Dinner24 Nov 2005 03:09 pm

Victor being subsumed into frantic kitchen activity, today’s guest blogger reveals the dark side of Victor’s kitchen. Yep. We aspire to eat beautiful food, delicately prepared from the freshest, farmer’s market ingredients.

However, in real life, I get home from work and we discover that we’ve yet again failed to get the shopping done, and can’t face another cheese sanwich. Sometimes we’re out of cheese. Too often we bail and eat out, but I have a few techniques for getting dinner on the table with bare cupboards and no time to cook.

Stone Soup Principle

Boil a pot of water.

You don’t actually have to use the water. Boiling water is so easy that you can’t persuade yourself it’s too hard. Boiling water gets you into the kitchen, banging pots and pans around. If you’re really cunning, you can keep a clean pot on the stove so you can’t even complain that it’s too much work to dig out a pot.

Once you’re in the kitchen, ‘stone soup’ kicks in and dinner tends to happen.

“Well, the water’s about to boil – let’s make noodles and dump some jarred sauce on them.”
“Ok, but I don’t like red sauce, I’ll just put some butter and pepper on mine.”
“You can’t just eat noodles with just butter… let me start a roux while we’re waiting and you can put in some milk and cheese”
“...Oh… I forgot we had the salami in the fridge… here’s some salami and olives to decorate your pasta”
“...that looks good…I’ll have some too…”

_Leonard of Quirm Principle_

Leonard of Quirm is a brilliant fellow in a series of novels by Terry Pratchett. Leonard’s wild flights of imagination never quite make it to the names of his devices. The net effect is like those very literal translations on Vietnamese menus. “Beef tendon with fungus” is very tasty, but the name … lacks a certain something.

This technique requires a partner in cooking, preferably one who doesn’t mind being manipulated.

“You’re tired. You shouldn’t have to cook. It’s my turn to get dinner on the table.”
“What will you make?”
“Mmmm… rice and ... thing!”
“What kind of thing?”
“I’ll cook!”

Note that “Je ne sais quoi on rice” gets you landed with dinner cookery. There is an art to the unappetising name.

SECRET TECHNIQUE NUMBER THREE (for when number two fails)
_ Making dinner anyway __

If your bluff is called, stagger off to inspect your kitchen cupboards. There may still be a few tins of this and that lying around. One of my favourite standbys from pantry ingredients is pumpkin ‘curry’ over rice.

Start rice.

(Aromatic rice like Jasmine or Basmati are best, long grain rice rinsed to reduce stickiness gives some more texture to the meal.)

Chop an onion (or even use frozen, pre-chopped onions)

Fancy people can drop a dab of butter into a saute pan or skillet and start to cook the onions for a minute or two,

Then add to that skillet –

1 tin pumpkin (not pie filling please) chopped onion a blob of tamarind powder/paste (or some sumac and a bit of brown sugar, or a few cranberries from the freezer or …) splash of vinegar (cider or white would be the first choice) your favourite garam massala (or whatever is cluttering your spice cabinet)

Cook, stirring periodically until the onions soften/go translucent

Optional – add green beans, spinach or other handy veg bits.

Serve when rice is done. If I have them handy, toasted nuts are nice sprinkled over the top.


Beenz – tinned beans with some lime, onion, cilantro, vinegar, and some sage or fresh cumin or a bunch of black pepper, served with rice. If you’re too tired to make rice, you can use bread, or crackers, or …

Chicken Out Chili – tinned beans with tomato, mole base from a jar, onions, barley (or quinoa or steel cut oats) and maybe a few finely chopped hot peppers.

Sneaky Soup – bring chicken broth (real, boxed or tinned) to a simmer, cook some orzo in it, adding a pinch of bonito flakes (or a tiny glug of fish sauce) and sumac, served with lime.

Stir fried green beans with ginger, soy and garlic. (Better with real green beans, but even frozen ones are pretty edible. Spinach, chard or rocket also go nicely. Stir fried stuff in general is quick to cook, but you need to either be a fast chopper or keep a bunch of pre-chopped veg or meat in the fridge.)

Potatoes (baked with salad dressing, or broth, or butter, or just salt. Takes half an hour or an hour, but it takes less than five minutes to wash them, stab them and throw them in the oven, then you can go take a nap or play video games while they cook. Wrap them in foil before piercing if you like the skins more tender. Then you can add a little Parmalat and spend a couple of minutes with a fork or pastry cutter for mashed potatoes. Add garlic, or do artistically plated servings with a couple sticks of 2-minutes in the microwave broccoli for ears. Or run the taties through a slicer and stick them in a shallow dish. Crumbs with a little butter or cheese make a nice crust on top… )

Odds and Ends Sandwich (grated cheese rinds, salad dressing, three different kinds of leftovers… I know someone who will happily eat ketchup sandwiches – though I think they’d need pickles to be really nice… if your bread is stale, toast it or fry it in butter or cheap olive oil)

Next episode – “Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel”

Uncategorized& Social Commentary30 Sep 2005 12:04 am

Yeah, what’s up with the name, anyway? The simple answer is that I’m living in Boston, Massachusetts; and I’m from California, specifically San Francisco.

There are more complex levels of answer. For starters, Boston is a sort of shorthand for a lot of things. Any local reading these posts will tell you that I’m actually living in Cambridge, which is very much the Berkeley, California of Massachusetts. California is a shorthand for San Francisco and the Bay Area. Going forward: I didn’t think of myself as being from California until I’d lived in Cambridge for several years. I was raised in the Midwest, and went to college in Oregon. And I find that the longer I live here, the more I find myself seeking the Californian aspects of wherever I am; or, perhaps, I identify things I like about Cambridge, or Boston, or New England, as Californian.

Wringing more meaning yet out of a simple name—I spend a certain amount of time trying to explain California to New Englanders. I spend as much time showing those same people how New England looks to somebody from California. Or, of course, griping about what’s wrong with wherever I am.

Finally, I hope that I can bring a little bit of what I love about California to New England, and vice versa. Mostly, that will have to happen via cooking and writing about food and books. We’ll have to see what sneaks in along the way.

Dinner29 Sep 2005 10:55 pm

Ok, I got lazy and we went to the Border Cafe again. In my defense: the Border is the only place in Harvard Square that seems to use lime juice to make margaritas, instead of that chalky stuff. But really, it’s a bad sign that they recognize us when we walk in. Like when I lived in San Bruno, and the people at the McDonalds franchise would ask worried questions if they didn’t see me at the drive-in window for a day. Nice, but in a way that tells you that you spend too much time there.

Dinner28 Sep 2005 10:03 pm

Tonight’s dinner is the easy option: sandwiches at Sarah’s Market & Café.
With Diet Coke and Dr. Pepper. Nothing to see here… but I’m going to have to learn to make my own French fries.

Dinner28 Sep 2005 09:59 pm

Well, apologies to all of you out there who were dying to know – dinner last night was sandwiches, tomato and cucumber with lots of spicy coriander chutney.
The bread: a flute from Hi-Rise bakery, split in half lengthwise. Good recipe—next time, I’ll know not to mindlessly double the quantity of hot pepper, though.

About the flute: this baguette compares favorably to every single baguette sold on the Rue Montorgueil in Paris—and yes, I did try at least 2 of every baguette from each bakery last December, plus a bunch from other neighborhoods. We work hard so you don’t have to.

For those of you who buy bread in Paris’s 2ieme regularly, your best choices in that neighborhood are the Chez Paul chain outlet, or the Rotodor-affiliated baguette tradition from the place at the head of the Rue.

Food & Cooking& Dinner26 Sep 2005 08:24 pm

Tonight was pasta with corn and tomato confit. Creamed 4 ears of corn, and cooked in the microwave for about 5 minutes with a glug of heavy cream. Added about a half-cup cut-up tomato confit pieces, then another 5 min. of microwave. Dresses one-half pound of pasta.

Food & Cooking26 Sep 2005 08:23 pm

I know – I’ve been on some kind of jam kick. Nonetheless, it’s rare enough to see a quince for sale, so I bought 2 of them. I’d read recipes which made them sound like the coconuts of the apple family, and it sounded like a challenge. The recipe I used was roughly that of Helen Witty’s excellent book Fancy Pantry . Pictures later, but for now: it was no big deal to cut the quinces, core them, and peel them. Honestly, supermarket pears are pretty much the same level of tough. I don’t know if my quinces are the rare culmination of some USDA consumer-friendly quince breeding program or something, but I couldn’t see what the fuss is about. Also, it’s a little spooky how you cut up this yellow & green fruit to reveal its white, apple-like insides, and then after boiling the suckers in sugar syrup for almost an hour, the whole pan full of stuff turns deep red. Pretty, but very odd.

Food & Cooking25 Sep 2005 09:03 pm

Here’s a project. I got 14 pounds of tomatoes from the Sunday farmers’ market (second or utility grade, at 80 cents per pound). I cut those in half and arranged them face up on half-sheet pans. Sprinkle with some salt, then some sugar. Garnish with thyme (oregano, whatever). Put on a sliver of garlic per tomato. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Pour a whole cup of (cheap) olive oil over each pan of tomatoes. And cook for a very long time (4-6 hours)in a very slow (200-250F) oven. The resulting semi-dried tomatoes and tomato-flavored oil can be used to pump up any cooked-tomato dish, and can be refrigerated or frozen long after the fresh tomatoes are gone for the season. Should yield about 2 quarts of tomato-plus-oil per half-sheet pan; allow about 6 pounds of tomatoes per half-sheet pan.

Dinner25 Sep 2005 07:58 pm

Contrary to my own expectations, I did get dinner on the table: an okra gumbo with kielbasa sausage, and rice. Note to self—okra that’s too big gets woody and should not be used. Also, sherry vinegar helps the flavor a lot.

Lunch was more elaborate than usual; I whipped up fresh cream of tomato soup similar to this recipe from Gastronomie: Cream of Tomato Soup.
The soup, which I garnished with a bit of ground chipotle pepper, was OK but not spectacular. Not something I’ll be repeating often.

Food & Cooking25 Sep 2005 11:49 am

Matthew has given me a reminder of a culinary event I attended last week – the Massachusetts state fair.

Well, technically, this is the Eastern States Exposition, and serves as the state fair for all of New England. It’s held in Western Massachusetts, a place as close to neutral and accessible as is found here. It’s big—we went on a weekday morning, and there was traffic backed up for a mile through a rotary. On a typical weekend day (the Big E, as it’s known, runs for 17 days), they apparently get 100,000 visitors. I can’t imagine.

So, the main event of a state, or even a county, fair is of course food, especially deep fried food. We lunched our way through the fair, and had a surprising quantity of extremely good fried food. In the non-fried category, I plumped for fresh raspberries from the Massachusetts coalition of farmers’ markets (very good indeed), my first lobster roll, from the Maine pavilion (not enough mayonnaise to moisten the sandwich, and the bread was vaguely stale and floppy), and a rather good slice of pizza from American Flatbreads, cooked in the stone oven they’ve built inside the Vermont pavilion.

In fried food, the deep fried cheese curds and the deep fried oreos particularly stood out. Yep, deep-fried oreos. Like a beignet with a creamy chocolate filling—the shortening that makes the cookies crisp melts at deep-frying temperatures, as does the filling, so the whole comes out like a tiny chocolate-filled doughnut. The cheese curds, from the first stage of cheddar making, were like mozzerella sticks, but nice instead of nasty. The batter wasn’t that crumb coating, but rather a baking-powder batter that you might use for fish. Everything was fried to order, which makes a huge difference.

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