for all you creative folks: persevere.
I grew up eating food like this. So did my husband. A few times a year (Christmas, birthdays, and Thanksgiving), my mom cooked us elaborate meals from scratch, and I remember being amazed every holiday that she was a fantastic cook. To this day, I am still trying to replicate her peach cobbler, mashed potatoes, and pizza crust. But most of the time, we ate out of a box, and our veggies came from the freezer. This was back when we thought potatoes were an excellent side dish to Hamburger Helper, because potatoes are a vegetable. We didn’t know yet that carbs are the worst waistline culprits, and that cereal “fortified with vitamins” is about as healthy as eating a cardboard box sprinkled with some orange juice. And we certainly didn’t know that “natural flavoring” means beaver butt extract. Now I don’t blame my parents—they fed me with the little time and money they had, and let’s face it—almost everyone ate like this in the 80′s. But this upbringing did not prepare me for living on my own and being healthy. When I went to college, I gained a considerable amount of weight, and finally realized that I needed to start cooking whole foods. The first things I cooked were copycats of what came out of boxes—homemade Mac & Cheese, and homemade Hamburger Helper. Both of these were disasters, because I was making up the recipe as I went along. I am notoriously impatient, and following a recipe seemed too confining and tedious. Mac and Cheese can’t be that hard, right? One night, Michael came over for dinner. We’d only been dating a few months, and I was determined to impress him with homemade Mac & Cheese. The secret ingredient was grey poupon. . . way too much grey poupon. And the noodles were soggy. He chewed two bites very slowly while trying to put on his game face and not throw up, until finally I said, “This is ridiculous. We are not eating this,” and we went out for Chinese. After that dinner mishap, I decided to follow recipes. I started off making a spaghetti sauce from scratch. And then I learned how to actually make homemade Mac & Cheese. I learned what a roux was, and that a little mustard goes a long way. And then I really got addicted to cooking when I moved to Japan and had a whole host of fresh, amazing ingredients to play with. I learned when to stick to a recipe and when to deviate from it, until I could just skim the ingredients and play with them a little bit. My point in telling you all of this is that if impatient, uneducated, unhealthy me can cook, anyone can cook. You may have to work up to making something like this, but if you can follow directions, you can do it.
The word “foodie” was first used by Paul Levy in 1982, but didn’t become mainstream until about 10 years ago. I think this is probably because the Internet had to make it viral. The terms “gourmet” and “epicure” sound snobbish, but “foodie” sounds approachable. . .until it isn’t. If you ask someone what they are interested in, and they tell you that they are a foodie, you can imagine that they have a food blog, or at the very least an Instagram account with strategically filtered photos to make their lattes look like they are in a scene from “the Godfather.” Their idea of a good time is probably shopping at Whole Foods or the Farmer’s Market, and they are probably also a budding photographer. They don’t just photograph their food—they stage it, manipulate lighting, add backdrops, etc. Now none of these things in themselves are bad—-I LOVE Farmer’s Markets and take my share of Instagram food photos and obviously post recipes on this website. But the problem with the word “foodie” is that it connotes a special class of people that are endowed with time, money, and knowledge to make food—and the eating of it—-an art form. ”Foodie” doesn’t mean you like food (who doesn’t?!)—it means you are in a different class from other people who just eat. This class distinction seems problematic to me because food, more than anything else that we take pleasure in, should be accessible and capable of being recreated by the masses. When I was 19 and trying to make Mac & Cheese from scratch, I didn’t have access to “foodie” culture. I wasn’t inundated with food blogs that posted pictures of the perfect homemade Mac & Cheese. And that is precisely why I felt “I can do this!” Making food back then was as simple as following a recipe. But if I were starting my cooking journey now—the intimidation! Blog after blog of dishes that are heavily staged and photographed to look more beautiful than they are even in person. Everyone and their dog is a food “expert.” And this would deflate 19 year-old me because all I want to do is make a humble, comforting dish to feed my boyfriend, and have no idea where to start.
There are obvious ethical implications of the word “foodie” as well—-in a world where many people do not have access to food at all, acting like food is an art form is a bit grotesque. Food is primarily about nourishment and health. It’s secondary role in OUR culture is to give pleasure, but we should remember that deriving pleasure from food is an extreme luxury. And while many of us may derive pleasure from cooking and photographing food (I certainly do!), we must remember that food is, ultimately, a humble subject. We can elevate it by tweaking flavors and playing with its presentation, but eating and enjoying food is what humans, generally, hold in common. One of my friends recently lost her father, and I started baking, as if bread could make her feel better. Food is something basic to gather around, to share and enjoy. I want to go back to the days when we said “epicure” or “gourmet,” because those terms connote that you are obsessed with the art of food—and are probably in the small class of people who make food their living, like chefs or food critics. ”Foodie,” on the other hand, is used by normal people who want to widen the divide between us and them—those people that just eat for nourishment. Maybe I’m a bit of a romantic, but I like to think that EVERYONE is a foodie, and deep down wants to eat healthy food and learn how to cook it. They just may not know it until they try.
For Christmas a couple years ago, we went to visit my sister-in-law Rachel in Thailand. Our first night there, the three of us were walking home from the town market when I fell off a broken curb. We went to the hospital and found out I had a sprained ankle and three torn ligaments. Ligaments are, according to the doctors, slower to heal than broken bones, so our trip was drastically altered, the day after we got there! We made the most of it (still got to ride elephants!) but Rachel lived in a tiny village with very little public transportation, so I spent most of our vacation in her apartment, watching movies and reading (Sidenote: if you are handicapped or know someone who is, thoroughly research before going to Thailand—it is by and large not handicap-accessible. And if you tear up an ankle/leg in Southeast Asia, the crutches are built for 100-lb people, so go with a wheelchair!) My culinary options were limited since Rachel didn’t have a kitchen, but thankfully there was a little hut of a restaurant 30 feet from her apartment. It was owned by a gruff woman named Noi who did all the cooking with one of her family members, and there were about 4 noodle and rice dishes on the “menu,” which basically consisted of us asking her what she makes and then she’d tell us—you can’t get more authentic than that! We’d sit at the rickety tables and drink beer with the locals and often get beers bought for us, while we spoke to Noi in a mixture of broken English and Thai. I’d never had pad Thai that was so fresh—the perfect mix of salty, spicy, sweet and sour. They actually serve it with sugar granules that you can sprinkle on! The noodles were somehow fried but al dente, the egg fluffy and light. But two weeks of fried food combined with being sedentary made me feel like a big, lazy, depressed grease ball. I ate pad Thai no less than 12 times during our trip. By the end, I felt how I imagine a food contest participant feels—the first hot dog is awesome, and the last one you are just crying through.
When we finally landed back in Japan, I told Michael, “I never want to see Thai food or fried food again” and made good on that promise for the next 7 months. And then one day after church I said, “I need some pad Thai” and we went to a local Thai restaurant, and I fell in love again. As I drank Chang beer and squeezed lime wedges on top of the noodles, I could almost imagine I was back in that little restaurant. Pad Thai and I just needed a little time for absence to make the heart grow fonder. I felt the pad Thai urge again this week. Michael is the Thai-cooking guru in our family, so this is his recipe. It’s 25 minutes from start to finish if you are a good multi-tasker or have a sous chef—this is with making your own pad Thai sauce! And don’t be afraid to sprinkle sugar on top!
Ingredients for dish:
1 package of rice noodles
Shrimp, peeled and deveined (we don’t always de-vein, and haven’t died yet)
Bean sprouts (we didn’t use them this time)
1 small white onion
lime wedges, chili flakes, green onions, and crushed peanuts for garnish
Ingredients for Pad Thai sauce:
If you don’t do a store-bought one, you’ll want to make the one below, which is pretty easy but IS the most time-consuming portion of the recipe:
8 tamarind pods
4 tbs. soy sauce
1 tsp. oyster/fish sauce
1 tbs. sugar (we used brown)
2 tsp. chili paste
- Soak rice noodles in a bowl/pan of warm to hot water. This softens them before you fry them.
- Scramble two eggs in a pan. Set aside and break into small, bite-sized pieces.
- Chop your onion and saute. Set aside.
- Shell shrimp and de-vein. Set aside.
- Cut the green onion in half lengthwise. Set aside.
- Chop the white onion, crush your peanuts, and slice your lime wedges. Set aside. Skip to Step 10 if you bought pre-made pad Thai sauce. Steps 7-9 take about 10 minutes.
- Start working on the sauce. Remove the fibrous outside and the shell from the tamarind pods, and put the inside of the pods into the water. Boil them in shallow water until the water turns caramel in color.
- Strain the water out and push the sauce that’s around the seeds through the colander, leaving the seeds behind. You should be collecting a dark brown paste in a bowl underneath the colander. If the paste is sticking to the seeds too much, use your hands to push the paste through the holes of the colander. If that is difficult (obviously it was for us) you can pour hot water on the seeds in the colander and collect whatever comes through, then boil it on the stove to get out the water content. The paste will be left behind. Discard the seeds and pods.
- Add the tamarind paste you gathered to the other sauce ingredients. Set aside.
- Strain the rice noodles and add them to a frying pan filled with 1 tbs. olive/canola oil. Add the pad Thai sauce (about 6 tbs. if you are using pre-made), then the onions and sprouts if you are using them, and stir frequently to make sure noodles and veggies are coated well with the sauce.
- Add the shrimp and make sure the shrimp are lying flat on their own (like on the side of the pan or under the noodles) so they are thoroughly cooked.
- After a few minutes of stir-frying these ingredients, remove from heat. Pour mixture into bowls.
- Garnish with the green onion, scrambled eggs, chili flakes, and peanuts. Make sure the scrambled eggs are broken up enough and are bite-sized.
- Squeeze a lime wedge over the dish and put on the side, in case you want to add more as you eat.
My husband is an amazing cook—I’ve always been intimidated by his prowess in the kitchen, especially when it comes to fish. My friend Gillian and I wanted to learn how to make his infamous salmon, so Michael did a little tutorial that I am happy to share with you! Our favorite way to eat fish is with some kind of carb (usually rice, though in this case we did imitation Red Lobster biscuits), and either roasted broccoli or asparagus. This recipe is perfect for a snowy day, and only takes about 20 minutes. The nice thing is that actual hands-on time is only a few minutes, and the salmon basically bakes in the oven while you are preparing the rest of your meal!
1. Cut your salmon fillets, keeping the skin on. Fill a frying pan with 1 tbs. butter and some olive oil, and heat on high. You want to use both olive oil and butter so that the oil doesn’t get too hot.
2. Fry the salmon in this mixture for 1 to 1.5 minutes on each side, keeping it at a high heat. Remove from heat and transfer to new frying pan or baking dish. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
3. Fill new pan/baking dish with your favorite marinade. Michael did soy sauce, lime juice, crushed garlic, butter and honey. The marinade should immerse at least 1/3 of each fillet. Play with these flavors—you could do some vinegar, white wine. . .pretty much anything! Honey could of course be substituted with sugar, but he likes to use honey because it glazes the fish nicely.
4. Place pan/baking dish in oven at 400 degrees, and let cook for 15-20 mins. You want to flip the salmon about halfway through so it’s evenly cooked and add more honey on the side that’s on top, so it’s still glazed at the end. The salmon is done when it’s slightly firm but before the white fat starts dripping out (use your judgment and play with cooking times). Season with pepper and Italian spices like basil and oregano.
Voila! Those are the secrets of the trade, my friends. I may conveniently forget how to do this recipe so that Michael can keep making it for me, but at least now I understand the magic behind the meal
Happy Monday friends! Here are a few things to help you get through the workday (click on the pictures for links).
2. An indulgent recipe (ignore my dirty pan)
3. An article to make you think
4. Images to make you think
5. Robes fit for a bride
6. Downton Abbey-worthy jewels
7. My new favorite blog
8. A beautiful “makeup” photoshoot
9. The best way to escape and regain sanity
10. ”What is a week-end?”
Lucy started smiling this week. She had a few Elvis lip-curls last week, and of course there have been the typical constipation-induced smiles since she was born. But today was the money shot. She also smiles at herself and a stuffed cow, which is quickly becoming the fourth member of our family. We’re pretty convinced Lucy thinks the cow is a person.
Families I have nannied for call me the “baby whisperer”—prior to having my own child, nothing came easier to me than feeding, clothing, playing with and loving babies and toddlers. I could change a diaper while texting, do multiple field trips a day, run errands with the kids, etc., all while being enthralled with them and maintaining a sense of humor. So why is being a parent so much harder than being a nanny? As a new parent, I struggle with everything normal parents complain about, but lately I’ve realized there is a greater struggle. At first I thought it was because I can’t escape—the baby time doesn’t end at 6PM. But that’s not it. I don’t want to escape Lucy, except for occasional dates with Michael & my girlfriends. I found the answer during a breakdown at 2PM on a Wednesday.
If you are a parent, you’ve been there. I was still in my bathrobe, unshowered and probably smelling worse than yesterday’s trash. I stumbled (literally) into the kitchen, dehydrated and hungry, and realized I hadn’t eaten anything since . . .I couldn’t remember since. Whenever this happens, the Brita pitcher is of course empty, and I look in the fridge for something that is MADE only to discover that in our infinite wisdom to be healthy, all we have are raw vegetables and uncooked eggs. While the Brita pitcher was filling, I wiped down the kitchen counter to start chopping vegetables, and noticed that my arm and elbow had dried baby formula smeared all over it, which flaked off onto the counter as I was wiping it down and canceled out all the cleaning. And then. . .I started crying and laughing hysterically at the same time.
I didn’t have days like this while nannying. Some of that has to do with parenting being a 24-hour job, but more of it has to do with me being ridiculously worried with EVERYTHING surrounding Lucy. If I take a long shower, will she wake up and be crying at me? If I leave her in the play chair for hours, will she be unstimulated and her brain start rotting? If I don’t make eye contact and sing/talk to her while she eats, will we not bond? And so on. And standing in my bathrobe in the middle of the kitchen, with formula caked on my arm, I realized these questions are ridiculous because
A) My baby has not died yet and she is constantly fed and watered, as the formula I was wearing shows, and
B) My baby, like all my “babies,” is loved
So loved that I will starve and thirst before any of these supposed “needs” is neglected. Which means I need to chill out and go paint my nails and read a freaking novel. Lucy is fine, but if I only think about her, I won’t be fine. I will be the crazy woman in a bathrobe at 2PM cackling to herself. And the world doesn’t need more parents who have lost their marbles being martyrs for a cause.