Well, we’ve finally made it to the “Actual Food” part of this incredibly lengthy series.
I seem to be a firmly intermediate cook, which is a surprisingly embattled position to occupy in a very food-judgey culture. I am going to kindly ask those of you who are more advanced than I am to please suspend judgment, and those of you who are not as advanced cooks as I am to please not give in to feelings of intimidation or obligation. We all start from where we are.
This is simply an example of foods that I cook – not foods I require or expect anyone else to like or cook. I am hoping you will all share your own recipes or meal concepts in comments.
You will notice that many of the below recipes are distinctly American, or else Americanized versions of other cuisines. I’m a decently adventurous eater, and I especially love heavily-spiced food. Living in Toronto, I am very lucky because I can access food from so many different places in the world, and I like trying new things.
However, when I cook at home, I stick to simple, culturally familiar food because I’m comfortable with the cooking techniques required, and because it gives me a homey feeling. (Though I am not averse to busting out a stir-fry or new combinations of spices when I feel like it.)
Below is a brief sampling of the recipes in my stash. Many of them come from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 12th Edition which is the first cookbook I ever owned, handed down to me from my mom when I was 19 and living the country housewife lifestyle for the first time.
It still has my pencil-scrawls in it from when I was about 8 years old and baking cookies for the first time. I still remember the trip my mom and I took to the bookstore to buy it, and how it was handed to her over the counter, carefully wrapped in its (long since lost) dustcover. It is one of my most cherished possessions.
I basically taught myself how to cook out of it, after reading it cover-to-cover and after much (very much) trial and error, so it holds a special place in my heart – as do all older American cookbooks, like Joy of Cooking, McCall’s Cookbook, Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, and Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.
However, with these kinds of older encyclopedic cookbooks, I do sometimes need to tweak the recipes for flavour or to make them more convenient.
One of my favourite newer cookbooks is Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe, but most of the recipes are too involved for weeknight meals, in my opinion. Everything I’ve made from it so far has been amazing, though, and if you are of a food science bent at all, you’ll love reading their discussions of how the recipes were developed.
Another favourite cookbook represented below is Pantry Raid by Dana McCauley. This is a Canadian cookbook, but it is not necessarily traditional Canadian food. It is, however, full of simple weeknight recipes that also happen to have tons of flavour, with hardly any modifications needed. It’s out of print, and I don’t own a copy, but I originally got it from the library.
Every year or couple of years, I will get a bug and borrow a ton of recipe books from the library, and then copy down anything that seems likely onto recipe cards to try. I find the process of copying by hand allows me to fully think through the recipes, and also to adapt the instructions to suit my kitchen and my particular collection of bowls, pots, and pans.
I often streamline the instructions before I ever try the recipes. However, I always cook the recipes with the exact ingredients called for the first time around, before I make modifications for flavour. Then I make notes on the card of what needs changing.
Honourable mentions: Cool Kitchen (recipes for when it’s too hot to cook), Aunt Maud’s Recipe Book (recipes from L. M. Montgomery), and Baking in America (includes Emily Dickinson’s fruitcake recipe.)
I very rarely buy cookbooks, because you can easily over-collect them. Thankfully, my mom-in-law has a huge collection of sometimes old, sometimes strange and wonderful cookbooks (like Food that Really Schmecks, a Mennonite cookbook) that I poke through every time I visit.
I’ve also stolen many recipes from my own mom’s collection, including the Popover Chicken Tarragon recipe below.
Since I mostly cook from recipe cards, and am such a prodigious recipe-thief, I have to carry 3 x 5″ index cards when I travel. I’ve made peace with that.
I keep them in this very 1950s recipe card box I picked up at a flea market years ago. You cannot look at this thing without smiling idiotically.
I consider meals that do require cooking, but don’t require a recipe, to be more Level Two-ish, since they require physical effort, but next to no mental effort.
I also consider recipes that use something pre-prepared, like a sauce or side dish (frozen pierogis, or Uncle Ben’s as a side dish, and possibly even frozen veggies, since they are pre-cut) to be Level Two-ish. Your mileage may vary.
Slab o’ Meat Dinner: This is a broiled piece of meat or fish, with seasoning that doesn’t require a recipe – maybe jerk seasoning or hoisin for chicken, seasoning salt for pork chops, sage or rosemary for pork tenderloin, sausage with mustard, or maybe just salt and pepper – along with potatoes of some kind (boiled, mashed, baked, or even pierogi’d), steamed rice or a packaged rice/pasta side dish, and some kind of very basic vegetable, usually steamed.
Thankfully, I like steamed vegetables with butter and salt, so this is not offensive to my sensibilities – you may feel differently. Cheese can help. I have learned through experience that I feel somehow offended if there is no vegetable with my dinner, despite spending much of my youth indifferent or openly hostile to vegetables. Even something very basic will make me happy – for example, if there are tomatoes in the sauce, or a pre-prepared salad on the side. I’ll eat cocktail carrots or an apple in a pinch.
Pasta with Sauce, Protein, and Vegetables: Vegetables can be in the sauce and/or on the side via salad. I can either make sauce from plain canned tomatoes, or use jarred sauce. The protein can be ground beef or veggie ground round, or whatever else will sauté up easily in a pan, like shrimp or baby clams. I can also add store-bought garlic bread or make it myself from a loaf of French bread toasted in the oven, with real garlic mashed up in the butter. If there is salad it’s almost always from a tub, because I really hate tearing lettuce and I really love baby spinach or arugula. I love spaghetti like a 10-year old, probably because my mom used to make it for me, and that is how I made the fateful and life-altering discovery of garlic.
I know there are more non-recipe meals, but because they don’t have recipes they require me to trawl my memory, which is undercaffeinated at the moment. So, onto the actual recipes.
Most of these will be around Level Three.
Savory Casserole of Chicken – Fannie Farmer. We’ve made this only about three times. When I hear the word “casserole” I expect “meal in a pot,” so I throw a cup or two of rotini or pasta shells into the pot for a starch. I also add a whole green pepper instead of the measly and timid “2 tbsp finely chopped green pepper” because I love the taste of green pepper. With bread and salad, or even just bread, it’s pretty good.
Linguine with Clam Sauce – Pantry Raid. I have gone on about this one at some length. This is a definitely Level Two for me, possibly bordering on Level One. It only requires pantry ingredients, for the most part, and I have it memorized. It also makes a meal-in-one, so I don’t have to bother with a side dish unless I am feeling particularly bready or salad-y that day. Incidentally, Pantry Raid is also one of the few cookbooks with recipes I don’t have to modify. Make of that what you will.
Citrus-Tarragon Roasted Salmon – Pantry Raid. I have one thing to say about this, and it’s that this is absolutely delicious and wonderful. It is another Slab o’ Meat meal, but it requires a recipe because my memory sucks. I usually have a pasta primavera packaged side dish, and broccoli (though sometimes Saucy Brussels Sprouts from BH&G New Cookbook, but they have to be fresh sprouts because frozen ones taste like sulfur when cooked.)
Popover Chicken Tarragon – BH&G New Cookbook. This makes the starch along with the chicken, so all you’re left with is to add a vegetable on the side. I think I made some kind of fancy green beans from The New Best Recipe with this once, and I liked them, though Jeffrey didn’t.
Boiled Beans – Joy of Cooking. This is the most uninspired recipe name ever, but it makes an actually kind of elegant-looking creamy white set of beans with chives on top. I drink every bit of wine that comes into my home on sight, so I use a few tablespoons of sherry instead. (FACT: I will eat anything that has sherry in it.) Usually I add to this some kind of fancy bakery bread and salad. I try to make beans on the weekends because life is just cheaper that way, and because then I have leftovers I can freeze for future lunches.
Beans Bretonne – Fannie Farmer. I have been making this one for ages. It is rather surprisingly spicy, for a Fannie Farmer recipe. It’s bright red-orange, and since I got rid of my food processor and my blender is a pain to clean, I usually skip pureeing the pimientos and just cut a big can of roasted red peppers up into strips or chunks. Again, salad and bread with this…or nothing, if I’m feeling lazy. If I’m making beans, it means I had to soak something overnight and refuse to cook anything else on principle. Although once I did make this as a side dish with sausage.
Jeffrey’s Clam Chowder (no recipe linked because it’s his family’s recipe to share, not mine) – We have not had this in a while, but it’s Jeffrey’s papa’s (that’s English for grandpa) recipe. It is very easy and we usually eat it on holidays. It’s a red clam chowder. I grew up eating only New England clam chowder, because that’s how we do it on the Oregon coast, and even I will eat the hell out of this with some homemade bread. FACT: I will also eat anything with canned baby clams.
Chicken Cacciatore – Fannie Farmer. I haven’t made this in a while, but I used to make it all the time. It’s getting up there to a Level Three for me, as it requires soaking things, chopping things, AND grating things. I usually add orzo to the pot to soak up the liquid and make an easy starch. Because I am lazy, and I like orzo. This recipe requires me to have white wine on hand, which is probably why I don’t make it anymore.
Pork Tenderloin Teriyaki – Fannie Farmer. (Link is an adapted version, not exactly as I make it.) Another Slab o’ Meat that requires a recipe. This is one of the first recipes I ever successfully made from scratch. I make this a lot because it is simple, I love pork tenderloin with my whole heart, and because I love the marinade. I serve it with some kind of rice and some kind of green thing. This is one of the quickest meals I make, though the broiling makes the smoke alarm go off.
Creamed Chicken and Mushrooms – Fannie Farmer. I love mushrooms, and this also has sherry in it, so you know I will eat the hell out of this. It’s totally delicious with mashed potatoes because it makes a gravy. I usually have green beans with it.
Moroccan Spiced Pork Tenderloin – Pantry Raid. Totally sweet and flavourful. Because I really don’t know what in the hell I’m doing with anything Moroccan, I just serve it with rice and some kind of easy vegetable.
Bean and Vegetable Soup – Fannie Farmer. This is maybe a Level Four, actually, because it requires extensive chopping of fresh vegetables, as well as more than an hour of cooking. But it is absolutely delicious, involves Parmesan cheese and bacon crumbles, and you can get away with just bread on the side. I would only make this on a weekend, like with beans.
That’s only part of my box of recipe cards, so I will spare you the rest. The point is (and I guess we will talk about meal planning at some point) I keep the weeknight dinners simple. I will probably cook 2 to 3 actual-recipe meals a week, and fill in the rest with leftovers, pasta, slabs o’ meat, or pre-prepared food – or, in summertime, hotdogs. I really like hotdogs.
Whatever happens, we sit down and eat together at an actual table most nights. Not because it is a moral imperative, but because we both feel well-fed that way. Better-fed than if we busted out the dinner party fare once a month, and spent the rest of the time eating the Rice-a-Roni of resentment.
If you are resentful or rebellious about cooking, lower your standards and figure out some Level Two or Level Three recipes. You won’t suddenly become a bad cook (or a bad person) if you rely on basics.
…Or even if you totally screw up a recipe. Ruining food has been my own private cooking school, and I will gladly fall back on Kraft Dinner or takeout if I mess up.
Willingness to experiment and make mistakes, and to possibly keep a frozen pizza on hand when something doesn’t work out, will only make you a better cook.
Just a warning: if your comment contains more than 5 links, I’ll have to fish it out of the spam filter, which might take a while.