Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fish tostadas, a political discussion, and a nursery rhyme

Here is what the Neffs ate tonight. The bottom layer, which does not show, is a homemade corn tortilla. Next comes a handful of wild arugula ($1.99 for 8 oz. at TJ). On top of that, 1/2 of each of three bell peppers (red, yellow, green) sliced and cooked in olive oil with a sliced onion. Next, six TJ fish sticks. After that, a hearty handful of grated feta cheese. On top, a mixture of diced tomato, avocado, and lime juice.

Here is what the Neffs talked about while eating. Mr Neff was interested in this article by Helen Alvaré, the Catholic church's poster girl for intelligent non-feminism. She is concerned that some initiatives by some governments seem aimed at forcing, or at least strongly nudging, mothers out of the home and into the workplace, and she writes approvingly of governmental programs that subsidize homemakers.

All very high-minded, said Mrs Neff to Mr Neff, but an odd situation has developed over the last hundred or two years. Once upon a time, if the man was an agricultural worker, so was his wife. If he was a servant, she probably was also. If he was in the leisure classes, she had servants waiting on her too.

But since the industrial revolution, there is often a social-class divide between husband and wife. While he is off, say, editing a magazine and running a department, she is at home, say, cooking fish tacos and doing the income taxes.

In such a hypothetical situation, Mrs Neff persisted, the man is part of the upper-middle-class intelligentsia, and the woman is his servant. Perhaps some of the governmental initiatives that worry Ms Alvaré are simply trying to move the man and woman toward parity.

But no, Mr Neff countered:

The king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

When you were working on taxes, quoth he, you weren't doing a servant's job. You were doing the work of a king!

Never argue with Father Goose.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Homemade pizza

Coming home from a lovely hour-long walk in the Arboretum, I couldn't resist stopping at Trader Joe's, and that's why we had pizza tonight.

They were selling rather large, healthy-looking pizza crusts: just add topping and bake. I chose the whole-wheat variety and picked up a brick of feta cheese. Yesterday I had bought a trio of bell peppers (yellow, red, and green) at Aldi's as well as some marvelously cheap onions. A partially used jar of marinara sauce has been in my refrigerator for too long.

So I smeared some olive oil on the crust. Then I poured a little more oil in a large frypan, lightly cooked one thinly sliced onion and half of each pepper, and added a spoonful of garlic (from a jar) and a little salt at the end.

To assemble, I smeared a little of the marinara sauce on the crust on top of the olive oil. I arranged the cooked pepper mixture evenly, and then added two or three ounces of feta cheese, diced small. I baked the pizza at 450 for about 12 minutes and served it with a salad of wild arugula, tomato, and green onion.

Half of the pizza was left over, so we will each have cold pizza for lunch tomorrow. Or maybe I'll microwave mine.

Verdict: I enjoyed the pizza, but the crust was on the tough side and tasted healthier than it needed to. Next time I'll save money and raise quality by making my own crust.

For inspiration: check out the Wikipedia article on pizza. I had no idea.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lent and lentils continue

Two weeks until Easter. We're back from our week off from Lent, and of course we had lentil soup for lunch. Last Wednesday our daughter Heidi rolled her eyes when her sister, Molly, announced that dinner would be lentil soup. "All your posts recently have been about lentil soup," she said to me, exaggerating only slightly. The lentil does not fall far from the pod.

Dinner tonight, however, featured no lentils. At the top of the plate: tomato and fresh mozzarella from Trader Joe's. In the middle: half a container of gnocchi from Caputo's Cheese Market mixed with homemade pesto (basil, olive oil, parmesan, sliced almonds from TJ). At the bottom: spinach from TJ cooked quickly in olive oil and seasoned with salt and fresh lemon juice. Wine: chianti classico from Caputo's. Lovely meal, inexpensive, nutritionally balanced, no red meat. Life is good, even in deepest Lent.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

At the advice of Beth, readers' services librarian at Wheaton Public Library (who has her own blog here), I just read How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill.

I half loved it. It was a great airport/airplane read, and this week I spent a lot of hours in transit. The author/protagonist, son of New Yorker writer Brendan Gill, left Yale and went to work as an executive at the nation's largest ad agency, J. Walter Thompson (now JWT). Along the way he met lots of famous people and made piles of money. He also ignored his family, lost his job, set up as a consultant, couldn't get clients, had a son by a woman he met at the gym, lost his family, lost his house, ran out of money, lost his health insurance ... and did I mention that he had a brain tumor?

Well, if you read the book jacket--or saw Mr Gill on CBS or CNN or read about him in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or any number of other places--you know that, in his 60s, he got a menial job at Starbucks. He had to commute an hour and a half each way by subway, and he spent a lot of time cleaning toilets. Schadenfreude! How are the mighty fallen! And how good it feels, hearing him say that he's happier and wiser as a working man than he ever was as a high flyer!

So why did half of me not love the book? OK, maybe only a third of me. Or a fifth. It really was fun to read. But still, a nagging little voice--echoed, I learned, by a number of people who left comments at Amazon--kept wondering, Mr Gill, have you really changed all that much? Yes, you've learned how to do physical work, and you've made friends with people of other races, and you now feel guilty about the way you treated your wife and children.

But doesn't it make you feel good to tell us that, unlike the people you work with now, you once worked with Jackie O, and unlike the coffee purchasers ("Guests") you chat with now, you once chatted with Ernest Hemingway? And doesn't it feel awesome to write a memoir that not only is immediately published by a major New York house, but also is reviewed by most of the major media and is now slated to become a movie starring Tom Hanks? And hey, you don't suppose Starbucks might figure out that you really love everything about them and maybe will start selling your book in all their stores, do you ... ?

Sure, you've learned important life lessons (which you divulge in a sometimes annoyingly cheery ad copy style--but then, writing ad copy was your métier), and you tell reporters that even if you were offered big bucks to go back to corporate life, you'd stay on at your Bronxville Starbucks. On the other hand, you have no family to support--and not all that much contact with the families you've left behind--so your situation doesn't really compare with that of many of your coworkers. Besides, you now get Social Security and are working only part time.

Yadayadayada. It's easy to carp. Whatever his faults and the faults of his little book, Mr Gill has been through a lot and survived. He may not really be living like everyone else, but he's serving others--literally--and is happy with his life. His book offers a lot of wisdom and quite a bit of humble pie. And maybe its real take-away value isn't so much its paean to downsizing as its first-hand evidence that a hard-working creative guy can turn even the most desperate situation around.

Two and a half cheers, and in a few minutes I'll return the book to the library so you can check it out.

One delightful feature: each chapter begins with an inscription on a Starbucks cup. Here's my favorite, from chapter 7, "Turning Losers into Winners":
The irony of commitment is that it's deeply liberating--in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around as rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.
--a quote from Anne Morriss, a Starbucks Guest from New York City,
published on the side of a Grande Caramel Macchiato

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Refreshment Sunday

Today, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is Laetare Sunday in the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions, though probably not many of us notice. (Laetare is the first word of the introit for the day: "Rejoice, O Jerusalem!") In the UK, it's Mothering Sunday, and sometimes it's called Refreshment Sunday. Hey, it's halftime. Those onerous Lenten restrictions can be relaxed for the day. Take off that hair shirt! Eat some chocolate! Spend wildly on food!

The Neffs are going to take a whole Refreshment Week. We're going west to visit our descendants and celebrate our 41st anniversary, and we're going to pay no attention to our food bill. Well, knowing us, we'll notice. But it will all be off-record. The Lenten Experiment returns one week from today.

Meanwhile, a progress report. For the first 25 days of Lent, we have spent $241.92 on groceries. That's a per diem of $4.84 apiece. In addition, Mr Neff has had several business lunches and a couple of restaurant meals when he was out of town; his company paid, so that somewhat lowered our food bill. We have each bought ourselves one lunch out: Mr Neff's was frugal. We have had meals with friends several times, sometimes at their place and sometimes at ours.

Most of our food has been vegetarian, though not vegan. We've had fish several times and chicken once or twice. I've put sausage in the soup. We've drunk a little wine, but not much and mostly when visiting friends. I've baked a lot of bread.

And now I'm going downstairs to warm up the lentil soup, chop some cilantro, slice some bread, and pour some wine. Laetare!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Leftover ratatouille

Mr Neff and Muffin have a wonderful bond. They especially enjoy talking to each other after supper. That has little to do with tonight's post, apart from the fact that every meal is better when shared with friends. Muffin really wishes we'd share the ratatouille.

So what do you do with one serving of four-day-old ratatouille (once you've explained to Muffin that she can't have it)? Well, you look in the refrigerator to see what it might go with--and what might need to be eaten before we go out of town and the housesitter comes. I don't want to gross out the housesitter, who is a good friend.

Yesterday I noticed green bell peppers on sale for $1, so I bought one. And last night I noticed half an onion that seems to have taken up permanent residence in the lower crisper. It is obviously an effective crisper, because the onion was in good shape. I also noticed a half-empty can of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce left over from when I made black bean stew.

So I began cooking the way I nearly always do, by pouring a little olive oil in a frying pan. I chopped the onion and added it, then did the same with the pepper along with a little bit of the adobo sauce. After four or five minutes, I dumped in the leftover ratatouille.

Meanwhile I warmed up two frozen cheese tamales (from Trader Joe's) in the microwave, and then warmed up a small amount of frozen corn with a smidgen of butter.

I arranged the ratatouille-onion-pepper concoction on half of each plate, snuggled a tamale up to each vegetable pile, and arranged corn on the other side of the tamale. And that, plus a bite of dark chocolate with hazelnuts (from Aldi), was lunch.

This morning I threw a pile of stuff (onions, dry lentils, carrots, sweet potato, celery, canned tomatoes, chipotle in adobo sauce, and, eventually, some diced turkey sausage) into the slow cooker, and for supper we had lentil soup with whole wheat bread. Tomorrow's lunch will be similar. Perhaps identical.

And now, back to editing. I really want to finish my current project before we go. Leftovers help.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Ratatouille ... I'd never heard of it until I married a foodie's son and he insisted I learn to make it. Back then my motto was, if it takes longer than five minutes, we don't eat it. I thought ratatouille was extremely time consuming.

Then, nearly 40 years later, it became a movie about a rat and everyone learned how to pronounce it [ʁatatuj]. Nowadays I consider ratatouille to be the fourth-most important food, after bread, wine, and cheese. And I can make it in not much more than five minutes.

OK, maybe fifteen minutes. But then--assuming you already have the bread, wine, and cheese--your meal is ready. And if your family is small, you can eat ratatouille leftovers for days. Just don't follow most of the recipes you'll find online. They are too complicated.

Here's what you do, in two versions for two kinds of cooks.

For both versions, buy one eggplant, two zucchini, one big round onion, and some tomatoes--3 or 4 medium, 5 or 6 plum tomatoes, or even a handful of cherry tomatoes. I'm assuming you have extra-virgin olive oil and a head of garlic already.

Short version
Cut everything into bite-sized chunks, adding it to the pan as soon as it's ready and cooking as you go. Here's the order to add: olive oil, onion, eggplant, zucchini, garlic, tomato, seasonings. That's all you really need to know.

Long version
Get out a nice big heavy frying pan. Pour olive oil into it. Heat it up.

Chop up the onion. Dice it, slice it, do whatever you feel like doing to it. Put it in the pan and let it soften (not brown--turn down the heat if it tries) while you...

Peel and then dice the eggplant. Chunks should be between 1/2 and 1 inch square. Toss the eggplant into the pan with the onion and let it cook, even brown a little (you may feel like adding more olive oil; eggplant drinks the stuff), while you ...

Chop the zucchini. No need to peel. If they're small, just slice them fairly thick. If they're bigger, cut them in half lengthwise before slicing. If they're truly huge, use only one of them and cut them in quarters. Toss them into the pan with the onion and eggplant and let them cook while you ...

Dice some garlic, as much as you like, and toss it into the pan with the onion and eggplant and zucchini and let it cook while you ...

Chop the tomatoes. I don't generally remove the seeds; they don't get in the way and probably are good for us. Then dump the tomatoes in the pan with the onion and eggplant and zucchini and garlic and let it all simmer until you get the table set and the bread sliced and the wine poured.

If you like, you can add dried or fresh herbs after the tomatoes: parsley, basil, oregano are all good.

What to do with it once you've made it
  • Whatever else you do with it, top it with shredded or shaved fresh Parmesan cheese (never the powdery stuff that comes in a green tube, however).
  • Serve it as a soup or stew, with fat slices of good bread.
  • Use it as pasta sauce. It's great on spaghetti or in lasagna.
  • Brown some chicken breasts and then braise them in ratatouille.
  • Smash it up a bit and spread it on bread rounds. Garnish with sprigs of parsley.
  • Top a baked potato with ratatouille and cheese.
  • Use it as a side dish with meat and potatoes.
  • Serve it cold, on greens, perhaps with chopped boiled eggs.
  • Stuff an omelet with it.
  • Get creative.
This week we've had it on spaghetti (twice: I've been busy). And today we'll be having ratatouille omelets. If I ever finish my current work project, I might cook something else...

By the way, the Lenten Experiment is having a good effect on Mr Neff's lunch habits. He managed to eat in a restaurant with a friend at noon today for only $2.25.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


This morning I finished reading Dissolution,and author C.J. Sansom is now high in my pantheon of mystery writers. You suspect a book is going to be good when it's blurbed by P.D. James and Colin Dexter--and this is only Sansom's debut novel.

The strongly characterized, intricately plotted, fast-paced story is set in 1537, the year England's Henry VIII moved against the larger monasteries. The king's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, sends hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate a murder at the Monastery of St. Donatus in the fictional Scarnsea. Shardlake's mission is not only to discover who killed the previous royal emissary, but also to unearth other unsavory goings-on that could justify closing the monastery.

He unearths plenty, and on both sides of the church-state conflict.

No doubt one reason I like this book is because its cynicism is general--Catholics and Reformers are equally corrupt. I like the flawed but decent protagonist who makes serious mistakes but retains his essential honesty. I like the author's knowledge of and attention to historical detail (he has a PhD in history and has practiced law). I like Sansom's skillful, unobtrusive writing style. Mostly, I enjoyed the story.

Fans of Candace Robb's Owen Archer or Margaret Frazer's Dame Frevisse (or Ellis Peters's Brother Cadfael or Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma) are bound to enjoy Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, even if he lives in the decades that finished off the Middle Ages. The cast of characters still includes a king and councillors, an abbot, a prior, and dozens of monastics. The setting still features monasteries, serving girls, horses, and of course rumors of war between England and France.

Sansom's second book in this series, Dark Fire, won the 2005 Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, and he has added two more titles to the series since then. According to a November 2007 article in The Guardian, the BBC plans a TV adaptation of Dissolution starring Kenneth Branagh.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The cook's personality type--what's yours?

My mother, who liked to entertain and was known as a good cook, never succeeded in teaching me her craft. Heaven knows she tried.

When I was 14 she was working Mondays through Wednesdays, and she asked me to prepare supper those evenings. The day before, she would write out a menu, assemble the recipes or write out instructions, gather the ingredients, show me what pans to use...

I hated it.

Even so, I thought I did a pretty good job. She, however, loved to tell her friends about the time I put cinnamon in the beans. You just don't put cinnamon in beans, even if the combination is delicious.

When I was 15, my mother decided it was safer to eat dinner three nights a week in the cafeteria at the college where she worked. The food was terrible, but predictable.

Over the years, I taught myself to cook. My food was not like my mother's, but she enjoyed eating it. She couldn't help herself, though--every time she had dinner with us, she would shake her head in amazement and say, "I never thought you'd be able to cook a meal like this!"

I thought of my mother when I took the cooking personality quiz in yesterday's New York Times. No question: she was 'methodical' and I'm 'innovative.' 'Healthy' would be our area of agreement--good nutrition is an important aspect of cooking, but never at the expense of good flavor. Ripe blackberries, good; wheat germ in mashed potatoes, bad.

Tara Parker-Pope's article accompanying the food quiz, "Who's Cooking? (For Health, It Matters)", sheds further light on the five cooking personalities she identifies.

If you'd like to see how your Myers-Briggs (MBTI) type affects your cooking style, there's no better explanation than Bonnie L. Marsh's legendary pumpkin soup recipe. You will surely recognize your style in one of her four alternate sets of directions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Atlantic Food Channel

Online magazine alert: The Atlantic opened their Food Channel on Friday the 13th, and it's stunning. Beware, foodie friends: if you're having trouble reclaiming your day from Facebook, don't even think of going to the food channel. You could be trapped there for hours, and this is only their third workday.

Senior editor Corby Kummer (author of The Joy of Coffee and The Pleasures of Slow Food) describes his new venture: "It's about food, but like everything else in The Atlantic, it's about much more than that: politics, business, literature, the environment -- most of all, pleasure."

I'll drink to that. And cheers to Ted Olsen for sending me the link!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Saint Patrick de l'Irlande

Tomorrow we are going to a St. Patrick's Day dinner of French and Italian food.

This makes perfect sense: tradition has it that the saint's grandmother was from la Touraine, the region made famous a millennium later by its chateaux; that Patrick studied for several years on a Mediterranean island near present-day Cannes; that he assisted the bishop of Auxerre in what would become Burgundy wine country; and that he once visited the Tuscan Pope Leo the Great in Rome (though it's possible that some of these legends confuse Patrick with Palladius, a Gaulois who also became a bishop in Ireland in the fifth century).

In honor of l'évangélisateur gaulois de l'Irlande, I am bringing two loaves of home-baked French bread to our fête patricienne. I recommend Mark Bittman's recipe, which I won't post because you really need to go out and buy his book tomorrow, or you could click on the link below and just do it.

But first, enjoy this article from the Telegraph: "French Still Like Their Daily Bread Fresh."

Oh yes, I almost forgot. Would you believe we had leftovers again tonight? The cabbage/beet/orange salad. The black bean stew, this time with some turkey sausage added to the rest of the emoluments. And the Brussels sprouts. Everything is now used up. Let the St. Patrick's Day feast begin!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dailyness avoidance

Beware the ides of March.

Forget the Lenten Experiment--my major penitential act has been editing a manuscript that is taking much longer than I had anticipated. I thought I'd finish it last week, but now I'm wondering if I can get it done before next Sunday. The more I edit, the grumpier I get (cf. yesterday's post). Mr Neff has been marvelously patient. Right now, he's loading the dishwasher.

(Digression: for lunch we had a salad made of finely grated cabbage dressed in olive oil, lime juice, and a little salt and sugar; each pile topped with half a baked beet, sliced, and half a sliced orange; garnished with a dollop of thick Arab yogurt and a sprinkling of pecan bits. We also each had half a chicken breast, browned and then braised with half a cabbage, coarsely chopped, and some chopped onion and garlic, a splash of orange juice, and a shake of ground ginger. For supper we had leftover black bean stew, just like last night's, with a jalapeno corn muffin given to us by a neighbor we ran into while walking our dogs this afternoon. We also had Monastrell wine left over from my lunch with Ginger on Friday.)

Well, I was thinking about why the editing was putting me in such a foul mood. Do I really hate editing? Sometimes. Am I really miserable as I slog through this manuscript? No. Why, then, am I so grumpy? I think it's the dailyness of it--the "same damn thing over and over" aspect of editing a long manuscript.

I've never been good with dailyness. I wrote two books of daily devotions for Loyola Press just to see if I could discipline myself to do it--365 reflections times two, dailyness on steroids. I thought if I passed that hurdle, my dailyness-avoidance would be solved.

Apparently not.

One foot up and one foot down, That's the way to London town.

Hey, maybe I'll quit editing and fly to London. The dollar is holding up quite well against the British pound ...

Saturday, March 14, 2009


It's not true that life is one damn thing after another;
it is one damn thing over and over.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay

Ms. Millay's observation about life is also true of meals during Lent, though today's repeat of yesterday's meal included several improvements. If you make the black bean stew, do add sweet potato (or steamed plantain) to the mix, stir in a few shakes of turmeric, and sprinkle lots and lots of fresh cilantro on top. Reheated mixed-berry dumplings are slightly soggy but still tasty, especially with a dollop of thick plain yogurt on the side.

If minor additions improve Lenten leftovers, can we do anything to spice up Lent's tedious days? Though spring is due to begin on Friday, we in the Midwest are not easily fooled. It may be 50 degrees out today, but we know it will snow again at least once, and the smarter daffodils will stay buried until late April.

I guess if Lent happened in May, nobody would observe it.

All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 1:8-9, NRSV

Friday, March 13, 2009

Black bean stew

Estelle Berger directed me to this quick-and-easy recipe for black bean stew from Cooking Light (August 2003). Today Ginger Cantu joined me for lunch. She brought two kinds of bread from Panera and a green salad, and I made the stew. For dessert we had warm berries 'n' dumplings from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food (March 2009).

Atypically, I followed both recipes as closely as I possibly could without making a trip to the grocery store. The black bean stew recipe calls for Israeli couscous, which I tried unsuccessfully to find at Valli's yesterday, but I substituted a Mexican pasta that is larger than regular couscous but much smaller than rice. It had the world "pearl" on the package, which made me think it would work. It did.

Where the recipe listed fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth, I frugally substituted Orrington Farms chicken-flavored soup base and food seasoning, which not only saved a lot of money but also made me feel better about serving the stew on a Friday in Lent. If there is any real chicken in the Orrington yellow paste, it is well hidden, and I didn't look for it.

I served the stew with a dollop of thick Arab whole-milk yogurt rather than sour cream.

Ginger and I both enjoyed the stew--though we couldn't help discussing what we would have done differently. Something wasn't quite right with the tomatoes, we thought. I used diced; would crushed have been better? Or half crushed, half sun-dried? I thought a little more sweetness would have improved the flavor, so this afternoon I peeled, diced, and steamed a sweet potato and stirred it into the leftovers. Next time I serve the stew, I'm going to garnish it with cilantro.

Like Jana Riess's lentil stew recipe, this recipe is good as written, and it is also a fine base for experimentation.

David had a business lunch, so I'm not cooking tonight. We'll have what our friends the Hares call a pig supper. The pigs are the participants, not the ingredients.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Table for one

Eating is a social activity. Or should be.

I've traveled a lot on my own, and I can dine solo in a restaurant if I have to. Alone at my table, wondering if I should read or just gaze into the middle distance while waiting for my dinner, I eavesdrop on nearby conversations. Once in Stratford-upon-Avon I overheard the jovial man at the next table tell his friend about a foreigner he knew who was so nice, he found it hard to remember she was an American. "Yes," his friend agreed, "she isn't at all crass and vulgar."

That was interesting, but I would have preferred to share the moment with a friend of my own, even a crass and vulgar American. Without companions (Latin com-, with + Latin panis, bread), eating is just refueling.

David ate at the Au Bon Pain restaurant in the Orlando airport tonight. I had a cheese-and-tomato sandwich on freshly baked whole wheat and oat flour bread. If I hadn't promised to make every dinner during Lent a matter of public record, I would probably have had a bowl of cereal.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Homemade tortillas

The best way to eat well without spending loads of money is to find an ethnic grocery store in a neighborhood near you. No, probably not the one with Chianti and truffles and Belgian chocolates, though Europeans do eat about 40% less meat per capita than Americans so perhaps even la cuisine française could reduce a dedicated carnivore's budget. Well, make that la cucina italiana. And see Saturday's post about our trip to two Caputo's stores.

If Mexican food is more your thing--or if you'd like to see pretty pictures while learning more about it--check out the Mexican Foodie blog. I shamelessly copied their picture of a tortilla press because it looks just like mine except for the tablecloth, and their camera is better. My late mother-in-law bought us our press in Nogales, the border town south of Tucson, many years ago. You can go there, or you can find one online. Just be sure to get the inexpensive metal hand-operated variety, not the expensive fancy electric kind that, a friend of ours tells us, can really mess up the tortillas.

For corn tortillas, you need to buy a bag of masa harina, aka instant corn masa mix. It is not corn meal or corn flour. It has to say masa on the bag, or it won't work. You can probably find it at your grocery store.

Whenever you're in the mood for la cocina mexicana, scoop out about 1/4 cup masa harina per person and mix it with however much warm water it takes to make it the approximate consistency of pie dough. I usually find that I need almost as much water as masa. It has to be wet enough to roll into a ball without falling into little flakes, but dry enough to roll into a ball without sticking to your hands.

So... roll it into one ball for each serving. Squash each ball in the tortilla press (you'll save yourself a lot of grief if you line it with wax paper or plastic wrap). Toast each tortilla on a hot griddle for maybe 30 seconds on each side. And that's all you have to do.

If your tortilla press is small, like mine, your tortillas will be thick. No doubt too thick to be authentic. But they sure do taste good. If you like yours thin, you can of course make smaller balls. Or you can buy a larger tortilla press.

I lay my tortillas on a plate and then stack interesting things on them. Last night it was a fry-up of onions, tiny white potatoes (halved and steamed before frying), and a poblano chili pepper (seeded, deveined, and browned under the broiler before dicing and adding to the mix). I topped this with some leftover white cheese, and then I crowned the whole stack with a mixture of diced tomato, diced avocado, and chopped cilantro.

Tonight David is at a meeting in Orlando, no doubt eating in some fancy restaurant at somebody else's expense. Also, it's 73 degrees there and 27 degrees here. What--me, jealous? However, my meal of leftovers wasn't bad: two fried eggs, sliced cheese, Brussels sprouts with garlic and pecans, sliced tomato, and cashews for dessert.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Betty's Armenian pilaf

Back when the earth's crust was cooling, Betty Tyler was a student in my 10th-grade world history class. A quiet girl who sat in the back row, she did not want attention. But she got it anyway when she handed in an excellent but unfinished short story about a medieval maiden in distress, as I recall, and I gave her an infinite extension if only she would tell me how it ended.

For many years Betty has been news editor at Redlands Daily Facts. Redlands, a small town in southern California, is poor in medieval maidens but rich in local lore, which Betty enjoys ferreting out. She also enjoys good food and her mother's family's traditions, which come together in the recipe she kindly sent me as soon as she read about the Lenten Experiment. I like Betty's recipe style--she gives us the basics and encourages us to play.

Over to you, Betty. . .
Here's my Armenian grandmother's version of pilaf, as my mother said she learned it, with a modification or two of mine. There are many versions of pilaf, by the way, some of them with rice, which is what most Americans think pilaf is. Did you know that the original Rice-a-Roni was a non-Armenian's modification of an Armenian landlady's pilaf?

  • 1 cup noodles (coil fideo or anything you like; thin noodles seem to work best)
  • 1 tablespoon shortening (I've used oil for years, but I seem to remember melting margarine in the saucepan years ago)
  • 1 cup cracked wheat
  • 1 tablespoon salt (I probably don't use as much as a tablespoon. I don't measure it any more, but I use other seasonings, too.)
  • 2 1/2 cups boiling water (I've used room-temperature tap water for years) and 1 cup canned tomato, cut up (if I'm lazy, I buy the kind that's already diced and has seasonings added; store brand is still cheap) OR 2 3/4 cups boiling water and no tomato (I always use tomato)
  • 1 tablespoon butter or margarine (that's to add after it's cooked, and I stopped doing that years ago, because I don't need the extra fat; tastes fine without it)
Brown the noodles in shortening, stirring constantly. Then add cracked wheat and brown for a few minutes. Add water, tomato and salt and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes. After cooking, add butter or margarine.

An onion may be used in place of noodles, if desired. (I've never done that, but I should try it.)

I usually add a bit of oregano and thyme and - not an Armenian ingredient - a dash of hot sauce. Use whatever you like.

This is easy, tastes good if you like cracked wheat, noodles and tomato, and is relatively cheap.

Yesterday's fare

$1 salmon filets from Aldi, leftover risotto from day before yesterday, about 38 cents' worth (plus olive oil, garlic, butter, and lemon juice) of Brussels sprouts from Caputo's, and about 10 cents' worth of sliced tomato, also from Caputo's, with leftover cheap white wine from Trader Joe's.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Too much information?

Collin Hansen makes interesting observations in "Blogs: A Window to Our Souls." He doesn't encourage people to start blogging, he says, because "if you run your own blog, there is constant pressure to post so you won't lose regular readers. The Internet never shuts off."

I have an equal and opposite fear: if I continue blogging about everything we eat, readers may run for cover. Do you really want to know that last night we had rich Arab-style yogurt topped with honey, almonds, and blackberries? Followed by little bowls of Barbara's bite size shredded oats to snack on while we read mysteries?

Or that today I abandoned my Lenten principles and had lunch with two friends at Suzette's Creperie, a lovely little bistro and tea shop in downtown Wheaton? Or that for the price of a slice of broccoli-cheddar quiche, a green salad, and two cups of Earl Grey tea I should have been able to eat for three whole days?

No. I didn't think so. But it was nice of you to drop by.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Second Sunday in Lent: whingeing

Lent would be a lot more fun if it weren't so long. And penitential. And guilt-inducing. And rainy.

OK, I've been spending too much on groceries. Though I now have lots and lots of exciting canned beans that will keep us putting along indefinitely. And onions, and potatoes, and corn meal.

If I could turn stones into bread or earn the kingdoms of this world with a simple miracle, I probably would. I don't even need all those kingdoms. I'd be satisfied with the simple assurance that Social Security, Medicare, and our retirement funds will still be available in roughly five years. World peace would be nice too.

But on a brighter note, we had a pleasant lunch of risotto flavored with onion, garlic, carrot, and halibut; fresh asparagus, and tomato slices. And then after lunch we visited the grocery store our friends have been raving about--Valli Produce in Glendale Heights. If God makes it and anybody has ever cooked with it, they stock it at a very reasonable price.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A fairly frugal feast with friends

This morning we met our frugal friends Janet and Ken at Caputo's Cheese Market in Melrose Park, just north of the intersection of North Avenue and 15th Avenue, in an industrial building bearing a huge "Wisconsin Cheese" sign. It's a great place not only for cheese (much of it made locally) but also for wine, pasta, deli meats, Italian canned goods, pastries ... all at very reasonable and sometimes unbelievably low prices.

Our plan was to buy whatever inspired us at the cheese market, then go to Caputo's Fresh Market in Elmwood Park for equally inspirational produce. If you click on the link, you'll understand how this could turn into an ecstatic experience. Baby Brussels sprouts at 79 cents a pound! Avocados at 79 cents each! A good-sized handful of fresh asparagus for 60 cents! Plum tomatoes at 49 cents a pound! Seven limes for a dollar!

Eventually we tore ourselves away and drove to Janet and Ken's condo in Chicago. There we sliced and diced and chopped and stirred and baked and boiled and poured and sipped, and this is what we came up with:
  • Baguette rounds topped with caponata di melanzane (ready-made in a tin)
  • Salad of baby spring lettuces, sliced pear, feta cheese, walnuts, and green onion
  • Orrechiete with fava beans, ricotta, and shredded mint (we used canned beans, not fresh; you can see our actual concoction above)
  • Assorted cheeses (Siciliano with walnuts, Eiffel Tower triple-cream, Fontinella, Cheddar, Gruyère)
  • Individual ricotta cheesecakes, made spontaneously and with ingredients at hand. This time we added a little diced candied orange peel, a few chopped walnuts, and lemon zest (see picture below; you will notice that we couldn't wait to take that first bite)
It was a feast, but a fairly frugal one. All ingredients were wonderfully priced, and plenty of food was left over for future meals. We had wine with dinner, and that pushed us beyond our daily budget. Still, when you can buy a Chianti classico that usually costs between $15 and $20 for only $5.99, it seems sinful to pass it by. So we didn't.

Yesterday's fare

Fish tacos without the tortillas. Trader Joe's gave out samples of fish sticks a few days ago, and they were really quite nice. Such a classic choice for a Friday in Lent! Serve them on a bed of sautéed onion, red and green bell peppers, and garlic, surrounded by baby spinach leaves lightly sautéed in olive oil, top them with crumbled queso fresco and diced tomato, and there's no need to feel penitential.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Individual ricotta cheesecakes

Yesterday I realized I had an odd assortment of nearly postdated leftovers that, put together, would rock. What is more, though the top part of the dishwasher was full, the bottom was empty--a perfect time to use the food processor. So I got out Patricia Wells' Trattoria and adapted her recipe for ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts and raisins.

To produce four little custard cups of ricotta cheesecake, I threw this into the food processor: slightly more than a cup of leftover part-skim ricotta, 2 eggs, several shakes of cinnamon, several shakes of nutmeg, a teaspoon or more of vanilla extract, lemon zest, orange zest (I then had the orange for lunch), a Tablespoon or two of flour, 1/4 cup sugar, a couple of spoonfuls of sliced almonds (I had no pine nuts), a couple of spoonfuls of golden raisins.

I didn't use the sharp blade, by the way. I didn't want to pulverize the nuts and raisins, but I was too lazy to add them last by hand, so I used the bread dough blade (which I never use for bread dough) and it worked just fine.

The actual recipe, which is about four times bigger than my concoction, requires baking the batter in a 9-inch springform pan at 300 degrees for about 90 minutes until golden brown. Since I was using little ramekins, I baked mine for about 45 minutes until they were just beginning to brown. Any more than that and they would have turned into leather.

We had the cheesecakes with blackberries last night and will have the other two tonight.

I am not saying "Go thou and do likewise." The whole point of adapting leftovers is to use what's in your refrigerator. I am convinced that lots of recipes, like theologies, begin as tasty leftovers and then, favoring uniformity over adaptability and surprise, become codified.

Yesterday's fare
Last night's frugal main course: Tostadas, sort of. I make my own corn tortillas--cheap, easy, quick, and incredibly delicious. I then heated up some olive oil and added a small onion, sliced; half a green bell pepper and half a red bell pepper, in chunks; chopped garlic, and, eventually, a can of black beans from Trader Joe's (89 cents), drained and rinsed.

Once everything was more or less stir-fried, I divided the mixture between two tortillas and then topped each with 1/4 package of Mexican farmers' cheese, crumbled. I diced a tomato and put that on top of the stack. Very tasty, and they went nicely with the bottle of pale ale we split.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Matt Rodman's cream of mushroom soup

Last night Mr Neff and I did not eat at home. Instead, we plunged deeper into Lent by attending a soup supper (yes, it's redundant) at St Barnabas Episcopal Church. Like winos at a city mission, we shared soup, bread, and scripture study. Unlike winos, we got to eat first.

The soups, provided by church members and served from crockpots, were excellent: cream of mushroom, lentil and ham, cabbage, and a couple of others.

Here's St Barnabas member and acolyte Matt Rodman's recipe for cream of mushroom soup:
This soup usually makes four servings but, to tell you the truth, at this apartment when I make it I never have leftovers.
  • 8 green onions, sliced (reserving 4 teaspoons of the green for garnish)
  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 2 cups vegetable or chicken stock, heated
  • 2 cups milk
  • 3/4 cup mushrooms, chopped
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup whipping cream
  • 2 egg yolks
Melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the green onions and sauté until wilted--about 5-7 minutes.

Increase heat to medium, add flour and curry powder, and stir for about 2 minutes.

Remove from heat--and whisk in the hot stock and milk. Add mushrooms, salt, and pepper. Cover partially and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Whisk the cream and egg yolks in a small bowl. Lighten the mixture with a couple Tablespoons of the mushroom soup, then whisk it all into the soup. Cook on low heat, stirring from time to time, until thick--about 4-5 minutes.

Ladle into bowls and garnish with the reserved green onion slices. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Feeling good about leftovers

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.
--Calvin Trillin

I'm feeling a lot like Calvin Trillin's mother.

Yesterday's fare involved lunch with two friends. I served leftover lentil soup to which I had added sweet potato and turkey sausage and whatever else took my fancy back when I made it a couple of weeks ago. It keeps very well in the freezer.

We also had fresh-baked bread, though I varied the recipe by putting 1/2 c corn meal and 1/2 cup oatmeal flour in the scale before filling it up to the 1-lb level with white whole wheat flour. Cindy brought a lovely salad of spring greens, dried cranberries, feta cheese, and pecans. Vinita brought delightful date bars, and if I can get her to divulge the recipe, I'll post it here.

Last night Mr Neff and I had the final remains of the soup, more bread, and a salad made of leftover arugula, clementines, and almonds. It may sound creative, but really it was what I found in my refrigerator.

So here I am apologizing, and that makes Jacques Pépin unhappy--
It makes me feel uncomfortable when people are apologetic about serving leftovers, because if the cook is good there should be no reason to apologize. . . . Born to a family of restaurateurs and having worked all my life in the world of food, I find it’s second nature to be thrifty and avoid spoilage. I actually hurt when I see food rotting in the refrigerator or people throwing out things like bones which could be used for a flavorful base for dishes....

In the normal working of a professional kitchen, the chefs save food instinctively. The meat is trimmed, the trimmings are turned into ground meat and the bones go into a stock which may be turned into a sauce, and so on. Things move naturally in a logical progression, everything is used in an endless cycle, and practically nothing is discarded. By the same token, at home a good cook should be able to transform a dish and extend its use by making it into a fresh and different creation, rather than a second-rate version of the original.

The most common mistake made with leftovers is to try to preserve the food in its original form. Roast beef will never be a hot roast beef again because it doesn’t reheat well. However, cold roast beef served with condiments and a salad is excellent, while sliced and sautéed with onions, garlic, and beef broth, it makes a wonderful Beef Mironton. . . . Similarly, a perfectly roasted chicken will never taste as good reheated, but turned into a cold salad it tastes fresh again. On the other hand, stews, as well as most soups, often taste better after reheating.

--Jacques Pépin, Everyday Cooking

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sacrificing to be frugal

My friend Jennifer Trafton may be the only person in the world who has two friends named LaVonne, and it is thanks to Jennifer that LaVonne Stratton Carlson and I are now Facebook friends.

Yesterday LaVonne C. sent me a note about how she and her husband and two young boys are bravely facing Lent. She's realistic about what this experiment is going to cost her in time and effort. Frugal eating, like a new puppy, affects Mom more than anyone else.

So, I guess we're a little late getting on board, but my husband and I have decided to try the Lenten Experiment. So far it appears that our sacrifices will come in three major areas:

1. My husband will have to give up restaurants. He tends to eat several lunches and a couple of breakfasts out each week... that will have to stop. However, we will probably not sacrifice our family Sunday dinner habit -- you don't have to sacrifice on Sunday during Lent, right?

2. My kids will have to give up cold cereal and pre-packaged snacks. Fortunately, Jay likes eggs and Colin likes toast. Maybe they'll learn to like oatmeal sometime in the next 40 days.

3. I will have to give up time. My husband eats out because I don't fix his lunch, my kids eat cold cereal because it's easy... I will have to spend more time thinking, planning, and preparing meals besides dinner. Fortunately, my husband has agreed to fix breakfast for the boys on the mornings I run. I don't think I could get up much earlier on those mornings!

According to at least one of the pages you referenced (I admit, I didn't search too exhaustively), we should have $121.40/week for our family of four. My first shopping trip today totaled $50.58. Woohoo! However, I'll be using a lot of food that was on hand from before, and I didn't have to buy any staples this week, so I doubt I'll be able to keep that up. I'll keep you posted...

Yesterday's fare (as described in an e-mail to friends who wondered)

Tonight I used up almost all my leftovers by making a ratatouille of olive oil, onion slices, half an orange bell pepper, a diced zucchini, half a package of grape tomatoes, sliced in half ... I think that was about it. I cooked them lightly, removed them from the pan, then added to the pan maybe about 5 oz. of button mushrooms (stemmed & sliced in half), which I peppered and salted and browned lightly.

Meanwhile I’d been broiling two salmon filets, salted and peppered only. (These are $1 salmon filets I bought at Aldi’s—frozen, wild caught. Smallish but enough. Four filets, $3.99.)

When everything was done, I got out two pasta bowls and loosely filled them with leftover arugula (scoff not: it's $1.99 for a big bag at Trader Joe's, and the bag has provided eight generous servings). I topped this with the ratatouille, then tore the salmon filets into bite-sized pieces and added them to the stack along with the mushrooms. It was odd, but good.

Drank a little leftover Rex Goliath chardonnay. Dessert was a little plain yogurt with honey topped with blackberries ($2.99 for 4 servings at TJ).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Couscous salad and turkey legs

Last night we ate leftovers. They were good, but you don't want to read about them. Instead I'll tell you what Janet and Ken are up to. (I want them to move in with me and take over my kitchen.)

Report on our frugal meals
Saturday: couscous salad, one of our favorites. We used the cooked couscous left over from the chicken leg meal, and added chopped cuke, tomato, celery, onion, sweet pepper, lots of chopped Italian parsley, a little mint, and sautéed cubed chicken. (Jewel had a packet of 8 chicken tenderloins for less per lb. than any of the other chicken. I think they’re cheap because the tendon has to be removed).

For the salad dressing, Ken makes a socko blend of lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic. We really enjoy main dish salads with a lot of raw ingredients. Do you know Raw, Charlie Trotter’s cookbook featuring uncooked main dishes? Oh, and to finish this meal, since we're such copycats, Ken made chocolate panna cotta. We drank a Yellow Tail Riesling (shared 1/2 of a $10.99 1 ½ litre jug). It’s hard to figure out the cost of a meal like this, since it was composed of so many bits and pieces, but I know it was frugal.

Sunday night we indulged in our favorite red meat: turkey legs, oven roasted with aromatics. There are many bones, which I sometimes remove, serving the meat in the thickened pan juices, but last night we just used a bone plate. The two plump legs were plenty to eat and cost $4.00. We had boiled potatoes and sweet peas as accompaniment, Yellow Tail Shiraz Cabernet (same jug deal as the Riesling) to drink, more panna cotta for dessert.

Thanks for the inspiration, J & K! I'm now heading downstairs to see what further inspiration I can find in my refrigerator.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Panna cotta

Panna cotta makes a quick and inexpensive dessert for Sundays in Lent.

Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our LORD: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.
--Nehemiah 8:10, totally out of context, but nice anyway

We had panna cotta last night, after dinner with friends. I adapted a recipe from one of my favorite cookbooks, Patricia Wells' Trattoria. A nice thing about this dessert, besides its excellent flavor, is that you can make it the day ahead. These proportions serve four.

1. Butter four 4-oz (1/2 c) custard cups or ramekins.

2. Mix together and allow to dissolve (it takes two or three minutes):
  • one package unflavored gelatin
  • 2 Tbs half & half
  • 1 tsp flavoring extract (you can use just vanilla extract, or you can combine vanilla with almond extract; I used 1/4 tsp almond with 3/4 tsp vanilla)
3. Bring to boil over moderate heat, stirring frequently
  • 1 pint (2 c) less 2 Tbs (which you just used for the gelatin) half and half
  • 1/2 c confectioner's (powdered) sugar
4. Remove cream and sugar mixture from heat. Whisk in cream and gelatin mixture until smooth. Pour through fine-meshed strainer.

5. Pour mixture into custard cups or ramekins. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for several hours or up to a day.

You can serve the panna cotta in the cups, but I like to upend each onto a dessert plate and serve with berries. To get them out of the cups, set them in a little hot water for a few seconds and, if necessary, run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen.

The picture above left is from Wikimedia Commons. It looks a lot like our panna cotta, but was made with Greek yogurt instead of half and half. Sounds like an idea worth trying.

Yesterday's fare (for us and two guests)

Peanuts, cashews, carrot sticks

Lasagna made with 1 lb chopped mushrooms, lots of garlic, 1/2 lb smoked turkey sausage, 2 diced zucchini, a few sun-dried tomatoes, 1 jar Trader Joe marinara sauce, about 12 oz part-skim ricotta cheese, one egg, minced dried parsley and basil, fresh-ground black pepper, a bunch of parmesan, and of course lasagna noodles
Salad made with arugula (cheap at Trader Joe's!), avocado, grape tomatoes, 1/2 orange bell pepper, a few button mushrooms; dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar
French bread made with 3 c white bread flour and 1/2 c corn meal (I use Bittman's recipe in How to Cook Everything)
Wine: Rex Goliath chardonnay, Gnarly Head zinfandel
Panna cotta with blackberries, decaf coffee