Cooking · Kitchen Culture

That time Easter Dinner went on a cleanse…

Easter is a big holiday–it is the cornerstone event of all of us who are Christian.  We will all get to church extra early this morning to try to find parking spots and squeeze into packed pews to greet people we see every week and those we’ve never met before, and together we will celebrate the Resurrection together.  Well, this will happen, my friend “Ryan” claims, until his punch card system for High Holy Day admittance takes off.  Basically, if you don’t go enough times the rest of the year (i.e. enough punches on your card), it’s standing room only for you.  I say that kind of defeats the whole “Jesus died for everybody” thing which is kind of a big part of the Gospel.  He just laughs and says but then we wouldn’t have to leave so early on Easter and Christmas.

And then there are all the food traditions associated with Easter.  (Holidays, in my mind are all together lovely if for no other reason than the special food that goes with them.)  The Greeks roast lamb on a spit (though, in all fairness, Orthodox Easter isn’t for another month yet,) the English get out their lamb and mint jelly, all the Italians I know get out the REALLY FANCY cookies (the Italian bakery down the street from me makes this one that looks like a basket and has an actual hardboiled egg baked into it…), and in my family, we eat ham.

My family doesn’t actually have really strong food traditions with Easter, which is interesting, because we have really strong food traditions for everything else under the sun (including birthdays–three of my brothers have asked for lasagna for their birthdays every year for at least the past decade…)

This year, our Easter food game plan will again be in flux.  My mom is doing some fancy cleanse which takes out all of these things for like a month and then you slowly re-introduce them to accomplish…something.  (I don’t know.  I just run because I like food too much…)  That means, no grains.  No dairy.  No sugar.  No legumes.  (It’s kind of like going kosher and doing Lent at the same time.  I did not point this out to my mother.  I don’t think she would have appreciated it.)  Anyway, we had to get creative with the big family Easter meal.

And, of course, yours truly stuck herself squarely in the middle of the planning.  For example–how do you make mashed potatoes without milk?  Add the potato water–it should do the same thing.  Not quite the flavor, but that’s okay.  Just put the butter on the side and let everyone (who is not cleansing) put it on themselves.  I talked my mom into doing pork tenderloin and sauerkraut instead of ham this year (because it’s more flavorful, I said.  Because isn’t sauerkraut supposed to be super healthy for you because of pickling properties or something, I said.  Really, I just like pork tenderloin better than ham…)  I am also bringing a bunch of new asparagus to roast in the oven with olive oil and sea salt (two great seasoners blessedly not taken off the list.)  I’m also hoping that peas don’t count as “legumes” because they will look so pretty on the plate and they go well with potatoes.  Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about dinner rolls–you can’t eat hot cross buns when you can’t have flour.  We’ll just have to abstain this year.  I did go rogue on one point though–I made a lemon cake for the non-cleansers in the family, because, well–it’s lemon!  It’s so springy and yellow and citrus-y!  And we had to have some dessert.  It is Easter, after all.

So, really, not too shabby, all things considered.  It will be bright and festive.  My siblings and I will gather around my parents’ table, and we will talk about growing up memories, like we do on every major holiday.  (And because it’s Easter, we’ll pay homage to the time when my folks’ old golden retriever, Gracie, once ate my entire Easter basket–basket, grass, foil, everything–in her puppyhood.)  We will gather.  We will break bread.  We will celebrate.

He is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Happy Easter.

Cooking · Food · Recipes

It’s a chili kind of day…

Today never dawned–not really. From the time I left my house until the night set in, the world was bathed in that eerie, half-light–an unending twilight.  There was no sun, there were no impressive thunderstorms, just a vague, shiftless gray and a steady, freezing rain.

I hate days like today when I have to be a part of them.  As the day “dawned” (if you can call it that..), I peered through my car windshield and just wished to be back home, wrapped up in an old sweatshirt and my funny, homemade quilts, reading a book and drinking coffee.  Today was the sort of day designed for scuffling around in house slippers and watching Netflix.  Today was not the sort of day for fighting the good fight with students more anxious to be on vacation than I am.

Today was,  however, the sort of day to make chili.

Chili is one of those dishes that “sticks to the ribs,” as they say, it warms you up from the inside out–your own personal defense against the bitterly cold (and cruel, depending on the situation) world outside.  It is a dish designed for the northern tier, where I live.  I am amazed that anyone south of the Mason-Dixon has ever even eaten chili.  As any good Northerner will tell you–chili just doesn’t taste as good when it is 75 and sunny out.  Chili is a dish you make on days like today–when sleet is blowing in 40 mph winds because the clouds can’t make up their minds and commit to either snow or rain.  Today was definitely a chili day.  (It was also a chilly day, for the record.)

It’s probably good that I do live in the frozen north, because I LOVE chili  I love it.  I must have a million different chili recipes, and I spend all the long winter months mulching through them like locusts through the harvest.  I have white chili, chicken chili, CrockPot chili, spicy chili, mild chili, vegetarian chili, chili with stew beef, chili with ground.  Chili with black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, no beans. Then there are the variations of dishes to be made with chili: chili pie, chili-polenta casserole, and chili chip dip.  I am basically like the Hallmark Card Company of chili recipes.  I have one for every occasion.

So, needing to clear out my fridge and fight the evil of lingering winter in one fell swoop, I naturally skipped all of these recipes and trolled up a new one on the internet.  Originally, I thought it would be a great chance to give a shout out to another blog…until I realized that I had literally changed every ingredient in either essence or quantity.  (I also added about three other things.)

It started out when the grocery story I went to was out of the kind of ground beef I wanted…so I got ground turkey.  Then they only carried pinto beans in a larger can–what am I going to do with half a can of pinto beans?  So I used it all.  Then I threw in the green pepper I had before it could go bad…doubled the garlic…added cumin…doubled the amount of beer it called for (so much easier to just use a whole bottle) and switched from a stout to a cream ale (because it’s what I had…)  Then I added a can of tomato sauce, and those chipotle peppers in adobo sauce…because they were there…and suddenly I had a completely different recipe.

Chili is a great place to experiment with flavors, I think.  It’s hard to screw it up to the point it’s beyond consumption.  It’s got a basic flavor outline to follow, and then you can sort of go nuts–add your cinnamon or cocoa or whatever you like.  Plus, if it goes really wrong, you can always add cheese…or sour cream…or chives or whatever.  (Or mix it with some Velveeta and serve it with chips and then nobody will notice.)

I like doing that.  I like going off book in a recipe.  I feel like that’s where you really learn to cook–how you figure out what steps you can skip or modify and what you can’t.  What flavors blend well together.  How long is really the time you should simmer that pot.  (With chili, of course, you know the answer is the longer the better…)  It’s empowering.  It’s creative.

Plus it’s a great way to fend of the Winter Blues.

If you’d like to try out my new Invent-a-Chili, you can check it out on the drop down menu under the “Recipes” tab.  It’s easy.  Also yummy.  And please, feel free to completely change it because of what you’ve got in the house… 🙂

Cooking · Culture · Kitchen Culture

Kitchen Renegade

I like cookbooks.  A lot.  As in, I actually read them, cover to cover, for fun.  As in, I own 44 (I literally got up from this computer to count them), and I have cooked multiple recipes out of 34 of them (I also just counted that).  As in, one of my favorite parts of the week is sitting down with a stack of randomly selected cookbooks to pick recipes and make my grocery list.  As in, I have been known to check cookbooks out from the library. On purpose. 

Most of my cookbooks are finds from bargain bins, community book sales, and charity shops.  Nearly all of them had previous owners, and I think I only paid cover price for two.  Like many things in my life, I believe in recycling.

Whenever I go to a Goodwill, I always make sure to do a flyby of the cookbook section.  I like reading the titles and seeing what’s there.  You tend to see a strong representation of cookbooks from last year’s diet “miracle” (Atkin’s, South Beach–I’m sure the Paleo collection will be in season in the next year or so…) and there are always at least four copies of that Oprah cookbook, In the Kitchen with Rosie.  (I guess every person in America must have owned at least five copies in 1998.)    Through my perusal-ing, I have gathered that, in the early ’80’s, people believed that the secret to healthy living was removing all the fat from all the things (titles along the line of Feed Your Family the Fat-Free Way, and Living Healthy: Old Time Flavor without the Fat).  It was also widely accepted, apparently, that it was only a matter of time before microwaves completely replaced the traditional oven (There is usually an entire shelf dedicated to things like Microwave Miracle!: 101 Microwave Oven Recipes for the Modern Cook).

I usually end up leafing through the oldest cookbooks there, myself–the ones from the ’60’s and ’70’s.  I like getting the window into a world that is so different than my own–a world where kids still took homemade birthday treats to school, getting together with friends meant someone was going to “entertain,” and Betty Crocker’s marketing team had not yet convinced America that from-scratch cakes are so much more difficult and complicated than ones from a box.  (They aren’t, incidentally.)

The recipes in these faded books are a lot better, by and large, than their modern counterparts.  I think it’s because when these cookbooks were written, people still, well, cooked.  Today, most cookbooks have recipes that call for about a million ingredients, at least a dozen of them impossible to find if you don’t live in one of the Food Capitals of the World (New York, London, Paris, L.A.), let alone Smalltown, America.  I mean, you can only cook recipes out of a book like Plenty (a truly beautiful cookbook–it’s like food porn) if you have about three to four hours, decent skill, a professionally outfitted kitchen, and access to some crazy ingredients.  And that book was a New York Times bestseller–a bestseller! I’d wager this cookbook sits in cabinets all over America with pristine pages while their owners eat Chinese take-out for the third time this month. 

Most people I know maintain diets that include a significant amount of restaurant food (be it from fast food, delivery pizza, or sit-down restaurants) supplemented heavily by premade food that we just heat up (chicken nuggets, burritos, frozen pizza, pre-portioned frozen dinners).  We live in a culture where we watch other people cook food on television while we pull the plastic film off the top of a Lean Cuisine.  We, as a culture, honestly believe that cooking is a thing reserved for professionals, retirees, and rich women with nothing better to do.

Let me say that in another way:

We have bought into the lie that cooking–the act of going into your kitchen and making something from scratch–is a luxury the average American can’t afford. 

That doesn’t sit well with me.  It bothers me that we think we’re “too busy” to do something that makes us so fundamentally human.  It bothers me that we’ve let marketing campaigns convince us that we “can’t possibly” make a pizza by ourselves or that we’re “too busy” to make chicken noodle soup that doesn’t come from a can.  I think we’re better than that.  I think I’m better than that.  I think you’re better than that.

So prove the marketing people wrong.  Take back the kitchen from the people on T.V.  Be a renegade.

Cook dinner tonight.

Cooking · Culture · Food · Recipes

And it doesn’t involve green beer…

It is St. Patrick’s Day today.  I’m sure every elementary school teacher in the world is painfully (I mean this in the literal sense) aware of this fact as they spent the majority of their time today trying to keep all the kids who were wearing green from pinching all the kids who weren’t black and blue.

am aware of this because I live in one of the popular, historic neighborhoods in my city.  Most of the time, this means quirky shops, hipsters, a few first-gen hippies still holding on, and groups of 20-somethings out to go to the fashionable bars on Saturday night.  On St. Patty’s Day, though, it is a different story.

I got home from a rehearsal at 7:45 tonight to droves of people all over the place, far too many of them far too drunk for the time, zillions of cars, and lots of police officers hanging around to make sure things don’t get rowdy.  Let’s just say I had a few choice thoughts for these people as I pushed my teacher bag up on my shoulder.

In case you haven’t picked up on this yet, the nightlife is not really “my scene.”   I am also intrinsically suspicious of anything that is an unnatural shade of green.  This applies equally to frosting, mashed potatoes, cookies, beer, and large bodies of water.  So it’s safe to say that St. Patrick’s Day (as it is celebrated in Milwaukee) is not exactly my cup of tea.

But my ancestors were Irish many moons ago, and so I feel like I ought to “put a word in” to this piece of my heritage.  (Which is difficult to do because, on a whole, the Irish are not known by and large for their food, and for good reason…)

Food it, I think, a reflection of the culture that creates it.  In Tibet, eating cubes of fat is a great honor, because the high caloric content helps build fat that keeps you warm.  India, a place where the climate basically begs every spice ever found to be grown, has a spice palate probably three times that of Northern Europe.  In America, we have taken all the food of all the cultures that come to these shores, put them into a giant bag, shake it up, and roll the dice to see what’s going to happen.  (This is how you end up with things like bulgogi tacos and quinoa curry…)

And in Ireland, a place that has been poor and marginalized for centuries, you get dishes that can turn practically nothing into something incredible.

My favorite example of this is a soup I picked up from a spice catalogue.  Like a lot of really amazing recipes, it has the most unimaginative name I can think of:  “Homemade Vegetable Soup.”

What it actually is, is genius.  It is a soup that combines four of the commonest, cheapest, longest-lasting root veggies I know–carrots, onions, potatoes, and garlic–into this rich, velvety pot of simmering deliciousness.  The first time I made it, it was because I was saving up for a vacation and trying to stretch my pennies.  You’re hard pressed to find a cheaper recipe than this.  I was skeptical (I’m not a huge fan of carrots,) but I gave it a go in the name of frugality.  It was a chance I do not regret.

I think what I love most about this dish is that it reminds me of how it doesn’t take a million steps or a thousand ingredients to make something wonderful.  Some of the best dishes around are profound in their simplicity, in the same way that what shapes us most isn’t that new car or house, but the t-ball games and vacations to Grandma’s and Saturday-nights-in.  Sometimes, the things that fill us emotionally or even spiritually are not the Major Events or Major Pricetags–just like a bowl of delicious, simple soup fills us physically better than the expensive hors d’oeuvres can.

Remembering what it’s like to laugh, re-meeting people we’ve known for ages but haven’t known in a long time, allowing ourselves a chance to reflect outside of the insanity of life–these are all things that happen around the easy dinners.  That’s why comfort foods are things like macaroni and cheese–there aren’t any linen table clothes or expensive china, there’s no pretense or putting on airs–it’s just good, honest, satisfying food that lets you sit and catch up for hours and hours.  The dish is just the vehicle to the healthy soul.  I love that.  I love that things don’t have to be fancy or difficult to be meaningful.

And it also doesn’t have to involve green beer…

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

If you want to embrace the Irish and try “Homemade Vegetable Soup,” you can check it out for yourself on the drop-down menu under “Recipes.”

China · Cooking · Culture · Recipes

My China is showing…

When I first moved back to America, I struggled with acting like an American.  I am ethnically what I refer to as “macaroni and cheese American” (my family’s pre-U.S. heritage was lost generations ago.)  The only “ethnic” traditions we have are those that my mom read about in magazines or learned from friends and so we do them.  We do not celebrate St. Nick’s Day because we are German.  We celebrate it because the first year we lived in Wisconsin, we were the only kids who didn’t know what anyone else was talking about…

All this to say, if you looked at me, it would probably never occur to you that I was struggling to remember seemingly obvious things like, “We stop and wait for the red light to turn green,” and “We do not need to touch the person in front of us to prove that we are a part of this line.”  Or even worse, “We speak in English to people behind counters at stores.”  (True story: Newly arrived from Kunming, I walked up to a counter and asked the very blonde girl at the cash register for a knife.  In Chinese.  She looked totally lost and I realized my mistake.  I didn’t even try to explain myself.  I just walked away.)  These little–idiosyncrasies, we’ll call them–made me stick out like a the only bowl of rice in a room full of pizza, and I was wildly self-conscious.

I did my best to laugh it off; I’d say that “my China was showing” at the latest faux pas I managed to pull off.  I’m not Chinese, after all, but it was my China self–the me that was successful living in China–made me a hot mess in the United States. My China self also didn’t have the good sense to know when to keep its fat nose out of what was going on in my American life.

Yes, I have become inexplicably angry with the fact that I have to pay more than 20 cents for fresh vegetables and fought the urge to yell at the cashier like they can do anything about this.  I have cried watching Kung Fu Panda.  I have completely gone to pieces in a grocery store because there were too many different kinds of cereal to choose from.

These days, I don’t feel like I’m “faking” at being an American most of the time.  I know what I’m supposed to say, how I’m supposed to talk, and when it is appropriate pick up a bowl from the table (in case you’re wondering, the only time that’s kosher in America is when you’re going to put them into the sink…)

But there are still days I get really homesick for my China home.  I explain it to people this way: when you live in a place, you leave a part of your heart behind you.  I left my heart in the Yunnan hills, the Kunming streets, the hearts of so many very special students.  I know that being Stateside is where I’m supposed to be, but it doesn’t make me less lonely for the pieces of my heart on the other side of the world.

Kung Fu Panda still makes me teary.  I still get mad that nobody around here lights fireworks on Chun Jie (Chinese New Year.)  I still long–oh, how I long!–for some good ol’ Chinese street food.

But I’ve learned to combat the loneliness.  I fight the tide.  One of the ways I do it is by making some of the dishes I ate all the time in Kunming.  A favorite dish (that makes a super great American appetizer) is this spicy cucumber salad thing that you’d get all the time at this restaurant down the street from our apartment complex.  It’s really easy and a big hit with “foreigners” (read: people who live here in America) because it’s super good for you and also not the same potato salads and coleslaw that everyone makes.

I love this recipe.  It makes me think of my China friends and sitting around on short little stools eating family style Chinese at this little hole-in-the-wall place.  It makes me think of my China roommate, Megan, who spent probably two years experimenting to get it just right.  It makes me remember the good times, and the insane things we did to achieve our own breed of “normal.”

I love food and recipes because they’re all tied up in history and memories.  I love this recipe because of the people and places it makes me think of.  We called it “That Spicy Cucumber Thing Like the One You Get At the Chinese Restaurant on Guang Fu Lu.”  You can call it “That Cucumber Salad That One Girl From Slice of Life Talked About,” or “That One Weird Chinese Cucumber Salad.”  Or you can make your own name.  Create your own memories.  Share the food around your own table.

To try “That Spicy Cucumber Thing LIke the One You Get At The Chinese Restaurant On Guang Fu Lu,” check it out on the drop down tab under “Recipes.”   

Cooking · Food · Kitchen Culture · Recipes


I am not much of a breakfast person.  I manage a piece of peanut butter toast every morning, only because I know that “it’s good for me.”  I don’t go in for eggs (I can’t get over the smell), I don’t much care about sugar, so things like French toast and pancakes don’t faze me, and being extremely finicky about how I like my bacon means I almost never make it.  (Plus, it takes a solid week for the lingering aroma of stale bacon grease to clear out of my apartment.)

For my breakfast-loving father, who would eat eggs and bacon three times a day if you’d let him, my “just coffee for me, thanks” proclivities are a source of unending disappointment.

But I do make a few exceptions.

When I was a little girl, Saturday was “waffle day” at our house.  My father found my parents’ waffle iron at a flea market in like 1978, and the thing was already ancient then.  It had one of those old-fashioned electrical cords that were covered in fabric, and it weighed about a ton.  As far as I was concerned, the waffles it produced were the best.  It made a thinner, crisper waffle with about a million tiny waffle squares, each and every one of which designed be filled to the brim with syrup.  (Every child knows that the whole point of a waffle is just to be the vehicle for as much maple syrup as possible.)  I grew up in a house where we had to have “good-for-you” cereals, which excluded the much sought-after kid varietals like Lucky Charms and Froot Loops, so waffles were as close as I ever came to candy for breakfast (another life ambition of the average five year old.)

Every Saturday in my early childhood, I remember my dad getting up and making waffles in our kitchen.  I have a lot of great memories of those Saturdays, standing on a kitchen chair in my jammies next to my father and “helping.”

I’m sure I caused way more trouble than I was worth, but to my four-year-old self, it was a great privilege to mix the batter still in the bowl.  Sometimes, my dad would even let me pour the batter onto the waffle iron.  I can still remember that distinctive, sizzling sound the batter made when it hit the hot iron, and the pretty golden color of the waffles when my dad would peel them off the dark metal and onto the serving dish.

As I got older, more babies came, life got busier, my dad’s job changed to include a lot more business trips, I was busy with school and clubs and friends and “being mature” (a hilarious illusion held by thousands of teenagers all over America), and Waffle Day went the way of the dodo.

I am a “real” adult now, with a career and place of my own, my own hobbies and friends and responsibilities.  I have lived on the other side of the world and back again.  I have developed my own rituals and personal traditions, but sometimes, I still miss those days when I was little and life was simple and Waffle Day was still a thing.

So I called my father up the other day and asked, “Dad, do you remember how you always used to make waffles when I was little on that really old waffle iron?  Do you guys still have it?”

My parents do still have that waffle iron.  It is still ancient.  It still weighs about a ton.  The old cloth cord didn’t work anymore, but my dad hunted all over the city and managed to find a replacement, so I could go over to my parents’ house and make waffles again.

We’re a little out of practice, my dad and I–the first few tries got stuck to the iron for reasons we couldn’t figure out–but that didn’t matter.

Some things are different.  I am an adult now, older than my father was when we first did this.  I don’t need to stand on a chair to see what’s going on on top of the counter.  I don’t need someone else to make sure I don’t burn myself or tell me not to put so much batter on the iron.

But some things are still the same.  It still feels like an honor to pour the batter.  The waffle iron still makes that sizzling noise when you close it.  It is still reassuring to know that if you get burned, someone’s going to be there to tell you it’ll be okay.  It still seems to take forever for the steam to stop hissing out of the sides of the closed iron.  It is still exciting to make waffles.  It is still a privilege to stand next to my daddy.

You can check out my family’s waffle recipe on the drop down menu under “Recipes.”  (It’s really not that much harder than a box mix.  I promise.)  

Cooking · Culture · Food · Recipes

The Bachelor’s Lunch

I, like many dedicated teachers, avoid the teacher’s lounge like the plague.  I claim it’s because I have too much to do, but really it’s because I don’t have time to be around all the Negative Nancies who delight in complaining about ALL THE THINGS.  I hide out in my friend “Ryan’s” classroom and eat lunch with him, instead.

Ryan and I have very different approaches to our lunchbox experience.  Ryan has a system, he tells me.  He brings the same thing for lunch every day–every day–for a month.  A MONTH.  January was ham sandwiches.  February was salad. Ryan is also singlehandedly keeping the Fruit Roll-Up people in business. (No grown up should eat that many fruit snacks…)  I, on the other hand, bring in the leftovers of whatever I cooked for dinner in the last few days.  Soups, curries, a few well-selected casseroles.  Literally whatever is in the fridge comes to work in the pink paisley lunch bag.

Ryan’s always telling me how great my lunches look and how he needs to “mix it up.”  “Why don’t you just bring leftovers, too?” I ask.  I mean, I am not the first person in history to bring leftovers to work…

That’s when the truth comes out.  Ryan gets away only having to cook about three nights out of seven by scrounging up invites to other people’s houses–so he never has leftovers.  He claims he is just being social.  I maintain he’s free-loading, in part because I am jealous that he actually has that many people willing to provide him with free food on a regular basis, a pattern that I believe is in no small part due to the fact he is a bachelor.  As a bachelorette, on the other hand, I am not so lucky.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like cooking myself.  But it feels unfair. All grown-up persons past college age should be expected to cook for themselves most of the time.

Last week, I was in the mood for something comfort food-y, and tossed together a riff on a pasta bake.  I brought it to work for lunch a couple days in a row, and Ryan couldn’t stop talking about how good it looked, smelled, etc.  He does this sometimes.  He never makes anything I make.  He just asks.  So I tell him how easy it is, berate him (as usual) for being a freeloader and/or eating salad for the 39th day in a row, and then we move on.

But then last night I get a text message:  “How long do you think I should cook the chicken before I put it in my pasta bake?”

Ryan does this–brings me in halfway through a conversation he’s been having in his head like I’ve been there the whole time.  Through a series of slightly confused messages, I deduce that Ryan was so impressed by my pasta bake, he decided he needed to do it for himself.  I feel so proud.  My baby bird is spreading his wings to fly.  I tell him this.  He tells me to shut up, then thanks me for the chicken-cooking advice, and says good night.

Then, fifteen minutes later: “How long did you cook your pasta for?”

Before I can even finish that response:  “Should I use the whole jar of pasta sauce?  Will that be enough?”

Then five minutes after that: “I’m at a crisis!  I’ve only got one 7×11 pan, and I needed that for the chicken.  Should I wash it out so I can reuse it for the pasta bake, or should I use the deeper casserole dish?”

I’m flattered that Ryan actually thinks I care whether he uses the 7×11 or the casserole dish.  (I vote for the latter, incidentally, because I wouldn’t want to wait to clean it out.  He concurs with my expertise.)

I even get photos of the finished product a half hour later.  It’s so funny to me that something like pasta bake is the thing that inspires a person to get into the kitchen.  It isn’t flashy, it isn’t fancy.  But I don’t knock it.  I am a big supporter of anything that gets real life, busy, modern adults into their kitchens and experiencing the cooking process for themselves.

I heard somewhere once that cooking is one of the most fundamentally “human” things about our species.  No animals cook.  Just people.  And when we give up cooking, we give up something uniquely human about us.  It is a skill many of us have lost, and need to fight to keep.

Even Ryan.  Even with a pasta bake.

I glanced at my phone, and the photo of Ryan’s version of pasta bake.  I smiled and texted back:

“Well done, Grasshopper.  Well done.”

If you would like to try my spin on pasta bake, look under my “recipes” tab.



China · Cooking · Kitchen Culture · Kitchenware

Rock the Retro

FullSizeRenderWhen I moved back to the United States three years ago, I had to make some tough choices about what was going to go into the three suitcases I got to bring with me.  Though I love cooking and the “food” experience, very few of my kitchen items made the cut.  I left behind, among others, my Aeropress coffeemaker and beloved immersion blender.  Only four cookbooks made it back Stateside intact.  The rest were ruthlessly rooted through by my roommate and I as we cut out any recipes we thought we may ever make and tossed the dross.  (When you’re trying to get four profoundly formative years of your life down to 150 pounds, you can’t afford to be kind.)

An often overlooked side effect of spending your late twenties having this life-changing experience in the developing world is that you get back to the U.S. with like $600 in your bank account–a bunch of money for China, not a bunch of money for the States.  So I had to go about rebuilding my life on a shoestring.

You don’t think about how all the stuff you’ve amassed in your kitchen cost an accumulative bundle because most people’s kitchens are slowly populated with every spoon on the planet over a course of months or years.  (Lots of people also get cool things called “wedding showers,” of which I didn’t have the benefit, but I digress…)

So what does a poor, at the time only partially-employed teacher do?  She becomes best friends with her friendly neighborhood Goodwill, that’s what.

This is the way I got my dishes, silverware, mixing bowls, casserole dishes, pans, pots, mixing spoons, storage containers and measuring spoons–in fact, as I catalogue my kitchen in my head, I can think of only three or four things that were actually new when I bought them.

It means I saved a bunch of money.

It also means my kitchen paraphernalia has a strongly ’70’s gold vibe about it.

I’m now in a much more stable financial place, and could probably afford to upgrade a lot of my Poor Girl Kitchen.  I could replace my mismatched kitsch-fest with something chic.  But I realize I’ve grown attached.

Nobody else has my old, white-with-royal-blue-trim Correllware.  I never have to worry about anyone “accidentally” taking my aqua-blue Pyrex bowl home from a potluck by mistake.  I am the only person I know under 60 who can claim her kitchen counter is graced by a vintage, 1980 CrockPot with orange flowers on it and a bread making canister.  (Yes.  I can, in fact, make bread from scratch in my CrockPot.  You can be jealous.  It’s okay. I understand.)  I also don’t know anyone else who can claim her salt and pepper shakers were made in West Germany (back when West Germany was still a thing…)

My kitchen has history.  Generations of cooks and bakers are represented in my kitchenware–my 1950’s Pyrex, my 1960’s flour and sugar canisters, my 1970’s Tupperware, my 1980’s CrockPot, my 1990’s lemon-shaped egg timer–all the cooking fads, all the kitchen disasters, all the families who gathered around tables and stood around  while people washed dishes, are all represented and remembered my little kitchen.  I like the one-of-a-kind uniqueness of it.  My kitchen has the “be your own person” personality we always tell kids is important but so often shy away from in our adult lives.  And I think that counts for something.

So you can keep your fancy-shmancy, polished silver coffee storage containers.  I like the green pepper and squash design on my old glass one just fine.

Cooking · Food · Misadventures · Recipes

Desperation Depression Cake

I like baking in the philosophical sense.  I like the idea of baking–the whole Tollhouse cookie, Pillsbury Doughboy image of cookies and biscuits being pulled out of the oven, a toasty golden brown, fluffy, and identical in size and shape, usually while wildly smiling and suspiciously clean, blonde children stand watching, on the ready.  Me in an old sweatshirt, cursing under my breath when I realize I don’t have any eggs–something I only realize after I’ve creamed the butter and sugar and added three cups of flour–does not fit this image.

Please understand.  The scene of an angry me storming around my kitchen because I have to go to the store now is not a “one time only” showing.  This scenario unfolds with very little variation whenever I am possessed of the random impulse to bake.  I never have eggs.  You think I’d learn to check for them before I start, but I don’t.  I start recipes.  I don’t have eggs.  It’s a universal given on the level of death and taxes.

Then one day, desperately searching the internet for a dessert recipe that didn’t require me to go to the grocery store, I discovered the gem that revolutionized my “Last Names Beginning with A-H Bring a Dessert” life:  THE DEPRESSION CAKE.

Don’t panic!  This cake gets its name from the three holes (depressions) you make in the dry ingredients to pour various liquids into–it does not cause, worsen, or is in any way related to any medical condition (except maybea sugar coma if enough is consumed?)

I honestly don’t remember where I found it anymore, or I would totally give the webpage its due, because this cake is truly amazing.  Not only is it a good “take to a party” 9×9 size, (since nobody wants to look like a pig eating half a cake straight out of the pan when there are other people present,) it’s light, fluffy, moist, and generally delicious.  You also can mix the whole thing in the pan you bake it in, so there are aren’t a thousand bowls to wash.

Behold, the cake! (And now you know why I’m a teacher, not a food photographer…)

And (even better!) no one who eats it will EVER guess that the recipe calls for no butter, no milk, and (most importantly in my case) NO EGGS.  Unless you tell them, and I do, because I think this recipe is genius–and also because then people of the vegan persuasion can’t make everyone else feel guilty for eating dessert without them.
It’s now my party go-to, because, let’s be honest, you tell people you made a cake “from scratch,” and most of them will elevate you to a culinary place somewhere between Julia Childs and Betty Crocker.  They will never know that this recipe is basically one step up in difficulty from a grilled cheese sandwich.  The way I see it, what they don’t know can’t hurt them.   Happy baking!

(If you’d like to try the Depression Cake for yourself, you can check it out under my “recipes” tab.)