Cranking through cookbooks again

Long-time readers will know that #1 gets the bulk of her excitement in life from food.  While some people enjoy eating the same (excellent) ~14 meals on rotation, I am too much of a food dilettante.  On top of that, we live in a relatively small town, so even going out can’t bring excitement to my life because we’ve already had everything our town has to offer until places go out of business and get replaced with the new crop of restaurants.  (And our latest and best beloved CSA went out of business a few months ago, so no being forced to try new veggie things.)

Which means that cook-books are a lifeline.  Yes, the internet is great, but the internet takes effort if you want to find something *new* and *different*.  It’s easy to use the internet to say, find the “best chocolate cake recipe” but not so easy to find something that you don’t yet know exists.

Some cookbooks are really amazing.  Here’s a list from 4 years ago of cookbooks we have loved.  I love taking a cookbook that is ~100% winning recipes and just trying them all, even if some of them sound a little weird (example:  egg and onion soup from Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen! turned out to be quick, simple, and delicious, much to our surprise).

Recently I’ve been on kind of a new American/comfort food kick.  (Part of this is because DC1 has started being a pickier eater for no good reason and DC2 has responded by being unable to handle even the smallest bit of spiciness.  American tends to suit both palates so long as we skip cheese and tomatoes.)   I just retired the Better Homes and Gardens 10 years of best recipes book I’d been digging through after realizing we had marked every recipe we’d tried from that book in the number of years we’ve owned it with “ok, nothing special” except for their cake recipes and a single chocolate chip cookie recipe (the other cookie recipes we tried all say, “meh” or “too cakey” or “nothing special”).  Better Homes and Gardens has good cake, but we don’t make cake that often.  Now I’ve dug out the Cooking Light book with the same theme– 10 years of five star recipes.  So far it’s been giving us better luck, especially when I cut down on sugar and switch out the non-fat ingredients with full-fat alternatives.

It’s possible that we need to get more kids’ cookbooks.  The Disney Princess Cookbook has surprisingly good meals, but not very many of them.  Kid Chef has more difficult recipes, but they’ve almost all been winners (we weren’t that crazy about the sesame bar cookies, but there are a number of recipes that were so amazing that they made our “make for other people” list).  We’ve had the kids’ fun and healthy cookbook for years and it’s been a reliable go-to.

Because DC1 is the pickiest eater, zie is now in charge of menu planning and we have been pushing hir to do more cooking (today the kids made monkey bread from the Disney cookbook… it uses an excellent buttery biscuit dough for the balls which are then dipped into butter and cinnamon sugars)… so I hope I’m passing some of this cooking excitement on to the next generation.  Maybe no-knead bread will be more enticing than drugz for them too.  ;)

What cookbooks do you think are worth cranking through?  Where do you find new recipes?  How do you deal with getting out of a cooking rut?  (Or do you prefer repetition?)

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Cookbooks we have loved

My maternal grandma got a copy of The Old Fashioned Cookbook by Jan Carleton McBride for my father as a wedding present.  It’s full of wonderful American recipes from appetizer to dessert.  The cake section is especially amazing– I did not like cake at all before trying this book.  When my mom went to a low-fat diet, I was able to obtain ownership for our copy.

Another favorite from my parents’ is The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash. This fantastic book goes in and out of print all the time and has gone through a few editions and updates (now with microwave technology!). My parents would not part with theirs so we bought our own copy. If you belong to a CSA or have a garden of your own, you must get a copy of this book. It answers the question of, “What on earth are we going to do with all this X?” from basic preparation to elaborate recipes. And the recipes are delicious.

The New Laurel’s Kitchen book is fantastic if you’re trying to eat healthily and/or vegetarian. The recipes in it are creative and tasty, even though they only contain healthy stuff.  It’s a fun read too.  But very hippy-dippy.  What else would you expect from a cookbook coming out of a commune in the Berkeley area?  Additionally, if you want to bake with only whole grains, their bread book is not to be missed.  There are different techniques for baking with whole grain flour (which is “thirstier”) and The Laurel’s Bread Book covers them.

We’ve already talked about this duo of cookbooks from son Kevin and mother Nancy Mills. These are fantastic quick recipes for weeknights. We love them all.

The Cake Bible.  It is as advertised.

Baking with Julia. This cookbook encourages you to master a few basic recipes and use them with an array of different recipes. The weeks my partner spent mastering pie dough were wonderful indeed.

A new favorite that we’ve been going through, Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking.  It should be called, Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick, Easy, and Delicious Indian Cooking.  Also:  pretty sure it’s healthier than the stuff we get for take-out.

We have a few Best Recipe books, which are good go-to books when something isn’t in the Old-Fashioned Cookbook.  Our favorite is the Best Recipe Make-Ahead cookbook. It is great for making food in advance whether for a party, for someone with a new baby, or for yourself in the future.

What are your favorite cookbooks?

Simple meals for kids to cook

We feel like it is important for our kids to be able to cook a few meals on their own before they leave our house for good.  Ideally they will also know how to follow a cookbook, but being able to do a few simple meals from scratch (or with a box) without needing access to the internet or an actual cookbook is a helpful skill that should be useful in all sorts of situations.

What are some of these meals they can and should be able to do?

Our kids can both do:
1. scrambled eggs
2. quesadillas/tacos
3. grilled cheese
4. macaroni and cheese from a box with tuna and peas
5. cold cereal
6. salad

I really ought to teach them how to do spaghetti with meat sauce and onions sometime soon.  If either of them liked chili, that would also be on my list.

My memorized repertoire when I left home also included (along with all of the above): fry-ups, swiss steak, chicken cacciatore, salad dressing baked chicken, and leek and potato soup.  I could also do random things with lipton onions soup packets and cans of various campbells soups.  I haven’t made most of these in years either because they’re not healthy with my PCOS or because the children aren’t crazy about them.

DC1 has been preferring to make desserts from cookbooks.  Along with that, most kids seem to like making cookies.  Although I have some desserts memorized (ex. dump cake), I don’t really have any worth making memorized, so we use recipes.

What simple meals did you make as a kid?  What do your kids make, if applicable?  What other meals do you recommend kids learn how to do before they leave home?

 

Obnoxious whine: I’m tired of the food options in my town

This is truly an obnoxious whine.  See, back when we lived in places with amazing food options we had no money.  Now that we have money…

I live in a small college town that has had some recent growth.  Usually in the summer a number of college student places go out of business and a number of new places move in to replace them.

This year instead of getting interesting new places, we’ve been getting places that are either literally or essentially duplicates of places we already have.  We do not need yet another cheap wood-fired pizza place in town, yet this summer we got three of them.  We do not need another crappy Thai place, but this summer a couple sprang up.  (These things seem to go in cycles– when I got here we had a bunch of great Vietnamese places and the one Thai place in town had gone out of business the year before– now all the Vietnamese places have been replaced with sushi of varying quality and we have an overabundance of mediocre Thai.)  We even got a second really mediocre poke place (I did not realize mediocre poke existed until we had some in our town– I think it’s just not the right demographics to support a decent poke place… students prefer cheap), though I suspect that now there are two they will both go out of business.

So what’s left are places that are so meh that we don’t particularly want to go there again, or good places that we’re kind of sick of.  (In the case of super fancy restaurants, only I have had the chance to have gotten sick of their menus– I was on two search committees last year and really do not need to go to the fancy restaurants in town again any time soon.  Even these are kind of repetitive in terms of menu options.)

The way work is for both of us this year, we have a lot of disposable income, but less time than usual.  It would be nice to have a list of places we wanted to try or places that we like but aren’t tired of.  But we don’t.  So we waste time trying to figure out where to eat and finally decide we might as well just make something instead.

Now, our kids would be perfectly happy if we went to the burger place once a week and our favorite pizza place once a week and the hand pulled noodle place once a week and pei wei (never mind—pei wei just shut down) once a week and so on.  But DH and I have just gotten bored of their limited menus, along with those at our favorite Chinese place and our favorite Indian place.  Over the eight years or so that we’ve had an Indian place in town, we’ve literally tried everything on the menu, most multiple times (particularly when I was pregnant with DC2 and couldn’t eat wheat).  (To be completely truthful, I suspect our kids would be happy with macaroni and cheese with tuna and peas, spaghetti with meat sauce, and grilled cheese each once a week… I don’t know what we would do for the other meals.)

It’s so easy to find new exciting things to try when we go into the city.  Heck, there are fun things at the grocery store to try in the city.  But it seems like if we want new things to try here we’re going to have to keep making them ourselves.  And that takes time.

The box delivery services remove the part of cooking that I like (picking out food) and keep the time consuming parts (chopping).  And, with the exception of purple carrot, the recipes seem pretty pedestrian.  Plus there’s all that plastic.  And the per-person cost for most places is more expensive than take-out.  (Of course, we’re tired of local take-out…)

My sister suggested getting a personal chef, but that seems expensive (most don’t post their prices online, but the ones who do it looks like ~$80/meal for four people, and their suggested menus are BORING).  Plus I really don’t want the kind where someone comes to your house because I don’t want people in my house when I need to work or relax.  Moving to the city and commuting to work on week days also seems less of a good idea than going the other direction on weekends.  But when weekends come, there’s so many chores at home that going to the city just to eat out seems like maybe not a great idea.

So I guess we’ll keep cooking, going through new recipes in cookbooks and Cook’s Country magazine.  And we’ll spend a good portion of each weekend on fancy recipes.  And the kids will complain half the week that they don’t like whatever we’ve made and will thank us fervently the other half.  DC1 had been starting to cook more this summer, but zie has way too much homework during the school year.  Since we remodeled the kitchen and got a new stovetop, DC2 is no longer tall enough to safely use the stove.  So it’s on us.

What do you do about food when you have more money than time?  Would you ever get tired of your local restaurant options?

Ask the grumpies: What non-fiction books do you read?

Leah asks:

You post a lot about books you read for fun/stress relief. What are some non-fiction reads you enjoy? I really liked both Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Becoming by Michelle Obama

Those are great books.  We’ll always talk about books.  Here are some of my recent nonfiction reads:

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jenkins – relatively new and quite a ride.  Pass it around your friend group.

Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson – I like this better than her first book, although I wouldn’t want to live with the author.  I recently re-read this.

Get Your Shit Together – you know, like ya do.  One of Sarah Knight’s books, which are often swearily helpful.

Everything’s Trash, But It’s Okay by Phoebe Robinson – hilarious and great.  Get it.

I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi – extremely worth reading and sharing.

This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare by Gabourey Sidibe

Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart – this and the one above are memoirs, which I like.

I’d Rather be Reading by Anne Bogel – by the author of the Modern Mrs. Darcy blog

Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski (I might have talked about this one)

Can’t Help Myself by Meredith Goldstein – surprisingly moving.  Written by an advice columnist about her own life.

Wild Things by Bruce Handy – a trip down memory lane.  Reading as a child is great.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit – read it and pass it around.  Another of her books is Hope in the Dark.

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

The Chick and the Dead by Carla Valentine – a weird area of my reading interest is what happens to bodies after we die. [#2 read Stiff many years ago.  It was ok.]

Hunger by Roxane Gay – more people should read this!

House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson – an interesting memoir about stuff I hadn’t read much about before.

Novel Interiors: Living in Enchanted Rooms Inspired by Literature – just lovely to look at all the time.

These are all pretty good-to-excellent. I regularly trawl the library’s “new non-fiction” section and just pick up whatever looks good.

#2 reads a lot of non-fiction for work.  Not including the work stuff, she tends to go for pop-psychology research summaries (sometimes written by economists).  The last book she read in this vein was Practice Perfect.  She is looking forward to reading Defining Marriage by Matt Baume which she got for her birthday this year, which is closer to the kind of book she sometimes reads for work, but she hasn’t done a project on gay marriage.  She is not a fan of advice books that are based on neither quantitative empirical research nor qualitative research (forums count).  She hates books that are all about the “one true way” that come with no evidence other than the author says people should do it.  She also reads a lot of cookbooks.  She used to read humor, but that was a couple of kids ago.

Do y’all have more book recommendation questions?  What kind of non-fiction do you like?

A forgotten weeknight meal technique

This one used to be part of my repertoire, something I learned from my mom in the 1980s.  It’s actually something that was popularized back when *she* was a kid back in the 50s and 60s.  It takes 30-50 min to make, but most of that time is just rice being cooked (the difference in time is if you’re using white vs. brown rice)… actual prep time at the stove is closer to 10 min depending on how much you want to chop vs just throw in.

We rediscovered it one night when, anxious to make something the kids wouldn’t complain about, we dug out the complete I hate to cook cookbook by Peg Bracken and stumbled upon Doc Marten’s Mix which I’d seen mentioned in the comments of a recent frugal girl post (indeed, I’d dug out the book precisely because the comment jogged my memory).  This is a simple one pot recipe where you fry sausage and green peppers/onions/celery (the New Orleans version of mirepoix), add rice, then water, and cook until the rice is done.

But this simple technique is not limited to Doc Marten’s mix.  It’s anything where you saute veggies and possibly meat, add a cup of rice, two cups of water, and then cook as if it was rice.  I used to have a weeknight chicken cacciatore recipe on rotation (from my mom), which was sauteed chicken, onions, then put in one cup rice, then whatever kind of canned tomato produce we had and water to make 2 cups (or a bit more) of liquid and cook until the rice was done.  There’s another version where I used pork sausage and sage and onions and apples.  And you can do ground beef and tomatoes and onions and chili seasoning.  Or frozen mixed veggies and soy sauce with eggs (for a not at all greasy fried rice when you didn’t have any already cooked rice lying around).

The kids had thirds of the doc martin’s mix and gushed about it even though there were peppers and onions and celery in it.  (Our kids’ pickiness is often unpredictable.)  They were willing to have seconds the next day.  It was unheard of.  (DC2 has since gotten over hir most recent picky stage, but DC1 is still in the middle of it.)

I’m not sure why I forgot this was something I used to do.  Probably because we’ve been doing so much cookbook cooking rather than cooking based on memory and inspiration.  And it just isn’t a technique that’s “in” right now, so it’s not showing up in our books.

What are your favorite weeknight one pot meals?

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Ask the grumpies: good building toys

OMDG asks:

What are good toys for kids who like to build things in addition to blocks and legos?

You mentioned in addition to blocks, but our kids have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of less-mainstream blocks, so we are mentioning those as well.

We like pixel blocks for small stuff– these are like single unit legos that can be attached via the sides as well as the top and bottom.  (The somewhat lower than expected reviews are because, unlike lego, their quality control is not perfect and some of the blocks don’t fit perfectly.)

A very simple version of blocks are Kapla blocks.  I don’t know why these are so fun given that they come in just one size/shape, but they have provided hours of entertainment for all ages.

Tegu blocks, which are slightly magnetic, continue to be really awesome.

For little kids, HABA makes a lot of fun versions of blocks that are a bit different from ordinary blocks in different ways.

Train sets are also many hours of building fun.  Brio makes a good one that is interchangeable with some other sets.

Ozobot was great for like a week and then the kids completely lost interest.  Probably not worth the expense.  (Note:  this starter kit is 2x the cost of the one we got!)

Snap circuits had longer staying power but they ended up getting scattered all over the house and stopped being used.

Our favorite science kit so far has been the Magic School Bus chemistry version.  It’s fun!

A pack of playing cards and access to youtube videos on how to do card tricks has kept DC1 entertained for days on end.

The fun and healthy kids’ cookbook is a good one.

DH and DC2 are both hooked on pixelhobby.  (This is not a cheap hobby, but the output is nice enough to become Christmas presents for other people.)

These fascinations metal earth kits also result in really nice output (DC1 made the lighthouse one for MIL last year), but you do need needle nose pliers.

Binoculars are cool.

Where the Books Are

Where are the books in your household?

Growing up, I saw both my parents reading a lot.  We have tons of pictures of me as a baby pretending to read, or being read to.  My parents are divorced, and both their houses are full of books.

I have what I consider a “medium” amount of books (over 1500 books are mine, in our 2BR apartment; but my husband has at least an additional 1500, judging by comparative shelf space).  My mother has more space for bookshelves than I do.  My father has fewer, but more overstuffed, bookshelves than I do.  Non-fiction is in his living room, fiction is in the guest room; Terry Pratchett and J.K. Rowling are in his bedroom.   My mom has fiction and non-fiction in the living room, with religion, spirituality, and self-help in her bedroom.  My sister and her husband have carefully alphabetized their shared books across their living room (starting with A), dining room, and guest room.

I have fiction and non-fiction in my bedroom, with various piles of books stacked haphazardly in the living room, kitchen, etc.  (And cookbooks in our kitchen; Mom’s cookbooks are in her pantry, and I think Dad’s are in his pantry too.)  I have a couple “emergency” books in a cabinet in the bathroom.  They just ended up there.

Also, sleeping in a room full of books is cozy and it gives you something nice to look at while you’re in bed.

#2 has 3 large bookcases in the bedroom, two in the living room, one in the entry-way, two in DC1’s room, and 1 in DC2’s room (DC1 has more wall space, DC2 has more windows– DC2’s books also take up the bottom two shelves of the entry-way bookcase and one of the living room cases– toddler height even though zie is now 6 and reading chapter books).  There’s also some books in the great room, but those are mostly related to the games that are also in that room.  And a 3 shelf bookcase in the informal kitchen for our cookbooks (which are also piled in the kitchen).  Basically wherever there is wall space there’s a bookshelf.  Sometimes I feel like we have too many windows…  Oh, and the guest bathroom and our bathroom have little book nooks.  Ours usually has a book for me and one for DH.  The guest bathroom usually has the latest alumni magazine or two and something with short funny bits like cakewrecks.  DH and I also have piles of books on our nightstands and there’s a pile of read library books usually next to the door to the garage.  The kids scatter books everywhere as well– on the couches in the great room, on their floors, on their bathroom floors, on the living room ottoman, all over the dining room, etc.  It’s pretty homey, I think.  I need to go read something now.

I like talking about books.  Where are yours?

RBOC

  • My car just starts now when I try to start it.  It’s amazing.
  • I made shrimp paste for the first time and it was surprisingly easy and surprisingly tasty.  I may need to try some more retro sandwich pastes now.
  • We’re starting to get into the dregs of completing my best of cooking light cookbook.  That sometimes leads to surprising discoveries, but more often there’s a reason we put off those recipes instead of doing them right away (usually because they look like effort, and they turn out to be effort).
  • Grrr.  Stupid Republican Tax Bill means that I now have to pay taxes on my already too-expensive work parking.  But there’s really no way to not have an annual permit given where my office is.  (Like, we could move our housing and live closer to a bus stop, but there’s no way to live in walking distance.)
  • We did back-to-school shopping later than usual this year and man was it picked over.  And what is up with schools wanting 12×18 papers of various kinds and neither Target nor Walmart stocking them?
  • DC1 has recently discovered that if you want to keep your new card deck from clumping, you have to wash and dry your hands before touching it.  (DC1 is really into card tricks these days.)
  • One of the daycamps (a programming camp!) we were sending DC1 to had a truly ridiculous waiver that they wanted us to sign off on– absolving them of all wrong and disallowing lawsuits even should they be criminally negligent and agreeing to pay their court fees should we sue anyway.  We refused to sign it.  They let us drop DC1 off anyway, but then called and said they couldn’t take hir so DH had to pick hir back up.  All of the camps we send our kids to have waivers and some are pretty silly (the university math camp last year listed “pencil injuries” in the form blank of example injuries), but this one seemed dangerously so.  Especially since it’s a small company and doesn’t have the reputational concerns that say, the university has (although they said the rule was a franchise rule).  Ugh, so that’s another $400 of DDA account money that isn’t getting spent, on top of the $295 for a camp that was cancelled.
  • On Sunday we didn’t have any posts queued and #2 suggested a summer vacation for the blog.  Except I’m sure there’s a question I need to ask you all but I cannot remember what it is.  Wouldn’t it be horrible to have no readership and no twitter account when I needed advice on a purchase?  So that’s why this RBOC is [ed:  was before I put in a couple more bullets Monday morning] shorter than usual– it was pulled from drafts without having time to truly marinate.
  • Remember that whole house water filter we bought that took forever to get installed?  This is a picture of the first filter after 3 months.  No wonder our unfiltered water was so gross.
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Trying out recipes that sound kind of gross

The first recipe I remember as an adult that fit this category was egg and onion soup from Help! My apartment has a kitchen!  The name sounds awful.  But this turns out to be a quick and amazingly delicious soup that became part of our regular rotation until our children started mobilizing against diced tomatoes.  It’s a comfort food that blends different textures and feels healthy without tasting too vegetal.

Most recently we bit the bullet and made eggs sardou Cooking Light style (so hard boiled eggs instead of poached and a faux hollandaise).  Basically:  frozen artichoke hearts, spinach, green onions, with sliced hard boiled eggs on top, then covered in a roux that has a touch of thyme, pepper, and Parmesan.  Finished with Parmesan and paprika sprinkled on top.  It came out and looked terribly healthy.  But… it actually tasted good.  Hard boiled eggs, cooked spinach and all.  And it didn’t make me feel at all gross like eggs Benedict recipes often do.

This has me wondering if I should try the next appetizer in the Gourmet Magazine cookbook— it is a chicken liver pate (we’re in the crostini section).  I am not a fan of liver in any form (disclaimer:  have not tried foie gras) and hate the smell of it being cooked.  (One of my grandmothers LOVED calf liver and onions, and although I loved my grandma, I did not love that dish.)  But maybe it’s worth a try?  [Update:  it was ok– the first taste was kind of yummy, then it was ok, but then I didn’t like the aftertaste.  So not as horrifying as I’d predicted, but also not something I feel the need to make again.]

Have you tried out any foods lately that sounded gross but turned out to be ok, even good?  Have your tastes changed as you’ve aged?