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.

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

Salad and casserole 3

Recipes Can Be Useful by Tasha Halpert

Kitchen ImplementsSometimes I use recipes, sometimes not. I have loved to cook ever since I was a small child when I made up mud and berry pies and added dandelion fluff for decoration. I had a spot in the lilac grove on one side of our yard where I kept my play dishes and utensils. When the wind blew, the boards for shelves I stuck between the branches would fall to the ground along with my dishes. That was a most unsatisfactory pantry. I did not learn to cook with real food until after I was married. . My mother did not allow me to make anything but salads and brownies. She did not consider me responsible enough for meal preparation.

These days in my kitchen a heavy magnet holds a collection of recipes to my refrigerator. There are always more of them than I can reasonably expect to attempt. Some, when I go over them as I must do from time to time will prove too time consuming. Others will require ingredients I don’t have on hand or want to invest in. Still, when I first saw them I had considered making them, and might even have done so were I inspired to.

Every few months, when the collection is beginning to outgrow the magnet I go through it. Then I discard those that, while they seemed tempting no longer appeal to me. Then I generally pull out one or two of the remaining ones to try. Some will become great favorites and get written into my spiral recipe notebook or pressed into the pages of a loose-leaf notebook that holds the recipes I have accumulated over the years. I truly enjoy cooking and like many who do, have collected recipes for most of my adult life. I also create my own recipes for that spiral notebook.

My husband and I are fond of garlic. One day I invented this recipe for fried eggs that is now a real staple. Melt a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Cover the bottom with three or four large sliced garlic cloves. Turn the heat down to medium low and break in three or four large eggs. Place fresh basil, cilantro, or in a pinch parsley leaves over the eggs. Cook until whites are firm. Carefully divide and turn eggs over. Cover with slices of your favorite cheese. Take from heat and cover. Let cheese melt, then serve to two.

Mushrooms and eggs go beautifully together for supper. Beat three or four eggs with two tablespoons of water. (Using water greatly enhances their flavor.) Add fresh herbs to taste, or even dried ones. I like tarragon, thyme is lovely, as is parsley or sage. Add a half a cup of cheddar or Swiss cheese squares to the eggs. Melt a tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Slice in 4 or 5 mushrooms of medium size. They should cover the bottom of the pan. stir and turn until they render up their juice and are cooked through. Add and melt another tablespoon or so of butter. Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the mushrooms. Turn gently as eggs cook until they are done and serve to two.

Hospitality by Tasha Halpert

Deb's party food 2As she does whenever she comes to the States, our friend from Denmark was visiting us. Over a lunch I had enjoyed making for us all, we had fun catching up on our recent activities. She was exclaiming over the food, saying how good it was and how happy she was to be with us. “I love cooking for my friends,” I replied. I do. It is one of my favorite occupations. Stephen and I both enjoy entertaining friends, and making meals for them is a big part of my joy.

She commented that she too enjoyed cooking for her friends. She then went on to say that her experience here in the States was that when they were entertaining, many people seemed to prefer taking people out to eat rather than preparing food for them at home. She said that in Europe it was more common to prepare dinner for their guests at home and less common to take them to a restaurant. I thought this was an interesting commentary, and I wondered what it indicated about Americans.

Around the holidays, the newspapers overflow with advertisements for meals to which you are supposed to bring your whole family. Alternatively, supermarkets and other providers of food advertise “home cooked” meals delivered to your door. My parents would never have considered eating anywhere for the holidays but at the home of a relative. Eating out was only for very special occasions, perhaps to celebrate a victory or a special anniversary.

Thinking back on my childhood years I remember that when my parents entertained it was usually relatively spontaneously and for cocktails before luncheon after church or dinner. Afterward our guests either went home or to a restaurant. My mother did not like to entertain and seldom had people for dinner parties. She had had a lot of that as a young child in her parents home and had been as it were inoculated against it. Her mother had given her all sorts of jobs to do related to making ready for guests, none of which she particularly enjoyed.

Her father had been in he diplomatic service in Germany prior to World War II and they had lived all over the globe. Her mother had entertained at lavish dinner parties with food prepared by a cook or catered. To my mother fell the task of setting the table, arranging flowers and so on. Later she and her two sisters would be called upon to perform musically for the guests. No wonder she disliked parties.

My first husband didn’t care to entertain either. We had one big party a year. it. My cooking was confined to the family. I have found it wonderfully different with Stephen. He has always loved to entertain and there have been many times in our lives together when I never knew how many would be sitting down to dinner. Because I have plenty of supplies on hand, this has never bothered me. To be sure, I enjoy dining out, especially as someone’s guest, however I am very happy to eat loving prepared home cooking.

Cooking With Love and Parsnips, by Tasha HalpertSnow scene 3

I believe that when you cook with love because you love to cook, the food tastes better. From the time I was small I have enjoyed and appreciated all things to do with cooking. One of my favorite occupations as a child was to arrange the items in the pantry off our kitchen. The wide shelving held all sorts of pots, pans, bowls, and other cooking supplies. In my mind I can still smell the wooden shelves covered with shiny oilcloth. Was it held on with thumbtacks? My memory stops there.

My mother considered food to be for nourishment, not pleasure. She used her food money carefully, and she did not like to spend extra money on the ingredients for desserts, which was all she permitted me to cook. She never ever baked anything, nor did she use much in the way of herbs or spices. My dad never cooked, nor did anyone else in my family. Why I so love to cook is a mystery to me.

Another reason my mother didn’t let me cook was that she considered me careless and irresponsible–perhaps I was, though most children without experience might be considered so. Occasionally I was permitted to make brownies and later, salads. As a young bride I had to teach myself to cook from a cookbook. Today although I have a fine collection of them, I seldom refer to my general cookbooks except for inspiration, unless I am baking. Successful baking generally requires exact measurements.

I also have many small cookbooks in my collection. These include recipes collected for church fund raising, pamphlets featuring commercial ingredients, and others that friends have given me. Most have one or two recipes I refer to on a regular basis that can be found nowhere else. While many of the small collections are for baked goods and casseroles there is one in particular that I have found to be very useful: Marjorie Standish Chowders Soups and Stews.

The recipe in it I have used most is for Parsnip Stew. Being a lover of parsnips for their sweet, meaty taste, I was delighted to come across this recipe. Easy to make and universally popular, I thought my readers would enjoy it. Although the original calls for salt pork, I make it with butter and a touch of olive oil. Ingredients: 2 tablespoons butter, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 small onion diced, 2 cups peeled, diced potatoes, 2 cups water, salt and pepper to taste, 3 cups cubed parsnips, 1 quart milk–any kind will do; Being somewhat lactose intolerant I use oat milk.

Method: Melt butter and add onion, stir and cook until transparent. Add potatoes and water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then simmer for 10 minutes. Add parsnips, bring back to a boil, simmer 10 more minutes. Test for doneness and add milk. Heat to serving temperature or pour into a container and store until ready to reheat. Serve with several tablespoons or more of minced parsley.