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"The Days of Anna Madrigal"
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11 February 2014
I am a good cook. I am a self-taught cook, which has made me kind of fearless. For some reason, my mother, who was, in her day, quite a good cook, never taught me to cook. I learned to cook by cooking for the guys who lived in the house where Walt was living. I was living in a dorm at UC Berkeley at the time and could have eaten there, but liked the experience of making dinners for (?8) for something like $5 a day. (I'm sure my numbers are off, but the budget was pretty small.) We ate a lot of breast of lamb (which now costs a fortune, but was 10 cents a pound then).
The thing about me is that I rarely make something "old" for guests. In the days when we did a lot of entertaining, I always cooked something new when I had invited someone over for dinner. I know people who will make a complete Thanksgiving dinner before Thanksgiving, just to find out if it will taste OK...and then make the same dinner again on Thanksgiving.
Not me. I've had some real disasters (don't ever try to cook underripe avocados!), but most of the time things come out well.
Through years of foreign students, and cooking classes, I became pretty good at cooking things from China, Brasil and Chile. I dabbled in Japanese cooking, made a few recipes that were typically British, and still think Nora's (from Ireland) peas were the best I'd ever tasted.
I read cookbooks the way some people read novels. When I finish a book I'm reading at Logos before the end of my shift, I will pick up an interesting cookbook and read that. Sometimes I get ideas.
In the old days I collected cookbooks and once had two floor to near ceiling bookcases filled with cookbooks, but I did a purge awhile ago and got rid of most of them. Now I have four shelves and a lot more cookbooks than most folks have but just a fraction of what I used to have. I get most of my recipes on line anyway and a lot of the books I keep for sentimental reasons (could I throw away the book that my old roommate and I shared in the 60s...our bible in those days? or Trifles from Tiny Tots?). Most of them have one recipe that I know I have made frequently (Lamb Soup of the Middle East, Walt's beer lamb chops, Burgundy beef balls, my favorite recipe for lemon meringue pie, etc, for example) so I keep the whole book.
Nowadays, with no kids in the house and our "entertaining" made difficult thanks to the three fur persons who live with us, I don't do all that fancy stuff any more. I pretty much have a stock of easy standard recipes and repeat them over and over again (like Joe Special, which is hamburger browned, with garlic, mixed with cooked spinach, scrambled eggs and Parmesan cheese, or macaroni and cheese, which I make from scratch, without a recipe).
I love that cooking shows are so plentiful...and accessible these days. By "accessible," I mean that in the days of Julia Child, who started the whole TV chef business, the things you learned to make seemed complex and something that was daunting. Now we still have chefs, but also home-cooks, like Rachel Ray, Ree Drummond (the Pioneer Woman) and country singer Trisha Yearwood, who make really good food that you might never think of making, but who make it the way the home cook would, with stuff that you probably have in your cupboard.
I watch cooking shows the way I used to read cookbooks, for entertainment and maybe a little inspiration. If I see a dish that looks good, I can go on line and find the recipe for it, and then adapt it to whatever I have in my cupboard or refrigerator.
On Saturday mornings, I often just turn on the Food Network and let it run all day. If I overhear them talking about a recipe that sounds interesting, or a technique that I have never used, I'll sit down and watch and then go to the Food Network web site and find the recipe.
I covet Ree Drummond's kitchen. Even if I could afford to keep my kitchen stocked as completely as she does, I dont have nearly the cupboard space to put it all. No matter what she goes to cook, she seems to have a great stock of the ingredients needed to make it (of course I know that some of it is "television" too! But it really is her kitchen in which they film...I remember it from the days when she was just a food blogger before the Food Network had ever heard of her.
She made a great herb butter to put on steaks the other day and I had to try it. Lemme tell you, I can make a great 7 course Chinese meal and make my own baklava, churn my own ice cream, and make my own pizza dough, but what I can't do to satisfy myself, is cook a steak. I dunno if it's my cooking or that I don't know how to shop for a good piece of beef. I've been cooking steak for 60 years and never like the way it turns out. But I made this butter, which is butter whipped together with parsley, garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon zest and lemon juice and then rolled into a ball and put in the fridge until firm. When the steaks are done, you slice off a chunk of the butter and put it on top of the cooked steak, letting it melt into the meat. Lemme tell you, I loved it. Definitely improved the meat (which I still wasn't thrilled with).
This weekend, I caught the Celebrity cookoff, with team Rachel Ray vs. team Guy Fieri. Not a show I'd ever seen before (and probably won't watch again), but this time they were making food to sell at the beach and Florence Henderson won the cometition with a hot dog she had "frosted" with dijon mustard, wrapped in a slice of pastrami. Then you grill it for 4 minutes on each side, put in a warm bun and top with her special cole slaw.
I decided to make that for dinner. Right away, I dropped the coleslaw because Walt doesnt like cole slaw. Then I decided to wrap the hot dogs in bacon, since we didn't have pastrami. I also had no dijon, so used Mendocino Mustard. And ecause I wasn't going to top the bun with cole slaw, I warmed a piece of Swiss cheese in it when I was warming the bun. The end result was tasty--nothing like what Florence Henderson made, but she had given the inspiration to experiment on my own.
That's pretty much what I do with just about every recipe I try. So far, I haven't received many complaints.
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"Good Morning!" from Ned
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