Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

Herbs and Spices: an Affair of the Palate

I love having the power at my fingertips to lead a potentially good meal around the corner to becoming even better, with simple touches of just the right herbs and spices! What’s the difference between the two, you might ask…is it just the form they’re in, whether fresh or dried? Actually, it has more to do with their origins.

In doing some research to refresh my memory, I was reminded that herbs come from the leafy, green parts of the plants, while spices are derived from the bark, stems, root or bulbs. I’m always surprised if a friend admits to not using many of either, since my over-the-top collection of the dried varieties boasts about 50 little bottles neatly arranged alphabetically. Sounds like a lot, I know, but they all get used, eventually.

Fresh herbs are my preference, but they don’t last very long from the grocery store, and chives is the only one I have luck with growing, long-term. I can keep rosemary, basil, sage and parsley alive for a while, either outdoors or in, but the time is limited. I have a growing penchant for the pungent ones that arrive at the stores in their own little tubes, mixed with a little oil, like ginger, cilantro and basil. You may want to try these, if you haven’t already.

The dried combinations available in the supermarkets are tasty, too, like Italian, Greek and Moroccan seasonings containing herbs and spices that naturally lend just the right touch to foods from those areas of the world. The concoction that I wouldn’t want to do without, though, is Herbes de Provence. The high prices sometimes hint at being imported directly from France, but don’t let them fool you. The less expensive brands in the plain plastic containers work just fine, or you can make your own blend. As Peter Mayle points out in his book, Provence A-Z, there are rules in place that assure the resulting “recipe” for mixtures actually bottled in France: 26%, each, of oregano, rosemary and savory, followed by 19% thyme and 3% basil. I also enjoy a bit of lavender thrown in!

While using a pinch of that favorite “French” concoction recently, my mind started wandering to what “Herbs of Michigan” would contain, leading me to think about which ones might be tied the most closely to regional foods from this state. Better yet, what about a mixture particular to the Upper Peninsula, called “herbs da U.P.”, if you will! I’m sure the combination could vary widely, since immigrants including Finnish, French Canadians, Swedish and Cornish traditionally came to this part of the country to find work in the mines. A specialty that comes to mind first is the Cornish pasty (pictured below), that meat pie so well-known in the upper reaches of Michigan. Many pasty (rhymes with “lastly”) recipes call for onion, tarragon and thyme, which could make an interesting dried blend.

Based on your location or cooking areas of expertise, you may already have your favorites. You could even bottle your own personal blends, to have ready and waiting as you don your apron! It would be great to hear from readers about their herb and spice preferences.