The bag lady blues

A stage play The Purse Chronicles debuted in Denver this past year from author Coleen Hubbard. The play involves two men who find a purse and try to imagine the personality of the woman from the contents. I thought of this play as I peered into my bag this week. It’s winter, so I switched to my bag with lots of pockets. You know the over-the-shoulder-boulder-holder, bicycle courier, bag. Two months ago, when the holidays were upon us, I thought it would be easier to have this big bag since I would be hauling a lot of stuff with shopping and all. Unfortunately, the holidays are over and my bag is getting heavier by the day. I emptied it out and couldn’t believe what was in there.

THE BAG

I have six contact lens cases in there. I think I kept throwing them in because I couldn’t see one in there; Fifty credit card receipts, an empty prescription bottle and a bottle of hair product my stylist gave me to sample; A digital camera, battery charger and four photo cards; My wallet with cash, drivers license and cards, a check book, wallet sized pictures, five professional membership cards, business cards, four pens, three gift cards, and two types of wipes; Three sets of earrings, two necklaces, a bracelet, a watch and a rosary; Ten coupons, a note to myself, empty candy wrapper, two types of hand cream, prescription glasses case, reading glasses case, a birthday card and a book of stamps; A handkerchief, a pack of gum, a napkin, silver jewelry cloth, mouth guard container, a plastic spoon and a pair a gloves.

The contents and type of bag one carries around says alot about their personalities. A window to the soul. I think mine is more like a junk drawer.

In the past 60 years, the contents of our bags have changed. We went from one little bag to carry money and lipstick in, to lots of extra bags to meet different needs. We need bags to carry our coupons, daytimer, laptop, newspaper, magazines, smartphone, cell phone, work out clothes, yoga mat, umbrella, lunch, and bottled water.  My bags spill over into my car as I have places to go before and after work. 

I also have extas bags in my car to switch out to for style if I am out and about. Two or three fun stylish bags. After I arrive at my destination I decide which bag would look better with my outfit. I swap out the contents from one bag to another then head in with my bag that coordinates with my outfit.  

Why do I do this to myself? I don’t think I am trying to be a hoarder. I want to be prepared for any situation that is thrown upon me when I am out of the house. And I probably spend most of my time away from home in my car. My car sometimes feels like my second home. 

My bags are my baggage. These bags are packed with some level of fear. Fear of being unprepared. Occasionally, I have to give myself an intervention and purge the contents when the strain becomes too much for my shoulder or when the car needs cleaning.

I’m getting older and all of this stuff in my life is dragging me down. It takes a lot of time to throw stuff out and be organized. I think I am staying ahead of it and then it piles right into my life again. There isn’t enough time built into our lives to stay organized. We run from event to event and have little down time.

I just gotta keep pluggin along, cuz I’m singing the bag lady blues.

The Fearless Cook takes on…Garlic

Fear, innate in all of us, is a human instinct. It is nature’s coping mechanism to protect us from the emotional bad stuff. The number one thing people are afraid of is a terrorist attack. Cooking in the kitchen did not make the top ten list. My minor in psychology causes me ponder these things.

I grew up in a rural town and some people might say that because of that upbringing I was sheltered from the “real world”. I was exposed to cooking according to how my mom did it in the 60s and 70s. There were five kids in my family and cooking was a way to get food on the table to feed seven people. Cooking with non-traditional ingredients and foods weren’t high on the list.

I will never forget my first exposure to garlic. It was 7:00 am on the hospital day shift and the assistant head nurse was giving me me my assignment for the day. She was of Italian descent and she reeked of garlic on her breath. Whoa! That was overpowering! My mother never cooked with real garlic, ever. She used garlic powder or salt that got sprinkled into a sauce or chili. I had no idea such a thing existed.

This was the beginning of tackling my fear of cooking. I was determined to overcome foods and ingredients I knew nothing about, one at a time. The basics of cooking are the ingredients, one ingredient building on another. One ingredient can make a recipe sing.

So, with respect to garlic, you were my first fear. I looked at you in the produce section all tiny in that wrapping paper of Mother Nature. I wasn’t fond of your strong smell in my hands. But combined with olive oil in a sauté pan and heaven!

As you can see below, garlic comes in many forms,already minced in a jar, already peeled in a bag, dried minced and of course garlic powder. With all the focus of cooking magazines, websites, TV shows and features; garlic is available everywhere now.

When I started cooking with garlic I started with garlic powder. Then I moved to the minced garlic in a jar. Both of these versions didn’t require touching it with my hands. I slowly moved to the real thing and it took an awful lot of practice AND TIME to break open those cloves.

the side of a knife to break open the clove covering

look a clove!

Now, I have broke open many a garlic bulb and the cloves are not always that easy to pull apart and break open. But with practice I have gotten better. Now once it is out of the paper you can put it in a garlic press to mince it (still don’t have to touch it!), mince it or chop it with a knife (full hands on at this point), or put it whole in the food processor (and let the blades chop it for you). I have seen several ways to get the smell of garlic off your hands, which include: pouring mouthwash over your hands, rubbing your hands with kosher salt and lemon, and rubbing your hands on a piece of silver.

Garlic is a member of the onion family. China produces the most garlic in the world with the U.S. 6th in production. Throughout history, many cultures believe in the medicinal properties of garlic. Garlic cloves were swallowed whole or strings of garlic bulbs were worn around necks to ward off viruses and even bacteria. It is available in pill or capsule form in the health food supplement aisle for people trying alternative methods of reducing cholesterol levels. This health benefit has helped the popularity of garlic. Knock on wood, I have not been sick this year. In fact, one day when I felt a cold coming on, I roasted some garlic with vegetables and my sniffles dissipated.

One of the best ways I like to use garlic is to get a big piece of aluminum foil and throw 6-8 whole cloves in with fresh beets from the garden, cover it with olive oil and kosher salt. It gets steam-roasted in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. The garlic is so buttery, soft and wonderful that I eat it whole or spread it on a crostini. No offensive garlicky flavor.

The nice thing about all these different forms of garlic is that it makes it easier for us as consumers to use it more readily. There is a garlic chicken recipe that calls for 40 cloves of garlic. I saw Alton Brown make it once on “Good Eats.”. How would you like to unwrap several heads of garlic, smash and peel until you got 40 cloves? That is labor intensive. That bag of already peeled garlic would save me 30 minutes of prep time. I conquered my fear, but I don’t want to spend my whole day in the kitchen. I do have a full time job afterall.

The Fearless Cook takes on….Chopped Liver

The Fearless cook did a mini survey this week of reader’s fears of cooking and liver appeared.  I am a chicken about liver. I guess I forgot about liver many years ago because I faced my fear about it and moved on.  About 25 years ago I decided I would be “cultured” and try to make pate’. I made it, liked it but didn’t see it appearing in my life again.

In the grocery store, you can find chicken and calves liver easily. My mother used to cook calves liver in the Weight Watcher days of the 1970s when it was recommended to eat once a week for stamina while losing weight. She also tried to feed it to us kids; flouring it, frying it in oil, adding fried onions . She tried to convince us it tasted like chicken. Yeah, sure chicken fried liver, yummy. My problem with liver is I dislike the taste, immensely. 

Liver is an organ; I have one you have one and animals with vertebraes have them also. It is an organ where the protein stores for the body lie. I am all about trying to be healthy and liver is high in iron and Vitamin A, but it is also high in cholesterol. Many cooking sources recommend not to eat it very often. 

I decided to make chopped liver. Chopped liver is a traditional dish served in many European countries and for those of Ashkenazi Jewish decent (www.brighthub.com).

So, I searched several recipes and found Ina Garten 2001 Barefoot Contessa Parties! recipe for Chopped Liver.  This is from www.foodnetwork.com website. I love Ina Garten because her recipes are simple and delicious. It also had about 100 or so reader reviews that were highly favorable. Any liver recipe that can “hide” the taste of liver sounded good to me.

Ingredients: 
2 lbs of chicken livers
2 lbs of chicken liver

free range chicken liver

1 cup of rendered chicken fat (or extra virgin olive oil=EVOO)
2 cups of diced yellow onion ( 2 med onions)

diced onion

1/3 cup Madeira wineMadeira wine
4 large eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and sliced
1/4 cup parsley
2 tsp fresh thyme
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper

Drain the livers, saute in 2 batches each with 2 TBSP fat or EVOO at medium-high heat, turn once for a total of 5 minutes, with the center barely pink. The recipe recommends not to overcook the liver or it will be dry. Transfer to a large bowl.

saute the chicken liver

In same pan, saute the onions in 3 TBSP of fat or EVOO for until golden. Add the Madeira and deglaze the pan, scraping the sides. Transfer to the bowl with the livers.

Add the eggs, remaining fat or EVOO, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper and cayenne. Toss to combine.

Transfer to the food processor and in batches pulse until coarsely chopped. Okay, it turned into a puree, like pate’.

Season to taste, chill in the refrigerator and serve with crackers, matzo or crostini.

Chopped liver is served

Okay, I made a few mistakes, but corrected them as I went along. I had to go back and add the hard-boiled eggs and the EVOO because I forgot them. The picture above with the eggs shows them being added to already pureed ingredients. What I learned from my mistake, and tasting as I went along is that the eggs and the oil helped dampen the strong liver taste. It tasted much better after adding them.

The second thing I learned is that this makes a whopping amount of chopped liver. I think it made about 3-4 cups. I am lucky that I am taking it to a party this weekend. I’ll let you know how the guests like it. If I made it again I would cut the recipe in half using only one pound of chicken livers.

The dog thought it smelled great

Cooking the liver made the kitchen smell wonderful. Okay the dog did get a taste of the liver freshly cooked from the pan. She is a such a faithful fan.

Paper? Plastic? Please don’t BYOB!

Okay I jumped on the bandwagon, I have reusable bags that I to take to the grocery store for my purchases.  These bags are everywhere. Businesses are selling them or giving them away and slapping a brand name logo on the side. Everyone’s doing their part for the environment, right?

My friend Joy, the bargain shopper, brought me a bag from TJ Maxx that was HUGE. I couldn’t believe it. I took that puppy into the grocery store once and it fit all the cereal boxes into it perfectly. I also have some very small bags that are great for items like cosmetics and gum.

But have you ever noticed? All those bags come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. There is no standard size, they are all different.

Here’s another observation. Those bags get really dirty using them over and over again. If you don’t get a plastic bag in the meat department to wrap your meat, it’ll ooze all over your bag. 

And you know what else? The baggers at the grocery store hate my bags. 

I was at the store and a checker looked at my bags and made fun of them. “Wow these bags are really small.”  I didn’t think anything of it letting it slide. But, then I had the same checker again and she made the same comment, again. I couldn’t believe it.

Then I got self-conscious. So I sorted through all my bags and made sure I had all similar sizes that were roomy and square on the bottom so they would sit well when being loaded.  I washed them, folded them neatly and had them sorted when I returned to the store for my shopping. 

Well the checkers liked me and my bags for a while but then another problem came up. The baggers wanted to treat my bags like the plastic bags. You know how it goes, they throw a few items in a bag and then toss it into the cart. Then they would run out of my bags and have to use the plastic bags.

Well, that did it. So now I’m practically bagging the groceries myself. The bagger is really looking at me now.  So I am bringing my bags, sorting the items as they are scanned, and bagging the items according to the size and shape of the bag. 

My family doesn’t understand why I hate shopping at the grocery store now. The fun is gone. All the planning. The grocery list, the coupons, and now the bags. I am exhausted before I pull into the parking lot. One place that is fun to shop is at Costco. The items are so big you barely need a bag or a box to put it in. The checkers just pile it all back in the cart and you wheel it out to your vehicle. If I need a bag for small items, it is already in the car!

BYOB? Bring your own bags? No booze!

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The Fearless Cook takes on…The Clay Cooker

I am a self-taught cook. Growing up in the early 1970s, home cooking was making casseroles and big slabs of meat for family meals. I was more of a baker in my teenage years where the recipes were pretty straight forward. Launching into the world of good cooking is a leap of faith for me to overcome my fears of the ingredients and the kitchen equipment. I have transformed from the fearful to the Fearless Cook.

This week I am taking on the Clay Cooker. It was given to me by my friend Joy, who should start her own blog on shopping at garage and estate sales.  She is a master. So she dropped this clay cooker on my door step in a box and there it sat in my entryway for a couple of months. On a Saturday afternoon I pulled it out and read about it. Lucky for me there was a little instruction sheet included for care and cooking instructions. The one I have is a ROMERTOPF (Roman pot) which has an excellent online website. You can also type in the key word  “clay cooker” and see what appears on the internet.

The clay cooker has an interesting history in many cultures with various names for the pot. It is called by different names for Chinese (sand pots), Italian (tian), Spanish (cazuela),  Moroccan (tagine). It’s like an ancient version of the crock pot – an all in one pot meal vessel. Whichever one you choose, follow the cooking directions closely because they all vary. Some are for oven use only, some are versatile enough to use on a barbeque.

My Romertopf is an unglazed terracotta vessel and from the picture looks like a roaster. This one fits a whole chicken perfectly. Cooking a whole roasted chicken is a perfect way to break in a clay cooker.  This month in January 2011 Martha Stewart Living takes on the basics of the roasted chicken and Jan/Feb 2011 Cooking Light has Chicken Makeovers for the theme.

A few rules.  This type of cooking vessel has some special care instructions. The clay pot and lid must be soaked in water for a least 15 minutes before using, if it is brand new 30 minutes of soaking for first use.     Once food is prepared it place it in your clay cooker into a cold oven then set the oven temperature. 

clay cooker in cold oven

 If using broth or water in the recipe, allow for additional time to cook about 15-30 minutes. Some instructions say to increase the oven temperature by 50 degrees – but I did not with my cooker.  When using it for the first time and unsure, use a meat thermometer to check for doneness. 

There are some definite no-no’s in cooking with a clay pot cooker. Never: 1) use it under the broiler; 2) let it touch the sides of the oven; 3) use it on a stove-top element. When removing it from the oven always set it on a hot pad to avoid temperature extremes from hot to cold or it will break. So here is my roasted chicken.
browning the chicken

 

It took about 1 hour 20 minutes of cooking with the lid on. I wanted my chicken browned so I removed the clay cooker lid and let it brown for about 15-20 minutes before removing from oven. Then I set it on top of oven pads on the counter and put the lid back on it to rest the chicken before slicing and serving. It can stay in the clay pot and not continue to cook yet stay warm.

Cleaning and storage.   A few more no-no’s involved with cleaning and storage. Never: 1) use scouring powders as they will clog the pores in the cooker; 2) put it in the dishwasher; 3) store with the lid sealed as mold may form inside. Clean it using salt or baking soda and water paste to remove debris. You could also add water to the cooker bottom and allow the water to come to a boil in the oven to loosen food debris.
Air dry your clay cooker and store it lid inverted upside down into cooker bottom as shown below.

Store with the lid inverted upside down in the bottom

yummy chicken

This method of cooking has produced the juiciest chicken I have ever eaten. It steamed it in it’s own juices. It was yummy. Happy roasting. 
 

Cilantro – An ingredient not to fear

Since there are so many excellent blogs on baking and cooking…I decided to focus my food blog on ingredients and kitchen equipment that I have overcome my fear of using in recipes. 

The first blog is about my most favorite herb, cilantro. Cilantro brings out strong emotions – people either love it or hate it. Many years ago I purchased cilantro dried in a jar and it tasted like soap. I couldn’t understand what the flavor of soap could add to a recipe and dismissed it from my life. But, I live in Colorado where there is a strong Mexican influence in restaurants and cooking here and cilantro is a big part of that.

Cilantro is the leaf of the coriander plant and is commonly referred to as Chinese parsley. It is used in Egyptian, Indian, Southeast Asian, Chinese, Mexican and Peruvian foods. 

I overcame my fear of cilantro when I saw Rick Bayless make a pico de gallo shrimp taco on the beach somewhere in Mexico. I was excited that the recipe was so easy to make and he used fresh cilantro.   The flavor of cilantro is pure and it brings out the best in all the flavors of the pico de gallo – the tomato, red onion, salt and lime. YUM. My family was hooked and so was I.

a cilantro bunch

Cilantro can be found in my supermarket year round just like parsley. I have never been adept at growing it, but I know people who are. When I purchase it at the store I rinse it off, shake off the water, wrap it in paper towels and store it in plastic bag container specifically for produce. It keeps in the hydrator of my refrigerator for about a week. 

When I am ready to make pico de gallo, I rip off a handful from the top of the bunch. I don’t use the stems and use only the leaves for chopping. I roll the leaves up together before I start chopping.

And I chop over and over in different directions until you get small uniform pieces.

Here is my pico de gallo – sorry the cilantro is buried and if I was a “super” cook I would have had the cilantro on top of the red onion. This is how I store it in the refrigerator. Then when it is time to serve, I mix the ingredients (squeeze the lime to taste) and serve with tortilla chips.

As you can see, cilantro can be found pureed in a tube. I will probably use this if I am making something like Pad Thai, a dish where the cilantro gets added at the end to add flavor.

I will probably never buy dried cilantro. That flavor of soap still lingers in my memory.