The Instant Pot: Our New Doorstop

A few weeks ago there was this kind of perfect storm in re: the Instant Pot, which is, as you all know, the latest must-have stupid kitchen gadget.

Ok, maybe for many of you it’s a kitchen necessity. I get it. But in our case: we HAVE pots, we HAVE a stove, we HAVE an oven, I’m not afraid to use any of these things, and I have the time in which to use them to great effect. We don’t freaking need an Instant Pot.

But, we kept reading articles about them. My husband — an Instant Pot skeptic by nature — read an article about them in the Wall Street Journal and asked me why we didn’t have one. I sighed. We have, historically, been fairly united on what our kitchen needed and what it didn’t. I accepted that he was correct regarding the Kitchen Aid and the Cuisinart. He admits that the bread machine was a mistake. Do we really need an Instant Pot?

No, we don’t. But then that fateful day arrived when I had an Amazon gift card sitting around and Amazon had an Instant Pot on sale and the long and the short of it was that I could acquire an Instant Pot for a pretty minimal personal cash outlay — about $40. This was a small enough amount of money that I decided I was willing to take the gamble. The Instant Pot arrived, and I was astonished by the size of it. I knew it would be big — I got an 8 quart pot — but Jesus, this thing is ludicrously huge. Dauntingly so. And it has so many buttons. “What the fuck have I gotten into?” I asked myself as I unpacked it. I pulled the pot and its accessories from the packaging, and then settled the packaging back into its shipping box. Roger the cat immediately leapt up onto the box and claimed it as his New Place. “Okay then,” I thought, “I guess we’ll be keeping the Instant Pot.”

It took me ten minutes to figure out how to reconfigure every single item in my one big kitchen cabinet to store this thing. That’s not so bad. My husband was impressed. But the question remained: What would we cook in it? I had no idea. I was, to be quite honest, rather intimidated by the idea of actually plugging the thing in and turning it on. It wasn’t that I was afraid of exploding food — I am given to understand that this cannot happen with an Instant Pot. It’s more than I am terrified of putting expensive ingredients into it, turning it on, and then cooking everything only to discover that I’ve got slop that no one wants to eat.

We had the Instant Pot in the house for a week before anyone plugged it in. I’ll come clean: it was my husband who used it first. I was content to look at Roger the cat curling up on the top of the Instant Pot Shipping Box, next to the kitchen table. That was totally worth $40 and an Amazon gift card. “Let’s fire this sucker up,” my husband said. “Let’s make baked beans.”

He made baked beans.

They were ok. I mean, they were acceptable; they were cooked correctly; but I don’t think any of us were entirely satisfied with how he’d seasoned them, so the baked beans, while technically correct, couldn’t really be construed as a culinary success. Still, it was clear that this device had potential in our household.

I made barbecued chicken in it on hot summer evening. This is the kind of dish I like to make in the oven, and which, done properly, takes several hours of low heat: just the kind of thing an Instant Pot should be good for. The chicken came out quite well, and we were all pleased. “It would be good if I understood how to do the rice in this thing at the same time as the chicken,” I said. “Apparently you can cook a pot of rice in here, separate from the entree, at the same time, I just don’t understand the logistics of it.” “Don’t push it yet,” my husband advised. “Let’s get the hang of using it for simple things first.”

I made Cincinnati chili in it. That went swimmingly. And this past week, I made my Bolognese sauce in it, and it was almost, almost, as good as the transcendent, majestic kind I make in the Dutch oven. However, transcendent Bolognese takes four to five hours to cook in the oven. This sauce took about 30 minutes to assemble and cook (this includes the prep and sauté process for the aromatics; the actual full-sauce-all-ingredients cooking time was fifteen minutes).

With autumn cooking and then winter cooking coming up, it’s pretty easy to see that there will be times when this huge object is quite useful indeed. It will loosen up my cooking schedule in some ways; I think it’ll allow me to get away with a certain kind of sloppiness.

There’s one thing about the IP that has been nagging at me, and I think I’ve figured out how to get around it. The problem is this: because it’s a closed system (the lid clicks on super-tight, for obvious reasons — I mean, it’s a pressure cooker, the lid had better fucking be on tight!), it’s not immediately obvious how you’re supposed to cook a liquid down. For example:  When I make bolognese, or Cincinnati chili, I add the amount of liquid necessary, but if I feel the “finished” product is actually too liquid, too runny, I’m in the habit of continuing the simmering with the lid ajar, so as to allow for evaporation. Any idiot would do this, it’s not rocket science. But, I was thinking, How the hell do you achieve this end with an Instant Pot? It tells you in no uncertain terms that you’ve got to keep the lid on during slow cooking and pressure cooking.

The answer, it now comes to me, is to revert to the sauté function on the pot once all the formal cooking is done. If you treat the sauté button as a “simmer with the lid ajar” button, and maybe jerry-rig a lid or just keep a close eye on things, you could let the sauce or stew or whathaveyou cook off the extra liquid without hurting anything.

Perhaps someone who read manuals more carefully would already have gleaned this because the manual tells us about this. To be honest, I have no idea. I put the manual on the shelf in the kitchen where I keep manuals and haven’t looked at it since. However, it matters not: having made the cognitive leap, I know I can put this plan into action and achieve the correct consistency for my next Bolognese or Cincinnati chili. Both of which I expect to be making in the coming weeks.

My take on the Instant Pot right now is that with our current lifestyle, it was a bit of a splurge and the space investment is not trivial, and occasionally frustrating. However: if I were someone who worked very long hours outside the house, or — this is key — if I were someone who lived in an apartment with a really crappy oven, or no oven at all — the Instant Pot would be a really marvelous thing to have. My husband and I have envisioned a life, already, in which we had no big kitchen, and kept only two appliances for cooking food: the rice cooker and the Instant Pot. And, seriously, if we could figure out how to cook the entree and the rice in the IP at the same time, we wouldn’t need the rice cooker. We’re clearly envisioning a living situation not unlike a dorm room — but, a dorm room that has a decent countertop, a full-size refrigerator and freezer, and a good kitchen sink.

Except: can I cook pasta in an Instant Pot?

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One Pot. One Bowl. One Hot Summer Evening. Cold Spicy Peanut Noodles with Chicken.

We are in the home stretch of Summer 2017. I had a short phase when there was this thing called Summer Camp and I would, daily, trot my daughter to her summer program, go away to lead a productive life, and then pick her up at three p.m. and continue on with my hands-on mothering. It was a short phase, a kind of golden era in which I did little that your MBA types would value, but I did contribute to the local economy and the house was fairly tidy.

Those days are gone. The house is a fucking disaster area. I feel unable to take it on. It is more or less all I can do, having gotten my daughter to 5 p.m. alive and in one piece, to make dinner, serve it, and make sure that we’re ready for the next day and whatever it may bring. (It needs to bring coffee by 6.30 a.m., that’s for damned sure; so the coffee has to be set up as soon as we’ve wiped down the kitchen counter. Otherwise, we wake up in the morning and the day is shit shit shit. But I digress.)

Yesterday I spent mostly in back-burner panic mode because I knew I’d have to make dinner and I really didn’t know what I could do, I just knew I didn’t want to spend a lot of money buying groceries to create it. Fuck it: I didn’t want to spend any money at all, but I knew I had to, because I’d already done some vegetarian dinners this week and it was clear that my husband would start to get cranky if I didn’t feed him a dead animal.

So we went to the grocery store and I bought two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a bunch of scallions.

I had, suddenly, a plan. I was going to make cold spicy peanut noodles with chicken. And I was going to do it in such a way that the cleanup would be minimal, because, goddamnit, I was not going to spend my evening washing dishes.

On getting back into the house I took out my stockpot and put about two quarts of water into it. I brought it to a boil and then put the chicken breasts in, then turned down the heat to a bare simmer. I added some soy sauce and a piece of star anise. And then I poached the chicken, cooking it for about twenty minutes. (I had thought it would take less time than that, but when I cut into it around 15 minutes, it was still raw in the middle. At twenty minutes or so, it was done.) I removed the chicken from the pot, put it into a bowl, and put the bowl into the fridge. I then removed the star anise from the pot (slotted spoons are our friends), brought the water and soy sauce back to a hard boil, and cooked a 12 oz. box of whole wheat thin spaghetti in the pot.

While the spaghetti cooked, I whomped up a bowlful of peanut sauce. This is the kind of thing I put together all the time to make “Asian” dishes and it’s never the same thing twice but no one cares ’cause it’s always good no matter what I do. In a mixing bowl I whip together peanut butter, soy sauce, and spices. Thinned with water if needed (it’s not so needed if you’re using this as a dip, but as a sauce for noodles, it definitely needs thinning), this is crazy versatile and you throw it together so fast it’s nearly painless. Last night, I used 1 cup of Skippy peanut butter, 1/2 cup soy sauce,  1 tsp. granulated garlic (because I really didn’t have it in me to peel fresh garlic, which should give you a sense of how fried I felt), 1 tsp. Sriracha, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, almost two tablespoons granulated sugar, a tablespoon of toasted sesame oil, and about a teaspoon of chili powder. This made a very thick paste, which I thinned with water from the noodle pot — it probably took about a cup of water to get this to the correct consistency.

I drained the noodles in a colander, ran them under cold water for a moment, returned the noodles to the pot. Then I spooned on about half of the sauce and tossed the noodles around. When they were nicely coated and didn’t seem in danger of sticking to themselves I put the pot in the fridge.

Taking the chicken from the fridge, I began to work on setting it up for the peanut sauce. I sliced one of the breasts lengthwise and then cut each section into thin slices, which were roughly bite-sized — small enough that my daughter wouldn’t need to fight with any of them to get them into her mouth. (The other chicken breast, I didn’t use; it is waiting to be turned into something else for dinner tonight.) I threw the bits of chicken into the bowl of peanut sauce. I washed the scallions and minced about five of them finely and added that to the bowl. Then I diced about half of a big beefsteak tomato and threw that into the peanut sauce bowl, too. The juice from the tomatoes helped thin the last half of the peanut sauce — I did splash in a little water, but only a tablespoon or two — and then I mixed that all up and set it in the fridge.

When it was time to serve the evening meal, I took the pot and the bowl from the fridge. Every plate — pasta bowl, actually — got a heap of noodles and then a scoop or two of chicken and veggie peanut sludge draped on top of it. It was quite satisfying. As we ate, I said to my husband, “I meant to slice up a hard boiled egg to put on this of this,” but according to my husband, it didn’t need further gussying up. Similarly, one could have scattered peanuts on top, or sesame seeds, or some minced red onion, or any number of things. Just to make things look fancier. But none of them were really needed.

The greatest part about all of this was that when dinner was over, there was only one pot to wash. By cooking the chicken and the noodles in the same pot, sequentially, and using the same cooking water, I’d made the most of both the pot and the cooking liquid. The bowl I’d mixed the sauce in? Two seconds to clean up. The stock pot? Ten seconds.

Compare this to the usual deal: one pot I’d used to cook rice or noodles in — ok, that’s fast clean up, I admit — plus, the bad part, one pot that had everything else in it. Sometimes two pots. If you’ve been sautéing things, if you’ve been braising things, the pot can get pretty dirty. I’m not really complaining: I’m good at scrubbing pots and I can usually handle dirty pots without too much agony. But there are times when two pots is two pots too many. Nights like that, it’s good to go with sandwiches, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. This peanut noodle dish, regardless of how inauthentic or sloppy it is, wins. One pot. One bowl. Dinner for three. And, bonus, a headstart (with that second chicken breast) on the next night’s meal. I win.

A Sad Story about a Silk Shirtdress, with a Happy Ending

Saturday was a busy day. My family had to attend two separate parties. One was an event  essentially for adults, involving elegant tidbits — smoked salmon, champagne, and cake; three children were present, my daughter among them, all beautifully behaved. And then from this, my husband swept up my daughter and whisked her off to a little friend’s birthday party back in our neighborhood. When he and I picked her up at eight in the evening, she was seated happily on a bench swing in the birthday girl’s backyard. She was with two friends, they were talking quietly and happily, dragging their bare feet in the grass as they swung lazily; the party was over, and everyone was tired.  Goody bags distributed, the three of us wished the birthday girl a happy birthday one last time, and walked home talking about what a fine, full day it had been, with friends and food and cake and all kinds of wonderful things.

There were numerous bug bites involved, for me and for my daughter, as the result of all this party activity, and so on arriving back home there was much application of witch hazel and Aveeno anti-itch cream. (The Aveeno expired two years ago, but whatever.) I helped my daughter get out of her fancy dress, which is actually a size small woman’s silk shirt (trust me, it looks darling and elegant on her), and it was when I was unbuttoning it that I noticed the grease stains on the front. “Is this grease?” I asked. “Do you know what this is from?”

“I dunno,” my daughter said, frowning at her shirt.

“You had pizza, right? Pepperoni pizza? At the birthday party?” We all made some quick calculations and decided that though there was no proof, the odds were good at the numerous grease stains were pepperoni stains. It sure wasn’t champagne. And we know for a fact that our daughter is a total chazzer when it comes to pepperoni pizza.

So I laid the shirt on the kitchen counter and dumped about half a cup of cornstarch on it. I know that’s a lot of cornstarch, but hey: there was a lot of grease. “We’ll leave this to sit overnight and tomorrow I’ll wash it and we’ll see what we can do,” I said.

The next morning I came downstairs to find the shirt on the kitchen counter, lots of cornstarch on it, as expected. As not expected (but only because I just hadn’t thought it through), I also found a sweet little path of fucking disgusting white kitty paw prints. They were visible on the shirt (also visible on the shirt: a few little bits where Jackknife had evidently licked the cornstarch just to see whether or not it was poultry, beef, or fish, which it was not). The pawprints led from the shirt across the strip of dark grey counter in front of our double sink, across the counter around the jar of cornstarch (which, yes, I should have put away last night: sue me.) The pawprints meandered around my daughter’s very cool projects she made at summer camp (various do-nothing machines, some powered by batteries, some with water, some with magnets), back through the various do-nothing machines again, and then, my husband pointed out to me, there was one last pawprint — very faint — on the front of the one of the cabinet doors under the sink. “That’s where he finally decided to jump down, and he braced himself on the door for a quick second before landing,” said my husband.
“There’s no cornstarch visible on the floor,” I said. We all agreed that it was doubtless present, just in such fine form that it was invisible to the naked eye. I sighed heavily, surveying all the pawprints.
“I think the cat sneezed over here, too,” my husband said. “You can see on the shirt where the cornstarch is sort of sprayed around. He was sniffing the shirt and it made him sneeze and it blew the powder around.”

I wadded up the shirt and put it in the bathroom sink. I cleared all the do-nothing machines from the counter (along with all the other miscellaneous crap that’s accumulated there — crap accumulates like nobody’s business when it comes to kitchen counters). Then I took a dishcloth and some Dawn and I scrubbed down the entire kitchen counter. I rinsed it, and then I sprayed it with rubbing alcohol and wiped it down again. Finally satisfied that the counter was restored to a proper level of cleanliness, I took the shirt from the bathroom sink, brought it back to the kitchen sink, and began to wash it.

I suppose I could have tried to be more gentle with this shirt dress. It is, after all, a high-quality, delicate, silk article. However, I bought it secondhand for about three dollars, and life is short. So I got it sopping wet, squirted Dawn detergent on it, and started washing it. I washed and rinsed it three times. I wasn’t able to discern whether or not I’d gotten the grease stain out — the thing about wet shiny mauve silk is, you can’t really see schmutz on it, when it’s wet, because the fabric gets so dark, it’s just — it just looks like wet silk. I decided to take it on faith that whatever schmutz I was capable of removing, I had removed, so I gave up. I then wondered how to wring the water out of it without wringing it — I was worried about accidentally shredding the thin fabric — and immediately thought, “I’m in the kitchen: obviously, I will use the salad spinner!”

Five minutes later, I’d spun the shirt in the salad spinner several times, pouring out several tablespoons’ worth of water. It was sufficiently effective that I found myself muttering, “I bet people do this all the time and I’m only now figuring it out. I bet there are websites that talk about hand-washing your undies and spin-drying them in the salad spinner.” I turn out to be absolutely correct. You can do Google searches for the basic concept using a number of different phrases — “hand wash salad spinner” “laundry in salad spinner” “silk clothes in salad spinner” are good starts — and you get lots of hits. It’s clear I was way behind the curve on this one, probably because Peg Bracken never had a salad spinner.

The silk shirtdress dried on the balcony in the sun, and when I went to take it in at the end of the day, I inspected it carefully. All the grease had washed out, and the article had dried so beautifully it won’t need any ironing. Victory is mine. God bless the salad spinner: works wonders on greens, herbs, and your delicates and umentionables. (Of course, if my husband catches wind that I’ve been spinning my unmentionables in the salad spinner, he may have apolexy, so I might stick to the dryer for those. Officially.)

The Cricket on Livingston Street

Unfortunately for me I have a track record of being shat on by animals. The first time I can remember was in 1987, when I was walking down Chapel Street in downtown New Haven wearing a jacket that had belonged to my father. It was the jacket from the first suit he bought after graduating from college; the story was he had purchased it to go to his first job interview. It was a dark grey pinstriped suit. The pants were long gone but the jacket had become mine and it was, absolutely, my favorite article of clothing. I wore it every day for years. There I was, ho de do, walking down Chapel Street, and a pigeon shat on the shoulder of the jacket. I was in front of 1142 Chapel Street when it happened. It was a huge blob of white and yellow bird crap, and I remember I said, “OH FUCK” and spent a long time, when I got home, meticulously cleaning it off the delicate wool of the jacket. I tried to tell myself that being shat on by a bird is good luck, but who the hell knew. (I got the jacket clean enough that I would wear it for many, many more years after that. I no longer wear it, but I still have it.)

That was the first dramatic crapped-on-by-some-random-animal moment. There was also the time I was sitting on the deck at my father in law’s house, minding my own business, reading, and a flock of geese flew overhead. I looked up at the herd of squawking geese, saying, “Hey! Geese!” and at least one of  them shat on my back. My husband and child found this uproariously funny. I, not so much. “You never look up when geese are flying overhead,” my husband gasped through his laughter. “Fuck you,” I said angrily, tugging at my shirt carefully, trying to get it off of me without getting goose shit in my hair.

I have yet to be crapped on by a dog or a cat. I cannot even recall that my infant daughter crapped on me. Maybe she knew it just would not do; I don’t know. She certainly never minded spitting up on me, and the first time she puked, at about 18 months, I will never forget: she threw up all down the front of the pretty dress I had put on to go out to dinner on a rare date night with my husband. But wild animals seem to see me and think, “Ah, THERE’s the toilet.”

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was walking down Livingston Street with my daughter — I was taking her to summer camp — and a cricket pooped on me.

“Look! A cricket!” I said to my daughter, pointing to my shirt, where this cricket had just landed on my shoulder.

“Aw! Cricket!” she said admiringly. My daughter is a serious, huge friend of bugs. She is a magnet for praying mantises and likes to bring them home for me to make little houses for them. I could tell she was already thinking, “Can we take him home?”

“Look!” she said. “It pooped on you!” She laughed happily.

“Aw, crap,” I said, realizing she was right. My pristine white poplin button down shirt had a tiny dot of green cricket crap on it. The cricket hopped off me and went to find something more interesting to do. “Great,” I said, peering down at my shoulder. The little green dot of crap would be barely noticeable to anyone, but my knowing it was there made the shirt unwearable.

“Guess you’ll be doing laundry when you get home,” my daughter said knowingly.

I sighed. “I was going to do laundry anyway,” I said. “It’s no big deal.” It’s summer. There’s always laundry to do. 

So here I am, back at home, doing laundry. To be honest, it is so beastly outside, I’d rather be at home doing laundry than outside doing anything at all, unless being outside means sitting in a screened-in cafe patio drinking an iced coffee. But it’s pretty good right here: I’ve got iced coffee right here at home. And my iced coffee at home is better than any cafe’s iced coffee, because I have coffee ice cubes. And air conditioning. God bless clean laundry, air conditioning, and coffee ice cubes.

 

One Picnic: An Example

Because it is summer and because my life involves a lot of summertime picnics, and because I recently wrote a long piece about how to assemble a decent picnic without becoming suicidal, I wanted to share with my readers how I pulled off an excellent picnic yesterday. It was going to be a hot day and my daughter and I had decided that the agenda for the day would revolve around going swimming. We packed up our swim stuff into one tote bag, and into a smaller insulated bag, I told her, we would put our picnic lunch.

I opened the fridge. From the fridge, I pulled:

One tub of leftover spaghetti sauced with tuna, white beans, parsley, and garlic; one tinfoiled package with three leftover stuffed clams in it; one plastic tub of sliced pineapple.

I cut the pineapple into smaller chunks, transferred them into an insulated travel mug, put ice cubes on top of the pineapple, and closed the mug.

Into a Ziploc bag I put two forks, two napkins, and a little package of toothpicks.

I put an ice pack into the insulated bag, the pasta and the clams on top of the ice pak, the ziplock bag with the forks and napkins and toothpicks on top of that. Closed the insulated bag. The coffee cup of pineapple I just slid into the tote bag.

I grabbed our books, my phone, and my keys, and off we went. We got to the pool and headed first to the picnic area, where my daughter immediately spread out the tablecloth. Within three minutes we were sitting there eating and chatting happily. When we were thirsty, we drank from the cup of pineapple chunks. The ice lasted until long after we got home — we ate the pineapple, drank the juice, and refilled the cup with water several times over the course of the afternoon. Always had something cold to drink. Packing up took us about ninety seconds.

We got home and unpacking took about 90 seconds.

And then it was time to start making dinner.

My friend needs picnic help. I am going to try to provide encouragement. I may fail, but no one will say I didn’t try.

A number of my associates — and I myself, I have to admit, I am not exempt from this bourgeois shit — spend time in the summer at a local pool club which has what we might call a certain rustic charm. It’s bourgeois, to be sure, but as pool clubs go, it is rather… unintimidating. It’s not a place with a fancy restaurant attached to it where you call a staffer over and they bring you an iced tea and maybe a turkey club sandwich with extra mayo. It’s the kind of place where there’s a Coleman cooler of ice water over near the gate and a stack of paper cones to drink out of.  There is a snack shack, and that means you can spend five bucks on a cheeseburger if you want to. You can also buy what are politely called “ice cream novelties.” If  you want to.

As a rule, I don’t want to.

This has meant that I’ve developed a keen sense of what can be toted to the pool to have for picnic lunches and/or dinners. It’s not merely that I’m stingy, though I am; it’s that if I’m going to spend money on stuff like this, I want it to be genuinely good. And I mean no disrespect to the snack shack really: it’s not like they’ve got a real kitchen to work with. It’s a tough gig. But I’d just as soon bring my own food. Okay?

Admittedly: Not all of my friends share this keen sense. What’s more, many of my friends are, in addition to trying to feed themselves and their families, under what we’ll call gently trying circumstances (because you’ve got to schlep your food, and probably have it already cooked — not everyone wants to grill, believe it or not), facing the basic challenge of parenthood, which is: what the fuck to feed the children, whose palates are not exactly ranked with Jacques Pepin’s. Because man cannot live on SpongeBob SquarePants pops. Believe it or not.

So there’s the “nutritious” dining issue, and the “not hideously expensive” dining issue, combined with the “bring a picnic” issue. It’s rather daunting. Then to really up the ante, one of my friends confessed to me recently that she is extremely averse, herself, to the idea of eating sandwiches for dinner. She is not a fan of sandwiches for dinner. Personally I don’t know how that’s possible, but we’ll let that go and just accept the premise: No Sandwiches For Dinner.

So what can one serve at a picnic, for dinner, that isn’t sandwiches and doesn’t require cooking on-site on the grill? Whether or not they appeal to one’s children is another matter entirely, and one I will address shortly.

There are a thousand great things you can eat at a picnic. They taste especially great if you’ve been out in the sun and swimming and stuff like that for a few hours: your appetite is huge. There is a catch, though: they require you to have put effort into the matter before you left the house. It may take you as long as an hour to set up the picnic at home — and I realize most people don’t want to do that. However, the benefits are tangible once you’re sitting down at your picnic table.

OK, you do hypothetically have other options. You could go to the nice place near your apartment that sells takeout, and buy takeout. You could buy a pound of healthful, delicious grilled vegetables and maybe some seaweed salad and a bag of horseradish potato chips. That’s your prerogative. They’ll even give you little plastic forks and napkins and stuff. Cram the takeout containers into your tote bags, remember to bring a drink, you’re good.

But what if you don’t want to pay $10.99/lb for pasta salad and fruit salad and seaweed salad and grilled veggies, and you’re not willing to slap some PB&J on bread and call it dinner? Then you’re going to have to face an ugly truth, which is this: A good homemade picnic requires some effort.

In July of 2008, the New York Times did a big, multi-page spread, by Mark Bittman, listing things you could bring on a picnic.  It’s a pretty good list, generally speaking. I actually tore the pages out of the paper and folded them up and shoved them into one of my Bittman cookbooks, for quick reference. I’ve got it around here someplace.

The thing about the Bittman List is, a lot of it is stuff you’d be eating were you making dinner at home anyhow — at least, this is true in my household. Panzanella is a standard summertime evening meal for us, because it uses up stale bread, tomatoes are at their best in the summer, and it’s easy to make. Bittman doesn’t like calling things pasta salads, but I don’t share this phobia, and so I’m willing to accept that there are a ton of sauced pasta dishes that are just as good room temperature or cold as they are hot, and I’m happy to eat them as pasta salads. (In other words, remember that pasta salad doesn’t have to be sad gloppy stuff, it can be happy, non-gloppy stuff; and it can even be happy and gloppy, if you’ve made a sauce that has, say, excellent ricotta whipped into the dressing.) (Be sure to take care with keeping these kinds of things cool — you do not want to give yourself food poisoning. In other words, pasta with tuna packed in olive oil, red onion, garlic, parsley, and white beans is one of the best things in the world to eat on a hot summer evening — but it won’t seem like such a great idea if your tub of this has been sitting around in the hot sun for five hours before you eat it and hence has turned into a festering tub of I don’t know what. You have to pack your picnic with a serious attention to the biohazard detail. So maybe skip the tuna and the white beans. But feel free to go for olives, capers, red onion, garlic, and parsley: these are things that can take a bit of a beating.)

Rice salads are also great for picnics. The same theories behind pasta salads hold for rice salads. However, cooking rice for rice salads is a little different from cooking rice to serve alongside a hot dish. If you’re planning a rice salad, cook the rice as you would pasta: fill a stock pot with water, bring to boil, and cook the rice in the boiling water for about 11 minutes. Drain through a colander and then — this is important — dump the rice out on a cooky sheet and let it cool for about 20 minutes before you dress it. Rice salad can be set up a thousand ways. Dice up any leftover vegetables you have on hand (the six cherry tomatoes in a bowl, the half a can of olives in the back of the fridge, the last four tablespoons of salsa in the jar, a stalk of celery, the leftover steamed broccoli), toss with oil and vinegar. This is rice salad. It can be made heftier if you add some protein (leftover diced chicken, beef, or whatever). It’s often nice to toss with some grated Parmesan or whatever hard cheese you like. All of this is a matter of taste. If you like parsley add parsley; if you don’t, don’t. My child believes no salad is really correct without capers. So I add capers.

I like to have a picnic involve more than one thing. I will raid the fridge to see what I can come up with. Things I wouldn’t do normally, like slice up some celery sticks to munch on, plain, I will do in the name of a good picnic. Prep the celery and pack it in a plastic bag with a wet paper towel (this rule also holds for carrot sticks). The last time I assembled a picnic, I was rummaging through the fridge and found a jar of pickled okra in the back — so I took a little Rubbermaid tub and filled it with okra, some black olives, some green olives, and cherry tomatoes. It made a nice little side dish, gave the meal a little variety.

My patron saint, Laurie Colwin, wrote an essay on picnics (in More Home Cooking) that made me realize that even I could deal with a picnic, it was just that I’d been thinking about them all wrong. And that dealing with a picnic didn’t have to mean special picnic-specific food; it meant adapting what I’d normally eat into a portable format. This is the key. What is it you normally eat? Figure out a way to carry that to your picnic spot. If the specific dish is not going to be portable in a reasonable way, figure out a variant form of it. Be willing to strike some compromises. Be willing to have things be a little off-kilter.

Your picnic can be bread, cheese — a cheese you want to be a little soft, like brie, can be perfect picnic food — some pickles, and fruit. This would involve buying a loaf of bread you like, buying cheese you like, snagging a jar of cornichons, and getting a bag of grapes or whatever looks good at the store. Your picnic can be a Fakes Elotes Salad (one of my own summer favorites) and a bag of potato chips and a pile of celery stalks. Your picnic can be a watermelon and feta salad, some slices of chicken breast slathered with fig jam on a baguette, and a little dish of olives. Your picnic can be cold leftover ears of corn on the cob, a bowl of cherry tomatoes with a thick salad dressing to dip them in, or maybe some pimiento cheese, and an avocado smashed onto slices of bread. Your picnic can be green pea salad and a few slices of ciabatta smeared with jam and layered with a sharp cheese. (It’s good, if you get the jam and cheese flavors right.) For God’s sake: leftover pizza, cold cooked veggies with a salad dressing to dip them in, and a cold drink — that’s a picnic! Don’t worry about dessert if you don’t want to. Buy some Oreo cookies for dessert, or break down and buy an ice cream sandwich at the snack shack. Whatever. I’m telling you: this doesn’t have to be hard. It just requires some forethought.

“But I’m no good at the forethought,” I can hear my friend wailing. But here’s the thing: I know she’s wrong. She is good at the forethought. She just doesn’t want to apply the forethought to food she herself will eat. To which my reply is: Why should you, my friend, have to suffer through a mediocre meal just because you’re not at home, but are, instead, three miles away from home at a club that has picnic tables and coolers of water waiting for you? You are worth the effort. A good picnic dinner is worth the effort. If you didn’t think so, you’d be picking up a burger at the Dairy Queen on your way home and calling it a night.

As for What Will The Children Eat: my solution to that is, when you’re cooking for the children at home, cook extra — a lot extra — and pack it into bags or tubs for the kids to eat later. If they’ll eat roasted sweet potatoes and steamed broccoli, then make two extra sweet potatoes and cook another head of broccoli to tote for lunch the next day. If the only protein they will eat is Swiss cheese, buy extra Swiss cheese and cut it up, wrap it up in wax paper or whatever, and put it in the cooler. Only you, the parent, know how to cater to your little one, so I leave that to you. It’s merely a matter of having extra on hand. If, on the other hand, the kid is a not-picky eater, then they’ll just join in with whatever you’re having, and life is a bowl of cherries. (Cherries are, by the way, excellent picnic food; pack them into a bag or a bowl with ice cubes, because sun-heated cherries make for a sad dining experience.)

The grownup picnic should be a genuinely enjoyable meal. I mean, despite the bugs, despite the sunburn, despite the fact that you feel a distinct need to wash your hair because the chlorine is eating at your scalp. A picnic meal shouldn’t mean lowering your standards; it just means altering your system. And if you’re the kind of parent who’s been dutifully lugging water bottles and the right kind of crackers for the last six years, to keep your child cool, calm, and collected, I know you can do it.

The last good thing about a picnic is this: if you’ve done it right, you will find that you come home with far less stuff than you came with. The paper plates go in the trash. Yes, you’ll have some Rubbermaid tubs to wash, some cutlery, things like that — but the bag that seemed so heavy as you left the house will weigh a fraction of what it weighed when you walked out the door. You can empty out the cooler and the tote bags as the kids go clean themselves up and put on pajamas and brush their teeth. And you can fall into bed feeling like you ate a good meal and that you’ve earned your exhaustion honestly.

Then the next day, you get to do it all again! Ain’t summertime grand?

My Daughter is Unimpressed with the Barefoot Contessa.

I have a dear friend who used to work with me in a bookstore; our shared passion for eating and for reading cookbooks brought us together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly via Facebook of course, and a few times recently she’s posted things about Ina Garten.

I have a very vivid memory of the first time I heard about Ina Garten, though no one used her name in that conversation. I was working in a shop that sold mostly rare and out of print books, and so I had become pretty well-versed in that kind of thing. One of our specialties was cookbooks. As such, I was thrown, and upset that I was thrown, when someone came in asking for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “The what?” I asked. “There’s a cookbook to do with The Barefoot Contessa?” How had I, a bit of a film buff and a cookbook person, never known that there was such a thing? It took a while before I realized that the person was looking for a cookbook that had nothing whatsoever to do with either Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner. Which was a pity: I would buy that book, I said to the would-be customer. The would-be customer had no idea what I was talking about. (Clearly, we were not going to be soulmates.) Furthermore, it turned out this was a new book the person was looking for: by definition, something I wouldn’t be obligated to have in the shop. I dismissed the whole thing pretty much out of hand: anyone who came into our shop looking for a brand new book was basically written off as an idiot. I was especially disgusted once I realized what the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook really was.

The way I felt about it: Not My Scene. Cookbooks with Pretty Pictures: Not My Scene. Cookbooks Written by the Rich Wives of Rich Yale Professors: Not My Scene.

So I stopped thinking about it.

Of course, in the decades since the 1990s, Ina Garten has sort of taken over the food world, or, at least, she’s one of the people who dominates it. People I like are obsessed with her. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (one of my favorite TV characters in recent memory) is obsessed with her. In the back of my mind, for a while now, I’ve been thinking, “I guess I should read one of these books.”

So today, the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I are at the public library and there’s a copy of Cooking for Jeffrey (the aforementioned Yale professor, Jeffrey Garten). “Oh, what the hell,” I said to myself, adding it to my pile.

I checked out the book. The lady at the circulation desk, Krista, I think is her name, said, “I think you’ll find this not too interesting. Stuff you either already do or stuff you already COULD do, if you wanted to, which you don’t, if you’re not doing it already. But the pictures are pretty.” “I don’t like cookbooks for their pictures,” I said. “I know,” she said. “But,” I added, “I’ve never read Ina Garten and here it is, so, I’m taking it home.” “Good luck,” Krista said. And we were on our way.

While my daughter and I ate lunch, I flipped through the book. There is not much to it. It’s $35, not cheap, and has alarmingly few recipes, but the photos are indeed gorgeous. They must be the reason this book costs $35, because there is really, seriously, not a lot of actual content here. My daughter ate her sandwich (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with pickle relish and mayonnaise) and I ate mine (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with mayo and sliced fresh figs), and we contemplated the book.

I said nothing as I turned the pages, at first, and then I sighed. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “But, I mean, who lives like this? Look at these pictures!”

“Maybe that’s how people feel about the Hausfrau,” my daughter said to me. I gave her a look and thought, “ouch.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said, eating more of my sandwich. It was then that I landed at Ina’s lentil and kielbasa salad, which is, I swear to god, nothing but a highflalutin’ variant of the lentil and chicken salads I’ve been serving my family for the last few days (with great success). Last night I made one, in fact, and I served it on a bed of pea shoots, with semolina bread and brie on the side. Now I want to kill myself for having done something so foofy. (Though it was a really good dinner, especially for a hot summer night.)

A few pages later I landed on a recipe that’s, again, basically something I make all winter long: roast chicken with radishes. “Jesus Christ,” I said, staring at the page. And the next recipe was a brisket. “That looks just like when you make brisket,” my daughter pointed out.

I was, by this point, polishing off my sandwich, and sagging slightly in my chair.

I kept flipping pages.

“I didn’t know that’s how you spell “couscous”, ” my daughter told me. “I thought it was “kooskoos” — with a K.”

“No, that’s how you spell it,” I told her. “Look, kasha varnishes. I used to make those, but I never do anymore. Why do I never make them, they’re good.”

Kept turning pages.

“How come you don’t have a cookbook like this?” my daughter asked me. “Your food looks like this. You’re probably even a better cook than that lady.” I laughed. “I don’t think I’m a better cook than Ina Garten,” I said, “but it’s nice of you to say.”

“Well, your food looks just like all of this food, I don’t see why you can’t have a big fancy cookbook.”

“It helps to be a big fancy well-connected person,” I said to her. I said, “Ina Garten’s not like me at all.” A quick skim of the Wikipedia bio confirms this. My god, the woman’s never even seen The Barefoot Contessa.

We discussed the possibility that we might try to make the chocolate creme brulee. “Of course, I don’t have little creme brulee dishes,” I pointed out.

“No one has little creme brulee dishes,” my daughter said.

“Ina Garten does,” I said.

Then I went into the kitchen and made brownies from a recipe by Ann Hodgman. Much more my speed.

A Late Dinner Alone: or, It Was Nine O’Clock and I Had to Do Something

My husband and child went to New Hampshire for a night this weekend. As such, I had most of a day, all of a night, and most of the next day to myself. This meant, naturally, that my usual framework for Life As I Know It went entirely down the toilet for about 40 hours. Which is fine — some of it was enjoyable, even. But one thing that definitely could have been handled better was the mealtime organization. Which is to say, there was none.
And it’s fine: if the only person who’s expecting anything is yourself, then you can raise or lower your standards as you see fit, right?
Much of my dietary intake on Saturday involved eating things that had been left behind in the fridge by the people who would normally eat them. For example: pizza. I ate the leftover pizza for lunch. Unfortunately, I ate lunch around 3 p.m., with the totally predictable result that at our normal dinnertime, I was utterly not hungry. So at six o’clock, when I’d normally be cooking, I was folding laundry and watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. It got to be seven o’clock: I’d put away the laundry and was lying on the bed watching more Orange is the New Black, thinking, “Should I cook dinner? Well, I’m really not hungry, and why should I eat if I’m not hungry?”

Time went on. Another episode of Orange is the New Black. It got to be about ten to nine and I realized, with a bang, that if I didn’t eat something then what would happen would be, I’d go to sleep and wake up at three a.m. ravenously hungry, and that would totally suck.

Furthermore, if I kept watching Orange is the New Black, I was not going to sleep well, because inevitably each episode has some image or plot development that I find sufficiently upsetting that it’s just not healthy bedtime viewing for me.

So it was that at five to 9, I was in the kitchen filling a pot with water and thinking, “I’m gonna come up with a pasta sauce that might involve some chopping but will not involve actually cooking anything except the pasta.” There are lots of ways to handle this challenge, and I’ve written fairly extensively on the matter over the years. The kind of raw pasta sauce that can be thrown together quickly is a specialty of mine. I am expert in the field of Cannellini Beans and Tuna and Parsley and All Variants; I have spent years doing research into Uncooked Tomato Sauces. The Hausfrau has long advocated for the Raw Egg and Cheese sauce, which goes very unappreciated by most Americans, as far as I can tell; and there is a world of joy to be found in pesto sauces, which are great, but you have to have the ingredients on hand to make them. This evening, I did not. (Furthermore, making a pesto sauce would have compromised my rule, that moment, of “don’t dirty anything more than a knife and cutting board.” Making pesto is a snap, but you do have to have the basil ready, the nuts, etc. etc. — I had none of these things on hand — and even if I had, I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with washing the food processor. However, in the summer it is totally sensible to make big batches of pesto and keep it on hand precisely so you can throw together a good dinner out of pretty much nothing.)

I opened the fridge and the first thing that jumped out at me was the bowl of fresh figs. “I am the only one who likes figs,” I reminded myself. “What goes with figs? Goat cheese. Do I have any goat cheese?” The answer was, “Yes, I have half a log of goat cheese that actually needs to be used up because if I don’t it’ll get that weird yeasty smell and be inedible and gross and I’ll be really pissed off that I wasted two ounces of goat cheese.”

The figs were sliced on the cutting board. I boiled half a pound of pasta and dumped it in a big bowl. I drizzled on some olive oil, put the figs and cheese on top, and then tossed it. The goat cheese melted, the figs warmed up, and, because I was feeling madcap, I grated some Pecorino cheese on the whole thing. Then I sat down and watched an episode of 30 Rock, which I highly recommend as an antidote to distressingly grim episodes of pretty much anything.

My family came home on Sunday around 5.30 in the evening, just in time to walk in the door and have the first topic of conversation be, “What’s for dinner?” I was glad to see them, but I have to admit, I was not too excited to cook for them. I admit, though: it was good to be back on schedule. “I didn’t eat dinner until about 9.15 last night,” I told them. “And then I was up until midnight.”

“You can’t sleep well if you eat dinner at nine o’clock,” my husband chided me.

“But I wasn’t hungry at all at dinnertime,” I said.

‘That’s probably ’cause you ate lunch at four o’clock, didn’t you?”

“It was three o’clock,” I said smugly.

Last night we ate dinner at 7.15, my daughter was asleep by 9.15, and my husband and I were out cold by ten. Today is my daughter’s last day of third grade: the beginning of summer vacation. I’ve got a long summer ahead of me during which I will have to devise breakfasts and lunches and dinners and Special Picnics and 4th of July Treats and things to bring to potlucks.

Oh my god.

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