December 2, 2011

Clean Plate Club

Nothing new about this:  you are sitting at the dinner table, maybe six or seven years old with nothing left on your plate but peas. You know, the frozen kind. Dimpled and mushy and pasty on the inside, refusing to keep solidarity on your fork. You can remember that day, it is a memory as familiar to me as it must be common to you, sitting at the empty dinner table, your siblings already onto more fun enterprises, and you are left with your balking tastebuds and the peas. Eventually, logic suggests that you will not beat your parents on this one and you succumb to shoving the last ones in your mouth, cheeks bulging, held in just long enough to show your clean plate to your mother as proof and then to rush to the bathroom upstairs while pretending to head for your room, spitting them out just in time to escape the gag reflex. There is no way around this experience; when your mother is intent on not wasting good food, there is just no way around it.

Well, there is one way around it.

Power drops.

Fast forward through the teenage years when you flat out deny eating anything you don’t want to eat having learned through protest that in the end there isn’t a darn thing your parents can do about it to my first summer at Outpost Wilderness Adventure, an adventure camp that I went on to spend eight summers working for. We were finishing up a delicious dinner of refried beans and rice when the guides passed the bean pot around the group encouraging everyone to take one more spoonful so as not to waste the food by throwing it out. ‘Every bite you take gives you energy to play harder tomorrow!’ The pot made its ineffectual pass around the circle, one guide named Quentin took the pot back, stood up and announced, ‘Time for power drops!’ Power drops? Nobody knew what this was, but given the comment about food and fuel and the word power, I was certain it involved consumption. It was the word ‘drop’ that I wondered about.

And the next thing I knew Quentin was standing over his first volunteer (we later learned never to be the first to volunteer when it came to Quentin) lying on his back, in the dirt. Quentin wielded a spoon piled high with sloppy beans and instructed, “Yeah, like that. Ya’ll just keep your mouth open as wiiiiide as you can and I’ll just….” The spoon turned in his hand and a giant slop of beans landed half in the boy’s mouth, half out, dripping down the side of his cheek and onto the collar of his shirt. Everybody laughed and the boy coughed, then laughed too, wiping his mouth, cheek and shirt.

“That…..was….AWEsome,” Quentin grinned and looked up, “Who’s next? Everybody has to do their part.” And everybody did.

As every kid took their turn, caught their power drop and received messy sloppy beans in their mouth, nose, hair, ear, Quentin, as he is want to do when things become no longer challenging, decided a power drop from this height was no longer demanding and thus unsatisfactory. He stepped onto the grill grate and then to the top of the picnic table and finally to the top of the trailer that carried gear and bikes. That was the summer of the power drop battles, pushing the limits to more inventive heights- at one point dropping from the second story deck off the back of the lodge.

The power drop was signature OWA. It meant many things, it gave new meaning to cleaning your plate, it was fun; it was permission to play with your food. It turned something you didn’t want to do into something that you took honor in doing. And it was responsible in its basic purpose: clean your plate. Your mom should read this.

October 27, 2011

Cooking on a Budget

Maybe you can recall those days where you had to seriously cook on a budget. Maybe that has influenced your cooking to this day. A sampling of friends reveals some of the classic budget meals- spaghetti, buttered noodles, peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, cereal for dinner, English muffin pizzas, grilled cheese and tomato soup, hotdogs, macaroni and cheese and the classic one: your parents’ house. My brother’s very creative answer to this question- Raman noodles mixed with popcorn and tuna (his go to meal while in college, I learned)- reminded me of one of my own more inventive periods in the kitchen.

The first year that I actually lived on my own- really on my own- in my own apartment, solo, was the year that I took some time to decide what career I should purse and was lucky enough to have lined up a morning job in Stowe and an afternoon job in Montpelier exploring two possible options. This period was great for career considerations but not so great for the wallet as I was earning intern level wages.  I probably spent most of my paycheck on gas driving back and forth to Montpelier.
My apartment was a house that an uncle had generously let to me for $100 a month, built circa 1880s that had nearly original electrical work.  Peeling back the layers of carpet and flooring in the living room was like a study in fashionable floorings throughout history. I was excited to discover wide plank wood floors beneath it all until winter hit and I realized that all those layers of carpeting had a serious insulation factor and that the wide plank floors came also with wide gaps between boards that quickly led to a rapid filling and draining of the propane tank.  Around January I realized just how little money I was making and just how much was going to living expenses.  

This lead to an experimentation in how long I could make the groceries in my fridge and pantry last. After one paycheck I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the types of groceries that I thought might be able to last but still had some nutritional value. It led to some pretty inventive cooking. I cannot say that I ever created a meal worth making for company during this period or that I didn’t occasionally happen to end up at my parents house around dinner time, but I did managed to avoid the grocery store for a little over a month. The expert trick seemed to be casseroles, frozen vegetables and making enough for leftovers. Lentil soup with onion and rosemary, tuna pasta with dill on a bed of greens, white bean and onion soup were some of my new specialties.

I was proud that I managed the feat and lasted as long as I did. The experience has probably informed the way I like to cook even now- to open the fridge or cupboard, assess what is there and address the challenge of picking the ingredients that together would create something nutritious and flavorful.

One of my best meals from this period was a lasagna style casserole made chiefly of polenta, spinach, black bean and cheddar cheese. It wasn’t that bad. And there were ways to make this meal cheaper- make your black beans from dry beans instead of a can, use frozen spinach instead of fresh, make the polenta instead of using store bought. I include the recipe below but leave the dollar saving decisions to you.

Polenta (cut into ½ inch slices)
Black beans
Cheddar cheese
Sour cream
Green chiles

Cut the polenta into ½ inch slices or, if you are making it from scratch, spread it ½ thick when you lay it out.

In a casserole pan, layer the polenta, then spinach, then blackbeans, then sour cream and cheese and green chiles. Add a second layer of polenta, blackbeans and spinach. Top with cheese.  Cook in the oven at 350 until warm and the cheese on top is melted. Enjoy!

October 17, 2011

The Good Thing About Ex-boyfriends

Oftentimes, when looking back on past relationships, most of what you can remember are the bad things and this, usually, is colored by the ending of the relationship.  It has nothing to do with how you feel about that relationship now, and what you have learned about yourself since that time. Since I began writing about food, I have spent hours thinking about my food experiences and what foods I love and the origins of these things and the people involved and I realized that there are a few foods that fit into the category of What I Learned from my Ex- Boyfriends. 

One item that comes to mind is learning how to make popcorn on the stove. Growing up we had one of those air popper machines that you plug in and had a little butter tray that the hot air melted as it blew the popcorn through its yellow plastic funnel. To keep the popcorn from flying everywhere we held a dishtowel from the edges of the top of the chute and draped it down to the bowl to catch those errant kernels. The butter was melted then drizzled over the popcorn but was really only tasted on the few pieces that actually soaked it up- it seemed impossible to get an even spread of butter.  At my grandmother’s we had a treat- Jiffy Pop. Jiffy Pop was fun because of the way the tinfoil pouch grew tremendously as it cooked and it covered the kernels more evenly and didn’t leave the popcorn soggy with butter. Then there was the advent of microwave popcorn. Open the package, throw it in and five minutes later, salty bliss.  But as I got older I became suspect of what chemical preservatives were in both Jiffy Pop and microwave popcorn and generally was dissatisfied with my popcorn options. Around that time I began dating a classic hippy- a geology grad student at UVM who spent his free time converting diesel cars to run on vegetable oil so he knew a thing or two about keeping things natural. I don’t remember Steve ever eating much but I do remember that he used to pop popcorn on the stove and that it was the best popcorn I had ever had. There was always the perfect amount of butter and salt that seemed to absorb right into the kernel as it popped. When we parted ways I decided saying goodbye to Steve did not need to mean saying goodbye to his awesome popcorn. It took awhile to get my system down but now I have made countless bowls of delicious wholesome popcorn. I control the butter, the salt and am not subjected to something predetermined by Orville Redenbacher, the folks at Jiffy Pop or any other less prominent microwave brands.

I have included a recipe of sorts below to help you cook up this tasty treat. I do recommend using a pan you don’t care much about as I have completely ruined a pot from the high heat, and hot oil. (Many know this pan as my Popcorn Pot.) At this point I have it nailed down to eyeball amounts of kernels, butter and oil ratio.  In case you didn’t read my explanation of my recipe philosophies ("English Majors, Plain Speaking and Absolutes"), be warned that I am a generalist at heart and my ‘recipes’ reflect that…

Three handfuls of corn kernels
1/3 a stick of butter (at the very least!)
A few tablespoons of vegetable oil
Pinches of kosher salt

Heat the butter and oil, add salt. Add corn. Shake pot back and forth to avoid scorching. As the popcorn pops, listen carefully for longer pauses between pops to know when it’s finished. When in doubt, it’s better to have a few extra unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl then burnt ones. Unless you like that sort of thing, of course.

May 31, 2011

Camp Cookie

You typically think of a camp cook as someone who is skilled at using the cheapest ingredients to make the most food for the most people in the healthiest way. The dishes these camp cooks serve end up being heavy on the pasta and red sauce, peanut butter and jelly, pizzas and hamburger based recipes.

Camp cook Shelly Keith was the opposite of that.

As long as her husband, Quentin, had been guiding for Outpost Wilderness Adventure, Shelly had been a regular around the lodge. But it wasn’t until Quentin and Shelly bought the business that she stepped into the kitchen with the ownership of the chef that she was. Shelly’s firm philosophy that in her family there would be no ‘short order’ cheffing extended to the OWA family. The kids who attended OWA camps ate some of the best meals offered at kids’ camps anywhere. There were lots of fresh, in-season fruits and berries, responsibly raised meat, fresh vegetables in every meal and, always, salads made more interesting than your regular tomato and cucumber. Often there were pies made of fresh fruit for dessert. Shelly’s food philosophy was simple: eating well made for happy and healthy people. The passion she felt about food and eating helped to extend OWA’s education in adventure skills to life skills as well. With the purchase of organic food
she taught kids that the value of food is larger than simply what you put into your body- food has value in an environmental sense and an economic sense.

Shelly’s influence from the kitchen was felt more than just at the dinner table. She taught us to cook. And this was inadvertent. If you wanted to hang out with Shelly, and it wasn’t after 9:30pm, you had to hang out with her in the kitchen. Between preparing the three meals for camp and taking care of her three little girls, Shelly was hard to hang out with unless you were doing whatever she was doing. And that was okay. In fact, that was one of the gifts Shelly gave us- she made the kitchen a fun and easy place to be.  And while you were in the kitchen, Shelly might ask you to chop something. As you were chopping that something, she might grab the knife and show you how to chop properly- quicker and better than before. This was another gift- how to do a good job. And as you were sitting in there, chatting with her, the girls- Peachie and Willow and Peira- running in and out, and the work crew taking care of dishes, you might observe the relationship of the ingredients that Shelly threw together so easily and learn what goes well with what- another gift. You might watch her use tongs and suddenly find yourself using tongs and realize how much easier it made cooking- another gift!  She might teach you how to crack two eggs at once without dropping any shells. Or you might watch her put together something you love to eat, but have never made, and see how easy it is. Mix oatmeal and nuts and Craisins and honey, throw it in the oven and now you know how to make granola. Watching Shelly in the kitchen was like having your very own personal cooking show.

Some sense of the way cooking goes was something many of us took from her. I used to joke and call her one-pot meals  ‘pot slop’ because they were so very much the opposite of what that phrase conjures.  Instead of something that might be served up at Little Orphan Annie’s orphanage, Shelly’s pot slops were something more like orzo with olive oil, garlic, summer squash, green beans and shrimp or Mexican chicken and rice stew, the best black beans and rice you have ever had. Many of these dishes were served with her homemade buns. One of my favorite meals she made was a pasta bake that centered on bleu cheese, roasted tomatoes, garlic, and spinach.  I love the way these flavors melt together but I also love the way the dish looks- the red and green mixing in with the creamy whites. Shelly made the meal with straight bleu cheese and I added cheddar to cut the strong flavor of the bleu. Recipe(ish) below. If you haven’t read my recipe philosophy… you might want to (“English Majors, Plain Speaking and Absolutes”, January 2011)

The quantity of the ingredients below is what I usually make for about four people, with leftovers.

Six (or so) tomatoes
A ton of fresh spinach, the more the better.
4 (or more) cloves of garlic
bleu cheese
cheddar cheese
penne pasta
heavy cream (or milk or half and half)
pine nuts
olive oil
kosher salt
fresh pepper

Dice tomatoes and spread on a baking sheet. Cut garlic cloves to roughly the same size and add to sheet. Drizzle olive oil, sprinkle kosher salt and freshly ground pepper and bake (350?) until the smell of your house makes your mouth water. Or until the tomatoes look cooked and the garlic looks soft.

While the tomatoes and garlic are roasting, boil water for pasta.  Shelly uses penne but use whatever pasta you like best.

Grate enough cheddar cheese to cut the bleu cheese 1:1.

When pasta is done, drain and out in a large baking dish. Add tomatoes and garlic, both cheeses (add enough until it looks like a Cheese Hoover would be ready to devour it). Stir in more spinach than you think you will need as it the amount shrinks as it wilts. Sprinkle in pine nuts (toasted pine nuts are better but untoasted are delicious as well). Then add heavy cream (half and half works too, or milk if you are feeling conscious of your heart) until it collects about a half inch in the bottom of the pan.

Bake until the cheese is melted, the spinach wilted and the cream bubbles a little.


May 17, 2011

Coffee Talk Talking

It used to be that the way I needed coffee was pretty unhealthy. I eventually found the snobbish way I drank coffee- the quantity and type- to be quite limiting. When my world got a little bigger (read: when I got my first real job and realized I couldn’t necessarily afford the coffee I loved or at least to drink it as much as I had been) I became less of a snob about what coffee I was willing to drink. Today, I enjoy one cup of good coffee and this makes me happy- its perfect cardboard coloring, the strong taste of freshly roasted beans, the beauty of the way it looks in its mug, the kick-start to my day. Sometimes this perfect cup is quietly enjoyed alone, sometimes with friends or with my husband, dreaming about the future.  But what I like best about that one cup of coffee hasn’t changed. It is the infinite possibility it affords. While sitting, drinking coffee, I feel I might accomplish anything during the day. I might start a business, book travel plans to visit friends or explore new countries, I might write the book that has been brewing in my head, draw beautiful pictures, make political cartoons. I might climb mountains high and ride my bike far distances, I might even learn the Spanish language, learn that bothersome F#m chord on the guitar. I could surely finish the book I’m reading, teach my baby girl to walk and sing and dance, make impossible dishes for dinner, bake perfect baguettes, get a puppy, take beautiful pictures, find myself in a bluegrass band, make new friends and reconnect with my old ones. And sometimes I do. Sometimes I do. 

January 26, 2011

Singled Out: Discerning Flavors

After my sophomore year in college I moved off campus and never went back to living with everyone else.  I never missed being on campus- the constant chatter and noise of living in such close proximity to other people- having never felt the sense of community that others got from living, sleeping, working, breathing and eating in the same place as so many other people.  But there was one community that I did feel a part of and that was a handful of other English majors that also lived off campus.  In fact, when we had to be on campus for lunch because of an afternoon class following a morning class, a small group of us would eat together.  That is to say we would sneak in the backdoor of the dining hall and pretend like we belonged there.  Sometimes we pulled out bag lunches and sometimes we would sneak into the actual cafeteria and get lunch. One thing that we loved to do was play a little game with the juice machines. Every time we had lunch, one person would go to the juice machines and create an original juice that was brought back to the table to be dissected by correctly identifying each juice that composed the drink. In the name of strict competition we had two rules: no premixed juices (i.e. cranberry grape) and no more than five juices per concoction.  The rest of lunch was spent picking apart the drink and whoever correctly named all (or most) of the juices contained within the drink was the winner and felt the glory of victory for the day. If there was no winner or only one juice correctly named the glory went to the mixer who won the right to mix the next drink.  Winning is always best and I particularly liked the challenged of trying to identify the flavors.

As I began a more serious interest in eating and flavors and thus cooking, I found that I would play this game with myself while out to eat at restaurants or eating something new.  I also found myself trying to recreate my old off campus lunch crew tenor by testing others when I made a dish that I thought particularly flavorful.  Most people were generally were less interested in knowing what flavors comprised the dish than in spooning out another serving.  My delight in stumping them was stymied; they simply did not care.

It wasn’t until my sister in law, Paula, suggested that we make ravioli with wonton wrappers that it occurred to me to take my indentifying game one step further. At the mention of ravioli, I immediately thought of my favorite dish- the wood fired spinach ravioli in a mushroom cream sauce topped with melted cheese at Sarducci’s in Montpelier, Vermont. It was one of those dishes that you can’t not order.  I had been trying to not order this dish for years, to no avail. My impression of myself as a cook would soar if I could figure out how to replicate this delicious meal. I felt certain that people would stand and applaud at the dinner table after I served such a dinner. Wasting no time, I quickly found a recipe for spinach ravioli stuffing and set about trying to create a creamy sauce to bake it in.  My sauce had everything that I imagined was in the Sarducci’s sauce- white wine, sautéed onions and mushrooms, maybe some parmesan cheese and was delicious, but not exact. While I knew it would never be exact I wanted it to be closer.

So I started tweaking. 

The next time, I tried for a thicker sauce, by adding a little flour. Too mushy, too pasty. Next I tried adding a little chicken broth to thin the sauce and add a little more flavor. Too salty, too watery.  I tried shallots instead of plain onions, I sprinkled with pine nuts, I added garlic (and kicked myself for forgetting garlic in an Italian recipe!), I added parmesan, I cut the parmesan. I added mozzarella to top the bake, then tried fontina. Heavy cream? Half and half? I made the dish so many times I actually got a little tired of it. Well, my version of it anyway because every time I went to Sarducci’s, I still found myself ordering it. In the spirit of my lunch crew, I tried hard to isolate the flavors and this helped me get closer to recreating. But something was still missing. And then it finally hit me one spring evening while dining on Sarducci’s porch with my husband.  The waitress set the plate down in front of me and I noticed something for the first time- the small, dark green pieces of herb that were mixed so nonchalantly in the sauce. What was it? I examined it, lifted out a mushroom covered in sauce and melted cheese and took a bite trying to focus and isolate the flavor- thyme! I marveled at my inability to identify this flavor for so long- how could I have missed it?
Thyme! I said aloud, that’s what I’ve been missing! My husband sat across the table from me, fresh bread dripping with Sarducci’s oil and garlic in hand. He smiled, supportive of the discovery but clearly not getting how exciting this was. I win the game! I identified the missing flavor! Competish was mine! And my next spinach ravioli bake would compel him to stand and applaud. The real victory in the juice game was not identifying the flavors but in using them after you identified them.

Below find the original recipe I used to make the filling.  It is from the Whole Foods website (  I decided to include it in this entry even though I only loosely followed it (for example, I dropped the nutmeg in the stuffing) because that is the way I like to cook with recipes- use them as a jumping off and then see where you land when you start tweaking it your own self. In fact, if this recipe is too much work for you, you can usually find a tasty freshly made spinach ravioli in the pasta section of the cooler at most grocery stores (I sometimes use Hannaford’s organic brand- Nature’s Place). The Whole Foods recipe directs you to prepare the ravioli by boiling them but because I was trying to recreate the Sarducci’s dish, I baked it. Thus, I made up the mushroom cream sauce with fresh spinach. It goes something like this:

Sautee some mushrooms, shallots, and garlic in olive oil. Add a pinch of kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.  Add some thyme and white wine and bring to a simmer for awhile. Until you think the flavors have meshed nicely.  Right at the very end, add the cream (heavy if you are feeling it, half and half if you are feeling a heart attack coming). Bring that to a simmer too but don’t let it get too hot and don’t add the cream too soon. I haven’t totally figured it out yet but it seems like the cream curdles under those conditions when added to cooking wine.  Then arrange the ravioli in a dish and toss with the sauce and fresh baby spinach.  Top with shredded mozzarella or a mixture of fontina and parmesan. Bake at 350(ish) until the sauce bubbles and the cheese is melted and toasty on top.

1/2 tablespoon olive oil 

1 shallot, finely chopped 

1/2 pound baby spinach
Salt and pepper to taste 

3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese 

8 tablespoons toasted pine nuts 

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese 

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 

Semolina flour for dusting 

1 (12-ounce) package won ton wrappers 

1 egg, beaten with 1/2 tablespoon cold water 

2 tablespoons butter

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add shallots and cook for about 1 minute, stirring so that they do not brown. Add spinach in a couple of batches and cook, stirring from time to time, until just wilted. Season with salt and pepper, mix well and transfer to a bowl. Let spinach cool to room temperature, then place in fridge to cool further, about 20 minutes. Remove spinach and squeeze into small balls with your hands to release as much liquid as possible. Discard liquid. Finely chop spinach and combine with ricotta, 6 tablespoons of the pine nuts, 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper to make the filling for the ravioli.
Dust a clean work surface with semolina flour. Place about 5 won ton wrappers on the surface, arranging them so that they don't touch. Using a spoon, place a small amount of filling in the center of each wrapper. Lightly brush the egg and water mixture on all four edges of the wrappers. Carefully place another won ton wrapper on top of the filling. To seal it shut, start at one corner and press the edges all the way around. Try not to leave any air bubbles inside of the ravioli as this may cause the ravioli to burst when cooked. Place ravioli on a rimmed baking sheet lightly dusted with semolina flour as done. Dust each layer of ravioli on the baking sheet with the semolina flour, place a piece of waxed paper over them and continue layering. Repeat until all wrappers are used. Cover and refrigerate until ready to cook. (If cooking will not be done the same day, ravioli can be stored in a sealed plastic bag and frozen for up to a week. They can be cooked directly out from the freezer; thawing is not necessary.) 

Bring about 3 quarts of salted water to a boil. Add ravioli and cook, stirring gently so they do not stick to each other, for about 3 minutes or until cooked through. Reserve a few tablespoons of the pasta water. 

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large skillet over low heat until foaming. When ravioli are cooked, drain and add them to skillet. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts and 1 tablespoon Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper. (If dry, add a tablespoon or two of the reserved pasta water.) Serve immediately.

January 8, 2011

English Majors, Plain Speaking and Absolutes

When I started this blog, I had in mind that I would use food as a vehicle to get at other topics. Sometimes I am inspired by that idea, sometimes not.  Part of my hesitancy in writing about food in a more traditional way had to do with recipes. If I was to include a recipe, the purist in me felt it had to be one that I created on my own. There were a few things wrong with this for me: the biggest one being that I am not a professionally trained cook- far from it. My approach to cooking is like my approach to the rest of my life- it is an adventure and few things are absolute so following a recipe is somewhat stifling. There are flavorful adventures (and misadventures) in deviating from what is already set down in books and has been done before. Dealing in absolutes is tough for an English major like me and what that means for me and cooking is that I don’t really like to measure, also a problem when considering recipes.  For me, there is more glory in getting it right without being told what is right.  I suppose the correct finesse in adding the right amount of seasoning or flavor boosts my non-professionally trained chef-ish ego. The second problem also has to do with being an English major (and probably has some residual effect of being an English teacher) and has to do with citing sources.  I have read other food blogs and am unsure whether the recipes they include are their own and since they have not cited where the recipe comes from, I am left to assume that it is, in fact, their own and, consequently, they are much cooler than I because they have their own recipe.

But I am done with all that and have come to terms with this and have decided to include any recipe that I might have used or partly used and simply cite where it came from, be it my mother, ‘the google’ or Julia Child. Because, of course, this is where the adventure also lies.  If there is no recipe for me to start with then I’m not sure where to start. It seems like kind of a funny thing to blog about but I thought it was worthy of explanation.  And so, starting now, don’t be afraid to find a recipe or something that looks like one included in my writing.