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Category Archives: Cookery Calendar Challenge

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.

 

 

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Cookery Calendar Challenge – November

So, yeah, I forgot to report back on this because I was distracted by my country basically going insane. Hello.

So, I went with the British cooking book, and…honestly, at this exact moment I can’t really remember what I made.  I think there was something with a cheese sauce and hard-boiled eggs, baked, on a bed of mashed potatoes and leeks.  That was good.  And another thing with chicken thighs and apples baked in cider.   That was also good.

I’m sorry folks; I haven’t the heart to report back more on things.  I’m still in a punch-drunk daze about the election.  I’ll probably summon myself enough to only make one recipe from the second cookbook choice – I’ll go with the New England cookbook I was trying to think about last month – but right now, cooking just seems like a utilitarian thing now.

But this will pass.

Raymond Carver has a short story called A Small, Good Thing that rings true, and eventually I will remember its message.  It’s about a young couple with a son who is about to turn eight years old; at the very start of the story the mother is placing an order for his birthday cake, due in one weeks’ time.  But that same day the boy is hit by a car, and is brought to the hospital where his nervous parents wait by his side for two days until he dies. His parents spend the next several days dealing with the funeral arrangements.

The whole while – while the boy is in the hospital, and after he dies – the parents are also bothered by mysterious phone calls from someone who calls to say “I’m calling about Scotty (the boy), did you forget him?”  After several days they finally realize – it’s the baker, calling to remind them of the forgotten cake.  Mad with grief, they drive to the bakery to yell at him for torturing them – but instantly realize that there’s no way that the baker would have known their son had died.  The baker, too, instantly regrets the hurt he’s inadvertently caused them.

He asks them in, sits them down in his office, and brings in a tray he’s just pulled out of an oven.

“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said. He served them warm cinnamon rolls just out of the oven, the icing still runny. He put butter on the table and knives to spread the butter. Then the baker sat down at the table with them. He waited. He waited until they each took a roll from the platter and began to eat. “It’s good to eat something,” he said, watching them. “There’s more. Eat up. Eat all you want. There’s all the rolls in the world in here.”

The three sit in the office and talk – the young couple about their son, the baker about his job. About the thousands of wedding cakes and birthday cakes he’s made over the years. About how he would rather be a baker than a florist, because he gives joy but also nourishes people. And over a loaf of dark brown bread he pulls out of the oven later that evening the three find some kind of comfort and communion.

Eating is indeed a small, good thing at a time like this. Right now I’m only eating because I know I have to, but in time I’ll be able to savor again.

Cookery Challenge – September Recap

So here’s the thing – I only cooked the second recipe from my chosen cookbook, Georgeanne Brennan’s Potager, just tonight. For most of September I was either out of town, or coping with the fallout of going out of town (and having my computer and camera and pretty much everything stolen grr).  I might have even lost the pictures from the first recipe along with the camera – but fortunately I back everything up with an online service, and I’d already moved those pictures onto my computer.  ….If I could figure out how to get my backup back.

But, long story short, I’ve gotten a new camera and I sorted out the backup, the end, let’s see what I ate.

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The first thing I made was the “Sauteed Garlic, Red Peppers, Chicory, Chard and Spinach on White Cheddar Polenta.”  Which I picked because I’d just gotten a bunch of chard from my CSA. But then, as I read through the recipe, I realized – it was sauteed greens, on a bed of cornmeal mixed with cheese.

People, that’s cheese grits.  Cheese grits with greens.  Don’t know what a Southern recipe was doing in a French cookbook, but…who cares.

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And it was extremely easy.  Just chopping up a couple red peppers and a bunch of chard and spinach up real well…

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…And then sauteeing it.  In the back there you can see the pot with the gri- er, polenta cooking.

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The greens and peppers and polenta took a while to cook, which gave me time to grate up some cheese.  Mmm.

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Meanwhile the greens cooked down more…

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….and more.

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Meanwhile the polenta finished cooking and got impregnated with cheese, and doled into a bowl.  It sat all pristine waiting for the greens.

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And when the greens were done, I put them on top, and that was that.

I think I heated up a sausage to go with it or something, but really, it was cheese grits and greens and that’s a good thing no matter what.

Tonight, I finally made the second recipe (picture will be forthcoming) – a salt cod gratin. I’ve always meant to try to work with salt cod – it’s a cheap source of protein, and friendly to my using only one bit of it and leaving the rest in the fridge. The problem is that all the fish recipes I know call for fresh fish, and I grew up in New England and so am used to really fresh fish, much fresher than you can get here. So I tend to avoid it.  But with salt cod…you sort of know what you’re getting into.  (Setting aside the fact that here, what you get in the packages is salt pollock instead – but at least the package says that.)

Because I’ve usually worked with super-fresh fish, I’ve also usually given it very straightforward treatments – broiling, seasoning with a little lemon, maybe chopping it up in a soup. Maybe fry it. One thing I’ve not done is put cheese on it. But y’all, the cheese treatment works in this case.  This recipe was a pretty straightforward gratin recipe – cooking up the fillets, flaking it up with some sauteed leeks, then mixing it into a sauce made of a roux and Comte cheese with a little cayenne pepper, then baking it.  I rounded dinner tonight out with some simple green beans and a sweet potato soup I’d made earlier today, and – only just now, while I’m digesting it, do I realize “wait…I just put cheese on fish.”

Cheese on fish – who knew?

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So. I am kind of torn about which cookbook I’m going to go with for October – I’ve narrowed it down to two choices.  I’m open to suggestions, and I’ll decide in a couple days.

  1. I’d initially planned on Brooke Dojny’s New England Cookbook. The weather is getting autumnal (finally!) and that always gives me nostalgic flashbacks to my New England childhood.  There’s still a wealth of things in here that I haven’t ever tried, though, mixed in with familiar foods – things I still recognize as unquestionably New England.  However –
  2. There’s also a little booklet I picked up from one of the “Free Books!” boxes that people in New York are always putting out on their stoops when they clean house; a little booklet of British recipes put out by Canadian Living Magazine, as part of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee a few years back. A lot of the recipes seem to be some kind of variant on meat pie, and since A is out of town I have a bit more leeway to experiment with dough in the house now. I know meat pies seem pretty prosaic, but with a couple of very distinct exceptions, they’re new territory for me.

So – I am deciding between old England and New.  I’ll decide in a couple days, and if anyone has an idea…lemme know.

 

Cookery Calendar Challenge – August Results!

Hey there! So this weekend is going to be about a lot of catching up after a pretty solid week of exhaustion born of sleep deprivation and filling in for absent co-workers.  Whee.  But – this is a three-day weekend, which affords plenty of time for some leisurely moments and blogging.

And cooking.  And that reminds me that I need to report on my first foray into the Cookery Calendar Challenge! To recap – at the beginning of each month, I pick one of my cookbooks, and then I have to cook two things from it during the month that I’ve never tried before.  In August, I went with one of my collection’s longest residents – Sundays at Moosewood, the “international” cookbook from the Moosewood Collective.  I’ve had a copy of this since my very first post-college apartment, when I spent the summer immediately after graduation sharing a one-bedroom with two college friends (yes, you read that right – we somehow all found separate sleeping quarters) , both of whom were vegetarians. We made heavy use of the Union Square Greenmarket, which was just two blocks away, and I got all excited about vegetarian cooking as well and invested in this to expand my repertoire a bit, and actually did pretty well as a vegetarian for about six weeks before something in me snapped one morning and I shocked them both by cooking a whole feast of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, AND gravy for breakfast.

But I digress.

Sundays at Moosewood covers about 18 different international or regional cuisines – some rather broadly defined (“Caribbean” covers all West Indian islands, “Southeast Asian” includes Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and the Phillippenes, and then there’s “Africa South Of The Sahara”), some familiar faces on the “international” scene (Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc.) and some very, very specific regions (they don’t have “French” cuisine, but rather “Provencal”).  I thought I’d be dipping into the more exotic things like Indian or Syrian – but surprised myself by going for simpler fare, mainly because I had vegetables that really needed using up.

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Like the corn bisque from the “New England” section.  For the past month, I’ve been getting an armload of fresh sweet corn from the CSA every Saturday – and firmly believe that fresh sweet corn is really only best eaten if you eat it that day. And as tempting as it is to snarf down three whole ears of corn in one day, these days I have neither the metabolism nor the appetite. But I didn’t want to let the corn sit for too long.

This was actually a nice second option – a simple corn soup, which also uses the cobs to start the stock. After cutting the kernels off the cobs, you simmer the stripped cobs in water for a little while, strained that off, and added that back to the usual carrots/celery/onion combo that 99.5% of all soups in the world start with.  Even better, the corn is cooked separately – just slightly, enough so that it’s still really sweet and a little crisp – and added to the soup last.  The cobs colored the stock a nice sunny yellow, and the whole thing was light, sweet, and summery.

…About mid-August, we had a weird – and welcome – stretch of cooler weather, and I turned to the cookbook for something a bit warming. Comforting.  …And went with something French. I was missing Paris a bit, and even though I know Provence is a ways off from Paris, I figured  I could find something close enough.

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And found “Potato Cake” – something which I realized about halfway through was no more than a funky take on potatoes au gratin. But who cares – it actually reminded me of tartiflette, a dish I was introduced to in a bistro in Paris while meeting some online friends. I saw it on the menu, and asked them what it was.  “Oh, that’s a traditional thing from Lyon,” they said. “It has potatoes, cheese, and bacon, and – ”

“I’ll take it,” I said, before they even finished.

This wasn’t the fastest recipe, but it was definitely easy – two separate stretches of something sitting in the oven. First I just had to slice up some potatoes and onions, drizzle them in olive oil, and bake them in a dish with a couple bay leaves for about a half hour.

The second stretch was where the good part came in, though – repacking it into a smaller dish for a second run in the oven, this time with the added magic of cheese.

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The recipe called for Swiss cheese, but I really don’t like Swiss – so I splurged on some comte from the super-elite grocer in my neighborhood instead, and just because, I spiked it with a little herbes de provence I had in the cupboard.  I may have overcooked it a tiny bit – it was a bit crispy in places, instead of being meltingly tender like the recipe implied it should be – but cheese gone a little crispy is actually good. And actually, anything involving potatoes and cheese is probably going to come out well, wouldn’t you agree?

So that was August!

This month is going to be another vegetable-heavy one – it’s the peak of the harvest, which means my CSA is going to be going nuts.  And to riff off the Provencal theme, too, I am going with Potagera seasonal-cooking cookbook with recipes geared to “things you could have grown in a little garden plot in your back yard.”  …Assuming, mind you, that your garden plot is big enough for regular plantings of potatoes, runner beans and endive, but hey – I don’t have to garden what I grow to cook it.  I even have a first recipe in mind – a dish involving sauteed greens over cheddar-cheese-infused polenta. Which I already know is going to remind me of cheese grits and Southern greens, and is likely going to send me on a Southern kick next month.

But we’ll see.

When One Blog Challenge Leads You To Another

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I have a bit of down time at work (mirable dictu!) while I’m waiting for some higher-ups to sort out a problem. And since I’m one of a cast of….well, dozens who are doing the August Break challenge, I poked into a couple of other peoples’ blogs.

And found another challenge.

Over in Scotland, Penny at The Handmade Heart has her own blogging challenge – the Cookery Calendar. The idea is that at the beginning of each month, you pick one of your cookbooks, and over the course of the month you try out two new recipes from it that you haven’t tried before.  Then, the first week of the next month, you report back.

Penny says she is doing this to jazz up her family meal times; I usually am only cooking for me.  But this is still pretty much perfect for me to do for a number of reasons:

  1. I have an absolutely stupidly huge number of cookbooks (I’ll post a picture when I’m at home later, you’ve gotta see this) but only fall back on about three or four recipes per cookbook.
  2. This is about the time of year when the CSA I belong to is going to be cranking into overdrive and I’ll need to be doing something with the onslaught of vegetable matter that is about to descend upon the house.
  3. I need to expand my brown-bagging-lunch repetoire.
  4. My roommate is a food historian who’s just started her own blog as well, and who knows, maybe I’ll be a footnote in a future research project.

So. For the cookbook to kick off with, I’m gonna go with an old standby – Sundays at Moosewood, an international-cuisine themed book from the Moosewood collective.  I’ve actually gotten more use out of this one than most; I’ve had a copy since my very first post-college apartment, back in the summer of 1992, and just recently had to buy a replacement copy because the old one completely fell apart on me.  And yet there are still recipes from it I haven’t tried yet.  The game is on.