The reality of home-cooked meals

I don’t usually pull out my soapbox here, but last week, Slate published an article titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” that addressed a study that argues “the stress that cooking puts on people, particularly women, may not be worth the trade-off.” Then I read this rebuttal and I got angry.

Look, I absolutely believe to my core that we as a society need to prioritize home cooking, growing our own when and where possible, and making good, fresh, sustainable food available geographically and financially. But the way our culture is set up, that is not always easy or even possible, and those roadblocks need to be addressed.

More than a few studies show that women (even with a partner) still do a larger percentage of housework and childcare, including cooking/grocery shopping/cleaning up, even after working a full-time job. That’s not even taking into consideration single parents, parents who work multiple jobs with odd hours for low pay, food desserts, the challenges of getting those so-much-cheaper-than-chips multi-pound bags of potatoes home on a bus. The percent of people who face any one of these challenges, let alone multiple, is far more than the 2% the author in the second article cites (a number that is so wildly out of line with reality I really couldn’t take anything else he said seriously).

And it’s patently not true that “healthful ground beef from pastured cattle versus fast-food burgers” is cheaper by the pound, especially when you take into account the time, tools, and knowledge necessary to acquire, store, and cook said beef. But that’s honestly one of the problem(s) that we should be addressing, not shaming the people who aren’t cooking (or spending their time or money) the way we think they should be.

I am so incredibly lucky and privileged; I acknowledge that. I was lucky that a home-cooked family dinner was a priority for my parents at both of their houses growing up. My dad (a former farmer who had decades of know-how) had a big garden in our yard that supplied a lot of our fresh vegetables in spring, summer, fall and (frozen) throughout the winter. My mom liked food and cooking and trying new things and encouraged my sisters and I to do the same. But my parents also had jobs where they could be home for dinner at a reasonable hour, had the tools and stability to make cooking a reliable option, and knew enough to teach me and my sisters how to start dinner or fend for ourselves if, and when, needed.

I am also lucky in that I love to cook, I reliably get home before 6 p.m. every night, I don’t have kids to care for or cart around to activities, I have the money to spend on the organic pastured local chicken (which, by the way, $26 for two 3.5 pound birds at the farmers market this weekend, four times what a regular chicken would be at the grocery store) or the produce at the farmer’s market (which is rarely less expensive than the grocery store–a whole other frustrating myth–even if it might be fresher, tastier, or more healthful). And even I sometimes find cooking an obnoxious chore.

Idealizing a home-cooked family meal is as much of a problem as idealizing the stay-at-home mom from decades past (a whole other rant for another time, because many, many women did have to work outside the home in some capacity to make ends meet). It’s not always cheap, easy, fast, or pretty, though it most certainly can be all those things. We should not give people excuses so they don’t have to try, which is a fundamental problem of the original Slate article. But we also cannot, I repeat cannot, shame them when we don’t think they’re trying hard enough.

Do I think it would be great if we could all sit down for an hour for every meal, food made from scratch, with good conversation and no electronics? Of course. But everyone has their threshold. Who am I to say that a parent is wrong if they’d rather spend time reading with their kid, taking them to a sport, or helping with homework when they get home exhausted at 8 p.m. instead of spending that time in the kitchen (and yes, kids should be helping in the kitchen too, but “I was making dinner” isn’t going to fly when homework isn’t ready for class the next day).

You know what the fastest way is to get someone to tune you out? Start telling them how wrong they’re doing things. No matter how much you have to say about building a better food culture and community, how much knowledge you might want to share about growing or cooking healthful food on a budget or with limited time or resources, none of it will be heard when it starts with “You’re doing it wrong.”

Instead of blaming, let’s encourage; instead of judging, let’s help. Let’s challenge ourselves to start changing what we can, even if it’s one thing, even if it feels small–one night without tv; trying once a week, even once a month, to switch out a boxed meal with something more healthful. Let’s share the knowledge and tools we have with our community. We all have something to contribute to make this ideal of a home-cooked meal more of a reality.

Good food doesn’t need a label

A lot of vegetarian food gets a bad rap, undeservedly so. I’ve had bad dishes with meat in them; I’ve had bad dishes with no meat. Meat rarely makes a dish good or bad simply by being there. I think the “bad” vegetarian food that people have, and which colors their perception, is just bad food, period. And good food, with meat or without, is just so, so good. (Fair warning, a little bit of a soapbox ahead. I won’t mind if you just skip to the delicious recipe at the end.)

Yum

The vast majority of the food I try to eat falls into the vegetarian category, particularly the whole food vegetarian category (i.e. vegetables, beans, seeds, nuts, grains as close to their original form as possible). I’ll be honest that I’m not a fan of tofu unless it’s fried or in miso soup, I don’t like seitan, I’m on the border with tempeh (I don’t mind it, it but it doesn’t like me). I don’t think frozen fake meat that has as many not-whole ingredients as a chicken nugget are doing anyone any favors.

But set me down in front of a well-seasoned portabella mushroom just off the grill with lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, ketchup, mustard, and cheese on a perfectly toasted bun, and watch it disappear as quickly as any beef burger. (P.S. I miss you summer, please come back so I can grill again.)

Spices
Walnuts
All ground up

I’m also not a fan of labeling “meatless” meals as such. It seems counter-intuitive to label them based on the thing that’s not there. You wouldn’t call a burger and fries a pasta-less meal, would you? Or a mid-summer salad of perfect tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce a grain-less meal. What sense does that make? As soon as you make the focus the thing that’s missing, you can’t focus on the delicious food that is actually in front of you.

A breakfast of fruit and yogurt is vegetarian, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is vegetarian, but it seems silly to label them that way, doesn’t it?

Ready for shaping
Patties

The thing I love about food, about cooking seasonally, about taking a pile of random things and turning them into a delicious dish, is that the final dish honors the flavors and textures of the ingredients. Meatless, meat-full, vegetarian, vegan, raw, gluten-free labels be damned–it’s not trying to be anything other than good food. That, to me, is cooking at its absolute best. (Ok, I’m off my soapbox now.)

Golden brown and delicious
Pita pocket-ed

I found this recipe forever ago, and only dug it up again recently. I don’t know why it fell out of my lunch and dinner rotation; it was one of my favorites for a long time. The cumin and coriander give it a sort-of middle eastern-y flavor similar to falafels. It’s easy to make a double batch, shape, and freeze for lunches at work or fast dinners on nights I really don’t feel like cooking.

Tzatziki-d

Lentil Walnut Burgers
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Butter makes everything better

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day and everyone in the food blogging world seems to have made Irish Soda Bread. I, on the other hand, made the thing it would be a crime to eat soda bread without.

Two ingredients become two new ingredients

Yep, that’s right. Butter. Cultured salted butter to be precise. Truth be told, I don’t really like soda bread, it tastes too much like a giant drop biscuit, and I’ve already told you where I stand on the biscuit front. But butter? There’s nothing to dislike about butter. Butter makes everything better. And as a bonus? Making your own butter means you’ll also have for-real, fresh, cultured buttermilk.

Making butter is as simple as over-whipping cream, but for something slightly more interesting with a little tang to it, cultured butter is what you want. It doesn’t take any more effort, just a little more patience as you, well, “culture” cream by adding a tiny bit of yogurt and letting it set for a day or two until it thickens. (Cultured cream is essentially creme fraiche, and I suspect you can also make cultured butter by whipping store-bought creme fraiche–but if I’m going to effort to make my own butter, clearly a shortcut is not what I’m looking for.)

Once the cream is cultured, it’s simply a matter of whipping, straining, rinsing, and eating (and I promise, that takes much less effort than it sounds).

The only ingredients you need
Thick and ready to be whipped
Whipped, but not butter yet

An insanely busy weekend means I didn’t get this up before the St. Patrick’s Day parade of the soda breads, but I hope you will make this anyways because let me tell you, it is so, so worth it. This butter is perfection thickly slathered on just about any baked good (seriously, now is not the time for being skimpy), melted over vegetables or tossed with homemade fresh pasta; it’s perfect anywhere its flavor can really come through.

(By the way, as delicious as this is, I actually wouldn’t suggest using it in baking simply because the butter you get at the store has a very particular, very consistent water-to-fat ratio necessary for reliable baked goods. Plus, using homemade butter in baking means the flavor tends to get a little lost and you just went to a decent amount of effort for this–you’ll really want to taste it.)

Butter curds and buttermilk
Draining
Butter and buttermilk
Rinsing the butter

If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can also fancy-up your butter with herbs or spices, nuts, or other flavorings (hello maple pecan butter). Making your own butter means you also have two of the four essentials for the best buttermilk pancakes you’ll ever have, just add pancakes and maple syrup. Or buttermilk biscuits. Or fruit smoothies (really, try a little homemade buttermilk in a smoothie, it’s like yogurt). Life is just better when there’s butter.

Salted butter ball

Cultured Butter (and Buttermilk)
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Happy Pi(e) Day!

It’s no secret if you look through my recipe archives that pie is my favorite dessert. I didn’t even realize it myself until I started this blog! Pie has the best parts of any treat–flaky, crispy, delicious crust (perfectly good on its own sprinkled with cinnamon sugar); juicy, fruity filling (or chocolate or custard or chicken or vegetables or potatoes). Pie is totally healthy for you (see: fruit, vegetables) and perfectly acceptable as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

In case you’re looking for a pie treat today or this weekend, check these out:

Coconut Custard Pie Perfect right now, no fresh fruit needed, and super fast and easy to make.
Filled, baked, puffed

Apple Pie The classic, courtesy of The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.
Perfection, if I say so myself

Plum Chutney Crumble Pie It’s like plum chutney and pie had the most delicious baby.
Plum crumble pie

Rhubarb Pie We’re so close to making this again! Melt, snow, melt!
Rhubarb pie

Sour Cherry Pie My all-time favorite. I need to make one this weekend with the cherries I canned.
Cherry pie, cheater's lattice

Sour Cherry Crostata Still one of my favorites, but my oh my, how my photography has improved in two years!
Sour cherry crostata

Pie crust Can’t make pie without it!
Butter-lard pie crust

And you can’t make my favorite pie crust without lard!
Rendered and cooled leaf lard

The light at the end of the tunnel

Do you know what I heard last week? Birds. More than one. Chirping. Making happy bird noises, the sweetest sound I’ve heard in months.

Pyramid of bars

I don’t know about you, but I am in desperate need of a treat to get me through right now, something to look forward to during a week (really, month) that just started and already feels forever long and speeding by at the same time. I can’t even talk about the weather anymore (forget Hoth, it’s like living on planet Winter, minus the androgynous natives–how’s that for an obscure literary reference?).

Instead, I’m thinking about good things on the horizon, the things I’m working on, towards, for that are requiring all my energy but will hopefully lead to even better things. Green things and the new little garden plot I just rented nearby (any suggestions of edibles to grow in a 4×8 raised bed are more than welcome, by the way). I’m eating carrots and oranges literally by the bag-ful; if I start to look like an Oompa Loompa, well, now you’ll know why. I’ve been making giant salads by the bowl with my newly acquired vinaigrette-making skills.

Bottom crust
JamCrumbled

I’m also working my way through/eating up/giving away my remaining jars of jam from last year (want some? I have more!) because, believe it or not, rhubarb and strawberries will be here not-soon-enough. I’ve been searching for an easy not-cookie baked-good-type use for jam for awhile and finally found this recipe months ago. Of course then I kept losing it before I had a chance to make it, finding it and losing it again. I wish I had made it the first time!

There they are!

This is a perfect all-purpose treat–it takes minimal effort to throw together, easy enough even to satisfy a craving after work on a weeknight. Use any type of jam (homemade or storebought that’s been languishing in your fridge since Christmas), any nuts (even some nut butter mixed into the dough), a mix of flours, any spices. The crust and crumble are deliciously cookie-like but sturdy enough to be a perfect counterpoint to the sticky, jammy center.

I’ve made it twice in two weeks, ending up with totally different treats each time (#1: all whole-wheat, orange zest, mace, toasted walnuts, blueberry-orange jam. #2: 2 parts whole wheat/1 part white flour, cinnamon, toasted almonds, raspberry-blackberry jam) and am excited to play with even more variations. Plum jam with cardamom and walnuts, maybe some rye flour? Strawberry or grape with peanuts and peanut butter in the dough? Peach or rhubarb with ginger?

Where'd they go?

So how are you doing, what’s getting you through? Am I the only one insanely excited about chirpy birds right now (please tell me I’m not)?

Jam and Nut Bars
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The art of simplicity

I do so love synchronicity. Also, soup.

Cauliflower soup with a drizzle of butterHere’s what happened:

  1. Bought a cauliflower 2 weeks ago with good intentions to use it in…something. It sat, staring at me, every time I opened the fridge.
  2. Randomly joined a cooking class! First class focused on learning tastes and flavors and how they interact (including the importance of acid and salt as essential components of a dish or meal).
  3. Received an email from my beloved America’s Test Kitchen the next day with a 5-ingredient recipe for cauliflower soup highlighting the simple flavor of cauliflower (and calling for the exact amount of cauliflower I had).

This soup turned out to be perfect, and with perfect timing, in so many ways. First, let me start with this–you know the traditional, creamy, potato-leek soup? This is its equally tasty, equally creamy (but without the cream), less carb-y cousin. It’s cozy and warm and filling and fast.
Simple head of cauliflower It was also the perfect vehicle for applying what I learned in last week’s Cooking Lab class. Try this: as you make the soup, taste the ingredients at different stages in the process. What does the raw cauliflower taste like? To me, a little bitter, maybe a little earthy (that’s umami), maybe a tiny bit sweet. How about raw leeks and onions? (I got an F in tasting on this one–I don’t like raw onions.)
Sliced cauliflower Split leek Thinly sliced onions How do the onions and leeks taste once they’ve softened with the salt? Kind of sweet, but also a little salty? What about the cauliflower once it’s cooked and softened? More sweet, less bitter.
Leeks and onions, softenedCauliflower, just addedSoftThe well-browned butter? Sweet and nutty, earthy. The browned cauliflower mixed with sherry vinegar? Sour, obviously from the acid, but also sweeter than I’d expected.
Butter-fried cauliflowerHow about when it all comes together? How does the flavor of the basic soup change with a little of the butter, a piece of the vinegar-ed cauliflower, the chives? A balance of all five flavors in a perfect little bowl.
Creamy cauliflower soup, garnishedIt’s so fascinating to me to intentionally taste how ingredients change as they cook, and in a soup like this with so few components, the changes are easier to taste. Plus, blah blah flavors and tastes, it’s the perfect warm and cozy when we’re in the midst of yet another cold snap (also known as “winter in Chicago”).

Creamy Cauliflower Soup Continue reading

A simple cup of tea

We’re a week into the new year and It. Is. COLD. (As if you didn’t know that already.) I hope you’re staying warm wherever you are, maybe with something brewing on the stove or in the oven–a pot of soup, a roast chicken, homemade bread, a pan of brownies. Or, my preferred method, a big pot of tea.

Perfect

Tea is really simple enough–hot water+tea+optional honey and milk–but there’s a ritual to it, especially on sub-zero days, that adds an extra cozy factor and, I think, is a nice way to welcome the new year here. This is how I do tea.

All you need to combat the weather

Loose leaf black tea is my favorite, especially the chai blend from my local tea shop, with a little honey and milk. This teapot is great because it has a built-in strainer so the leaves don’t end up in my cup.

Hot pot

Adding boiling water from the kettle to the empty teapot warms the pot and keeps the tea from getting cold too fast. Once the pot is warm, I pour the hot water into my mug to warm it as well.

Tea

I like about 2 heaping teaspoons of tea per cup added to the now-warm teapot.

Brewing

Fill with more hot water and let tea steep at least 4 minutes. In the meantime, I pour out the hot water from the mug and add honey and milk. Adding these to the warm mug means the honey melts quickly and the milk is less likely to curdle when I add the tea.

Tea+Milk+Honey

Tea is served, blankets are found, and I’m warm inside and out.

Thankfully, with the -20 degree windchills, I have been the happy recipient of two (count ‘em, TWO) snow days this week. Turns out snow days are awesome at 30 years old as they are at 10 (but at 30 you can add something “extra” to your hot chocolate), but I’ll miss my tea ritual tomorrow when I’m back at work!

Giving the gift of cookies

Fair warning–if I know you, you probably have a box of cookies heading your way right now (honestly, you may get a box even if I don’t know you). This past weekend was my annual Cookie Day, and as usual my apartment is absolutely overflowing with sweets and treats of all kinds (16 kinds, actually, all told). For the sake of brevity and my poor sleep-deprived eyes, I’ll keep this short and say how much I admire my family and family friends who can manage to pull off massive cookie-baking extravanganzas and keep their kitchens and sanity in any state of not-chaos. This is what I ended up making, along with recipe links where I could find them:

Boxed up

Pecan tassies

Pecan Tassies (from my Grandma Bello)

Biscotti three ways

Anise-Almond Biscotti, Anise Biscotti (from my Grandma Bello), and Chocolate-Orange-Almond Biscotti (adapted from David Lebovitz)

Fig-date swirls

Fig-Date Swirls (from Lottie and Doof)

Rye pretzels

Rye Pretzels (from Smitten Kitchen) *My favorite new cookie recipe. Not too sweet, nice and crispy, and the rye flour adds a nice nutty flavor without the nuts.

Spice cookeis

Spice Cookies (from The Wednesday Chef) *This is the latest in a long line of attempts to find the perfect spice cookie. I rolled my eyes when the recipe called for “1/2 a free-range egg,” instructed that the dough be rolled into “perfect” balls, and called for candied orange peel to top (I left it out as I couldn’t find it at any store and figured making my own toffee was quite enough this season) but they sounded delicious. They were good, but still not what I’m looking for. The search continues…

Suprise Insides

Surprise Insides (from my mom)

The surprise

The surprise

Raspberry almond meringues

Raspberry-Almond Meringue Bars (from my mom)

Thumbprints

Thumbprints (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) with homemade blueberry-orange jam

Peanut butter blossoms

Peanut Butter Blossoms (from The Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, with some tweaks from my dad)

Snowcaps

Chocolate Snowcaps (from my mom)

Chocolate crinkles

Chocolate Crinkles (from my mom)

And finally, not pictured, nut roll and poppyseed roll (from my Grandma Connie).

This is the first year I haven’t made rugelach, marshmallows, or hot chocolate mix. I kind of missed all three at the end of the day, but I was happy I discovered the new rye cookies, which I think will be added to my list of staples (I don’t think I’ll do them as pretzel shapes next year though). And of course I can’t forget biggest thanks to my most reliable cookie helper for the past 6 (??!! really??!!) years! Thank you as always Andrea for covering yourself in powdered sugar so I don’t have to.

With that, I’m signing off until after the New Year. I hope you all have wonderful, relaxing fabulous holiday(s) with all your loved ones! (And if anyone has a favorite spice cookie I should try next year, please share!)

Coffee, toffee, and chocolate–welcome to cookie season

Is the smell of butter and sugar and spices taking over your kitchen yet? If not, come on over to mine. It’s the beginning of the holiday baking season, and I just made 13 dozen cookies to bring to my first cookie swap.

Boxed and labeled

For as much as holiday cookies are an annual tradition for me, and given how much I like swapping stuff, you’d think I’d have been to a cookie swap at some point, but nope. So when the new Savory Spice shop nearby asked if anyone would be interested in one, I figured it would be too fun to pass up.

The challenge: figuring out what cookie I wanted to make 13 dozen of–tried and true or something new? While I was home for Thanksgiving, I pored through my mom’s cookie cookbooks, trying to decide between my favorite biscotti (my first instinct, a cookie I know and love), or one of a dozen new tasty-sounding treats. Considering I wouldn’t have time to taste-test anything, and I’d only have a day for baking before the swap, my mom in her brilliance suggested one of our cookie day staples, shortbread studded with toffee bits and drizzled with chocolate. They’ve always been one of the most popular cookies we’ve made, look beautiful, are relatively simple, and really, who can pass up shortbread?

13 boxes total

Being the overachiever that I can be, and having a day to kill before diving back into work and a jam-packed month, I figured why not try making my own toffee? A terrible idea, as I now know how easy it is to make.

Coffee cocoa nib toffee ingredientsToffee ingredientsBubble bubbleToffee should not be this easy

My search for a toffee recipe actually led me to Smitten Kitchen, her coffee toffee, and her coffee chocolate shortbread. Honestly I’m one of those people who actually dislikes the taste of coffee (unless it’s an espresso in a piazza in Italy, or a foofy sugar drink from Starbucks), but I love how it smells. It has a bitter warmth, very similar to the caramelized sugar and browned butter flavor of toffee or to deep, dark chocolate. Hmm, toffee, chocolate, and coffee you say?

Creamed and caffinatedShortbread dough

So with a little tweaking or a few existing recipes, I came up with this–coffee-flavored toffee studded with cocoa nibs, crushed and stirred into coffee-flavored shortbread drizzled with bittersweet chocolate. I know and trust my mom’s toffee shortbread recipe, but I love the addition of a tablespoon of espresso from Deb’s recipe. For the toffee, the espresso adds the right flavor boost to the sugar and butter, but I wanted a little extra chocolate kick. Enter cocoa nibs, unsweetened raw cacao pieces with a nutty crunch. When the toffee is stirred into the dough and baked, it creates a wonderful chewy contrast to the flaky, delicate shortbread.

SquaredShortbreads

I think these might just be perfect cookies to start a month of baking projects–a just-right balance of bitter and sweet, delicate and chewy, toasty and nutty, and of course plenty of butter. Oh, plenty of butter.

Rows of cookies

Toffee Coffee Shortbread Continue reading

Any excuse for π

Did you know March 14 is International Pi Day? I think that is a perfectly valid reason to use your math skills and bake some delicious, sinfully easy pie!

Filled, baked, puffed

I’ve reached the point in the year where I am quite literally dreaming about the farmers market (also dreaming that I’m having dinner with a very old Cary Grant…random). And I want pie.

Crimped

With the market still at least a month away, and not bearing much pie-able fruit even then, I find myself in a conundrum. What pie fits in March? Spring is rhubarb, strawberry; summer is a glut of peach, blueberry, cherry, raspberry, whatever is overflowing the tables on any given week; fall is apple, pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato. But what pie for winter, or whatever this time of year is, this weird in-between winter-spring?

Happy Pi Day!

Nothing was inspiring me until I remembered reading about a coconut custard pie a few months ago. I’ve always been a die-hard fruit pie fan. Not much can drag me away from cinnamon-and-butter spiked apples layered in a crispy, flaky crust, or a juicy, oozy slice of strawberry pie cold from the fridge. Custard? Meh. It reminded me of the chocolate pudding pie we were served as dessert in grade school, which, it turns out, was so, so very wrong.

Cup of coconutEggsSweetened condensed milk

Baked custard pie, I am happy to say, is nothing like what I imagined. Since it’s baked, the filling is set and solid, nothing like a pudding or cream pie, more like flan, and the crust kept its integrity even with a liquid filling. Nothing defeats the purpose of pie more than soggy crust.

Eggs, released from their shellsVanilla rippleFilling almost ready

The coconut adds enough texture and coconut-y flavor so the filling is more than the sum of its very minimal parts. Plus, as the pie bakes the coconut begins to rise to the top, leaving a smooth layer of custard topped with flaky bits of coconut.

PoofCrimped

This pie is the perfect place to start if you’re a novice pie-maker. If you can stir, you can make this pie. You could use store-bought crust (though I prefer to make my own, are you surprised?) and the filling is a no-brainer. Six ingredients together in a bowl: sweetened condensed milk, regular milk, eggs, coconut, vanilla, mace (or nutmeg). That’s it. I honestly don’t know a pie recipe easier than that.

Coconut custard pie

So I have pie (and π!) and am quite content until I can get my hands on some pie-able fruit.

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