Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Cooking lessons from my husband

Okay, so I know this blog has begun to be (like me) rather obsessed with food. I spend a lot of time cooking it, and probably even more time planning what I will cook. Then there's the time I spend looking up recipes and food blogs.

But there's a reason I spend so much time thinking about food. First, of course, I like food and I like cooking. But second, I have a ton of limitations to work around.

First, the budget. It's low. Every penny we can spare goes into my I'm-quitting-my-job-in-the-spring fund. This means I can't shop at Whole Foods, I have to shop at Aldi -- where the variety is sometimes quite underwhelming. I also have to make due with the kitchen implements I have, and not zip out and buy a ricer, a wand blender, or a food processor just because a recipe demands it.

Second, time. I am that busy creature, the working wife. I can safely say that I don't want to be that forever, at ALL. There isn't time for fancy things on weeknights, and considering that John often comes home ravenous, it really ought to be done when he walks in. However, it mustn't suffer by being held awhile, because he is sometimes held awhile himself, at work.

Third, John's tastes. He is not exactly a picky eater. That is to say, he will eat whatever I serve him, and generally not complain about it either. However, I'm not aiming for toleration when I have an audience of one for my art. I'm aiming for rave reviews.

To get the rave reviews -- which, in John language, come in the form of no leftovers -- I have to follow some very strict rules.

1. No "ethnic" food. He is okay with Italian and Hispanic food, if neither is too heartburn-inducing, but my usual tendency of doing Indian curry one night, Asian stir-fry the next, does not appeal.

2. Spices are kept to a minimum. Salt and pepper, garlic and onion, are pretty much the limit. An occasional use of adobo is okay. But my containers of dill, tabasco sauce, and curry aren't getting used much.

3. Soups are great, but they should be thick. Otherwise "it's like water with food floating in it." So, cream soups and stews are the best, but there are a lot of other interesting thickeners I've been using.

4. Meat shouldn't be hidden away in a casserole, but shining on center stage. I am not a huge fan of most meat, so that's counterintuitive to me.

5. There should be at least one side dish. This is more for economy than for anything else -- otherwise, he will eat a whole chicken and leave no leftovers.

When we first got married, these limitations seemed overwhelming. I mean, I was looking at a future of cooking chicken and ground beef, rice and potatoes, every single night, without the possibility of varying things by giving it a different "ethnic flavor" every night like I used to do. I thought the menu would look like this:

Day 1. Chicken with rice on the side.

Day 2. Ground beef with potatoes on the side.

Day 3. Chicken with potatoes on the side.

Day 4. Ground beef with rice on the side.

John would actually probably be fine with this. I wouldn't. I hate eating the same things all the time, and I really hate cooking the same things all the time. Cooking is an art to me -- having no room for creativity would take all the fun out of it.

Well, we've been married for close on six months, and I have to say I am getting the hang of it. Better yet, I'm coming to enjoy the things I've been making. It took my palate awhile to adjust to the milder flavors -- after all my strong ethnic cooking, shepherd's pie seemed pretty boring. But when you get used to it, all the subtler flavors of the ingredients come through instead of being masked by the seasonings. I think this is the appeal of English and Irish cuisine -- the ingredients, rather than the spices. If the ingredients aren't really fresh and cooked just right, the whole thing will be ruined, whereas with Italian food or Indian food, you can generally hide the faults of the ingredients.

So, a few of the delicious meals I've conjured up lately:

Meatloaf and meatballs -- made on the same recipe. I made two meatloaves and one set of meatballs, so one day's cooking lasted for three meals. I should do this again soon.

Chicken soup. My solution to the "thin soup" problem was to add a whole lot of rice to the soup. That way, it's almost like a damp chicken-and-rice mix or a stew, rather than a really brothy soup. The budget-friendly part of this is that I can use the chicken bones or carcass from our last time having chicken to make the stock. With real stock in it, I can get away with having very little actual chicken -- generally just the giblets and a bit of leftover chicken. The stock provides the vitamins and protein.

Beef stew. I've tried this a half-dozen different ways. The slow cooker helps a lot. The very best stew so far was the time I used Dr. Thursday's excellent Chianti in it. Normally I might call that a waste of Chianti, but this way I get to have some. I am awfully careful about consuming alcohol otherwise.

Fish. I got a bag of fish fillets for $4 at Aldi. I thought this was a big expenditure on my part, something to be a special treat. Turns out the bag lasted us for four or five meals. Some days I baked it with butter and lemon, but the day they really got the rave reviews was the day I breaded and panfried them. We both really loved them that way, and it didn't take a lot of time to make, either.

Salmon burgers. Unfortunately, I tried to eat the leftovers for breakfast right when the morning sickness was bad. So I can't make myself eat them again, even though they were good.

Split pea soup. Not my favorite, but John loved it. I thought that huge pot would last forever, and it lasted about 24 hours.

Lentil soup. Those legumes sure do go a long way for cheap! I made this one in chicken stock, with some veggies in it, and that was pretty much it. I put sour cream in my bowl, and can testify that sour cream definitely makes every soup better.

Potato-garlic soup. Another nice thick one. For lack of a blender, I use a potato masher for blended soups, and it works great.

Carrot soup. This was mostly just onions, carrots, and roux. I think I put potatoes in there too. John will never mind more potatoes, and they make the soup go much further. As it was a Friday night, I left the chicken stock out. I used the Chianti in this one as well, and it definitely added something!

Broccoli-cheddar soup. Oh so good! Again, potatoes make a huge budget difference, as well as helping the texture. I made this last night, and had the last of it for lunch. Yum!

Roast chicken. I buy chickens whole now, because they seem to be cheaper this way, and because it's a good way to cook once for several days. The last time, I cut off the wings and drumsticks to try fried chicken. (It was okay, but I still like KFC's better, and it was kind of a lot of work.) Then I roasted the rest. Today I'm going to pick the last of the meat off the carcass and make stock.

Shepherd's pie. Always a big hit with John, and you can use pretty much whatever vegetables you have.

Beans and rice. A little dull, but I add cheese and sour cream, plus lots of salsa on my helping, and it makes a nice cheap meatless protein.

So, turns out I'm not living on the same four meals over and over again after all! Varying the vegetables is a big part of it -- you can make different things depending on whether you have carrots or broccoli or whatever. Legumes are also a real help.

But the really big surprise is how much I'm enjoying this. Cooking under my limitations is like writing a sonnet: the strict limits are actually really freeing, because you aren't dealing with every conceivable possibility, but with the few you have open to you. Also, it keeps me creative. I can't just borrow my mother's recipes (though I've been using quite a few!) as I thought I would; I have to invent a lot of things from scratch.

I am learning so much about cooking from this husband of mine. He's teaching me that "highbrow" cooking isn't always the best -- sometimes, it's a cop-out. I read on food blogs about the fancy things other people did, and feel like they're almost cheating: of course you're going to wow the crowd if you have some new ingredient none of your guests have had. But when you're limited, it all depends on your own ingenuity. I'm also learning to enjoy simple, homely food, without a lot of fanfare or surprises. It's just simple good cooking which everyone can enjoy. And, of course, I'm learning a skill I will use all my life: the ability to cook nourishing food on a budget and a timeframe, food which everyone is likely to enjoy.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Babbling Like the Pagans

Oh, dear, something else at school to get me riled up. Generally speaking, I'm enjoying the way we're getting into the Advent spirit, although sometimes the 1950's-sentimental side of the school gets blended with the Catholic side in odd ways. (Sitting on the knee of St. Nicholas dressed as a bishop and telling him what you want for Christmas -- huh?)

But this one really bothered me. Right at the beginning of Advent, the principal appeared in our classroom with photocopies of a prayer. You've probably heard it:

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour vouchsafe, we beseech Thee, O my God, to hear my prayer and grant my desires, through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His blessed Mother. Amen.

It's not too terrible, though I do take issue with the rather emphatic insistence that Christ was born at midnight, and that it was cold. We have no idea what time of day He was born, and even the date is just a tradition. Considering all the changes the calendar has gone through since then, I would not be at all surprised if the date has shifted around a good deal. I don't think it matters what exact moment the Nativity happened, and I think it's important not to put undue emphasis on things like that when you're talking to kids. Little kids put a lot of significance on being told nothing other than the exact truth, and they will take every word you say literally unless you tell them otherwise.

But my real beef is not with the prayer at all. I was told to lead this prayer with the kids at the beginning of each period, and I do. What bugged me was what the principal said next:

"You say this prayer 15 times a day from today to Christmas, and on Christmas you'll get whatever you prayed for."

Say WHAT? That sounds an awful lot more like a chain letter than sound doctrine to me. What are these kids going to think when, after slavishly saying this prayer the appropriate number of times, they don't get a new bike or a new baby brother? Are they going to conclude, like adult Catholics do, that their prayer was not within the will of God, and try to submit themselves to His will? Or are they going to assume that this whole prayer thing that we've been teaching them about all this time doesn't really "work"?

Non-Catholics tend to like the Bible passage, "When you pray, do not babble like the pagans do." They link "babbling" to the Rosary, and any other repetitive prayer. However, the real issue is the second half of the verse, "who think they will be heard because of their many prayers." We pray the same prayers over and over again because they help us focus, because they use words from the Bible or from saints, or because we have trouble thinking of words of our own. We do NOT pray the same prayers over and over again because we think they have some kind of magical quality in them that will "make" God do what we ask him to.

That is the difference between the prayer of pagans and that of Christians. Pagans prayed to their gods in order to get certain things. The ceremonies had to be performed just so, or there would be hell to pay. (Take the Agamemnon, for instance, or read Livy.) If the right prayers were said and the request wasn't granted, it meant that the god wasn't strong enough, and you would have to go and find a new god who could deliver. I don't think there were many ancient Romans who loved Jupiter -- but they believed Jupiter was a powerful god who could deliver.

Christians pray to unite ourselves closer to God. We ask for things, but in the knowledge that "the Father knows what you need before you ask." We also know that God knows better than us what we need, and when our prayers aren't granted, it's because they weren't to our benefit or part of God's will. So we never demand what we want from God, or consider the granting of our prayers to be "God's end of the bargain" that He must hold up for us to keep holding up our end.

I'm just afraid that this pagan attitude is exactly what prayers like the one of the above encourage. The St. Jude prayer is the same -- you know, the one where you're supposed to make insane numbers of copies of the prayer and leave it around, and satisfaction is 100% guaranteed. For there to be a 100% guarantee on prayer granting, God would have to stop being God, and put us in charge of our destinies instead of Himself. When I think of all the things I have prayed desperately for, longing and longing to have my prayer granted, which I didn't get, I'm thankful. Looking back, in 90% of those cases I can see exactly why God let things go the way they did. He was causing all things to work together for my good -- thank goodness He didn't feel obliged to give me what I thought I needed!

I can't contradict the principal, but I'm trying to make sure the kids get the idea of what prayer is and isn't in our religion classes. They've got plenty of places, in within Catholic circles, that will be handing out wrong ideas right and left, and I try to innoculate them as well as I can with what I have -- which is a picture Bible and the Baltimore catechism. After all, many of a person's ideas on religion are formed at this age, even before they are old enough to make many decisions based on those ideas.
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