Wannabe kitchenista

9 12 2011

Let me begin this post by stating that I am not a cook. I can count on both hands and both feet the number of times I have actually cooked (not an exaggeration). It is one of those endeavors that I wish I had the patience and skill to do. My mother was a wonderful cook. Both of my sisters seem to enjoy the task as well and are good at it. I have cooked so little that I can actually remember almost every attempt in the kitchen. Yes, I have had some successes. I make a crazy-good basil pesto (and lots of it) every year. (Last year’s posting on making pesto, along with the recipe I use, is here.) My cooking repertoire now includes a wonderful pesto chicken dish and my go-to grilled chicken dish with mustard and tarragon (courtesy of Martha Stewart). I can add my friend Barbara’s Baked Cranberry Orange Sauce to that tiny list of culinary accomplishments. It shouldn’t surprise you that my idea of a great (solo) dinner is a well-made sandwich—wheat bread, light on the mayo, turkey and cheddar cheese, with potato chips shoved in for texture—although a bowl of Cap’n Crunch is a close second. If it weren’t for Michael’s kitchen skills and cooking patience (aside from that one incident where he inadvertently poisoned me one Thanksgiving with a partially cooked ham), I would still be eating 10 for a $1 chicken-flavored ramen noodles and burned biscuits. (Did I mention how much I love 90-second rice in a pouch and Bird’s Eye Steamers?) Below are my top five memorable moments in the heart of the home.

1) Steak & Au Gratin Potato Dinner
Picture this: I am a college student, still living at home. My mother, sister Debbie, and her husband Bill are visiting relatives in Georgia. Kelley and I are left to fend for ourselves. My dad is working the 4-midnight shift as a Customs Inspector at the port of Brownsville, Texas. I decide that dad needs a good home cooked meal and I’m just the chef to do it!

I decide he needs a manly dinner—steak and potatoes. I’m assuming we already had these ingredients in the pantry because shopping in a grocery store was a foreign concept to me (and it kinda still is). As a rookie in the kitchen, I do not know how long it takes to cook a steak. Al Gore hadn’t yet invented the internet, so I didn’t have a recipe site to double check. I can’t ask my mom or sister because they’re out of the state. I can’t call dad to ask him because that would spoil the surprise. Dad doesn’t get home until 1:00 a.m. I start cooking at 9:00 p.m. Yes, you read that right. Four hours before he will arrive home from work.

I start the steak at 9:00 p.m. and continue to warm it up, over and over and over (and over) until he comes home. Can’t have steak without potatoes, right? I raid the pantry and discover an au gratin potato mix. It calls for x amount of butter and I decide (as if I possess years of culinary know-how to deviate from a tried-and-true recipe) that x amount of butter doesn’t look to be nearly enough. I add double that (or maybe it was triple?). It officially becomes the worst au gratin potato dish the world has ever seen. To this day (honestly), I cannot look at nor eat au gratin potatoes. They were that bad. Paula Dean might have eaten them, though—the gal does love her butter.

I hear my father’s car in the driveway and run to greet him. “Dad, Dad, Dad! I made you dinner.” He looks at me suspiciously since he has only seen me in the kitchen when I’m passing through it. He sits down to the seven-times-warmed-up steak (think shoe leather) and the butter-overdosed au gratin potato side dish. After the first bite, he gingerly asks, “umm…when exactly did you start cooking the steak?” I’m sure after I went to bed, he probably ditched it and headed for the Raisin Bran.

2) Some Kind of Pie
After perusing some magazine of my mother’s, I decided I was going to make a pie. I don’t remember what kind of pie it was, but I do remember my attraction to it—it was garnished with beautiful fall leaves hand cut from pastry dough. I spent an interminable amount of time cutting out the leaves and fluting the edges of the pie crust top and bottom. I was exercising my creative muscles, but it was exhausting. Then I read how long it took to bake—45 minutes. 45 minutes? Are you kidding me? I don’t have the attention span to wait that long. I remember running to my mother and begging her to watch it for me. What a saint she was…come to think of it, I don’t remember cleaning up the mess I made, either. I do remember that it was quite a lovely pie visually. And isn’t that all that matters, really? A for effort!

3) Rice Krispy Treats
When the recipe for rice krispy treats calls for butter, use it. Do not try to use I-can’t-believe-its-not-butter because it is not butter. Trust me on this. If you do, your treats will be swimming in a sludge of yellow liquid when you take them out of the oven. No one will eat them. Your boyfriend will laugh at you. You will never make rice krispy treats again.

4) Roasted Vegetable Soup
A few years ago, I decided that I would surprise Michael by cooking dinner (it always surprises him when I cook, so it’s a predictable reaction). It was winter, so what would be a better dish than a hearty bowl of soup? I proceeded to pick out the most complicated recipe in one of the many cookbooks I collect. (Don’t you judge me; I’ll get around to them some day.) Roasted Vegetable Soup. This complex recipe (I’ll bet it was one of Martha’s) required a trip to the grocery store, where I discovered that red and yellow peppers are not cheap. I loaded up on red, green and yellow peppers, yellow squash and green zucchini, onions and tomatoes. I roasted all the vegetables and then made the soup. It took forever. Remember, I’m now in Virginia, so I couldn’t beg my mom to finish it for me this time. Michael came home and was drawn in by the wonderful scent wafting from the kitchen. He settled down to a heaping, hearty bowl of soup and proclaimed it a winner, gushing and complimenting me on the dish. Devoid of expression, I announce that he will never have this dish again. Ever. So he better enjoy the leftovers.

5) The Ole Meat-and-Cheese-on-a-Toothpick-in-a-Grapefruit Appetizer
Some of you are old enough (go ahead, admit it) to remember the 70s and the meat-and-cheese-cube-on-a-toothpick-stuck-in-a-grapefruit appetizer. I realize this doesn’t entail any cooking, but I clearly remember making this kitschy appetizer. I remembered one time my younger sister and I asked if we could have a party. At the time, she was in junior high and I was in high school. We got permission and one of the appetizers we made was the skewered grapefruit sculpture. The property we lived on had a grove of grapefruit, orange and tangelo trees, so obtaining the base for this delectable was as easy as stepping out the back patio and plucking one! Tiny half inch cheese cubes stacked with ham slices (or was it dad’s bologna we raided?), then skewered on a toothpick and stuck into a large grapefruit—how retro! (As I’m reliving this memory, I’m half tempted to host a “back to the 70s” appetizer potluck just to see what my guests bring.)

AN ADMITTED BIBLIOHOLIC
In my career as a graphic designer, I have designed the covers and interiors of more than 50 books, both hard and softcover, on a wide variety of topics. I am also an admitted and unashamed biblioholic. I love books. I love well-designed and well-written books. Coffee table books, fiction, non-fiction, reference, graphic design, photography, art, craft, gardening, travel, poetry. All have their own sections in my library. On more than one occasion I have bought a book simply because of its beautiful design and compelling photography (one such book is a photo essay about octogenerians).

So despite my clumsiness in the kitchen, I adore a beautifully designed cookbook. And for some reason, cookbooks always end up on the extreme bargain tables, therefore I have amassed quite a collection of them. I love the more contemporary look of food photographs today and love perusing blogs by cooks who are both great in the kitchen and at photographing their dishes. I think it’s partly due to the styling and texture in the photographs that I am drawn to food photography as of late. I love the idea of being a great cook—they make it seem so effortless and so rewarding. It is a creative endeavor that also melds all of the senses.

POTS AND PANS AND GADGETS GALORE
I love the gadgets, pots and pans and the multitude of serves-only-one-purpose items that cooks covet. I drool over the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Last year, my friends Gina, Karen and Rob gave me a beautiful white KitchenAid mixer for my birthday because I had once said to Gina, “if I had one of those, I know I would be baking. I just know it.” I’m happy to report that it has been used several times. The first time it was used, Gina and I baked (way too many) Christmas cookies for her friend who is serving in Afghanistan. I recently used it to make pumpkin bread (yes, it was edible). For my birthday this year, Michael bought me a mini-pie maker. It has since produced four chicken and pesto pot pies, as well as cherry and apple pies. We’ll make a (mini) baker out of me yet.

IF-IT-DOESN’T-HAVE-FREEZER-BURN-THROW-IT-IN-SOUP
On Monday night, I decided to clean out the freezer and anything that didn’t have freezer burn (boy, were there a lot of bags that fit in that category!), went into my no-recipe-soup, which I like to call “If it doesn’t have freezer burn, throw it in soup.” Via telephone, my sister Debbie was my sous chef, advising me to throw in rice, a can of diced tomatoes and various spices. It was quite tasty and Michael consumed two bowls of it when he got home from work.

I am a Restaurant Impossible junkie (even if I think the two-day, $10,000 budget, and Chef Irvine’s overly dramatic demeanor is a bit much at times). I love watching Chopped, Cupcake Wars, Giada at Home and The Next Food Network Star. Watching those shows makes me want to learn how to really cook. I would love to immediately know what to do when I’m handed a basket containing boxed mac & cheese, gummi bears, canned cream of mushroom soup and string cheese.

But most of all, as a lover and maker of images, I love looking at simple, contemporary photographs of food. So, when I helped my friend Barbara decorate her Thanksgiving table this year, I offered to bring some backgrounds and set up shots of some side dishes that she had prepared in advance. Check out her Holiday Pumpkin Cookies recipe here. Her husband, Bill, is in charge of making the annual ever-changing pecan pie. This year’s concoction is Pecan-Bourbon Pie with a Touch of White Chocolate. Since this dessert is created sans recipe, he can’t really share his formula with you, but you can read all about it here.

FYI, for those of you who don’t already know it, Barbara’s father, Johnny Garneau, invented the salad bar “sneeze guard.” Yes, it’s true, and you can read all about it on Barbara’s blog here.

I always approach my photography with a graphic designer’s eye. I believe that is evident in my photographs—whether I’m photographing people, flowers, landscapes or something edible. Composition remains my main priority, no matter the subject. If you can hone just that one skill in photography, the rest—lighting and post-production—will follow. I don’t know where learning food photography could possibly take me, but it’s a lot of fun when I have a chance to do it. Who knows? It just might inspire me to spend a bit more time in the kitchen, camera nearby. Michael might just get that roasted vegetable soup one more time.

Photos © Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.





“With Basil then I will begin, Whose scent is wondrous pleasing”

3 10 2010

Re-post from 10.13.2008

…from Michael Drayton’s 1612 topographical poem, “Polyolbion,” describing England and Wales. Drayton was an Elizabethan poet and one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Yesterday Karen and Gina and I made far more pesto than we really needed. My basil harvest was fairly skimpy this year (enough for about 4 cups total). Gina’s harvest was about the same. Enter Karen—that’s her in the first photo, arriving with a bountiful harvest of both Genovese and Purple Basil that she and I planted in late spring in her memorial garden honoring her mother.

In the second photo, you’ll see all the ingredients necessary for a “Pesto Preparation Party.” Ample basil, olive oil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, a food processor, salt and pepper, and plastic containers for freezing. The soda and brownie bites are simply fuel for the cooks (but every bit as essential).

Gina and I have made pesto from our homegrown basil for the past two gardening seasons. This year Karen joined us (thankfully—otherwise, our final product would have been far more skimpy!). Having never made pesto, Karen was an eager and willing assistant. We told her our basic recipe, but after watching us “tweak” the recipe batch after batch, no doubt she is now confused on exactly how much of each ingredient we really used. Gina, as usual, served as the quality control inspector, sampling each batch on a bit of bread, then announcing, “needs more garlic,” “tastes too green and/or basil-y,” “add more salt,” and “cheese, must have more cheese!” Each batch was a little different from the previous one, so we ultimately just combined all the batches into one. Please don’t ask me for our final recipe. We have no idea what it is. We just make it from a basic recipe similar to the one here, (or see recipe below) then tweak to perfection as we go along.

Basil Pesto Recipe

Ingredients:
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup pine nuts (or walnuts)
3 medium sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Combine the basil in with the pine nuts, pulse a few times in a food processor. If you are using walnuts instead and they are not already chopped, pulse them a few times first before adding the basil. Add the garlic then pulse a few more times.

2. Slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream while the food processor is on. Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a spatula. Add grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Makes 1 cup. Serve with pasta, over baked potatoes, or spread over toasted baguettes.

We ended up with SIXTEEN containers of pesto. When Gina and I prepare pesto with our meager harvest, we max out at about seven containers. Muchas gracias to Karen and her contribution this year!

SIDEBAR: Every year Gina and I make pesto in preparation for the much-anticipated annual Pesto Fest that Michael and I host in our neighborhood. This year’s event was slated for Sept. 27, but had to be cancelled due to the constant rain we had that week, including the day of the event. We thought rescheduling for one of the next two weekends would put us into too-cool-to-have-it-outdoors scenario, but that was not the case. The past two weekends have been glorious. Sigh….take a look at last year’s festivities here. There’s always next year!

P.S. Gina and I made “Sage Pesto” the first year and strongly advise that you avoid it at all costs. Ewww.

Click here for the “How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother” recipe.

Click here for a slew of pesto-based recipes.

Click here for more recipes, folklore, and growing tips.

Click here to learn more about growing, harvesting, and cooking with basil.

And finally, click here to read about basil in literature and art at the site for The Herb Society of America.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.





“With Basil then I will begin, Whose scent is wondrous pleasing”

13 10 2008

…from Michael Drayton’s 1612 topographical poem, “Polyolbion,” describing England and Wales. Drayton was an Elizabethan poet and one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

Yesterday Karen and Gina and I made far more pesto than we really needed. My basil harvest was fairly skimpy this year (enough for about 4 cups total). Gina’s harvest was about the same. Enter Karen—that’s her in the first photo, arriving with a bountiful harvest of both Genovese and Purple Basil that she and I planted in late spring in her memorial garden honoring her mother.

In the second photo, you’ll see all the ingredients necessary for a “Pesto Preparation Party.” Ample basil, olive oil, pine nuts, cheese, garlic, a food processor, salt and pepper, and plastic containers for freezing. The soda and brownie bites are simply fuel for the cooks (but every bit as essential).

Gina and I have made pesto from our homegrown basil for the past two gardening seasons. This year Karen joined us (thankfully—otherwise, our final product would have been far more skimpy!). Having never made pesto, Karen was an eager and willing assistant. We told her our basic recipe, but after watching us “tweak” the recipe batch after batch, no doubt she is now confused on exactly how much of each ingredient we really used. Gina, as usual, served as the quality control inspector, sampling each batch on a bit of bread, then announcing, “needs more garlic,” “tastes too green and/or basil-y,” “add more salt,” and “cheese, must have more cheese!” Each batch was a little different from the previous one, so we ultimately just combined all the batches into one. Please don’t ask me for our final recipe. We have no idea what it is. We just make it from a basic recipe similar to the one here, then tweak to perfection as we go along.

We ended up with SIXTEEN containers of pesto. When Gina and I prepare pesto with our meager harvest, we max out at about seven containers. Muchas gracias to Karen and her contribution this year!

SIDEBAR: Every year Gina and I make pesto in preparation for the much-anticipated annual Pesto Fest that Michael and I host in our neighborhood. This year’s event was slated for Sept. 27, but had to be cancelled due to the constant rain we had that week, including the day of the event. We thought rescheduling for one of the next two weekends would put us into too-cool-to-have-it-outdoors scenario, but that was not the case. The past two weekends have been glorious. Sigh….take a look at last year’s festivities here. There’s always next year!

P.S. Gina and I made “Sage Pesto” the first year and strongly advise that you avoid it at all costs. Ewww.

Click here for the “How to Make Pesto like an Italian Grandmother” recipe.

Click here for a slew of pesto-based recipes.

Click here for more recipes, folklore, and growing tips.

Click here to learn more about growing, harvesting, and cooking with basil.

And finally, click here to read about basil in literature and art at the site for The Herb Society of America.

© Cindy Dyer. All rights reserved.