Saturday, November 8, 2014

Playing with my Food

This blog article today is non-technical. It is about food, cooking and grocery shopping. Family members and my grad school room mate who are familiar with my low-level of expertise on these topics are probably doubled over in laughter at my choice of topic today. If you're wondering, today's article was inspired by an impulse purchase at Walmart, a bag of Pecan pieces that I've been especially enjoying.

My first wife, now ex-wife, had her faults, but she was an excellent cook. The difference in how we'd use cookbooks was fascinating to me. I can cook by following a recipe. I do that by leaving the cook book open on the kitchen counter and do the steps of the recipe step by step, measuring each ingredient carefully. The results are generally OK, but rarely amazing. My ex- would go out to the shelf with the cookbooks in the dining room, spend some time looking through them, announce to the air "Oh, I see", put the books back on the shelf, and then go out to the kitchen and cook. Her dishes inevitably included soy sauce and MSG among the ingredients and were generally very good and occasionally amazingly great, though they did lack reproducibility. My daughter's one complaint about her Mom's cooking was that she never did turn out great Brownies. I have heard it said that baking, more than most kinds of food prep, calls for careful measuring of ingredients, time and temperatures. Generally no room for soy sauce nor MSG in most Brownie recipes.

My current wife often tells me how great a cook she is, but she gets busy and rarely spends time in the kitchen. so I mostly have only her word on this. A seasonal specialty of hers is turkey. Most years in the run-up to Thanksgiving she roasts multiple turkeys to give away to friends, to the local police department, and even sandwiches for the day laborers that gather on certain street corners in town here hoping for work. But she manages to violate all the Food Network's tips on how to be sure of having your turkey come out perfectly (At most a 15 pound bird, no stuffing inside the cavity of the bird, no basting, ...). Her birds are inevitably the largest in the store, often purchased fresh, not frozen, because who has time to thaw such a large object? She stuffs it with more stuffing then I'd expect could fit, and then the cooking is extremely labor intensive with endlessly repeated basting to get the skin brown and crispy. The down side for us is that the turkey for our own Thanksgiving dinner often isn't ready until incredibly late on Thanksgiving day.

One of her turkeys, some years ago, actually made its way to the table in Reagan's White House. She got a nice thank-you note from Ronald on White House stationary, attesting to how great her turkey is. Who am I to question her politician nephews to determine if they indeed arranged for her turkey to be served at the White House or just forged a thank you note and ate the turkey themselves?

This year is shaping up to be different. We're planning to visit one of her adult children in Georgia for Thanksgiving dinner. I've actively discouraged all Barbara's thoughts that she should cook a turkey and bring it with us. Dian invited us, so leave it to Dian to prepare dinner. Offer to help in her kitchen, but if she'd rather do it herself, stay out of her way. We'll see how this goes. No guns in Dian's house, but it's hard to guarantee things won't break down into a carving knife fight in the kitchen.

Grocery lists

Much as I was surprised at how my ex- would cook without reference to a cookbook, I'm surprised that my wife goes grocery shopping without bringing along a shopping list. I can go to the store to pick up bread, milk and eggs without a shopping list, but if the trip is to stock up on more than that, I need a list. I keep a list on my desk at home. Whenever I find we are out of something or getting low on something, I add it on to my list. Occasionally, when I am looking at a recipe that calls for an ingredient we don't generally have on hand, that ingredient goes onto the list too.

I found that a problem with grocery-list-driven shopping is that sometimes an item falls out of inventory here and until I specifically miss it, we don't re-stock it, because it wasn't on the list. So now I do 2 things to assure variety in the household pantry:

  1. List things on the grocery list in more generic terms. e.g. instead of listing chicken noodle soup, I'll list "soup" and spend some time looking through what the supermarket has on offer. This does add time to the shopping trip as my wife claims to be allergic to pork, doesn't want too much salt, and says MSG gives her headaches, so I spend a long time reading ingredients lists as I'm picking out soups. We recently tried a Butternut Squash Bisque in a box that way, and I liked it.
  2. I force myself to browse the supermarket for things not on my list. Sometimes that results in fairly frivolous purchases, like flat-bottomed wafer ice cream cones. I do think I eat less ice cream if I pack a small cone with ice cream instead of scooping ice cream into a bowl.

    Seasonal items, like fresh apple cider, find their way into my grocery cart from looking at what the store has, rather than shopping off my grocery list. My wife makes a face and leaves the cider to me. She has memories of a rusty old cider press she saw in use on a farm some years ago and is convinced the cider isn't wholesome.

Pecan Pieces

A recent minor impulse purchase from the grocery section at Walmart was from their "seasonal" aisle, a 24 ounce bag of pecan pieces. I had no idea what I was going to do with them when I bought them, but have been pleasantly surprised at how much I've been enjoying them. Tasty as they are, I'll warn from having read the nutrition box on the side of the bag, that nuts are not a low calorie snack. They are extremely packed with fat, so that keeps them low in sugar and even low in carbohydrates, but high in calories.

So what to do with them? Well, one of my favorite simple uses is to sprinkle a small handful onto my bowl of cold breakfast cereal. This adds some interesting flavor and texture to even a plain old bowl of Cheerios. Sure, the store sells "Honey Nut Cheerios", but have you read the ingredients of those? They add almond flavor, but absolutely no nuts. No thanks. I much prefer to start with plain Cheerios and add my own sprinkling of genuine nuts. Good too on other varieties of cereal, Special K, for instance. One 24 ounce bag is sufficient for weeks of breakfasts.

We recently received a gift of a couple of large cartons of apples from upstate New York. An apple a day makes a nice crisp tasty snack, but what to do with all these apples? Well, one thing I did to use some of them was to make baked apples. Coring the apples with a plain old sharp knife was a bit of a hassle, but by using a covered Corningware baking dish in the oven, the recipe mostly just needed baking (and cooling) time. As Alton Brown was so fond of saying on Good Eats "Your patience will be rewarded".

I did add some pecan pieces to the cinnamon sugar used to fill the cored apples and the result was indeed delicious. My wife's opinion was that New York Delicious apples stay a bit too crunchy through the baking to make a really great baked apple. She thinks it would have been better if I'd used some big round Macintosh apples, but I used what I had on hand. She tells me her baked apples are way better than mine, but we've been together for more than a decade and not once has she served me a baked apple. So I don't argue about it, but if I want a baked apple, I guess, I'll just have to make it myself. On a cool night, it's actually nice to have apples baking in the oven making the kitchen warm and adding a delightful scent to the house. I wonder when I'll get around to doing that again?