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The Unnatural Cook

a chronicle of weekly meal plans from someone who can't just throw a meal together

Tag Archives: Unnatural Cook

So I’ve rebelled against my own blog.

I got a few days behind on the posting and then one night I was cooking and enjoying myself (which came as a surprise to me) and suddenly the thought of stopping to take photos ruined the pleasure (the pleasure I was surprised to be feeling in the first place) of the moment. And it dawned on me – I no longer wanted to prove I could cook, I just wanted to cook.

I’ve never wanted to cook before. My about page says so. And now I do.

I thought I’d keep the blog going for a year – you know, symmetry and order and all those things that make me feel virtuous but which I never quite achieve. Instead I think I’ll keep enjoying cooking – and if I stop enjoying it, maybe I’ll take up the blog again!

In the meantime, thanks to everyone whose followed it, welcome to those of you who just found it – it’s still full of great recipes and tells of the slow and uncertain progress of an unnatural and uncomfortable cook toward a less unnatural and uncomfortable one. It’s an ongoing project which, for the time being, will return to the confines of my kitchen.

Happy (and I mean that non-ironically) cooking to all.

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The blog has really gotten away from me. I’m having trouble both finding time to write and figuring out what to write about.

It’s the middle and I hate the middle. One of my goals for grad school was to learn to get past the middle. I’m always excited at the beginning of a project. I can marshal fantastic energy to get something started. But then, when the dream of what I want to create runs into the reality of the faults with my creation, I have a horrible habit: I give up.

In order to prepare myself for my middle problem, I did something silly before grad school. I grew my hair out. It was about 2″ long and I wanted it to be almost to my elbows. When I was younger I had long, wild, curly hair. I thought maybe, for a woman starting over in middle age, it might be fun to recapture some of the spirit of my romantic youth. Growing my hair out required patience through long stretches of middle where I looked like – there is no other word for it – a soccer mom. Coming, as it did, in my mid-40’s it was painful. But I made it through, and now (with the help of some Clairol Natural Instincts #12) I have the hair of my youth.

But here’s what I’ve realized. Discipline is only 1/2 the battle. I have taught myself the discipline of sticking with a difficult project, of writing every day, of finishing a draft I’m struggling with. But creative discipline requires a flexibility to change the original idea to fit the reality of the outcome and I’m struggling with that in both my writing and the blog.

I’m afraid to stop posting every meal, every day, because I’m afraid if I give up on the original conception, I’ll lose the lesson of whatever it had to teach me. But I’m also afraid that if I’m unwilling to change the idea of the project I might be missing out in a different way.

I don’t know how to resolve the conflict. I also don’t know how to get this back to meatballs and spaghetti. Except to say that meatballs and spaghetti was one of the first meals that made me realize that I am more relaxed when I’m not using a recipe which was my first inkling that although I took pride in my Unnatural Cook status, it wasn’t necessarily serving me. I might, in fact, be happier as a Natural Cook. My suspicion is the thing that you don’t know you need to learn is more important than the thing you set out to learn. Which would mean that someday, I might have to be willing to be flexible and change my m.o. with the blog…..

 

 

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In an attempt to make up for a vegetable-less meals this week we had a four vegetable meal! We made zatar chicken kebabs (vegetables 1 & 2 – onion and red pepper) with cucumber salad (3) & garlic broccolini (4). The broccolini was an impulse purchase at the store. I’ve learned to follow those impulses lately instead of ignoring them. It’s the only way to move from Unnatural Cook to Natural Cook.It is bizarre to have to “learn” to “follow your instincts” its supposed to be, well, instinctual. But there it is.

I’m one to believe in the power of skill over talent so I’m willing to do what it takes. This time it took buying the broccolini first and then figuring out what to do with it. Which turned out to be blanch it for two minutes then saute it in a pile of minced garlic. My one mistake was not letting the garlic brown long enough before I put the broccolini in the pan. I didn’t realize how much water it would release, thereby turning my saute into a sort of unwanted steam. Blanched garlic doesn’t pack quite the kick that fried garlic does, but no one complained.

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All right, last night was a first. My 9 year old twins planned, cooked and cleaned up the entire meal!

Because they are on spring break they were forced to do the grocery shopping with me this week and when I asked if they had any ideas for the “surprise” meal, they volunteered to make it themselves. Here’s the menu they came up with: pasta with chicken apple sausage and garlic broccoli in red sauce & a salad with romaine, red peppers, sliced mushrooms & cherry tomatoes in a lemon vinaigrette.

Here’s what they have to say about making dinner:

Clem: “It was really fun, but it was hard to get the tomato paste out of the tomato can and Finn thought it was disgusting when he cleaned out the can.”

Finn: “I can’t believe you have to do that much work every night.”

The food was delicious and the Unnatural Cook is looking forward to many, many meals cooked (and dishes cleaned) by her very natural little cooks.

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My previous success went to my head; I tried making pesto without a recipe. The problem was not really making pesto without a recipe. I mean how wrong can you go with six ingredients: basil, walnuts, olive oil, garlic, salt & parmesan cheese? The problem was that I got cocky about it and didn’t really pay attention to what I was doing. I just rushed around throwing things in the cuisinart.

One of the things the blog has taught me about my kitchen foibles is that I’m a rusher. In a frenzy to be over with the cooking I don’t pay attention, and food, like small children, requires a lot of attention. And like small children, food wants you to pay attention with all your senses. But in my blithe desire to prove I could go recipe-free I forgot this cardinal rule and payed absolutely no attention whatsoever. Which was why I poured an entire ball jar of walnuts into the cuisinart and pressed pulse without really considering if I wanted to use all the walnuts. They were just there and I poured them. It took copious amounts of parmesan cheese, salt and oil to bring the pesto back, I can tell you.

I guess the difference between the Unnatural Cook who started the blog and the Slightly- More-Natural Cook I’m becoming is that I won’t go back to the recipe next time, I’ll just go slower.

And the salad idea was nice, fresh mozzarella, cherry tomatoes & olives. That was pretty Natural-Cooky of me.

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Making the Tortilla Soup tonight I followed the same technique I did last night: I read the recipe in advance to get the idea of the big picture and then only referred to it when I needed specific instructions. I noticed something interesting: the procedure for making the soup was very similar to the procedure for making the chicken indienne – brown the meat, sauté the vegetables, add the spices, add the liquid & seasonings, simmer. I’ve been cooking these dishes for years without ever noticing this.

I understand this is not an earth shattering observation. But it does confirm that the process of paying close attention while I cook in order to learn how to cook, is exactly the same thing that I’m doing at school by learning to “close read.” The close read theory is that by making simple observations of a text, a reader can learn to see how writers create prose. Close reading turns any book, essay, short story or poem into a teacher. The blog has become my “close read” of what’s in the pot. My kitchen is now a character in an ongoing dialogue about creativity.

I can already see, for example, how the discovery about the soup/indeinne will be helpful on the days I challenge myself to make up a recipe from ingredients I find at the store. With the technique in mind, I can experiment with vegetables, seasonings and flavorings and create my own dish. Thai coconut curry anyone? I can see it now: chicken, red peppers, green peppers, string beans, eggplant, cocoanut milk. Seasonings? I have no idea; I’ll have to look that up. But I do know how to make it: brown the chicken, sauté the vegetables, add the cocoanut milk, simmer. Nothing Unnatural about that, baby.

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Taxes trump blog. It’s the governments fault I’m behind on my posting.

Wednesday night was a bit of a watershed evening for a few reasons:

1) I successfully used a mandolin. I once took a one night cooking class in which the teacher tried to teach me to use a mandolin. “It’s so easy! I love my mandolin!” she exclaimed. It’s so dangerous, I’m going to slice my fingers off, I thought. I was unable to keep the thing steady or make the even slices the tool insists upon. The instructor had never met a student who couldn’t work a mandolin. But then we bought one of our own. And it has a nifty little notch that keeps it firm across the top of a bowl. Using a mandolin horizontally instead of vertically is all I needed. “It’s so easy! I love my mandolin!”

2) The dough rolled out in less than a minute. I don’t know if using whole wheat dough makes the process smoother but I didn’t even need a rolling pin; I was able to spread it with knuckles & fingertips alone.

3) About half way through preparing the meal I realized I’d made it up. I wasn’t following a recipe. I just had the idea that whole wheat pizza with potatoes, rosemary, goat cheese & spinach would be good. That, my friends is the way a natural cook thinks. Who knew?

4) I took the pizza out of the oven when I smelled the crust burning. I know, you think this is very obvious. But I am the type of cook who used to think, “It says 20 minutes, it’s only been 10, it can’t be burning.” I would ignore the smell, even to some extent the smoke, until it was unsalvageable. This time I checked it, saw the one on the bottom was cooking too fast, took it out & finished cooking the pizzas on the top rack, one at a time. When I said at the outset this cooking thing did not come naturally to me, I was really, really not kidding.

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Two new recipes: Lemon Chicken & Sauteed Jerusalem Artichokes.

Both represent a bit of changing of the ways caused by the blog. The chicken because I made an effort to plan based on what was leftover – some unused chicken legs in the freezer. The Jerusalem Artichokes because I saw them in the store last week and wrote it down on my meal plan thinking I could try to find a recipe for them for the following week. Sort of a baby step toward being inspired by ingredients while I’m shopping.

Both recipes are keepers. I did burn the chicken at the last minute by putting it in the broiler to crisp the skin and then forgetting about it. It wasn’t ruined, just slightly to the wrong side of charred.

The Jerusalem Artichokes were another Jamie Oliver recipe. I like the way he writes his recipes: the directions are clear enough so that the food turns out, but free enough so that you feel like you’re really cooking, not following instructions. I realize that contradicts everything I thought I wanted in the kitchen when I started the blog. But now that the blog has forced me to see that cooking is easier when you understand what you’re doing instead of when you’re following rules – I’m also free to see that certain recipes can actually teach you to become a more confident cook.

In other words, the Unnatural Cook is discovering she has an interest in becoming a Natural Cook after all….

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So it’s official, I’m going to try to change my ways. A tiny bit. I’ve been undermined by my own blog.

When I started the blog I was sure that the easiest way to get the cooking done was not to think about it. I thought I had mastered a brilliant strategy for how to serve dinner every night even though I didn’t like to cook. Meal planning and following recipes were my battle tactics. Then, in the act of writing about it I discovered that, in fact, my way was not the easiest way – even for me. I learned that on the nights I didn’t need to follow a recipe, I was more relaxed.

At first this was a source of great concern because I am not comfortable with change. (Is anyone?) But in the end it seemed ridiculous to avoid being more relaxed. There’s just no justification for that. So  I am going to see if I can nudge myself to learn more about cooking without recipes. Here’s the plan (because there always has to be a plan, I haven’t changed that much….)

I’m going to leave one night a week open on the meal plan. When I do the shopping, I’m going to allow myself to be inspired by some ingredient in the store and create a meal around it (Which I will then put on the plan. Again, I haven’t changed that much). It’s sort of like my daughter’s challenge for me to make dinner from what was in the house, only, I’ll have a much better “pantry” to choose from. The crazy thing is, this actually sounds fun to me.

I realized while I was shopping today that my plan keeps me from paying attention to anything other than finding what’s on the list. It’s really a silly sort of way to go through life. As an homage to my former self I am going to post in the sidebar my Meal Plan 101. I’ve had it written for ages but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to adding it. It will be a record, of how the unnatural cook got her start. I’m not going to stop meal planning, but maybe, over time, I can adapt it so that I’ll grow as cook. One day, far in the future, I may even attain natural cook status.

Tonight we had leftover tomato soup with garlic broccoli and french bread. I finally doctored the soup to my satisfaction! I did it poorly a couple of weeks ago – too tangy, no flavor – so I tried to correct that with what I had around. I added sugar, fresh basil, marjoram, hot pepper and extra cream. Being willing to do it wrong and keep trying is the secret to all success in life, why I thought cooking was different I have no idea.

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You will never see a roast chicken on these pages. There is something about roast chicken that, well, grosses me out. I know it is a staple in most households because it’s easy and healthy, but not in mine. So I thought I should have my own chicken staple: kebabs. They could be broiled in bad weather & grilled in good. They are healthy and fast.

I chose a Mark Bittman recipe off the internet from How to Cook Everything. I find him a little fussy (he has too much time and interest for the kitchen, I have not enough of either) but the technique seemed good. First of all, he used boneless thighs which I thought was brilliant – won’t dry out, more flavor. The recipe called for sumac, a lemony middle eastern spice. My grocery store didn’t have sumac but they had something called Zaa’tar: a mixture of sumac, salt, thyme & sesame. The first three of those ingredients were in the Bittman recipe so I though it would be a perfect way to simplify the process. The one weird thing the recipe did was call for two onions : one to marinate with (then discard) and another to cook with. Why use two onions? Fussy. I followed the recipe (because that’s who I am) but I won’t next time. One onion for both jobs.

I served the kebabs with a second new recipe, wild mushroom rice pilaf from Real Simple. Ridiculous good.

The kebabs are (as my mother-in-law would say) “a keeper.” I have found my chicken staple and I’m already dreaming of an Indian version – broil the kebabs and find a way to make an easy tikka masala sauce. I think it’s a good sign, a basic technique that inspires me. This is the new me talking, the one who may be ready to allow some natural cook behaviors to replace her unnatural ways….

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My daughter doesn’t accept the idea that I am an unnatural cook. She keeps trying to prove me wrong. When she is a teenager this desire to prove me wrong will be very annoying, but right now it is incredibly sweet. She refuses to allow me to speak ill of my talents and she thinks “unnatural” is an insult. Yesterday, she gave me a challenge: make dinner from what was in the house. At first I refused. No way. It made me incredibly nervous. Then she gave my husband a challenge – he should make a meal plan! He balked too! I realized how much I’d love it if he did make a meal plan and so I reconsidered the challenge. Why not?

Turns out that making dinner from what’s in the house is a great way to clear out the fridge. Duh. I know lots of people do this I’m just not those people. I made pasta with pink sauce. It should have been pinker than it was but one of the creams wandering around in the fridge turned out to be rock solid. I used bacon, leftover shallot, parsley and 1/2 a red onion, sun dried tomatoes (which must have been at least a year old), garlic, chicken stock, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. It tasted good and was on the table fast.

So I have a confession: I think it might be more relaxing to cook without a recipe. Now what am I supposed to do? I didn’t start this thing so I could change my habits. I started it to…well, I don’t know why the hell I started it. I certainly did not mean give up my recipe following ways. But what did I expect? The blog is a way to make the daily habit of cooking into a creative endeavor. A decent artist allows herself to be changed by the process of art making, doesn’t she? Otherwise, what’s the point?

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Tonight’s photographs are very deceptive. The meal looks so beautiful but things went wrong. That pork loin sizzling in the pan is meant to be roasting in the oven, but it wouldn’t cook! After doubling the cooking time given in the recipe I gave up, sliced it in half and seared it. (This is when it’s good to be an unnatural cook married to a natural cook who can come home and tell you what to do.) The recipe for Balsamic Glazed Pork with Lentils comes from Real Simple Magazine and I’ve made it successfully in the past; so theoretically, there shouldn’t have been a problem. I think my tenderloin was too fat. To complement my undercooked meat I served overcooked lentils (really not something I recommend). I remember liking this lentil salad with lemon, celery, apples and fresh parsley but I’m sort of the only one in the family who does. The pork was a hit though, and John suggested that next time I serve it with a white bean salad. Anybody got a recipe for one of those?

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Week 2! It is very difficult for me to control the impulse to philosophize – it is, after all, my one week anniversary as the Unnatural Cook. Does that give me the right to look back and draw grand conclusions? If I were to indulge the impulse I’d say this: It’s hard to stay on top of all the cooking and cleaning that is necessary to keep a family running. I think what makes the blog such an exciting prospect is that it turns something that must be done, into an art form. After just one week of photographing and writing about my meal plan I am noticing the colors of the meals. When I look back over Week 1 there’s a lot of white. Where’s the green? We had salad and spinach and string beans but they’re not the featured items. Will taking these photos inspire me to make more vegetables? To think more about the colors on the plate? These are things real cooks think about, I know this. Will the blog turn me from an unnatural cook into a natural one? We’ll see….

Tonight’s dinner was Chicken Indienne. A great chicken curry recipe from my mother-in-law, Suzy Roach. It’s another meal from the freezer because on meal plan/shopping day I never want to cook. We always serve Indienne with a basmati rice pilaf recipe from Cooks Illustrated, one of the magazines we used to subscribe to before we had children and we had time for such things as cooking magazines. Maybe we will again when they go to college? Will there still be printed magazines? I hope so. Usually I make roasted cauliflower too but we just had cauliflower last week so I opted for frozen peas to get an easy vegetable in there. It wasn’t the best match, but it was green.

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