Simple meals that feel really fancy: Brunch at home edition

It has been a LONG time since we’ve been able to go to a fun brunch place in the city.   DH has been baking up a storm, which helps with the bread situation, but even if he wasn’t, one of our groceries in town makes decent bread from its bakery (not great bread, but you know, decent), as does one of the sandwich shops that does delivery.  With decent bread it turns out it’s relatively easy to make a few restaurant quality, or at least nice coffee-shop quality, foods that I often pick when I’m ordering from a trendy place in the city.

The first super easy thing is Ricotta toast.  A nice thick slice of bakery quality bread.  Then a thick smear of Ricotta from the dairy section of the grocery store.  Then I will usually put on a nice jam.  (We have been eating a LOT of nice jam).  That’s all there is to it, but it feels really fancy and it tastes so good.

Avocado toast.  We have been buying a LOT of avocados because they’re a way to up the fanciness of a ton of different foods.  Even the simplest version with sliced avocados on a piece of regular sliced bread toast is delish and indulgent.  But you can fancy it up by adding salad/tomato/cheeses/fancy seasoning/fancy sauces/eggs/etc.  There are tons of suggestions on the internet for things to add.

Burrata with tomatoes or grapes.  One of our local grocery stores finally started carrying burrata and I am in heaven.  (I got addicted to it in paradise and for a long time only got it at a couple of the fancy restaurants in town when we had speakers or job candidates.)  If you’ve got grape tomatoes, you can quickly cook them until their skins burst with some salt and balsamic vinegar, then place them next to the burrata on a plate and finish with some nice olive oil.  Or roast grapes for a different experience.  Then eat with nice crackers or breads.

Roasted vegetables and starches.  Roasting vegetables and potatoes and sweet potatoes etc. is just GOOD.  And when you have leftover, you can add them to other foods to fancy them up.  Leftover beets or eggplant or even roasted potatoes just add a special something to comfort foods that elevate them to something you’d pick off a restaurant menu.

Fancy grilled cheese.  Plain grilled cheese is great (especially dipped in tomato soup), but you can fancy it up just by adding things to the sandwich before grilling.  Put in your favorite veggies (especially roasted, or maybe a thick chunk of fresh tomato and/or avocado, or fresh herbs).  Fruit or jam is another direction to go.

Fancy quesadillas.  Same idea as the grilled cheese, except in a tortilla wrapper.  DC1 recently added fried potatoes and that was pretty amazing.

Random stuff in a pita.  Scalzi puts things in burrito wraps, but you can do the same thing with a pita and suddenly it becomes fancy.  Leftover vegetables (I often have beets) with feta, hummus or tahini or even just yogurt tend to go really well in a pita sandwich wrapper and just taste good.

Bake stuff on flatbreads.  Which is a fancy way of saying make pizza without baking pizza dough.  But if you use a nice flatbread and add herbs and a cheese and a vegetable (tomatoes, roasted eggplant, etc.) or onions or cooked potatoes.

Fancy salad greens with a fancy vinegar.  Grocery stores just sell fancy mixed greens that all you have to do is wash.  Add fresh mozarella and sliced tomatoes while tomato season is still upon us.

Flavored fizzy water.  Get some syrups, or if you don’t want the extra sugar, order fancy balsamic vinegars (with the money you’ve been saving not going out to eat…) to add to carbonated water.  Elderberry syrup is another good addition that is sometimes hidden in the homeopathy part of the grocery store.  Or just increase your La Croix and related beverages consumption.  (Bonus fanciness points for using a metal straw.)

Loose leaf tea.  Sometimes maligned as not being a cure-all, but loose leaf teas are usually better quality than tea bags and there’s a lot of flavors to try.  I like mixing hibiscus and mint, but my new favorite tea is definitely Tulsi (aka Holy Basil).

You can also just add things to your regular meals.  Open up your fancy spreads and dips.  Experiment with fancy hot sauces.  Now is the time to open random bottles that you’ve been saving in your pantry or the back of your fridge for the right meal or the right guest.  The right meal is now and you are the right guest.

Add avocados and beets and pistachios to things.  Or fresh herbs— we’ve been doing a lot of buying of cilantro and parsley since only mint seems to stay alive in our garden.  Parmesan flakes also elevate foods.

None of these things take that much time– they’re quick weekday style meals (even if we usually eat them on weekends out) and make great breakfasts and lunches (or quick dinners).  But they’ve been helping me when I feel like I’m missing out on eating out in the city.

What fancy quick meals do you recommend?  What have you been eating?

Our stand mixer broke!!!

Wailey Wailey woe.  Tragedy struck while making pumpernickel.

AND not only are kitchenaids scarce knee deep into a pandemic (just like sewing machines!), they no longer come in the color that just magically matches the blue we already had in our backsplash and that we chose for our knobs.  (Cobalt blue, how I miss you.)  That mixer really tied everything together in a way that I normally wouldn’t care about but now that I’ve seen it, I’m having a hard time giving up.

So….

We bought a new stand mixer.  Specifically, a KitchenAid 6-Quart Pro 600 Bowl-Lift Stand Mixer.  In Nickel Pearl because that was $190 cheaper than any other color, though now it looks like their other colors are on various sales, and from a random website called Everything Kitchens.  (If all prices were the same, I would have gotten a plum one from another website, but those really were at sticker price.)  It came, new in box, and works just fine.  The dough hook is a little different.  Everything has interchangable parts, so it fits with the older 6 Qt blue mixer.

But… it still isn’t cobalt blue.  And DH’s forays into painting things have not gone … as expected, and I didn’t want him to do what he did to his microphone to something in our kitchen.

So DH said, well, let me see if I can fix it.  So he opened it up and found where a gear had been ground down.  He bought a replacement part for that gear, which fortunately still fits with the motor (if we’d had an even older model stand mixer we would have had to buy a new motor as well).  He ordered the motor and some food-grade grease (after a discussion with his brother who works on engines for a living) because the motor area is literally and liberally coated in grease.

While cleaning the old grease out in order to put in the new gear, he found two seemingly random ball bearings.  That was traced to another part where two washers holding some ball bearings had come apart, letting the little balls go free.  We do not know the whereabouts of the remaining 6 or 7 bearings– we’re hoping they fell out with the grease.

So DH ordered those parts and a couple of additional washers.

And put them in.

And added grease.

And now we have TWO working stand mixers.

We put the cobalt blue one back in its place of honor in the kitchen.

We decided to put the new one in the dining room on the granite counter bureau where DH makes pasta and pie dough.  We will probably give this one to DC1 when zie has hir own kitchen in however many years.  Maybe cobalt blue kitchenaids will be manufactured again!

Things DH has baked during the quarantine

I know this seems like an inappropriate post during these times, and I do have more appropriate posts… in drafts.  But if those posts don’t get finished until the news media has moved on, that’s not such a bad thing either since this will most likely continue to be a marathon movement punctuated by too-brief sprints rather than one and done.  We will need to keep fighting even after people change their twitter names to something else.  In the meantime, have a self-indulgent post that explains why I currently only fit into one pair of my non-sleeping shorts.

To start:  I apologize for the number of pictures in this post.  It was a manageable amount when I started the post, but then I put off uploading pictures and suddenly I had to upload well over 30 which is overwhelming.

So…. we recently bought 50lb of flour off nuts.com. We had been completely unable to get whole wheat flour at the grocery store, and we’d ordered a pasta roller. So because they were sold out of smaller packages of flour, we got a 25lb case of Whole Wheat and a 25lb case of Durum flour. At the rate DH has been stress-baking (even with him trying to cut down on stress-eating) we think we’ll be able to use it up before it goes bad, and I’ll be able to stop trying to play a losing battle of grocery store roulette with the WW flour.

fruit tart

This fruit tart from the Barefoot Countess was my birthday cake this year!

Sourdough boules

You will see a LOT of these. Eventually DC1 and I were like, could we have something that’s not sourdough? This was the first attempt from Flour, Salt, Yeast, Water and includes a dried yeast boost.

pirogi

Technically not baking, but DH made these Russian dumplings from scratch.

Jamaican meat pies

Jamaican meat pies from Cook’s Country. These were extremely popular.

misshapen boule

This one had an accident…

poundcake in a ring

Olive Oil and Sherry Poundcake from Pure Dessert. This was really sophisticated and a little boozy (less so the second day). A++. Would eat again.

big pie thing with strawberries and almonds on top

Baked yogurt tart from Baking with Julia

Sesame seed cake

Sesame seed cake from Pure Dessert

Walnut sponge cake

Walnut sponge cake from Pure Dessert. This is one of the most wonderful things I have ever eaten in my entire life. It’s light yet dense with a wonderful chewy nutty flavor. The top is whipped cream. It’s like eating a dream.

sugary half sphere

Breton Butter cake– this is a rustic version of a kouignaman but huge. From Home Baking by Alford and Duguid.

sliced open sourdough

More sourdough

Rustic fruit tart

Rock cakes

more sourdough

Will it ever stop?

Simplest apple pie from Home Baking. We didn’t get the topping right– it’s supposed to be more of a crumb topping than a dumpling, but I still loved it. DH prefers less apple presence, but I loved the way this was so apple forward using shredded apple and not much sugar and a splash of lemon.

rolls

DH’s grandma’s rolls (half whole wheat variation). Note that several got eaten before I could take a picture. Such is the way of DH’s grandma’s rolls.

baguettes

Simple french bread that we made so DC1 could make garlic bread. From Bread by Treuille and Ferrigno.

rolls

We think this is a kind of herb bread. We can’t remember.

Cranberry muffins. (We were supposed to use frozen cranberries to free up some freezer space, but DH used dry cranberries instead so we had to make another batch.) Using the Old Fashioned cookbook.

Chocolate chip cookies

Chestnut pound cake from Pure Dessert cookbook (We special ordered chestnut flour from nuts.com for it because why not?)

crepes

Caramelized crepes filled with fresh cheese from Pure Dessert. These were a lot more work than regular crepes (with a LOT of waiting time) but only marginally better than just making crepes and filling them with cheese.

red bean buns

Red bean buns– we use the love feast bun recipe from The Old Fashioned Cookbook and fill them with red bean paste. Very popular.

Banana nut muffins because I don’t eat bananas 5 days a week when I’m not going into work. (Not shown: other banana breads I didn’t take pictures of.)

Blueberry muffins (made when we realized we didn’t have any more frozen cranberries left) using a cake-like cranberry nut recipe from Bread by Treuille and Ferrigno.  There were more but I wasn’t fast enough with the camera.

braided bread

Challah from Bread

Chocolate Prune Bread from Bread

German Apple Pancake from the internets

Spinach Pie from Barefoot Contessa (TWO POUNDS of spinach)

 

Danishes from Baking with Julia

Fillings include: pastry cream, prune, and almond paste

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DH’s grandma’s cinnamon rolls but without frosting and with cherries in the center instead of crushed pineapple

DC2 demanded apple dumplings, so these are from the Old Fashioned Cookbook, except DH didn’t do the thing where you bring the four corners of the square to a point at the top (or brush with cream and big sugar crystals)

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I made this pineapple upside down cake for DH’s birthday

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These hot cross buns have coffee flour in them because we were running low on regular flour and we never had used that impulse buy from TJ’s however many months ago. It worked out pretty well.

Trencher

He also has made several of these trenchers when attempting to make sourdough bread, we think from the dough being too wet, but it could also be that the ratio of sour flavor bacteria to yeast bacteria is out of whack and the yeast needs more boost.

More information on trenchers here.

There’s also some things he made that I didn’t take pictures of– there’s more baguettes and there’s a Daktyla and several fry breads that didn’t make an appearance in my phone.  He also made Fan Tans right before quarantine started but I figured that didn’t really count.

Have you or yours baked anything fun?

When you cook together, how do you figure out who does what?

Growing up, I was always sous chef.  One of my parents would direct me to clean or chop or get ingredients ready while they did the planning work.

When I first married DH and got him started on his cooking journey, I would have the same set-up– I would be the directing chef and would make him sous chef.  Except his chopping was so slow sometimes I would give up and do the chopping.  We would try to switch roles, but he was terrible at delegating… he would just do everything himself.  During his cooking class, he learned the concept of directing/planning, etc. but he just could not do it in practice.  So I’d stand around the kitchen waiting to be told what to do and that would never come.  I’d have to either be the managing chef or I’d have to actively take over whatever sous chef task he was doing.

These days we’ve settled into a pattern that isn’t sous chef/managing chef at all.  Basically, we both look at the recipe.  I get out the ingredients while he reads through the recipe itself for any surprises (like hour rest/refrigeration times).  Then we both check the recipe and see what needs to be done next and pick and choose what to wash or chop sort of in order, but sometimes I know I skip things I’m not crazy about to let him do it, unless he delays them too long and I end up chopping that onion myself.  There are some jobs that he always does– he’s 100% in charge of any deep fat frying, for example.  I ALWAYS burn myself with splattering grease when I try, and he’s got a protective coating of fur.  Similarly, anything requiring the top oven goes to him because I am too short to use it without burning my arm.  But generally we both chop, we both stir, we both mix.  Sometimes we pour things out of heavy pots together with one holding the pot and the other getting stuff out.  This method is pretty similar to the inefficient but equitable way we handle most things in our household– we’re both responsible so if something gets forgotten or messed up we’re both at fault.  It works for us.

Though, when I cook with my kids, I am the managing chef and they are sous chefs (already DC1 is a fast and uneven chopper!).  For DC1’s one meal a week, zie does everything on hir own following the recipe with some assists from parents as necessary.

Do you cook with someone else?  How do you separate out the responsibilities?

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People (men, kids, etc.) can learn to cook

My DH is a crazy accomplished chef.  He cooks amazing desserts.  He’s been playing with making his own pasta.  He’s mastered sourdough from a levain.  He’s got the best all-butter pie crusts around.  He can do pretty much anything. He’s done in depth studies about what makes the best chocolate chip cookies using lab notebook techniques. If there’s a recipe, he’s game to try it.

It wasn’t always this way.  When we got married, he could make bread using the breadmaker that his grandma had gotten him when we went to college and that was about it.  He’d also made pizza (using dough from the bread maker) a few times in college.  He mostly lived on day old bagels and I’m not sure what else.

One day during our first year of graduate school and married life, DH asked if I could make my chili for dinner and I suddenly realized that he needed to learn how to cook.  Otherwise I would be in charge of all the meal stuff every day for the rest of our lives.  Or maybe until I got one of our future children to take over (I did a lot of the cooking at my parents’, especially during summers).

So I showed him how to make chili.  And how to make spaghetti, which is pretty similar.  And various egg dishes.

Then he started getting into recipes.  He wasn’t very good at substitutions and his knife skills drove me crazy because he was SO SLOW getting perfectly even cubes instead of just doing a rough cut.  But we managed.

Three years after getting real jobs, I sent him to a semester-long cooking class and that really improved his knife skills.  He can take down a raw chicken with ease.  And carrots get diced quickly and imperfectly with no second-guessing.  He can even cut an orange so it looks fancy!

He’s now been cooking for nearly 20 years and can make substitutions on the fly.  He can adjust recipes for weather conditions or flavor preferences (DC2 isn’t into spicy, I hate goat cheese, etc.)    It didn’t take 20 years to get to this point.  The cooking class was only really necessary to get his knife skills up to speed (honestly, I don’t know what the hangup there was).

My little sister also didn’t know how to cook until she was well into adult-hood.  She hated doing it growing up and my parents had me, so there didn’t seem to be any reason to force her.  They already had someone to chop potatoes.  (In fairness, my sister’s existence meant I never had to mow a lawn since my mom assumed my sensitivity to heat and general clumsiness would result in me mangling a foot or two if I tried.  I do have faded cooking-related scars on my hands and arms, but I never actually lost a limb doing it.)  Since hitting her 30s, she’s been learning a lot more about cooking– most of the Christmas and Birthday presents she’s been requesting have been cooking related for the past 10 years or so.  She’s currently really into Ottonleigh’s Simple book* and in the Before Times was baking breakfast things for early morning meetings for her Team once a month or so.

DC1 has also been upping hir cooking skills– zie made a few complicated dishes from a fancy sushi cookbook without complaint.  Though, due to the lack of ability to get sushi-grade fish, zie has switched over to the Help! My apartment has a kitchen! cookbook and has started mastering simpler things like garlic bread and shrimp cocktail.  Zie is currently on the “make one dinner a week for the family” plan.  Both kids are in charge of their own breakfasts (cereal, fruit, leftover baked goods) and lunches (leftovers, quesadillas, sandwiches or cheese and crackers/rice cakes).

Who does the cooking in your place?  When did you learn how to cook?

*Disclaimer:  We got a copy of this book and Ottonleigh has six definitions of “simple” (one for each letter in the word Simple, get it?) and it is debatable how many of the recipes are anything like “quick and easy”, though they are labeled with what kind of simple they are.  Also they’ve all been delicious.  But we haven’t noticed them being any simpler in range than the ones in the Jerusalem cookbook which we would recommend over Simple.

What to do about the yeast shortage

I don’t really understand *why* there’s a yeast shortage because it like… just grows.  I assume this is probably something to do with supply chains and maybe manufacturing the non-yeasty parts (jars?).  If you want to bake yeasty things and your grocery store has been out, this post is for you.  (Now, if your concern is the flour shortage, we just got 50lbs from nuts.com and wandering scientist just bought 25lb from central milling.)

If you have SOME yeast left

Starter

Make a starter and put it in your fridge.  Feed it every time you make bread and occasionally (at least once every two weeks) if you don’t make bread.  My quick google search on this is not at all helpful– everyone wants you to make a sourdough levain, which is a type of starter, but not the best choice if you have any active yeast in your house.  (I will explain later.)  So let me dig up one of my bread books and get more detailed instructions for you.

  1.  In a glass jar (or quart/gallon ziploc if you don’t have a suitable jar) that you can keep in the fridge that will hold at least 3 cups of flour, put yeast (either one packet or the equivalent) and half a cup of warm (warm to the touch, not too hot) water.  Let it sit until the yeast dissolves.  Then stir in 2-3 cups of flour.  It doesn’t have to be exact.  You don’t have to have any specific kind of flour so long as it’s some kind of gluteny flour.  So all purpose flour or whole wheat flour are great.  Rye is fine if that’s what you’ve got, but it may limit what you use the starter for.  Then let it sit at room temperature for 2 days before using, or put it in the refrigerator for two weeks (you want it to have some room temperature time for flavors).
  2. Every time you make bread, use one cup of the starter in place of water/yeast/one cup of flour.  Replace what you’ve taken out with a heaping cup of flour and half a cup of water, give or take. In theory you should let it sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours before putting it back in the fridge, but unless you’re making bread every day or two you can ease up on this.
  3.  If two weeks have passed and you haven’t made bread yet, go make bread and go back to step two.  Otherwise throw out a cup of starter and add in a cup of flour and half a cup of water.  This is called feeding your starter.  You will need to feed your starter every two weeks if you don’t make bread.  In theory you should let it sit at room temperature for 12-24 hours, but unless you’re making bread the next day you can just stick it back in the fridge.

IIRC, if you leave it a long time, sometimes some of the liquid separates.  This is normal.  You can either stir this back in or pour some of it out, whatever.  The starter itself should be liquidy but thick… gloppy I think is a good description.

The starter will generally not be a sourdough if you use this method so it will be fine for brioches and other light sweet breads.  It will gain flavor over the months (and years) you use it.  We’ve found the flavor to be more of a warm yeasty almost beery flavor as it matures, but it may be that there are different iterations… we’ve done this a finite number of times.

Old Dough

Make bread dough as you normally would.  After the first rise (or second if you forget), grab some dough (or just don’t make the bread and keep the entire dough).  Wrap it in wax paper and then in tin foil (and if you want to be really fancy, you can put it in a ziploc).  This will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days or you can freeze it.  Whenever you want to make bread, thaw some dough (“walnut size”), let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours, and then incorporate it with the new bread dough as you mix it.  When you start running out, repeat the process of grabbing dough (or grab some for freezing each time you make bread).

If you have NO yeast

Bread without yeast

Discover the joys of quick breads.  There are many Irish Soda Breads well worth making.  Try different varieties.

Does your grocery store carry pizza dough or frozen dough?

Instead of using (all of) it to bake, save some for the “old dough” method above.

Make a levain

A levain is a sourdough starter made with ambient yeast.  DH has tried this at several points in our life and only the most recent one, using the technique from Flour Water Salt Yeast was successful.  This is what we currently have in our refrigerator.  AS A WARNING:  Getting this started WASTES flour.  Maybe waste is the wrong word, but when you thought you’d stocked up on flour before the stay-at-home order and all of a sudden you’re facing a flour shortage, it is easy to give this levain a side-eye.  I had to put a stop to it and we converted the levain to a starter by using the “put your levain to sleep” method and then treating it like a regular starter (see above).  I suspect that you still need to throw out a ton of flour at the beginning, but once it has settled down to regular use you should just be able to use the starter and replace with flour and water as above.  At least, that’s been working for us so far.  ANOTHER WARNING:  Some of the smells early in the process are TERRIBLE.  Awful vinegary awfulness.  But that’s the way they’re supposed to smell?  One of the nice things about the book is that he tells you what it’s supposed to smell like at each step.  So you’re like, why yes, this is supposed to smell terrible.

One of the interesting things in the book was how it talked about that even though there are different ambient strains of yeast across the country and there are different ways people start these (there’s a grape skin version in Baking with Julia), none of it really matters because it’s the same yeast that survive no matter where you are in the lower 48 in the US.  We’d always thought this hadn’t worked when we lived on the east coast because their yeast sucked.  But no.

The process is too lengthy to type out here and there’s probably copyright infringement, but here’s someone’s blogpost about living through making the levain.  There are a lot of other levain/sourdough starter recipes out there, but be aware that they might not work out.

This levain starter is a sourdough and has a pleasant lightly sour flavor.  It is great for making no-knead breads.

Maybe you can try this Oregon trail yeast?

We still have a little of this free Oregon Trail yeast in our freezer.  We made a starter with it maybe a decade ago and it was amazing until it got too sour even for DH and we sadly let it go (knowing we still had some in the freezer).  But it’s a high quality yeast.  It’s free with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope, though it sounds like it might take up to six weeks to get to you.

Borrow in a social distancing safe manner from a friend who is rich in yeast

And then make a starter!  Or old dough.

What are you guys doing for yeast?  Do you have any left?  Does your grocery store?  What would you do with 25lb of whole wheat flour and 25lb of durum flour?

Ask the grumpies: How do I deal with meal planning with an uncertain pantry?

Hannah asks:

I’m used to cooking by recipes and buying ingredients each week based on the recipes I chose on the weekend.  Now I can’t do that because grocery times for curbside or delivery are not only scheduled 2 or 3 weeks out but in general a third of the things we try to order aren’t available (generally things like eggs, flour, etc., but also random things like Swiss chard)  What have other people been doing in this “era of unprecedented recipe substitutions“?

Recipe substitutions are definitely one thing– depending on what you’re trying to make, spinach or really any green will work in place of Chard.  I actually used the greens on beets recently because I was craving something and I was reminded how chard-like they are.  The internet will help if you’re not used to making substitutions.  Of course, it’s nice to know that you’re going to need to make a substitution when you’re doing the grocery shopping– I’ve been using the “comments” space for my preferred substitutes, but some personal shoppers are better than others.  Still, in a week when you’re going to be making chard, you might just get some loose leaf spinach for a salad earlier in the week (this is something we did this week) or frozen spinach to keep in the freezer as part of your pantry (we do this with broccoli, though frozen broccoli has only been available once for us and fresh broccoli has been pretty reliable).

Another thing you can do is stock up your baseline pantry and then do the menu planning *after* shopping.  Here’s a post about what’s in our pantry (or at least what we try to keep in there… back in the days when we left the house).  That can get a little difficult in terms of perishables though, because you generally don’t keep perishables in your pantry and if you’re not doing menu planning before, it’s hard to know what refrigerated things you should get.  But you may be able to keep things in your pantry such that you can always make bean chili, for example.

So that leads to flexibility.  Go ahead and menu plan your week (I guess 2-3 weeks in advance?), but also have back-up meals that you can make if you get, say the leeks but not the eggs you wanted for your leek and egg dish (that you’re hoping to make from Ottonlenghi’s Simple this week, just as a non-random example).  Keep in your back pocket flexible recipes like stir-fry, things in sauce over a starch (if you can find pasta or rice) or over a piece of meat, sandwiches, and so on.  If you’ve been able to get any frozen veggies or chicken, these are something you can add to fresh to use up extra veggies.  Standard flexible things can be rough because there’s so much demand for things like rice and bread, but you can often substitute carbs (as @scalzi demonstrates, anything can go in a tortilla, like sauteed beet greens with some cheese) or even just not have the carb.

We’ve personally been playing grocery store roulette with things like milk, butter, sugar, and flour (have I mentioned DH’s stress-baking?  I was wrong when I thought he was going to stop doing so much).  I just ask every week and say we’ll take any substitutions.  And some weeks we get it and some weeks we don’t.  Some weeks we have a bit too much and some weeks I worry that we’re not going to make it through the week.  (I’ve also ordered flour online, but nuts.com now seems to be out.)  And for things like free and clear dishwashing liquid, instead of saying “any free and clear dishwashing liquid” which resulted in something with scented with red dye last week that had “gentle” in the title (DC2 gets hives, and I get hives with most fragrances), I’m trying to pick one of every brand but say “no substitutions”.  If I end up with four dishwashing liquids then we’ll be set for a little while.  If I end up with zero, at least I’m not getting one I’m allergic to.

Of course, flexible meal plans take a higher mental load than what you’ve been doing, most likely.  I’m not sure how to get around that if you also want variety.  (If you’re ok with just eating the same food and it’s the same food that the grocery store has, then you could do that…)

Here’s another post on different cooking systems from back in 2010.

Grumpy nation, how have you been dealing with menu planning during the pandemic?

Ask the Grumpies: I moved into a rich subdivision and my neighbors gave me way too much

Moved to the Southern US asks:

My husband and I (immigrants from [an Asian country]) have done very well for ourselves lately, and after living in a 2200 sq ft house in a standard subdivision with mostly people affiliated with the local university, we saved up and built our own house where the minimum allowed house size is 3,500 sq feet and there are plenty of trees and lots of land between houses.  Lot sizes are big.  According our HOA, we could have horses if we wanted, but nobody does.  On one side of us lives a surgeon and his younger SAHM wife with their two children (neither of whom are close to my children’s ages).  On the other side are a couple of older lawyers (we think) whose children are grown (we think).

We moved here mid-September, so this is our first holiday season here.

Recently the SAHM gave us an enormous box of homemade cookies.  Along with the box she provided a holiday card and a lengthy very personal holiday letter with pictures and information about their “magical” summer vacation.  There were also a lot of bible verses.

The cookies were, sadly, not very good.  Neither my toddler nor my growing pre-teen ate more than one, which is saying something.  (Our builder also gave us a tin of cookies as a holiday gift, but there were a lot fewer cookies and they were good!)  We ended up throwing them out and sending a thank-you note.  My DH initially wanted to invite the family over for tea, but thought better of it.  We thought about reciprocating, but… it seemed weird and we don’t want to encourage such gifts.

This morning [a Saturday] around 7am while we were all still in bed, we got a knock on the door and it was our other neighbor, the lawyer husband, with a box from honeybaked ham for us.  My husband groggily thanked him and took it inside.  When we opened it later, it had an entire ham in it with a price tag for almost $60(!) along with a Christmas card saying, “Hello neighbor, have a wonderful Christmas!” with the word “Christmas” underlined twice.  I’ve never met the lawyer couple and know very little about them.  My husband has not talked with either of them much either.  (We’d at least seen the cookie neighbor around the neighborhood while walking our dog, though we couldn’t tell you the names of her kids.)

Is this normal?  Do we write a thank-you note?  Are we expected to reciprocate in kind?  I don’t want to spend $60 on someone whose name I don’t even know.

We are Christian and we do like ham, so we will be eating it, but we would still have preferred not to have gotten this gift.

That definitely sounds WEIRD!  It is so tacky to leave a price tag on a gift!  What is up with that?

And who gives a HAM?  And who gives a ham 4 days before Christmas?  I may be biased a bit because I don’t like ham and we’re about to leave to visit relatives (and there is usually a lot of ham at Christmas dinner but without pineapple which is the only thing I like about baked ham so I can’t imagine coming back to an entire ham after that).  There’s so many people who can’t eat ham, not just for religious or vegetarian reasons, but also for reasons of cholesterol and salt content.  That’s just so WEIRD.  (Also, not a fan of Honeybaked ham– they somehow seem even saltier than normal.)

Let’s assume that there’s nothing overtly racist about either of these neighbors, they just can’t imagine a world where anybody wouldn’t be Christian.  It’s just easier to live that way.

I find people over the age of 25 who proselytize to not be very interesting to talk with, so I think not having tea and just sending a thank-you note was the right call there.  (My students often outgrow the proselytizing as they meet more new people–it’s just how they were raised.)

My guess with the holiday letter and cookies is that they had a bunch leftover from their friends and family giving and decided the neighbors would get the overflow.  Possibly she went to a cookie party (where people make and trade huge batches of cookies), though if that were the case *some* of the cookies would have been good because they’d have been made by other people.  So you got the letter because she had some extras printed out, not because she really wants you to know about her vacation.

As for the ham… I was completely mystified about that too until I talked with one of my friends who knows more rich people than I do.  (Technically we know a lot of Silicon Valley rich people, but Northern California rich is a lot more like upper middle class most places, and most of them are only first generation rich because of the dot com boom.)  She said he’s probably giving said hams to everyone on his list without really thinking about it.  $60 seems like a lot to most of us, but it’s like that arrested development clip with the banana.  They don’t see it as extravagant because they can’t.

Image result for how much does a banana cost meme

[This, grumpy nation, is but one reason that we need higher marginal tax rates.  Wealthy people should not be gifting each other bad hams!  What a waste!  (Personally, I’d try to give it to our local food pantry, but I don’t know they’d even accept it and they’re impossible to get on the phone.)]

So, Moved to the Southern US, eat the ham as you wish and write a thank you note as you did with the cookies.  Either they’re giving you outsized gifts because you’re new to the neighborhood and they’ll scale down next year, or these gifts are such a small part of their lawyerly budget that it just doesn’t seem over the top (and maybe you’ll just come to expect your annual ham until it’s time to move to a nursing home).  Send a thank you card and move on.  You do not need to reciprocate!

Makes me glad that the only gifts we get from our neighbors are the occasional much appreciated overflow summer tomatoes!  Oh, and when DC1 was little a number of our neighbors used us as an opportunity to get rid of outgrown toys and clothes, which was also appreciated.  Also, several years ago we did get into a banana bread war with one of our neighbors– she ran into DH doing yardwork one evening and they got talking and she mentioned she had lots of extra bananas from her work and somehow that ended up with him getting a bunch of very ripe bananas, which he turned into several loaves of banana bread.  So he gave one to their family…  And then she gave us another loaf of banana bread in return.  At which point I’m fairly sure we realized we needed to stop, but it might have gone another round.

Grumpy nation– Do you get holiday (or other) gifts from your neighbors?  Have you ever lived in an upper-class neighborhood and is it different from where those who barely qualify as having mcmansions live?  Do you know rich people and do they give you hams?

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?