A Layman’s Culinary Education in a Time of Crisis

Things are challenging all around. Time is often short, and funds aren’t generally abundant. Life’s taught me, though, that I feel better when I eat well, get enough sleep and exercise, and share the things that bring me joy and a sense of fulfillment. In my experience, the things I’ve found that bring me fulfillment also bring fulfillment to other people, and since I do have a gift for gab … well, we have this again. Welcome. Or welcome back. Regardless, I’m glad you’re here.

I am wont to provide disclaimers. It’s in my nature. I’m not a chef. I have no culinary training. I grew up among people who cooked. I was the baby, but everyone else in the family cooked. I watched. I tasted. I listened. Ok, yes, I also talked, but I really was paying attention too. Or so it seems, because I have a treasure trove of memories of flavors, of aromas, and of a quantity of boisterous laughter that will buoy me forever. They also frequently make me hungry.

One would think that having grown up in the rural Deep South that I’d be aces at things like fried chicken and cornbread and collards. Not really. I’ve always been more connoisseur than chef. Don’t get me wrong. I can make all of these dishes. But I don’t. I don’t eat those things on a regular basis, so I don’t cook them. My suspicion is that many of the old tropes about the diets of various regions have broken down as the diaspora toward education and jobs has spread us far from our families and communities of birth. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in The Midwest, and when I have cooked as an adult, it’s largely been to support others with a plan or simply to have some singular thing that doesn’t suck to eat in that moment. The dishes that I genuinely love simply haven’t been in my repertoire.

Just lately, though, things have changed. I’ve met someone interested in starting a family with me, and I’m at least as interested as he is. We’re still trying to figure out how that’s going to work, but one thing is certain: I’ll be cooking for two. Another thing is a hope that he and I share: that I won’t be cooking only for two for long. To be clear, that’s about parenthood versus polyamory. That’s a whole other blog post. Possibly blog.

So, not only do I need to be making nutritious and tasty food for myself on the regs, I also need to genuinely hone my culinary skills and knowledge. I don’t just want to explore how to make fruit and vegetable purées for infants moving to solid food, I want to eventually find all the foods that kids with access to a parent who genuinely loves cooking will eat—I suspect this may be heartbreaking—and cook in the kitchen with my entire family teaching, laughing, smelling, tasting, and growing on a regular basis.

Beyond that, I want to feed me, my beloved, and all our friends and family the kind of food that makes everyone shut the fuck up and just enjoy each other’s company for a little while. You know what I mean? Food so good that the worst asshole in the room is on his best behavior so he doesn’t get booted. Food so good that the most genuinely picky eater can find something that absolutely sends them to the moon and back. Don’t bow up. If we’re going to play this game, I’m bringing it to the court. You know you have picky eaters, and assholes are everywhere. This is about figuring out how to make food so good they’re at our mercy.

In the meantime, I also have to feed my single self. On a budget. A rather strict one. Especially now. I have some things going in my favor. Despite low current income, I probably have considerably more cookware and kitchen appliances than the average person walking into this. I do genuinely love to cook, but as many know, cooking for one with minimal waste is challenging; that’s something I’ll have to explore here. But I have a stand mixer, food processor, knives that aren’t quite hazardously dull, and a moderate collection of pans, bowls, and accessories for the appliances. Also, I have cooked individual dishes from cuisines from around the world and as often as possible with cuisine-local recipes and ingredients. I’m not without some experience—quite possibly just enough to get me into trouble.

I see now too that my experience in operating a yarn shop, teaching classes, and helping customers get beyond their own fear has given me a perspective. I have little to no fear of being a beginner and sharing my own lack of knowledge. Often the most challenging part of learning any new thing is getting past one’s own discomfort at some gap in knowledge or experience. Most of us don’t make a habit of allowing others to see us flat-footed, but that’s where we have to start. Innocent. Childlike. Open to absorbing all of the nuances as well as the steps and facts of the lesson to come. We have to be willing to expose our own ignorance. And now? Now of all times? That’s a really, really scary thing. And now more than ever, I firmly believe in my heart of hearts that we must do the scary good things. This is going to be one of mine

For those of you coming along for the ride, this will be my kitchen grimoire. I’ll make mistakes and tell you about them. I’ll try things one way, and I’ll try them another. Oh, and I’ve met some of you people. I strongly suspect that some of you will have opinions. Share them. We’ll get it sorted, and this can serve as our notebook as we get there. I won’t promise to answer every question, but please feel free to answer each other’s questions in the comments. Just be civil.

As a teaser, I’ll leave you with this idea. Having my morning coffee, I happened across a video of Gordon Ramsay making spicy fishcakes with several fresh ingredients with a Thai flavor profile and canned tuna. OMG. I shit you not. You won’t believe.

Finally, if you’re already a fan of the kind of content that I’ve offered in the past and would like to support this project, please share a link to this post on your favorite social media platform. The more the merrier—genuinely.

Shakshuka-inspired breakfast skillet

I’m scheduled to go into work late this afternoon after a day and a half of snow break, so I cooked a solid one-pan brunch for myself and aimed for flavor and a good balance of fruit and vegetable, protein, and grains.

Taking inspiration from shakshuka (worth looking up if you’ve never had it), I sweated green onions and garlic with a bit of cubed low-sodium ham. I added sliced black olives and mushrooms and allowed that to simmer until all the bits were cooked then added a half can of diced tomatoes with no added salt, seasoned lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, ground cumin, and ground coriander and stirred everything together and allowed it to simmer uncovered for a few minutes until much of the liquid had evaporated.

Finally, I hollowed out three divots and cracked a fresh egg into each divot, covered the whole thing in a layer of fresh spinach leaves, and covered. That cooked for maybe four minutes or long enough for the egg whites to set then slid the whole mess into a rimmed plate (ok, it was a Pyrex pie plate) and served with thinly sliced dry toast.

All-in-all, I had an orange-sized eighth-inch thick slice of ham, three eggs, a couple of portabella mushroom caps, three scallions, half a clove of minced garlic, a tablespoon or two of olives, the equivalent of a whole large tomato, a good double handful of spinach, roughly a quarter teaspoon each of salt, canola oil, cumin, and coriander and easily a half teaspoon of black pepper. Add two thinly sliced toasted bits of my own fresh homemade white bread. And black coffee. I’m very full but not uncomfortable, and I can’t imagine needing to eat again before dinner this evening.

Ramping up fruit and veg isn’t easy for me. It isn’t that I dislike either, but I’ve been largely a meat and dairy guy for a long time, cutting out as many carbs as possible. I am neither a nutritionist nor a dietician, but I have consulted both though neither suggested this particular recipe (especially since this was a brunch whim). This is about having a conversation around food. And it’s about being transparent about how I’m eating.

In case you don’t know, I’m forty-nine years old and counting, and I’m extremely overweight. I’ve probably tried as many diet plans as any sane person should with varying results. Weight has been an issue for me since grade school, and I refuse to subsist on rocks and tree bark. I love food. I love cooking it, and I love sharing it. I’m not a fan of preservatives or added salt or sugar. I prefer foods in relatively raw states when I begin working with them, in large part because I simply don’t trust industrialized food processors. My health is not their goal.

Nor is being a fitness model my goal. I’m interested in feeling better and living longer. Yes, I’d be happier when I look in the mirror to have a smaller belly, but that’s essentially cosmetic. What I want is to be able to go more and do more. Fifty is literally just around the corner, and I’ve never felt more impetus to make a change before a milestone birthday. I’m not in a panic, but I’m very aware of my age, my weight, and the challenges that someone with both issues faces in a world that largely ignores both unless there’s money to be made in making those people feel shifty about themselves.

Mainly, I don’t want to feel shitty. And I don’t want you to feel shitty. This is about feeling good, having fun, and connecting not only to those around us but also to the food that we must consume every day to survive and thrive. And it’s about finding what works for me. Your results may be different because your body and it’s metabolism are different. Think about what’s going onto your plate and into your mouth. Consider how various foods and meals make you feel. And perhaps most importantly, play with your food.

Recipe development: Dukkah prototype #2

Some of you know by now that I’ve been in a romantic relationship with a man from Egypt for the last few months, but serendipitously, just days before we met, I was asked in the spice shop where I work part-time for an Egyptian spice blend called Dukkah which we don’t carry and I’d never had.

After a little Google-based research, I decided that day that I wanted to develop a recipe of my own. Well, then I met Adel, and pretty much everything flew out of my head for a while. But, I did make a stab at it back in December. This recipe was developed immediately after I tasted the first batch.

This batch didn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped, but it’s still delicious. Here’s are the quantities of what I used by weight (since some of the spices are hollow, volume seemed a poor way to balance things).

125g of pistachios (though hazelnuts are more traditional)
50g sesame seeds
25g cumin seeds
25g coriander seeds
25g fennel seeds
15g black peppercorns
and a generous 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt

I toasted each of the ingredients separately (each cooks a little differently) in a dry skillet on medium-low heat only raising the heat when it seemed safe to do so without burning the spices. As each came off the heat, I let the skillet cool a bit and lowered the heat before putting in the next spice. To be clear, I toasted the nuts as well. 

Dry pan toasting of the sesame seeds

In a mortar and pestle, I then ground each of the spices to a lightly coarse powder but left some pinhead to lentil-sized chunks of the nuts. Refer back to the closeup of the finished blend for reference. That’s a table teaspoon (as opposed to a measuring teaspoon) resting in the bowl.

Grinding the ingredients individually with a mortar and pestle

Also, I’m grateful that I kept the numbers at mutliples of five, because I’ll be able to scale this back on the next prototype.

The finished prototype

My personal opinion, I want to increase the quantity of coriander seeds and drop the fennel and peppercorns in the next batch, and I’ve now acquired some hazelnuts, so the next batch may be all hazelnuts or a blend of the two.

Dukkah on oven roasted chicken leg-thigh quarter

Regardless, I have leftover roasted chicken that will be doused liberally with this prototype and served with some veggies for my dinner tonight.

How to get rid of a bully

Were you bullied? I was. I think that, at one time or other, most of us have been bullied. I don’t know about you, but I was fortunate enough to have had a very wise and kind adult tell me early on that it helps, sometimes, to realize that bullies lose there power over you when you see them for what they are: jealous, wounded, pitiable things. 

Bullies invariably see in those they attack something that is missing in themselves. Maybe it’s wealth, intelligence, someone’s attention, popularity, physical beauty or prowess, or some ability, capacity, or trait. They’re jealous. They don’t have something their victim does, even if that thing is just goodness, kindness, or vulnerability to care that they’re being attacked by the bully. Regardless, the bully is fixated on those they attack. They respect in their victim what they don’t have, and they hate it.

Given that, how obvious is it that Donald John Trump would, of course, hate and attack Barack Obama? Here’s a man who, despite what Trump perceived as the handicap of his skin color, is brilliant, educated, informed, and beloved by his family, colleagues, the thinking portion of the American electorate, and respected by any but the most ardent racists, including world leaders in politics, science, philanthropy, business, education, and religion.

How could Trump ever compare? Did that make him hateful? No. That’s who he is. He’s the product of a sad and pathetic home, despite—or perhaps because of—every luxury. He never had to learn or grow into anything but the nasty, bullying thug he is today. Of that, there can be little question. He never had to exercise any muscle—physical, mental, or emotional. He’s a stunted, spoiled man-child who grasps at everything good that anyone else has and crushes it in their face if he can’t keep it for himself. If he weren’t in the highest seat in the land and gaslighting the entire Republican Party, he’d be pitiable. Weak. Wounded. And envious of everything that comes—though far from effortlessly—to Barack Obama.

But Obama has a work ethic. He’s cared for people his entire life, and they’ve cared for him in return. He’s a good man, and can rest easy at night knowing that’s he’s done his best for his family and all those around him—literally globally. Including Donald John Trump.

Barack Obama has been kind to Trump. He’s been professional. He’s been a statesman. And we expect this weak and wounded thing to exhibit shame or regret? No. That’s not what bullies do. You know that.

There is one thing, though, that undermines the power that we give them—and yes, we have all given him power. We must take it back. We must see him for exactly what he is, and we must share this understanding with everyone who will listen: family, friends, colleagues, and elected representatives. He’s been writhing in pain and envy for Barack Obama since the day Obama was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for the Presidency of The United States of America, because Barack Obama has something that Donald John Trump will never have: hope.

Hope for the future is something Donald John Trump has never had and likely never will. He knows what and who his is. He, more than anyone, knows he’s not good enough. Not smart enough. Not handsome enough. Not young enough. Not slick enough. Not even rich enough. Barack Obama was exceptional at his job and at life, and Donald Trump simply isn’t. Never will be. Has literally no hope of ever being.

Sad.

But I think I’ll get over it.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in South Beach

I had an entertaining evening watching movies and the falling snow. Nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner won two. Katharine Hepburn won for Best Leading Actress, and William Rose won Best Screenplay. Sidney Poitier wasn’t nominated, though admittedly, it wasn’t my favorite of his performances. He did, however, receive a Fotogramas de Plata award for Best Foreign Performer with good reason. The script and, I suspect, direction didn’t exactly spoil the actors of color. Ultimately, it was a remarkable and remarkably popular film for its time two years prior to my birth, and despite some cringe-worthy moments, I love it. And yes, I totally cried during Spencer Tracy’s monologue to the rest of the cast in the climactic scene. Watch it and see if you don’t. I also have to mention Isabel Sanford who did an amazing job with a problematic role as the Drayton’s sassy black maid, Tillie, said to be a member of the family. I have all manner of problem with that, but ultimately, I have to give the writers, cast, director, and producers respect for pushing the social and professional envelope for the time. It’s more sad to me, frankly, that we’ve come such a short way since then.

That led thematically to 1996’s The Birdcage. It was the first time I’d seen this or any of his films since Robin Williams’ death in 2014, and while I felt a pang of melancholy starting out, I was quickly swept away in the performances that—though snubbed by The Academy—won the SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast Award for Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski, and Dan Futterman. Oddly, the bride-to-be was not named in the award; if you’re not as great a nerd as I am, you may not recall that this snubbed actress was Calista Flockhart. And yes, I laughed out loud during the kitchen scene in which Robin Williams genuinely accidentally fell, recovered (though close inspection seems to reveal some barely checked laughter), and went on to finish the scene that made it to the final cut. Robin, Nathan, and Hank seemed to be having fun throughout the film, and it did my heart good to see it. I certainly hope that everyone else did as well. Regardless, I enjoyed watching it.

If you’re familiar with the films, you realize that their mutual theme is of young lovers introducing themselves to the soon-to-be in-laws who also happen to be polar opposites on a particular social status. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the parents (and lovers) were black and white. In The Birdcage, her parents are a right-wing conservative senator and his appropriately stodgy wife, while his parents are a gay male couple who own and operate a drag club in South Beach. Given the casting and concepts, even those of you who haven’t seen either film probably realize that the latter was the more comedic of the two, and you’d be rather gloriously correct. Another of the more memorable scenes involves trying to butch up Nathan’s drag diva character’s walk by way of The Duke himself, John Wayne. The results are cinematic magic. If you want to laugh and feel a litter better about your own crazy family, it’s definitely worth an evening.

For more information or to reserve a copy of either film from a participating PrairieCat library, visit the links below.

 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—IMDb or PrairieCat

The Birdcage—IMDb or PrairieCat

Confessional

I write every day, and yet people continue to tell me that I need to write. I do write. I need to write. I’m compelled every day to speak my mind, and people listen. People seem to get something out of what I write, and I …

I want to say that I enjoy doing it, and I do. I love it. It’s cathartic and wonderful and connecting on a level that I don’t think very many people get to experience for themselves on a daily basis. It’s breath-taking. Preachers get it, I imagine. And politicians. But writers? Yes, all of us. We get it. As we’ve all become writers in our pockets, we’ve come to know. Like. It feels good. You know you’ve connected. Pleasant little instant feedback loop. (Until it isn’t. You get to control that, you know.)

I want to say that it feeds some part of me that I can’t explain. But I think I can. I wasn’t an only child, but my only sibling, my sister Debbie, was nine years old when I was born. I had a cousin who lived next door who was only six years older, but for the most part, there just weren’t a lot of kids around my age who I got to share with. Share toys. Share experiences. Share explorations of the world. And thoughts. Big thoughts. And little ones.

We’re the sincere ones. The raw nerves. We’re those people who feel passionately about little things and really just want to share with you some of what we see. But we can be tender. That, among other things, makes us strong over time. We’ve seen much, and we’ve learned. We’ve been alone often, but we have much to share and love sharing it. You’ve known us. We’re in the core of every specialist community.

And some of us—many of us—write. #sincereones

But ultimately, I write because it’s a part of who I am. I’m not a half bad speaker, but I do my best composition alone in a quiet and comfortable space. Coffee. Home. This is where I write best to the world at large. At home. In my space.

Gratitude 25–27

I’ve missed a couple of days of confessing my gratitude, but I’m grateful to have maintained it.

I’m grateful for books. My grandmother was an avid fiction reader as are my sister, my six-day-older cousin, and I. My mother loved encyclopedias. My dad was always a newspaper and magazine guy. Reading has always been a liberty that I could enjoy pretty much at my own discretion. I suspect that I scandalized more than one librarian in my youth, but my parents were surprisingly laissez-faire when I was very young. And I was, as I’m sure you could guess, quite precocious. This led to harsh reprisals once it caught up with me, but as a young child, I was able to read voraciously. Everything Coleman Library had to offer. Then Memorial Library. Everywhere I’ve gone, libraries have been my refuge, and I’m grateful for them.

I’m grateful for color. I sincerely weep with those who, on trying on glasses that allow one to see a full spectrum of color for the first time, are unable to contain their emotions. I can’t imagine. I love color. It’s everywhere. Light and dark. Vivid and subtle. And there are so many interesting ways to play with color. I love folks like Vivian Hoxbro, Kaffe Fassett, Lynne Vogel, Claudia McClean, Sophie Digard, Maie Landra, Gina Wilde, Carla Kohoyda-Inglis, and whoever is responsible for the palette at ShiBui. I love people who, in their work and play, make me stop and look. I’m grateful for quilts and spinning fiber and looms and every possible tool one can use to play with color.

Which means, ultimately, that I’m grateful for art. Its expression and its craft. Pastels under your fingernails. Paint on your pants. Clay in places you’d as soon not realize you have places. Getting your hands dirty. Making a mess. Art.

Awry

I was born to be an evangelist.

Look at me. Those were the first words out of my mouth. I’m sure of it.

I love to talk. I love to be engaged. I love to interact with other people.

Over here. That was another big one. Come look at this.

I’m full of them.

I’ve always wanted people to see the things I see. It’s maddening for people around me. I get that. I can spend a good fifteen minutes on a really good yarn pic. And I have to repost that shit. It’s required. You spend fifteen minutes drooling over something? You repost. Porn rules apply.

Right. We were speaking of evangelism.

You can probably see where this went awry.

I’ve always questioned everything. It’s in my nature—sometimes very much to my own amazement. How many of you know how to tat? (Hush. Hush. I know. A bunch of you. I’m making a point to the Muggles.) I get involved in things. I metaphorically wallow around in them. Make them mine. Get my stank on them. And theirs on me.

It’s what we do. Car nuts? Gun nuts? Yarn nuts? Color nuts? I’m not saying it’s all the same, but it possesses some similar traits. Ok?

Well, I do that with pretty much everything I touch.

Right now, those things are primarily centered on things that I have to have. Food, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And yes, I firmly believe that joy is a fundamental requirement of life.

Oh, and there’s one other really big thing. Thing, I say. My boyfriend who will remain nameless on this blog. I want you all to come back, he’s in a place where it’s dangerous to be gay, and I want him around long enough to be able to join me in The US. Also, I’d like The US to be a welcoming place to him when he’s ready to immigrate.

I have a tendency to talk about queer, liberal, geek shit as well as shit of various flavors in myriad combinations, so I sometimes get flamy comments. It’s cool. Ignore them. I’ll delete them as I find them. That’s not what this platform’s for.

And no, that doesn’t mean that I’m going to automatically delete anything I don’t like. But I reserve the right to do exactly that. If you want an open forum, go someplace else. I’m not having it here. My house. My rules. And generally, my rules are pretty liberal. (Get it?!?)

So, Crowing Ram’s back. I can’t say that I know exactly where this is going. But I’ve had friends tell me that I need to be doing more writing. When asked, they said I needed to be doing it someplace other than Facebook. I totally respect that. So, this.

When we were last really here together all at once, things were very different. Hell, it was most of a decade ago. Life’s gone on. The archives are here if you want to look back. I do from time to time. There’s some good stuff in there.

There’s also a lot of bad stuff, and I’m not being maudlin about this. I’m delighted to see how much I’ve grown. How much I’ve improved. One of the lessons that I’ve tried to offer all of my students, customers, and patrons is that one of the most difficult things for an adult to be is a beginner. We’re used to knowing how things work, and we pride ourselves on it. So, being fumble-fingered at anything runs against the grain. I believe it’s one of the fundamental reasons that knitting communities form. The shared experience of overcoming one’s fear and vulnerability in that moment of learning is emotionally charged. People see and honor each other’s journey. That’s powerful.

So, seeing my own mistakes laid out behind me isn’t as disheartening as it might be. They got me here. They taught me thousands of ways not to do things in the future. And ultimately, I’ve gotten a hell of a lot right, too. Maybe not men or money, but I’m still working on those.

I expect that this will be a broader stage than what I’ve played on before. I intend to share cooking, fiber stuff, books, and living in a really cool place when you don’t have children or pets. Is this going to be a daily thing? Maybe. If not, that’s cool too.

Southern-style pinched biscuits: trial and error

All of my adult life, I’ve been a bit phobic about making the pinched biscuits my mother made at least daily when I was growing up. She showed me her process (there was no recipe) repeatedly, and every batch I made was a crushing disappointment (to me, anyway).

Fast forward thirty years, and I’ve been making my own bread—amongst other things—for the last several months. At first, I had to. I couldn’t afford to buy groceries for a while immediately following my contract ending in June. But I’ve come to genuinely enjoy the process as well as the result.

So tonight, on a whim, I made biscuits. The term we used as kids was cat heads: lumpy, unattractive biscuits. Nothing at all like Moma’s smooth perfect little morsels. But you know what? The interior was perfect, and I learned a thing or two.

And there was no fear. None. I just went into the kitchen and made biscuits like there was nothing to it.

And truly? There was nothing to it. I needed to fail. I’ve said it a hundred times a hundred times to students in knitting classes. Adults hate being beginners, but it’s good for us. We don’t know everything. We can’t know everything. But especially as adults, we really have to work against thinking that because we haven’t done a thing that we can’t do a thing. We’re probably going to screw the pooch a time or twelve, and that’s ok. We learn from our mistakes. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot.

So tonight, I made cat heads. They taste good, and the crusts are fucking divine. The interiors are dense but fluffy. The taste was ok. The shapes definitely need some work. And the sizes were all over the place. Now I have ideas for how to improve them. For next time. Because practice may not make perfect, but it brings us closer to where we really want to be.

Pesto Vegetable Pasta with Grated Incanestrato

I drove into Rockford to visit Valli Produce and picked up some small (roughly racquetball-sized) eggplants along with a jar of prepared pesto. I also got several cheeses including one that I’d never heard of before: incanestrato.

Today for lunch, I cooked one of the eggplants sliced with a handful of sliced mushrooms and halved cherry tomatoes, julienned sun-dried tomatoes and shallot, and a single fat scallion in a large skillet along with a large dollop of the pesto. I served that over whole wheat spaghetti topped with a generous grating of incanestrato.

I’m generally not a great fan of licorice or anise flavor, but there was a sharp but very pleasant note of licorice in what I’m assuming was the cheese (seems unlikely it came from the pesto). Incanestrato is a hard Italian cheese made from cow or cow and goat milk, salt, and herbs. It seems plausible that one of those herbs might be anise, and if so, I’m impressed. It made a believer out of me. I really enjoyed even that specific part of this dish.

UPDATE
Turns out it was the pesto, but the cheese is still excellent.

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