Thursday, May 20, 2010

OD on Nostalgia

My hubby Tim likes Classic food. If I make Chocolates Chip Cookies, he wants them to be regular chocolate chip cookies; 3 inches across, semi-sweet chips, no nuts. If I make pot roast, it has to be the pot roast your grandmother would have made; in a Dutch oven with the veggies and no crazy spices. If we make his favorite breakfast, Eggs Benedict, there can be no deviations. Eggs, english muffins, canadian bacon and hollandaise. Nothing more, nothing less. He likes food to be like it was when he was young or like when he first tasted it.

Tim is a nostalgic eater.

Tim's comfort food can be a source of stress for me. There are some foods I just won't make, because there is no way it will ever live up to the memory in his head. I sometimes wonder if he really remembers what it tastes like, or if it is the taste mixed with the emotions of the time.

Nostalgia is also difficult in restaurants. He can't stand when cooks put spinach in the Eggs Benedict, or don't put 1000 Island Dressing on a Reuben. "Why do they always have to do something different? Why can't they just make it like it should be?" He seems to seek out the replica and in turn often seeks out disappointment.

If you ask Tim what his favorite soup is, be ready for a half-hour story. It is something called Book Binder Soup. He used to get it with his father in this special old restaurant in Chicago. My husband has a great memory for every little detail. He will tell you what the place looked like, smelled like, the fabric napkins, how his father acted, what is in the soup, and how it made him feel. He will go on and on about the soup.

Early in our marriage, he admitted to me that his Mom asked the restaurant for the recipe and they actually gave it to her. "Did it taste the same?" I asked. "Pretty close" he said. Which is saying a lot. So, I called up his mom and asked for the recipe. She told me no. She said that If I made the soup then it would be 'Heather's good soup' and she wanted to be the only one to make him his favorite soup. "You can have the recipe when I die."

At first I was taken aback and angry. I thought she was pulling some sort of Mother-in-Law power trick. I mean, we live two states away! She flies in to see us 2-3 times a year. I always do the cooking while she is here! Why would she deny her own son his favorite recipe?

Now that I have 12 or so years of cooking for this man under my belt, I see it a different way. I always assumed that he became this nostalgic as an adult. I now think he has always been this way.

Maybe, even as a small child, he was comparing tastes from the past, always slightly unsatisfied with the current version. When his Mom made the soup and got a "Pretty Close! " well, that is about as good as it gets. She probably just wanted to hang onto that recipe, that feeling from him. The approval of current times, of current Moms.

My husband is wonderful in so many ways. I am lucky and blessed as a wife and a mother to have a husband who is so kind, helpful, and sexy. Who walks on water in more ways than I can tell you. Nostalgia is a bitter-sweet blessing in this marriage. When it comes to food and travel, I stick to the unexplored. It means that I am always trying new things, making discoveries.

Some day I imagine, after a lifetime of exploratory eating, Tim will order something in a restaurant and say, "It's good, but not as good as yours." That is the power of nostalgia. If you hang around long enough, you become part of it.

I found this recipe on my own nostalgic search for the perfect Shrimp Scampi.  You know, Shrimp Scampi like your favorite Italian place makes.  After quite a few dry and icky scampi recipes, I came across this one on the Internet.  It certainly isn't perfect. But it is easy, quick and full-proof.  You can go from frozen shrimp to meal in about 35 minutes!  For some reason, I almost never put this over linguine.  I usually put it over white rice.  Don't know why, I have just always done it that way.  In case you are wondering... No, Tim doesn't think it is a perfect Shrimp Scampi, but he does like it.

Shrimp Scampi Anne  
*feeds 4

1 1/2 pound jumbo bay shrimp -about 30 jumbo
1/4 cup olive oil
salt, black and red pepper -- to taste
3 cloves garlic -- minced
1/3 cup parsley -- chopped or 3 tbl dried
1/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs
8 tablespoons melted butter
1/3 cup white wine
1 dash Tabasco or Louisiana sauce
linguine or white rice-- cooked
1/4 cup Parmesan and Romano Cheese -- grated

Slit shrimp down the back leaving tail tip section of shell on the shrimp. Devein, wash and dry shrimp.

Arrange shrimp, single layer, in 10-inch square baking dish. Pour olive oil evenly over shrimp. Sprinkle to coat with salt, black and red pepper, garlic, parsley and bread crumbs. Cover dish and bake in preheated 300F oven for 20 minutes.

Pour butter, Tabasco, and wine evenly over shrimp. Bake uncovered 5 minutes longer or until done. Do not overcook; the shrimp will toughen. Serve over cooked linguine and top with grated cheese.

Recipe Notes:
For the shrimp, I use the frozen kind that you can get at Costco (Kirkland Brand, teal bag).  They come deveined and lovely!  The bag I buy is 2 pounds of 21-25 size shrimp.  For this recipe I dump half of the frozen bag into a glass bowl and put them in the sink, letting the water run gently on them for a couple minutes.  The flowing water is what makes them defrost quickly.  Stir them once or twice to break them up.  When they are mostly thawed, drain and dry with paper towels. 
I use a garlic press for this recipe, so that you can keep the pieces of garlic small.  In this picture, you can see the shrimp layed out in my oval Corning Ware baking dish (2.5Qt).  The garlic, dried parsley and salt and peppers have been applied.  You can kind of see how much red pepper I use. Just an even light dusting.
Seasoned bread crumbs work well, as well as plain.  I cover the pan with foil and throw it in the oven.  Then, mix the liquids.  Boy, my kitchen was pretty sunny the day I made this!
Of course, great wine would make this great!  However, I am not a huge white wine drinker.  When I have it great, when I don't I use those bad Pino Grigios or Chardonnays you can find in a 4-pack or milk-like carton.  I think I am a bit overzealous with the wine because you can see my liquids equal about a cup, and they should be a bit less.  I use 3 shakes of Louisiana sauce in this recipe, and it isn't too spicy for my kids. 
I hope you like the recipe.  If you have a "perfect" Shrimp Scampi recipe, please leave me a comment.  I would love to try it.  Nostalgia can be pretty powerful!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Free-Stone Fairy Tale?

Yesterday, my five year old Claire and I were tooling through the supermarket in search of a couple items. As we passed through the produce, I picked up a bunch of bananas and stopped dead in my tracks.

"What is that smell?" I gasped. Peaches! Not just any peaches. Peaches that actually smell like peaches. From a distance. Peaches so tiny and so overripe that they were tucked in behind the bananas. Still, peaches.

It has been a long winter of apples. That is all I am saying. I am sick to death of apples.

Claire was dancing around as I was inspecting the pick. "Can we buy the peaches? Can I have a peach RIGHT NOW? How about in the car? Can I have a peach in the car on the way home?" Unfortunately, the news was not good. I don't know where these peaches were from (it is too early for Texas peaches, I believe) but they were tiny and hardly hours from being too ripe to sell. Most were wrinkly and bruised. These would hardly last the bagging let alone make it into lunches.

"Let's buy enough for a peach cobbler!" I struck a bargain. And so we picked the best of the bunch and headed home.

"I know how to make peach cobbler" she says on the car ride home. "I saw it on Cooks Country!"

Yes, it runs in the family. Once a week I DVR the show Cook's Country by the American Test Kitchen folks. If you can get past the ringing steeple bells and rocking chairs on porches, it is a good clean cooking show. Less gastro-porn and commercials than your average Food Network fare. Claire loves Cooks Country. She watches them repeatedly, especially the ones about desserts.

Later as I shove dinner in the oven, I contemplate these little peaches. Usually I peel peaches with a knife. These peaches were only slightly bigger than lemons. I was sure that if I pealed them there would hardly be enough flesh to bake. So, I got out my big pot to do a quick blanch to release the skin. The water is at a boil, there is another bowl with ice-water nearby, I am just about to dump the peaches in when Claire strolls into the kitchen.

"What are you doing?" she screeches, alarmed.

"I am blanching the peaches to release the skin so that I can peel them." I say, dumping.

"But that isn't how they do it on Cooks Country! They use a special peeler with a zig zag edge."

“Shoot” I think. "You mean a serrated peeler? I don't have one of those. I am going to do it this way."

"Hmmm" she says, unbelieving, one eyebrow raised. "If it works, can I peel them?"

I was pretty ecstatic (inside) when the skin slipped right off the peaches. She was surprised it worked and delighted to peel them.

As I drained away the ice-water from the now-slippery peaches she says, “If you cut them all the way around with the knife, can I pull them apart and pull the pit out for you?"

This isn't going to be pretty. "Well… Cooks Country used free-stone peaches, and these are cling, so that isn't going to work." I try to explain the difference between free-stone and cling peaches as I am messily cutting the flesh away from the stubborn pits.

"But that isn't fair" she wails. Claire is pretty dramatic. "You have to do it all with a knife, and you won't let me use a knife. I wish we had free-stone peaches! Cling peaches are dumb." She twirls on one foot and stomps out of the kitchen.

I wish this story had a great closure. Some sort of a-ha moment. I picture my daughter, smiling over her Peach Cobbler ala Mode, sauce dripping down her chin, saying, "Wow Mom, this peach cobbler is as good as the one on TV." But that didn't happen. Not that she didn't enjoy the cobbler. She had two bowls. But there was no fairy tale ending, no overt moral.

Later, as I was falling asleep, it occurred to me that maybe I had misunderstood. Today she learned, much to her dismay, that there are different kinds of peaches. Also she saw that there is more than one way to skin a peach. She might have learned a little something about overcoming obstacles in the kitchen.

What I hope she learned more than anything is that her Mom is a pretty good cook. And you can't learn everything from TV.
note: a recipe next time, I promise!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bagging 101

I spent $245 at the grocery store today. After 5 days of stomach flu, in which I have no idea what the family ate, and 5 days of being out of town, in which I am pretty sure they ate what I left for them, the cupboards were bare. Except for some Claritin and a tube of toothpaste, everything in my cart was edible. Epic shopping. Cart overflow.

My grocery shopping trips usually come in the $130 to $180 range. That is about 5-8 reusable shopping bags worth, depending on the skill of the bagger. Given you can put 4 bags in the bottom of the cart, one on the leading edge tray and 2 in the child seat, I can usually get away with no bag stacking. This is strangely very important to me. Quite frankly, I am bagging sensitive. If there was a behavioral spectrum of bagging sensitivity, I would be off the chart. I make grown baggers cry.

I knew I was in trouble today when the items in my cart started creeping above the rim. The milk was in the underbelly. A bagging nightmare.

You see, I don't like my veggies squished. I spend a lot on fresh veggies, some of it organic. When I get home to smashed tomatoes or bruised bananas, it makes me very angry! During the summer when peaches, nectarines and plums are in season, I get nervous to the point of shakes. "DON'T SMASH THE PRODUCE" I want to yell. But I don't. I try to be nice. I try.

Why is it that the entire success of a grocery procurement process depends on the lowest paid person in the store? Conveyer belt micro-management, this is my coping mechanism. Short of just telling the check-out person that I want to bag myself, this is the only way to have some insurance that the heavies are on the bottom.

• Cans, boxes and bottles go first. Everything that can sit in the car a day and will make a nice stable base in the cart. Two cereals, two crackers, some pasta, various beans, salsas and canned tomatoes. Tightly packed! I want a nice solid foundation. Insert 10 inches conveyer break. Maybe 12 inches.

• Next all of the freezer and cold items; ice creams, frozen raspberries and peas, 30 or so yogurts, assorted dairy and maybe a frozen pizza. All of it gets covered up with my special padded cold bag with the zipper. I love that bag! Make sure you can zip it. I like it zipped. Insert another 10-12 inches here.

• Now it gets a little ambiguous, but I like to jump to the meats. Meats usually stack well and make a pretty decent base. Down go the chicken, fish, lunch meats and cheeses, tortillas and assorted leftover cold-ish things. If I only have enough time to bring two bags in the house, I like to know that all my fridge and freezer items are sharing bag space. No rogue sour cream, please!

• At this point, I am going to send down 3 reusable bags and all the fruits and veggies. They are going to be ordered by how likely they are to break a car window when thrown at a distance of 6 feet, by me. Butternut squash, potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, oranges, lemons, limes, zucchini, bell peppers, tomatoes... I wish for them to be distributed evenly, with the most fragile fruits on top. Little tip, lettuce makes nice packing material.

• Of course, there are some items that must be saved for the very end. The usual suspects, eggs and bananas of course. But I like to save boxed berries, chips and all my bread for the end also. They can be distributed on top of the veg. That is fine with me!

• Milk is always last and doesn't get bagged, thank you very much.

I am thinking of becoming an Independent Bagging Consultant. Mandatory classes for new baggers and ones that want to become "certified." There will be PowerPoint presentations and practical lessons. Maybe a healthy snack will be offered. Some day you too could make it home with intact produce. You'll thank me!