Kevin and I have stumbled onto a way to make cooking fun again.
It all began the first week of January. Kids were still off school, but we wanted to get back to work. So we split our days. I took the morning kid-shift, he took the afternoons; but afternoons meant suppers too. I relinquished my iron hold over kitchen proceedings, and introduced him to The Joy of Cooking, and he liked it. A lot.
We did have Yorkshire puddings two nights in a row because the first recipe didn’t replicate his childhood memory of his mother’s version. Sadly, neither did the second recipe. After which, he moved on to a traditional shepherd’s pie. Getting in touch with his British Isle roots. (What if he attempts blood pudding??) I must add that he also solicited advice from me, which I appreciated. Because I was practically itching to give it.
I found that the brief break inspired me to cook with more enthusiasm, and, I’ll admit it, a faint stirring of competition. Nothing like a little challenge to get me inspired.
I’ve already been creamed by the competition, according to our four-year-old. Kevin prepared leftover noodles with cheese sauce on Saturday evening, and, to repeat a story I already told on Facebook, here’s how that went over:
CJ: Who made this supper?
Kevin: I did.
CJ: This supper is awesome! *holds out arms for hug*
Me: Are you serious? I’m going to cry.
Please note: I have never, not once, received a spontaneous hug for any meal I have set upon the table. A more common response would be:
“Why do you always make food that I hate?”
I have been preparing said meals for eleven-and-a-half years. That’s, like, 4000 meals.
But I digress.
We’ve decided to up the stakes.
Inspired by a friend who is going on sabbatical this summer, and who is chronicling her attempts to “eat down the freezer and cupboards,” Kevin and I have decided to prepare meals using all those edible odds and ends that dwell, untouched and neglected, in our own cupboards and freezers. (I suspect there’s some weird survivalist instinct in me that wants to save the stored food, in case of apocalyptic circumstances; in any case, we have a lot, and we could probably reduce our monthly grocery bill by making better use of it. Worth a try.)
* I started on Monday with a meal of quinoa (cupboard), spelt (cupboard), and brown rice (cupboard) salad with roasted red beets (leftover), and a corn (frozen) and potato (cold cellar) chowder (broth from freezer) with bacon (freezer). For bedtime snack, we opened a jar of pearsauce (cupboard) and served it with yogurt.
* Last night, Kevin made us a spinach (freezer) gorgonzola sauce with bacon (leftover), mushrooms (lingering), and shrimp (freezer), over pasta. He wisely prepared a separate cheese sauce for the children who didn’t want the fancy bits, making him, once again, most popular chef with the four-year-old set. (Pandering! I refuse to stoop to such tactics!)
* For tonight’s meal, I’m planning to prepare corn tortilla (freezer) quesedillas with refried red beans (freezer) and roasted red pepper salsa (freezer, fridge, cupboard), and a raw cabbage (cold cellar) salad.
I am thankful for family. I am thankful for a full house. I am thankful for a holiday that celebrates feasting together.
I am thankful that the dogs are part of our family now. I am thankful for a long morning run before the cold sleet came. I am thankful for colourful leaves against a white sky.
I am thankful for work. I am thankful for energy. I am thankful for surprise gifts from friends.
I am thankful for a day of rest. I am thankful for good books to read. I am thankful for leftovers.
(Photos look better viewed in full on Flickr.)
And I am thankful for clean dishes.
I found this post on my Facebook timeline (which was oddly compelling; damn you, Facebook, for finding new ways to help me procrastinate). I wrote it in the middle of February, 2011. But its information seems especially useful just now, in the midst of the harvest season, as I make an effort to fill the cold cellar, cupboards, and freezer. Though I haven’t felt very domestic this summer, somehow the arrival of September gives me the sudden urge to preserve. I feel it in the changing light and the leaves starting to fall, and the yellowing tomato plants: now is the time, hurry, hurry!
I had help this weekend. Caught up in a writing spell, and in possession of a bin of pears afflicted by fruit flies, Kevin offered to learn the fine art of saucing and canning. (Actually, it’s more of a craft than an art, and a bit tedious as he discovered, but he also discovered that he could can pearsauce while watching soccer. Win!) My mother told my aunt who was thrilled because apparently my uncle cans every summer. And then Kevin went to pick up kids at a friend’s house, and discovered that the dad was in the middle of — you guessed it! — canning.
Photos and original post below.
Some food stores well in our cold cellar. Some food does not. The sweet keeper squash is still going strong, but all other squashes are turning, uh, squishy. Squishes. We’ve kept them past their prime. Note to self: buy in bulk early in the season, eat lots, and by January at the very latest, shred and freeze the rest. Late February is too late. Although also note: some slightly squishy squash may be peeled and turned into soup.
Excellent keepers: garlic, stored in brown paper bags (I love my Ontario garlic! If you think you know garlic, and you’ve only ever met grocery store Chinese-grown garlic, I would like to introduce you to a whole different vegetable [is it a vegetable?]); potatoes, as long as you root through the big bag and compost any soft specimens–they keep best stored in smaller amounts in brown paper bags; beets, just like potatoes, only everyone gets much more tired of them, and kind of wishes they wouldn’t keep so well (though they do make good pickles).
Good keepers: apples. Our cold cellar can’t preserve them as well as Martin’s, our local apple farm, but we buy half a bushel or more at a time, and, stored in our cold cellar, they stay crispy ’til eaten. But we can go through half a bushel in two weeks, so it’s hard to put a fine end date on their cold cellar lives.
Decent keepers: yams, turnips, green cabbage, napa cabbage, pears. Lower your expectations. Don’t leave them to linger all winter long. Eat within the month (even sooner for the napa). We store them loose on wire shelves, with the exception of the pears, which are stored, like the apples, in a handy bin. The pears must been eaten within two weeks, we’ve found, and they rot deceptively, from the inside out.
Not to be kept in the cold cellar: onions, which apparently have an ill effect on apples, so we store them in a dark cupboard in the kitchen; and carrots, which keep best in the refrigerator. It’s not practical to have more than 10 lbs in the bottom drawer of the fridge, but luckily, through Bailey’s Local Foods, I can buy a new 10 lb bag every month. And when that’s not enough, I can drive to Martin’s farm and buy more.
In the freezer, which I’m digging into with ever more gratitude for last summer’s kept harvest, I wish there were more: corn and green beans. And less peas and beet greens. I am absolutely thrilled with the amount of plums and apricots, and the happy surprise of blueberries, (enough to get us through til April or May). But the frozen applesauce is wasted space. Note to self: can the stuff! My canned pearsauce has lasted til now (last jar opened last night). My tomatoes are hanging in there, but with an upswing in soup and stew production, the jolly red jars are beginning to dwindle. I must do a head count. I want them to last through May, and it’s time to start rationing. The frozen roasted red peppers continue to delight. And finally, I am happy with my frozen herbs, but could have frozen far more cilantro and basil, the latter particularly, because there is nothing like a heaping bowl of pasta with pesto to make a winter’s supper sing.
I’ve been making some really good summer meals — sometimes. Sometimes the creativity fails, and I throw hot dogs on the barbeque. Here are a few memorable meals from the last two weeks (since I missed posting last week.)
**Last Thursday’s menu** Quinoa salad with black beans. Gazpacho.
**Keepin’ it cool** The kids requested something cold. I mentioned that certain soups are served cold and all were intrigued. I could not find a recipe for gazpacho, so I winged it. Pureed chopped tomato, cucumber, garlic, green pepper, and a handful of stale bread bits with 6-8 cups of water (can’t remember). Added salt, pepper to taste, plus a good slug of vinegar, and a sprinkle of oregano. Albus was a huge fan. Meanwhile, I steamed the quinoa, and chopped similar veggies, and tossed a lemon dressing together in a large bowl, to which I added the cooked quinoa and a cup or two of cooked, leftover black beans. Did not add feta (kids don’t like feta). Did add huge bunch of chopped basil picked fresh from backyard.
**Last Friday’s menu** Gallo pinto picnic (beans fried with rice).
**Not entirely sure I’d recommend this, but …** AppleApple was playing an extra soccer game, fairly early, a week ago Friday. There wasn’t time to eat supper before leaving, which I only realized while in the process of whipping up the gallo pinto. So I packed it into a large bowl and added extras to the picnic basket: grated cheese, grape tomatoes, tortilla chips, salsa. Add plates and cutlery, and fruit for desssert, and it all worked out. Yes, we looked a little odd eating our supper by the field. But at least there was a picnic table.
**Monday’s menu** Tomato sauce tossed with pasta. Green salad with maple dressing.
**Cooked by AppleApple!** She made this meal essentially by herself. She followed a recipe for the sauce, which did come within a hair of burning to the bottom of the pot, but was rescued just in time. Still, we only had about half the amount of sauce I usually make; this inspired us to toss it with the hot pasta. She also made the salad dressing herself. It’s so easy to make homemade salad dressing in a small glass jar with a lid! (A bit of oil, a bit of vinegar or the juice of a lemon, maple syrup, dijon, salt and pepper. Shake. Pour. Toss. Done.)
**Miracles do happen** CJ and Fooey ate the pasta covered with sauce. If the sauce is separated out, they refuse it. They didn’t even question eating this meal, and requested seconds. I think we have a winning recipe here — fewer options are sometimes better.
**Tuesday’s menu** Quinoa salad. Sausages on grill.
**Sausage splits** To economize, and because I don’t think we need to be eating that much meat, I grilled three sausages, split them in half and lengthwise, and served them already in buns, one bun each. It turned out not to be enough to satisfy big kid appetites, at which point I forced the quinoa salad on them, at which point we discovered the quinoa wasn’t as good this time round (even I had to admit it). At which point, Kevin finally arrived home from Toronto just in time for all of us to leave for soccer. He took his sausage to go.
**Wednesday’s menu** Gado gado: an Indonesian feast!
**What was I thinking** So … Kevin was working late in Toronto, and the two big kids had invited friends for a sleepover. Naturally, I decided to emerge from my office goggle-eyed and semi-present and whip up an elaborate Indonesian feast. Right?! That is exactly what happened. Of course, in some senses it’s really easy food to make. In others, it’s time-consuming, takes a ton of chopping, and uses lots of dishes. However, it all worked out because Kevin arrived home just as I was placing food on the table. We all ate together. The tofu was not popular with the children who were not mine; but otherwise, this meal was a hit.
**Gado gado, what is it?** Gado gado goes like this. A heap of yellow rice (1/2 tsp turmeric flavours two cups of uncooked rice) served upon a bed of spinach. I arranged halved hard-cooked eggs around the side, one half for each of us. Toppings can then be added, as desired. I offered: steamed broccoli, fried onions with zucchini, fried tofu cubes, crushed peanuts, unsweetened coconut, and hot pepper flakes. Once a plate has been made, a lovely peanut sauce is poured over top. I will say this: it was phenomenally good. I will serve it again, perhaps at the next big family gathering. Other topping options include finely chopped cabbage, banana slices, or other fruit. Flexible! Delicious! Vegan!
**Thursday’s menu** Hot dogs on grill.
**Sigh** It was all I could manage. In fact, I barely managed it.
**Friday’s menu** Lonely grilled bun with cheese and garlic. Plus fruit.
**Context** The kids were spending the night at my mom’s. We had a Bailey’s pickup (so much fruit! Cherries, peaches, plums, and blueberries!!) There was a stale bun on the counter. Kevin had to take Fooey to a soccer game. I ate alone, reeking of garlic. It wasn’t half bad.
**Saturday’s menu** Noodles in peanut sauce. Chopped napa and fennel and radish. Cupcakes and plum cake for dessert.
**Ho-hum** The peanut sauce was bland. I used actual peanuts, as we’d run out of peanut butter. It was made with coconut milk and curry. It needed more curry, more salt, and more peanuts.
**Dessert** If there’s dessert on the menu, you know something’s up. Yes, we had guests, and one arrived with yummy cupcakes and plum cake from a new bakery across from the Kitchener market called, I think, The Yeti. Correct me if I’m wrong …
**Sunday’s menu** Pizza from Pepi’s.
**The start of a tradition?** This Sunday and last Sunday everyone came along to my soccer game, which is usually scheduled for Sunday afternoon/evening. Both games involved travel, and by the time they’d ended, we knew everyone would be hot, tired, and hungry. So last Sunday, we offered pizza as a reward for 90 minutes of Mom-playing-soccer. Honestly, it was a reward for everyone. Pepi’s makes great pizza (downtown Kitchener). We order one Hawaiian, one vegetarian with tons of green olives. It makes for a happy supper, few dishes, and a good end to the weekend. Plus I really like having everyone come to my games. Even if they have to watch their mother get slide-tackled/clotheslined/or otherwise badly fouled at least once a match. Apparently this is how (some) grown women play recreational soccer?
**Monday’s menu** Fried tofu. Mashed potatoes. Cheese. Brussel sprouts.
**The challenge** Ham leftover from Christmas (frozen and thawed) was on the menu, but it smelled “off.” Quickly disposed of, and I marinated some tofu and fried it up instead. Some considered the alternative delicious; but not all are tofu fans, even at its crispiest.
**Tuesday’s menu** Red sauce with local organic beef. Pasta. Bought garlic bread.
**The challenge** Prepared an enormous batch of sauce in the afternoon. But how to cook the pasta up fresh between swimming and soccer (half hour turnaround time for the whole family this week)?
**Solution** Kevin came home early to turn the water on and put the garlic bread in the oven. The bought garlic bread (impulsive purchase for which I am to blame). The kids loved it. Sigh.
**MIA** Something green.
**Wednesday’s menu** Black bean chili. Tortilla chips. Fried kale.
**The challenge** Cooked on the gas stove during an electricity black-out. A quick switcheroo from crockpot to stovetop at just the right moment saved the day.
**Thursday’s menu** Rice with peas. Marinated stir-fried fish. Cilantro pesto.
**The challenge** No real challenge, I’m just sticking with the theme. I enjoyed having a little more time to cook this meal. Fooey was keen to try these recipes from her “China” cookbook (library), and both turned out very well indeed. I used a bunch of leftover cilantro to make a pesto, which added flavour to the fish.
**Friday’s menu** Egg-fried rice (with grated carrot). Leftover fish.
**The challenge** Maintaining interest in cooking. Admittedly this can be a challenge most every day, but somehow seems worst by Friday evening. What? You kids want to eat AGAIN? Oh, alright, fine.
**Weekend kitchen accomplishment** Pizza for a crowd!
**The challenge** We doubled our population in children overnight on Saturday as our part in a babysitting exchange (our turn next weekend!). So we made homemade pizzas. Three with pepperoni and cheese and one with tapenade and mushrooms and onions. Guess who ate which?
**Cooking with kids** CJ’s menu.
**The challenge** CJ’s menu. It’s been CJ’s “turn” for two weeks now (and we were too tired to attempt it last week). CJ is showing little inclination to plan menus or participate in the cooking. Well, he is still only three. He was not at his best on Sunday and fixated on wanting to make sushi, which would have been lovely but takes advance planning. Cue enormous tantrum. So instead Kevin and I worked together to pull off a delicious Asian-themed feast of no-ketchup pad thai and hot-and-sour-soup. (Amusingly, we each used our cellphones as recipe books, looking up Obscure CanLit Mama recipes; ah, technology). Less amusingly, we cooked in tandem whilst our youngest lay upon the floor kicking the cupboards and howling random incoherent demands. Just to give you a little window of realism into what “cooking with kids” can sometimes be like. At least supper was delicious. And bedtime mercifully early.
1. Giving away food. On Tuesday afternoon I cooked a giant pot of pasta sauce using my home-canned tomatoes. We ate some for supper and I froze three containers. And then along came Friday, a beast of a day; the worst of it was not what was happening, but how I felt I was handling what was happening. Performing poorly all around; know the feeling? By the time 3pm arrived, I was feeling downright down. And then an opportunity presented itself: to provide not one, but TWO meals to families in need of a little extra help. And I had these containers of frozen pasta sauce, plus lots of extra pasta on hand. It was the best part of my day, I’ll tell you honestly. Packing up food and giving it away. A reminder that being asked to help is a real gift, not to be taken for granted.
2. One good run. I ran super-fast on Friday night. My leg didn’t trouble me, and I covered ground quickly: 6km in under half an hour, at a pace of better than 5 minutes/km. Speedy! As speedy as I’ve ever run. In truth, it was probably too much, too soon, because yesterday afternoon’s follow-up run was slow and pained; good news tempered by bad. But at least I know speed is still there, waiting for me; and I feel certain that if I can retrain my muscles, I will be able to run faster than before. Plus just being outside, no matter how chilly, is a small good thing in itself.
3. Downtime. Friday night, Kevin and I finally spent some time together, just the two of us. And thankfully we both wanted the same thing: to rest our weary minds. So he made us each a martini with big juicy olives, and we vegged on the couch and watched Downton Abbey. An ahhhhh, thank you, Life, moment.
4. A nice review in the Montreal Gazette this weekend. A couple of really lovely things about this review. a) The reviewer remembers Hair Hat, which he read eight years ago; it stayed with him. b) He’s rooting for Juliet: “It will be interesting to see how this book, at least as mature and powerful as several recent major award winners, performs in the marketplace.” He’s rooting, but he knows the reality. Juliet is one in a crowd. Will she break out and be found? He thinks she has a chance, if people pick her up and read her. (Is it weird that I’ve started referring to the book as if it were a person? Hm. I’m just going to file that observation away rather than subject it to analysis.)