Food for Thought

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It was horrendously humid and muggy over the 4th of July Weekend.  I stayed inside and made a big pot of hot chicken soup.  I know.  It sounds crazy.  This was never on my list of things to cook that week, but, unfortunately, by the end of the night on the 4th, every time I tried to swallow a sip of water, I felt like that sip was being accompanied by ten hungry, hungry hippo marbles trying to squeeze their way down my throat.  By the following morning, I had a fever.  The inside of my body felt as oppressively warm as the outside world must have felt to all of you healthy people.  Except that feeling was in my veins.  I could not entirely escape it by ducking into the house or getting an ice cream cone, although I did try that.

I spent the entire day in bed feeling grateful for the person who invented air conditioning, which made things somewhat better.  I watched an entire season of television on Netflix.  Needless to say, my energy was low.  I haven’t been sick like that since I was a little kid.  I’ve been sick a number of times since, but never stuck in bed for the whole day.  This is the first time it’s happened when my mom hasn’t been 5 feet away to make me a pot of chicken soup.  Being three hours from home is tough in a lot of ways, but especially at that moment.  I would have to make my own chicken soup.

Everyone needs to know how to cook soup.  Why?  Because soup in a can is an offensive thing.  I buy canned beans and I love chili in a can added to taco dip.  No, I don’t like to question that belief or dwell on the notion of meat that doesn’t expire for two years.  It works.  I don’t know how.  Two year old meat in a can?  Good.  Any kind of soup in a can?  No thanks.  It’s hit or miss in restaurants too.  Salty, metallic tasting French onion soups at diners and sports grills have ruined my day at least twice.  Homemade chicken soup is one of the easiest things in the world to make, really.  Toss some ingredients into a pot, boil, simmer, serve, start to feel a little more human.

Chicken Soup

Servings 12

Prep. time (min) 16

 

Ingredients:

1 2-3 pound whole chicken

3 sticks celery

10 Carrots

1 onion, halved

0.5 tsp salt

0.75 tsp pepper

1 tsp parsley

0.5 tsp onion powder

0.5 tsp garlic powder

1.5 cups Pasta

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Preparation

1.       Take the  giblets (plastic baggie) out of the center of the chicken.  Feel free to toss out the chicken parts that are in this bag unless you want to them for some other recipe.

2.       Put the chicken into the bottom of a big pot and cover it with cold water.  Toss in your carrots, onion, and celery.  Add the onion and garlic powder.  Bring everything to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for at least 1.5 hours.  Every so often, skim off the foam at the top with a spoon.

3.        Remove the chicken to a plate with vegetables, and cut them up so you can add them to the finished soup.  Add pasta to empty broth and cook it.  I left it on simmer and just left the pasta in for a good fifteen minutes.

4.       Add fresh or dried parsley.  Taste the soup to see if you need to add more salt.  (As my mom once reminded me, you can always add more salt, but it’s impossible to remove it if you’ve got too much.  I noted, for the first time, how difficult it is to determine this when you are sick and making your own soup.)

5.       Ladle out your broth and pasta, add chicken and vegetables to each bowl.

 

Random tips / recipe notes:

– You can buy a bag of soup ingredients that has carrots, celery and some other veggies like turnips instead of buying the individual veggies listed here.  I’ve done that and it works well and makes shopping easier.  I tend to make a minimalized version of the soup, meaning I don’t think you need turnips, because it’s the one my mom made for me growing up.  I added a bay leaf to my recipe this time and regretted it because it wasn’t the same.  If you do add a bay leaf, remember to take it out at the end.  Those things kill people.

-I diced up my onion at the beginning this time, because I wanted diced onions in my soup, but I realized why I never do that: it made it really hard to skim the foam off the top of the soup.  Some people take out the carrots and celery at the end and just serve the broth with the chicken and noodles, since all the nutrients from the veggies are now in the broth anyway.  I cut large carrots into quarters because I do like to reserve them for the bowls of soup, but I leave the celery out.  It’s up to you and what you like, but if you dice anything really small at the start, it’ll be tough to skim off the foam while it is cooking.   You can also toss in whole big carrots and cut them up at the end if you want to put them in the bowls of soup.

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As someone who cares about food, who has at one time made her own bread, her own bagels, and her own tortillas, I used to feel a certain level of guilt about my occasional longing for a McDonald’s egg and cheese biscuit.  Should someone who kneads bread by hand instead of using the Kitchenaid dough hook feel strange emotional ties to a Taco Bell Cheesy Gordita Crunch?  Should someone who believes in the importance of knowing how to cook feel a certain nostalgia for food being mass produced in factories?  For lunches that some people look at and ask, is it even food?  I know I do.  I just had to figure out why.

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I was trying to win a contest and get lots of free Taco Bell, the food I ate growing up, every single Saturday following religious instruction. I did not win, but retained a few embarrassing photographs.

When I had a strange fascination with trying Tokyo McDonald’s on a trip to Japan, a voice in my head wanted me to feel guilty about trying the MegaMuffin and the Shrimp-Fillet-O.  Why should I waste a single meal on this?  The friends I have that have longed for their whole lives to see Japan had the right to punch me in the face.  Punch me in the face and say, “Really, who goes to Japan to eat at a McDonald’s?”

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Yes, I really ate this. It’s honestly even more filling than it looks like it is, which is already pretty filling. I don’t recommend eating this and trying to walk around a city afterwards.

I had to really think about it.  Why did my conscience tell me yes while my husband was mildly horrified?  Why was eating this MegaMuffin the stay-true-to-you thing to do?

It boils down to this: to me, there’s a certain magic to food that always tastes the same, food that transcends time, place, and who your grandma happens to be.  Eating a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake ice cream bar, for example.

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Nostalgia bar.

As a teacher walking through the lunch room, so much has changed since I was a middle schooler, but there’s always that ice cream bar and it is always the same.  Oh, except now an accordion-like robot arm sucks the ice cream up out of an electronically operated freezer door when you put money into the machine.  It’s awesome.  The Strawberry Shortcake bar is something that ties me to those kids.  It bridges the gap between their childhoods and mine.  There may be a lot more cellphones hanging out of back pockets, and kids discreetly rolling by on sneakers that turn into roller skates, but at least there’s that ice cream.  I see that robot arm suck up that shortcake bar and I’m transported back in time to look up at Olga, the lunch-lady who would hand us our own shortcake bars when we stood on lines in the converted gymnasium, lunch money in hand.

True, there’s another deeper type of magic to your grandma’s tomato sauce, which you can’t even call a recipe, because you can never quite replicate it on your own.  That’s another story, but what I found was this: it doesn’t make my love for the Happy Meal go away.

The one magic ties you to your friends and your family through your shared experiences, the other ties you to the people you haven’t even met yet.  It ties you to the cousins who live on the other side of the country. It ties you to your worst enemy.  It ties you to the love of your life, ten years before you will ever meet, who always remembered looking forward to Halloween Oreos, just like you did.  And when your paths finally cross, you have no shared memories to discuss, and they haven’t tried your grandma’s sauce, although you tell them they must. So you find yourself reminiscing about those summertime ice cream bars with the gumball eyes that did not have any physical properties of gum, but were somehow irresistible.  Did they get the Tweety Bird bar?  Did they get the Spiderman bar just because it had more cherry flavor, or maybe the Ninja Turtle?  By my younger brother’s generation, it was Sponge Bob.  I’m the cheapest person on earth and I’ll still pay three dollars for one of those things.  It’s the worst gum ever and I love it.

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The ghost of childhood past stares at you through gumball eyes!

When I moved away for college up to Albany, I didn’t know a single other kid going to my school.  I was away from everyone and everywhere I knew.  Everywhere except Friendly’s.  I always remember that my family and I went to the mall and ate at a Friendly’s when we first visited UAlbany and again when they dropped me off at school, right before they left.  That’s a big moment.  Everyone who goes away to school remembers those hours right before your family leaves.  This is when you know everything is about to change.  I think that’s another thing I love about these mass produced foods.  Everything in your life changes so much, but you always have these foods and these places.

Even the insides of these places are the same.  Being away from home for the first time, I felt a comfort in passing a Wendy’s.  In knowing that behind that same cream colored counter, they served the same exact spicy chicken sandwich I would get with my friends in 12th grade when we could finally leave campus.  They had bins full of the same honey mustard packets we would pour on everything.  Sitting inside an Albany Wendy’s, in those identical booths but surrounded by ten people I had just met, I felt at ease. I felt like myself.   I felt like the impossibly large distance between there and the house I grew up in was really not so far at all.

When a bunch of Friendly’s in my neighborhood started to close, I felt a sadness that doesn’t make sense for someone who almost never goes to one anymore.  I realized I wasn’t in love with Friendly’s itself. I was in love with the nostalgic idea of Friendly’s, with the idea that even though I now live in Albany, Friendly’s will always be there for me when I need it to be.  It will always be able to bridge the gap between the places I call home.

Looking back on it, three hours away was an impossible distance in those first few months I moved away from home.  I felt as though I could imagine every step of the way, every unfamiliar inch of space.  Everything changes and Friendly’s is the cure.  Or Wendy’s.  Or walking by an aisle of Little Debbie Swiss Roll cakes in the grocery store, a snack my college roommate had as a kid every day when she came home from school.  These foods are a little piece of home that’s there for you.  It’s a connection that you share with those you love and those you hardly know and those you will never meet.

So yes, I had a lot of amazing food in Japan.  The McDonald’s MegaMuffin is not on the list of meals I’ll remember for all time, but I don’t feel guilty about it anymore. I know it’s on someone’s list and not because it’s the tastiest thing to ever be produced in a food lab at McDonald’s HQ.  I know that there are kids in Japan that sit in the booth with their grandmas who have taken them out for their favorite Shrimp Fillet-O.  I know that the adults remember the time they dared their best friend to eat that colossal breakfast sandwich I tried. I guess I just wanted a taste of that.  A taste of the mass produced, shared culture of growing up in Japan.  And yes,now I will go cook some real food, but I’ll still be dreaming about all of this.  It’s just a different kind of magic.

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After a few of the Friendly’s in my area closed, I tried to make my own Friendly’s Conehead Sundae. I forgot the whipped cream collar!

It has been clear to me for some time that every authority on the subject seems to feel we should eat more vegetables…actually, many authorities say MOSTLY vegetables, which is completely radical to the way many of us eat.  When Michael Pollan wrote in The New York Times that we should, “Eat Food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants,” I knew that only the first of his three commandments was one I could easily follow.  About a year ago, my husband and I acknowledged we don’t really eat vegetables every day, because I can’t count the beans in Hormel chili in a can that I bake with cream cheese and eat with chips and shredded cheddar. I also decided that since that second part, about not eating too much food, would seriously interfere with my #1 preoccupation in life, I should find some recipes that wouldn’t make me feel guilty about going in for that second plate.  Enter, spring rolls.

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I had spring rolls at a local Vietnamese restaurant about a year ago and fell in love with them, but assumed they would be one of those things I couldn’t easily make at home.  I saw the “Take Home Chef” make them a few months later and I couldn’t believe how wrong I was.   I made some with garlic chicken, cilantro, and lots of veggies.  It was so easy.  You can make them a million different ways.  You could use a peanut sauce, ginger dressing, chili sauce, and whatever veggies you want.  Obviously, they’d be great without meat as well. I consulted the internet for ideas when I made mine, so check out a few different recipes.

Here’s what I used for mine:

1 large cucumber, cut into matchsticks

3 large carrots, cut into matchsticks

1 bunch cilantro

1 package bean sprouts

1 pound chicken breasts (marinated in the chili garlic sauce, cooked, and cut into strips)

1 cup Huy Fong’s chili garlic sauce (or any marinade you want!  I have a ginger salad dressing that would be great as well.)

1 package rice paper wraps (check the ethnic aisle in the grocery store)

All you need to know:  Have all the fillings ready to go.  Fill a large bowl with warm water.  Soak 1 wrapper for about 20 seconds in the water, or until it softens.  They get thinner the longer you leave them in, so you will quickly figure out how you like them.  It’s a little easier to fold them if they aren’t too thin, but you may prefer them that way.  Use your hands to take the wrapper out.

I’m a much better visual learner, so check out this 2 minute video to see the rolling up process in action before you try it.  Youtube:  how to roll spring rolls

Basically, you put the spring roll wrapper on a flat surface.  Add some of your ingredients in the middle.  You can see I put a few sticks of each vegetable and a tablespoon or so of chicken.  Fold the two sides over the middle, then roll it up like how you would fold a burrito. It’s really easy once you’ve tried a couple.

In the video, they used different plates.  I used the same platter over and over, so I kept a towel nearby to wipe off water in between making each roll.

They’re really great.  As with anything, the first 1 or 2 may fall apart or your water may not be hot enough, but once you know how to do it, you’ll be set to make them whenever you want.

Why blog about food?  As a reflection of our cultures and our communities.  As a window into our lives.  Everywhere in the world, food is a symbol full of meaning.  When you’re sick, somebody makes you food.  My mom’s homemade chicken soup.  We mark time with food.  On your birthday, it’s a cake.      

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Care packages containing homemade cookies are the fastest and best way to make new friends in college when you move away from home for the first time.  It’s also the only known cure to the most common of illnesses: homesickness.  

When you hear arguments about the importance of everyone sitting down to a family dinner, literally no one is talking about the health benefits.  They aren’t talking about spying on their children to make sure they eat their broccoli.  And no one is saying to put your phone away because they’re worried about the cancer.  There’s something that happens when you sit down and break bread with your friends or your family.  Maybe at your favorite restaurant, the place you go when you have something to celebrate.  Or the diner, where, on LI, you go when it’s 1am and you and your friends aren’t yet ready to call it a night and where all the conversations you will always remember take place.  The place where you begin to mythologize the events of the summer over cheese fries and gravy.  Food is full of meaning.  It’s the perfect topic to write about.   

And, of course, nothing beats home-cooked food.  There’s something special about cooking for someone else.  I think this is even truer today, when so many options exist to choose the alternative.  When I tell people I’ve made bagels, they look at me like I’ve just constructed a pyramid or done magic.  In some ways, I think they’re right to see it as magic.  To me, cooking is both transformation and teleportation.  Like the way that one ice cream pop can bring you right back to the edge of the curb on a summer day on the street where you grew up. 

For me, this blog is a place to explore these ideas.  It’s a place to share cool stories about my travels and the ties between the identity of a place and its food.  It’s a place to reflect on the iconic foods of my heritage and my youth and of the two places I’ve called home.  It’s a place to share recipes, cravings, obsessions and aversions. 

To me, food is about community.  It’s about passing around a plate of antipasto with your family and catching up, or fighting over the last marinated artichoke, so it’d be cool if this blog could also become a community.  A place for people to share their own stories.  Just like taking time for Sunday dinner, I hope this blog will be a place for me to slow down my thinking, take time, put a pot on the stove, let it simmer, and see what magic happens.