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Some small advice for people who get bored of cooking

As someone who lives alone and enjoys making food for myself almost every day, I thought I might talk about how that works

A few months ago, someone on twitter was asking – as someone new to trying to cook regularly, how do people enjoy that whole process. It seems very frustrating and stressful. What if you aren’t good yet and it’s terrible and then you’ve put all this energy in and are still hungry?

And that is stressful! And the advice I’m giving here is not aimed toward poverty and subsistence living. There is a lot of reassurance in knowing that if you end up making something absolutely inedible (yes, I’ve done it, too) that you can order last minute delivery or make a meal out of other food in your pantry.

After the covid lockdown, when I started going back to working in person, everything took more effort and energy. One of the habits I picked up then, which I’ve recommended to several people since, was ordering 4 or 5 soups (wanton, hot & sour, egg drop – the ones that are extremely cheap ($2-4/pint) from Chinese restaurants) on delivery at the start of the work week. And then when I came home too tired and hungry to plan dinner, I would have a soup and that would give me space to figure the rest out.

But there are also other ways to make the daily dinner making engine go.

Grocery shopping – Grocery shopping is stressful and has become more expensive and there are so many people. You can do delivery. But this tip isn’t about how you shop, but what you shop for. Because it’s stressful, it’s easy to fall into a pattern where you buy the exact same things every time and you have the exact same resources every week. I fully believe in keeping regular stocks of breads and grains and beans and sauces and the components that let you build a variety of meals. But for produce (and meat?) I recommend letting some things run out and letting some things be seasonal and trying one thing new. And let the change in produce drive variety and experimentation.

Freezer shopping – I have a chest freezer (again, these are not subsistence living tips). That’s why I put a question mark by the meats – Since lockdown, I mostly get meat delivered, and that makes it harder to build in experimentation. But I also make and freeze stocks, soup, shredded braised meat, and I have a collection of frozen items I inherited from my parents’ freezer when my mother died: vegetable soup, terrible chili, tomato puree, and marinara sauces. And I almost always have a meat pulled out to thaw (and have a bowl the meat will fit in just in case it leaks as it thaws). When I first use a meat: if it’s a pound of ground beef, I’ll use a quarter of it in that day’s dish and then either right away make hamburger patties of the other 3 quarters to freeze again or keep working through the pound, one quarter at a time; if it’s a steak, I’ll often cut it in half or thirds and slice the part I won’t use that day to freeze in bags for the future. So the cycle of having a meat thawed and available narrows down and targets the creativity from the vegetable choices.

And then I’ll also pull out one of those miscellaneous items: stock or soup or a thing from my mother’s freezer once every week or two. So that can also be either an easy dinner or a randomly generated challenge to do something different than usual. But it’s all supports that are planned ahead to make the process of choosing what to make more interesting.

Gifts for your future self: You can build in supports while you are already cooking and have the energy. If I make rice, I make double the amount, so in the next few days I can also have a rice dish, but I only have to wash the pot once. If I’ve got plenty of the base of whatever I’m cooking, I might pull out half a cup or so and just stick it in a container in the refrigerator. I won’t necessarily have a plan for it, but it will be a fun addition to a future dinner or a tasty side dish – maybe the sweet potato curry will get added to meat to make a hash as dinner, or maybe it will be a taco filling, or an omelet, or I’ll shred a quarter of a cabbage and add some canned tomatoes and have a whole additional meal with 2 fairly stable ingredients and spices. And you can make these gifts outside of your meal prep – if the mushrooms are going to go bad and you don’t feel like eating them tonight, but you have the energy to just cook them – then they will last longer and you have a gift for future you.

Leveling up – cascading meal prep: Here’s how I deal with making larger quantities of food – because sometime large cuts of meat or 5 pounds of potatoes are on sale, and I am still but one person. So first you cook the big quantity of food – and you look for something that will be fairly versatile and keep it mostly one thing. Roast the meat or braise/stew it. Then you eat a portion for your meal. Instead of freezing the leftovers whole, portion them into future meal sizes. If it’s a roast, maybe freeze some as slices, some as big chunks for soups or curries, and some diced for hash or other quick cooking meal. If it’s stew or braised and shredded, then freeze it in both pint and half pint containers. And then when you turn those leftovers into a meal, don’t forget to pull out some of that deliciousness to pop back in the refrigerator as a gift for future you!

[I’ve mentioned hash twice – for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a dish where any variety of meat and potatoes is cut into the same size dice and then they are cooked together (maybe with minimal vegetables) to make a hot filling, not super visually attractive, meal. (Example)]

So anyway – those are some tips. Have fun, good luck, and don’t despair.

Dusting this thing off

Whew! It’s been a few years. I migrated servers and had pointers pointing in the wrong directions.

In the meantime, I spent sometime putting posts on just dreamwidth. Some time on instagram.

Oh, yeah, I’ve been experimenting with taking pictures. They aren’t great art, but they look like food and are usually in focus. They aren’t going to improve because I’m still going to be taking them in my kitchen at 2am with artificial lighting that makes everything a little yellower and a kitchen table full of stuff. But it’s fun anyway.

So I’m hoping to start moving my posting here regularly. Wish me luck!

Stuffed Shells

One of the more pedestrian comfort foods. I was making this for a friend, and realized that even though this is not a dish I make frequently (maybe once every 8 years or so), I have strong opinions about it.

My strong opinion: Why so little flavor?

So let’s start with the filling.

Let’s start with the eggs in the filling. I never notice them, they don’t seem to provide much structural support, and they make your cooking/reheating slightly more complex than just – assemble and heat until hot enough you’d be happy serving it. So I don’t use them. Your mileage may vary.

But you should totally have other things in there. Other green (but not watery) things! For a pint of ricotta, there should be at least 2 scallions – sliced thinly all the way up including the green parts (but not any dried tips, let’s be real). There should be a huge amount of parsley (a fluffy pile of minced leaves that looks to be about the same volume as half your amount of ricotta). You have a mix of dried italian herbs? Throw a bunch of that in the filling. You have fresh basil? Mince and throw in maybe as much as a fluffy pile of 1/4 the volume of your container (I don’t know – it depends how flavorful your plant is – go by what smells good to you). Mix that together. Taste. Add salt. Maybe add pepper. Mix again.

Some people add spinach or chard to the recipe. Either have a delicate hand with the fresh leaves, OR cook the leaves first, press very dry, cut up finely, fluff with your hands, and stir in thoroughly making sure you don’t have clumps.

So now you have your filling.

Let’s fix the pasta – take any old box of dried pasta shells. Boil the water, pick out just the intact shells to throw in (a few more than you’ll actually need because a couple usually tear while cooking), and cook for the package directions. Most dried pasta has a range of times depending on how firm you want it, but jumbo shells boxes usually just have the time for ‘pretty darn firm’ because they know you aren’t eating them straight away – people only make them for stuffed shells. And then once they are cooked and drained, rinse them in cold water (so they stay firm – and in this case getting the surface starch off will benefit you by having them less likely to stick together and tear)

Now you get your casserole and your sauce. I just use jarred sauce. You can have your own sauce opinions.

Spoon a little bit of the sauce into the empty casserole dish and spread around.

Grab a shell, stuff it with the ricotta (you get to balance your ricotta/shell ratio based on your preferences and relative amounts of materials), and lay them out in a single layer on the pan. Again, you get to choose how orderly your layout might be.

Once you have all the shells in the casserole dish that you want to have (this works best if you have chosen a dish sized to have the shells fit fairly firmly together inside, but still all in a single layer). And pour more sauce over it. Because I am not a fan of crunchy pasta (I know people who are, so not judging), I make sure to spread the sauce to get all of the pasta surfaces at least a bit wet and red even if they aren’t buried fully in the pasta sauce.

If you have it on hand and are feeling the gooey cheese, sprinkle mozzarella on top.

(If you have a casserole dish with a lid, you can totally freeze this right now)

Bake at any temperature (250F-375F) until the dish is as hot as is aesthetically pleasing to you. I go until the cheese on top is bubbling and maybe browning in a couple spots. (If frozen, make sure it’s warm throughout before caring about the condition of the topping – that might mean thawing ahead or not using the highest heat you possibly can)

Serve and eat. Enjoy!

Ova Elixa – Eggs dressed with fish sauce

This is another Roman recipe. I made it for Noisemakers IX.

So a lot of SCA events just have a bowl of hard boiled eggs in the shell – pretty much for people to fill up on when they aren’t adventurous for weirder dishes. So I found a recipe that would make hard boiled eggs one of the adventurous dishes.

These were served cut into quarters and already drizzled with the sauce, and a side pitcher so you could add more sauce, if desired.

Ova Elixa: liquamine, oleo, mero vel ex liquamine, pipere, lasere – Apicius VII, xix.2

Boiled eggs with a sauce containing fish sauce, olive oil, red wine, black pepper, asafoetida

So for the fish sauce, I ended up being convinced by my favorite cheese mongers to try BLiS barrel aged fish sauce. And I chose this dish to use it on because I thought the woodiness and the eggs would go well together.

We strewed the plate with baby arugula so the eggs wouldn’t shift in transport from the kitchen to the buffet.
The pitchers with the sauce were made by Brunissende.

And this was at the very start of the buffet so that it would be like the sources in a Roman dinner party – from eggs to nuts – but I forgot to put out the nuts in the end.

Laterculi: Poppy Seed Pop Tarts

Okay, so this is not an accurate redaction. Or, well, it’s about (slightly less) as likely to be accurate as anything else.

There’s a play by Plautus (Poenulus 325-6) there’s a reference to laterculi with the only description being that they are composed of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, (wheat) flour, and nuts.

Okay, so the name is also descriptive. It’s the word for bricks or tiles.

Some people take this description and match it with gastris, a food from Crete described by Athenaeus as walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and poppy seeds, with fruit, honey, pepper and white sesame seeds. That will lead you to redactions both simple and amazing.

Now that last gastris redaction – which looks to me like a seedy fruitcake – would be perfect to make in an 8″ x 8″ x 2″ shape that was not unlike a common Roman brick shape.

On the other hand, Athanaeus’ gastris recipe has fruit and no flour. But Plautus was very clear that flour was involved in this project. Flour would be easy to add to the gastris because the nuts are working in a similar way. But it’s also leeway to go in a completely different direction.

One could make candies out of the honey and seeds with just a bit of flour.

Or! And here’s what came to my mind as being kinda fun – you could make pop tarts and call them tiles.

Okay, so pop tarts. First place to go is Smitten Kitchen‘s homemade pop tart recipe.

Next the filling. I liked how La Spelonca separated the poppy seeds and the sesame seeds. It both made them look more dramatic and kept the flavors clear and less like bagel toppings. So tentative working plan is to have two different flavors of pop tarts: Poppy Seeds and either almonds or walnuts or both; and Sesame Seeds and either hazelnuts or pistachios or both.

Okay, so poppy seed filling is a thing. But my first google search yielded only recipes that called for milk… but the Romans mostly ate their dairy in the form of cheese. It just didn’t feel right.

So I kept looking and loved this one that described the method and thought process beautifully and clearly – cook poppy seeds with a minimal amount of water, grind, cook again with honey and sugar.

Okay, so first I have to find the poppy seeds. So off I go to Amazon. And the first review right off the start informs me that real bakers look for unwashed poppy seeds for a richer, nuttier flavor and a better texture. Well, okay. So off I go looking at the unwashed poppy seeds and their reviews. And then things started to get weird. There was some division, but also some overlap, between the bakers and the people making poppy seed tea. And some of the people making the poppy seed tea seemed more interested in the color of their tea than the flavor, but others loved the flavor. Erm… And then I got to the ones talking about how ‘effective’ their tea and/or baked goods were. And there was the one who assured people that the reviewer really could tell that these poppy seeds were unwashed because there was plant material included as well. Ummm… I object! Because if I’m baking and there’s plant material, don’t I then need to wash the poppy seeds? But it wasn’t all double entendre and drug references, because there were still people staunchly championing the unwashed seeds while listing their preferred baked good and their baking credentials. But then I got to the one that was all, “I just made the best batch of muffins ever. Now I’m off to take a nap.” And I just. Now I have no idea whether kolaches is actually a baked good or just a wink and nod drug reference in the land of amazon reviews. So I still haven’t what to buy for making a large quantity, but I picked up half a pound of what are definitely washed seeds at a spice shop in the Italian Market.

So poppy seeds and water in a small saucepan. Check. Going well. The poppy seeds take on moisture, darken, and swell.

Grind the poppy seeds… doesn’t go so well. I put some in my mortal and grind it with the pestle… and it goes okay, but every time any utensil touches the poppy seeds there’s mess left behind. And so after a few desultry grinding attempts I figure I might as well see if I might like the consistency of it not ground all that much. So I put it all back in the saucepan and add the honey. And then add more honey because honey was more common that sugar back in the day. And then panic! Because the honey just liquifies and everything becomes sloshy. And cooking it more doesn’t make it any drier. And what if I really needed sugar to get a good paste because of how honey is like an invert sugar? Eh, whatever – let’s refrigerate what I have and see how it moves tomorrow. Plus I’m going to add nuts to it.

And the paste is fascinating! I used a fork to move it and it’s sort of a non-Newtonian liquid. Woo!

Okay, so crust. Filling. Assembly!

I got a friend with skills and a marble rolling pin to help with the first set of rolling out (I’m hoping I can use my pasta roller when I’m on my own). I rough guessed a size that’s smaller than pop tarts. My goal is to find a size that stretches my supplies while still being large enough to not get grabbed by the handful. One or two should be an intuitively obvious portion size. These ended up about 4″ x 3″ (and I think I could go a smidge smaller and have them about the size of poker cards).

I did one batch with just an egg white wash for sealing and one with a beaten egg. I think I’ll go with the beaten egg for future versions (because simpler to brush and more efficient use of stuff).

About 2 teaspoons of filling lumped in the center. And then I spread it out with my fingers because everything else seemed to just get coated in seeds more than helping to move them where I wanted. I left 1 cm margin. I can try getting a narrower margin, but too narrow might lead to disaster. And then I crimped the edges sealed with a fork and poked holes in the top.

I started the oven at 350F. And then after 10 minutes with no obvious cooking I popped it up to 425F. Total cooking time was 25 minutes, and that was a little too much (very brown, some corners just starting to burn, still entirely edible and hella tasty). Then I looked at the recipe, which was 350F for 30 minutes. So I just panicked too early.

When they were cooking, there was enough butter in the dough to lead to puddles of bubbling fat that were almost frying the pop tarts. So not okay for a toaster! But it was kind of sexy on a lined sheet pan.

When you bite in, the first taste is browned butter. And the second bite is also butter with a bit of pastry. When you get to the filling, it’s amazing. The nuts and poppy seeds are a lovely texture among the crispy pastry flakes and I’m not going to worry about grinding the poppy seeds at all for the future. And the honey is a great balance to the butter. It’s sweet, but not too sweet. They’re going to make the best breakfast.

So plans for the future:

* reduce butter per 2 cups of flour from 1 cup to 3/4 cup (12 tablespoons)

* try rolling out with pasta roller

* Cut to 3.5″ x 2.5″

* Poppy seed & almond is great. Also try sesame seed & hazelnut.

* Make 75 of each flavor; 150 total. Freeze before baking.