Thursday, May 14, 2015

Rethinking food, rediscovering life

The deck farm
Nobody wants to hear about my  health problems. So I'm not going to bore you. But let's just say I'm not unique for a woman nearing 60. Particularly one who had wine as a major food group. 

I’ve been writing about food for years and I would estimate that at least 90 percent of those stories featured copious amounts of fried food and even larger amounts of sugar. These foods went particularly well with the daily hangover I’d come to accept as normal. And judging from reader feedback, I was not alone. I felt like death a lot of the time, so I did what we’ve learned to do. I Googled “Feel Like Death.”

What I learned is I was doing everything wrong. Eating wrong, drinking too much. Exercise? Ha. So I’ve started to change. I’d quit drinking a hundred times. This time, after being derailed by a loved one’s death, I quit again. But this time, I looked for support. Not from other people. Not from 12-Step groups, which work for some addicts, but not most of them. I went the internal, soul-strengthening route of treating myself like a person who deserved to live a good life because — insert long, boring backstory here — I had convinced myself otherwise.

The first step in this process is Getting Over It. Getting over my aversion to vegetables. Getting over my belief that I am special, deserving of indulgences. Getting over a compulsion to fill my empty spaces with food now that the wine is gone.


We all start somewhere.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Cooking vegetables for the vegetable-adverse, remedial

What kind of eater are you?

My favorite meal is:
   1) at a restaurant
   2) one grandma used to make
   3) healthy 
   4) anything with chocolate on it

I eat:
   1) 3 squares a day, with snacks
   2) All-day, grazing
   3) when my body says I’m hungry
   4) when there’s chocolate

The number of calories I consume is:
   1) way more than necessary
   2) anywhere from 800 to 3000
   3) exactly as many as my body needs
   4) I do not believe in calories.

If the majority of your answers were 1 or 2, you’re a normal eater. All you 3s? You’re not a real person. I refuse to believe people like you exist. And you 4s? You are a character in a Cathy comic strip. You’re not, you say? Look in the mirror. Is there a third-dimension? Didn’t think so.
I have food issues. I either think about food constantly or don’t think about it at all. I veer between well-planned, nutritionally balanced menus to days when I eat nothing that can’t be spread on a Triscuit. It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t wise, but that’s one of the wonderful things about food. It changes by necessity. Recipes can be tweaked and twisted, as anyone who owns the cookbook “50 Ways To Cook Artichokes” knows. 
Every January I pledge to eat better, and if the media is to be believed I am far from alone. But eating better is a learned behavior. And it often begins by cooking healthier food, something that can be self-taught. We can all chop up some broccoli. It’s the process of getting it into our mouth and keeping it there that is the challenge.
Begin where you’re comfortable. Tiny pieces of celery in soup is the best you can do? Start there. Tomato sauce on pasta. It’s a step up from the universal vegetable delivery system of ketchup, I guess. It doesn’t matter where you start. It’s one meal. One day. Tomorrow you can add a few tiny pieces of carrot in there with the celery. 
Vegetable aversion is a real thing and it takes time to conquer. It also takes some skill. Haters have not learned to prepare the hated properly. So learn. Google it. Watch YouTube videos. Lock yourself in a room with a computer if you feel shamed, but know this. No one is born knowing how to cook vegetables. People who love vegetables were just like you once. 
We all start somewhere. Try starting here, with pureed cauliflower. It kind of looks like mashed potatoes. But you absolutely need a food processor to create something that doesn’t look like a vegetable. There are no quantities in the recipe, no 1/2 teaspoon of this or cup of that, because now is the time to be dangerous in the kitchen. If we must eat right, we might as well have an adventure while we’re doing it.

Pureed Cauliflower

1 head of cauliflower, cut into little pieces
Butter
Milk/buttermilk
Salt

I should probably say that you’re cutting off the flower part. You’ve already gotten rid of the green leaves and now you’re cutting it away from the core. If you knew that was necessary, you should probably not be reading a remedial article. Boil those pieces until you can stick a fork in them. They’ll be the consistency of ice cream, your fork goes in easily but there is some resistance. (If you do not want to get a pot dirty, invest in those Ziploc Steamer Bags. They are a kitchen miracle.)
Place cooked cauliflower in the food processor with a couple tablespoons butter and a splash of milk. Add a little bit of salt. Turn it on and wait until it looks like mashed potatoes. Add more butter and milk if you’d like after you taste it. Yes, taste it. If it tastes fine, eat it.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On the list

I'm delighted to be on this list of 2014's best for the website Better After 50. (Writing as C.Anne Roberts)

The last of Christmas

Not ham again/Ted McGrath/Flickr
I haven’t been blogging because I haven’t eaten anything besides sugar for days. And yes, that makes me as delightful to be around as you’d suspect. I was going to fix that by eating better today. There are some vegetables in the greens bin, a best intention, but they’re destined for a soup at this point. I think I bought them a couple weeks ago and have systematically ignored them since. The important part of this story is that I have again become aware of vegetables. My vision has strayed from cookies. It’s time to move on.
Sugar overload is my Post-Christmas Tradition No. 1. The second tradition is The Clearing of the Refrigerator. When the cheese balls and specialty olives are gone, I start  reheating and re-serving. It does not go unnoticed.
“I’ve had ham four times in the last two days,” said the husband. 
So I get creative. Ham in the quiche. Ham in the soup. Ham in a puff pastry, kind of an upscale version pigs in a blanket with some cheese and dijon. So much ham. Today it was Ham and Quinoa Croquettes because here’s what I had: A couple slices of said ham. Half a cooked chicken breast. Quinoa. A couple eggs. Some Purple Haze soft goat cheese. 
I wish I’d had an onion, but I didn’t. If I make this again, it will definitely include an onion. The amounts used are because that’s all I had. Play with it.

Last-of-Christmas Croquettes

1 cup chopped leftover ham
1/2 cup chopped leftover chicken
4 oz soft goat cheese
2 cups cooked quinoa
2 eggs
(Cooked onions would be perfect)
A handful of flour
Mix these all together in a bowl and form into patties. Coat each side with bread crumbs. Pan fry in butter (because I’m out of everything else, I really need to get to the store.)

Serve with left-over white sauce. And vegetables.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Save the sprout

Flickr image/krgjumber

I’ll give this to Brussel sprouts. They are adorable. They grow on miniature trees., these tiny little cabbages, like the dollhouse version of a vegetable. Too cute to eat. I’ll give them credit for that. After I get past appearance, that’s when I have a problem.
Brussel sprouts have a bad reputation, one I have contributed to as a cook and as an eater. My encounters the the cruciferous sprout is familiar to so many vegaphobs. It was hate at first site. On introduction, they were badly prepared. Boiled, usually. Sitting in a puddle of margarine if we were lucky. And whole. Big round blobs of mushy green on the outside and semi-frozen green on the inside. I’m retching just thinking of them.
They were inedible, but a generation of parents forced us to eat them. No wonder they were as hated as broccoli.
There has been a Brussel sprout renaissance in recent years and it is all thanks to one thing: Bacon. Bacon is the cure-all for vegetables. Combine bacon with my favorite preparation method of preparation, which is dicing them up so they are no longer identifiable, and you have something I eat. This is not a healthy recipe. Dieticians will protest and I beg them to look away. But it is an excellent way to reintroduce sprouts to a palate that hides in the other room when their name is mentioned.

Carmelized Brussel Sprouts. With Bacon

Bacon, with saved grease
Brussel sprouts, shredded into thin slices
Pecan pieces
A little brown sugar and balsamic vinegar 

Fry up as much bacon as you think you’re going to need. Recipes that say 1 or 2 slices are just wrong. You need enough back to make a previously loathed vegetable edible. Take the bacon out once it’s cooked. Save enough grease to fry up those shredded sprouts. Cook over a medium flame in a big cast iron pan until they start to brown. Be aware that they may pop out at you like pieces of popcorn. Nothing about Brussel sprouts is easy. 
Once they’re browning nicely, toss in some pecan pieces and brown those up a bit. 
Personally, I toss a little brown sugar on them, because inevitably I don’t have the patience to wait for the full-on carmelization which gives the sprouts their sweetness. A splash of balsamic vinegar gives a nice depth of flavor and hides reminders of Brussel sprouts past.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rallying with roasted vegetables

My computer crashed last week. Computers are not supposed to crash anymore. I am told as though it were a modern fact of life by every person I tell the story. But mine did and since I am lax about backing things up, the amount of work gone forever paralyzed me for two days until panic set in, followed by acceptance. Not quite Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, but anyone who has gone through this sort of high-tech loss understands the proper reaction is mourning, followed by chocolate pudding.
It took Thanksgiving to snap me out of it. Not because it’s a cherished holiday, but because people were counting on me to provide a side dish. A vegetable. The most unwelcome of all dishes on the carnivore Thanksgiving table.
The classic green beans with French’s fried onions and mushroom soup is always welcome at family gatherings, but I had different priorities. I wanted something I liked (which is almost never something smothered in canned soup) and something I could reheat or repurpose. I settled on two options: Scalloped corn and roasted root vegetables. Whatever is left over gets folded into pancake batter and made into fritters. Drop on some sour cream mixed with chopped dill and call it dinner.
Roasted root vegetables is exactly what it sounds like. Root vegetables chopped up and roasted. The roasting caramelizes the sugar in them and you’re eating things you thought you’d never eat. 

Roasted Root Vegetables

Parsnips
Turnips
Rutabaga
Carrots
Sweet Potatos
Onion and Garlic
Olive oil and maple syrup
Thyme
Rosemary
Salt

Preheat oven to 400. Peel everything and chop it into one-inch pieces. Dice the onion and garlic. Toss it all in a big bowl. It will cook down to slightly half the size so chop more or less accordingly. Combine olive oil and maple syrup in a 2 to 1 ration. Twice as much oil as syrup. Toss in an appropriate amount of herbs. That’s kind of up to you. I like to smell them while they cook so I use at least a tablespoon. Probably more. Divide it up in roasting pans and put in for 30 minutes uncovered. Stir. Put it back in for another 45 minutes.
Serve with sour cream (particularly if you’re of Eastern European heritage) or don’t. It’s fine without it. 



Monday, October 27, 2014

Diverging Food/Memory

The stories on here often appear first in an Iowa newspaper. It's supposed to be a food column. And sometimes it is.
This column isn’t about cooking. Or eating. If it’s anything it’s stories that include food. There are recipes (sometimes) because the editor demands it. But mostly this is a few hundred words with food as one of the characters. 
I can’t say food has always been an important part of my life. For the longest time it was an afterthought. There were no nights around the dinner table as a child. Maybe a few special recipes before the grandmothers died. A holiday here or there. Depression. Disinterest. There were a lot of reasons I found a good meal was peanut butter on saltines and an adequate meal was peanut butter on a spoon.
As soon as I were old enough I got a restaurant job. 
Food became french fries and burgers. A steak if the chef happened to like you. But I didn’t learn to cook a meal until I was much older, married and raising children, and even then my techniques consisted primarily of boiling water or opening a box.
That all sounds woeful, but my point is this: If you grow up without enough food on the table you look at eating differently. Meals become important enough to plan and wasting one is a pity because there have been so many wasted chances already. The same goes for taste. There is a difference between those tinned tomatoes and ones you picked up at the farmers market. Why waste the energy on something that tastes like nothing?
If a co-worker brings in extra zucchinis — a regular occurrence as we wait for the first frost — I’m more than happy to take them because sometime soon real food, food that tastes like food, will be difficult to find. It’ll take some time and effort to bake a gluten-free zucchini bread or shred it up for fritters. 
Zucchini Fritters.
Peel and shred the zucchinis according to your tolerance for vegetables. Put the shredded zucchini in a colander, squeeze to take out as much moisture as you can. Place in a bowl and add 1/4 cup flour and a couple of eggs, salt and pepper. (Sometimes I’ll chop up an onion and drop that in too.)Try to form a patty. If it holds together nice, kind of on the damp side, you’re good. If not, add a little milk or a little more flour. 
All this time there’s been a cast iron skillet with olive oil or something on the stove on a medium-high heat. The oven is also on. Drop a couple patties in the oil. If you didn’t get enough moisture out, it’ll splatter, but no worries. Just step back. Brown one side, then the other. Put it on a cookie sheet in the oven and keep it warm while you finish the batch.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Cooking the Halloween decor

Bought as decoration, used as dinner. 

One of the first rules of entertaining is don’t serve a meal you’ve never made before. All sorts of things can go wrong in a new recipe because, like so much in life, what you see on the page isn’t always what you get. Recipes aren’t always carefully proofread and that 1 tablespoon of salt is meant to be a single teaspoon. Or the recipe creator mistakenly leaves out a very important ingredient. We’ll assume it’s a mistake although there was that one aunt who happily shared recipes, but not the whole recipe. She’d leave out an important ingredient or two to be sure that her version of the dish always tasted better than the copy. It took me years to figure that out. Years of feeling like a kitchen failure. Instead I’d lost to a cheater. A hyper-competative kitchen cheater.Don't be that person.
I’ve served more than a few meals that didn’t work, but many more that have. And yes, they’ve been served to guests. That first rule, the one about never serving an experiment is one I refuse to follow. Because of that, some friends recently had the opportunity to share a newly conceived Pumpkin Lasagna that came into existence only because there was a pie pumpkin taking up too much space on the counter. I thought it looked festive when I bought it. Then it just looked like dinner. If I'd bought a butternut squash I would have used that. 

Pumpkin Lasagna

Filling
1 pie pumpkin (or 2 14-ounce cans of pumpkin - NOT Pumpkin Pie Filling) Make sure it is a pie pumpkin. About 3 pounds. Those big carving pumpkins will not work. 
1 cup ricotta
1 cup mascarpone (or leave this out and double the ricotta. There was some in the fridge, so I used it.)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sage, 1 teaspoon or more

Peel a small pie pumpkin and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with olive oil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until it’s fork stabbable. Puree. Should make about 3 cups. Leave it in the food processor and add the ricotta, mascarpone and egg.

Sauce
1 medium onion, diced
2 or more cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups cream or half and half
Pork sausage or 4 to 6 pieces diced Canadian bacon (optional) 

Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté. Set aside. Brown the sausage or bacon. Set aside. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and cream. (Add some of the parmesan to the sauce if you’d like.) I use a large cast iron frying pan for all three of these steps. Combine the pork product and the onion/garlic mix in the sauce. Set aside.

Assemble
12 ounces of mozzarella
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 box of pre-cooked lasagna

Spread 9- by 12-inch baking dish with a layer of sauce. 
Layer 1: Noodles
Layer 2: Pumpkin filling.
Layer 3: Mozzarella and Parm
Layer 4 Sauce
Repeat, ending with a layer of sauce-covered noodles sprinkled with Parmesan.

Cover pan with sheet of oiled foil. Bake in 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 more. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.