Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cooking Under the Influence: Post-surgical culinary adventures

Tomato Forks
Standing at
I ripped my rotator cuff in very late October 2013, and had surgery two weeks later. For the two weeks after surgery, I was well-medicated but functional, depending on your definition of "functional."

I have forgotten almost everything from that time, however, I was able to discover one  new Rule of Life:

Morphine Makes You Stupid, impairing culinary judgment

  1. It will never be a good idea to poach beautiful fresh figs in diet ginger ale.
  2. Before putting a load of Chinese leftovers into the food processor to make little fry-able patties, consider that not every flavor is a good match for every other.
Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nina Simonds' Chinese Peanut Dressing - Huzzah!

Should be on your bookshelf
Wil Haygood interviewed Nina Simonds on WHYY's Fresh Air about her new book, Asian Noodles: Deliciously Simple Dishes to Twirl, Slurp and Savor, on April 2, 1997.

I bought it the next day, and it remains on my "absolute favorite" shelf.

Why I love this book (beyond the recipes)

Remember, this was 1997, before you could buy rice noodles and Sriracha in every grocery store in America. The first few pages has beautiful, clearly-labeled photographs of almost every noodle you would ever want to cook, and it follows on with exacting instructions for cooking each one.

I went from the bookstore to a Chinese market on University Avenue in Saint Paul, walked the aisles, filled my shopping cart, went home to cook, and never looked back.

The recipes

Asking for a list of "favorites" is a lot like asking a parent to name The Favorite Child. Some have become my staples: Chile Noodles (p.28), Ginger-Scallion Noodles (P. 30), Curried Vegetarian Noodles (a version of Singapore Noodles) (p. 34), Singapore Fried Rice Noodles (with shrimp) (p. 93) and the door-opener to my favorite recipe of all, Rainbow Peanut Noodles (p.82).

The backbone of Rainbow Peanut Noodles is Chinese Peanut Dressing (p. 122) which reminds me that a  pantry with a very large jar of peanut butter, some ginger and garlic, and spaghetti can feed five people for 10 days or 10 people for five days.

Simonds says:

She writes "My refrigerator would seem empty without a batch of this all-purpose peanut butter-based sauce. I serve it with vegetable and noodle salads, and as a go-with-anything dipping sauce."

But there's more: spread it on toast, bagels, or matzoh; two-three tablespoons will zip up any stir fry; add a bit to any coconut-based stir fry sauce and swoon. This dressing/sauce/dip is a friend to chicken, shrimp, and crispy tofu. I have seen people grab spoons and eat it straight from the bowl.

Chinese Peanut Dressing (adapted from Asian Noodles)


  1. This can be multiplied to the limit of your food processor's capacity.
  2. I buy fresh ginger by the pound and then freeze about half in 1-inch cuts. Frozen ginger isn't great for stir fry, but it works in this recipe, and it makes dandy ginger tea.
  3. Adding fresh chili gives this a real kick.
  4. Simonds suggests Worcestershire sauce as a substitute for Chinese Black Vinegar. I have never done that, so I have no idea how it would taste. I use Chinkiang brand black vinegar. Buy a few bottles. This vinegar lasts forever. 
  5. No, I don't make my own chicken broth. I use 1T Penzey's Chicken Soup Base and 1/4 cup of water.
  6. Simonds says that this keeps in the fridge for two to three weeks. I have never made enough for that to be a possibility.

1 inch chunk of fresh ginger (or frozen ginger from your ginger stash)
8 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled
1-2 tsp fresh jalapeno or serrano chili, finely chopped (optional)
1 tsp of Sriracha or any other hot chili sauce (or more)
1/4 cup soy sauce
4 T sugar
4 T Chinese Black vinegar
4 T toasted sesame oil
3 T Chicken broth or water
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter (or more)

  1. Finely chop the ginger, garlic and fresh chili (if using) in a food processor. Add all remaining ingredients except peanut butter and blend until smooth.
  2. Add the peanut butter and blend. Taste. Taste again.
  3. Thicken with peanut butter; thin with chicken broth. Taste again.
  4. For a dressing: the sauce should be like thick heavy cream.
  5. For a dip: the sauce should be like thick yogurt.
  6. For a spread: Slightly thinner than plain peanut butter.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Grocery surprises: frozen cheese sandwiches & oatmeal in packets

I have always loved grocery stores.

Grocery shopping pattern set by Mom

The pattern for my shopping was set when I was a tiny child. Once a week until I left home, I walked with my Mom up and down every aisle in the Giant Food Store in Mt. Rainier, Maryland. She always had a list, but she also knew exactly what she needed to keep her pantry stocked. She taught me to shop the whole store, and to remember the shopping list.

Delicious & Requires measuring equipment

Years in grocery stores

I spent all day every day in grocery and drug stores in the 1970s when I worked for a San Francisco food broker and a national manufacturer. With retail and wholesale accounts from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz, I got to see the differences between chain and independent stores in their approaches to sales and marketing, and the differences among stores within chains as their managers tweaked their shelf facing plans based on their customers' needs. It was endlessly interesting.

I walk all of the aisles today, and like to keep track of new products and new categories. Sometimes, I'm surprised.

Frozen Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Except for peanut butter and jelly, no sandwich is easier to make than grilled cheese. I was surprised to see Chef MJ Brando American and Cheddar Grilled Cheese Sandwiches in the freezer section at Rainbow Foods in Saint Paul. As in Star Wars, there is another: you can find Frozen Swiss Grilled Cheese Sandwiches on the Brando website.

Still reeling from cheese sandwich shock, I had a bad feeling, and Googled "frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwich." I am apparently the last person in America to discover that PBandJ can also be found in the freezer aisle, in Smucker's Uncrustables.

When did "packet" become the measure of oatmeal?

True confessions: I own seven sets of measuring spoons, three sets of measuring cups, and I am not afraid to use them.

Wandering in the oatmeal aisle, I found 21 products that required measuring cups or spoons, and 47 with twice as many facings with products that use "packet" as the unit of measure.

When did this happen? How hard is it to measure a quarter of a cup of dry oatmeal? Has America lost its measuring cups and spoons? Has anyone noticed that the cost per serving of oatmeal-in-packets is ridiculously high?

This may be related to the rise of the single-cup coffee maker, which, in addition to generating tons of plastic trash, may have deprived several generations of the technical skills required to use a measuring tablespoon.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Growing food in straw bales: Thank you, Ruth Stout

Everything old is new again.

A headline in the April 16, 2013 Pioneer Press caught my eye: New garden technique grows plants in straw bales. The story introduced readers to Minnesota native and Ohio gardener Joel Karsten who is promoting a wonderful and smart technique of growing vegetables in straw bales. He lines them up vertically, waters and fertilizes them, and offers instructions.

If I were still gardening, I would use this method in a minute.

New? Not so fast.

Ruth Stout was on to  "no-till gardening"  by 1961 when she published Gardening Without Work: For the Aging, the Busy, and the Indolent (1961). How can you not love a book with "indolent" in the title?

She followed up with The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of Year-Round Mulching (1971), and How to have a green thumb without an aching back (1974).

I found her books in the late 60s when I my San Francisco house overflowed with plants and I had a well-developed case of gardening envy. By the time I bought my tiny Baltimore house (800 square feet on three levels) with its tiny yard (26x92 feet) I was ready for straw, and began regularly carting two bales at a time in my Honda hatchback.

That garden had a motto, for flowers with scent, herbs, and tiny vegetables, "Start with wretched excess and scale up!" During its six-year run, it benefited enormously from her methods. While it may have been something of an eyesore to my more conventional gardening neighbors, straw mulch turned Maryland clay into fertile ground in less than two years.

Thanks, Ruth.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Chili Spiced Mango for Sick Person's Pantry Chicken Soup

Trader Joe's Chile Spiced Mango
When I am sick but just able to get out of bed, Sick Person's Pantry Chicken Soup is my food of choice. Trader Joe's Chile Spiced Mango is the best addition to this that I've found in ages.

Trader Joe's Uncrystallized
Candied Ginger
I do exuberant impulse shopping at Trader Joe's. A month ago, I discovered Trader Joe's Uncrystallized Candied Ginger, which I put into the green tea that I drink all day, every day. When I went back to stock up, the Chile Spiced Mango jumped into my shopping cart.

Yesterday, as I was fighting a head cold, I made a version of Sick Person's Pantry Chicken Soup. While I had a rotisserie chicken in the fridge, I could have easily used frozen shrimp or tofu for the protein. Precise measurements are neither available nor required for people who are stumbling around in a kitchen with one eye open. Use what you have and don't fret.
Penzey's Chicken Soup Base
and Seasoning

Chicken stock or not? 

When you are well, you can make stock, otherwise use the can or box in your pantry. I always have Penzey's Chicken Soup Base and Seasoning in my refrigerator.

Rice or rice noodles? Or other noodles?

Adding a starch to this soup will depend on how you feel about eating more than clear soup. Only you can decide where in the continuum of not-well-at-all to healed-and-hungry you are.

Pantry Chicken Soup

Liquids (water, canned or boxed soup or stock). 
  • 1-inch knob of fresh ginger (or a piece of ginger from your freezer stash), cut into 1/2-inch slices
  • Carrot: 1/2 grated (eat the rest)
  • A whole jalapeno or serrano chile, cut in half with the seeds in if you like spicy soup
  • Trader Joe's Chili Spiced Mango: One or two cut into 1/2-inch strips, and then into 1/2-inch pieces
  • Fresh onion:  Three or four 1/2-inch slices cut into inch-long pieces
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon (a nod to Pho)
  • A few grinds of fresh ground pepper
  • Rice, rice noodles, other noodles (optional)
  • Protein: Cooked Chicken, Frozen Shrimp, Tofu cut into squares

  1. Fill a saucepan with a lid  to two inches from the top with fresh, cold water and 1 heaping tablespoon of Penzeys' Chicken Soup Base, canned or boxed chicken broth or stock. Vegetarians: use vegetable stock. 
  2. Add the grated carrot, ginger slices, jalapeno or serrano, mango, onion, cinnamon, and pepper. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. (If you have pre-cooked chicken, add a few pieces in this step. It will boost the flavor and add some chicken fat, which all Jewish Mothers know is the key to chicken soup;s curative powers.)
  3. Optional starch:  After the soup has simmered for 20 or 30 minutes, add the rice or noodles. Cook them in the soup to absorb the flavors. Do not use another pan. You will have to wash it.
  4. After the rice and noodles are cooked, add the protein. Cooked chicken and tofu need just to warm through. Watch shrimp carefully. Rubbery shrimp will not make you feel better.
  5. Ladle into bowls. 

More options:

1/4 cup dried cherries added in Step 2 (for sweetness)
A dash of sesame oil to finish each bowl

Monday, December 31, 2012

Chubby Vegetarian's Jalapeno Poppers

Baked Poppers: Made at home
The first time I had a Jalapeno Popper in a restaurant, I said "Ah ha! This should be Minnesota State Fair Food!" They are perfect little bites of spicy and cheesy fried deliciousness. Not being a fry-at-home person, I never imagined that I would ever make them. Bloggers at The Chubby Vegetarian fixed that for me with baked Better Jalapeno Poppers. The crunchy crust comes from an egg-and-Panko mixture.

While I would never prevent anyone from diving head-first into making an excellent recipe, there are some important popper considerations:

How will you serve them?

If you want a single-bite popper, select bite-sized peppers. Bigger peppers will require knives and forks, possibly complicating an appetizer buffet where guests will need to balance knives, forks, plates, and drinks.

How committed to hot peppers are your guests? 

I live in Minnesota, and pepper tolerance ranges from less than zero to top of the Scoville scale. If you are unsure about your guests' Scoville prefernces, take extra care to remove both the seeds and the ribs in the peppers.

How many people do you plan to serve? 

These are fun-to-make-but-slightly-finicky, and making them for a crowd could require a sous chef. If you are serving dozens, make sure that the cheese mixture is soft enough to pipe into the peppers.
Flat top

Can you adjust the spices? 

Of course. The cheese choice is flexible and the open pepper is a blank canvas for your favorite flavors. Consider adding tiny bits of shrimp, crab or smoked fish, too.

Baked Jalapeno Poppers
Adapted from The Chubby Vegetarian

4 to 6 firm, ripe Jalapeno peppers, selected for either bite-sized or knife-and-fork portions,  halved, seeded, and ribs removed
2 ounces light cream cheese or Neufchatel, softened
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground chipotle or smoked paprika
Zest of half a lime
1 large egg beaten with a fork
3/4 cup Panko bread crumbs
1/2 tsp fresh lime juice
Salt and Pepper
1 tsp olive oil
Optional sour cream and chives or scallions for garnish.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350. Line a small flat baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.
  2. Place the peppers, cut site up, on the baking sheet.
  3. Mix the cheeses, garlic, cumin, chipotle or paprika and lime zest in a small bowl. Fill each pepper to the rim with the mixture. A tiny offset spatula is a good tool for making flat cheese tops. 
  4. Add the Panko, lime juice, pinch of salt, and a few grinds of fine-ground fresh pepper into the beaten egg. Mix well.
  5. Beginning with a teaspoon and finishing with your fingers, cover each pepper with the Panko mixture. Drizzle a bit of olive oil over each popper.
  6. Check the poppers after 20 minutes. The peppers will begin to sizzle, and will probably need an additional five minutes to achieve a golden brown and crispy top and a cooked pepper. Take care to make sure that the peppers are softened. Your guests may not be keen on eating raw Jalapenos.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spicy Lamb and Beef Meatballs with Crispy Onions

Lamb and Beef Meatballs with Crispy Onions

Who doesn't love a meatball?

 So many cultures have meatballs. Wikipedia helpfully lists meatballs from 28 countries alphabetically from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

So many families have their favorite meatball. My  Mother's best meatball used a powder called Spatini, and leftover meatball sandwiches were treasured lunches.

My tastes have changed, and I went on a decades-long search for the secret of really spicy meatballs, which I learned by trial-and-error.

The road to spicy meatballs:  

1.  Italian Grandmothers have known this forever: Cooking the raw meatball in sauce is good for the sauce and bad for the meatball. The sauce gets the flavor and the meatball becomes texture.
2. Really spicy meatballs require aggressively spicy ingredients: hot sausage, pepperoni, tiny dice of fried very hot peppers, cayenne, chili paste, etc.

New to my meatball repertoire: lamb meatballs

Which came first? Lamb at the supermarket or a lamb meatball recipe in my nighttime reading? Don't know. This is a very flexible recipe that can be made with all lamb or 2/3 ground lamb and 1/3 ground beef. These meatballs freeze well and make great sandwiches (especially in pita). They are wonderful additions to salads and good friends to pizza. Use them in onion/garlic/hot pepper/meatball/spaghetti stir fries or (I live in Minnesota) your favorite hot dish.

Cook's Notes: 

1.  Fry the onions first. By the time you have made the meatballs they should be caramelized, and can be moved aside for the meatballs. If you have so many onions that the meatballs won't fit in the pan, remove half and serve them with cooked meatballs.
2.  If you have only whole spices, measure them out and grind them with some of the Panko in a coffee grinder. A mini-food processor won't get them to a fine grind.
3.  Makes 16 golf ball sized meatballs.

Lamb Meatballs With Crispy Onions

1 onion, thin sliced
2T neutral oil (Canola)

2 t ground cumin
2 t ground coriander
2 t ground caraway
1/2 t ground fennel seed
1/4 t cinnamon
1/2 t cayenne
2 scallions finely chopped
1 c fresh parsley finely chopped (or 1/3 cup dried parsley)
1-1/2 t harissa or Siracha
3 cloves of garlic finely minced
1 egg
1 c Panko
1-1/2 # lamb or 1# lamb & 1/2 # ground beef

1.  Heat the oil in a large oven-proof skillet. Fry the onions on medium heat. Turn on the oven to 375 or 350 in a convection oven.
2.  Mix the spices, scallions, parsley, harissa or Siracha, garlic, and egg in a large bowl. Add the Panko and mix well.
3.  Add the meat or meats to the bowl and mix well with your hands. Using your hands or an ice cream scoop, make 16 golf-ball sized meatballs.
4.  Add the meatballs to the pan with the caramelized onions. Brown on all sides.
5.  Bake for 15 minutes in the oven.

Through Pass the Baton llc, Susan Gainen lectures to law students on Professionalism, Second-Career Law Students, Alternative Careers, Job Search Outside of OCI, and Job Search Skills = Business Development Skills. As Painter and Chief Whimsy Officer of nanoscapes & other visions llc, she paints geometric abstractions, whimsical creatures called small friends, and The Lost Cave Paintings of Saint Paul. She also teaches "Knife Skills," her favorite cooking class.