Competitive Cooking?!?

So I went to visit my Mom last weekend. At 90 years old, she doesn’t get up and about very much these days. She watches a lot of TV. Most of her TV watching consists, for reasons that defy explanation, of violent cop shows that make me cringe. Like NCIS and CSI and those other bloody acronyms. Bleh!

But this week I was in luck, or so I thought when I came into the room where Mom was settled with her cat in her lap and the TV on.

“I’m watching the Worst Cooks in America!” Mom announced cheerily. I settled in to see what the strangely named program might be about.

I was aghast.

In the first place, the very idea of calling anyone the “Worst Cooks” seemed wrong to me. I mean, the whole idea of this particular exercise in bloggery is to convince everyone in the world that cooking is easy. You don’t chef shame people just because they are nervous about making food.

Second, this show made these poor innocent souls spend day after day in a “cooking boot camp” lead by two professional chefs who would have fit very nicely in the Army infantry. They barked, they criticized, they shamed people for ridiculous, non-cooking related things like how they wore their hair and whether or not their countertops were clean.

I swear, I almost lost it when they started griping about “mis en place“. Call me a commoner, but if you’re not cooking in Paris, you shouldn’t force the French language into your kitchen.

But most horrifying of all to this happy home cook is the fact that this was one of those awful competitive cooking shows.

I absolutely loathe the whole idea of cooking as a competitive sport!

Food is love.

Cooking is sharing that love.

A meal is for sustenance, pleasure and community. It’s a sense of comfort and belonging. “Breaking bread together” is one of humanity’s oldest rites of peace and harmony.

So watching ten poor slobs sweating and crying as they desperately tried to attain the perfect sear on their sea scallops made me feel pretty sick to my stomach. Although I did get over that when they started eating the food. Still, it was upsetting to see all that negative emotion related to my favorite hobby.

To me, cooking is NOT about perfection, or racing to beat the clock (unless you have a toddler, then all bets are off). It’s not about the perfect balance of salty and umami. It sure as hell isn’t about “mis en place”.

So, dear readers, please cook.

Don’t watch stupid shows that are designed to make your blood pressure rise. Just cook food that sounds/looks/smells good. Share it with people who love you. Eat it. Use the bread to soak up the sauce. Leave the dishes till morning.

Food is love.

Competitive cooking, my ass.

Some things are just wrong.

Tofu For Two

Paul and I are omnivores, but we lean toward eating meat most nights. He doesn’t like fish (except for shrimp) and we haven’t done much in the way of vegetarian cooking other than pasta marinara and the rare foray into dal.

But we are aware of both the health and environmental impacts of meat eating, and we’re trying to change our carnivorous ways.

So last week I bought us some nice firm tofu. It sat there in the fridge for several days, making me feel guilty. But I didn’t cook it because…..I wasn’t sure of how to make it taste delicious. So I decided to go to another cook, one with better eating habits than mine.

I asked my daughter what to do!

I like tofu crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, but I wasn’t sure of how to get that. So I checked with Kate, who is a wonderful cook. The trick is to drain the tofu really well and then to toss the cut pieces into corn starch before frying them. Now, I knew the cornstarch trick, having used it on shrimp, chicken and beef in the past. I just didn’t know you could use it with tofu.

Tofu cubes in cornstarch. Dried noodles waiting their turn.
And here’s the tofu, all crisp and yummo.

My point here is to tell you that no matter how long you’ve been cooking, or how good you think you are at it, there’s always more to learn. And you don’t have to find a detailed recipe to do that learning!

One of my favorite things to do is to read cook books. I know, weird, right? But it’s better than reading any more political stuff right now, and there are only so many romance novels a persoan can take.

So I read cookbooks. I especially love to read old recipes. I have a collection of cookbooks from my mom, my late mother-in-law and from various books stores. I love to read them because they show me how much has changed in terms of our understanding of nutrition, and how much has come back around again. And it shows me how easy we have it. (One cookbook starts its roast chicken recipe by telling you how to kill and pluck the hen.)

And I love to talk to other cooks to get tips that I can use in my own meals. Sometimes it’s a cooking trick, like the cornstarch. Other times it’s learning about a new spice, or a combination of flavors.

To become a confident cook, you need to learn new ideas and then make the meal your own. Experiment. Have fun.

Remember: if it turns out horribly, you can always eat a bowl of cereal.

To learn about my fabulous Crispy Sesame Tofu, go to the recipe page and get the basics!

Mangiamo!

The finished product, just before it was devoured.

Are you ready, fellow cooks? Now that you have all of your staples and proteins and all those great spices, it’s time to make sauce!!

Pasta sauce. Tomato sauce. Red sauce. Or “gravy” as some misguided Italian Americans call it.

Today we’re making a basic marinara sauce. No meatballs, no sausage or veal or pork.

After this post, you will never again have to reach for one of those jars of pre-made, sugary, over-salted-yet-tasteless-fake-Italian sauces.

You’re welcome.

This is EASY.

All you need are a good heavy pot (I still use a hammered aluminum pan that my Mom got early in her marriage. It has been making sauce for about 6 decades), a paring knife and a big spoon.

Gather your ingredients.

Like a fine work of art, right?

Because it’s August, and I have a great local farm stand, I made this sauce out of fresh tomatoes. I had some plum tomatoes (the oval ones) and some nice juicy salad tomatoes. If I didn’t have fresh tomatoes, I would have used a large can of ground peeled tomatoes. I like San Marzanos made by Cento, but any ground and peeled tomatoes are fine.

I also needed tomato paste, garlic, some onion, olive oil, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, basil and oregano. When I don’t add meat to my sauce, I like to add some fennel seeds, but they’re definitely optional.

You can see that I had fresh basil on hand, but if I hadn’t I’d have used dried basil. Today I had dried oregano, but sometimes I have fresh. See? Doesn’t matter. Be flexible. Tomatoes are the important part!

Oops, I forgot one thing! I always make sauce with a couple of bay leaves.

Oopsies. I forgot these guys!

The trick to making good sauce is taking the time to let it cook. It has to simmer, long and slow. All of the flavors have to blend and merge. It’s best to let it cool completely and rest for a while before you reheat and eat it. That’s why a lot of times I make a batch in the mid afternoon and simmer until night; we have for dinner the next day!

The preparation is quick (maybe 20 minutes or so), but the simmering is key. Once my Nana told me “Americans don’t understand why our sauce tastes so good. It’s because they don’t let it cook all day, like we Italians do!”

So it’s easy to do this. I swear. I promise. You can’t really go wrong with it, either.

You just mince up your garlic and onion and and sautee them in some olive oil until they’re soft. Want a quick tip? The easiest way to deal with garlic is not to peel the cloves until you’ve smooshed them. I put two cloves on my cutting board and put something flat on top (the side of a wide knife is good, but a small plate works, too). Then just push down with the heel of your hand until it smooshes. Now it’s easy to take the skin off and just mince it with a knife or put it into the pot smooshed.

Ya gotta love a good garlic smooshing.

In case you were wondering, “smoosh” is a culinary word that can be used to replace the finer terms like “mince”, “grate” or “pummel.”

I usually put my bay leaves (broken into couple of pieces) into the oil, too. It sort of releases the flavor. While those are getting soft, cut up your tomatoes.

Nope, you don’t need to peel them or seed them or anything else. Nonni says so.

That was easy!

Now comes the easiest part. Put the tomatoes and everything else into the pot. Stir. Cover and simmer on low.

Come back every half or so to stir again. While there, inhale deeply and pretend you’re in Tuscany. Or Napoli. Or the hills of Roccobascerana where my Dad’s family still lives.

After about two hours or so, taste a little bit by dunking a piece of bread in and taking a bite.

NOW LISTEN: You may NOT dunk in wheat bread, rye bread, raisin bread or a bagel. It MUST be white bread, and it SHOULD be a chunk of Italian bread or a good baguette. You take a bite, think for a minute, shrug, the add a little more red pepper, or salt or whatever.

Then you go away and relax for another hour until its time to do it again.

See why Nonni’s are a bit stout?

After two hours, it is time to add the secret ingredient to your magnificent creation.

Just a touch of sweetness…..

Simmer some more.

You can eat it that night, or eat it the next day. I like to make pretty big batches, each of which provides about 4 meals for Paul and I. Two if the grandkids are around.

See?

Easy peasy!!!!

Marinara is great on any type of pasta. We usually have it on ravioli or tortellini, with the cheese as our protein.

Get the recipe specifics on the recipe page!

So Who Wants To Make Soup?

Mmmmm, soothing, delicious soup.

Don’t you feel healthier just looking at this?

For reasons that are beyond my limited powers of comprehension, a lot of people think it’s hard to make soup.

I don’t get it.

When I was little, our family enjoyed home made soup every Monday night. My mom was at home with six kids while my Dad worked and went to college at night. In order to preserve at least a little of her sanity, Mom had a routine about what she cooked on each night. Tuesday would usually be a chicken or beef meal, like beef stew or roasted chicken. Wednesday was often pasta, Thursday was up for grabs, and Friday was fish. We’re Catholic, so of course Friday was fish.

On Saturday nights, my parents would go out for dinner with their friends, and we kids ate hot dogs and beans. Sunday was the biggest meal of the week, served in the mid-afternoon. While the rest of the week we had “supper”, on Sundays we all went to mass then came home and enjoyed “Sunday Dinner”. This meal could be anything from roast pork to lasagna to chicken cacciatore. Whatever it was, there was always a lot of it, and it was always delicious.

On Monday morning, one of Mom’s regular chores was cleaning out the fridge. All of the leftovers from the prior week would be laid out on the counter and then tossed into the soup pot. Some chicken, some pork, maybe a few leftover shrimp, some tomato sauce, a handful of carrots and a bit of rice. Boom. She’d add salt and pepper, water if needed, a few spices maybe. It simmered all day and we had it for dinner. It was our weekly surprise, and it was sometimes less than delicious, but it was always nutritious.

And it was always easy.

So.

Yesterday I was rummaging in my own fridge, and I found a butternut squash that had been put in there instead of in the cool basement cupboard. It had been pushed behind a loaf of bread, and it was looking less than its best. In fact, the skin was wrinkly and it felt a bit soft.

(Damn, why didn’t I take a picture of it?)

Anyway, I had to figure out what to do with this aging veggie.

It was a cold and rainy day. It smelled like fall.

So, obviously…..squash soup!!!

Anyway, I looked around a bit more, saw that I had a half an onion and two apples that were going soft. Perfect.

It took me ten minutes to cut and peel the veggies, and to add water, salt and pepper. I put it all in my soup pot and let it simmer for 2 hours. Ten more minutes to finish the preparation, and I had a delicious, savory and filling soup.

I made the biscuits, too, but you’re still a novice. You’re not ready for those yet!

Go to the recipes page to learn how to make this super easy meal.

You’re welcome.

Mealtime!!!!!

OK, campers! It’s dinner time and you are READY!!!

Yes you are.

Come out from behind that couch. You. Can. Do. This.

So it’s 4pm, and our tummies are growling. We’re going to make a delicious dinner.

Remember, all we really need is a protein, some veggies, and some of our staple items.

If we rummage around a bit, we can come up with everything we need to start. Look!

It’s definitely got potential.

I found a package of pork chops, two ears of fresh corn, and a bag of rice. Getting our protein, some veggie and a nice carbohydrate. And they’re all super easy to cook.

Our next step is to think about what flavors we’re in the mood for tonight. If you look back on our spices page, you can think about what appeals to you. If your tastebuds are in the mood for Mexican flavors, you can grab some spices from that “palate” and sprinkle them on the meat. Add a spritz of lime to your corn, and you’ve got a pretty good dinner. If Indian flavors appeal more, choose from that “palate” for your meat and make saffron rice.

I was in the mood for an Asian influence, so I pulled out my soy sauce, some candied ginger, sesame oil and a jar of hoisin sauce.

Now we’re talking.

I want you to look at the clock. 4:15pm.

First I mixed up the hoisin sauce, a splash of soy and a splash of sesame oil. I cut up one piece of the ginger and dropped in the pieces (yup, I used scissors, cuz it’s the easiest way).

Side Note: You’ll notice that I’m not giving you any amounts. That’s because it all depends on your tastebuds. I used about three tablespoons of hoisin. I might have used more, but that’s all there was. No problem. The “splash” of oil and soy means literally just pout a bit in the bowl. If you put more or less than I did, nobody will ever notice. The whole purpose of this blog is to get you feel comfortable cooking. If you LOVE candied ginger, put in more!

I put the chops in a baking dish and put them in my preheated 350 degree oven. Next I put 2 cups of water and 1 cup of rice in a saucepan, added a splash of sesame oil and some salt, stirred it. I put it on low and left it uncovered.

Then I went into the living room and read for 15 minutes. I’m reading “Akata Witch”. Great book!!!

When my rest time was up, I stirred the rice and saw that most of the water was gone. Good. I draped a clean cloth over the top of the pan to absorb any extra liquid, put the cover on the pot (over the cloth) and took it off the heat.

Next I turned over the chops and poured my sauce over them. Then back in the oven.

Another 10 minutes with my book, then I turned on a pan of water to cook the corn. When it came to a boil, I put in the ears, covered the pot and took it off the heat.

By the time I set the table, it was time to serve. The corn came out, the chops went on the table, the rice was still in its pot and ta-da!!!!

5pm and dinner is served. And the actual “work” time was less than ten minutes.

Yummo!

I’m not a very good photographer, but let me tell you that it was delicious. Put a little sauce on the rice, pour a nice drink for yourself, and dig in.

See?

It IS easy!

Keep Shopping, Honey

Well, look at you!!! You are in your cozy kitchen, surrounded by all those lovely, practical, nutritious staples.

You’re, like, one step away from a delicious dinner!

One. Step.

And I’m going to take that step with you. Ready? I want you to think about this:

PROTEIN.

Now that you have all the supplies for making a meal, you need think about the protein around which those staples will go. (wow, that was some tortured grammar).

A few friends of mine have told me that they don’t cook because meal planning is too hard. To that I reply, “Hahahahahahahaha!!!!!”

“Planning? What is this planning of which you speak?”

I usually start to think about what I’ll make for dinner around lunchtime. My daughter, who is an insanely good cook, most often waits until about 4 pam, then asks her five and three year olds, “What should we make for dinner?”

The secret of this worry free approach is to have a well stocked kitchen. Those who cook regularly don’t shop for each individual meal. We don’t necessarily shop with a week’s worth of meals in our heads.

Instead, we keep our kitchens well supplied with staples. We have protein sources stashed in our freezers, refrigerators and cabinets. We “plan” our meals by grabbing things we already have and cooking them.

So. Now you need to get yourself some proteins.

Meat eaters probably have the easiest time with this part of the shopping trip. It’s easy to simply stroll through the local market or farm store and grab some chicken, some beef or lamb or pork. You can go for what’s on sale that week, or what looks good to you in that moment. It doesn’t matter! I’ve been known to come home with a frozen duck, but no idea how to cook it. Impulse buying is not necessarily a bad thing for a cook!

If you aren’t a meat eater, you might need to think a bit more about your proteins, but you can use the same relaxed approach. If you tend to love Asian foods, you can buy some tofu and some shrimp. If you lean toward Mexican, get black beans and sharp cheese. Eggs are a good protein source, as are lentils and all other kinds of beans. Fish is a sure fire winner, and is super easy to cook. Even adding milk or yogurt to soups and stews provides a protein boost.

Because I have never followed a vegan diet, this site won’t be a good place for animal free cooking. Sorry! I am a true omnivore and not afraid to say it. But even if you are eating a vegan diet, the principles about cooking that we share here may be helpful. You still need staples and protein!

OK. C’mon. We’re going shopping.


Homemade veggie burger. The recipe is on my recipes page.
Italian style chicken thighs. Learn how to make them on the recipes page.

OK, Let’s Get Started!!!

So you say you’re ready to start cooking?

No, you’re not!! This kitchen is practically empty. I opened a cabinet and a moth came out. You can’t cook until you buy some food. What were you even thinking?

Grab your mask and your wallet. We’re going out for staples.


Back in the dawn of time when I got married, new couples were set up by friends and family at the “bridal shower”. This was a fun old tradition in which every woman the bride had ever met gathered to eat tiny tasteless sandwiches while watching the young lady open a thousand presents. But it was practical, too! Every guest was asked to bring a recipe and all the non-perishable ingredients to make it. It was brilliant.

Nowadays new cooks have to go out to the grocery store and actually buy the key items needed to feed themselves. But don’t be alarmed! It’s actually a pretty simple list for you. I mean, we plan to start our cooking adventures pretty slowly. This won’t take long.

So here are the items that you need to keep around in the house. You don’t have to know what you plan to do with them when you buy them, you just want to have them around in case you suddenly get an overwhelming desire to eat. You want to be ready when inspiration or cravings hit.

But before we start to actually put things in the cart, here are a few key ground rules for this step on your path to culinary greatness.

#1. Don’t think for more than 30 seconds about any purchase. Seriously. If you start making yourself think about macronutrients or cost per ounce, you’ll be so overwhelmed that you’ll end up buying a gallon of ice cream and heading home. Just get something. If you hate it, you just won’t buy it again.

#2. Don’t plan any meals or recipes yet. Just stock your kitchen. Pretend you’re an artist and you need to stock your art studio. You’re just buying the canvases and paints today. Tomorrow you’ll work on your masterpiece.

For your kitchen staples you will need:

  • Oil. It can be olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, peanut oil. Whatever you like. I keep all of these around the house, but you might want to start out with one or two and go from there.
  • Flour. All purpose is the best to start. Just a bag of white flour.
  • Salt and pepper. Sometimes the best meals have only these two for spices.
  • A sweetener. Sugar, honey, corn syrup. Whatevs.
  • A few small onions
  • A bulb of garlic
  • Eggs
  • A few cans of beans (any kind) and a couple of small cans of tomatoes
  • Some pasta. Grab whatever looks interesting!
  • Some rice. White, brown, basmati, jasmine, who cares? Just don’t get partially cooked (we’re better than that…..)
  • A few potatoes. Maybe a yam. They keep!
  • Vegetables and fruit. Get some. BUT: only buy what you like and know you will eat. I know that kale is a wonderful superfood. But personally, I’d rather eat dirt. So I don’t buy kale. I keep a week’s worth of fresh vegetables in my fridge, and I always have frozen veggies as well. What I buy changes with the seasons, because I don’t eat salad in the winter (not for any lofty reason; I just don’t like it when I’m cold!). I tend to buy what is in season. But there are NO RULES. Buy what you like.

And that’s it. You’re ready to roll.

Aren’t you so proud of yourself!?

Ruh, Roh

This is a mask. Underneath it, I am NOT happy.

Welp.

I always say that a good cook has to be willing to accept mistakes. When you’re cooking, you WILL make a lot of mistakes. You have to be able to laugh at them, make yourself a sandwich, and call it a day.

As your friendly neighborhood cooking expert, I am absolutely able to make peace with my kitchen mishaps. I set the turkey on fire in the oven? Hahaha, what great Thanksgiving memories we’re making! Oops, I mixed up the sugar and the salt? What a funny little pie!

I can laugh at my dinner mistakes.

I canNOT, however, laugh at my technological screw ups. Nope. Those result in tears, smashed laptops and a bewildered husband who wonders how in hell this ended up as his fault.

So I am here to tell you that when I started my delightful new blog, “Hell Yes You Can Cook”, I was very excited. I chose a theme and got it up and running. Then I realized that it wasn’t quite the look I wanted. A friend suggested that it was a little dull and needed some jazzing up. And I really wanted my tagline to show, because it reads “A cooking blog for people with thumbs”. That was the hilarious idea of my blogging friend Beth, at “I Didn’t Have My Glasses On.” She is a sweet, funny, thoughtful blogger who you need to read. Right after you finish this post.

Anyway, I wanted to change things around on Hell, Yes, so I went to “themes” and I tried to “customize”.

To keep this long, sad story short, I will tell you that NOTHING WORKED.

Please be patient.

I am a better cook than I am a blogger.

Right now, if you link to my new blog, you’ll find a bunch of stuff about healthy dinners (which I will never post) and a soulful picture of a guy in the woods (um, what?)

I will fix it.

I will.

After I finish throwing my laptop off the deck, sobbing into my martini and yelling at my husband.

All things come to those who wait.