Monday, May 30, 2011


Memorial Day means many things. It’s the calendar-challenged beginning of the summer season. (Summer is always calendar challenged in Florida. It usually lasts from nine to eleven months.) It’s an anchor date for family reunions. Some just see it as a three-day weekend. It can be the first serious grilling day of the year. Hopefully most of us realize it’s the one day we’re given to honor those who have served our country.

I won’t be grilling this year. That’s because I haven’t grilled in years. I cook in my kitchen. I use the stovetop, oven, and microwave. So this year I’ll be in the kitchen. It may be hot. It may feel crowded. I’ll be making pork meatballs and thinking about my parents. They were both in the Army during World War II. Both confined to the U.S. My father was a sole surviving son back when that meant something and became a mechanic in the Army Air Corps. My mother was an orientation officer. That meant she taught women how to be WACs. She said she taught grown women how to use indoor plumbing, a pretty rough job for a girl from Chicago. Neither saw battle. Neither saw war. But they helped those who did.

My parents both had their Army stories. They were never stationed together. That guaranteed twice the amount of stories. Dad fried eggs on airplane wings in Tucson, Arizona. When he was stationed in Riverside, California, he made films with a couple of guys named John: Forsyth and Wayne. He also got to meet Doolittle on the way to Tokyo. Mom’s stories weren’t as celebrity-filled but she had food stories. Considered underweight by the Army, she got extra rations. She couldn’t eat all the food the Army gave her so she shared it with the women under her command. Mom’s little driver, minimum height and weight by Army standards, who cleared a jack-knifed semi tying up traffic by using her experience of getting through spots too small for even her, ate well for weeks.

I’ve often wondered whatever happened to my mother’s Purple Heart. She only had the ribbon, not the medal, because it wasn’t official. Someone she was stationed with the week the war ended had earned a real Purple Heart and given her the ribbon to honor her for a burn suffered cooking breakfast for my father after she married him.

That is tied to the story from Dad about being called on the carpet by his CO for getting married without his permission. Dad told the Colonial he was under orders from his wife and his wife out-ranked him. The war may have been over but the Army was still too busy for the Colonial to check to see the Sergeant on the other side of his desk had married a Lieutenant. Dad didn’t lie. The way he phrased it was correct. Mom outranked Dad. And that’s the way it went.

Whenever I think about my parents, I think about food. They fed me, of course, and helped form my opinions of what good food is. My father helped me plant my first garden when I was six or seven. My mother let me help cook our first harvest. Meals were a family affair.

Mother was famous for her spaghetti, cooked for what seemed like all day. It started with a recipe given to her from Gene Sage (of Sages Sage’s in Chicago) and continued on to suggestions from family and friends until it was perfect. We ate a lot of spaghetti dinners before Mom’s spaghetti sauce was perfected. It was never bad. And I’ve never been able to duplicate it.

Dad made breakfast every Sunday morning. Even on Father’s Day – unless I insisted on making French toast or pancakes. Every Sunday we had Dad’s stovetop frittatas. No need to light the oven with a tight-fitting lid for the frying pan. He called them open-faced omelets. He would make them using anything in the refrigerator. Sometimes that was just a stick of salami. Leftovers made it interesting. Tacos, chop suey, steaks, roasts, anything that wasn’t enough to make another meal. We loved our Sunday surprise breakfasts even when they were no surprise.

I miss my Army heroes, my parents. I see them every day in my mirror and hope to bring them with me throughout my life. Though Dad’s daily weapon may have been a wrench and Mom’s a chicken drumstick, they were my heroes as much as soldiers flying Dad’s planes and nurses who shared Mom’s meals. This day I thank all who served my country in any and every way they could.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Imaginary Food

I just spent a few days writing about quesadillas for the appetizer chapter for “A Table for One or Two.” The odd part was there were no tortillas in the house. Not even a tortilla chip! Everything was done from memory, including the tastes.

Today we’ll be inventing imaginary deviled eggs. Again we’ll be relying on memory and imagination. The eggs in the refrigerator, all five of them, are starting to get old. It may be time to make French macarons in the middle of the night if we have a middle of the night cool enough and dry enough.

Rain had been predicted for a couple of days this week but has now been stricken from the forecast. My poor garden may wilt into oblivion. So much for cooking fresh veggies from the yard. The rain forecast disappeared but now has resurfaced for Memorial Day weekend. Happy grilling, neighbors!

Izzy has been making requests lately. Guess I could call it a dogsend. Sometimes planning meals alone gets to be a chore. It’s nice to have help. Her latest request is that we make pasta from a heap of flour on the counter. I know she loves pasta. We both do. Secretly I think she will enjoy watching me clean the kitchen a little too much. Don’t tell the dog but I’ve wanted to do homemade pasta for decades.

With limited imagination and limited foodstuffs, I’ve been “cooking” frozen and canned foods a lot lately – way too much to satisfy the cook in me. While the neighbors are trying to grill between raindrops this weekend, Izzy and I will be making pork meatballs. We’ll also be inventing a tomato-based vegetable sauce from the freezer and pantry. I’d better get to the store next week or I’ll be making Beneful stew. Maybe I should save a can of tomatoes.

Lest anyone worry that I don’t eat enough these days, rest easy. I’ve gained one pound eating imaginary food in the last week. It may melt off next week. By that time, I’m afraid, I’ll be assembling – and eating – real food.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Saga of The Tomato Soup Cake

Last week someone on TV mentioned tomato soup cake. (I can see her face but can’t think of her name.) I became fascinated. Google brought me over 2 million results in 0.12 seconds. I haven’t read them all. About the middle of page 2 of search results I picked one recipe found on page 1. (It’s true that placement counts on search engines.)

I made a few very minor changes to the chosen recipe before even starting to assemble the ingredients. The more I cook, the more I can taste the recipe just by reading it. I often get sidetracked while getting ready to cook. I look at the spices that must be moved to grab the ones I want and think about things to make. I walk back to the laptop to check something in the recipe and start another web search in a quest for something utterly unrelated. (By the way, the woman responsible for my tomato soup cake obsession is Elizabeth Falkner.) I digress . . . and digress again.

First, I assembled tools. Three bowls, measuring cups and spoons, whisk, rubber spatula, big bamboo spoon, and regular dinner fork (just in case). The room on my small counter almost exhausted, I wedged a stick of unsalted butter (the only kind I ever buy) between the can of tomato soup and the bowl waiting for wet ingredients. Went and played on Facebook for a bit while the butter came close to room temperature. It was also time to turn on the oven to 350 F. to preheat.

It was now time to do everything at once so I measured out dry ingredients first. Everything went straight into the biggest bowl. In went two cups of all purpose flour. The flour looked a little lonely so I added ¼ teaspoon of salt. White stuff in a gray bowl looked boring so I added a teaspoon of ground cinnamon. The recipe called for another teaspoon of ground cloves and another of ground nutmeg. I eyeballed about half a teaspoon of each with the one-teaspoon measure. Just for kicks, I added about half a teaspoon of ground ginger. That may have been a mistake. On the other hand, it may have been a good idea. I haven’t decided yet and Izzy likes it just the way it is. I added a teaspoon of baking powder and combined everything with the whisk. One bowl finished!

I put the butter into the next biggest (or next smallest, depending on how you look at it) and added a half cup of sugar then creamed them together with the big bamboo spoon. It’s the first time I used it instead of a wooden spoon. I love my bamboo tools!

Then came the really cool part. I dumped one can of tomato soup into the smallest bowl (about a quart) and added one teaspoon baking soda. I stirred that in with the dinner fork and just watched. It’s kitchen magic. The red soup turns an orange-pink color. The acid from the tomatoes in the soup mixes with the soda. The whole thing swells a little and bubbles a bit. It’s fun to watch!

Mixing ¼ cup of water added to the soup can to get as much soup as possible into the cake can be a little anti-climactic but it does add a little more fizziness.

Time to get mixing! Add the foamy soup mixture to the butter and sugar. I stirred it with the dinner fork. (No need to clean it. You’re stirring in the stuff that’s already on the fork.) You can use a mixer, stand or hand. Then mix in the dry ingredients in two or three additions.

Once mixed, pour into well-greased and floured cake pans. These cakes are pretty forgiving. I used a Bundt pan but any cake pans or even a loaf pan will work. The directions said to bake the cake for an hour. Ever read the back of a cake mix? Time and temperature differ for different sizes and different types of pans. My suggestion is to keep a close eye on it after about half an hour. Make sure a skewer or toothpick comes out clean before you take the cake out to cool.

Cool cake about half an hour in the pan and turn it out to a cake plate to finish cooling. You can frost it (cream cheese frosting or some variation thereof is recommended), glaze it, or dust it with powdered sugar.

The batter is thick enough to use the waffle iron. That should make Marc happy. I could probably make Napoleons with tomato soup cake waffles layered with macaroni and cheese without even changing the recipe. That should make Kathy happy. Playing with all this should make me happy. Of course, can’t forget Izzy. She’ll be happy because I always share with her.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What Day is It?

I promised myself I’d post to this blog every Monday to atone for missing the last three months of my life. Monday became Tuesday rather quickly. And now what day is it? I’m almost a week late!

Izzy has noticed something about me lately. I’ve been sleeping through the night every night even when she tries to wake me. When we both need to run to go potty in the morning, I let her out first, usually doing a little dance before running to the bathroom. When I come back to let her in, I see she’s out of water. She’s used to me getting up every three or four hours. Seven or eight hours without checking her water is totally unacceptable, Izzy told me.

Maybe it’s the heat. It’s too hot to do much in the yard. That and housework have been the bulk of my exercise. It’s too hot to cook. If it can’t be thrown in the microwave, I’m not eating it. That makes it pretty hard to write a cookbook. The weather is supposed to let up a bit next week. I’m hoping to finish the appetizer chapter then. From the looks of things, it won’t happen. The appetizers chapter is turning into a book all on its own.

Maybe it’s the humidity. Florida is famous for its humidity. I wash dishes by hand and sometimes even a little laundry. Is it any wonder that my hands often feel like they’ve been in the pool too long? Makes me hate to think what this wet air might do to baking.

Speaking of baking, I read somewhere lately of putting cake batter in a waffle iron. That sounded interesting. Not interesting enough to get me on the floor reaching into a dark cabinet to dig out the waffle iron. It would just be another thing to clean.

My mind is going back to the microwave. A catering friend of mine once suggested I cook pasta in the microwave. May try it the next time I make my quick mac-n-cheese. That would mean a quick, cheap lunch or side dish for Izzy and me and a steam bath for the microwave. Better do it soon. My lunch just blew up, shooting the paper towel covering to one side of the box and two pinto beans to the other. Mac-n-cheese with something green – should it be broccoli, green beans or peas? – for dinner tonight.

The quick mac-n-cheese (admit it, you’re curious) is made without milk. No sauce to break. The whole thing takes less than 20 minutes and now I can make it in one bowl! Boil a cup and a half of water in the microwave. That takes about 2 ½ minutes. I used a one-quart glass bowl. Don’t forget to add salt! Put a generous 2 ounces of pasta into the water. (I used shells this time but Izzy prefers elbows.) Microwave for 10 to 12 minutes, stirring at least once. If the water starts to boil over in the bowl, lower the cooking power to no less than 50%. (Or you could have started with a 1 ½ quart bowl.) Drain the pasta. Return to bowl and add a little bit too much butter, a couple of tablespoons if you can stop there. Stir until the butter melts all over (and inside) the pasta. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Stir. Add your favorite grated cheese. Stir that all around your pasta. Return to the microwave and cook on high for about 15 to 30 seconds to melt some of the cheese (but not all). It’s a little grainy but it’s so easy and fast that you can overlook that.

By the way, I added peas to make mine dinner. And the microwave is pretty clean!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Menu Planning

The menu for May 5 is usually planned at my house before April is gone. I love Mexican food and can cook for Cinco de Mayo all month. I used to take a break from Mexican food for the sake of my family and Derby Day was a perfect break. Mother’s Day was always by request of whatever mother was closest. My mother, and father for that matter, used to request my scratch-made pizza whenever she didn’t reserve cooking duties for herself. My daughter, born in Phoenix, requests my enchiladas.

This year I’m saddled with no car and infrequent shopping trips. I try to load two or three weeks of provisions into two reusable bags. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Last Thursday’s trip found ground pork for nearly two dollars a pound less than ground beef. Pork it was – for chili and an experiment I bought some cheese and canned diced tomatoes. Unfortunately, I forgot tortillas. Also missing is fresh produce. No tortillas and no tortilla chips means no nachos, one of Izzy’s favorite dishes, and no quesadillas, one of her other favorites.

Fire-roasted tomatoes are making their first appearance in my chili this year. I’ll be cooking the chili for a couple of days. The weather’s too hot to cook it all at once. I’m hunting for desserts. Maybe I’ll make two, one with chocolate and one to share with Miss Iz. Maybe I’ll make something that goes well with ice cream.

Somehow it’s hard to plan anything but Cinco de Mayo these days. Wonder how long I’ll feel that way. There’s a good chance of Mexican food in the forecast longer than drought and high temperatures. If and when the summer squash bear fruit, the kitchen may have to learn Italian. There are still canned tomatoes in the pantry.