some broccoli in the microwave, cut up some sweet red bell peppers, drain and rinse a can of chickpeas) and don't get near a jar of red sauce. Instead, pick a salad dressing off the shelf -- there are countless bottles with acceptable supervision -- and dress accordingly.
5. Get several sharp knives -- for dairy, you need at least a paring knife and a larger chef's knife; for meat, the same plus a larger slicing knife.
6. Buy a mango and a red onion. Dice both and mix in a small bowl. Maybe add a little -- a teaspoon -- of olive oil. Let it sit the fridge for an hour. Bake a couple of tilapia filets in the over, nothing fancy, just a little salt & pepper 450 deg. about 10 minutes. Top with a few spoonfuls of the mango relish and serve with the pasta salad. You just made a restaurant quality dinner for two, for no more than 10 dollars.
6. Buy spices. Not just salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder. Try smoked paprika, cumin, curry, and mixes. Don't confuse "spice" with "heat". Most spices are not hot. Start with minimal application and proceed to taste.
7. Watch cooking shows on TV. For good technique, on public tv, check out Lidia Bastiannich (even though everything she does is traif), Jacques Pepin and those people from new england whose names escape me. If you have cable or satellite and you get food network, watch Alton Brown --you can't go wrong with him.

-- more to follow --

Sun Mar 27, 12:33:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous TOTJ Steve said...

Part 2:

As you can see, this is my "thing". The basic idea is to have a repertoire of things you know how to make, well. And this does not take a lot of time.

Here's another example, both my kids were away this weekend, and spouse and I had not planned dinner sufficiently. On the way home, I picked up some tilapia filets andd frozen mushroom kibbeh from Sabra (much of this new line is delish). At home, I preheated the oven and threw in the kibbeh. Rinsed off the fish, patted dry and salted/peppered both sides; placed on baking sheet. Here's where the pantry thing comes in. Coated the top of the fish with some dijon mustard -- the store brand is not only good, its also cheap and OU -- and then gently shook on some panko. What's panko, you ask? Its a fancy form of bread crumbs the Japanese perfected, now available from kosher suppliers, too. They get really brown and crispy, especially with a spritz of cooking spray.Sprinkle with some parmesan cheese (there are at least two kosher brands right now)(yes, we ate dairy that night) and A dash of paprika for color and into the oven with the kibbeh. While fish and side cooked, threw together a little salad. Elapsed time, about 20 minutes. Result -- shabbes dinner better than anything you could get in a restaurant.

Let me know if you want some more recipes.

Sun Mar 27, 12:45:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cooking techniques can be extrapolated from the most treif cooking shows on TV.
Kelsey's Essentials is a sweet program and give you the basics.
I love cooking foreign food (cheaper than a plane ride) and there are some wonderful kosher cook books out there.
We keep a ton of rice, pasta and potatoes on hand with a variety of spices, herbs, etc.
One whole chicken can go for several meals for two people and with our extremely limited budget, I stretch the dollar till it screams.
Check the internet for kosher cooking blogs. Jamie Geller has a nice one.
Have fun with the cooking.

Sun Mar 27, 04:16:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Wow, TOTJ Steve, thanks for the tips!

Here's another story that might help explain my "kitchen phobia": Years ago, I complained to an old friend that I'd been given a wonderful recipe by a former co-worker but had only made it twice because it took me 2 hours, even with a food processor. When I read the recipe to my girlfriend (not the one mentioned in this post), she unwittingly added insult to injury by telling me that she could make the s ame recipe in roughly half that amount of time. But I learned from that conversation that my slow fine-motor coordinator made me not only a slow typist, but slow in the kitchen, as well, and that it was probably my slow speed that made cooking so unpleasant for me.

What I probably need is plenty of recipes that have no more than six ingredients, require very little chopping, etc., and can be made from start to finish in about 1/2 an hour. That's why I love fish--just rinse it, put it into a Pyrex pot, douse it with dried dill and/or basil, add a little water, put it into the microwave, and voila, a delicious, healthy, low-cholesterol main course in only about 4-5 minutes.

Your pasta salad sounds yummy! Half a bag of frozen broccoli plus half a bag of "classic" mixed veggies (carrots, peas, green beans and corn) tossed together and "nuked" in the microwave, a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas, pasta, plus olive oil (with maybe a bit of garlic powder) and we're good.

I do have to be careful about ingredients, though, 'cause I'm not getting any younger, and many foods (such as the vinegar in salad dressings) aggravate my stomach and/or general health, these days. My husband says I'm getting hard to feed. Unfortunately, he's right. :( But if the worst health problems I have are that I can't eat pepper in any form and I'm only good for about two tablespoons of raw cabbage--goodbye, coleslaw--I can't complain.

I'd certainly love any other quick and easy recipes that you could suggest. I wonder, though, since these days, even cinnamon seems to bother me--I think I have "dry mouth" (insufficient saliva production)--whether I'd be better off exploring herbs rather than spices. If you could suggest anything mild, I'd appreciate it.

I'll probably work on building up my kitchen-tool and cookbook collections after we move. In the meantime, I'll rely on the tools I have and on the Internet and TV for recipes.

P.S. What's the easiest way to peel a mango? Never did figure that one out. I'll try that salad with scallions instead of raw onions (which would be a bit tough on both my and my husband's tummies).

Sun Mar 27, 06:03:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

"We keep a ton of rice, pasta and potatoes on hand with a variety of spices, herbs, etc."

Anon., I think we're going to have to cook a lot more brown rice and a lot less quinoa once my husband retires--quinoa may cook more quickly, but it's also a lot more expensive.

"One whole chicken can go for several meals for two people and with our extremely limited budget, I stretch the dollar till it screams."

That's going to be us, in a couple of years. Wish us luck.

Sun Mar 27, 07:40:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous TOTJ Steve said...

You don't peel a mango. You "fillet" it. Basically, that means you slice off each side, cutting just to the side of the center pit. Each fillet will be about 1/3 the width of the whole fruit. With the cut side facing up, take your paring knife and make several straight cuts in one direction, than more cuts in the perpendicular direction, so that you cut "cubes" into the flesh. Push the skin side "in" and the cubes pop up, then you just slice along the skin to free the cubes. Repeat with the other side, then carefully remove as much flesh as possible from the pit. Yumm.

I second the stocking up on brown rice, pasta of all shapes, and spuds. Don't neglect sweet potatoes. Wash them off. Don't peel them -- and don't ever wrap any potato in foil before putting it in the oven. Pierce the skin with a fork in 2 or 3 places and roast until fork tender, depending on size about 45 minutes at 425. Throw them in the fridge until you're hungry. They are a great, and extremely healthy side dish with just about any meat or fish. Slice some, and warm it in the microwave. I prefer mine on the savory side, so a little fresh ground pepper really does them well.

Here's a salmon recipe you can't go wrong with. You'll need some brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder and smoked paprika (smoked paprika is neither hot nor spicy). Into about 4 tablespoons of the brown sugar, mix a little of each of the spices to taste -- expect to use more salt (and use kosher salt, not table salt). Your going to sprinkle this on salmon fillets or fillet pieces (don't buy salmon steaks, which have the central bone) that have been rinsed and patted dry with paper towel. Put on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray (like almost every other kosher cook in the world, you will have covered the actual sheet with foil, first. Put in the middle or upper rack of the preheated oven at 400 deg. As the fish cooks, the sugar spice mix melts to a fancy restaurant style caramel glaze. The general rule with this kind of fish is about 10 minutes per inch of thickness, assume that it won't be in longer than 15 minutes. You don't have to poke it with a fork to see if its done. Make a hard fist with your hand. Press the flesh between your thumb and forefinger. That's how the fish should feel when its done. Don't overcook fish; its a shanda.

Avoid the microwave, you sacrifice an awful lot of flavor.

Make a big pot or bowl of brown rice every few days. That you can make in the microwave, just follow the directions on the box. Easy side dish -- some of that frozen veg, mixed with the rice and reheated in the microwave. Drizzle any variety of the "soy vay" sauces available at most markets over it.

Check out the herb combos in the spice aisle at the supermarket. mccormick and other brands have a number of combos to try out. A little goes a long way.

You can eat peppers. And remember, chilis and peppers are not the same thing. Learn how to roast a sweet red pepper (not spicy) and remove the skin, seeds and veins. the remaining pepper fillets are great with anything. If you want to try it the easy way, buy a jar of roasted pepper fillets and give them a taste. This will avoid all the things that can cause stomach upset.

Sun Mar 27, 09:11:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous TOTJ Steve said...

I'll leave you with just one more for tonight. This is a real no-brainer. You have left-over pasta. Plain pasta -- never sauce it in the pot or bowl, just spoon some sauce on your serving at the table. Warm the plain pasta up a little in a bowl in the microwave. Not too hot. Once again, here's where your well-stocked pantry or fridge comes in. Take out that bottle of light ranch dressing -- the store brand one with the OU on it. Pour a spoonful or two of the dressing on your warm pasta and mix well. Maybe shake on a bit of that parmesan cheese. Voila -- poor man's pasta alfredo. Sure, you could make a roux, add in the cream and parmesan cheese and really clog your arteries, but this is fast, delicious and substantially less calories. On nights when I get home late from a meeting and its 9:30 pm and I have not had dinner, that's what I do -- unless I'm making grits (white polenta). Look for that in the cereal aisle. Can't go wrong with grits with some shredded smoked mozzarella or cheddar mixed in.
Oh, and give white wine a chance. Its not high in alcohol but sipping a little with dinner may resolve the dry mouth issue.

Sun Mar 27, 09:24:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Miami Al said...


Fresh vegetables roasted are delicious. Root vegetables are more so. Preheat over to 350 or 400, spray cooking sheet with cooking spray (pre-line with aluminum foil to make easier cleanup), sprinkly with Kosher Sale and Fresh Ground Pepper to taste, roast for 5-10 minutes depending on vegetable for a delicious side dish with no effort.

Stir Fry: a little oil, easy to cook vegetables (peas, carrots, onions, etc) in a pan, stir it around until cooked, 4-8 minutes, depending.

Preheat over @ 350. Pan Seared chicken, create a baste of margarine, brown sugar, and seasonings (herbs/spices, the recipe I adapted called for butter, brown sugar is key for carmelized flavor). Baste chicken breasts for 7-8 minutes on each side to brown. After searing, place in oven, covered, for 30 minutes to cook fully.

Sweet Potatos: wash thoroughly, puncture allover with fork, wrap in foil, place on cooking sheet in a cool oven. Turn over on to 400. Let cook for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on size of the sweet potato. Foil + Cool oven controls heating process to extract maximum flavor from the sugars.

Pasta Salads: Boil water, make pasta. Second pan: saute onion, whatever vegetables you want. After pasta is done, mix up sauted vegetables with olive oil, toss with pasta, add a can of sliced black olives, chill for one hour.

We stay away from Kosher cookbooks, they are fat laden messes of oil and over cooked vegtables. However, I'm not in greater New York, we get locally grown fresh vegetables 10 months a year, plus things from South America on the reverse seasons (winter = summer) here, so we can go light on the added flavors and let the vegetables form their own flavor. I don't know if that is the case in the mid atlantic region.

Mon Mar 28, 10:20:00 AM 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with everyone who says that cooking isn't actually hard. You keep saying that you can't cook, but have you tried? Anyone can learn to cook. It's really very easy so long as you stay organized. If you learned how to use a computer and blog, then you can figure out how to cook. In addition to the Bittman book mentioned by TOTJ Steve, I would recommend Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Vegan With a Vengeance, which has a great instructions and is a hoot to read. Plus the recipes are amazing. My other suggestion would be Donna Klein's The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, which is full of really healthy and simple recipes that use pretty common ingredients. The added benefit of those books is that all the recipes are parve, so you don't have to figure out how to make substitutions and you can make them all for either meat or dairy meals.

Mon Mar 28, 12:52:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for all the advice and recipes, Steve, Al, and Anon. I should probably mention that my husband's latest concern is artificial ingredients, so we're not using margarine at all, and have switched to extra virgin olive oil for salad dressing and parve cooking. My own concerns, in addition to avoiding raw cabbage, vinegar, and black, chili, and jalapeno peppers (not to mention wasabi and horseradish--I eat romaine lettuce and/or endive at a seder), are to cut way down on sugar (which I save for my Shabbos junk-food treat) and to avoid the so-called nightshade vegetables, which, sadly, include sweet/bell peppers. (Sniff.) I'm bad about avoiding tomatoes, though--I do love my pasta sauce, which we can get with a hechsher in either organic or natural versions, depending on what's available. I will take your advice and try making more pasta dishes with steam or stir-fried veggies and less with sauce. Gotta try that mango trick, too. Yum!

Mon Mar 28, 12:53:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Forgot to mention the no-yeast business--I have to save that for challah, and--yep--Shabbos junk food. Do you see a pattern here? :)

Mon Mar 28, 12:55:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous TOTJ Steve said...

Sorry, but there is no medical justification for avoiding "artificial ingredients". I'm not sure what that could even mean.

Olive oil is fine on salads, but expand your horizon, try sesame, walnut or one of the other oils, all available with heksherim. Extra virgin olive oil is not usually recommended for sauteing (although I do use it out of laziness)because of a relatively low smoke point and flavor issues (it's not neutral). Try canola or vegetable oil -- or cooking spray -- for actual cooking and save the e.v.o.o. for flavoring/dressing.

Before you completely give up on vinegar, try rice wine vinegar -- its either in the salad dressing aisle or the asian food aisle. Most have a reliable hecksher and a lower acid percentage than conventional "white" vinegar. Some cider vinegars also have lower acid percentages. They bring a lot of flavor to the table, too.

I can't imagine what the issue is with yeast, unless you mean gluten, which is a completely different item.

Do you not eat potato? Because that's a nightshade family member.

If onion is a problem, try sweet yellow onions -- the big ones. I still think the best are the vidalia, which will be in season starting in May, but the Texas sweets are fine, too. Minimal acid content and sweet as fruit.

Mon Mar 28, 03:42:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like many things in life, practice makes a huge difference. Recipes that take me a long time and seem quite complicated the first time, become quite easy once I've made them three or four times. If I put them away and don't make them for awhile (for example some meals I only make in the winter time), they can be a bit more time consuming or intimidating when I return to them, but they quickly come back. I suspect based on on things you've said, this would be the case for you too.

Mon Mar 28, 04:10:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

TOTJ Steve, re "artificial ingredients," if it comes straight out of a chemistry lab, rather than from a farm, I'd rather not eat it. I'm not a big fan of what an old friend who's a health professional describes as "unpronounceables."

I've tried apple cider vinegar, and I found it too strong, but I'm willing to give rice wine vinegar a try, after Pesach. Thanks for the tip.

Toasted sesame oil is yummy! How could I have forgotten? Will restock after Pesach. If that turns out to be a bit overwhelming for some dishes, I'll try plain sesame oil.

Um, I was hoping not to have to go into too much detail about my problem with yeast, but since you asked, yeast and sugar contribute to my yeast infections, which make me itch in a place that I won't mention here and are thoroughly unpleasant. I avoid bread (and breadcrumbs) just about all the time, except for challah on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and it's just as well that I've never liked beer.

Re potatoes, check out that "nightshades" link that I embedded in a previous comment. Pesach gets interesting, because I get my choice of potatoes (gout) or matzah (constipation). What else can an Ashkenazit eat?

My husband and I can handle limited quantities of fresh onion, and larger quantities of fried onion. I'll take your advice, and stick to yellow ones. I haven't tried Vidalias, but maybe I should consider them an investment in my health.

Anon, practice may be deleterious to my health--I don't know whether you've been reading my blog long enough to know that I broke both wrists a little over two years ago. Since I type for a living, I have to be very careful about how much I use my hands and wrists around the apartment. So I'm very serious about needing recipes that don't take much time or require much stress on the hands and/or wrists.

Mon Mar 28, 04:51:00 PM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Oh, how dumb--an Ashkenazit can eat *sweet* potatoes, of course! Sweet potatoes and yams are neither nightshades nor kitniot. Methinks I'll be living on those this Pesach.

Mon Mar 28, 05:04:00 PM 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your posts awhile and I guess my message didn't carry the intention I meant. I'm not suggesting that you try recipes that are very complicated or require lots of cutting, but simply trying to encourage you that recipes that seem difficult the first time can be much more manageable by the second or third.

I have a recipe for a dish for a spicy tomato based sauce (may not be best for your diet, but that's not my point). The first time I made it I had to buy special ingredients, it seemed to take forever, involved a cooking technique I use only for this dish, and generally seemed difficult but potentially worth it. Now that I've made it multiple times, I still need the recipe to know how much of which spices to use, but otherwise it's not hard. I can put it together in 20 minutes, and then let the sauce simmer for an hour or 90 minutes, while I do other things.

If I had only made it once, I'd still think of this dish as hard, but it really wasn't, I just had to invest in the learning of it. Not so different from all the effort you've put into learning to daven, I think.

Kathy (yesterday's Anon)

Tue Mar 29, 10:10:00 AM 2011  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Kathy, I like your "learning to daven" analogy. :) I'll keep your "practice-makes-easier" approach in mind.

Tue Mar 29, 11:24:00 AM 2011  

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