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Extreme Picky Eating: The Max Diet

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tater tots.jpg
My kid may be an extreme picky eater but while the number of things he'll eat is small, his food rules are complex.  Part of what makes feeding him so complicated is the fact that there are distinct cycles to his eating habits which change frequently and suddenly.  I am going to lay out (for your interest, not your criticism) all his food rules and the foods he eats to give others an idea of what it's like to feed him and, more importantly, how hard it is for him to eat.  Other parents of picky eaters may find solace in reading this account.  Either you'll realize your kid is way pickier and I've got it easier (but feel less alone) or you'll realize your kid is easier to feed and maybe find things to appreciate about your own experience by comparison.


The Rules:

Only one food on a plate at a time.
  Any condiments need to be in their own container in order to avoid touching the food before it's time to eat it.

Plates, bowls, and glasses are frequently scrutinized for cleanliness.  Any suspicious speck will contaminate the food on the plate and it will be refused.

Hand washing.
  Occasionally requests are made that we wash our hands before feeding the kid.  This always insults me and is met with a lecture about how my hands are always cleaner than his.  The truth is, he's not worried about germs, he's worried about unauthorized foods still being on my fingers such as the essence of cheese which may transfer to his food and make him lose his appetite.

Food needs to be as even and same sized as possible.  This is one of the reasons why he likes crackers and other predictably uniform foods.  Most foods are amorphous and irregular, this is repugnant to him.  Holes in toast, for example, used to be met with panic and then a flood of tears.  Now he is much more polite about refusing to eat toast that isn't "perfect".  There must be no rips, shreds, stringy bits, dark specks or anything ruining the appearance of his food.

Texture.  He mostly likes things to be crunchy and firm.  A limp carrot is an abomination.  A stale cracker is unacceptable.  mealy apples or crumbly anything is not okay.  Tater tots slightly underdone are an insult.  Texture is a very serious thing to Max and the wrong texture (such as a wet spot on a cracker) can be traumatic.   

With a few exceptions (which remains a mystery to me) sticky textures
such as jam or soft peanut butter in a piece of bread aren't tolerated because if he gets it on his hands he panics (and used to cry).  He will eat cornbread with honey on it (this is one of the exceptions) and will immediately run to the bathroom to clean his hands afterward - should there be an impediment to his getting to the bathroom he will freak out.

He does not eat at the table.
  He eats while watching movies.  I fought him from the time he was a baby in the highchair until he was about two years old trying to get him to eat at the table.  He would constantly try to get out of the chair and no food would be eaten.  I would give up and give him a snack while he watched a movie and the movie would keep him still and calm and I found he'd put food in his mouth and not examine it as closely.  This is true to this day.  I don't care what any other parent thinks of me, if it weren't for DVDs my child would not have enough distraction to eat.  It's like needing white noise to sleep (which he also needs).  I am at peace with this.

Flies or insects.
  If a fly or insect is seen in the same room in which he is eating he will lose his appetite for at least an hour, sometimes several.  For some reason ants inside the house, especially in any room he's eating in, are disturbing to him.  He doesn't mind them outside but he has nightmares that they are crawling on him in his bed. 

Food odors.  He cannot tolerate the odors of most food he doesn't himself eat.  He refuses to eat his food in the school cafeteria (a fact he didn't tell me until I found out because he got into trouble trying to eat his protein bar in the hallway).  He finds most food visually disgusting with special disgust for all pasta dishes, beans, and pizza.  He is usually neutral about people eating salads near him.  He is still very rude in dealing with his strong food odor/visual aversions though we keep working on it.

Temperature of foods matters.  If something like toast is supposed to be warm he will not eat it if it isn't the right temperature.  He doesn't eat much food that's meant to be hot except for tater tots.  I don't really blame him for not liking his tater tots cold but he's pretty dramatic about how disgusting it is.  He likes his cold beverages to be really cold, but not iced. 

"Old" water or old anything.  If it takes him too long to drink or eat something (say, longer than a half an hour) he will refuse to eat them because they've been sitting out for too long.  This drives me insane.  I do know that water grows stale but he is so sensitive to it that I have wanted to strangle his handsome little neck at constant requests for "fresh" water or new food.

Unopened bags.  He has started requesting that all Goldfish be brought to him in an unopened bag because he believes they don't taste right when they are opened by us though it seems to be fine if other crackers are put in a bowl by us. 

One left on the plate.
  One of whatever he's eating that is considered his "real" food (as opposed to snacks) must always be left on the plate.  For years he would always (ALWAYS) leave one tater tot or one carrot stick or one piece of apple.  Even if he was hungry enough to ask for more, one must remain uneaten.  He has, very lately, eased up on this.  I've asked him many times over the years why he does this and he would just tell me he had to do it.

Food Cycles.
  There is a distinct cycle to his eating that I haven't scientifically mapped but I can tell you that at one end of the cycle he'll have about fifteen different foods in rotation that he'll eat and at the other end of the cycle he'll have only two foods in rotation.  There are mini cycles within the bigger cycles.  He'll eat a few things obsessively until he gets a (literally) bad apple and then he won't be willing to try that food again for a month, sometimes more.  So what foods he'll eat are constantly changing.  This makes my head spin and my patience thin.

Brand specific.
  Don't switch brands on this kid.  He always can tell.  Have him try three vanilla ice creams without seeing the packages and he can tell you which one is the one he usually eats, which one is vanilla bean (which he hated for the specks in it), and which is the off brand you bought because they were out of the usual one. 


The Actual List of Tolerated Foods in the Max Diet:


Sugar toast.  Whole wheat toast with butter and brown sugar.

Egg toast.  (this only makes the rotation rarely).  Whole wheat toast with a fried egg and ketchup.  (this is hard to make "perfect" so comes with a high chance of being rejected.

Wheat hot dog bun with ketchup.

Cornbread with honey.  When he loves it he LOVES it and usually he will only eat  few slices before it's out of rotation for a long time.

Tater tots.

Apples.  Texture is extremely important.  The slightest bit of browning and he will stop eating them.  We've used lemon juice sometimes to help this.

Carrots.  Only likes the "baby" carrots because they're pretty uniform in shape and size.  Though he recently tried cut carrots again, unfortunately they didn't taste that great.

Grapes.  Only red grapes when they're in season.  Mostly just the red grapes we get from a friend of ours.  He'll eat bowls of those.

Cucumbers.  But only in season.  When they're good he LOVES them.

Watermelon.  Only the seedless kinds.

Strawberry "milkshakes"
made with milk, frozen strawberries, and a little sugar.

Crackers.
  An ever changing list of packaged crackers (organic saltines, Ritz style, Goldfish, Pop chips, and a few others that once in a while enter the rotation)

Energy/Protein bars.
  This is his main source of protein.  We only buy Luna and Cliff because they don't use corn syrup and are mostly organic.  Right now Cliff bars are NOT OKAY.  In each bar type he only likes two flavors and usually eats one flavor exclusively until he is sick of it.

Juice popsicles.  Concord grape only.

French fries.  When we go out to dinner we feed him at home and then let him order fries which are not good enough for him to eat 75% of the time.  When they're good he really likes them.

Peanut butter cracker sandwiches.  I put peanut butter (very smooth) between two natural Ritz-style crackers.  He's not eating them now but it was a great favorite for at least two months.

Peanut butter "breakfast" cookies.
  I adapted my peanut butter cookie recipe to have less sugar and wheat flour so he would eat something with protein in the mornings. 

Home baked cookies.  A few select recipes I use are approved.

Gingerbread.  He loves gingerbread. 

Ice cream.  All kinds of ice cream (except not fruity). 

Hot cocoa.  I count this as food because I make it with milk which has actual protein in it.  He doesn't like it often because he hates milk but sometimes it hits the spot.

Frozen yogurts.  But not the healthy natural ones.  He likes the tube yogurts made by Yoplait.  I hate Yoplait for having made them appealing to kids and then putting total crap in them.  Luckily, I guess, he seems almost to have permanently taken this off the acceptable foods list.

Pancakes.
  Ten grain pancakes with a bucket of real maple syrup.

Popcorn.  Not a lot of nutritional value but at least it's something.

Potato chips.  We don't let him have these often but he loves them. 




That's 25 items total that he will eat, including desserts. 

Remember that most of the time there are only 5 to 10 of those items in rotation. 

Right now there are three:  Peppermint Luna bars, tater tots, and grape juice popsicles.


Food is emotional for most people and necessary for everyone.  I was prepared to love my child if he was born without all his limbs, to find charm in him should he be born a dwarf, and forgiving should he grow up to be a jock... but I was not prepared for a picky eater because I believed, as most parents do, that as long as I always put healthy food in front of my kid he would eat what I gave him (barring the usual disdain for broccoli and kale that many kids have).  I believed that it's parenting skill that makes good eaters, not something mental or physiological. 

Every time Max rejects the food I make for him he rejects a part of me.  He doesn't see it that way.  For eight years I've experienced his rejection of my tireless efforts to nourish his body and mind with good food.  I have compromised, worked hard at coming up with clever ways around his issues, and I have also given up a thousand times.  There have been times when I was so desperate to get him to eat anything that I let him eat crap that I don't eat myself.  No normal parent will let their kids starve.  Many parents of non-picky eaters love to say that no child will starve themselves so if you hold out and insist they eat what you want them to eat with the threat of no other options they'll cave in and bend to your awesome parental will.

My child would rather die than eat soggy toast.  I know this to be true.  How can I know?  Because I would rather starve myself to death than eat any kind of meat.  Anyway, I don't personally respect the kind of parenting that pits a parent's will against its child's with starvation as the threat.  I want a better relationship with my son than that.

Now that Max is much older he doesn't cry over his food issues, we discuss them and we work on them together.  I can't change the fact that he's picky, and neither can he, but he is more willing to try new things than he used to be and since he was diagnosed with OCD two years ago we know that many of his food issues are directly related to his OCD and this makes it easier for me to not take his food rejection personally and it helps Max to understand that his many frustrations with food aren't his fault. 



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Extreme Picky Eating: The Beginning

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Max thanksgiving 2.jpg
Max's Thanksgiving Dinner


For most parents what picky eating means is that their kids don't like broccoli or spinach or papaya.  For the privilege of being able to complain that my child won't eat a few vegetables or exotic fruits I would happily amputate my foot.  You think I am being melodramatic but I assure you that missing my foot would be worth the pain in exchange for my kid eating most things besides a few vegetables or fruits that most children don't like.  To me that is not picky eating.

For some parents picky eating means their kids won't eat most vegetables or fruits and prefer a steady diet of pasta with butter, potatoes in any form, chicken, beef, cheese, milk, cereals, breads, rice, eggs, and sandwiches.  I definitely feel for parents with kids who won't eat any produce but will eat grains and meat and dairy.  I still envy them enough that if I had a ransom to give in exchange for my kid eating such a wide variety of foods, I would happily be poor but able to feed my child.  Sadly, I'm already poor and my child won't eat most of those foods.

Then there's the few of us with kids who eat 10 or less food items at any given period of time.  Think about what that would mean to you.  What if your child didn't like meat, hated nearly all dairy, choked on almost all fresh produce, disliked most cereals, bars, nuts, and grains?  What would you feed your kid?  How would your kid grow up to be healthy?  How would you deal with the fact that your child would prefer it if all food but dessert and a select few other items could simply be swallowed in gel-cap form?  How would you feel?  How capable of a parent would you consider yourself?  Would you blame your child?  Would you fight your child over food every single day?  Would you give up trying?

When my kid first started eating food as a baby he ate almost everything.  He ate pureed greens, carrots, squash, fruit, and cereals.  There were few things I put in front of him that he wasn't willing to eat.  I mashed bananas until he could eat them himself, he ate almost a banana a day until he was two years old.  He liked peanut butter and jam sandwiches, baked beans with grilled cheese sandwiches, lentil and chard soup pureed and scooped up on crackers, feta cheese, avocado, melon, pears, peaches, and he would even eat potatoes.

The change happened so gradually I can't possibly say exactly when we realized Max's palate was changing.  It wasn't overnight.  Slowly he started rejecting foods he previously liked and no power on earth could make him swallow a banana by the time he was two.  Other things were happening at the same time but the most dramatic was his powerful refusal to wear denim.  Later, when he could talk, he told me it was because it didn't feel good.  It was rough.  Anyway, slowly his diet whittled down to mostly carbohydrates and we consulted our pediatrician.

The pediatrician said it was a fairly normal stage many children go through.  Her advice was to continue to offer healthy foods at every meal and he would probably grow out of it.  He did not grow out of it.  Another year and another pediatrician visit and more advice to always offer healthy food but not to freak out if Max only wanted to eat crackers.  We already noticed other troubling trends in our child and considering these the doctor told us that we had a choice to make food a daily battle (I was making it a daily battle and crying all the time over the fact that he wouldn't eat much of what I offered) but warned that I could potentially create an eating disorder by fighting at every meal with my child. 

A child like Max.

She suggested we be careful about choosing our battles with him.  She told me that my job was to never give up offering him wholesome food.  If he chose only to eat crackers he probably wouldn't die, would most likely grow out of it, and we could give him multivitamins. 

I have never given up trying to get him to eat wholesome food.  I am an excellent cook and the biggest crime I commit in my diet is too much fat.  We eat a lot of fresh produce, whole grains, not much packaged crap, not too much salt or sugar, and we eat a truly varied diet.  To have an extreme picky eater for a child has been an enormous emotional strain on us and on our budget.  Packaged crackers aren't cheap.  Instead of growing out of the picky eating it has simply grown worse. 

I started writing about this issue on Dustpan Alley and have realized that it's time I write about it here.  Not for people with kids who will eat some things they don't like with some applied parental pressure or threats or promise of dessert, I want to write about it for those parents like us, who have struggled so hard over the basic job of feeding our child, who have shed a lot of tears, torn out a lot of hair, and thrown out a shameful quantity of rejected food. 

I get so angry listening to parents telling me how to get my kid over his picky eating.  There is a general assumption out there that if you just keep forcing your kid to try something (they say it takes twelve times) they will eventually like it.  Or that if you just refuse to feed them outside the meals you cook for yourself they will eventually just choose to eat what you put in front of them ("no child will ever choose to starve themselves").  Or that if a child doesn't like much food it's because the parents don't eat good wholesome food themselves.  Or that they aren't good cooks. 

There are a lot of assumptions out there about picky eating and most of them are made by people who don't have picky eaters for children.

I would like to address a lot of these assumptions and offer encouragement to other parents with extreme picky eaters because I need it myself and there's precious little of it out there.  I can't do it all in one post.  I will tackle it in several.  In the next post I will write out every single eating issue my kid has so that anyone who doesn't know the full scope may learn what my kid goes through and consequently what I go through trying to feed him.

I would like to offer some general advice right now:

1.  Never stop offering healthy food for your child to eat no matter how exhausting it is and how frustrated you are.


2.  Give your kid a multivitamin that includes iron.*

3.  If your kid only likes packaged food (crackers and things like that) be careful to read labels and don't allow any high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, food coloring, or other harmful ingredients into your cupboards. 


4.  Don't let other parents make you feel like a failure.  I once had a neighbor suggest that the reason my kid didn't eat healthily was because I wasn't cooking good enough food.  I have rarely had such a terrible urge to slap another woman as I did at that moment.  Her kids would eat kale raw and she assumed it was her awesomeness as a mother that made her kids like everything.  Most people will view picking eating as a failing of the parents or of the child or both.  Don't let them get under your skin.

5.  Be compassionate with your picky eater and with yourself. 








*Even finding  multi-vitamin my kid will take has been a miserable ever changing drag.  The flavors of most multi-vitamins are repugnant to him.  He finally begged for a pill to swallow but the one I found was enormous and the serving size was three a day and he could taste them going down.  I have finally found a multi-vitamin in a gel-cap which goes down more easily and he can't taste.


Fry Cook

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spring rolls 2.jpgThere's no denying that these were better than the baked version, but worth the stench and the danger? 



Until last week I had never fried anything in my life.  I don't think my mom ever fried anything in my life either.  We have always reserved our fried food eating for going out or for the occasional packaged potato or corn chip.  I'm hardly a paragon of healthy eating, what with my cheese habit and my beer gut, but the truth is that fried food doesn't make me feel good.  Every six months or so I'll eat an apple fritter and predictably I'll feel icky afterwords.  I can eat fries once a week, but I have been known to get fry burps afterwords, a real sign that fried food doesn't agree with me.

I have one frying ambition though- spring rolls.  I have made baked spring rolls but I think it makes the wrapping kind of tough.  I finally broke down last week and decided to fry some home made spring rolls.  Frying is easy, right?  You just heat up a bucket-load of oil and throw food into it until it turns golden...

Apparently there's a learning curve with frying.  First of all, I can't bear the thought of filling any of my pots and pans with inches of oil.  What do you do with all that oil when you're done frying?  Do you dump it down the drain? That seems wasteful and also unhealthy for the drain.  Do you filter it and save it?  Do you make it into oil burning candles?  I couldn't do it.  I put about a quarter of an inch of oil in a large frying pan. 

I heated it up.

Till it was really hot.

I added some spring rolls which sizzled satisfyingly.

But soon the rolls were frying too quickly and burning a bit.

The kitchen was filling up with a slight smokiness. 

The oil was looking a little suspect.

Turns out you should turn your oil down once you have heated it up.  I came very close to catching my kitchen on fire.  Apparently frying is much more of an art than I imagined.  Even if I hadn't almost made my oil catch fire, the kitchen was filled with fried-smell for hours afterwords.  Usually my kitchen smells great after I've cooked.  How can the smell of fried grease smell so good when you're eating the food and then smell so very wrong when just the grease smell is left?

I've decided that I'm not going to cultivate this kitchen knowledge.  I'm going to experiment with rice wraps next.  Perhaps I'll make thin pancakes to eat my spring roll filling with.  I make a plum dipping sauce and I want to eat more of it but I need to find a way to eat this without baking or frying.  Pancakes might be the ticket!

I think it's nice to find some things I don't need to master in the kitchen.
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Eating Seasonally: summer 2010

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stuffed round zuchs 2.jpgThis is a recipe in the works.  The ricotta stuffing was excellent but the squash skin was kind of tough which was disappointing.  Hopefully I'll be able to present this in the next week or so. 

We've been committed to eating mostly local produce for the last three years.  What "mostly" really means is that I buy almost all local produce all year but each week I allow myself to buy one or two produce items that aren't grown locally.  Avocados are one of them.  I don't believe I can live without avocados and I'm okay with that.  Because of buying avocados frequently I don't buy oranges or tangerines (this winter I got three boxes full of them grown by a family friend which was an incredible treat) or bananas or pineapples or most other things that never grow in my climate.  If I decide I want any of those things then I make sure that I don't buy avocados that week or I give up buying lemons or limes which I buy periodically for cooking.  It's all about maintaining a high proportion of locally grown produce all year round. 

Nearly always if you're eating locally you're eating seasonally.  Eating seasonally has changed the way I think about produce for the better.  When you eat tomatoes all year long you not only support an unsustainable system of shipping produce worldwide but you commit to eating sub-standard quality food.  Wait, but that wasn't what I was going to say- the best thing about not eating tomatoes until they're in season is that they become infinitely more treasured.  I cheated this early summer and bought some locally grown organic tomatoes grown in a greenhouse, which, it turns out, weren't that great anyway.  What can I say?  After ten months of buying NO "fresh"* tomatoes I was dying for my first taste and was disappointed.

This week the tomatoes are truly in season!  Here in my area they are beginning to show up at the farmer's markets and they have flavor and I'm making a ridiculously poor sentence just because I'm so excited about it I can't decide what to make with them first and I'm buying as many as I can at each market.  (That's a lot of excitement.)

Right now the summer produce is at its peak and I'm finding that there are so many things I can only cook during the summer because this is the only time I can get the real deal: the ripe local flavorful food that epitomizes warm weather and prevents me from relocating to the North Pole during the heat.  Seasonal eating makes me savor food so much more than I did before.  I'm experiencing a little bit of sensory overload right now.

Here are some of the things I want to make with what's available right now: 

Tomatoes: fresh salsa, pico de gallo, tomatoes on salad, stuffed tomatoes, slow oven roasted tomatoes, tomatoes in eggs, tomatoes in sandwiches, tomato gratin, pasta with tomatoes, a strange but unbelievably delicious casserole my mom makes with tofu feta and fresh tomatoes and cauliflower, tomato soup, Mexican rice, enchilada sauce, and Caprese salad.

Corn: corn chowder, corn on the cob, black bean chili with fresh corn, fresh in salad, corn in enchiladas, corn relish, creamed corn, and corn fritters.

Summer squash: squash gratin, stuffed squash, grilled on sandwiches, sauteed with fresh herbs and garlic, squash in summer soup, grilled as a side, zucchini bread, ratatouille, and in zucchini and feta fritters.

Eggplant:  grilled for sandwiches, grilled and cubed on pasta, baked, stuffed and baked, ratatouille, made into sauce for pasta with tomatoes and basil, baked with garlic and put on sandwiches, eggplant lasagna, and pickled!

Cucumbers: added to an assembled salad, sliced and dressed in mustard vinaigrette, in a raita sauce, tzatziki sauce to go over falafel, eaten plain, and dipped into ranch dressing.

 Those are just the main players.  Now I'm seeing beets- I love a salad with beets dressed in lemon and olive oil with kalamata olives and feta over a bed of lettuce.  Or roasted beets in couscous.  Or just roasted and eaten.  I love them pickled too.  Soon I'll be seeing a little celery which is exciting because I gave it up for most of the year when I went seasonal.  I used to put it in almost everything I cooked.  I sometimes blanch and freeze it but if I don't get around to it then I don't eat celery for 11 months out of the year. 

What to make?  How to make everything I want to in such a short time?  The hardest part is that a lot of the time I'm truly happy just eating a cheese sandwich with fresh tomato, mayonnaise, spicy mustard, on wheat bread.  Just like that.  So simple.  It's what I had for lunch today and it's so good!  I'm one of those people who doesn't think a sandwich is complete without tomato on it so I don't eat sandwiches during most of the year either.  Except for grilled cheese with home made dill pickles

I stand in my kitchen the moment I have time to cook something and am paralyzed with choice.  Winter and spring cooking is about finding 100 great ways to use celery root and chard and carrots but summer cooking is about becoming drunk with the limitless possibilities for meals. 

Before I ate seasonally I didn't appreciate what I was eating half so much or was nearly so conscious of the changes in my diet or of the seasons themselves in a broader sense; how when the air is hot and redolent of ripe blackberries it is also a time when I am most profoundly physically uncomfortable, my hens coo happily every late afternoon when the sun sinks and the heat eases and I toss them such succulent scraps as watermelon rinds or whole pieces of watermelon that Max has rejected, young squash trimmings, corn cobs full of corn scraps, and the low hanging blackberries in the garden.

Then there's the way the air feels just as we turn the corner from the first two weeks of ripe tomatoes, when the nights start biting ever so slightly and underneath the lingering heat of summer is that queer smell we all recognize that tells us fall is coming; it's time to preserve food madly, pick apples, clean up the summer garden if you're normal and not lazy like me, and when the local giant cauliflowers start showing up downtown it means it's time to pickle and it means that the last of the eggplants has drifted into the farm compost pile. 

Seasons still drive humans on a truly primal level but so many of us have allowed ourselves to operate outside them, to ignore the natural drives that tell us when to eat every rich vitamin-laden piece of produce we can get our hands on against the coming bleaker months, when to store things away for the cold months, when to pull out the blankets, hibernate, go inward, and when to come back outside to watch the first green fronds ignite the icy cold with bright hope...and it matters.  I feel more connected to myself and the earth when I eat seasonally. 

This makes sense since eating is such a basic need we are constantly trying to fulfill and without it, like light, we will die. 

So while I find it overwhelming to have so much lush produce at my disposal at a time when I am most inclined to eat salads and simple sandwiches, I also love this feeling of possibilities.  I just ate a salad with all organic locally grown (affordable) produce: lettuce, tomatoes (ripe!), raw corn, and cucmber, and it was soul satisfying. 

Tomorrow I hope to experiment with corn chowder.  I'm chasing a memory of a bowl of corn chowder I ate in San Francisco in a cafe that has been gone for over 15 years and who's name I can't even remember: a bowl of corn chowder that was so sublime I completely forgot who I was sitting with while I ate it and ever since then there has been no corn chowder to match it.  I keep trying.

Perhaps I'll get it right this week and if I do I'll share it with you.

Happy summer eating!!  




 




*I do buy canned tomato sauce and canned diced tomatoes and when I can I try to can my own.  The year before last I canned enough tomatoes myself that I didn't even buy canned tomatoes for a year!  They tasted better and were actually cheaper than the factory canned tins.  If you don't believe me you must read my article on the cost analysis between home canned and store bought canned tomatoes:

Is it cost effective to can your own tomatoes?

Mid-Winter: What To Eat

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It is exciting to me that so many more people are making their way back to seasonal eating.  For those people dedicated to eating as locally as possible this isn't something they have to think about because eating locally forces you to also eat seasonally.  Learning to eat seasonally isn't easy when nearly all grocery stores are always stocked with tomatoes and summer squash in winter.  How do you know what's in season?  Different regions are going to be a little (or a lot) different.  In Florida right now it's strawberry season but by the time it's strawberry season where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, it will be much too hot for strawberries in Florida.  So I can't tell everyone what's in season for their area specifically.  I can only give some general guidelines to help you find out what's in season where you live.

Here are some tips to discover what's in season where you live and following that I will list what's in season specifically for my area.

Shop your local farmer's market: this is the number one way to discover what's in season.  Though many farmer's markets close during winter, be sure to do some research including nearby towns or cities that may have year-long markets that you can visit.  A winter farmer's market will have only the produce that could be grown in your region and stored (such a root vegetables) in winter.  At the one farmer's market in Portland that's open all year many vendors have produced their own jams and pickles and sauces from the produce they grew in summer so you may not be able to buy tomatoes from them but you can buy salsa produced locally.  Even if you don't make a habit of regularly shopping at a winter farmer's market, go to one to educate yourself.

Ask what produce is local at your regular supermarket: many large supermarkets will carry a few local items even if they aren't labeled as such.  Be sure to talk with the produce manager to find out if they carry anything local.

Read garden books about your region: here in the Pacific Northwest we have a fantastic garden guide (but only for regions west of the Cascades) put out by the Seattle Tilth that is a month by month guide to what to plant and when.  Even if you don't garden you can easily see what grows during different seasons in your specific climate.  Look for climate specific guides. I would love to see some Southerners and Southwesterners compile a region specific list of what's in season for them in winter.  The list I give below should roughly apply to most of the top 2/3 of the United States but will not apply at all to people in the South and Southwest for which I apologize! If any of you out there have been working on this topic and studying your region for seasonal eating and can provide a detailed list, I would love to publish it here.

What to eat in mid-winter:

Fresh eating: (either pulled from your own garden or bought from the store, these items should be available picked fresh) Chard
Kale
collards
leeks
citrus (though it comes from the southern states if you buy them, winter is their season)
watercress
chervil
mache (corn salad)
parsley
sorrel
Asian greens (tatsoi, mustards, bok choi...etc.)
endive
radicchio
persimmons (depending on region, may be done by early winter)
mushrooms (if you have a local cultivated source)

From the root cellar: (even if bought from local farmers, most likely these things were harvested in fall and stored)
potatoes
carrots
onions
cabbage
winter squash
celery root
parsnips
rutabagas
sunchokes
turnips
beets
shallots
apples
pears
kiwis (usually harvested in late fall and ripen in storage in winter)
garlic

From the pantry:
fruits
pickles
jams
sauces
dried things

We have become very accustomed, us modern people, to eating tomatoes in winter and apples in summer but it isn't natural and except for the root vegetables that store well nearly all year, no produce is at it's best when it's no longer in season.  Winter is a harsh season, especially for people living in the extreme north.  Our diets should become more limited in the winter.  When you spend all winter eating mostly greens and root vegetables punctuated by things you preserved for the pantry, you will look forward a great deal more to the change in diet the spring brings with asparagus and radishes and lettuce.  It may sound bleak if you're used to eating lettuce salads all winter but unless you're eating lettuce from your own green house, it isn't natural to eat lettuce in midwinter.  It's a time for soups and root vegetable roasts.  While it may seem counter intuitive to some people, eating preserved food (particularly made by you) is healthier than eating out of season vegetables.  It takes a big shift in habit but I think you'll find that when you eat seasonally you become more connected to your own region, the earth's natural cycles, and your food will taste better and provide more optimal nutrition for you.

While I eat mostly seasonally and still stick mainly to locally produced food, I do have exceptions.  What I learned from going mostly local for ten months (a couple of years ago) was that there are a few things in my diet that I don't want to live without.  Avocados and citrus do not grow in my region so buying them means I'm always getting them from hundreds of miles away.  Though sweet potatoes can grow here, this isn't their ideal region and very few people grow them.  Tropical fruits such as bananas don't grow here ever.  Pomegranates are another thing that I used to enjoy but which don't grow where I live.  While I was being more strictly local I bought none of these things.  What I learned was that I can live life without bananas.  I can live life only buying sweet potatoes at the same time my organic CSA has them (we don't get a lot of them, I bought some extras), and I can live without eating citrus often.  But I cannot live without eating avocados.  I cannot live without imported coffee and olives.  While I was doing my local challenge I had a small list of imported foods that I allowed myself to have such as coffee, tea, oil, sugar, and some other essential items.

I consider imported items as a flexible list but a list that must remain roughly the same size at all times.  So while I'm buying avocados, I don't buy other non-regional produce such as other tropical fruits.  If I really want to buy bananas for a special occasion (I bought them for the first time in two years a couple of weeks ago) I don't buy some other non-regional item.  I am happy with the balance I've reached for now.  I am constantly looking for closer sources for things like oil and while cost is obviously a factor since I have very little padding in my budget, I can't always afford to buy things made closer to home.  However, I found an olive oil that's produced in California (organic!) that costs only slightly more than the cheap imported olive oil I can buy at my discount grocery store*.  California is a lot closer to me than Spain or Italy so buying from California not only reduces the number of miles my food had to travel to get to me, it also supports the economy of my own country.

Seasonal eating has given me a greater appreciation for the food I cook and the flavors I associate with each month of the year.  I would like to end this article with a little list of the foods that you shouldn't be putting in your grocery cart unless you live in one of the southern regions in which these things might be showing up at your local farmer's markets:

Not in season in winter:
tomatoes
fresh basil
eggplant
summer squash
green beans
lettuce
strawberries
berries of any kind
peppers (unless preserved)
cucumbers

Happy seasonal eating!




*I should note here that even at my discount grocery store the olive oil is surprisingly expensive.  If a Trader Joe's was closer to me I'd probably buy theirs because it's such a great price.  But I heard from a friend that even Trader Joe's has some California oils available.


Cooking For Beginners: Shopping For A Recipe

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canned haggis 2

Before you head off to the store to shop for a recipe you need to pick an appropriate one.  If you are truly a beginner in the kitchen you may not know what to look for.  I am going to assume that you have got your hands on one of the books I recommended that every beginner should have on hand.  Decide first what type of recipe you're interested in making: a vegetable dish, a meat dish, dinner recipe, dessert?  Once you know what you have in mind look at the index of your all-purpose cookbook.  Most cookbooks are arranged by type of dish: meat, sides, mains, vegetable, grains...you will be able to see how it is arranged by reading through the index.  Open to the section most likely to have the type of dish you're interested in.

A few pointers on picking a recipe:

  • Look for a recipe with fewer ingredients. Fewer ingredients usually means a simpler recipe.  Try to find one with 6 or fewer ingredients for the first one you try.
  • Skim the instructions.  If the instructions have 25 steps to them, it is probably not a good recipe for a beginner to start off with.  Look for simple instructions.  Simple instructions are only a few paragraphs long.
  • Pick a dish that you are already familiar with eating and love.  This is important for two reasons: if you learn to cook all your favorite foods first you will have a much more rewarding cooking experience and will want to learn more and if you start off making dishes you are very familiar with you will be able to tell if you have made them well.  You will know what it should look and taste like.
  • Choose a dish with easily found ingredients.  As you become more experienced some of the excitement of cooking (for me) is to locate interesting sometimes exotic ingredients.  Trying new things is great- but when you're at the very beginning of this adventure you should first stick with ingredient lists that can easily be found at your grocery store.
Once you've picked the recipe you want to try you need to take a quick inventory of what you have in your cupboards before dashing off to the store.  When I was a very beginner cook I didn't have many staples in my cupboard because I mostly ate things like toast and boxed pasta and I also ate out at cheap diners quite a lot.  So I found myself having to buy a lot of basics for my "pantry" (which was nothing more than a couple of cupboard shelves).  Acquiring pantry items as you go along is the only way to do it.  I will (at the end of this lesson) list what I consider to be the bare bones basics of any pantry but every person who cooks has individual preferences and tastes that will directly affect what herbs and spices you will need to have on hand and what kinds of oils, condiments, and vinegars you might need.

My co-headmistress here at The Farmhouse Finishing School (Mrs. C) loves to cook Indian and Mexican inspired dishes and so she keeps more curry and exotic seasonings like tamarind paste on hand than I do.  You are more likely to find things like corn husks and masa harina on her pantry shelves than on mine where you will find more dried thyme than in anyone else's pantry because I can't get enough of thyme as a seasoning.  My preferred style of cooking is Mediterranean so I keep a lot of polenta, Kalamata olive,  and pasta on hand.  So don't buy a lot of things for your pantry ahead of time.  Build it slowly based on what you find you like to cook as you learn to make what you love eating.

Here are some tips on shopping for recipes:

  • Always make a list of what you need before you head out to the grocery store.  This is especially true for beginner cooks.  I remember when I first started shopping for recipes I was going to try and when you're not buying crappy boxed food anymore a whole crazy world of choices opens up.  It was so exciting and fun to me but also sometimes overwhelming.  I remember standing in front of the salt choices feeling stunned that there were so many kinds.  Having a list with you will help you focus on what you actually need and prevent you from forgetting essential items or overspending on things you don't actually need.
  • Buy herbs and spices in small quantities until you find yourself using them frequently enough to run out of them.  Buy them from the bulk section of the grocery store.  If the store you shop at doesn't have a bulk herb section, change where you shop!  Only buy enough for the recipe you're planning to make plus a little extra in case you need to remake the recipe or if you find your personal tastes demand a little more.
  • Even if it's much cheaper to buy an ingredient in a larger quantity, don't do this unless you know for sure it's something you'll be wanting to use a lot of.  It is easy to get excited about saving some money but if you don't use what you buy then you've actually wasted money.
  • When choosing produce: be choosy!!  Wait, let me say that again: be very choosy!!  How can you tell if the produce you're looking at is at its freshest and highest quality?  It can differ from item to item but there are some universal guidelines to follow.  If an item of produce has any of these: soft spots in an otherwise non-soft produce item, discoloration such as browning, sunken spots on the surface, limp to the touch, dry appearance, mold, insects hanging out on the surface, or a withered appearance- don't buy it.    If all the produce in the store you shop at looks like I have just described- find a new place to shop.
  • Choose organic everything whenever you can afford the option.  I (like so many I know) cannot afford to buy everything organic.  It is my opinion that everything should be organic in the first place but since it's not and since organic can be very costly, start with  your produce.  I am terribly fortunate to have a very reasonably priced organic CSA that is generous with their weekly portions.  If there is a farmer's market where you live- shop there.  You can usually find organic producers and sometimes you can find producers who don't have an organic certification but don't spray.  Ask farmers about their practices.  Farmer's markets are one of the very best places to shop for produce because what you will find at them is ALWAYS seasonal and fresh.
  • Read ingredient labels.  If you're going to bother cooking food for yourself you should choose the best quality ingredients you can afford.  Quality means the least amount of processing necessary for any given food item.  The following is a list of ingredients you should avoid bringing home to your kitchen:
1.  Artificial flavorings
 
2.  High Fructose Corn Syrup, Corn Syrup, Dextrose, etc.  (stick to plain sugar).
 
3.  MSG  I'm not allergic to it myself, though many people are, but I still avoid it because good     quality food doesn't need this flavor "enhancer".
 
4.  Preservatives.  There are a few preservatives that aren't harmful but most of them are.
 
5.  Unnatural coloring.  (no real food is bright blue, not even blueberries)

6.  Any "ingredient" that could only be replicated in a factory setting.

  • Be careful with sale items.  If you are on a budget and need to try to save pennies wherever you can, just be sure to check expiration dates on packaged foods, avoid old "clearance" produce (not usually worth the savings), and be sure that nothing has compromised the item such as a hole in the packaging or a banged up appearance, or dents in canned items.
If it would be helpful for you to have the above pointers with you while you're shopping, print this article out and bring it with you.  These are the kinds of things I would be telling you if I could go with you to shop for your first few home cooking adventures.

As I mentioned earlier, a pantry is a highly personal thing.  Building it up should be gradual and reflect how you like to cook, however there are a few items that nearly everyone should have on hand.  I will list them below, but keep in mind that this is my opinion only and every experienced cook will have different items they consider essential.  As always, if you have a really experienced cook helping to teach you then you should listen to them rather than me.  Having someone experienced at your elbow is the best possible way to learn to cook.

Pantry Staples (the bare necessities list):

Olive Oil

Vegetable Oil Wine

Vinegar (or rice vinegar if you prefer)

Salt (I prefer a grey salt or a kosher style salt with no additives but plain table salt is fine)

Pepper (it's best if you have a grinder and can grind it fresh, but preground is fine)

Baking Soda

Baking Powder (non aluminum kind is best)

Tomato Paste

Soup Broth (home-made is best but canned/boxed or bouillon is fine)

All Purpose Unbleached Flour (a couple of pounds of it to begin with is adequate)

Cane Sugar (a pound is enough to begin with)

Honey (8 oz jar is enough to begin with, make sure it's raw)

Mrs. C's particular pantry recommendations:

Thyme
Italian Seasoning

 

If you missed the first lesson in the series "Cooking For Beginners" here it is: Cooking For Beginners: Cookbooks and Equipment

Soup Philosophy

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breadsoup2

Every year, just when I'm in the middle of mourning the end of summer tomatoes, wearing my black band and draping my windows with the evidence of my sinking tomatoless spirits, a brisk shiver of cool air brushes across my skin and I drop the banners the flags and the weeds of loss as a single word crosses my mind in a kind of breathless joy:

SOUP!

Suddenly I have forgotten all about the tangy sweet tomatoes I've been in love with for weeks and I am happy again.  Soup!  Soup is absolutely one of the very best dishes on earth.  It is everything humble, simple, nourishing, inexpensive, hearty, healthy, uplifting, and homey.  I am aware that a soup can be made of $100 a pound lobsters and mushrooms that people have been shot for.  This doesn't change its humble nature.  Its simple entreaty to nourish yourself and heal your spirit when the winds are howling and the wolves are baying outside your door.

Soup is a chameleon, changing into whatever you need it to be: you  can devise a torturous 20 step soup that calls for 17 hard to find ingredients and takes 24 hours to make; you can make a soup with 5 ingredients in just a half an hour; you can use up all manner of old-ish vegetables from the cellar and feel like a king.  It's what you want it to be.  It's whatever you need it to be.

I'm not sure how old I was when I learned about the magical powers of soup but I do know that it was the first thing I learned to make completely on my own.  Split pea soup is one of my favorites and I have been known to make it when I feel low simply because making it uplifts my spirits, infuses me with renewed hope and calm.  The scent of the garlic and fresh dill is intoxicating and improves my health before it ever reaches my mouth.  Making soup is like  saying a prayer in the kitchen.  It is the only kind of prayer I know.

Soup is not only the first food I learned to make completely on my own, it is the first dish I learned to make by instinct and the first dish that my reputation for being an excellent cook was built on.

I have heard many a novice cook express the opinion that soups are difficult or a mystery to master.  I disagree in spite of the fact that someone once asked me for my recipe for vegetarian split pea soup and reported back to me that it didn't turn out.  When this curious person described what had happened I realized that there are many things about soup making that I take for granted and therefore don't think I need to explain.  I learned a lot from that exchange.

I am going to break down some of the components of successful soup making here for anyone who needs a little courage and knowledge.  These are merely my soup making rules and truths.  If you are learning to make soup and you have an excellent soup maker offering to teach you their own magic- trust them and let them teach you!  I am only putting my own soup philosophy here in case someone out there doesn't have a best friend or a grandmother to help them out.  I will be your guide if you need me.

In the beginning...

There is no soup in my kitchen that doesn't begin with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and an onion.  I saute the onion until it is slightly browned and transparent.  I often saute it with celery.  The reason I do this is because I often don't use a stock and browning an onion and celery at the start adds a little depth to whatever soup I'm making.

That's how all my soups begin.  If you don't like onions you can do exactly the same thing with leeks, scallions, or skip the alliums all together if you don't like them or are allergic to them.  If you're making a soup with many vegetables you can saute them all together at the beginning to get the same effect of deeper broth flavor.  Only do this if you aren't going to add beans or meat that needs a long cooking time.

The order of all things...

One thing to understand about soup is that most of them take between an hour and two hours to cook so it pays to be mindful of what vegetables should be added and when.  Some vegetables hold their shape longer than others.

Once you've sauted your onion and celery you add some water or broth.  If you're going to add beans to a soup that aren't pre-cooked then you will want to add the amount you need to the broth and cook them until tender.  You wait to add the other vegetables until they are tender so that you don't over cook anything.  Onions and celery can take the long cooking times.

Here's the order of things as they get added to my soup:

1.  Onions, celery, bay leaf, garlic.

2.  Carrots, potatoes, celery root, dried herbs, turnips, yams, rutabagas, parsnips, winter squash.

3.  Broccoli, Cauliflower, green beans, pasta.

4.  Summer squash, leafy greens.

Those lists may not be complete but they illustrate the hierarchy of ingredients and what order they should be added based on how quickly they cook and risk turning to mush.  Some things can be added at any time like fresh herbs.  The only fresh herb that should never be added until the very end is cilantro which tends to lose its flavor when cooked too long.

Liquid Assets: broth or water?

I have been making excellent soup for 20 years and it was only recently that I learned to make my own vegetable broth to use in soups.  You will read absolutely everywhere that using a broth of some kind is so essential to making soup successfully that if you use plain old water you will suffer such a deep disappointment that you will go into an immediate decline.  This is patently untrue.

I promise you: if you don't have any broth of any kind or any bouillon cubes to add to your soup you can still make soup that everyone will remember for a long time to come.

Don't be afraid.  Broth is generally made up of many of the same ingredients your soup will have in it anyway.  sauteing vegetables or meat and then deglazing with water will help deepen the flavor.  Use excellent quality herbs because these will also add a lot to the overall flavor.  Using the right amount of each different herb is something you develop an instinct for with experience.  Fresh is often the best.  Garlic is an excellent flavor enhancer in soup (be sure not to use so much of it that it overpowers everything else).

Having said that, I will say that it's absolutely true that using stock is ideal.  If you have a choice of using broth or using water: always use the broth!  I made two versions of the same soup in one week last year, one using no broth, the other using my homemade stock.  Everything was exactly the same except for that one detail.  Without knowing of my experiment my husband liked the batch made with the stock best.  So it does make soup better.  But he loved the other batch too- just not as much.

If you don't have broth a close second is to use a bouillon cube or two.  You can get them in beef, chicken, and vegetable flavors.

Then there's the question of how much to add.  Soup i so flexible that if you add too much liquid to it at first you can cook it a little longer until it steams off and thickens.  If your soup is too thick- add more liquid.  You get a feel for how much to add as you get more experienced but when you're still a new soup maker it's wise to add water in 1 or 2 cup quantities.  It is amazingly difficult to translate a soup recipe so that it tells you exactly the right amount of liquid you'll need to add.  Never assume that the amount the recipe calls for is correct just because it's printed on paper.  So many factors can influence this such as how hot you're stove is, how large your vegetables/meat are, and how long you cook it for.

Always add more liquid when you feel the soup has gotten thicker than you want it or let it cook down when it's too brothy for your taste.  You are in control of this.  Get comfortable winging it.

Size always matters...

The larger you chop your ingredients the longer it will take to cook them.

The smaller they are the faster they cook.

The issue with size is that if you are making a soup that's going to cook for a long time and you chop all your vegetables really small they will eventually break down into specks.  So if you want them to hold some shape and have a presence...cut them chunky.

For quick vegetable soups it is appropriate to dice your vegetables very small.  This is true of any soup you plan to puree.  No need for chunks then cut them small.

Cream in the pot...

Always add cream to soup as a last step.  If you simmer cream it will curdle.  Curdled soup has little charm.  When you make cream of potato leek soup you cook everything first then you puree it using your blender (not recommended) or an immersion blender (totally recommended) and then you add the amount of cream you want.  To warm it up later be careful not to bring it to a boil.  Heat it up gently stirring frequently.

What substitutions fail?

I'm not sure how many times in this article I have already mentioned the flexibility of soup but it needs saying again.  If you see a soup recipe that sounds great except for one particular spice or one ingredient it is almost always possible to leave it out or substitute it for something you like a lot more.  I would say that this is more true of soups whose whole character doesn't depend on one particular ingredient.  If you don't like potatoes you should probably not try to make cream of potato soup...then again...you can substitute the potatoes with celery root and get the same type of soup...so never mind.  Don't be afraid to experiment.  Experimenting is the very best way to develop your soup skills.  Herbs and spices are like color- develop your personal palette!

A very long time ago I thought lentil soup was always curried or cumined up to its neck and since I am only an occasional curry fan I almost never made lentil soup.  Then one day I was reading a French vegetarian cookbook (yeah, I know!  Crazy!) and it had a recipe for a lentil soup that used thyme instead of curry and it sounded so good.  I made it and it was a revelation!  I loved it so much I have never made a curried lentil soup since because I am in love with thyme as a soup seasoning.

To get a good idea of what kinds of vegetables-meats-and seasonings go well together read a lot of recipes.  I read cookbooks for the joy of it.  It's where I get a lot of my food inspiration.  Though I rarely follow recipes in them explicitly any more I turn to them to give me ideas of things to pair together and new flavors to try.  There are a gazillion great food blogs online that you can read for free and if you like the old-fashioned feel of paper and enjoy the sound of turning pages- go to your local library and see what they have.  I have collected many cookbooks over the years but I can rarely afford to buy them now and I depend a great deal on my library which has a great cooking section.  Explore yours!

When the love grinds to a halt...

This is my last bit of soup philosophy to offer for the day:  if you make a soup that fails to please on every level, do not let this ruin the magic of soup for you.  Soup is a lot more flexible than gratins, souffles, or bread.  You will have more successes while learning to make soup than you will with any other food but there will still come a soup that stumps you.  I've had a few of my own colossal let-downs over the years but I think the most depressing one was a curried cauliflower soup I made that unbelievably ended up having NO flavor.  It's almost impossible to achieve a flavorless soup- yet I did it.  How is it possible to put curry in a dish and then not at least taste curry?  I don't know.  I will probably never know how that happened.  You just have to toss it to the pigs or lump it and eat it (this one was really inedible) or pour it down the drain.  I am poor enough now that I would probably eat it anyway.  Or make Mr. Williamson eat it.

The point is- for any failed soup experiment there are hundreds of successes to be had.  Everyone is capable of making a great pot of soup. When everything else in life feels poor and hopeless, as long as you have a bowl of soup you can be sure you're going to pull through!

Yam and Kale Soup with Coconut Milk and Curry Recipe Try this great warming soup!


Cooking For Beginners: Cookbooks and Equipment

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Joy Of Cooking 2

If you are a real beginner cook you may not know yet what cookbooks are appropriate for you and what equipment is essential.    When I first started learning to cook on my own I had very little kitchen equipment, and in truth you don't need a ton, but I found that my equipment grew as I read my two cookbooks and decided on things I wanted to make.  People who love to cook tend to collect kitchen gadgets that they really don't need and I'd like to present here two lists of what I consider the first tier of necessary equipment and then if you become a proficient and passionate cook the second tier of essential equipment.  You should always buy the best quality equipment that you can afford.  Don't be afraid to look for things you need in thrift stores and in used restaurant supply stores.   Good cookware will last a long time.   Look for 5 ply stainless steel or cast iron (enamel coated or not) for the very best quality pots and pans.

The most necessary items:
1 saute pan: if you only have one make it a 12" size.

1 medium size sauce pan: a 3 quart size is good.

1 soup/stock pot: 8 quart is perfect.

1 cookie sheet: if you can get one from a restaurant supply place, those are the best.

1 casserole dish: I suggest a glass or ceramic one (Corning makes really good ones).

2-3 wooden spoons:
these should not be expensive.  Have one short-handled one and a long-handled one.

1 spatula: I prefer metal ones but either metal or plastic will be fine.

1 colander: any  metal style, don't buy a plastic one because one of the main uses is for draining hot pasta.  I have one I bought 20 years ago from Cost Plus.  It's dinged up and still working hard.

1 set mixing bowls: no need to get fancy if you're on a budget, plain glass ones aren't hard to find in thrift stores.  Stainless steel mixing bowls are also excellent.  Don't buy aluminum bowls because some food reacts with aluminum.  It's very useful to have three bowls in different sizes.

1 set measuring spoons: any kind will do.

1 (2 cup) measuring cup: I suggest glass Pyrex if you only have one.

1 folding steamer basket for sauce pan: these fit into the bottom of your sauce pan allowing you to steam vegetables.  They're cheap and very handy.

1 pie pan: I suggest you get a glass one.

1 loaf pan: if you can get one from a restaurant supply place that would be best but if not, just get any kind you find, average loaf size.

1 decent knife: don't worry about fancy.  My favorite knife is one I bought 14 years ago from a health food store.  I sharpen it regularly and it still works perfectly.  You want your main knife to be a chef's knife.  Shop around and hold the different styles to figure out which kind is comfortable for your hand.

1 paring knife: any kind will do.  I use cheap ones because I lost my nice one.  I have to sharpen them more often but they work fine. Sharpening steel: whether your knife is cheap or expensive you need to sharpen it regularly.  I didn't know how to do this for years and chopping with a dull knife is not only more dangerous but much harder.

1 good quality food processor: 11 cup capacity is best for a family but smaller is fine for an individual.  I bought the best Cuisinart processor I could afford almost 12 years ago and it is still working wonderfully well, though I could stand to sharpen or replace the blades.  At the time it really stretched our budget but it has been essential to me in my cooking.

Less necessary appliances that you may want to get eventually:

Stand Mixer: I bought a Kitchenaide (professional series) and I have used it so much over the years that it was worth the expense.  I bought the pasta attachment which I love and use often.

Immersion Blender:
Mrs. C had to convince me to get one of these and I resisted for a long time but I can't imagine making salad dressings without one now.  Though seriously- don't worry about having one of these if you are just beginning.  I made great dressing before, the thing this does that I love is allow me to make a creamy vinaigrette.    It's also very handy for pureeing soups and sauces.

With all of the equipment I've listed above you should be able to make anything you find in a cookbook.  There are plenty of other things you can add to your kitchen like graters and peelers, for example, but if you have the food processor it will come with a grater function and a paring knife works perfectly well for peeling fruits and vegetables.  I have merely listed the essentials here.  What you need to start off with.

Cookbooks

I love cookbooks.  I have over 40 of them on my bookshelves and that is only half of what I would probably have if I didn't edit and choose carefully.  I can't afford to buy them often but I have been collecting them since I bought my very first two cookbooks when I first learned to cook.  Now I rarely use cookbooks for actual recipes but for inspiration.  If I'm in the mood for something Mediterranean I look in my Greek, Italian, and French cookbooks for ideas.  For baking, however, I do follow recipes exactly.  Anyone can learn to cook using just one cookbook provided that cookbook is an excellent all-purpose one.  I am going to recommend the two cookbooks I have used the most, learned the most from, and found to have infallible recipes.  As a beginner you can't judge whether recipes are infallible or not because you're own initial lack of skill can make a mess of recipes that are quite good.  As you become more experienced you'll be able to tell if the reason why your meal didn't turn out well was because of you or a poorly written recipe.

The Joy Of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer:
this is, by far, the most reliable, useful, informative, and complete cookbook in print for cooking everything.  My copy is from 1948 which I love because it has a lot of old fashioned recipes in it, but there are many recent editions that reflect our more modern sophisticated palate.  Ultimately it doesn't matter which edition you choose, they all have the basics in them such as how to cut meat, how to saute food, and include basics such as pie crusts, measurement conversion charts, and all the essential kitchen methods you might need to reference.  If you only get one cook book, get this one.

Vegetarian Cooking For Everyone, by Deborah Madison:
I am a vegetarian and if you can have two cookbooks, this is the other one you should have.  Like Joy Of Cooking, she covers so much basic information for the beginner cook (but her recipes don't include meat, obviously)- you will have access to information on how to cook all vegetables and grains exceptionally well with her book.  Her directions are clear, her recipes are solid.  If they don't turn out well I guarantee that it's something you did wrong, not something wrong with the recipe.  This isn't just a good book for vegetarians, this is the best resource for everyone when it comes to cooking with produce- because even meat eaters need vegetable sides.  Many of her recipes are vegan or she explains how to make them vegan.

Those are the two best cookbooks I have ever used.  Everyone who cooks has their favorites but here at the Farmhouse Finishing School these would be my textbooks if the school was brick and mortar.

Don't forget to make good use of your public library's cook book section.  You can try a lot of cookbooks without having to buy them.  Or you can try cookbooks to see if they're worth buying.  All of my recommendations below are for vegetarian books.  If you want to find some books that include meat, try out the following well respected cook book authors:  Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and Mark Bittman.

Mrs. W recommends:


Great Breads, by Martha Rose Shulman:
I learned to bake bread with this book.  I tried a number of other books before I found this one and though the others were prettier and full of pictures, this is the one that has proved the easiest and most reliable to learn from.  No one learns to bake breads without some failures but you will have fewer of them if you carefully read and follow Martha's instructions.  Two of my closest friends also learned to bake bread using her instructions.

"The Vegetarian Table" series: This series is published by Chronicle Books.  They aren't big books but each one really captures the foods from different countries, both traditional and more modern.  The instructions are clear, each book contains plenty of recipes appropriate for beginners, and they are full of pictures which I find inspiring.   I have The Vegetarian Table France, America, Italy, Mexico, and India.  There is also one for Japan.  Some of my long time meal staples come from these books.

The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, by Jack Bishop: He has amazing basic Italian recipes such as fresh pasta, almond biscotti, and sauces.  I have used his book for years and his recipes always turn out well for me.

This Good Food, by Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette: He has written a few cookbooks and I recommend them all.  The dishes in this book are simple, flavorful, and healthy.  They are arranged by season because that's how monks in monasteries usually eat and it's really how most of us should be eating too.  This is not fancy French cooking but simple French cooking (many Americans don't know there is such a thing) and that means that the ingredients are usually easy to come by and not especially costly.

 

Jump to the second lesson in the "Cooking For Beginners" series: Cooking For Beginners: Shopping For A Recipe


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