Alchemy that anyone can do. Truly.
We’ve been having a college student stay with us this summer. She’s from NYC and is here for an internship with a local health maintenance organization. We have hosted two other students and without exception, they’ve all liked our cooking (whew!). Perhaps because we cook from scratch, eat a lot of vegetables (we belong to a CSA – community supported agriculture) and don’t own a microwave.
I was chatting with my son, who now lives in Chicago, about cooking and tossed off that I thought I was “a pretty good cook” – his response, which of course I loved, was essentially, “mom, you ARE a good cook”. Which got me thinking about cooking at home and evolving as a cook (and baker).
Of course we took short cuts when we had small to medium sized children. And when David and I were dating we ate out quite a bit. But there are things that contributed to our family’s approach to cooking and food:
- I can live in a bubble – as in I can insulate myself from popular, everyday culture pretty easily. While everyone else was getting a microwave, we never did. Because we could never see the point! People didn’t cook in them. They just used them to warm things up, which can be done on stovetop and oven. (Okay, microwaves can be very convenient…but I don’t really have room for one in my kitchen).
- I was raised on fresh food. My mother is a good cook and my grandmother was a fabulous baker. Role models help but are not absolutely essentially.
- It was important to us to have family meals even if they were quick meals and we were busy.
- I never thought cooking or baking were difficult. I believed if you could read and follow directions, you could do it. I still believe that. Observing and doing were also important to me as a kid but I don’t believe these are crucial – you can be a good cook without these.
- We’re not afraid to experiment with or without a recipe. I can remember making a fluffy omelet in middle school because it was different, I began “inventing” in college. Monotony is a great motivator when all you have in the fridge are bacon, potatoes, onions and parmesan cheese. Fried potatoes and onions with bacon and topped with parmesan became one of my go-to dishes in graduate school and I still make it. I did not have a recipe.
- I “evolved” to cooking without recipes (for some things). Yeah, I need to refer to a cookbook or notes when I’m making something like quiche (what are those proportions again?). Or I’m cooking something unfamiliar. Even my kids can work without recipes especially with vegetables and soups because there is so little that can go wrong. Really. And your food will “talk” to you after awhile. In fact, I thought in my younger years about writing a cookbook called “Vibration cooking” on the theory that you could tell when something felt “right”. (Note: this really originated from the advice of my grandmother on kneading bread…. you kneaded until it ‘felt right” roughly when the bread was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Second note: you do have to be more precise about some things in baking like ratio of leavening to flour.)
- Herbs and spices (and lemon) are your friend. Nuff said. But you have to experiment a bit here as well. Generally speaking herbs “match” with meats and vegetables, spices with baked things and desserts. But that is a very, very gross generalization as pepper is a spice and you wouldn’t put it in cookies (except pfeffernüsse) while peppermint is an herb and shows up infrequently in cooking.
- We plan ahead. Always. I sit down the day before I do my shopping and take a look at the week. What have we got planned in the evenings? I have done this since before I had children and it informs what meals we will eat (and/or when we eat out). When the kids were young we would often have some activity most nights of the week. So we planned for this by having quick meals or pre-made meals those nights. Saturday was pizza day – our planned day of eating out. and Sunday was usually roast chicken or meat, something that took longer because we were home. Planning meals allowed me to go to the store with a LIST and shop the list, often leaving the cart at the ends of the aisles and heading down just for what is needed. This greatly reduces spontaneous purchases. To my surprise my kids both in their twenties have let me know this is the method they use.
There is very little ‘bad’ that can happen if you make a mistake. It is unlikely you will rip a hole in the time space continuum. So if you find yourself confronted with a frig full of rapidly wilting vegetables, take about 15 minutes to chop them up. If you haven’t time to move on to the next step, freeze them, otherwise….
Veg sauté — basic.
Take whatever you’ve got in the frig, chop up the veg into approx ¼-1/2 inch pieces. Be sure to include at least 3 cloves garlic and 1 chopped onion. Leave out the Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets and/or cauliflower (roast those individually instead).
Start with the onion and garlic and sauté.
Add the “hardest” veggies next (i.e., carrots) and sauté until medium soft. Continue adding veg from hardest to most pliant (ending with the leafy greens like kale).
From here you can season and serve or use as the start of a soup.
Roast veg – basic
Take whatever you’ve got in the frig, chop up the veg into approx 1/2 inch pieces . Toss with olive oil (about 1 Tb) and sprinkle with salt. Spread on a cookie sheet in one layer and roast at a 450 oven. “Hard” vegetables like carrots, broccoli and potatoes take longer up to 45 minutes or so. Test these and other veg after 15-20 minutes. Your veg should be “soft” – chewable but not mushy. You can serve as is, combine together, or add to a soup.
Skip the Sauté – Veg for soup
Take whatever you’ve got in the frig, chop up the veg into approx ¼-1/2 inch pieces. Be sure to include at least 3 cloves garlic and 1 chopped onion. Leave out the Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets and/or cauliflower (roast those individually instead). Throw these into a soup pot or slow cooker with at least 2 cups of chicken broth or veg broth or until veg are covered (either homemade, canned or from concentrate – I like Better than Bouillon—you can also use water but broth adds flavor and depth).
Slow cook on high for 4 hours. Before serving, correct seasoning and throw in any of the following: cooked chicken, leftover shredded meat, cooked hamburger, shredded kale, cooked chickpeas. Really whatever you have got.
An example of what I built (cooked) from stuff wilting in my frig.
Zucchini Stir up (aka ratatouille)
1 onion chopped
3 cloves garlic: minced, smashed, put through a press, whatever
4 zucchini sliced in half or quarters and chopped into ½” slices
2 large tomatoes, diced and put in a colander to drain juices (I smashed these a bit)
Salt and pepper. Chopped basil if you’ve got it. Or a bit of dried basil.
Optional (I used these, as the add a nice interest but if you don’t have them you don’t have to use them).
2 TB drained and rinsed capers
2-4 Tb. either pitted and chopped Kalamata olives or olive tapenade
Sauté the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes over medium heat until onions are soft.
Add zucchini, cook another 10 minutes or so (again until they have lost their raw crunch).
Add tomatoes. Cook another 5- 10.
Add the capers and olives or tapenade. DO NOT salt until you’ve added these because they can be quite salty and add enough of that to the dish on their own.
Taste and correct your seasoning. Which means, add more salt and pepper if you like.
My kitchen: location of alchemy in our house.