A New Template for Farm Share Season: Pad Thai

(A quick note: Although I sometimes post recipes, I’m not interested in being a recipe blog. Instead, I want to talk about the mechanics of using up, making do, and doing without when it comes to meal planning.)

Glamorous food photography as per usual

In the past, I’ve talked about the general concept of meal templates and pointed out the ones I use for frittatas, cottage pie, chicken pot pie, etc. But during our quarantine summer, I’ve been making pad thai once a week to use up bits and pieces from our farm share.

It’s a strange feeling, making this dish, because it makes me feel like when I first started cooking, because again I’m suddenly right at the very edge of my ability to multitask, handle pressure, think creatively. As when I first started learning how to cook, I still can’t make this one and still be kind if someone is in the room trying to help. Nonetheless, it’s a worthy recipe, and I pass it on to you as a way to hide vegetables in plain sight and make something a bit fancy or different after months of extra cooking at home.

Here is the recipe I use. It’s written exactly the way I like a template recipe to work, with a mix-and-match approach of tried-and-true ingredients. A few notes: I’m cautious about buying exotic ingredients that might go to waste, but if you can get tamarind concentrate, it makes a noticeable difference (even for someone with an iffy sense of smell/taste!), though I just subbed sugar at first and that was still good. Also, you can definitely cram more than a cup of sautéing vegetables into your batch if you’re feeling desperate to use things up — the sauce stretches just fine. And finally, you can use whatever Asian noodles you have (I made a batch with a combination of Chinese, Thai and Japanese noodles and I had to stagger the cook times but it was still delicious.) Probably you could just be an ugly American and use angel hair, but I haven’t tried that. (Tell me if you go the ugly American route and it works. Or doesn’t!)

What new recipes or approaches to cooking have you adopted since all this coronavirus craziness started?

Frugal Accomplishments from the Month of April

Schoolwork in pajamas. We NEVER do schoolwork in pajamas, but I guess this is our Pandemic Normal.
  • I mean we are all saving from the things that were canceled that we wish weren’t, among them for me the Motherwell Charlotte Mason retreat. But let’s not get too bleak and move on to the things I’ve intentionally accomplished.
  • I used Gap rewards to buy new pajamas for the kids, since that’s pretty much all they’re wearing during quarantine, a maternity shirt for a newly pregnant friend, and a dress for myself, as a treat since I was supposed to currently be in maternity clothes myself. The total came to $11. I am really missing thrifting and this was a pleasant approximation.
  • From scraps and bits I’ve made dandelion green pesto, candied violets, chicken stock, meatballs with bacon (from an unsuccessful roasted uncut bacon venture) and bread crumbs (from frozen ends of sandwich bread and sourdough). Most of these have also been free entertainment/education for the kids, too, as they’ve helped me.
  • I’m still enjoying the bounty I lugged home from a local pharmacy’s going out of business sale just before the pandemic broke: greeting cards, Easter basket craft kits, batteries and vitamins were among my biggest wins at 75% off.
  • As the warm weather approaches, I’m sorting out castoff clothes for friends and pulling from the basement things I’ve saved in future sizes, and we will swap with porch drop offs, no contact required. As a bonus, we decided that both Pip and Scout can still wear last year’s sandals.
  • On a walk around campus we found a bunch of tulips beheaded by a severe thunderstorm the night before. The girls and I gathered them up and distributed around the neighborhood in jam jars.
And then I washed the grit from them in the salad spinner.
  • In clearing grass from around my raspberry plants, I discovered new volunteers from the main plants, and in digging, realized they were a sort of sucker situation. I tried to carefully separate them from the main plant with plenty of root, and if they make it, I have three new raspberry plants. I also learned how to use a similar method to score free blackberries from roadside clippings, so I’ll try that, as I killed all my blackberries from last summer.
  • I signed up for the local college’s seed library. Next month I’ll pick up hollyhock seeds and Brussels sprouts seeds, and in exchange I’ll leave behind Mexican sunflower seeds. I also dug up and left out for neighbors day lilies, which continue to be the bane of my gardening existence.
  • I bordered new garden beds with rocks from a vacant lot in the neighborhood and bricks that I keep excavating from the site of our old shed.
  • We had switched Roo to a floor mattress at the beginning of quarantine when we found her sneaking out of her crib, but it wasn’t a permanent solution because mattresses will mold on a bare floor. So I looked into a sort of slatted platform like we have for Scout’s floor bed but a crib-sized one was as expensive as a toddler bed — and a twin mattress. So we just bit the bullet and ordered the twin mattress she’d eventually need anyway, used the old bed frame from the basement and figured out a way to fit three beds into their postage stamp of a bedroom.
Their room is basically impossible to photograph because it’s so tiny.

Cooking in the Time of Coronavirus

(Linking up with friends over at This Ain’t the Lyceum!)

So many folks are now thinking about meals in a way they never really have before. Maybe you went grocery shopping every evening on the way home from work, or leaned hard on restaurants. Now is a chance to carry out resolutions — whether financial or healthy — that, whatever ends up happening the coming weeks, will put you in a better position when we come out the other side.

1. First, two pieces I really loved from others. Katie at Hearts Content Homestead outlines all kinds of ways to prepare for difficult times through household decisions and skills in How to prepare for hard times. And The Kitchn has been collecting a lot of its content to demonstrate how to cook using pantry staples, most of it linked in this moving letter from the editor about how we can serve our communities and the world through our kitchens.

So, without further ado, here is a brain dump of various thoughts, from me and others, about Food in the Time of Coronavirus.

2. Some categories to consider when you’re shopping:

  • Here is an exhaustive list from the NYTimes (which I’m hoping is not under paywall) to get you thinking about foods to consider.
  • Comforting food — things that might excite the rest of your family if you pull them out on a dull day. For us, that’s things like marshmallows for roasting one evening; a couple secret bags of barbecue chips; some random kimchi mayonnaise I’m betting my husband will love, etc.
  • Nourishing food that will last awhile (ideas: frozen vegetables that can be roasted or hidden in soups; dried or frozen fruit that can go into yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, etc.)
  • Vitamins to try to keep everyone strong and healthy

3. ALSO VITAL: Caffeine in large quantities if you’re addicted — my husband has always supported a local coffee shop and would never normally deign to freeze his beans, but since he’d go through actual withdrawal without coffee, we bought and froze a few bags in advance.

4. How to think about making meals without shopping:

I first learned to cook while we were living for six months in rural Uganda with very few ingredients available. That mindset is a helpful one to try to adopt now, instead of roaming the packed grocery store thinking of all the meals you might want later this week, or month, and trying to remember all the ingredients involved for each.

Learning to cook with intermittent electricity and the world’s slowest internet connection
  • Think about how to string together meals to use up each ingredient.
  • Now is the time to dive deep into something you’ve always wanted to learn how to fix. Choose something you’ve always bought pre-made and attempt it yourself. Learn how to make sourdough (but not from me — I’m little haphazard about the whole enterprise, with mixed results). Bake with your kids.
  • Think in terms of staples: easy things you can stockpile a bit and use as the building blocks for a variety of meals. The structure of constraints will also help you feel less adrift and overwhelmed.

5. Freezing: I’m shooting for a combination of:

  • preassembled meals (especially important if my husband or I get sick and can’t cook, but also to preserve fresh ingredients that won’t keep several weeks in the fridge); and
  • bulk ingredients (butter, frozen berries and vegetables, the meat we have from our beef and pork share, a batch of caramelized onions, ICE CREAM OF COURSE, etc.).
  • Plus: News to me! Note that milk, unshelled eggs, yogurt and shredded cheese can all be frozen but there’ll be a noticeable change in texture — use them only where you can hide them in recipes.

6. This is just anecdotal, but an ER physician friend is recommending that store pickup, if available, is probably safer. We had been leaning towards selecting all our groceries on the shelves ourselves on infrequent trips going forward, but the friend thinks probably grocery workers will be wearing gloves at this point. There’s more advice from Consumer Reports and NPR reports many stores are encouraging online pickup as a way to prevent the spread.

7. Also, pretty much unrelated but worth a shout out if you’ve suddenly got kids unexpectedly at home with you:

Linking Meals, Using Up & Making Do

IMG_1800.jpg
These are not my teacups. They’re my sister-in-law’s, because she is classier than I am.

“Now the aim of the good woman is to use the by-products, or, in other words, to rummage in the dustbin.” –G. K. Chesterton, “The Romance of Thrift”

First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with just having a meal plan rotation. I have recipes I use over and over and even a homemade cookbook of favorites. But I often find I have things to use up, and wanted to share my strategies for avoiding waste in the kitchen.

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Making It, Faking It

What do you find worthwhile to make and what would you rather buy? Let’s compare notes:

Make:

  • Stock: I like to roast a chicken whole in the slow cooker and then toss a carcass or two back in to cook on low overnight. Easy peasy.
  • Fancy bread (mostly ciabatta, 90% of the time): I will occasionally buy stuff, especially at the farmer’s market, but Pip eats almost nothing I make myself except ciabatta, so that’s a pretty strong incentive.
  • Iced tea: This is new, but J’s gotten into unsweet tea in a big way, and it’s sooooo much cheaper than buying bottles and then I don’t have to lug the bottles inside with my wimpy pregnant upper body (non)strength.
  • Pizza crust: It took awhile for me to find a bread machine recipe for the dough that I loved, but now I’m never going back.
  • Cookies, brownies, cake: I am not against a box cake (ok, I love box cake), but I recently suggested we make one and Pip was genuinely perplexed, and I realized maybe I’m doing some small part of this real foods thing right with him, even if he mostly subsists on fruit and Goldfish. He loves to bake, so I bake, and sometimes, he even eats it.
  • Cream of chicken soup: Use that stock!
  • Biscuits: These are one of the few things I can make now that are honestly my favorite way to eat them. Not that they’re objectively the world’s best biscuits, just that they’re exactly the way I like them. Do you have anything like that for you?
  • Granola: I like to mix it into my (storebought! for shame!) Greek yogurt.

Buy:

  • Bagels, sandwich bread: although I just ran across a recipe for bagel dough in the bread machine, and my brother-in-law made some beautiful bagels…
  • Pie crust: My mom makes terrific pie crust and I struggle to even work with frozen crust.
  • Pumpkin purée: Martha Stewart says this is OK.
  • Ice cream (90% of the time): It gets rock salt everywhere to make it!!
  • Pasta sauce (90% of the time): The only time I’ve routinely made it is when we’ve had a CSA, and that hasn’t been since Pip was born. Might be worth resurrecting, though, because I love the fresh taste when you puree it a bit and don’t cook it forever.
  • Yogurt: Trying to gather the discipline to do this again, because I have a yogurt maker and it saves a ton of money, but it’s so tedious.
  • Canned beans (vs cooking from dry): Why can I not make normal beans? This is supposed to be easy!!

I could list thousands of others, especially if I spent a little time looking at DIY tags on Instagram (no, I don’t make my own pickles!). Things are always in flux, of course, based on where we are in the life of our family. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make toast for the kids when I’m really morning sick, and sometimes, when the baby’s pretty old and I’m not pregnant yet and everyone’s napping reliably, I can really branch out and take on new skills and recipes.

What are your make-from-scratch priorities?

Granola for our mailperson last Christmas

The Birth of a Cook

I come from a baking family. On weekends, my introverted dad would cheerfully stay home and bake a double batch of homemade bread, sending me and my sister to deliver the spare loaf to one or another neighbor. Everyone baked cookies, and brownies, and cake, and pushed the baked goods on each other until the leftovers got sent to my parents’ office, or, later, into the garbage disposal growing bodies of our high school boyfriends.

I wasn’t a cook at all until I got married, and it wasn’t the “Mrs.” title that pushed me into it – it was social pressure in rural Uganda, where people made fun of J for cooking, which is regarded as women’s work there. It helped, too, that I was very bored, and also that if we wanted food from home, we were going to have to make it ourselves.

So I set out to make things, and the limitations of ingredients (ground beef was the only meat I could buy by myself; the only cheese was a nameless frozen waxy wheel) and tools (an incomplete set of measuring cups, a single chef’s knife) made cooking approachable. In fact, when I returned back to the US to an empty fridge, a kitchen full of new registry bounty, and a grocery store that stocked everything all the time, I felt acutely overwhelmed.

In her excellent Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson argues, “Cooking can be a way of actively receiving the gift of food and actively participating in handing that gift on to others.” That was key for me. My parents had modeled baking delicious things and sharing the bounty, but now I learned that pleasure firsthand as I learned to make spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan from those Pizza Hut packets sent in care packages. I started to make biscuits for J with canned cream, and saved jarred pesto bought with care in Kampala for a feast.

In Uganda, I’d search online on our slow internet connection for recipes with ingredients I could obtain: baked potato soup, cottage pie, meatballs, banana bread. For our housemate’s birthday, I made chocolate cake with painstakingly hand-whipped peanut butter icing, and chili with one of those spice packets my mother sent. For my birthday, friends smuggled the weird, half-thawed local ice cream into our freezer. Peterson observes, “When we cook we produce things to eat, of course but we produce something else too: acts of care.” When food from home was hard to come by, it became more clearly what it always is: a concrete currency of love.

For better or worse, I recognize my limits as a cook: I have basically no sense of smell, and it pretty seriously limits my ability to cook intuitively. (It’s hard to tell what you don’t have, but through casual experimentation we’ve found that I can’t discern tastes as sensitively as other people.) If it’s a success, I owe it in large part to the recipe; if it’s a flop, I can blame my nose, or the recipe author. But seeing cooking as a humble way to care for someone else frees me from all the things that might otherwise intimidate me about cooking: whether I can make it trendy or locally-sourced or Instagram-worthy. It’s just me, feeding people I care about.