Category Archives: Kitchen Philosophy

Cooking from the Pantry

Hello Gentle Readers, it has been a minute. As we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty and disruption, many of us sheltering in place by choice or by law, there are a lot of us spending a lot more time in the kitchen. I’ve often said that having been raised on a farm by an extended family that did survive the Great Depression, that I had missed my era to shine.

Vegetable stock in progress

Vegetable stock from saved trimmings and scraps. Something for nothing, soon to be vegetable risotto.

I am a Great Depression style cook—I would rather make do with what I have, or use a simpler recipe, than shop for and cook exactly from a recipe. So bear with me, because I know there are a hundred better and more well-photographed recipes for anything I’ll put up here. But this is not a moment to go out and purchase one tablespoon or a third of a handful of something you don’t already own.

Now is the time to survey your pantry, decide what you like to eat, and figure out how to map those two things together. I’m kicking the blog off again for a while, and I will tell you what I’m making and how I did it, but I also hope it will inspire you to be confident in your taste and your skills, or maybe just provide a little comfort in a day full of challenging news.

With my life schedule upended, I have time not just to get back in the kitchen, but to teach the Practical Cooks Junior how I cook, how I create inventory and use up what we’ve got, and how to take a reasonable amount of time to get food on the table. (Not going to lie, Gentle Readers, I still don’t have the precision of a true baker, that is my youngest, or the persistence and sheer bravery that my eldest brings to the kitchen.)

Step 1: Know Your Pantry

What is in your pantry? Hopefully you were able to get some basic supplies, and if not, perhaps spend some time making a list and using a drive-through option or delivery service to get some building blocks.

The Practical Cook Pantry

  • Dried pasta
  • Dried beans: chickpeas, pintos, black-eyed peas, limas, mixed beans, and whoever took off with all of the black beans, we are going to have words
  • Canned beans, no-salt (you can add that yourself later): black beans, kidney beans, vegetarian baked beans, navy beans, refried beans
  • Canned fish: tuna and salmon (again, what other old lady besides me raids the canned salmon? It was all gone, and somebody is going to have a fit when they find the bones in there.)
  • Tomatoes: whole ones, sun-dried, cans of no-salt tomato sauce, and tubes of tomato paste
  • Dried potato flakes: not for mashed potatoes, but they are the bomb at thickening things that go wrong
  • Rice: jasmine, basmati, arborio
  • Pickles: refrigerator pickles, chow chow, pickled okra, and more pickles (because I’m Southern and we realize that when good gets boring, pickles help)
  • Indian pantry: some jars of my local store-brand simmer sauces, which are surprisingly good when doctored a bit, coconut milk, spices
  • Chinese pantry: new for me, and more on that in posts upcoming, I have an arsenal of soy sauces, vinegars, and pastes
  • Long-term veggies and fruits: cabbage, onions, garlic, carrots, potatoes (sweet, Russet, Yukon Gold), apples
  • Baking: Assorted flours, sugar, butter, dried buttermilk, evaporated milk, raisins and nuts, oats, cornmeal

Do not panic if you don’t have a carbohydrate-laden war chest. Everyone eats differently. That’s really the point: my kitchen serves 4 people, all fairly big eaters, 2 pescatarians, 1 vegetarian, and me, the omnivore. Each non-meat eater is picky in a unique and special way (one hates tofu, one hates vegetables, one likes everything but carrots in certain forms, and one is allergic to fish).

However, it is possible to feed them all without resorting to Waffle House style short order cookery. Everyone eats eggs. Everyone eats pasta. Everyone loves cabbage for some unknown reason. There is hope.

Step 2: Know Your Tastes

Gentle Readers, I am obsessed with food. I do not expect you to be. But it does help to be aware of your tastes, and the preferences of those in lockdown with you. Here are a few basic parameters to assist in self-diagnosis.

Grilled Pineapple

I like foods grilled fruits and I cannot lie.

 

  • Texture: Meals are more successful if there are multiple textures. I’ve never been one for smoothies as meal replacements, I have to chew food to think I’m eating. So all soft meals don’t work, I need crunch. Picky eaters very often have texture issues. Figure that out and add some crunch or some options for the texture-challenged. This also applies to overly wet or dry foods. Soups may not pass muster, but stews will.
  • Spice: If you have spice adverse people, bring the heat to the table to add individually. Pickled jalepeños, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, spicy pickles, whatever it takes. If you are bored of pantry-safe meals, add some heat to change them up.
  • Heat: Now I mean temperature. Consider how you’re serving this meal. Does it taste the same freshly made, at room temp, cold? Does it suffer in one of those states? If you make ahead, don’t be afraid to suggest warming up an individual serving if someone likes piping hot food. Often dishes benefit from adding a little liquid when you reheat them.
  • Salt, butter, cream: As a very wise chef friend once told me, add enough of any of these, and food will taste good. Someone told me recently that they couldn’t taste salt, so they didn’t cook with it. Gentle readers, just no. If you have health conditions that preclude it, by all means work around. Otherwise, rinse your canned beans and use no-salt when you have the chance, and add kosher salt throughout the cooking process (salted water for pasta, salt to help sweat and sauté veggies, taste and finish with salt if needed before serving). Butter and cream, that goes without saying, and you don’t have to add it to everything, but it can go in one dish and it will be delicious.

Step 3: Prepare to Improvise

The internet is a glorious place full of flexible recipes, suggested swaps for missing ingredients, and easier recipes if you don’t feel like soufflé tonight. The other day I planned to make wontons with my leftover wonton wrappers. I made the filling, had to take a break, and then came back just before dinner. The wonton wrappers had obtained a mold that very well may be the missing cure to something. It was not good. The filling was cabbage and chives and fauxsage and I suddenly realized it looked a lot like moo shu. I know that moo shu pancakes are not unlike tortillas, which I did have. Best of all, it is much faster to heat up tortillas and filling than to make wontons (at least for this beginner!). Don’t panic, just pivot.

Tea with the Ladies Who Lunch: China Edition

Still my favorite critics, the Practical Cooks Junior have moved from loving dumplings to making them.

Don’t have some piece of kitchen gear? Look for alternate recipes or prep methods that approximate. Don’t have an ingredient? Decide if it’s central or a sidenote.

That is the journey through the mind of The Practical Cook. It’s how I learned to cook, it’s how I learned to eat, it’s how I learned to watch what people were eating and more successfully feed even the pickiest. And I’ve raised two people who are comfortable cooks in their own right.

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Coming up next time, last night’s dinner complete with recipes: beans, greens, and cornbread. 

 

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Out of Office, For Now

Perhaps this is premature, or maybe it’s the beginning of the end. We shall see. Gentle Reader, this has been an amazing journey. I need to take a break.

I want to start something new, I don’t know what. All ideas welcome. I’ve got a few posts left in me, and we’ll see if I can sustain a less regular publishing schedule. I’ve love to hear your thoughts. Silence is a thought too, and I’ll accept that slipping quietly into the blog darkness if that is what’s to be.

To all who have eaten with me, asked questions, directed me to amazing food, thank you. I hope to see you at my table or yours at some point in time. I’m coming back in December to post a few things, if time permits and if there’s interest.

Happy cooking until then Gentle Readers!

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Weekly Menus: Remote Edition, Week of 10/13/2013

**Published out of sequence–this was put into draft and never published!**

Gentle Readers, sometimes an act of rebellion is as simple as cooking a meal. This has been a hectic week–we’ve been fighting fall colds and prepping for approximately 1 million cool things that we here at Team Practical Cook hope to do in the next few weeks (pumpkin patch, N.C. State Fair, Neko Case concert, travel, soccer, Halloween, you name it). In my spare time, I have a big girl job that demands a lot of my time and TLC.

Says it all. My new favorite mug.

Says it all. My new favorite mug.

The other night, I shut the laptop, locked the phone, and cooked. It felt great. The girls are amazing and supportive eaters, and don’t mind that we sometimes eat odd pairings (veggie chili and pumpkin cranberry scones anyone?). We always eat together, even if it’s a few bites, or our new highly experimental Italian sodas, or in the car.

Veggie chili, now with chickpeas.

Veggie chili, now with chickpeas.

My act of defiance of life’s pace was simple. We just stopped for 30 minutes and cooked and ate. Nothing requiring an act of Congress (all shutdown jokes aside) or a great shift. I prioritized. I need to do that more. Right now, I’m scrambling to get ready for another business trip, this one international, and this blog is going to be paused for a week.

Priority, the Eldest. :)

Priority, the Eldest. 🙂

I left half of the veggie chili in the freezer as a potential nacho topping, and I’ve stocked the joint with easy to eat foods and lots of pumpkin things. (The full review on those products is coming in the last half of October, though I may never touch another pumpkin item again after this.)

So forgive this break in form–I encourage you all to stop and cook, no matter what you have on hand. It doesn’t have to be fancy, or even really go together. Just push pause for a minute and eat together.

I’ll see you in a few weeks. Be sure to check me out on Instagram (@amylewi) or follow me on Twitter (listed below) for some food stalking from Barcelona. I can taste the tapas now.

Send your tapas, your strokes of brilliance, and your pumpkin challenges to practical cook at gmail dot com. Connect on Facebook: The Practical Cook Blog. (Thanks in advance for spreading The Practical Cook Blog word. Press “like” on Facebook today! Also, follow the food pictures on Instagram @amylewi.)

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See you NEXT SUNDAY for Weekly Menus!

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Road Salad: A How-To-Survive Guide for Eating While Traveling

Gentle Readers, it’s a good thing I love my job and the travel that goes with it, because business travel is not for the faint of heart. Yes, it’s a great opportunity to see the inside of conference halls across the globe. Yes, I adore seeing colleagues I work with constantly and remotely. Yes, I even get to eat meals sometimes. But for all of you who travel as part of your job, or as part of your life, you know that cocktail nibbles do not a healthy diet make.

This Tower of Bacon was featured in a recent party I threw for work. Though there is parsley present, it is not a salad.

This Tower of Bacon was featured in a recent party I threw for work. Though there is parsley present, it is not a salad.

When I can, I bring my running shoes. When I can’t, I throw towels down on the floor and do yoga. There’s always a way to bring a little zen into the schedule. I have a friend who only stays in hotels with pools so he can swim. Make it work for you. Eat fruit and veg when you can, and salads are a great way to do that.

Fried Squash Blossoms on a bed of shaved zucchini. Totally counts as a salad.

Fried Squash Blossoms on a bed of shaved zucchini. Totally counts as a salad.

Road Salad:

1. Take control of your salad destiny in both portion size and toppings. You can order salad almost anywhere, it’s what happens next that can destroy the mission. If you only like one type of salad and it’s way high-cal, order the smaller one. If you’re crazy for greens, go big and limit the toppings. Make it work for you. Small and dense salads can be perfect in a grab and go situation on the road. Just limit the dressing and save the calories for something you want to eat.

Small but mighty, this salad features halloumi cheese and veggie kebabs (with a side of masala chai for kick). From Samovar Tea House, San Francisco.

Small but mighty, this salad features halloumi cheese and veggie kebabs (with a side of masala chai for kick). From Samovar Tea House, San Francisco.

2. If you’re tired of leafy greens, try the beet salad, or the caprese, or even fruit! Expand your mind to include a broader range. Another great choice is a main that is served over a bed of greens. May not be in the salad column, but totally counts.

Greek yogurt with dates, honey, fruit, and basil and mint, plus walnuts. I dream of this sometimes. Also from Samovar Tea House in San Francisco.

Greek yogurt with dates, honey, fruit, and basil and mint, plus walnuts. I dream of this sometimes. Also from Samovar Tea House in San Francisco.

3. Don’t fear the protein. Be it egg, fish, meal, or fowl, or legumes or nuts for that matter, add some lasting energy to your salad. If you are doing fruit salad, get yogurt or cheese. Balance in the force. You’ll stay full longer. This is not about starvation, this is about nutrition with some enjoyment.

Lunch salad from Chevy's Mexican with avocado and steak. Yes please.

Lunch salad from Chevy’s Mexican with avocado and steak. Yes please.

My favorite trick: a Peppermint Patty as a conclusion. I’m not a huge mint person, but mint makes me think of brushing my teeth, which signals that it’s time to stop eating. And chocolate = winning. Feel virtuous about your salad and have a sweet to conclude. You’ll feel satisfied and ready to face the canape again, I promise.

Rare tuna on a bed of greens. Perfect light entree.

Rare tuna on a bed of greens. Perfect light entree.

Send your green leafies, good ideas, and food challenges to practical cook at gmail dot com. Connect on Facebook: The Practical Cook Blog. (Thanks in advance for spreading The Practical Cook Blog word. Press “like” on Facebook today! Also, follow the food pictures on Instagram @amylewi.)

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Coming up Sunday: Weekly Menus, Busy Family Edition

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Weekly Menus: Labor Day Edition, Week of 9/1/2013

Gentle Readers, never has a holiday been more confusingly named or welcomed with more open arms. Hello, Labor Day, we need you. A bit of a break after the bustle of school starting, recovery from travel season for me, it’s time to roll up sleeves and cook again. How to do so without too much labor? Invite yourself to someone else’s cookout.

Tea wth the Ladies Who Lunch: China Edition

Tea wth the Ladies Who Lunch: China Edition

I’m bringing a dessert, or a salad, or both. But I digress. The weather is getting cooler, and more cooking ahead is possible. Seize the day, or at least the weekend, between naps.

Turmeric Tea from Samovar: Gold, Spicy, Amazing

Turmeric Tea from Samovar: Gold, Spicy, Amazing

For this week, the weekly menus are:

Weekly Menus: 9/1/2013

Weekly Menus: 9/1/2013

And the Four-Square Grocery List is:

The Four-Square Grocery List: 9/1/2013

The Four-Square Grocery List: 9/1/2013

Which all means:

Sunday: Rotisserie Chicken
It’s been too long. Great for eating and reusing in salads, plus stock from the bones. Will serve with Brussels sprouts and glazed carrots, or mac-n-cheese if I run low on time.

Speedy Salad: Strawberries, rotisserie chicken, almonds, goat cheese, greens.

Speedy Salad: Strawberries, rotisserie chicken, almonds, goat cheese, greens.

Monday: Not Dogs?
Since we’re heading to a cookout, we may do one lighter meal on this Labor Day. There are great options for vegetarians and for anyone looking to balance their caloric consumption.

Hot Dog from The Pig with Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish

Hot Dog from The Pig with Ketchup, Mustard, and Relish

Tuesday: Veggie Chili
Breaking out the Red, Gold, and Green Veggie Chili here, in honor of the fall that finally feels like it’s on the way. Perfect to make ahead and eat for a while in different forms.

Veggie Chili Simmering

Veggie Chili Simmering

Wednesday: Salmon and Couscous
Light and simple, I think I’ll pan-roast this and serve with confetti veggie couscous (aka, use the last bits of diced veggie up from previous meals, shhh, don’t tell).

Orange Salmon, Broiled Asparagus, Accidental Butternut Bulgar

Orange Salmon, Broiled Asparagus, Accidental Butternut Bulgar

Thursday: Egg Sammies
If we’re short on time, the eggs will be scrambled or fried. More time = egg salad sammies. This was a favorite summer meal in my youth, and it’s fun to recapture a little of that feeling as we start the school year.

Eggs on their way to becoming egg salad.

Eggs on their way to becoming egg salad.

Friday: Leftover Delight
The Eldest asked what this was, and I told her it was marketing. She got that. Friday is a clean-up hitter today. Prep for Saturday practice, recover from a week of early rising, gather around the table and enjoy.

Saturday: Dine Out!
We’re on the hunt for a new country to visit. All suggestions welcome!

What’s on your grill this season? Send ideas this way, post a comment or send a Tweet!

Send extra hot dogs, hours of sleep, and brownies to practical cook at gmail dot com. Connect on Facebook: The Practical Cook Blog. (Thanks in advance for spreading The Practical Cook Blog word. Press “like” on Facebook today! Also, follow the food pictures on Instagram @amylewi.)

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Coming up Wednesday: Road Salad, A How-To Survive Guide.

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Obika Mozzarella Bar Reviewed! (Los Angeles)

Gentle Reader, since The Practical Cook kitchen is collecting dust right now from lack of use, it seems appropriate to share a great new find from the road. Also, when you have the opportunity to eat Italian food with an Italian after driving to L.A. in a convertible on a beautiful day, you do it and say thank you. That, Gentle Readers, is good practical advice, pun intended.

It doesn't count as a power lunch unless there's something bubbly. (Champagne at Obika Mozzarella Bar)

It doesn’t count as a power lunch unless there’s something bubbly. (Champagne at Obika Mozzarella Bar)

I digress. Enter Obika Mozzarella Bar, part of a chain (not in the bad way) of independently operated restaurants worldwide. This was my first trip to Los Angeles, and Obika was the perfect introduction to a power lunch. Fueled by perfect weather, outdoor seating, a bottle of pink champagne (don’t judge, it’s L.A.), and food that was appropriate to the setting, I’m a fan.

Hello Hollywood. Thanks to my favorite Italian translator and producer, Luca @AmerigoFilm

Hello Hollywood. Thanks to my favorite Italian translator and producer, Luca @AmerigoFilm

We started with an appetizer platter that was reminiscent of Barcelona for me, featuring a plain mozzarella, a smoked one, a pesto, a smoky tomato sauce with almonds (the fact that I’m not still there swimming about in this one bears testimony to my self-discipline), and a caponata that was truly outstanding.

The appetizer platter was almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

The appetizer platter was almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

I have texture issues, and too often caponata is mushy. This was not at all, each ingredient stood on its own while playing well with others. Well done. Add bread crisps and a variety of cured meats, and I could have just stopped there. But I did not.

Actual pizza from a stone oven anyone?

Actual pizza from a stone oven anyone? Yes, we got that to go. Don’t ask.

Next course, pasta. Perfectly cooked, the pasta dishes were well executed. All of the food here features quality ingredients, and it shows. The simpler food is, the better the base ingredients need to be.

Pasta with red sauce FTW!

Pasta with red sauce FTW!

Ravioli, simple, classic, done right.

Ravioli, simple, classic, done right.

But let’s rush to the end, shall we? Dessert was a trio of tastes, small but intense, including a tiramisu and a dark chocolate torte. Yes I say.

A Mousse by any other name tastes delicious.

A Mousse by any other name tastes delicious.

The joy of eating outside in a great location watching people, eating great food, in a convivial atmosphere, can not be overstated. The caponata and the smoky tomato dips were standouts for me in a sea of right-sized bites. As you can see from the website, there are multiple locations–check for one near you and let me know what you think.

Tiramisu from Obika.

Tiramisu from Obika.

Until then, thanks to all for your continued support and suggestions. I continue to train for a 5k while on the road, in an attempt to balance my love for food with my whole life. I was struck again at this meal, when you have great food, you don’t have to eat tons of it. Just a little of something great lingers.

Sinfully dark chocolate torte.

Sinfully dark chocolate torte.

So today’s question, what are your favorite food cities to visit? I have the joy of taking a foodie friend through my town soon. Look for more reviews of NYC, NC, and everything chicken and waffles in between.

Send dinner invites, outdoor cooking challenges, and general mayhem to practical cook at gmail dot com. Connect on Facebook: The Practical Cook Blog. (Thanks in advance for spreading The Practical Cook Blog word. Press “like” on Facebook today! Also, follow the food pictures on Instagram @amylewi.)

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On Sunday, Weekly Menus, Birthday Style.

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It’s a Small (Food) World After All: Traveling by Way of Cuisine

Gentle Readers, sometimes, the cheapest way to travel is through one’s stomach. Food is a wonderful shorthand to culture, and we here at Team Practical Cook are fans of food of all types. To challenge ourselves, we’ve started collecting stamps on our culinary passport by “visiting” a new country every few weeks.

Black beans and rice from Gregoria's Kitchen in Durham.

Black beans and rice from Gregoria’s Kitchen in Durham.

This started accidentally, with the inimitably cranky Waldorf peppering TPCs Jr with trivia questions about the country whose food we were eating. The Jrs loved it.

Roti from Banana Leaf in San Jose, CA

Roti from Banana Leaf in San Jose, CA

So far we’ve been to Cuba, Singapore, Mexico, Italy, and Germany. We’re going to France next, as The Eldest wishes to practice her language skills. I will not be practicing my snail skills, for the record.

Vegetarian Enchiladas at a local Mexican Restaurant (fresh spinach and potatoes, nice!)

Vegetarian Enchiladas at a local Mexican Restaurant (fresh spinach and potatoes, nice!)

Questions can include geography, politics, math (what time is it in Germany right now?), along with language and culture. This was obviously constructed as a fun way to bring the world into view for kids, but the adults are enjoying it too. It’s easy to fall into the habit of eating the same rotation of foods. We are essentially gamifying dinner.

Spatzle in all their fried glory.

Spatzle in all their fried glory.

Though one could certainly cook international foods at home (we made spatzle right after our “trip” to Germany), I strongly encourage you to seek out places to dine. First, the more obscure the cuisine, the more likely it’s a mom and pop operation, which is always nice to support.

The Jrs take on the Big City!

The Jrs take on the Big City!

Second, the culture is often present in the restaurant itself (unless you try to pass off the Olive Garden as a trip to Italy, don’t get me started). Food is served at different temperatures, in different ways. Service is different; manners are different.

Bubbling Hot Tofu Soup from Vit Goal

Bubbling Hot Tofu Soup from Vit Goal

So I challenge you, Gentle Readers,  to try a new cuisine, and use it as a learning experience. Life is simply too short for endless chicken fingers. Write to me and let me know how it is. Comments welcome. There’s a box for them. Or email or Tweet. Look forward to hearing your story!

Koh Samui is a refuge off the beaten bath. Well worth the trek for good Thai!

Koh Samui is a refuge off the beaten bath. Well worth the trek for good Thai!

Send all deep thoughts, lucrative book deals, and unicorns to practical cook at gmail dot com. Connect on Facebook: The Practical Cook Blog. (Thanks in advance for spreading The Practical Cook Blog word. Press “like” on Facebook today! Also, follow the food pictures on Instagram @amylewi.)

Follow practicalcook on Twitter

Next up on Sunday, Weekly Menus: Vegas Baby!

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