I’m back…I think

It’s funny how almost two years can pass without a post. How to sum up the last 20 or so months? Let’s just say that life is what happens when we’re busy making plans. Some of it great, some of it not so nice, but I wouldn’t change any of it because it’s all mine. It’s what makes me, well, me.

One thing that has been constant is the epic battle of me vs. my weight and this might be the year I actually win. The pounds are tracked every day in a very Bridget Jones way. I’ve rediscovered my kitchen scale and am paring back to simpler food (that doesn’t me I don’t splurge). Each morsel is obsessively logged into MyFitnessPal, each calorie evaluated, every bit of salt (my biggest enemy) tracked. It’s also renewed my interest in thoughtful cooking, perfect for blogging.

And then there are phone calls like the one I just received.  It’s a gorgeous Summer Friday in New Jersey and my hubby wants to go out to dinner tonight.  Who am I to argue?

Maybe I’ll have a recipe to blog tomorrow.

 

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Perfection as the enemy of the good

Aside

It’s over a month since my last post and I have several posts sitting in “draft” status.  Yes, I am guilty of pursuing the illusion of perfection at the expense of good.  I’m addicted to the “Save Draft” button.  I can’t help myself; it’s a congenital affliction that has kept me from finishing more than one project over the years.  The sad truth in the case of my blogging is that my posts are mediocre at best; pursuing better-than-just-okay is probably a better way to spend my time.  So I promise to get back on the “click Publish button” wagon today…well, before I go to bed…uh, we better just say “this week” and leave it at that.

Confessions of a Dishaholic

I’m a dishaholic.  There; I’ve said it.  It’s a genetic defect from my mother.  The symptoms start innocently enough and then next thing you know, you can have a sit down dinner for more than sixty people, not that you would have enough chairs and flatware for half as many people.  Looking through the cupboards I realize I can almost tell my life through dishes.

GoldtrimPlatterSmThis platter is the last vestige of the “everyday” dishes from my childhood.  We used them in Queens and then in New Jersey.  In 1979 they were joined by Pottery Barn dishes after my Aunt died.  Those dishes are no longer with us, either.  They were plain white coupe dishes and I loved them.  Through the years I would look for the identical dishes only finding similar but not the same ones.  I remember going to the original Pottery Barn store in New York with my Aunt; it had racks and racks of dishes.  I miss her.

NoritakesmThen there were my mother’s “good” dishes, a Noritake service for twelve.  This set harkens back to days before I was born.  It has two sizes of platters, open and covered vegetable bowls, bread plates, salad plates, soup plates, individual vegetable bowls, and more.  I look at these and am transported back to so many holiday meals; house full of family, friends, music, and laughter.  What I’ve always liked about this set is the gravy boat; yes, the gravy boat.  The under dish is attached to the boat.  If only other companies would do this!  As I got older and started cooking I would pull out the dishes for Sunday dinner.  Why keep them only for company?  Who’s more important than my family, right?  I still have these dishes, plus a couple of extra serving pieces I picked up online at Replacements Limited.

During the late Seventies/early Eighties, we purchased our first microwave oven.  It was a behemoth of a creature, large enough for the small turkey that we would never cook in it. This had the unintended consequence of requiring us to purchase microwave safe dishes. The microwave safe set ended up being “Dad’s luncheon set”.  It is a reddish transferware pattern that he liked.  He thought of it as nice for everyday or having friends for lunch (my parents were big on entertaining).Transferwaresm  This is a service for six that now resides in a cabinet next to my microwave.  Some years later we found complimentary rimmed soup plates (different brand) so we have six of those, too.  Over the years a bread plate broke, although I don’t know when or by whom. For those of you keeping track, we are now up to a total of eighteen place settings minus one bread plate.

Greek Easter was always a big event at our home, complete with a spring lamb roasting on a spit and 24-40 people in attendance for a sit down meal.  This meant a mish-mosh of tableware but the company was great and the food delicious.  One day, for reasons I cannot remember, Dad and I were at the local Macy’s near the dish department where we meandered into the clearance area.  Would you believe we found two big boxes of service for twelve, in the same pattern, of china (made in china) for more than 50% off? EasterDishessm Lightbulb!  Easter dishes!!  I even found small wine glasses at Ikea (twenty-four, of course) to make the set complete.  These sets included serving pieces, too.  Now we would have a lovely table set for twenty-four people; perfect.    Platters, serving bowls, salt and pepper shakers, creamer set, were all included.  I still don’t know how they fit everything into the boxes or how we got them home in a Ford Escort.  I discovered a china outlet in St. Augustine, FL, where I picked up additional pieces – demi-tasse cups, extra cake plates (because we used them for dessert and appetizers), extra serving pieces.  Some have a different brand name stamped on the bottom but they’re the same.  My guess is a factory in China makes them and puts your brand on it.  Yes, I still have these and no, they cannot go into the microwave.  Actually I have all pieces except one cup.  During our kitchen remodel my china was stacked on rolling racks in the dining room.  Although I had told hubby to not roll the racks containing the china, he did.  A cup fell.  It broke.  He looked sheepish and contrite.  I didn’t say a word.  Place setting count?  Forty-two minus one bread plate and one cup.

When my husband and I met we each owned homes, fully furnished homes, so we didn’t need anything when we were getting married.  Still, we needed to put something on a register because we knew we were getting gifts even if we said don’t give us gifts.  We picked dishes so we would have every day dishes that were neither his nor mine.  I wanted either artsy or tailored; he wanted classic.  He preferred thin china dishes to thick stoneware ones.  We ended up with Royal Worchester Howard Cobalt. HowardCobaltsm These cannot go in the microwave.  We do use them for everyday and entertaining.  I started thinking I could build up this set and get rid of the Easter dishes; my Mother started buying us place settings for our anniversary until we were up to fifteen place settings.  Eventually I changed my mind and decided I could get plain white microwavable dinner plates to compliment the blue and white ones when setting out a buffet.  Place setting count? Fifty-seven minus one bread plate and one cup.

Yes, dear reader, I have fifty-seven place settings (minus one bread plate and one cup).  This doesn’t count the extra pieces, like the four microwavable cereal bowls from William-Sonoma, or the four microwavable cereal bowls from Crate and Barrel.  Or the six white coupe dinner plates that can go into the microwave (yes, I finally found them!) and their matching sandwich counterparts from Crate and Barrel. Coupesm Or the Reindeer mugs, serving pieces, appetizer plates, and cake plates from Pottery Barn that I use each Christmas.  It also doesn’t count the myriad of platters and other serving pieces.  If I were setting up a buffet I could actually set out sixty-three dinner plates.  I could set up a lunch buffet with over eighty salad-sized plates.  I think I could set out well over a dozen platters, too, but I still have to count them.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sixteen melamine dinner plates and their smaller companions for outdoor use; I don’t use them for indoor buffets so they’re not included in the dinner or small plate counts.

Now that I have the white coupe plates, I want to get rid of my red transferware set as well as the Easter set.  The problem?  How to sell them?  Who wants service for twenty-four minus a cup?  Still, I would like to get rid of them; that would bring me down to a mere twenty-seven place settings, thirty-three dinner plates.  That’s not a lot, right?

What the heck is a Greek Salad anyway?

This year I’ve made a real effort to bring my lunch to work.  It generally isn’t anything very complicated and I alway try to keep the calories down.  Fruit with yogurt, leftover grilled chicken; you get the idea.  Trying to  add some variety the other day I decided to make a salad: mixed greens, tomato, olives, salonika peppers, no onion this time (it was for work after all), a wee bit of cheese, oil, and seasoning.  Straight forward, simple, relatively healthy, easy to eat out of a plastic container. Lunch Salad showing mixed greens, feta, olives, salonika peppers, oregano, black pepper The feta and oregano got my mind to wandering (not that it takes much for my mind to wander) – what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  I know it’s a stupid question, the answer to which won’t be some earth-shattering revelation, yet I wanted to know and still do.  I see it on menus, I see “real Greek” dressing in the supermarket but what makes it “Greek”?  Is it the cheese, the olives?  Is it the use of oil and vinegar and oregano? Was it made by some “real Greek” holed away in the basement of some factory?  I really want to know.  Is it still a Greek salad if the oregano comes from Mexico or Italy? What if salad oil is used instead of olive oil?  And what about the feta?  My guess is that most restaurants use some american made feta-like cheese made from cow’s, not sheep’s, milk.  At what point does a “Greek” salad become just a salad?  I started to ramble on about this to my husband.  He decided the car windows needed to be cleaned and headed off to the garage.  He also doesn’t eat salad, or veggies in general, but that’s another story for another time.  Back to my salad conundrum.

I grew up in a Greek-American home.  My Father was from the Athens suburbs and my Mother, although of Greek heritage, was from that exotic locale known as the lower East Side of Manhattan (NYC, not Kansas).  Thus I cannot speak to all the different regions of Greece or their subtle salad nuances.  Still, I can’t remember ever having a Greek salad like those on menus here in the States.  My mother had two interpretations of a Greek salad:

1)  “green” salad – romaine lettuce cut into ribbons, seasoned with fresh dill, olive oil, salt and pepper.  She might add some scallions and maybe some wine vinegar.  Yup, that’s all it was.  It had dill so I avoided it at all costs as a child.  Incredibly I actually found that recipe in a greek cookbook one time.; and,

2)  “tomato” salad – tomatoes, feta, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  She might add some sliced onion, preferably red, and she might add cucumber.  She never added vinegar; tomatoes are already acidic.  Growing up this was my preferred salad at home.

These are also the salads I remember from my many trips to Greece, so you can see my confusion.  I love anchovies but remember those being served on the side, never in my salad.  The brined peppers?  Nope.  Same for olives.  All those things I remember being served as mezethes -small nibbles to eat with a drink before dinner.  I looked to the internet to find some sage’s guidance without luck.  Do you know what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  Do Italians feel the same about “Italian” salads?  Do the French make “French” dressing?  Does any of this matter if it tastes good?  Probably not.

Oh, I just looked at my watch – it’s getting late and I haven’t had dinner.
I think I’ll make a Greek Salad.

The infamous dill burger

In my previous post I mentioned that dill and I have always had an uneasy relationship; that the mere site of it brings back memories of good food gone bad.  One of the worst cases of food mutilation by dill I ever encountered was in August 2004.

That particular summer we went to Greece.  It was an introduce-hubbie-to-some-family/go-to-the-Olympics/do-a-bit-of-touring type of a vacation.  My relatives live in the suburbs of Athens so one of the first destinations was the Acropolis.  That day we first meandered through Plaka, the tourist shopping area at the foot of that ancient hill.  I know it’s touristy but I like the long narrow streets of the old area; it’s touristy in a good way.  As lunch time approached we decided to stop for a bite to eat.  Where to go was the question.

Each of the restaurants had chalkboards outside advertising specials targeted at tourists.  We finally settled on a small shop with a corner entrance because it had two things going for it – they advertised french fries cooked in vegetable oil (olive oil is traditional but my husband prefers vegetable oil for his fries) and air conditioning.  The thermometer was already close to 100 F this  particular August day so air conditioning was definitely a bonus.  A pleasant waiter sat us, giving us english menus; perfect since my Greek is poor and my husband doesn’t speak the language at all.  I was looking forward to one of the traditional dishes on the specials board.  My husband was probably going to play it safe with a hamburger.  Sure enough, he settled on the hamburger.  I had already warned him that often times veal is used in lieu of beef for the “bifsteki” so his tastebuds wouldn’t be shocked.  We ordered our food and shifted our focus to the day’s itinerary.  A few minutes later our food arrived.

It’s funny how you don’t realize just how hungry you are until a plate of hot food is put in front of you.  I dug into my lunch with total abandon; I was starving.  Don’t ask me what I had, I just know it was very good.  My husband tried some french fries – tasty, fresh; a good start.  I continued devouring my meal.  Next he took a bite of his burger and paused.  Something wasn’t quite right; I reminded him it might be veal instead of beef.  He chewed, he swallowed.  He looked confused.  He attempted a second bite, and a third.  He dropped the burger and told me something was definitely wrong.  It wasn’t about the meat itself, there was something else that didn’t make sense.  If he didn’t know better he would swear it needed a shave.  A SHAVE???  I immediately dropped my fork and grabbed the burger.  I didn’t see hair (whew) but something didn’t look right; were my glasses dirty?  I took a bite and froze.  Dill.  It was full of dill.  I hate dill.  The hair wasn’t hair and my glasses weren’t dirty, it was uncut dill fronds sticking out of the burger.  The meat was merely used as a binding agent to hold the dill together.  It was impressive how dill could masquerade as meat.  I couldn’t chew.  I couldn’t swallow.  Discretely into the napkin it went (luckily there weren’t many people in the restaurant at the time).  Was there enough soda in all of Greece to get the taste out of my mouth?  Probably not.  Would we ever return to this establishment?  Definitely not.  We politely paid our check and headed out, stopping at the first ice cream stand we could find.

Tzatziki, food shopping and stuff

If there is one thing my husband and I will always have in common it’s that neither of us like to go shopping.  We’re buyers.  If we need something we go, we buy it and leave the store.  This also means we put off food shopping as long as humanly possible. We recently reached that point again – it was time for the dreaded trip to the supermarket.  The stores are so big in our area that it can take twenty minutes to get from the entrance to the dairy products without stopping along the way.   A list was needed if we were to get out of there the same day we went in.

I went through my usual routine for making a list (a list that would again be forgotten at home like those before it) checking the various nooks and crannies of the kitchen.  I looked in my spice and pantry cabinets.  Each was well stocked to the point that it might explode at any moment.  That left the refrigerator.  It’s always the refrigerator that taunts me.  First I checked the expiration dates and various bins – there’s always something to offer to the garbage gods – and then took inventory of what remained.  I saw yogurt, fresh dill (“fresh” always being a relative term in my fridge, but in this case actually fluffy and fresh), and garlic.  This brought to mind one of my favorite sides for grilled meats – tzatziki.  Of course I would need to get some cucumbers otherwise I was set.  My eyes kept going back to the dill.  Dill and I have always had an uneasy relationship.  It is a flavor that can go so quickly from non-existent to overpowering (at least to my palate).  Memories came back to me about otherwise wonderful dishes where the cook had a heavy dill hand; not pleasant.  Still the one memory that is clearer than any other – the infamous dill burger.  I often wonder if tzatziki could have saved the dill burger?  I guess we’ll never know.

What is tzatziki?

Tzatziki is a wonderful garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce often served in Greece.  Here in the US you’ve probably had it served with gyros.  I love it, it’s easy to make and a wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb, pork, or chicken.  Many of our friends like it spread on a piece of pita bread.  One of the keys to making an excellent tzatziki is the yogurt; it needs to be thick.  Cucumber is very wet and will loosen the yogurt.  I always use Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite but there are other good brands out there).

Ingredients
1 cup of thick plain yogurt
1 cucumber, medium to large, peeled and grated then chopped (note: your choice to leave or remove the seed core)
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped (we like a lot of garlic)
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vinegar (white or wine; just remember if using wine vinegar to use white wine vineger not the red one; red gives it a pinkish hue)
salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix by hand.  Refrigerate it for at least a couple of hours, and preferably overnight, before serving.

My tips

Most of my ingredients have ranges because there are so many variables – how much garlic do you like?  Are you using extra virgin olive oil or light olive oil?  Play around, make what you like.  Like so many other dishes, there is no one definitive recipe for tzatziki.

Cucumber  I like to peel the cucumber and then use the grating plate in my food processor.  Once finished I gently squeeze the gratings to release some excess water.  I don’t want to create a yougurt soup but I also don’t want to lose all the flavor.  I then take the gratings and chop them up.  I find this gives me the best texture.  Some people simply finely chop the cucumber without ever grating it.  Experiment and see what works best for you.

Garlic  There is no such thing as too much garlic, or at least for me.  You might disagree so  put in only as much as you feel comfortable adding the first time.

Yogurt  Growing up, when Greek yogurt wasn’t so readily available, my mother would take a large container of American yogurt, put a strainer over a large bowl, line the strainer with coffee filters (the Mr. Coffee bowl style ones worked best), and put the contents of the container in the lined strainer.  This went into the refrigerator.  She would periodically stir it to make sure it drained thoroughly and check that the bottom of the strainer wasn’t touching the liquid accumulating in the bowl.  A day or two later she would have this wonderfully thick yogurt and the bowl would have between 3/4 and 1 1/2 cups of liquid in it.

Why no photos?  We decided it was too nice out to go shopping so we put on our swimsuits and jumped in the pool, thus no cucumber.  It’s important to have one’s priorities!  Still, I thought you might like the recipe.  I’ll update the post with pictures in the future.

What about the dill burger?  Expect to learn more about the dill burger in my next post.  That’s one recipe that is hopefully lost in the annals of time.

Hell Road Paving, Inc.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I’m on the board of directors of Hell Road Paving, Inc., when it comes to dinner.  Each day as I leave the office I start my drive home with ideas of the nice (sometimes even healthy) meal I’ll prepare but 40 or so miles later my intentions slowly fade into oblivion.  Honestly, the drive home takes my drive to cook out of me.

Last night is a perfect example.  My husband had a meeting and wouldn’t be home for dinner so I thought I would make a light soup with some of the veggies that were in the refrigerator, yearning to be cooked.  His meeting also meant I had to pick up the dog from day care (don’t ask; it’s another story for another day).  I arrived home two hours after I had left the office, spending most of the two hours on highways.  Still, I pulled out the items for dinner.  A few vegetables, some chicken broth and noodles were placed in my usual ‘prep’ area on the counter as I went about feeding the dog.  And poured a glass of wine.  And remembered I hadn’t eaten much that day so I should nosh on something with the wine or I would get light-headed.  And decided it might be nice to watch a movie while I cooked, drank wine, and ate some cheese.  In the meantime the ingredients were waiting patiently to be washed, sliced and diced.

Given that hubby wasn’t home I decided to look for an old movie to watch and there on TCM was Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.  I could watch the movie and then cook!  Wine, cheese, and remote in hand I sat on the couch.  I would make my dinner after the movie.  I finished my glass of wine as the movie ended, put away the cheese and approached the ingredients on the counter just as I heard that Rebecca was about to start (it must have been Joan Fontaine/Alfred Hitchcock night).  I had never caught the beginning of that movie so I would just watch the beginning in the den and then watch the rest while cooking.  It was a good plan.  I thought the mushrooms in particular were looking a bit impatient but I shrugged it off.  Back onto the couch, with the dog and remote, I went and faithful to my plan I returned to the kitchen after the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  The ingredients were now looking rather intimidating, and I am certain that the chicken broth box was taunting me as Mrs. Danvers taunted the new Mrs. de Winter.  By this time it was well after 8:00pm.  My meal wouldn’t be ready before 9:00 or possibly even later I reasoned; I could just have some crackers and call it dinner.  The ingredients were whisked back into the refrigerator and I returned to the couch.

Today I can hear them taunting me from the refrigerator as they slowly go from picture perfect to not so pretty but edible.  What are they?  A carrot, some baby bell peppers, some crimini mushrooms, a few shitaki mushrooms, cilantro that is beginning to wilt, some fat-free reduced sodium free-range organic chicken broth and some limes.  I’ll figure something out and report on the results, good or bad.  The one thing I know is that my grandfather must be spinning in his grave.  Did I mention he was a chef?