Posts Tagged ‘cooking’

I was raised in a very English family – a fact that means parts of my education in cooking was backwards. Contrary to the stereotypes, traditional English cooking does have high points, including cheeses, desserts, and Yorkshire pudding, but those points do not include vegetables. For the most part, vegetables are an after-thought, cheap items designed to make the expensive meat go further. Growing up with this attitude, I have had to learn about cooking vegetables piecemeal and on my own.

As times changed and I left home, I did learn a few things. I learned that salads can consist of more than lettuce, and need not contain it all. I learned that vegetables in general taste better if you don’t boil them until the color is drained from them, and that boiling corn on the cob in particular is an Abomination. I learned that casseroles and stir fry were often more interesting possibilities.

Yet throughout this re-education, until a few months ago, boiling remained the default option for vegetables, unless I was following a specific recipe. Oh, I’d add spices and sauces, but that didn’t change the fact that when I was rushed or tired, I’d leave little of the original taste of whatever vegetables were unfortunate to fall beneath my paring knife.

This default was particularly unfortunate for rice, condemning me either to a soggy mound on my plate or else a burned pot unless I watched and stirred it nervously and turned off the heat at exactly the correct second.

A few months ago, desperation drove me to pour rice into a strainer balanced over a pot of water and covered with a pot. The cooking was so even and the taste so much greater than when I boiled the rice that I tried the same method with various vegetables. I was equally pleased with the results.

I had heard distantly of steam cooking, but vaguely assumed it involved expensive appliances and was impractical for anyone cooking for one. However, an Internet search soon showed that steam cookers were available for well under a hundred dollars. In fact, many models were fifty dollars or less. When no one took up my pointed suggestions for a present, I returned home on Christmas Day and promptly ordered the model of my choice.

Yesterday, it arrived, and I broke off writing long enough to unpack it and check that it worked. As a sometime student of usability, I was intrigued by its egg-shaped base and its tiered shelves, each with a perforated lid complete with indentations for holding eggs and a rice tray. Like a growing number of kitchen appliances these days, the cooker was a thing of elegance, form and function matching perfectly. The only design flaw is that the reservoir for adding water is too small, which prolongs what should be a straightforward task.

Naturally, I had to try my new toy as soon as possible. For dinner that night, I began with a wad of chicken breast. I half-expected that steaming would leave the meat pink, but instead it browned lightly and evenly in twenty minutes, shredding easily in my fingers.

Another twenty minutes did for the vegetables and arborio rice needed for risotto. Mixed with the shredded chicken and covered with tomato sauce and a few spoonfuls of pesto sauce, the result was the most delicious risotto I had managed in seven years of preparing the dish, full of flavor and textures that boiling would have done its best to remove.

Had I cooked both meat and rice together using two shelves, I could have assembled a complete meal in twenty minutes, all without turning on the oven or any burners. Just as importantly, washing the pieces was no more than a matter of running a soapy dish towel over all the surfaces.

That was enough for me. I still have plenty of experiments to try, including cooking fish and adding spices to the water. I can see, too, that coordinating the various parts of dinner and positioning them on the shelves will take some practices. But so far as I’m concerned, steaming is now my preferred cooking method for most vegetables. I’ve entered the Age of Steam, and there’s no going back.

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I sometimes think that the hardest part of being a widower is not learning to live alone, but going to a party. To my relief, nobody has tried to fix me up with anyone (although I fear it’s only a matter of time), but everybody does something far worse: they try to send me home with food.

Apparently, it’s a heartfelt conviction that, because I live alone, I must be either starving or else eating at restaurants seven nights a week. Or perhaps people imagine that I’m like one acquaintance whose idea of meal preparation was to cook seven pounds of hamburger on Sunday night then wrap it up in seven pieces. The idea that I might actually enjoy cooking, or find it an important part of my routine never occurs to them.

The truth of the matter is very different. When I moved out of my parents’ house, I made a point of stocking my kitchen with basic supplies and taking a cook book, in the firm belief that normal adults, male or female, should know how to feed themselves. This outlook baffled the room mate I had briefly, whose idea of food was whatever he could find to eat when he was hungry.

In fact, one reason we parted ways was that I thought he should reciprocate and do some cooking occasionally. But his idea of cooking was to fry an egg, and, after he burned through an over mitt by leaning on a stove burner while he was talking, I thought it wiser not to insist.

When I married, I continued to cook twenty-nine days of the month out of thirty. Often, I was working from home, so I was the logical cook if we were going to eat before midnight. I didn’t mind; it was better than washing dishes, and freed me (I used to claim) to dirty as many pots and pans as I wanted, secure in the knowledge that I would never have to scrub them.

Besides, preparing a meal helped to divide my work and personal time – a line that easily blurs when you work at home. Instead of a commute, I drag myself away from the computer and spend half an hour in the kitchen, clearing my mind by focusing on the simple tasks of cutting up vegetables and mixing sauces.

As a result, while nobody would call me a gourmet, I like to think that I know my way around a kitchen. My freezer is packed with meats and berries, the refrigerator with vegetables and fruit. I have firm ideas on which spices or cheeses I should use in a given circumstance. I have two dozen standard dishes, ranging from sweet potato pie or risotto to lasagna or meatloaf for days when I’m not feeling imaginative, several dozen side dishes such as potat bravas, corn fritters, or spanakopita I can mix and match for variation, and a dozen carefully selected cook books I can use as the starting point for improvisation when I experiment. Unless I’m meeting a friend, I only eat out or order take in a couple of times a month, usually when my work has run late or on the Friday after an exhausting week.

In short, I am a better than average cook. Moreover, many of my friends should know that, because I’ve fed them. Yet, at the end of a party, surveying the leftovers and wondering what to do with them, everyone seems to forget that fact. Perhaps they even see a chance to do a kindness. All the same, I’m irked to be an object of pity, and annoyed that my hard-won competence in the kitchen is overlooked.

But of course I say none of this. Instead, I express my thanks, declining the offer with the (usually) true excuse that my freezer and fridge are full. Then, just before I leave, I check my pack for any stray tupperware containers that might have been slipped into it when I wasn’t looking.

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Having been a student and a freelancer for much of my marriage, I’ve also tended to be the chef. I’ve been home more often, and preparing the evening meal helps to divide my working day from my personal time. Besides, while I enjoy the creativity of cooking, I have a pronounced distaste for washing dishes while my partner doesn’t mind the task and dislikes cooking, so the division of labor is a natural one (although I probably take unfair advantage by dirtying more pots than I would if I had to clean them myself) . And, like any domestic chef, I’ve developed my own repertoire of specialties – most of them hearty peasant dishes, which I’ve always found has more possibilities than haute cuisine.

The one I’ve been making the longest is lasagna As made by most people, lasagna is protein and carbohydrate-heavy, and mine is no exception, with three cheeses (in the current incarnation, Chevrai, fresh Parmesan, and Swiss) and lean turkey forming the layers between whole wheat pasta. To round off the meal, I had snap peas and basil leaves, along with a heaping mound of shredded spinach, and season with garlic and basil.

Another long-time favorite is sweet potato pie. It starts with a crust of semolina, barley and shredded carrots. Within the crust, I place a mixture of sweet potato, honey, lemon, HP sauce Parmesan, and cashews rather than the usual pecan – a habit begun because of the high cost of pecans but continued in our latter days of relative affluence because of the smoother taste. On top of this mixture, I place a layer of wheat germ, and whatever cheese is at hand on top of that. I often serve it with sausages and roast potato, but it can easily be a vegetarian meal by itself.

Then there’s my Greek meal. It begins with saganaki, or kefaloteri cheese rolled in egg and semolina, fried with constant flipping in olive oil, and served with a capful of lemon juice. On the side, I do whole wheat pita bread baked in an oven – never fried! — and spread with either butter or humous. The main course is dolmathes (grape vine leaves stuffed with meat, cheese, rice and sometimes a bit of carrot, as my whimsy takes me, and topped with an egg lemon or pesto sauce), potatoes roasted in butter, lemon juice and dill, spanakopita (spinach, feta cheese, and spices wrapped in phyllo pastry), and – just for contrast – unadorned peas and corn. Ideally, the meal is served with retsina, the rotgut resinous wine that you either adore or hate at first sip (I adored).

A couple of years ago, I added a meal based on Spanish tapas I’d enjoyed at the now closed El Patio restaurant at the edge of Vancouver’s Yaletown district. The main dish, which has deviated so far from its origins that I no longer have a name for it) consists of shredded ham and a mixture composed of equal amounts of semolina and Parmesan, as well as rosemary, garlic, and a hearty splash of red wine. I knead this mixture into small balls, which I coat with pesto or fine herb sauce, then bake in the oven. I serve the dish with potat bravas, or diced potato baked or fried in olive oil until just short of crispy, then baked for another ten minutes with a mixture of tomato sauce and mustard with paprika and cayenne pepper.

These aren’t all my special meals. In homage to my ancestry, I used to do a mean Yorkshire pudding, although I haven’t made it for a while. I also do a risotto, three bean chile, meat loaf, and turkey fillet in a lemon-honey sauce, all with my own original touches. However, the four described in detail are the ones I’m proudest of, and most likely to serve to a guest or bring along to a potluck. I’m very far from an expert chef, but, with these four meals, I’ve improvised enough to make them distinctly mine.

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