A Recipe for Unexpected Guests

Spring blossoms, whiteIt makes me laugh when it gets cold after a warm day and someone says, “What’s happened to spring? It’s winter again!” That’s what spring is: a back and forth time of year. One day it’s lovely out, the next it snows. It’s difficult to make plans. Once many years ago my father decided to give an Easter egg hunt in the house he had inherited from my great aunt Alice. He invited all the members of an extended family of 12 children grown and married with children of their own, and told them all to come at one o’clock on Easter for the party. Then he went to Maine, intending to return that morning.

At eight AM that day it commenced to snow furiously. By twelve it had pretty much stopped, however my father, having been snowed in was still in Maine. I was faced with hosting a party for a large group of people I had never met not to mention hiding the eggs, providing the food, and being gracious. I called a friend and together we managed to pull off the party. I was rather put out with my father who very cavalierly said, “Oh, I knew you could handle it.”

For as long as I have known him, Stephen, like my father has been prone to spontaneously invite people over for a meal. Confident in my ability to come up with something on the spur of the moment, he doesn’t hesitate to play the host, and to be honest, I can say I have never minded. I love to cook and it gives me pleasure to provide for my friends or even for strangers who may become friends. The trick is to have certain things on hand that I can rely on to fix quickly and easily to feed two or more guests. Potatoes to bake and serve with sauce and cheese, shrimp in the freezer–a quick fix for shrimp scampi. Another is cooked rice for the following recipe.

Chinese fried rice works wonders as a quick meal. Of course you must have the simple ingredients on hand. The secret of this dish is that it must be made with leftover rice. Very quick to fix, it is popular with most. To serve four, use a cup of cooked rice per person, one egg, half a cup of frozen peas, half cup of chopped onion, half a cup of chopped celery, and 2 Tablespoons soy sauce or Dr. Bronner’s Mineral broth. If you have any leftover chicken, or extra firm tofu chop a half a cup of that too. 2 or 3 sliced garlic cloves and 2 or 3 Tablespoons ginger in thin strips is good too.

Take a half a cup large or extra large shrimp per person from the freezer, and thaw briefly in warm water. Peel if necessary and line up on a cookie sheet. Bake at 425 for 5 or so minutes. Scramble the egg without any extra liquid and fry in some oil or butter. Set aside. In a large frying pan, sauté the ginger, garlic, onion and celery in oil until transparent. Stir in the rice and cook 5 minutes stirring. Add the peas, the egg, broken up, tofu, chicken and shrimp. Stir in the soy sauce and cook 5 more minutes stirring occasionally. Voila, Dinner is served.

Thoughts from a Thrifty Cook

Tasha's Fridge 1My mother felt strongly that food was precious and not to be wasted. She had been a young child during World War I in Germany, and the experience of scarcity had shaped her attitude. To her way of thinking, all food was to be used up one way or another. Then came World War II and rationing. I too was very young, yet this also gave me lessons in thrifty use of food. Fortunately I have been able to put my early lessons to good use in learning how to create meals from whatever I have left over even if I hadn’t already planned ahead.

A chicken, for instance normally provides two people at least three meals: hot, cold, and soup. That’s easy, but what about the bits and pieces of vegetables, meat, fish, or even pasta that might otherwise molder in the back of the ‘fridge. Why not make a soup, or combine them in a quick stirfry? If your family is fussy about food you probably can’t do that, however a retired couple like us, or even a single person may find it fun to experiment. One warning: it is important for the leftovers from the originals to make good combinations. A curry and a chili won’t mix well.

To use up most leftover vegetables, sauté half an onion until soft and then tip in whatever you have. This freshens the taste and makes them seem like a different dish. Add half a box of chicken or beef broth and serve this as a soup with a salad for supper. Throw in a handful of uncooked pasta of your choice and simmer or add leftover rice for a heartier dish. Or combine the vegetables and the rice or cooked pasta, sprinkle on curry powder, voila, another meal. Cook any leftover hamburger or some other chopped up cooked meat and add to the simple stirfry for a more filling lunch or supper. You can also cover it with leftover mashed potato, pop into the oven and have a shepherd’s pie.

I often use some of that convenient boxed coconut milk to season my leftover vegetables. Or in the summer I may add some salad dressing and toss them with lettuce, chopped sweet onion, and whatever else you like for a cold meal. Adding some canned salmon or tuna makes a more filling meal. The coconut milk is also very tasty with leftover chicken stirfry or soup. Simply chop up what you have, add whatever vegetables you like and warm them all up together with either leftover or freshly cooked rice. For soup, add chicken broth.

Whenever I make rice I make enough so I have some left over. I like to use it to make what I call Pudding As Rice: Per person use ½ cup rice, 1 Tbs butter, 1 Tbs brown sugar, about a half cup or so mixed dried fruit of your choice—brown and white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries, dried pineapple, or whatever else you fancy. Mix and cook together over low heat 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until all is mingled into a tasty mix and serve with almond, coconut or dairy cream poured over it. Or instead, combine it with fresh or canned fruit. This simple dessert pleases almost everyone.

 

Thrifty Ways

clothes-in-closetWhen I was a child a friend of my mother’s gave me the dresses that that her twins had outgrown. Because they were dressed alike, I had to wear two of whatever came my way. In the days when I was growing up, thrift meant making do with what was available. Aside from the fact that while my family had enough, they weren’t exactly wealthy, there was a war on and many things, including clothing and shoes were rationed.

In addition, in the years that followed, my mother had to stretch what my father earned to cover the needs of the three more children born after I turned eight years old. I remember how excited I was when in my sixteenth year I got a pair of Bermuda shorts. They were newly fashionable and I felt very special to have a pair. Although they were wool, I wore them all that summer and for a number of summers after that. For a long time they were my only pair.

Growing up in a thrifty household inclined me toward a thrifty lifestyle as an adult. When I was raising my own family of five children I had to stretch our food dollars to try to nourish as well as please my family. I learned all kinds of tricks to make inexpensive cuts of meat palatable and I baked cookies by the dozen so the children would have treats. Home made was far less expensive than store bought. My sewing machine hummed as I made dresses for my daughters and even some outfits for my sons when they were small.

Judging from the advertisements I see today, thrift is not especially fashionable. Bargains, of course are. However what is considered a bargain by some standards is not by others. When I was growing up the annual church fair rummage sales held in local churches were the best places to find inexpensive, serviceable garments. My mother was a faithful customer.

I do not remember there being consignment shops or other places one could find good second hand clothing when I was a child. When we got together I introduced Stephen to consignment and thrift store shopping, and he embraced it happily. I find it more fun to shop that way because you never know what you will find and the prices are far more reasonable than what other stores charge.

Over the years, I have amassed a wonderful collection of clothing. Much of it has come from consignment or thrift stores, the rest from sales. Certain garments have endured the test of time and I wear them joyfully in the appropriate season. Others get rotated back into the mainstream to be discovered by someone else who enjoys saving money by shopping wisely. What is especially nice for me is that now I can have a number of pairs of shorts for the price I would pay for one bought new, or a cashmere sweater that someone has passed on, at a fraction of the cost in a regular store. Perhaps this is a kind of payback for the days when I wore the twins’ hand me down dresses over and over again.

Tasha Halpert

Two Recipes from my Kitchen for Comfort Food

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As I have said before, I did not learn to cook from my mother. She did not think me responsible enough to deal appropriately with food, something that to her was a precious substance and not to be wasted. After I got married I learned how to cook from a cookbook. I made some funny mistakes and we ate them anyway because we were on a rather limited budget. Back in the 50’s you could actually live on $30.00 a month for food. To be sure, we ate a lot of hot dogs.

Over the years I have enjoyed experimenting with different recipes and learning what works and what does not. For instance, it might be just fine not to use a recipe for a vegetable casserole but under no circumstances try to make cookies without one. Of all the many recipe collections I possess, my old Fanny Farmers cookbook is my got-to for recipes. I look there first when doing research. There is something tried and true about a book that has been around so many years.

In addition, I am what you might call an old fashioned cook. I do not use nor do I possess a microwave oven and I hope never to have to have one. I know many people love them and find them convenient. No doubt they are. However, I feel no need to hurry my food along that way. By definition comfort food need not be cooked quickly. Sometimes the very best food is some that takes its time and lets he flavors develop.

Here are two of my favorite comfort food recipes: Onion soup and Bread pudding. The onion soup recipe is one I devised from trying different ways to make it. The Bread pudding has evolved from several recipes, my favorite being from The Cat Who Cookbook by Julie Murphy and Sally Abney Stempinski created from dishes in the “Cat Who” series by Lillian Jackson Braun.

Onion Soup Tasha: To serve 4 to 6, thinly slice two medium to large onions to make 1½ to 2 cups. In a heavy bottomed pot melt 2 Tbs butter and 2 Tbs olive oil. Add and sauté the onion, stirring frequently over medium heat. When onion is transparent, reduce heat and continue to cook uncovered over relatively low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally. Add 4 to 6 cups beef broth. Low sodium is best. Cook 15 more minutes and serve with garlic bread, or melt some cheese on toasted bread and float it on top for the French version.

Pleasing Bread Pudding: Depending on appetites, serves 4 to 8. Butter a 1½ quart casserole. Remove the crusts from 4 slices of firm, not soft bread. Cut or tear into smaller pieces. Place in casserole. Measure 1 cup any kind of milk, beat in two eggs, pour over bread. Sprinkle on 1 cup dried fruit—black and/or white raisins, dried cranberries, cherries etc. Sprinkle on 1 teaspoon cinnamon and ½ cup sugar. Add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir well. Add another cup of milk to make 2 cups. Stir again. Place casserole in a shallow pan filled with water. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until nicely browned on top.  Tasha Halpert

An Excellent Seafood Chowder by Tasha Halpert

CA Mural          As a child I loved to play with and rearrange the contents of my mother’s pantry, especially the bowls, utensils, and such. As an adult, I truly enjoy finding the perfect implements and utensils for my own food preparation and cooking. In the many years I have been doing it, I have accumulated a nice variety of cooking tools and containers. Because I truly enjoy working with food, I’m always looking for new items I can use. When someone left a cute little orange bowl here after a party, I fell in love with it. However, not wanting to be selfish, I set it aside in case the owner could be found. When after more than six months of inquiry had passed, I decided it was mine.

It sits cheerfully on my kitchen counter, washed and replaced immediately after use because once something fell on it in the dish drainer and took a chip out of the edge. It is a useful size, perfect to contain the ingredients for so many of the dishes I create. Recently, my orange bowl held the onions and celery I chopped up for a seafood chowder.

Since I have worked so hard to perfect this recipe I thought it might be fun to share it with my readers. One of my challenges was to create it without milk for my lactose intolerant husband and to thicken it without cream. Another was to cook it in such a way that the fish, clams or other seafood did not get tough. It shortens the time if you want to omit the thickening, however, it does wonders for the texture.

My basic seafood chowder with fish, clams, and/or other seafood begins with about 3/4 of a cup each of chopped onion and chopped celery, and 2 tablespoons each of butter and olive oil. Sauté until they are nice and tender. Add two medium potatoes, peeled and chopped into half inch pieces. I think large chunks of potato overtake the taste, and they do swell up in the broth. Add 4 cups of water, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and an optional teaspoon of thyme. Bring to a boil then simmer covered until potatoes are cooked through.

If all you want is a simple fish stew, add 3/4 of a pound of cod and whatever else you like (chopped clams, shrimp, scallops–bay or large, etc.) Cover pot and turn off the heat. Fish will cook in the cooling broth and not get tough when carefully reheated. However, if you take the trouble for the next step you will have a very special dish.

To make a chowder instead of a simple fish stew, you must have a thickening agent. In which case, before you put in the fish, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small pot. Add 1/4 cup any flour–gluten free is fine. mix well, then slowly add 1 cup any kind of unflavored milk, whisking constantly to make a very thick blend. Add this to the vegetables and broth, stir well and bring to a boil. Now add whatever fish you are using, turn off the heat, cover and let sit until fish is cooked through. Reheat gently to serve or refrigerate. It tastes even better the next day and will serve 4 nicely.

The Three Bite Rule

When I was growing up there was no such thing in my family as not eating what was put before you, or of getting up from the table before you had finished what was on your plate. The “starving children in China” statement was applied whenever I protested. I learned to swallow pieces of liver as if they were pills, with gulps of milk. However I was unable to cope well with the frequent soft boiled eggs, and finally my mother stopped giving them to me. I have memories of sitting at the table staring at the egg in its shell in the egg cup in front of me. That was one battle I won. Not until I was an adult did I learn to like soft boiled eggs and I never did learn to appreciate liver.

My mother built her cooking around my dad’s taste, so much of what we ate was pretty standard. She believed in providing nutritious food, and though plain, it was. Despite the fact that she really didn’t like to cook, she understood that providing nourishment is an important aspect of caring that nature has built into mothers, and she did her best. All too often family members, like me as a child, do not express appreciation for the family cook’s labors in the kitchen. Though it didn’t occur to me as a child, as an adult I personally think they might be grateful someone has taken the trouble to make a meal for them to eat.

As regular readers of my column know, I have always enjoyed cooking. I find it satisfying as well as enjoyable. One aspect of this is that I prefer to prepare meals from scratch. Some might be surprised to learn I don’t own a microwave, nor do I wish to. I even like chopping food by hand rather than using a machine, peeling my fruit and vegetables, and doing all the hands on work that is required to use completely fresh ingredients rather than prepackaged ones. I do not claim that this is particularly virtuous on my part. It is simply my preference.

This is because putting myself into the meal is part of my joy in the creation of it. My energy goes directly into the chopping, the peeling, the mixing and the stirring. This is my purposeful contribution to the health and welfare of those I love and fix food for. I am fortunate to have an appreciative husband who enjoys whatever I prepare. I had one once who wasn’t and his influence on our younger children made quite a difference in what they were willing to eat. He was a meat and potatoes man and we were on a casserole budget, so complaints were often made. Yet being hungry he still ate whatever it was.

I tried to make interesting meals, and I used to tell my children they had to eat three bites of whatever I served them or I would make them eat the whole thing. Fortunately young children are not logical and none of them ever figured out how if they wouldn’t eat three bites, how could I get them to eat the whole thing? I even did this with their playmates and guests. Today one of my delights is to introduce people to foods they may not have experienced–at least not the way I prepare it. However, I don’t tell them they must eat three bites or I’ll make them eat the whole thing.

Tasha Halpert

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Keeping Christmas Merry

By Tasha Halpert

Twinkles 3 (best)When I was growing up no one around me thought much about Christmas until after Thanksgiving, and even then mid December was when we would begin shopping. Once I knew the reality of Santa, I was eager to participate. I was taken to the Five and Dime in Beverly. There I would purchase stocking presents for my parents with my saved up allowance. My gifts were always practical: Pond’s Cold Cream for my mother, pencils for my dad. I usually made their presents for under the tree–Santa only brought the stocking gifts.

We didn’t put up the Christmas tree until the day of Christmas Eve. It stayed up until January 6. Elaborate house decorations were not part of our tradition, however we had lovely ornaments saved from year to year along with the real metallic tinsel that made the branches bow nicely. I do not remember much stress associated with the holiday, We had a few friends over on Christmas eve with simple snacks and went to a relative’s for Christmas dinner.

How nice it would be if today’s Holidays were as simple and lacking in stress as they used to be. I’ve had some thoughts on how to help that happen. For instance, it’s hard when the holidays bring back thoughts of those who are no longer with me. I remind myself to be grateful for the time we had together. Then I tell myself, be thankful for those who are with me still.

Music lifts my spirits. Playing Christmas carols, not to mention the lovely classical music written for this time, brings me back to myself and helps me remember what the holidays are really about. I especially like to play Christmas music while wrapping presents or preparing food. I prepare food ahead during the holidays, and I often combine kitchen tasks. Since I’m already in the kitchen, I chop vegetables for soup while I bake Christmas cookies.

Family traditions can be onerous. It is best not to “should” on yourself during the holidays. Instead, make new traditions of your own, more appropriate to your current life and lifestyle. One of mine is to bake cookies for those who have been helpful to me during the past year: My garage mechanic, the kind folk at the library, the postman, my hair stylist.

Here is one of my easy cookie recipes you might enjoy making and sharing. Jiffy Jam Delights: Bake at 375 for 10 minutes on a well greased cookie sheet. Makes 30 to 36 delicious cookies in a half hour from start to finish. Ingredients: 1/2 cup Butter, (no substitutes please),1/3 cup Sugar, 1 Egg, 1 Tsp. Vanilla, 1/4 tsp Salt, 1 2/3 cups all purpose Flour, 2/3 cup Jam (raspberry preferred by us. Method: Beat butter, sugar well. Add egg, vanilla salt. Blend in flour. Drop from a teaspoon onto greased sheets. Make a dent in the tops of the cookies and fill with a half teaspoon or so of jam. Bake only until firm and dry to the touch. Cool before eating. Jam is very hot.