One thing is certain, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Trends in everything come and go. In food, they come and go a little more slowly than in the mainstream, but come and go they do. (Quiet, Andrea, I know what you’re thinking.) I can tell when a trend has reached almost maximum popularity when my sister’s husband talks about it like it’s a normal thing. He’s not slow-witted or stupid or anything, but he is very reluctant to embrace change. He cooks as he’s always cooked, like any cook, to please his family. When he finds success, he sticks to it. So when he talks about something like it’s something that has always been, it’s a trend that will soon be passé.
Lemons – I love lemons. I’ve been eating and cooking with them since I was six. I remember the first lemon candy my mom gave me. It tasted so good, and so sour. The first lemon pie followed shortly after that. Lemonade was a staple drink growing up. I even learned the way pioneers made lemonade and tried it. Good stuff, although a little sweet for my taste. I’ve pulled lemons off trees and fifteen minutes later I’m drinking lemonade. My brother’s first ex-wife once made a lemon meringue pie that was a showcase pie, although she neglected to strain the juice so we were eating around seeds and pith. But what an amazing flavor! The best thing to use lemon for is a counteracting agent for salt. I don’t know where I discovered this, but if you put too much salt in a sauce or soup, or even on top of a meat dish, a slight squeeze of lemon juice eliminates the salty flavor and “brightens” the flavor of whatever you’re cooking. That’s how I knew the lemon had arrived. I heard my brother in law talking about brightening flavors. When I asked him how he was doing that, he said with lemon. Lemon is good all by itself, too. I went to visit my father a couple of days ago, and Partner/Spouse made a cake to take with us. My dad was so happy because he’d been thinking about cake for a couple of days. When it turned out to be a lemon cake, he was even happier. My sister in law was ecstatic.
Egg Yolks – Yolks from eggs used to thought of as the truly heinous villains of the food set. They were full of unhealthy cholesterol and would kill you just as soon as look at you. Well, it turns out they weren’t quite the bad guy they were made out to be. The key is moderation, as in all things. And an egg yolk in a sauce adds so much flavor and so much richness that it doesn’t make any sense to leave it out. Yolks are used to make Béarnaise and Hollandaise sauces. But the best is a Lemon Egg Yolk sauce. (See what I did there?) This sauce can be used for pasta, to top eggs, fish, or chicken, or just about anything else you can think of.
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, strained
- Yolks from 2 large or jumbo sized eggs
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup sugar depending on personal taste
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 4 tsp butter
Beat egg yolks lightly until just broken apart and set aside. In a separate bowl, combine sugar, corn starch, and salt. In a medium pan, combine water with sugar mixture until completely dissolved, then heat over medium-low heat until the mixture thickens. (If you’ve never used corn starch before, this will look odd, but totally cool.) Remove pan from heat. Add 2 tablespoons hot sugar mixture to egg yolks and whisk briskly. This tempers the egg yolks so they won’t scramble in the sauce. Return egg yolk mixture to the pan and cook on medium-low heat for about two minutes, stirring constantly, until well heated. Remove from heat and add lemon juice, lemon zest, and butter. Serve warm over just about anything, even an old shoe.
One of my favorite PBS cooking shows is Ciao Italia! starring Mary Ann Esposito. I’ve never done a search on her life or history so I don’t know much about her except what I’ve learned from watching her show. She cooks regional Italian foods that are familiar to us but gives the “inside scoop” on how easy the cooking is. Each of her shows has 3-4 recipes completed by the end, and somewhere around the middle, she takes us on a short “travelogue” of the region of Italy where she found the recipes.
She’s the typical grandmotherly type with a smile as broad as the camera. Her face lights up when she’s cooking, and she loves showing people how. She only occasionally has guests, but when she does, they are usually young people who are learning almost from the beginning. One time, she went to a culinary school and taught the entire class to make pasta from scratch, then pizza dough. From there, she taught them how to make lasagna and pizza margarita. She has a slight tendency to talk down to people, but that’s more a nurturing style than a malicious intent. To me, she’s absolutely lovable.
She’s taught me a lot about making simple soups in just a few minutes. She makes sauces that are quick and flavorful (remember the recipe for Lemon Pasta?); some that are as fresh as the tomatoes she just picked from her garden; and some that are slow cooked for hours (the recipe I’m going to share today.) She uses dried pasta, sometimes make pasta, and once in a while make fresh gnocchi. Ever have fresh gnocchi? It’s a very small potato dumpling, about the size of your thumbnail, swimming in whatever sauce you decide. Good stuff, and fun to make. Fun to eat, too. The point is, she’s all about making really good tasting Italian food as easily as possible, while staying authentic in technique and taste.
She makes a baked pasta sauce that’s cooked low and slow. It starts with seared beef, to which tomato sauce and spices are added, then it’s baked slowly. When it’s done, the flavors are so well married, the meat is falling apart, and when the pasta is added, it’s a friggin’ masterpiece! So here we go!
- 3-4 beef shanks <OR> One 7 bone beef roast about 1-2 pounds
- 2 large cans tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning mix
- 3-4 cloves of garlic to taste
- 1-2 medium onions or 1 large onion peeled and sliced into thin rounds
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
Heat the olive oil in a heavy dutch oven until it’s shimmering. Sear the beef on both sides, adding salt and pepper, until well sealed. Turn off the heat and pour tomato sauce over the beef. Sprinkle the Italian seasoning mix and the garlic evenly over the sauce. Separate the rings of the onions and spread them evenly over the sauce. Place the lid on the dutch oven and place it in a preheated oven at 275. Leave it alone for five hours. Remove from the oven and check that the meat is tender. If it isn’t “falling of the bone” tender, put it back in the oven for another hour and check again. Once the meat is tender, remove bones, shred the meat in the pan, and stir thoroughly. While sauce is resting, boil two cups of penne pasta. Drain the pasta and put it in the sauce. Stir to combine completely and leave in warm oven until ready to eat.
Trust me, it’s wonderful stuff.
Sometimes people who are eating my cooking will ask where my recipes or ideas come from. Truth is, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, they come from all over. I can watch a TV show or a movie and see something being made and figure out how to make that at home. I’ll be reading a book and there will be a description of a recipe that I’ll try. Sometimes it can be just a picture of something that looks good and I’ll figure out a way to prepare it. Of course, now with the internet, figuring this stuff out is a breeze. There are millions of food sites that will happily tell you all you want to know for free. It wasn’t always that way.
Back in the days before instant information and world wide communications, the ways to get menu ideas and learn to cook were limited to reading, and learning from others. Some cooks had “award winning” recipes and wouldn’t give up them up to save their lives. My dream is to one day walk into a yard sale, estate sale, or antique/junk store and find someone’s grandmother’s or great-grandmother’s recipe box. Women who were stay at home moms not making a living outside the house would have gatherings to swap recipes or try out new ones. People used to pay restaurant chefs to come in and teach a group how to make a specific recipe. The biggest way people added to their repertoire was through magazines. Not the cooking specific ones you see now, which will tell you all the ins and outs of a single ingredient, but the homemaker magazines that were designed to help stretch budgets and sell advertising. I remember reading a story by Shirley Jackson (she wrote The Lottery that we all read in Jr High, or High School) where she was concerned about feeding her family the same old things. She searched through several magazines and found an intriguing recipe but had to eliminate the inevitable ingredients that her family didn’t like. She ended up with hamburgers studded with cashews, to which her family asked if they always had to have hamburger while picking out the cashews.
I used to read a lot of magazines to learn about cooking and to glean new recipes but stopped after awhile because they were pretty much the same things. But I was reminded recently of some of the funnier ones. I ran a search for vintage food ads for you to enjoy and groan at. And if you ever feel up to trying one of these, PLEASE let me know how it turned out.
This one started the search:
The rest were just fun:
And remember, these ads were designed to sell a product, so:
And finally, a present day ad that left me gasping:
It’s been a long time since I’ve devoted a post to the food from a single place and for some reason, I got to thinking about my first trip to Barbados. It was the first trip I took for the State Dept. and I didn’t know nothing from nothing. Not only did I not coordinate with the Trip Manager, I set my schedule so I arrived several days late and returned before the trip was over. I didn’t know up from down in getting my passport, visa, or trip itinerary. I was calmly sitting at my desk on Tuesday when I got an irate call from the trip manager (who is know a close and dear friend) asking in polite language just where the hell I was? Since she had called me at my desk, I felt it reasonable to assume she knew where I was so I just asked, “What’s the problem?” After ten minutes of heated instruction, I offered to change my plans but she insisted since they were already made to leave them as is. I think she just didn’t want to deal with any longer than she needed to. I even made my hotel reservations wrong.
But the thing about that trip that I recall the most was the food. It was my first trip out of the country. I was looking forward to meeting new people, enjoying a new culture, and learning all kinds of things. So the day I arrived, I met the trip manager for the first time, and immediately apologized, profusely. She took me to dinner and suggested what I should eat.
Flying Fish Almandine! Fresh fish, harvested probably minutes before, sautéed in butter with toasted slivered almonds. Green beans and potatoes on the side. It wasn’t a large fish, but after I’d eaten the whole thing, I was no longer hungry. It was a great tasting and plentiful. I was told flying fish in various ways was the national dish. Makes sense considering it’s an island off the border of Venezuela. Seafood is what they do. I like seafood; I like fish; I liked the food I ate in Barbados.
They have a wonderful breakfast roll. They called it simply a sweet roll. It was pastry dough spread with brown sugar, nuts, coconut, cinnamon and some other goodies then rolled up. They were baked and sprinkled with more sugar. They were about the size of an egg roll and crispy and good. I found a small roadside stand across the street from where I was working that sold them four for a dollar. I ate them every morning, they were so good. My last day there, I mentioned to one of the staff I was working with how much I had enjoyed them. He asked where I was getting them then told me that I hadn’t had good sweet rolls yet. He disappeared, and about a half hour later brought me a dozen freshly made from his home that his wife had made about an hour before. They were the difference between night and day. Ever have a home grown tomato right next to a store bought tomato? It was like that. Of course, there were way too many for me to eat by myself, so I set them in the break room for everyone to enjoy. They were gone in thirty minutes.
Fresh fruit on the island ran to the Caribbean varieties. There were loads of bananas, coconuts, mangoes, etc. Once a week, a seller would come by selling fruit, and whenever he had grapes, I’d buy a couple of pounds. Grapes were expensive on the island then because they’d just been introduced and the crops were not well established. The local staff loved grapes, but they were mostly out of their price range. I’d leave all the grapes in break room for everyone to eat. They sure appreciated it.
There were several fast food places around the area we were working at and we’d head to one of them pretty often. Initially, I ate fried chicken and fries, or cheeseburgers and fries. They were all cooked fresh and fast and tasted wonderful. After a few days, I tried something new (to me). Although the fried chicken was exemplary, this new sandwich was a wrap full of potatoes, vegetables, meat, and curry sauce. It was so GOOD!! There were several ways you could have them made. One was chicken with bones; one was chicken without bones; one was beef; one was pork; and the final was vegetable only. They were spicy, juicy, drippy, and delicious. It was basically a curry stew in a gigantic flour tortilla with lots of potatoes.
In Barbados, I was introduced to the hottest sauce I’ve tasted in my life. I was sitting in the break room at lunch. We had ordered chicken skewers and rice. I saw a few other people sloshing this yellow stuff on their rice so I reached for it. Three different hands reached out to stop me, including one of my own coworkers. Unless I had tasted it before, I shouldn’t put any on my food. At all. In any way, shape, or form. Gingerly, I dabbed my pinkie finger onto the edge of the bottle and got the lightest smear of yellow. I gently placed it on the tip of my tongue and almost immediately regretted it. Sweat and tears poured off my head for several minutes as I coughed and choked and tried to eliminate the burning sensation from my mouth. It was and is the hottest thing I’ve ever had. Really. It’s so hot you can leave a jar open on the table of months and nothing will grow in it. Everyone there eats it like mustard.
Every Thursday evening, on all my trips to Barbados, were spent at the Fish Place. It was a large, open air restaurant where fresh fish of every type available were grilled to crispy perfection. You wandered around until you found the type you wanted and paid the seller for a plate full of rice or potatoes, salad, and a huge piece of freshly grilled fish. A bottle of water or soda or whatever was an extra dollar. It was a gathering place for the locals to have a good time, say HI to each other, play dominoes (there was a league and fierce players), have a meal, and a good time. We felt like locals while we were there and had just as good a time. Good food and good company, can’t be beat!
I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating. Peanut Butter is awful stuff. I don’t like the smell. I don’t like the taste. I don’t like the feel of it. It clings to things and won’t wash off. It dries to the consistency of cement. If it does wash off, the scent lingers. It’s the American version of Vegemite (google it.) Terrible stuff.
I didn’t always feel that way, and still don’t in a very few, select cases. When I was a child (back in the caveman days, admittedly) I ate peanut butter right off a spoon. Making peanut butter crackers was a huge treat. There was a candy at the time that was basically a peanut butter flavored taffy called Mary Janes. I’d eat that stuff stale and hard. I used to make chocolate chip cookies and substitute peanut butter for the regular butter. PBJs were my favorite sandwich of all time. Oddly, they still are, but have to be made in a very specific way or I won’t eat ‘em.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I stopped eating peanut butter and for a long time, I didn’t have it at all. When I went back to it, the smell repulsed me. I tasted it and wondered if it had always tasted like that. I went through a few brands to see if they all tasted like that. They did. Just a case of tastes changing as you age. I like onions and potatoes now, and didn’t like them as a kid.
I know people, children and adults, who live off peanut butter. When I was traveling for work, one topic of conversation that constantly came up was foods to take with you. When you’re in a foreign land, and you’re hungry, it’s not always as easy as going to McDonald’s (although that has changed a LOT) so you pack some food with you to have as an emergency stash. I usually brought energy bars, you know the type, and kept a couple in my backpack at all times. Once, I brought five pounds of M&Ms and ended up giving them to the staff I was training cuz I got sick of them. The overall winner of the popularity contest was peanut butter and crackers. It seemed like everyone but me was bringing that stuff.
Having said that, there are some things I do like peanut butter in. I like Reece’s Cups. Peanut butter and chocolate make a fine combination. But I don’t like all peanut butter and chocolate. Ever seen these?
They’re called Buckeyes because they look a little bit like the nut native to Ohio. Basically, they’re just peanut butter balls that have been partially dipped in chocolate. It’s a whole lot of peanut butter and not enough chocolate for my taste. My mom used go nuts over these things. Reece’s Cups are the perfect blend of flavors. Reece’s Pieces, not so much. Don’t like those at all. Peanut Butter fudge? You eat it, cuz I’m not gonna. Butterfinger candy bar? Yeah, I’m all over those.
PBJs are excellent eating, too. Many times, when I’m not feeling like cooking, I’m eating PBJs. But it’s a very specific sandwich, let me tell you. First, it has to be a very good bread, not “slimy white slices” as my friends, The Two Fat Ladies, used to say. The peanut butter must be room temperature and easily spreadable. (Oh, and peanut butter on toast? Get that junk away from me.) The only jelly I want is grape, and it’s not really jelly, it’s jam. When people ask you what the difference is (and they will), just tell them that jam as more fruit to sugar. It tastes better. But for me, the grape jam must be icy cold. And the proportions must be just right. Can’t have too much jam or too much peanut butter or the flavor is overpowered by one or the other. No one makes a PBJ for me anymore. But two of those with a glass of water, or soda, or lemonade is one of the best meals ever.
So what’s the purpose of this post other than to rag on peanut butter? Well, one of the things I like to do is get kids involved in cooking and one of the easiest ways to do that is to start them off by making cookies. Kids like to feel special and to feel like they’ve accomplished something. Years ago, someone gave me a recipe for kids that fit that bill perfectly. It’s the Kid Friendly Peanut Butter Cookie. You, the adult, must be with the kid since the oven will be involved, but it’s so easy anyone can do it. It’s four ingredients, one bowl, one cookie sheet, and a few implements.
- 1/2 cup of peanut butter (creamy or crunchy or extra crunchy, doesn’t matter)
- 1 1/4 cup sugar, separated into one cup and one quarter cup
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup flour
Using a strong spoon, combine 1/2 cup peanut butter and 1 cup sugar until well blended. Add the egg and mix well. Carefully stir in the 1/2 cup of flour until there are no lumps. Divide the dough into twelve equal parts and place on a cookie sheet that’s been sprayed with cooking spray. Dip a fork into the 1/4 cup of sugar and flatten the dough into cookies about a 1/4 inch thick, moving the fork around to create a waffle pattern on the top of the cookie. Sprinkle the cookies with any remaining sugar. Bake at 325 for 10-15 minutes, until the cookies are golden but not burnt. The cookies will rise, but flatten as they cool. Remove and cool completely. Then eat.
Well, as always, it’s been fun! Enjoy!