There is a 25 percent chance of rain beginning at 9 a.m., according to the weather application. I pulled the cars out of the garage so that space can be used for other projects if the forecast proves to be true. Despite the coronavirus epidemic the waste hauler is working today so I put the trash and recycling bins at the end of the driveway.
I made a taco for breakfast this morning and one of my go-to recipes is easy.
Nostalgic Breakfast Taco
When Mother began cooking tacos at home it was revolutionary. We hadn’t had that at home until the 1960s. The change was partly due to the rise of mass-produced, Mexican-style options at the grocery store. It was also a result of her work at the grade school cafeteria where they made dishes different from what we grew up with. Cafeteria work broadened our home food repertory. While we don’t eat beef in our home now, commercial soybean crumbles create a texture and flavor that reminds me of those early days when she made tacos for the first times. Here’s how it went this morning.
Two frying pans go on high heat. In one cook a pre-made organic flour tortilla. In the other heat a scant tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil.
Dice half a medium-sized onion and part of a frozen bell pepper. They go into the hot oil. You’ll hear the sizzle. Stirring constantly, season with salt, dried cilantro and powdered chilies. Cook until the onions and peppers are soft. Stir in a clove or two of minced garlic and cook until a garlic aroma rises from the pan. Stir for a minute or so and add one half cup of commercial frozen soybean crumbles. Stir until thawed and set aside.
Place the cooked tortilla on a dinner plate and garnish from the bottom up: a layer of Mexican cheese to taste, pickled sliced jalapeno peppers, salsa or hot sauce to taste. Put the fry up on top of the garnishes and serve with a beverage of choice.
I look forward to when garden cilantro and tomatoes are available. Tacos are a way to explore your palate and discover who you are. For me it’s a chance to remember standing around the kitchen in that American foursquare home with family while reflecting on how our lives have changed. Even on a rainy day that is positive experience.
For a recipe I got out my copy of the Holy Family School PTA cookbook. I like this book for the familiar names of the recipe authors, some of whom I knew. Monsignor T.V. Lawlor served as the church’s second pastor from 1943 until 1961 and his photograph is printed inside the front cover of the book. This dates the cookbook in the 1950s most likely, after the school moved to the location I attended a couple of blocks south of the church on Fillmore Street.
I chose a banana bread recipe contributed by Mrs. H.A. Tholen. It called for shortening, although I substituted butter and kept everything else the same. Here are the ingredients as written:
1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup shortening, 2 eggs, 3 bananas mashed, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon soda, 1-3/4 cup flour, and a pinch of salt.
Instructions are, “Mix in the order given and bake in a slow oven.”
Well that won’t do. Looking at other sweet breads in the book I decided on a 350 degree oven for 50 minutes. It turned out great as you can see in the image.
Making banana bread from overly ripe bananas is a cultural inheritance not only from my mother and maternal grandmother, but from a broader society where fruit like the Cavendish banana is readily and cheaply available. However, like most mass marketed fruit and vegetables it is subject to change from climate and from other pressures, forcing old habits and patterns to change.
There was something positive in yesterday’s bakery. It was a warning too, that life is fragile and ever changing. We seek comfort in what we know, delaying the embrace of what is coming. I don’t just mean what’s coming for Cavendish bananas.
Preparing to cook red beans and rice has been a year-long process because most of the ingredients were produced in my garden or on farms where I work.
The garden produced red beans, okra, tomatoes and celery. Local farms produced onions, garlic and bell peppers. I also grew red pepper flakes and blended the powdered dry spices. Pantry staples of extra virgin olive oil, all purpose flour, and long grain brown rice were USDA organic but not produced in Iowa.
I invested several hours preparing a luncheon meal and time was worth it because of the flavor.
In the morning we discussed my 5-1/2 quart Dutch oven, the enamel of which is wearing off the inside. I’m don’t favor replacing it. Not because of the $350 price tag for a new one from Le Creuset. With a bit of cooking oil on the bottom to prevent rusting it will serve many more years. It is my go-to pan for making red beans and rice. It has been a reliable part of our kitchen.
Cooking is a ritual that evokes memory and skill in bringing a dish together. I soaked a cup of dried red beans in the Dutch oven overnight, then cooked them with half a diced red onion until tender but not mushy. I drained the beans and reserved the cooking liquid, letting them sit on the counter until ready to make the dish.
Around 10 a.m. I started work.
I fried a couple of home made vegetarian burger patties from the freezer and set them aside to drain. (Andouille sausage would be more traditional).
Heating the dutch oven, I added two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and cooked a generous tablespoon of red pepper flakes. I diced half a large onion, red bell peppers, and celery stalks and sautéed them in the oil-pepper mixture with a little salt. Once they began to soften I added two cloves of minced garlic and added home made seasoning — think powdered garlic, curry powder, paprika, and powdered hot, red peppers. I added a few dashes of prepared hot sauce from the refrigerator and stirred until everything was incorporated.
Next came additions. I deglazed the pan with a pint of diced tomatoes. Next, a cup each of sliced okra and long grain, brown rice. I stirred in two tablespoons of all purpose flour, then the cooked beans, until everything was incorporated. I tried not to bust up the beans.
What liquid to use was an open question. This time my answer was two cups of the bean cooking liquid (that’s all there was) plus two cups of water. Other options I considered were canned tomato juice and home made vegetable broth. The flavor of the bean cooking liquid made it a good decision.
Stirring everything together, I brought it to a boil then turned the heat down to a simmer, cooking until the rice was done and most of the liquid had been absorbed. Toward the end of cooking I crumbled the burger patties and folded them into the mixture.
It was ready to eat at noon, making four to five portions.
We seek opportunity to follow our creative impulses and cooking is primal. It provides an opportunity to shed anxiety from quotidian affairs, if only for a few hours. A recipe makes the experience replicable but not really. Cooking is a story of how we sustain ourselves in a turbulent world.
Three cups of mixed beans had been resting in a jar on the counter for a long time. To use them up I made bean soup.
I soaked the beans overnight, then rinsed them in a colander with cold water from the faucet. They went back into the Dutch oven where I covered them with home made vegetable broth and turned the heat on high. Once the mixture came to a boil, I turned the heat down to a simmer and let them cook until tender.
Next I strained the mixture through a perforated funnel and prepared two cups each of diced celery, diced onion and sliced carrots. Using some of the bean cooking liquid, I sauteed the vegetables in the Dutch oven, salting to taste.
When the vegetables began to soften I added three bay leaves. Dumping the beans on top I added the rest of the cooking liquid and covered with tap water. It became soup after an hour of simmering. Using the immersion blender I whizzed the soup until about a third of it had been pulverized.
Dinner was bean soup, a slice of buttered bread, some cheese curds, a cup of local apple cider, and dried fruit.
What seemed significant was I resisted an impulse to add some of everything in the ice box and pantry to the pot. Classic mirepoix makes this kind of soup, and it doesn’t need much else.
An acquaintance from the Climate Reality Project posted a photo essay depicting the process of making a “‘No-Tuna’ Salad Sandwich” on Instagram. I found the recipe on line and made the dish for lunch.
Mostly vegetarian, I long for food eaten at home with Mother. Because of over fishing, slavery in the Asian tuna business, and the negative impact of global warming on fish stocks there are plenty of reasons to eschew tuna and other seafood. If I don’t consume it, someone else will and that’s another problem of society on a long list of them.
The recipe produced a tasty meal, reminiscent of tuna sandwiches of my youth, but not. With a few tweaks the recipe will be a keeper.
Chickpea Salad (Modified from an original recipe by Dana Schultz)
1 – 15 ounce can of chickpeas or 425 grams cooked, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons tahini
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup diced red onion
1/4 cup diced celery
1/4 cup diced dill pickle
1 teaspoon capers, drained
Salt and black pepper to taste
Mash the chick peas in a bowl, leaving the mash uneven with some peas left whole.
Add tahini, mustard, honey, red onion, celery, pickle, capers, salt and pepper and mix to incorporate. Adjust seasonings as needed.
Refrigerate to enable the flavors to meld together.
Scoop a generous amount on a slice of toasted bread and garnish with lettuce, tomato and Dijon mustard or as desired. Can also be used on crackers as a party appetizer.
Who wants to reinvent home cooking every time they enter the kitchen?
Here’s a better question, how can I work to be present in the kitchen and produce tasty, nutritious food for our family?
While I have a strong memory of Mother’s cooking, I don’t recall many of the dishes. For me, home food begins in 1959 when we moved to Northwest Davenport where I lived at home until going to university in 1970. During those years Mom cooked what I believed was standard fare for working class people. If there was a typical dinner, it included beef or chicken as a main course, potatoes or rice, and a vegetable. Sometimes there was dessert. Dad got a discount at the butcher shop co-located at the meat packing plant where he worked. He brought home mostly beef and pork products, and we had plenty. Memorable tastes include liver and onions, beef vegetable soup served on white rice, and usual fare of hamburgers, grilled cheese and meat loaf. It was a staple cuisine that tasted good and provided nourishment.
When I became mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian in 1982, traditions associated with Mom’s cooking went out the window except when we visited her. I started cooking while I was in college and like most beginning home cooks was not very good at it. I recall serving Mother tuna and noodle casserole during the visit she made to my small apartment. I used her recipe, which included canned tuna and condensed mushroom soup. We got through the meal, one of the few during my life where she came to my place for dinner. I liked the dish with its savory richness. Today, I wouldn’t use tuna because of my mostly vegetarianism, but also because of over fishing of the species combined with the use of slave labor to harvest it in waters off Asia.
There is a utopian impulse in American society in which groups of people separate from social traditions and strike out anew. In that sense, a cook has a choice. Should we learn and perpetuate cooking traditions in our kitchen or improvise new meal solutions against a perceived and newly created blank slate? My choice is to make a cuisine from an ecology of food I identified and help create that borrows from everywhere to create new dishes. I may write a cook book to record the journey, but have little interest in creating traditions. A tasty, nutritious meal is enough.
In retirement for 16 months, I’ve found we have become increasingly isolated from society. Even though we rarely use the television set, I now understand the archetypal image of retired man yelling at the TV from a chair. It is harder than imagined to get out of the house for anything other than my part time jobs. The new paradigm has been good for our marriage and provides a natural break for utopian culinary endeavors.
The meal began with weighing out a pound of small potatoes from my barter arrangement with Farmer Kate. When I brought them to the kitchen, I didn’t know what I would do with them.
While looking through the weedy, end of season garden, I found three large Galine eggplants behind the foliage. I picked them and brought them inside.
On the counter was a good supply of garlic and cherry tomatoes. In the ice box was half a Vidalia onion, the last of the fresh garden celery, part of a bell pepper, some leftover black beans, and jars of thick tomato juice.
There was a meal in these ingredients.
After cleaning and trimming the potatoes I put them in a large sauce pan and covered them with tomato juice. My tomato juice is very thick due to a process I developed to use excess tomato water while canning. I brought the mixture to a boil then turned it down to simmer until the potatoes were fork tender.
I cut the eggplant with skin on into large chunks, soaked the pieces in room temperature tap water for 30 minutes, dredged them in flour, then fried them in two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil until browned on all sides.
In the Dutch oven I cooked the onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil on high heat until tender. The only seasoning used was sea salt.
When the potatoes were done, I dumped the whole pan into the Dutch Oven, added the black beans and some cherry tomatoes, then added the eggplant. I scraped the bottom of the frying pan into the Dutch oven with a spatula to get all the flour and oil mixture and thicken the sauce.
I turned the heat to medium low and warmed until everything was evenly heated and the sauce thickened.
In retrospect, I could have added some frozen okra and seasoned it with red or green hot peppers. We keep the spicy dial turned to low in shared meals. It made four servings and was satisfying.
Humans consume only so many vegetables. 20 percent of an estimated 20,000 species of edible plants represent 90 percent of our food. Others may have made dishes similar to this potato eggplant stew. Each ingredient, each technique and each vegetable has its own detailed and unique history. There are a finite number of ways to pull them together into a tasty, nutritious dish. Improvisational cooking need not be unique, just as utopian living works to meet the same human needs as the rest of society. As a seasoned home cook, I no longer have to reinvent things. At the same time, improvising based on available ingredients renews our interest in cuisine.
(Editor’s Note: First of a multi-post series comparing traditional and improvisational cuisines)
I am doing a noggin analysis of how we cook.
I’m trying to wrap my head around the symbiotic relationship between traditional cuisines and improvisational cuisines found in American kitchens like ours. It’s complicated.
Last week, while dropping off a shipment of kale to friends at the city’s public library, I picked up half a dozen community cook books on the used book cart for a small donation. Included was Carolina Cookery, the front page of which asserted, “Dishes tried and true; Dishes old and new.” Published by the Equipment Committee of the Woman’s (sic) Club of Mullins, S.C., the plastic-bound tome lists five women editors, all of them using their presumed husband’s names. This cook book is an example of what I would call “traditional cuisine.”
Based on four-digit telephone numbers in the advertisements, Carolina Cookery was published before World War II. It includes recipes like Mammy’s Pan Cakes, an old Mammy’s recipe submitted by Mrs. Hughes Schoolfield; Hop’n John, requiring one pound hogshead, one pound black-eyed peas and one half pound rice, submitted by Bishop B. Anderson in the section titled “Men in Aprons;” and Sweet Potato Bread from Georgiana, who was Mrs. L.M. Roger’s cook. Mullins was incorporated in 1872 in a tobacco-growing region that today hosts the South Carolina Tobacco Museum.
What I haven’t yet said is the influence of chattel slavery runs throughout the book even if the authors are careful to exclude any but the most indirect mentions of it. Reading it immediately after finishing Michael W. Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South brought that element of the recipes and narrative to the fore. It’s why I picked this South Carolina volume from the two dozen available on the used book cart.
Black cooks working in white households, referenced in Carolina Cookery, is a legacy that continued into my memory. During a visit to Sangamon County, Illinois I dined at a home with such an arrangement. I felt uncomfortable about the vestige of slavery then and today it would be outrageous for a salary man without further means to be able to afford a part-time cook. In the United States, hiring girls and middle-aged women for house work is a common form of lowly paid work. At a young age my grandmother left the farm and worked as a house servant and cook in the Minnesota Twin-Cities. She continued to work for wealthy clients into my teen years. Maybe I should get over it but there was more to the experience than a woman finding work she knew how to do. It is a form of economic white privilege I today find repugnant.
What do I mean by an “improvisational cuisine?”
It’s what I’m doing, and also how many Americans organize their cuisine. For me that means creating a food ecology from which I pull in elements of our kitchen garden, the farms where I work, and area markets to prepare meals based on what’s readily available. Occasionally I purchase items on-line or via snail mail when I want something that’s not available locally. Recently I bought bags of dried Mexican-grown Guajillo chilies and Mexican oregano on-line. It is a never-ending process that produces, as Tamar Adler called it, “an everlasting meal.”
At home, we are lacto-ovo-vegetarian which requires and fosters a constant dialogue about nutrition, cooking, ingredients, flavors and diet. Being vegetarian strips away most traditional dishes. Occasionally we mimic meat dishes with the growing number of manufactured meat substitutes. If we make a pie chart of our diet, those meat substitutes would occupy a tiny slice.
Improvisational cuisine draws from the broader society. For example, Mother was one of the first white women I knew who prepared tacos in her kitchen. When she did, I invited some of my friends to share them. In retrospect, a contributing reason she took up this dish was the introduction of tortillas into our local grocery store before the advent of “Mexican food” sections like one finds at a supermarket today. It was another chance to use many ingredients normally found in her pantry to make something different and special.
I make tacos today, typically for breakfast, and they are more improvisational than Mother’s were, but use some of the same techniques. I buy raw flour tortillas to cook as I need them and make my own with corn Masa. The tortilla is a delivery system for a pan-fried amalgam of fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, and protein topped with salsa or hot sauce, fresh tomatoes in season, and a form of soft cheese. It is a recognizable dish even though the ingredients vary from day to day.
Exploring the symbiosis between traditional and improvisational cuisine is a popular topic when talking to friends and neighbors about cooking. There is more to explore.
It was an experimental change from store-bought to growing my own. I use okra mainly for gumbo and after this gardening season I have plenty sliced and in the freezer.
Okra is easy to grow and the plant produces for a long time. I now understand why so many people, especially those with limited financial resources, use it as a basic vegetable.
It’s not the most popular vegetable in Iowa.
I acquired the seeds at the home, farm and auto supply store in a batch of end of season packets left in a cart in the employee break room. If the seeds hadn’t been free, I would not likely have grown the vegetable. The excess pods produce plenty of seeds for next year. If I grow it again, I’ll plant just a few of them.
The reason I make gumbo at all is from watching cooking shows on public television, then on Food Network. Justin Wilson and Emeril Lagasse were most influential, but neither of them uses okra in the gumbo recipes at the links. Here is the recipe I developed after a number of years of exposure to these chefs.
Paul’s Vegetarian Gumbo
Make a roux with four tablespoons each unsalted butter and all purpose flour. Cook to the blonde stage.
Cook 10 ounces vegetarian sausage, sliced on the bias, separately in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Drain and reserve.
Add one cup each diced celery, onion and bell pepper. Cook until the onions are translucent. Add finely chopped garlic to taste (Use spring garlic when available). Add a thinly sliced hot pepper if you have one from the garden (Serrano and Jalapeno are my favorites).
Add one quart of vegetable broth, one pint of diced tomatoes and one cup sliced okra. Bring it to a boil and turn down the heat.
Season with 1 teaspoon curry powder, ground red pepper, or cayenne. Add prepared hot sauce to taste.
Add one cup chopped fresh parsley plus the sausage and heat thoroughly until the broth thickens.
We survived the madness of Honeycrisp weekend and can settle into some really great fruit like the four varieties of apples in the photo.
The Robinette was complexly flavored and super-delicious. That’s no apple joke.
The last two days of summer bring a lot of work. There are tomatoes to process, apples to pick, and a garden plot to prepare for garlic planting in a couple of weeks. The lawn is ready for grass collection once it dries out from the rain. Today thunderstorms are forecast so my shift at the orchard is doubtful. Outside work at home is also a bit dicey. Once the orchard shift is decided, I’ll plan the rest of the day.
Yesterday I took a quart or so of the small potatoes, cleaned and trimmed them, and put them into the slow cooker. I added carrots, onions, celery, some vegetable broth and a generous quart of tomato water to cover. By the time I returned from my shift at the orchard, it was ready to eat and so good. There are leftovers, including plenty of broth with which to start another batch of something.
I’ve been taste-testing Red Delicious apples for almost a month. The starchiness has passed and they are turning sweet. Not ready, yet close enough to start talking about containers in which to put the 350 pounds to be donated to a CSA. After that I have plenty of takers for what I don’t use in our kitchen. I plan two gallons of apple cider vinegar, a couple of gallon bags of dried apples for snacks, and a dessert for the county political party barbecue coming up next month. Will store as many as will fit in the ice box for later fresh eating. This variety is staying on the tree well, so there should be plenty.
Politics is taking more of my time. Yesterday I did a walk-through with the Solon School District to see if a facility would work for the February precinct caucus. It will. On Thursday I attended a town hall meeting with Elizabeth Warren in the county seat. The report was she stayed until 11 p.m. to meet everyone who wanted to meet her individually. Yesterday I introduced our newest Warren organizer to our local coffee shop and provided a couple of upcoming events to get on her radar. While I work on weekends until the end of apple season, the 2020 election is already ramping up.
We make a choice in life: engage in what’s good in society and work to make it better, or withdraw into our own family and lock the door against intrusions. When we enter the main season, it’s less of a choice. If we don’t work to make our lives better, there’s no one else who will.
I had planned gumbo for a few weeks. Yesterday was the day.
Gumbo is a natural dish for our kitchen in late summer. There are plenty of onions, celery stalks, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic and okra available from the garden. It is an easy dish to prepare after learning how to make a roux. Ingredient availability was not the issue.
I bought veggie sausages from the local food coop, harvested enough tender okra pods, and opened the hand-written recipe book to the page. I was ready.
I couldn’t, then sliced the okra, put it in a zip-top bag and tucked it in the freezer along with too many other bags of okra already there.
Not sure why I couldn’t, I recalled T.S. Eliot who put it thusly in “The Hollow Men:”
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
During a month of reminders about end of life, my retort, “it’s not that damn long.”
My work cycle begins again this afternoon with a shift at the orchard for family night. After taking off work there, and at the home, farm and auto supply store, for a week, I’m ready to be among co-workers and guests again.
One hopes I will make gumbo before the end of summer vegetables. Maybe not yesterday, but it’s the best time of year for it. It would be a shame to waste our brief time among the living without it.