Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Comfort Food

UPDATE: I saw my mother today and she said that she shredded an 8 oz block of white cheddar cheese for her tuna noodle casserole. 

Last week at work we had a comfort food lunch--we all brought in comfort foods for everyone to enjoy.  I brought in chili (which didn't turn out quite as I'd hoped--I should add tomato paste next time).  We had meatballs, Shepard's pie, ham and cheese sandwich rolls, fennel and sweet potato lasagna. . .oh, it was good.

We started talking about comfort food and I realized that we all have very different ideas about comfort food, and different recipes and ways of making the same dish.

My big comfort food dish is tuna noodle casserole, but not the way most people make it.  My mother never used cream of mushroom soup when she made it--in fact, I was shocked to learn that was a typical and major ingredient for it in most recipes.  She kept it very simple--cook a package of egg noodles until they are al dente; mix them with a half a cup (or more, depending on your taste) of shredded white cheddar cheese, one can of drained, flaked tuna, and a splash of milk (just a splash).  She often added in a thawed package of frozen spinach and a small can of sliced black olives.  Bake at 350 degrees until the top gets crispy and brown, eat, and enjoy.  Oh, my.  It was the one thing about Lent I liked--we'd have this every Friday.

I make it myself on occasion.  Sometimes I add extra vegetables--beans or peas, or chopped mushrooms, or chopped green peppers. Whatever's on hand, though spinach and olives are a must for me.  I'll also put in herbs--often it's some garlic and oregano or thyme. 

One of my coworkers came in today and told me that the conversation had her craving tuna noodle casserole, so she made one--with the cream of mushroom soup, lots of cheese, the noodles and tuna, olives, lots of garlic and herbs, and then she put crumbled potato chips on top and let it bake.  Which just sounds decadent and homey and so not what any self-proclaimed foodie chef would want to eat.  But it would be perfect for the likes of me.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Did I ever mention on this blog that I used to live in Japan?  I did, for three and a half years.  I lived in Osaka, which is classed as a megacity.  (I used to think I was a city girl until I moved there.  Boston is the sticks, people.  There's a reason why we say we're going "in town.")

Not one foreigner purchased their furniture there.  We all got our stuff from gomi.

Gomi is Japanese for trash, but it's not like we were rooting around in dumpsters for stuff.  There were specific days when people could put out their furniture and small appliances for curbside pickup.  Well, if you needed a kotatsu table* or a kitchen set. . .it beat going to Daiei (a Japanese department store, though not a fancy one) and shelling out the devil only knows how much on the stuff.

Me, I was lucky in that the place I moved into was already furnished--my housemates had already scavenged.  But I wouldn't have been above doing it myself if I needed it.  Some of the stuff people put out for pickup was gorgeous--one of my coworkers married a Japanese guy who got into furnishing their place with this stuff once he saw something he identified as a designer item.  In fact, once our students realized we did this, they'd let us know if they were getting rid of stuff--"Hey, we were going to get rid of the kotatsu table; did you want it?"  As one student said, "I like new things and I have the money for them but I hate to waste things--if you like this you should use it!"

I've heard that it's no longer limited to foreigners doing this--there are Japanese people who do this as well, now.  I suspect there have been Japanese who have done this for a while, actually.

* I miss kotatsu tables.  On a cold winter's day or evening in a place with no insulation, they are the best.  Those and the bathtubs in Japan.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Back in October, Steve had a great post about preserving hot peppers.  I saw a package of them for a decent price--not as good as the price he got, but a decent price--and I thought it would be a good opportunity to try his technique.  I suggest you stop by, read, and give it a whirl.  I also suggest you enjoy the photo on his blog, since he's a professional photographer and takes painstaking care to make sure every shot turns out right. 

So I won't rehash his technique--you can swing by and see it for yourself--but I'll say that this has been extraordinarily useful.  I can throw in a tablespoon or two into a crockpot of chili, throw a little into a stir-fry, use this when I make Moong Dal or Curried Lentils with Potatoes, or use it in soups or main dishes if I want to add a little extra kick.  It's also good in dips and salsa.

In fact, one thing I found with Moong Dal is that it can be a bit mild after all of the cooking; stirring in some chopped hot peppers to taste will kick it up a notch, and when you have them ready to go in the fridge it makes things much easier. 

I'm planning what I'll grow this summer and I think hot peppers (jalapenos, habeneros, red chilies) are definitely on the list.  Go, on rodents.  TAKE A BITE, I DARE YOU.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Pesto, a little cube of heaven

OK, Bryallen, this one's for you.  Nicoleandmaggie posted about pesto heaven as well, so check their post out.

As I had mentioned a while ago, herbs were sort of my gateway drug into gardening.  They are easy to grow, easy to use, and unlike some vegetables they don't tend to die of blight or aphids (though some, such as parsely and cilantro fall victim to rabbits).  One of my favorite herbs is basil.  I love the way it smells, I love how it grows so quickly, and I love how in order to have full and healthy plants you need to trim them and take off leaves.  Basically, with herbs you have to cut them and trim them for them to grow well, so you're constantly using them.

Now, I am happy to have, say, fresh tomatoes with some torn basil leaves and olive oil as a refreshing snack or salad (or breakfast because yes, I am weird).  But with all of the basil I plant (which by the way is a lot between my parent's garden, my plot at work, and my plot in my town) I have to figure out how to use this stuff or store it.

You can freeze basil, and as long as you don't need it as a pretty garnish it will serve you well.  You can chop it up and add it to sauces if you want the taste of fresh basil (dried basil is also delicous but it has a very different taste; some recipes specifically call for one or the other for good reason).  You can also make pesto.

I first discovered pesto when I was living in England for my college year abroad.  At the time, I despised tomato sauce and wouldn't touch it (I also despised garlic, cheese, and many other foods that make life worth living).  I outgrew most of my pickiness this year.

When I tried pesto for the first time, I almost passed out from the joy.  Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration but not too much of one.  It was this rich, sweet yet pungent and nutty combination of taste bud heaven.  Also, it was something to put on my pasta besides butter and/or olive oil since I was not yet a fan of tomato sauce. 

Once I started to grow my own basil I learned the various ways I could store it and enjoy it during the fall, winter and spring months.  Pesto is my favorite way to do this.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I didn't think these search terms went together

Hay buddee  u got any Advil?

"Squirrel ibupropherine."

I kid you not.  That is a search term someone used that got them here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Moong Dal

For those of you who can't imagine eating beans, may I introduce you to Moong Dal? 

I have made Moong Dal several times and I have to say, it's becoming a favorite go-to dish.  It's easy to make, it's inexpensive, and it's delicious.  Also, if you have vegetarian or vegan friends, it's the perfect dish to serve as it has no animal products in it whatsoever.

Basically, you cook yellow split peas with salt--bring the water up to boiling, then allow to simmer for about 20 minutes.  They are cooked with ginger, jalapeno peppers, turmeric, tomatoes (you can used a can of diced tomatoes, and if you use a can of diced tomatoes with jalapenos, then you will save yourself the trouble of dicing a jalapeno pepper) and lemon juice.  You saute the rest of the ingredients (garlic, cumin seed, and red chili pepper) in a little oil.  The original recipe called for this to be stirred in with the yellow split peas but a friend of mine that it works quite well if you stir the peas into the skillet where you're sauteing the spices and heat it through.  It did work quite nicely.  When I made them this go round I forgot to add the tomatoes and I did miss them though the peas were still tasty.

Basmati rice a tasty accompaniment to this.  I like to throw in one or two cardamom pods and a teaspoon of cumin seeds in with the rice in my rice cooker--I cooked a cup of rice (which became two cups cooked).  It was pretty good.  Basmati rice already has a lovely, sweet and nutty fragrance anyway so if you decide to skip the cumin and cardamom it will still be tops.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sometimes, it's okay to be lazy.

I often hear people--especially in this corner of the interwebs--go on about making time.  Being productive.  Setting goals, even microgoals.  You can be far more productive than you are if you only try harder.  Multi-task.  Get up earlier.  Work smarter (oh, I have a special hatred for that phrase, mainly because an old boss would say it when the real meaning was: I know you're doing the work of five people but we can't be bothered to hire anyone else, and if you don't do these five jobs perfectly you're fired).  Plan ahead.
And for a long time I made every effort to do these things.  And I kept failing.  And I felt awful, like I was somehow unworthy, because couldn't I just be more productive and together if I tried harder?  If I planned better?  Why couldn't I do it? Why can't I do this? I'd think.  I must be lazy. 

You know why I failed?

I got tired.

I think we all get tired.

A lot of us have long commutes, and for many good and valid reasons, moving closer to where we work isn't always an option.  A lot of us cannot work from home and cannot afford to work a reduced workweek.  And it's not as if we get home to nothing but leisure.  I don't have little elves who do my laundry and clean my home and pay my bills and feed my cat.  Most parents I know don't have elves who watch the kids and cook dinner and do the dishes and cart everyone around.  There aren't elves that do the grocery shopping for us, get the oil changed, do the yardwork (if you have a yard) or iron your clothes.  We're busy doing the every day stuff to maintain our lives.

So, I have a proposal for everyone, it being a Friday and all: we promise ourselves to not be productive all the time.  That we not only refuse to feel guilty for not setting and meeting goals (what??) but that we strive to spend a few hours a week in comfy clothes, procrastinate doing something that needs to be done (or that we think needs to be done but maybe doesn't).  That we spend that time reading a book, or watching a show we enjoy, or petting the dog or cat or even just napping.  That we just take some time to breathe.  Not do anything deep or meaningful, not try to attain spiritual enlightenment, not to improve ourselves.

But just to breathe.  Just to take a few hours to glory in doing nothing, to know that in the grand scheme of things, it's okay to not live your life like it's plotted out on a spreadsheet.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Put out the word and you'll be pleasantly surprised

Bryallen recently wrapped up her experiment to eat only British food.  It got me thinking about how putting out the word really helped.  Things have changed for me since I moved to this town almost 13 years ago.  I found that it's been easier for me to eat more locally-raised and grown food as I've made my desire to do so (and my insufferable foodie tendencies) known over the years. It also doesn't hurt that there has been more options created here than when I first moved here.

Putting out the word really helps.  Your friends will take note of things that will interest you and let you know about them.  Being your friends, they want to help (because that's what you do when your friends express interest in something or a need for something, right?).

I wanted to get into canning.  I didn't want to spend $200 on a pressure canner since I didn't know if I'd be sticking with it.  I figured if someone had one, I could borrow it once or twice (and give it back of course) and see if it was something I'd enjoy and keep doing.  So I put out the word.  Eventually, my friend learned of this.  It turns out that she had a pressure canner that she no longer used; she gave it to me with the stipulation that I make it available to anyone we knew who needed to use it.

When I first moved here, I didn't know of any farms or places where I could get eggs, etc.  I didn't even know there were like-minded people here.  But I got to know them thanks to the local UU Church I joined.  Between my friends here, my colleagues, my acquaintences and my coworkers, I have access to eggs and honey (that friends produce/raise--oh and have I mentioned that very fresh, locally raised eggs are just little spheres of heaven? OH YES THEY ARE), fresh produce (thanks to two garden plots, a CSA, and friends and family with abundant crops) and even meat sometimes (as a friend who is part of a meat CSA has shared with me in the past). 

It's also been helpful to be so vocal about it as I'll get tips on growing certain things and preserving them.  And I'm happy to exchange--giving pickled or pressure canned vegetables, making a special meal, sharing recipes, sharing produce/herbs I've grown (or pestos I've made) go a long way in keeping it reciprocal. 

Don't be afraid to put out the word about things you'd like or things you're interested in.  Be really open about it, be patient, and keep your eyes and ears open.  It won't happen overnight, but once people around you know about something you're interested in, they'll tell you when/if they learn something (or share or help if they can).  Just remember to reciprocate (no one likes an ingrate) and to help when your friends put out the word about things they're interested in.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Don't fake it

Boxed wine? NOOOO.
Dear Lord, I may end up the patron saint of LOLGoats.
When I was a kid, my sister and I sat down to a breakfast of Frosted Flakes.  But the cereal we got tasted. . .different.  Being a kid, I was not as diplomatic as to say, "Hmm, mom, this tastes different." or even, "Um. . .maybe I'll just have toast today."  I'm pretty sure I used "gross" in my description of the cereal.

My mother 'fessed up.  She said she'd bought the store brand cereal and put it in the Frosted Flakes box, thinking we wouldn't be able to tell the difference.  I'm pretty sure she would have told us after to prove the point that it tasted just the same, but we all learned that day that there was a difference.

Now, with one or two exceptions, store brands have vastly improved since then. But this does make me think about something some people do--either to prove a point or hide the truth.  Namely, faking it.  Hiding it.  Cowering.

My mother faked it to see if we'd be able to tell the difference (we could).  But some people fake it because on some level, they're ashamed.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Blogaround and Goat Head Curry

Yesterday's post inspired me to search on YouTube.  And yes, I do want to try to make this because it looks delicious. You're welcome.

Now this is what I call repurposing.

Bryallen shares her thoughts on eating locally.

Bravehearts look delicious. 

This looks delicious as well.

Linked for truth and humor.

Practical Parsimony talks about raising chickens.

What Easter Island can teach us about money.  Besides the fact that it would take a lot of it for me to get there.  It's also a cautionary tale about overconsumption and the ensuing environmental degradation. 

This is creepy, silly, dangerous and unnessessary all at the same time.  Congratulations, Mercedes-Benz, you win at fail.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cheapskates on TV bring out the foodie in me

I'm in ur face  tempting u 2 eat mah hedSo I had the TV on Tuesday night while I was cleaning the kitchen, which is never a good idea because if the show is any good, I get sucked into it, and if it's trainwrecky, I disturb the neighbors peace by yelling "OH NO YOU DID NOT JUST DO THAT."

It was a TLC show.  So you know.  It was pretty much going to be option b.  (I'm thinking I should just jettison the cable--I mean, the bundle was cheap during the first year, but it's not so cheap anymore and I'm more of a reader than TV watcher anyway.)

There was a show on called Extreme Cheapskates, and apparently it is now a series.  Some of the people did things that weren't that extreme, some of the things they did were extreme but laudable, and some was just, um, nasty.  I'm going to focus on the not-as-extreme-as-you'd-think bits, because TLC is notorious for tweaking their shows to highlight the more eccentric parts--and sometimes make the people they feature seem as trainwrecky or as weird as possible (and sometimes they just get weirdos and thank the TV Ratings God for his great blessing).

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Potato and daikon recipes

One of my doohickies on blogspot lets me see the search terms people used to find my blog.  One of the search terms that was used was "potato and daikon recipes."  Which made me wonder, what potato and daikon recipes are there out there?

Well, there's Japanese-Style Potato Salad with Daikon and Cucumber.

There are Daikon and Potato Cakes.

There are Daikon Mashed Potatoes.

Try also Roasted Celeriac, Daikon, and Sweet Potatoes.

And you can try Korean Spicy Fish, Potato and Daikon Stew.

You're welcome.  (And when daikon is in season next year, I'm trying some of these things.)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Eating locally

British blogger Bryallen has decided that she will only eat foods grown in the United Kingdom.  This apparently came about after a discussion of where her family's food was coming from and the impact it had on the planet.  She figured she'd try going local for a week, and her posts so far are eye-opening.  (I figured that being a vegetarian, it would be easier for her, but nope.  It was actually more difficult.)  I really admire her for doing this and will be interested to hear what the experiment was like for her. 

She's already pointed out that there are a lot of non-locally sourced foods we take for granted.  And she's so right--coffee, tea, olive oil, flour, rice are all things that are certainly not produced in my neck of the woods.  So if I wanted to go local, I'd have to cook in butter, skip bread (unless I got my flour from here) and skip a lot of cuisines and baked goods, since New England is not known for being a great producer of cinamon, allspice, sugar, cloves, and a whole host of other things.

She made me think of a book I'd read a few years ago, Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet. The book chronicled a Canadian couple's decision to eat only locally grown and sourced foods--and by locally grown, they meant food grown or sourced within a 100-mile radius.  They went without bread for a long, long time, as well as olive oil.  They also went without salt until they learned how to get it from the sea.  There was a lot of stuff they just couldn't eat.

One thing I love about living in this age is that we can get any kind of food we want.  But one thing I hate about that is that we've really lost sight of the fact that food is seasonal and regional.  Oranges apparently used to make an appearance in the grocery stores in the winter.  And it's not as if New Englanders would see a lot of oranges--let alone mangos or starfruit--in the grocery store.  We didn't have fresh vegetables year-round.  Even meat has seasons, which just surprised me when I learned that. 

Now, I would hate to live in a time where getting a simple bottle of soy sauce or olive oil would be a major undertaking--you will pry my soy sauce and olive oil from my cold, dead fingers, people.  (As well as my curry poweder, garam masala, bay leaves, and other assorted bits of flavor heaven.)  But I'm not sure how comfortable I am taking these things for granted, either.  Maybe I'd be more comfortable with getting spices and olive oil and soy sauce if I knew that the things I should assume were sourced locally actually were sourced locally.  Unfortnately, even when foods are grown locally and are in season, it's well-nigh impossible to find them at your grocer.  My local grocery store carried apples from Washington state when apples here in New England were in season. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

It's not that fresh

Not as fresh as you'd think.
I've been hearing a lot of lectures lately about how we should be cooking and eating "fresh, healthy food."  Food seems to be a big flashpoint these days--it's a great way for people to indulge in a moral panic about the way other people live.  And the end result is that I talk to a fair number of people who think they're terrible failures or bad parents or bad people and lazy cooks because they don't get boxes of fresh vegetables and make gourmet meals.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: While I enjoy cooking, when it's just for me it's kind of a chore.  And if I had to do it for my family everyday, I would not be delirious with joy.  I would also not be a regular fixture at the supermarket.

Now, I'm not one to exhort people to join CSA's and grow their own--CSA's can be pricey for many people, and it's not as if growing things is an easy endeavor (or something that all people can or want to do).  I love my CSA, I plan on doing it again (and seriously, would work a second job if it was too pricey for me), but we all need to keep in mind that there are ways to eat better without eating "fresh."

I like to get frozen vegetables.  I've got a chest freezer that I make good use of--and I get the bags (not boxes) of frozen vegetables.  It's easy to reach for a bag of say, frozen spinach, take out a cup of the stuff, and wrap a twist-tie around the remaining bag and place it back in the freezer.  You can get all kinds of things frozen--corn, string beans, diced onion (which is a Godsend for me, as I despise chopping them), collards, okra, beet greens, sliced or diced peppers, broccoli, zucchini, you name it.  I actually prefer most vegetables frozen, not canned (with the exception of tomatoes, beets, beans, and anything pickled).  Canned leafy vegetables are . . .well, the canning process does not do them justice.  Also, it's easier to parcel out what you need from say, a bag of frozen spinach than a can of spinach.

No, you will not be able to make a salad.  But you can throw a half-cup of a few varieties into an improvised soup you're making, or into a skillet meal.  You can add them to stews and chili you make (in fact, I like adding the frozen sliced red, green, and yellow peppers to chili).  But them into a casserole or quiche you want to make, or a frittata if you make them.  You get the idea.

This saves a lot of time, work and anxiety.  You won't spend time and energy washing and chopping "fresh" vegetables that were trucked in from across the country (or from another country).  You won't have to worry about using this up before it goes bad and then beat yourself up when you find it forgotten and moldy in the fridge. 

Granted, you have to use the frozen stuff you have.  You don't want to stick bags of frozen vegetables in the freezer and forget they're there.  But it's easier to reach in and take what you need for a quick meal you want to throw together.

Also--frozen vegetables tend to be fresher.  They're picked and frozen when they're ripe (not when they're underripe so they'll ripen on the trip, like the "fresh" vegetables we get in the grocery store).  They aren't loaded with salt like their commercially canned counterparts.  And they're pretty convenient.  They're easy to use when you need to throw something together, and contrary to what a lot of foodies would have you think, there's nothing at all wrong with throwing a meal together. 

Monday, January 2, 2012

New Year's Dinner

Overall, this was a win.
I spent this New Year's Eve at my friend Dan's house--it was the three of us (including Steve).  Steve and I did the cooking--ironically, I did the vegetarian dish and Steve did the meat dish, and Steve's the one who's vegetarian.

A good vegetarian casserole.
The dish I made was a polenta, rainbow chard, and white bean casserole.  It's actually quite easy to make--make the polenta with milk and water, throw in some garlic powder and basil and asiago cheese, and allow it to set.  Carmelize two sliced onions, the sautee some garlic and the chard; add the beans and allow to heat through.  Place these things on top of the polenta and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minues.

Soup from heaven.
Steve's chicken was heavenly--he stuffed the breasts with a fig jam and gruy√®re cheese, rolled them in panko breadcrumbs, and baked them.  He also made a minestrone soup that was to die for--he used a Turkish bay leaf (and shared his bay leaf booty with me, many thanks, Steve!), and a lot of vegetables.  It was very substantial.  That was a meal in itself. 

The sauce that went on this was delicious.
We did have in action one of those near-fails.  I say near-fail because the sauce Steve prepared was fantastic--a mushroom and lemon bechamel sauce.  He made stuffing to eat the sauce with, but left it at home.  Steve likes to beat himself up about these things (dude, I warned you.  I am totally going to bust your chops about this).  I told him that if nothing else, we'll have a good story to tell.  While Steve was cursing himself, I swiped some bread from the fridge; I tore it into pieces, added some herbs, and fried it in a skillet in a little olive oil.  The verdict?  Well, Steve's sauce was good.  My improvised stuffing?  A funny story to tell.  Next time, I'll just toast the bread and skip the fancy-pants stuff.

It was a nice, mellow night which is what I needed because I have (yet again) another sinus infection (thought thankfully, seems to be on the mend).  It's hard to engage in revelry when your eyesockets hurt.