Gratitude for my cooking chair

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About a week after my back surgery, I mentioned to my husband that I might be able to cook sooner if I had our step ladder ready near the stove. The weight of said ladder slightly exceeds the ten pound maximum I’m supposed to lift during my recovery period, so I knew this was an imperfect solution, stuck in front of the oven for the duration. I had also noticed that our kitchen table chairs were not equal to the task of offering a resting place while stirring, chopping or otherwise preparing meals. The seats are too short, and I’d be bending my back to reach the all of the burners on the stove top.

My husband mentioned that he did have a chair that was ideal for the task stored in the back garage, a lighter chair that is a hybrid between a step stool and a bar chair. When he brought it home a couple years ago, I asked him if it could possibly be a late 60’s high chair for overgrown toddlers. He relegated it to storage, among the loads of things that he’s acquired secondhand on the chance they could become useful eventually.

That chair had remained among other goodies in the back garage like 70’s man purses, Bakelite staplers, and defunct insurance company letter openers for long enough that I’d forgotten we had such a thing. Not once did I consider how helpful its presence could have been in the kitchen, even before my surgery. In the months leading up to the surgery, standing in place gave me the greatest degree of discomfort. My time in the kitchen would have been greatly enhanced by such a chair.

Today I will making my tomato-free chili, grateful that my legs and back won’t be aching as I brown the hamburger and wait for the broth to thicken.

Food Unites

I have thoroughly enjoyed writing about food and sharing my recipes. I wish that I had better skill at taking photos of food, both the ingredients and the finished recipes. I tried to find a garden photo of a fruit or vegetable for this post, but the closest thing I found to an edible subject was a sunflower. I have grown Mammoth Russian sunflowers during several summers just to get pictures of them, with the bonus of feeding birds with their crop of seed.

In the photo above, which I took eight years ago, the sunflower looks like a drone whose mission is to spread nothing but joy.

Next year I think I’ll take the time to save some of the seed harvest for my family. Mammoth Russian sunflowers can actually be an economical source of nutrition in the family garden. With a packet of seed costing 33 cents to a dollar, I’ve grown flowers that collectively produce up to five pounds of seed.

I’ve been thinking that food is unique in how it can unite us. We can be so different in our choices of food, yet everyone needs to eat, no matter what ends up on the dinner table. Through writing about food, we can find our common ground yet show how we are different in a non-confrontational way. I’m equally pleased with online chatter about venison stew as I am with a recipe for vegan cheesecake. These are windows into different perspectives that I might not have seen so closely otherwise.

My choices in cooking also say much about me. Through writing about food, I can tell the story of my life in a way that is more candid than memoir. In sharing a recipe that features a full pound of dried beans, I cannot hide that I spent part of my life in poverty. Only necessity can create a soup that costs as low as a quarter a bowl.

I look back on some of the things I made during hard times, and I feel uplifted at how well I did. While I’d like to share all sorts of recipes, I do hope to post more of the frugal ones to honor that time of my life.

When I get around to buying all the necessary ingredients, I will tell you how I met the challenge of making 30 burritos with 10 dollars. Since the price of food has risen so much in the past decade, it may be impossible to replicate the recipe at such a low price. I’d love to see a stash of homemade burritos in my freezer again.

Cake Mix Tip

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Pumpkins are magical. You can hide them in cakes.

Since baking is on my mind today, I thought I’d pass along a tip I learned in a cooking class offered by the Ohio State Agricultural Extension. You can replace the eggs and oil with a 15 ounce can of plain pumpkin when baking a cake from a boxed mix.

Pumpkin itself has a subtle flavor that gets lost in a cake. I’ve baked chocolate cake with pumpkin puree, and the cake tasted just as chocolatey as it usually does.

This is an easy way to cut some calories from dessert while adding a vegetable.

Easy Big Batch Chili

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Cooking played a vital role in my recovery from depression. As I tried more recipes and created some of my own, I felt mastery despite that I was and am not a fantastic cook. Even when I felt like my life was falling apart outside the kitchen, I knew I could succeed at planning a meal with limited resources that people might even like.

It all started with chili. Here was a one dish meal that was challenging to screw up. I experimented with the recipe my mom taught me in my teens. After a few attempts that were too fiery, I arrived at basic template for chili that could be embellished or scaled to suit the occasion.

After I had been stuck in moderate depression for years, my mom suggested that I try making chili for a 100 for my brother’s wedding reception. This was to be an informal gathering for family who hadn’t been able to attend my brother’s out of state wedding. For the first time in months, I did not agonize over choices or planning. I did not dread failure. I just did it. About half of people who tried my chili at that reception liked it enough to ask who made it. This mattered more to me than they could ever know.

I learned that if I acted without worrying whether anyone would like the result, my chances of a positive outcome were greater.

This evening I made my chili once again. It continues to evolve. This version can serve 10-12 people. I freeze cooled leftovers in sandwich bags. This chili keeps well frozen for two months.

Choosing no salt added versions of the canned tomatoes can help control the sodium level. If lower sodium plain beans are used, I recommend adding more chili powder to taste.

Big Batch Chili

  • 3 lbs ground beef
  • 2-16 oz cans mild or medium chili beans, undrained
  • 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes with green chilies, undrained (a 10 oz can is fine, too)
  • 29 oz can crushed tomatoes (fire roasted crushed tomatoes work great, too)
  • 3 T plus one teaspoon chili powder, divided
  • 1/2 t black pepper
  • 1 beef boullion cube (optional but tasty)
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 t Sriracha sauce

Brown the ground beef with 1 teaspoon chili powder in Dutch oven.  Drain well. Add beans, tomatoes, 3 T chili powder, pepper, water and Sriracha sauce. Bring the chili to a simmer and add the boullion cube if using. Simmer f0r at least 30 minutes. Enjoy.

Spaghetti Dinner

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This evening’s edition: rigatoni and ground beef with Mid’s sauce

Like chili or tacos, spaghetti is one of those dinners I regret I can’t serve more often. If I make spaghetti more than once a fortnight, I risk seeming lazy or obsessed. Since I seldom cook my own sauce, spaghetti is indeed an easy dinner for me to serve, aside from that moment of juggling pans as everything seems to finish at the same moment.

Here in the Midwest, spaghetti is actually two different things, a product or a dinner genre. The difference depends on whether you are buying or making spaghetti. In the grocery store, spaghetti is what you’d call a box of dried semolina dough that is cut to uniform length and ~2 mm girth. When you cook dinner at home around here and call it spaghetti, it could be almost any combination of tomato sauce, pasta and ground meat. Actually the meat is optional. If it is present, it may be crumbled or shaped into meatballs.

Spaghetti dinner has the rare quality of growing with a cook throughout a lifetime. It can be both a starter dish for a beginner or the signature meal of a master. I have made several attempts at creating a decent homemade sauce, but I end up with a bland but nice looking result, like a Penney’s catalog of cuisine. Since these efforts have not yet been worth the time I’ve spent on them, I usually buy a tomato sauce and add meat. My favorite store bought sauce is Mid’s, which is a bit pricey but has a much deeper tenor than typical jarred sauces.

Spaghetti dinner can be varied to the point of using a starch other than pasta. A few years ago, I tried substituting polenta for pasta, with favorable results. I can now make spaghetti dinner twice as often by disguising it as a polenta casserole. The next time I make this casserole, I will post its simple recipe. It is just a bed of polenta covered in meatballs and tomato sauce then topped with mushrooms and mozzarella cheese.

I just had a vision of making a chili variation on the polenta casserole.

That’s what I need to make next.

If it works, I have an excuse to cook more chili, which is even more satisfying than making spaghetti dinner.

This could be how tamales were born. They are a taco variant of the polenta casserole.

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