A Little Inspiration for Everyday Cooks

Ever feel like good meals are as likely to show up on your table as $1000 checks in the mail?  Meal making has been made out to be so hard, so difficult and so impossible.  More than cooking skills, new gadgets and more recipes, I sometimes think what we need most is just a dose of plain old hope, i.e., a deep-rooted belief that making good, wholesome food each day is entirely doable.

As an example, I received this email from Carol right after she had registered for a Whole Kitchen Cooking Class:

“Looking forward to the class. I don’t know much about cooking. I try to eat healthy but it requires WORK.”

So it warmed my heart when, after class was over, Carol emailed again.

“Subject:  soup!!

Hey Mary,  Just wanted to share with you that I made the tastiest healthy soup this evening using leftover chicken breasts and good veggies from the fridge. It was quick, easy, and delicious, and I couldn’t have done it before your class. I’m so proud of myself!”Tulips

While the many skills, tips and strategies we learned in class undoubtedly contributed greatly to Carol’s confidence and enthusiasm, I have no doubt that a newly blossomed seed of hope will keep her cooking long into the future, and enjoying it, too.

Need a dose of inspiration?  Join one of our cooking classes where fun and inspiration are definitely main menu items, and cooking is cool again.


Bits & Pieces Cooking: An Evening with Eugenia Bone

What Unbored Cooks Know that Bored Cooks Don’t:  Trash Can Be Treasure

More than helpful food preservation know-how turned up at a talk last week by Eugenia Bone, author of Well Preserved (Clarkson Potter 2009) and the Denver Post’s Well Preserved Blog.

I’m on a “travel quest” these days, not necessarily to faraway places, but simply to new places and/or new experiences.  So last week I traveled to Denver’s magical Botanic Gardens (all of 30 miles away.)  The Gardens alone were a treat (memo to file: when April’s dark days get me down I’m heading to the Gardens for a cheap tropical thrill.)  Better yet, however, was a lively talk by Eugenia Bone.

As Eugenia is a food preservation expert, I wasn’t surprised to reap a treasure trove of know-how on capturing the season’s bounty for the cold days of winter.  I was delightfully surprised, however, to learn how strategic food preservation can also be harnessed as a tool to beat boredom at the dinner table.

Long-time newsletter readers know that beating mealtime boredom is a common theme of mine–and for good reason:  Boredom is the #1 mealtime barrier for countless people.  Time after time, a well-intentioned home chef gets lured into dialing for takeout, just because she’s tired of making the same old thing!

That’s why I’m always on the hunt for boredom beating strategies, and Eugenia shared a good one.  Not surprisingly, it revolves food preservation, but not in the usual sense, i.e., Aunt Sue putting up 48 quarts of tomatoes to last until the next tomato harvest.  Eugenia’s definition of food preservation is far more liberal, encompassing a wide range of food combinations, preserved in many ways, for anywhere from a week to a year.

She might make a fresh mayonnaise and store for just a week, oil-preserved zucchini that can last two or three weeks, mushroom stock that can be frozen for months or a tomato chickpea side dish that is good for a year.  The key to her boredom beating strategy lies in using up whatever bits and pieces she finds around the kitchen, whipping up creative concoctions, then preserving them in small batches.  Then she’s perfectly situated for boredom-defying meals.

When dinnertime rolls around, she simply heads to her refrigerator, freezer and cupboard pantries and starts mixing and matching.  Here’s one of the many creative (but easy) meals she described:  Chicken breasts with a frozen wine reduction, complimented by the canned tomato-chickpea dish and maybe a simple green salad with fresh mayonnaise dressing.

Here’s the key takeaway:  Trash can be treasure. In other words, what un-bored home cooks know that bored cooks don’t, is that some of the best flavor in the kitchen comes from leftover bits and pieces that most people would pitch.  Use those bits and pieces immediately or go one step further by transforming them into creative preserved foods that add easy pizazz to later meals.

  • Happily, Eugenia brought up the wonders of leftover duck fat, so now I can safely mention how I use leftover bacon grease or lamb drippings (just a tablespoon!) to saute onions and other vegetables , imparting all sorts of delightful flavor for very little in the way of calories.
  • Two days ago, faced with a few strawberries and apricots on the verge of rotting, I took Eugenia’s advice and blended up a Fresh Fruit and Herb Salad Dressing (recipe in next post) that was so good, my mixed greens needed only a little canned chicken for a superb lunch.
  • The leftover broth from that canned chicken got cooked with a batch of sauteed tofu.   You wouldn’t have believed it was tofu!
  • A bit of leftover brine from feta cheese went into the garlicky zucchini and pulled the whole dish together–for no calories
  • This morning, more apricot puree got mixed with ginger, soy sauce and rice vinegar to top a fast stir-fry with greens from the garden.  (See my Vegetable Queen Twitter column for more fast ideas like these.)

But wait, there are more benefits of bits and pieces cooking!  Besides delivering really interesting meals, it saves money by  preventing waste and providing free flavor.  Saving tasty tidbits from landfills and garbage disposals also helps save the planet.  Finally, to the extent you preserve the local harvest, you can eat locally year round–as I’m going to do by saucing and canning the last few of my local apricots to make Apricot-Curry Dressing in the middle of winter.

Sweet Success with Leek Cooking

Cooking offers so much more than just some food we can eat to not be hungry anymore.  Like a sense of accomplishment.  That’s what I felt after cooking some leeks that were really good.

Successfully cooking leeks may not sound like much, unless you know all the hesitancy, and even anxiety, I felt about developing 20 leek recipes for the winter issue of Vegetable of the Month.  Would I ever get a feel for this vegetable?

Wondering if others feel hesitant, maybe even anxious, when faced with a new vegetable, I wrote an article in the winter issue, sharing the three strategies that helped me drum up the inspiration to tackle leeks.

First I flushed out the bogeyman that was scaring me away from leeks.  It was actually of my own making:  I had always been too lazy to learn the right way to cook leeks, so I kept cooking them the wrong way.  Quite predictably, the leeks tasted awful and I didn’t want to try them any more.

After dredging up that bogeyman, I forced myself to tackle it by researching the right way to cook leeks.

Finally, I drug myself out to the kitchen to experiment, and when I say “drug,” I mean exactly that.   The weight of so many bad taste memories was as good as a 50-pound anchor around my neck.  To my credit, however, I motivated us out to the kitchen, me and the anchor, and jumped knee deep into leek cooking.  But this time I slowed down and consciously cooked the leeks as I’d learned:  “sweating” carefully, over low heat, for not too long.

The result:  Sweet success, not only figuratively but literally.  Properly cooked, leeks have a sublime sweetness, hard as that is to believe.  This success has prompted me to add one more New Vegetable Strategy to the three in my article:

No. 4:  Learn Right From the Start

Learning to cook with leeks would have been a lot quicker and easier had I not been burdened by so much bad-taste baggage.  In this sense, I am reminded of my experience with downhill skiing.

I was “taught” to downhill ski by being dumped at the top of a hill along with some advice to ski down.  I was a horrible skier for years.  Although my husband eventually taught me to become a reasonably competent skier, I had to painfully unlearn all the bad form and habits I had fallen into and never did I acquire a real love for the sport.

Cross-country skiing, on the other hand, was a completely different story.  I got proper instruction right from the start, became pretty good and, most importantly, came to love the sport.

So don’t wait to learn the right way to cook vegetables, and especially don’t let any more distasteful eating experiences spoil your feelings for a vegetable.  Vegetable a Month is here to help you learn right from the start.

And here’s sweet success to you.

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