Archive | November, 2011

De-Rutting the Chef

14 Nov

It happens to the best of us: we love cooking, but just aren’t in the mood. For a few days or a week or more. Maybe we’re tired of serving a delicious meal and listening to complaining from picky family members (spouses included, and what’s up with that, anyway?). Perhaps we’re frustrated by climbing grocery bills, persnickity appliances, or hard-to-find ingredients. And maybe we’re just tired. Work and school and activities and bills and car issues and home projects, and it never seems to end.

I hear you. Want my confession? I made two meals last week (old standbys) and we had leftovers twice and then had cereal for dinner the rest of the week. Time was short and I was in a mood and the stove wasn’t singing its sirens song to me, and that’s the way it was.

We all lose our kitchen mojo, and it’s OK. I can tell you that the more you stress about it, the longer it’s going to go on. And I can offer a few tips that have helped me climb out of the rut:

  1. Chill. It’s totally fine to take a week or two off. Cook some family favorites–meals you know everyone likes and that you can put together easily. Try breakfast for dinner–scrambled eggs, oatmeal, pancakes and even cold cereal are totally fine for your evening meal and are simple to put together and clean up afterwards. Ditto for grilled cheese or turkey or peanut butter sandwiches, French toast, a rotisserie chicken from the market, quesadillas, omelets, and even that mac n cheese out of the box. It’s all good! Take a break and let it go for a bit.
  2. Go visit your local kitchen store and just wander around. Flip through the cookbooks, touch the pots and pans and gadgets, look at the samples that are out. I find a ton of inspiration even in the cooking department at Macy’s, where I see something and think, “I can do that,” and find myself re-energized.
  3. Park the kids in front of a TV for a few hours (nobody’s brain will rot that quickly, I promise), park yourself in front of another with a soft blanket, a cup of something hot to sip, and a comfy pillow, and settle in for a food movie. The two that are sure to get me re-jazzed about my own kitchen are Julie & Julia (the movie is so. much. better than the book–and that is the only time you’ll ever hear me say that about any movie, ever), and No Reservations, which didn’t get a lot of attention but is wonderful. Watching other people cook is fun, and you see their frustrations too, which helps with your own.
  4. Take yourself out for a really nice meal. Pick your favorite cuisine, get a date, and go enjoy. Sometimes the great stuff someone else makes for you inspires you to get back to making your own fabulous meals.
  5. Pretty up your kitchen! Make the room somewhere you want to be. Hang up something you love on the walls. Rearrange your countertops. Add a music system to the room. Whatever you need to make your kitchen a magnet for you.
  6. Bake something. Seriously. Bread or brownies or cookies or whatever. Something about sifting and mixing and measuring is very zen.

We all hit ruts. You can’t rush your way out, either. Let it work itself out, give yourself a little boost, and you’ll be back at the stove in no time!

 

Bake Sale!

11 Nov

This weekend marks the annual Christmas Bazaar at my church, which includes a bake sale that funds need-based scholarships to our school. I always bake a lot, and this year was no different. But I wanted to show you these super-cute cupcakes in a jar!

I stole this idea–it’s on about eleventy-trillion different websites–but it came out so well that I had to give it a plug. You need jelly-sized canning jars (8 oz, I bought two cases at my local hardware store), a load of ribbon, some plastic spoons, tape, and your favorite cupcake and icing combo.

Let your cupcakes cool completely and then slice them in half, so you have a top and a bottom of each. Put your frosting into a piping bag with a star tip (a Ziploc bag with a small corner clipped off works great).

Place the bottom of a cupcake into one of the jelly jars. Pipe icing on top of it, being sure to go all the way to the edge of the cake, so you can see the icing when you look at the jar. Gently press the cupcake top down on top of that, and then ice that the same way. Put the lid on, tape a spoon to the side, and put some pretty ribbon around the top. Voila–instant bake sale happiness, and something people can walk around and snack on while they shop the rest of the show.

Two other quick tips: I made chocolate chip cookie cake for this sale as well. I made the batter a day ahead and stored it in the fridge, which saved me time on baking day and freed up my mixer for other things. I also used foil pans, which are both prettier wrapped up than naked bread, and let me double the cake recipe and get three loaves out of it (since the disposable pans are smaller than my regular ones). I also made my sweet white bread, as it’s always popular and keeps for a day or two, tightly wrapped.

Breads get wrapped up in their foil pans, first in regular plastic wrap and then in a layer of clear cellophane, and then tied with a bright ribbon and labeled with a pretty card. Pretty food sells.

I’d love to hear your great bake sale ideas–post them below!

 

Cooking Lesson

7 Nov

I spent yesterday at the Metropolitan Cooking & Entertaining Show, which was such fun I can barely put it into words. I got a cookbook signed by Giada, I won a T-shirt (*giggle*), I snagged a super cute Christmas present for my daughter, and I came home with some yummy things in jars and some yummy ideas in my head.

There were about 10 aisles of booths filled with all sorts of foodie things (and some not so much–Gutter Helmet? BathFitter? Really?), and I spotted some definite trends. Salsa and barbecue sauce are both hot–I saw lots of those from all sorts of vendors. The line for soup was the longest in the place, and comfort food in general was very popular. Two vendors were selling high-end knives (no Wusthof, which surprised me, but Guy Fieri’s line looked nice and there was an artisan company whose hammered blades were stunning), a few were selling expensive table linens, and there were two booths of brightly-patterned aprons and lunch totes and chef’s hats and soft cooler bags and all sorts of fun things like that. One large exhibit in the back sold Viking stoves, one truck was handing out Duke’s mayonnaise (I am a recent convert, by the way–that stuff is good), and a large area was hosting beef cooking and eating demonstrations.

There were three demonstration stages open to the masses and one large one that cost extra, which is where Paula Deen and Giada and Guy Fieri spoke. The (free) demos I saw were all about making life easier, both every day and during the holidays, and the speakers had some super cute ideas.

The biggest free stage hosted Michel Richard at noon, and that was what made me buy my ticket, what with my foodie crush and all. I sat down 20 minutes early to be in the front, and he did not disappoint.

His food demo–an orange sponge cake–was wonderful, but the real reason I enjoyed it was that it was FUN. Food and cooking are FUN, you guys, and that totally came through–he laughed and joked and danced and sang and shouted through his recipe, and then bounced off the stage to take questions and laugh some more. I learned quite a bit in the half-hour he talked, including…

  • You don’t have to spend a lot on your kitchenware–he baked his cake in a plain, frill-free metal pan–but a stand mixer makes a huge difference. “Do you have one of these,” he asked the audience as his KitchenAid whirred away. “You should buy one.” It was the only product he endorsed. Have to say, I heartily agree–mine makes all the difference and was worth the investment and counter space.
  • Ingredients matter. He talked about using butter in recipes, and how his mother used margarine and it just wasn’t the same. Eat less if you must, but use quality ingredients when you cook. You’ll be happier for it.
  • Want chocolate cake? Substitute cocoa powder for 20 percent of the flour in a white cake recipe. Simple, eh? (The recipe he demonstrated called for orange juice. He recommended using apple if you go with chocolate there. Cool.)
  • His favorite food to make and eat at home? ROASTED CHICKEN WITH GARLIC. Vindication, my friends. Total, beautiful, absolute vindication.
  • He baked his cake in a pan lined with plastic wrap. I asked why plastic instead of parchment. He said–and I completely agree–that he doesn’t like using parchment paper because it’s hard to get down in the pan properly. Spray the pan with nonstick spray and then line it with plastic, and it magically conforms to the walls of the pan, giving you a beautiful cake at the end. I’d never seen that done beforeĀ  and am intrigued.
  • Finally, he stopped bouncing around long enough to stand very still and ask us all if we knew what the magic ingredient was to give food a special sparkle. Nobody knew. “Love,” he said, and began bouncing and singing. “Love, love, love loooooooove.”

Gang, this is fun. Food is a creative outlet and eating is a joy and the kitchen is a place for family and friends to gather and enjoy each other. I had a ball yesterday simply because he’s so much fun–he’s not stuffy and snobby like other chefs in his position (he raised both fists in the air and gave a hearty “YEAH” when his introducer mentioned his James Beard award), and he could not be nicer or more encouraging. He sat down and took a few pictures with me and chatted about what I liked to cook, and it felt so accessible, which is the way it should be.

“You can do this,” he said to us. “In your kitchen. It is easy.” And he’s right.

 

Roast Chicken, Party of One

3 Nov

I figured out the roast chicken thing, and I am a happy camper today.

I’ve told you before that my family is not a fan of roast chicken. Bunch of freaks. I mean really–ask any professional chef what their last meal on earth would be if they could choose, and chances are the answer will be roast chicken (somebody actually did that, by the way, and that really was the answer. I think there’s a book about it.). Cooked properly, a whole chicken is divine. It is simple and delicious and comforting and relatively simple, and my husband and my children complain about it as if I’ve snuck cyanide beneath its wings every time I pull one out of the oven.

It’s been a significant bone of contention around here, to be honest. I continue cooking meatballs and pizza quesadillas and all sorts of things they love (I love them too, but still), and I avoid the beautiful roasters at the grocery store just so I don’t have to listen to the moaning over a bird.

A BIRD. Honestly. It’s ridiculous.

So last night, DH was out at some work event and I grilled up a piece of beef for the kids, and I pulled a chicken breast out of the fridge and wondered what would happen if I roasted it just like a chicken–just that one piece. And I tried that.

What happened was what common sense says: I had a wonderful roast chicken dinner, just for me, and it was a thing of beauty.

The best part of this is that it is a one-dish meal, and it’s a dice-and-dump to boot. Chop chop, dump it in the pan, throw it in the oven, wait a bit, and voila. Dinner. Dinner worthy of a last meal, in fact, if we’re going to go there. I admit that I hummed to myself as I ate it, because the simple act of roasting a bit of a bird all for myself was a true delight.

I know some of you have the same chicken issue as I, and I highly recommend making yourself a lovely dinner once in awhile. It’s simple and easy and inexpensive, and there’s really no reason on earth not to do it. Head for your ovens, ladies. You need:

1 chicken breast, bone-in and skin-on

1/2 an onion (I use sweet onions) roughly chopped

1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite-sized pieces

1 orange or 1 lemon (I used orange, but either will be yummy), sliced into three slices

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole

A sliver of butter (maybe 1/8 or 1/4 of a tablespoon)

Olive oil

Heat your oven to 400 degrees and spray a small casserole dish or baking dish (a bread pan would be great, but line it with foil so your next loaf isn’t savory) with olive oil or cooking spray.

In the dish, stir together your butter, onions, and sweet potatoes and give them a little dose of salt and pepper. Top the veggies with two citrus slices, and balance one clove of garlic on top of that. Add about a tablespoon of water to the dish:

Take your chicken breast and loosen the skin with your fingers to form a pocket. Into that pocket, slide your last fruit slice and the other clove of garlic. Spray that baby with olive oil, and gently lay it on top of the fruit and garlic in the pan.

Slide it into the oven and roast it until it’s done (160 degrees internally), which was about 40 minutes for me. Let the chicken sit for at least five minutes before you cut into it, to let its juices resettle, and then enjoy your perfect dinner for one.

Good Reads

2 Nov

Do you love magazines? I do. A lot. And I subscribe to a large handful of them, all on paper (Santa hasn’t brought me an iPad yet–sniff). Lots of those are food magazines, and I thought we’d chat about them this morning.

My all-time favorite and the one I’ve subscribed to the longest is Cooking Light. I like this one because, for the most part, the recipes are made with real ingredients–things your grocery store carries and things you’re likely to already have in the house. They don’t taste diet, they’re easy to follow, and they’re very nicely photographed. I also like the product tips, the fitness advice, and the lifestyle articles in this one, and it’s the only one I read cover to cover as soon as it arrives at my house. Lots and lots of ideas in this one, and as a bonus, their website is easy to search and navigate for specific ingredients or meals. Love, love, love.

Second on my list is Bon Appetit. There is nothing diet about this one–it’s all about amazing food, butter and cream and sugar and all. That’s not to say you won’t find roasted chicken and vegetables in here, because you will. This is the magazine I page through slowly, drooling at the gorgeous photos and dreaming up elaborate dinner parties (that I never throw–ah well) in my head. These also stick around my house the longest because the magazine is beautiful and a delight to peruse. The recipes are well-tested, and there’s a fantastic technique school section in the back that explains basic tricks to those who are new to the whole cooking-from-scratch thing.

Third? Food Network Magazine. Seriously. Super fun to read, with a light, happy tone and lovely photography. The recipes are easy to follow and run the gamut from healthy to dietary disaster, and most are very easy to make using regular ingredients and the pans you already have. There are photo spreads on celebrity chef home kitchens (droooooool, but it’s interesting to see where lots of them have the same basic stuff as the rest of us), really interesting interviews and features, and they have a fantastic website that’s easy to navigate. I adore this relative newcomer.

Real Simple has some lovely recipes, and it’s a great magazine for general reading as well. I’ll be honest–their ideas of clothing bargains are not the same as mine and once in awhile I shake my head at the liberal use of convenience foods (sodium, anyone?), but I get some great ideas for family meals in here, and their organizational tips are first-rate. Great gift ideas inside as well, and every so often there are unbeatable kitchen bargains to be had in their special offers. While it’s not a cooking magazine per se, it is among my favorites, and my copies are well-worn by the time they hit my recycling bin several months after publication.

I subscribed to Food & Wine last year to fill a void (more on that in a second), and I have to say, it’s just not me. It’s a lovely magazine, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a bit high-brow for this working mom of two. Ingredients aren’t always standard grocery store fare, and rare are the days I have an hour to stand over a pot, tho it’s a nice fantasy. I’ve never made a recipe out of it and don’t intend to renew my subscription. Nothing personal–they do a great job at what they do. It’s just that what they do doesn’t fit in with what I do, you know? Perhaps after retirement.

I subscribe to Martha Stewart Living thanks to a deal I got through one of those bargain email lists–I think I paid $3 per year for three years or something. It’s fun to read and beautiful, but let’s be totally honest: nobody cares how my fitted sheets look in the linen closet and I’m not going to spend three hours making them Ritz Carlton perfect. I don’t starch (who are we kidding–I don’t iron), I don’t crochet my own lace, I don’t raise farm animals, and I don’t make my own pie dough (shocked? Seriously, gang, the rolled dough from Pillsbury is among the greatest inventions of our time, and we should all bow down to it). It’s a lovely magazine in theory but, again, doesn’t fit my life so much. That said, I do enjoy reading it and I get a lot of ideas that I scale down to fit our family, so it’s worth the cost and the paper.

Martha has another magazine too–Everyday Food–that’s nice enough. I got it for a year and always flipped through it. But I never cooked anything from it. I also didn’t like the little format of it, which was too hard to open on a countertop if you did want to cook from it. This one’s probably worth picking up in the checkout line, though, because the problems between it and me are largely on my end, I’m sure.

The great food magazine void, as far as I’m concerned, happened when Gourmet ceased paper publication awhile back. I loved Gourmet. Loved it like I love few publications. It was gorgeous and lived up to its title in the quality of its recipes, but it was also accessible to the kitchen hobbyist and very do-able on a layman’s stovetop and budget. At the moment, archives are available on the website and they have an e-magazine that’s available on the iPad (elitist much, guys? Sheesh.), but that’s not an option for me or lots of other people. And so I look at my final, unopened issue in my magazine basket and sigh heavily, unable to mar its plastic over-wrap, and hope some deep-pocketed foodie will resurrect it for the masses someday. Sooner rather than later, please.

That brings us to the magazine I cancelled this morning. (Rant ahead–you’ve been warned). And that is Every Day with Rachael Ray. It’s a pretty magazine, in a dizzying, too-much-on-the-page kind of way. I don’t think I’m the target demographic judging by its design, which is clearly more for 20-somethings than those of us a decade or two beyond that stage. The recipes are simple enough, albeit not always what one would call healthy. But what killed me on this one was a letter they sent with their November issue. I quote:

“This edition is so big, in fact, that we are treating it as a special issue that will count as two of your subscriber issues, so the duration of your subscription will be adjusted accordingly.”

Did you get that? They made a big magazine and decided their subscribers could eat the cost and be docked a full issue as a result. Lucky lucky us!

Sorry, kids, but that’s shoddy business. If I paid for 12, I get 12, even if you went to town on Thanksgiving with your Biggest Issue Ever! You can’t come in after the fact and subtract stuff that we already paid for. And I, for one, am offended that they’d try to pull this over with an upbeat, exclamation-point-laden letter that tells us how totally awesome this rip-off is. Thumbs way down on this one, and I am done. Subscription canceled.

So that’s my list of food magazines. If you read one you love, I’m all ears–tell us in the comments!

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