Friday, June 22, 2012

From takeout to truffle oil

Lately, I have been feeling that my cooking efforts have become a little bit crazy.  In some ways, I am extremely proud of the fact that I cook.  When we moved to Maryland from the San Francisco bay area, I had no clue how dinner was supposed to happen.  In California, meal planning looked like this: 

“Thai?  Sushi?  Indian?  The kebab place?”
“We’ve been getting takeout a lot.  Maybe we should cook tonight.”
“OK, frozen pizza or omelets?”

And, scene.

We moved to Maryland, where takeout was less abundant, less delicious, farther away, and cost an arm and a leg, and I was taken completely by surprise by the reality that we had to cook.  Like, cook food.  Every single day.  How was that supposed to happen?  It was a complete mystery.

Pre-kids, every few months, hubs and I would take a cursory look at our expenses, and have the “Wow, we really spend too much on takeout” conversation.  We would make lists of meals that we knew how to cook, and promise each other that we would cook twice a week.  Just twice a week!  Every few months we had that talk, because that twice a week vow generally lasted approximately… yeah, about a week.

We were both working full time then, so I cut myself a lot of slack. But when the kids arrived and I became a stay-at-home mom, I transformed magically into Susie Homemaker. 


If anything, it was worse.  The convenience store at the gas station around the corner sold us an awful lot of fried chicken.  The pizza guy accurately predicted our order in a bored tone when he heard my husband’s voice over the phone.  Thank goodness for breastfeeding twins is all I can say, or I would have gained 50 pounds in that first year.

But our income had been cut substantially, and those pesky child-people are expensive, so (horrific lack of nutrition aside) takeout really wasn't a viable option in the long term.  Once the kids hit a year old, things started to change.  They went from two naps to one, and that one nap was 2-3 hours long.  I had time to cook if I could do it in advance.  I would chop and prep things for fast meals like stir fry.  I got a casserole cookbook, and did turn a little bit into the scary version of Susie Homemaker for a while there.  See, here’s the awesome thing about casseroles.  You can make three of them, cook one and freeze two so that some other night when you’re feeling lazy, you have an instant meal.  We got a big freezer in the garage that I still count among one of the best investment purchases I have ever made.  I also used my crock pot A LOT.  Put stuff in as soon as the kids go down to nap, and by 5:30, you have dinner.

But casseroles and crock pot food… I mean, it’s OK.  I still make a few recipes from that time, especially in the winter when stews and braises taste so good.  But remember the girl who liked Indian and Thai and actual food?  Yeah, I missed that stuff.  I really, really missed delicious food, and we couldn’t afford to go out and have that very often.  So I started getting fancy.

Shaved asparagus flatbread.  Beef Wellington with mushrooms and gorgonzola.  I started exploring making my own Indian food, buying stuff like garam masala and green cardamom pods, and making naan from scratch.  I read food blogs and the food magazines I get from my mother-in-law.  And then came Pinterest, a treasure trove of food inspiration.  I resumed my fabulous dinner parties with my foodie friend Cheryl, for which the two of us would cook like fiends and then present a feast to friends and family lucky enough to get a “golden ticket.” I reverse engineered the crème brulee with ganache I had had at an upscale restaurant (and mine is better, just for the record).  I discovered the magic of things like vanilla beans and truffle oil.  

I started thinking like a cook, not wanting to waste food.  I froze veggie ends and chicken bones to make my own broth.  I used leftover chicken to make chicken pot pie with pie crust made from scratch.  Prompted by my son, I bought the most fabulous apron.

Me in my fabulous apron, with my silicone
rolling pin, even though I use the non-stick
one more often.  But the red looked cuter.

Now I meal plan every week, like a real live grown up.  I write down what we’ll have each week and shop accordingly.  But if awesome ingredients like fresh shiitake mushrooms are on sale, I can mix it up on the fly.  I buy meat on sale, freeze it, and work it into the plan for the upcoming weeks.  I am kicking ass at this cooking every night thing.  Kicking total ass.

So back to the initial sentence of this blog.  Why do I think this is crazy? 

Well, here’s why.  The other day I made a chicken pot pie because I had some leftover chicken that I had pulled into pieces and put in the freezer for later use.  Because I am a frugal non-food-wasting MACHINE!  Sometimes I do a fun curry-spiced chicken pot pie with cauliflower, but it was rainy and icky out, so I went with comfort food classic.  Carrots.  Peas.  Corn.  Crust from scratch.  Thick delicious sauce made with the frozen broth I made from scratch the week before.  Fresh organic herbs from my garden, which I braved the rain in my PJs to cut. 

And then I realized.  I simmered chicken bones and veggie ends all day long, strained the resulting broth, poured it into one-cup servings and froze it that way.  I used a food processor and a rolling pin to make crust, starting hours before dinner so the butter in the crust would have time to get cold again in the fridge, which is what makes the flaky goodness.  I generated a sink full of dishes and spent a lot of time cooking, and you know what this is going to taste like?  It’s going to taste like pot pie.  Not for nothing, but Marie Callender makes a pretty darn good frozen chicken pot pie.  Mine is healthier, and yes, mine does taste better.  But… better enough?  I mean, come on.  A rolling pin?  Broth from scratch?  For chicken pot pie?  It’s all starting to feel a little ridiculous.  At what point would I have been better served using that time for something else and just throwing a frozen pot pie in the oven?

I think this same thing every time I make my foodie version of tuna noodle casserole, for which I make my own mushroom soup with an assortment of wild mushrooms.  As I dirty dish after dish just on the soup phase, I start thinking, “Is Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup really that bad?”  (But then when I eat this casserole, I remember why I go to the trouble.  It makes my mouth so very, very happy.)

I come by my food snobbery honestly.  My mom didn’t believe in cakes from a box.  Only from scratch.  Usually with egg whites folded gently into something at some point.  In fact, she wouldn't even EAT cake from a box.  I grew up having what I now think of as real brownies.  Box brownies still taste weird to me.  I do sometimes make cakes from a box, and I’ll make box brownies for the kids (or for my husband, who prefers them over my amazing from-scratch brownies, because he is a weirdo), but it always feels a bit like cheating and not like actual food.  So whether it’s nature or nurture, I got the food thing from my mom.  But at some point, I think I may have crossed over into Bree Van De Kamp crazy land.

Crazy land, exhibit A: That day of the chicken pot pie, I had used a rolling pin and pastry board the last two days in a row. (For the pot pie crust and for Indian vegetarian samosas from scratch the day before.)  Who does that?  Most of my friends don’t even own a rolling pin and pastry board.  This was the girl who couldn’t manage to cook twice a week a few years ago.  I’m proud of the transition that I’ve made, but I’m starting to think I have gone too far. 

Maybe twice a week, hubs and I should commit to eating takeout or a frozen pizza, or at the very least having breakfast for dinner.  OK, that’s it, I’m writing pancakes and bacon on the meal plan list for next week.  And spaghetti.  Ordinary spaghetti with Prego sauce from a jar, because my kids requested it. 

I won’t even doctor the Prego with fresh basil from my garden.

OK… yes, I probably will. Shut up.


  1. LOVE this post, partly because I see myself in it. There were a few weeks where I was slightly bored and at loose ends. "What's wrong with me? Why am I slightly dissatisfied with life? Is this my mid-life crisis?" Finally, I realized that I had too much free time (who knew there was such a thing?!) because my kitchen was under construction. I didn't know what to do with myself when I couldn't spend an hour or two in the kitchen several nights a week.

    1. Hmmm... if I think of my excessive cooking as a relaxing activity rather than a means to getting food on the table, I don't seem nearly as crazy. Thanks for that! I do find cooking relaxing, but only if someone (or something, like Mario games on the Wii) keeps my kids out of the kitchen. I like to cook with them too, because I think it's good for them to learn to help and because they love it, but then it's definitely not what I would call relaxing.

  2. Currently my own food snobbery manifests as chopping everything instead of using my (two) food processor(s). It seems more pure that way. How silly is that?

    1. Pretty silly. ;) I love my (three) food processor(s). We are freaks. But we're freaks together. Love you!!! Cook with you soon!