marenIn September 2015, I pulled out the most intimidating (and least used) cookbook on our bookshelf and challenged myself to make every recipe in the book, come hell or high water. Ten months and two days later, I crossed the finish line. That quest fanned a flame that inspired me to move on to the next cookbook… and the next one after that… and you get the idea.

It’s not as hard as I imagined to prepare complex recipes, and it’s OK to invite people over for dinner when trying new ones. The fellowship is wonderful, and I’ve yet to hear a complaint about the food. Quite the contrary, our friends have been really supportive and complimentary. And they don’t care whether or not the house is neat and tidy.

So, if you’ve got a hankering to experiment in your kitchen, I’ve provided reviews of the eight cookbooks that I’ve explored to date with pictures of the individual recipes. I’ve also shared some of my own recipes along with features on favorite foods.

Bon appétit!

instant pot

For months, it seemed that every time I went to a friend’s house I’d find an Instant Pot on the kitchen counter. They all expressed great satisfaction with how these pressure cookers operated. So on Black Friday last November, I took advantage of an attractive sales price and took the plunge!

As reflected in the photos below, I’ve tried most of the recipes in the little cookbook that comes with the Instant Pot. I can attest to the fact that this kitchen gadget is really easy to use and provides for set-it-and-forget-it meal preparation. That’s a really nice feature when entertaining company.

Three-Minute Steel Cut Oats
Three-Minute Steel Cut Oats
Porcini Mushroom Pate Spread
Porcini Mushroom Pate Spread
Ginger and Butternut Squash Soup
Ginger and Butternut Squash Soup
New England Clam Chowder
New England Clam Chowder
Black Bean Soup
Black Bean Soup
Red Lentil Chili
Red Lentil Chili
Italian Cannellini and Mint Salad
Italian Cannellini and Mint Salad
Cauliflower and Citrus Salad
Cauliflower and Citrus Salad
Not Re-Fried Beans
Not Re-Fried Beans
Coconut Fish Curry
Coconut Fish Curry
Cranberry Braised Turkey Wings
Cranberry Braised Turkey Wings
Liguruan Lemon Chicken
Liguruan Lemon Chicken
Moroccan Lamb Tajine
Moroccan Lamb Tajine
Steamed Ribs
Steamed Ribs
Beef Roast with Carrots and Potatoes
Beef Roast with Carrots and Potatoes
Braised Beef Shank
Braised Beef Shank
Easy Chili Colorado Smotherd Burritos
Easy Chili Colorado Smotherd Burritos
Kalua Pork
Kalua Pork
Sicilian Vegetable Medley
Sicilian Vegetable Medley
Roasted Baby Potatoes
Roasted Baby Potatoes

“You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
— Harry Balzer, Food Marketing Researcher

Michael Pollan’s 4-part documentary series entitled Cooked introduced me to Laura Shapiro, a food historian. I found her book – Something From The Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America – fascinating. Here’s what I learned…

canned foodProduction of processed food geared up in the early- to mid-1940s to support the armed services during World War II. As the great conflict drew to a close, food manufacturers had substantial capacity to produce freeze-dried, frozen, and canned goods without a ready market to consume them. They turned their attention from military to civilian appetites and supported their product offerings with heavy advertising.

Despite valiant attempts to tempt home cooks with the promise of convenience, sales of processed foods did not take off. Ten years into peacetime, households spent only $.07 per food dollar on frozen and canned goods; that figure rose to $.14 in 1960. It was progress, but certainly not the “home run” that industry insiders anticipated. Early offerings did not satisfy American taste buds. Household freezer capacity had a dampening effect on market demand. But the biggest obstacle proved to be the prevailing notions of a woman’s value.

home cookingFor time immemorial, women have been judged by their ability to cultivate a happy home life for their families. Through home cooking, they demonstrated their care, concern, and affection for their families and friends. Housewives of the 1950s and 1960s equated “convenience foods” with shirking their responsibilities as homemakers. Moreover, the quality of their home-cooked meal reflected their social standing. Middle class housewives aspired to the ideal of “gracious living.”

Processed food advertising capitalized on this sentiment by reworking its messaging around creativity, not convenience. It encouraged homemakers to forego the unnoticed drudgery of meal preparation and invest their time on the finishing touches. For instance: “Don’t worry about baking a cake from scratch. Spend time glorifying it!” Using  so-called “foolproof” formulations, homemakers were also relieved of the stress of an imperfect result.

The inaugural Pillsbury Bake Off of 1966 embodied the industry’s new approach to marketing. The allure of national recognition and appreciation for homemaking skills drew thousands of women to the contest. Flour sales skyrocketed, and women eagerly anticipated the annual event and its companion cookbook.

Meanwhile, the post-war era brought profound changes in women’s attitudes toward paid employment. Six million women served their country by joining the work force during WWII. In a 1944 study, 80% of those employed said they had no wish to leave their jobs after the war. As Lillian Gilbreth noted: “The businesswoman or industrial worker has one job. The housewife has a dozen.” While 3 million women were let go when able-bodied veterans returned to work, the percentage of women working outside the home came close to its wartime high by 1953. Paid employment gave women more challenges, more respect, and more money. The latter contributed mightily to the post-WWII economic boom. By 1960, 40% of women with school-aged children worked outside the home.

Columnist Poppy Cannon supported this sea change by showing readers how to conduct their domestic lives with intelligence, grace, and a modern sensibility. Far from demonizing those who found fulfillment outside the home, she developed strategies to help them live comfortably in both worlds. To that end, she offered a collection of recipes in the Can Opener Cookbook. Interestingly enough, the data showed that women working outside the home were no more likely to avail themselves of processed foods than stay-at-home moms.

Humor became an effective way to bridge the gap between the image of the “perfect housewife” and the reality of the modern woman. Shirley Jackson captured the struggle of the homemaker who narrowly escapes disaster in Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons. Erma Bombeck was the reigning queen of domestic chaos for over 30 years. Her I Hate to Cook Book gave women permission to put a “good enough” dinner on the table without agonizing over it.

cuisineThroughout this period, “haute cuisine” remained the province of men under the assumption that remarkable cuisine was beyond the capacity of ordinary housewives. Julia Child dispelled that myth. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she had no tolerance for the snobbery that accompanied highbrow cooking. She took up the mantle to teach American cooks how to prepare exquisite meals and proved that anybody could cook like a gourmet chef. Her seminal cookbook – Master the Art of French Cooking – became an unbridled success as did her television show, The French Chef.

Unfortunately, the food industry eventually prevailed in its goal of capturing the American palate. Convenience foods have become so prevalent that the average home cook spends a mere 3.5 hours per week on food preparation, down from 17-18 hours per week in the 1950s. This change has important implications for our general health. In a 2003 study, a team of Harvard economists tied the rise in obesity to “reductions in the time cost of food, which in turn has allowed more frequent food consumption of greater variety and, thus, led to higher weights.” A 2014 study by Drs. Monsivais, Aggarwal, and Drewnowski showed a positive relationship between the amount of time spent on food preparation and diet quality as reflected in the daily intake of vegetables, salads, fruits, and fruit juices.

Given the prevalence of obesity and the chronic health conditions that accompany it, a return to home cooked meals merits serious consideration. That being said, the responsibility for healthy eating must transcend the gender divide. Ideally, food planning and preparation is a team effort that affords all household members an opportunity to contribute while spending quality time with one another in the kitchen.

This week’s adventures in cooking brought me face-to-face with a vegetable with which I’d never made the acquaintance: a rutabaga. It was a key ingredient in a starchy side that hails from the Scottish Highlands – “Tatties and Neeps.” The “tatties” are potatoes, and the “neeps” can be either rutabagas or turnips.

As has been my usual practice when venturing forth into unknown territory, I called upon the expertise of my local grocer to make introductions to unfamiliar food. He obligingly pointed the way to a collective of root vegetables from which I plucked my quarry. Frankly, it looked like a really big beet absent the usual complement of greens. But since there was a section for beets a bit down the line, I chose not to pay attention to this little flash of insight.

tatties and beetsAs I prepared the “rutabaga,” it kept staring back at me with the eyes of a really big beet. Still, I chalked that sensation up to inexperience and soldiered on. Then, when I boiled it with the potatoes, it chose not to soften at the same rate as the potatoes, as one might expect based on the recipe’s instruction. It also didn’t succumb to mashing in equal measure to the potatoes. Still, I shrugged my shoulders and thought: “Well, I guess rutabagas are kind of hard to work with.” And when it colored the entire dish red, like a brand new red T-shirt in a load of white wash, I thought: “Mmmm. It’s just like a beet.”

Of the four of us at the dinner table, none admitted to ever eating a rutabaga before. No one complained about the dish. Quite the contrary, they all expressed gratitude for a hot meal in which they’d invested no preparation or clean-up time. My husband and friends are easy that way!

During today’s shopping trip, I had occasion to purchase another rutabaga. I felt rather smug as I went straight to the place where they’re on display and chose another fine specimen. My sense of pride drained quickly as I went through the check-out line and the item rang up as a “Bulk Beet.” After a brief chat with the cashier, a vegetable expert came over and gave me a quick lesson on root vegetables. And so (drum roll)… my erstwhile rutabaga from the prior night’s meal had been a really big beet!

tatties and beetsI came home and made “Tatties and Neeps” the right way. Everything boiled in the pot at the proper rate, and the resulting dish was quite good. “Tatties and Beets” is OK, too, but not a combination that I’d repeat.

Yep – it was a little bit embarrassing to show my ignorance in a public forum. But, then again, the whole incident really cracked me up! It reminds me that I’m still a student of the culinary arts. I’m not supposed to know all this stuff already; I get to learn it on my cooking adventure. Now I’ll know a rutabaga when I see one.

Some vegetables really know how to make an impression, don’t they!

Spike and I crossed the finish line on the Fields of Greens cooking quest on July 2, 2016, 10 months and 2 days after we began. It was a great experience for both of us. Here are a few values that emerged on the journey.

The Value of Commitment. When making the decision to be “all in” with the quest, it pretty much eliminated the should-I-or-shouldn’t-I conversation about preparing the recipes. I just figured out a way to do it and discovered culinary territory that I simply would not have explored otherwise.

The Value of Encouragement. I hit one noteworthy low point when I nearly lowered my standards for completion. The sticking point was our lack of an ice cream maker and my resistance to buying one. So I thought I’d skip the affected recipes along with a handful of others while I was at it. Hats off to my friend Rebecca for cheering me on AND letting us borrow her ice cream maker. For the record: The Meyer Lemon Ice Cream and Mandarin Orange Sorbet were unreal! Not to be missed!

bryan, julius, and amandaThe Value of Sharing. We realized early on that the quest would go slowly if we had to eat all of the food that we prepared. So we started inviting people to dine with us given fair warning that they’d be noshing on food we’d never made. Suffice it to say, the fellowship was even better than the food… and the food was really good!

The Value of “Oh Well.” We had a few mishaps in the kitchen, and we sampled a few recipes that didn’t send us over the moon. Oh well! No big deal! I have confidence in my ability to improve on my technique and the discernment to know when it’s not worth the effort.

DadA week ago today, I was at my father’s bedside when he took his final breath. His health had been fragile for years, and he experienced chronic pain over the past few months. Through it all, he was a pillar of strength in adversity and made the best of his challenging circumstances. He always managed a smile whenever anyone came to visit and never lost his sense of humor. He was a good man, a devoted husband, and a wonderful father.

I’ve found solace over the past week in the simple act of food preparation. As I’ve alternated between waves of grief and an empty, lost feeling, it has been therapeutic to continue working on my Fields of Greens quest.

Vegetarian cuisine was not my father’s favorite. He’d have eaten it if presented with no other options, but he’d prefer a good old fashioned meat-and-potatoes meal. In fact, whenever I talked about experimenting with vegetarian recipes, he’d feel sorry for my husband. Perhaps as he watches over me from heaven, Dad will catch some of the fine aromas that emanate from my kitchen and wish he had a seat at my table. If only wishing could make it so…

When I started this quest last September, I gave myself permission to make “a reasonable approximation” in lieu of a precise rendition of all of the recipes. I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get all of the ingredients locally or be willing to pay a King’s ransom for them. I wasn’t sure that I’d have the time to prepare everything from scratch. And as I don’t like to waste food, I’d allow myself use of reasonable substitutes if it made sense to do so. For example, I wouldn’t buy three types of lettuce for a salad if Spike and I wouldn’t have the time or inclination to eat all the excess.

Fortunately, I’ve yet to find an instance where I couldn’t get an ingredient at a local grocer. Admittedly, some are pretty spendy, especially when purchased off season. But for the most part, I’m able to remain faithful to the recipes as written. And when I’ve intentionally veered off course, the world didn’t come to an end.

spinach canneloniThis week’s “aha” moment in freshness surrounded pasta sheets. I’d never cooked with fresh pasta before; I’ve always opted for the standard dried stuff. But there was a big difference in taste between this week’s cannelloni made with pasta sheets and the one I prepared a couple of months ago using dried manicotti shells. Pasta sheets hold the stuffing together without being overbearing in the taste department. The resulting dish had a far more nuanced flavor. So, I guess I’m a convert to fresh pasta sheets now. Just need to keep an eye out for them as they aren’t available at every grocer.

I achieved a major milestone this week by completing 25% of the recipes in the Fields of Greens cookbook. Mark and Alicia joined Spike and me in the celebration. We paired a butternut squash soup with a baguette and gruyère cheese for the occasion. Delicious!

mark and aliciaI’ve learned quite a bit about cooking since I started this journey:

  • Cooking “from scratch” takes quite a bit of time. Spike’s able assistance has been my salvation on a number of occasions. This journey has proven to be a lovely way to spend time together. I’ve also made a point of playing good music while in the kitchen.
  • Cooking “from scratch” is far more flavorful than cooking with short-cuts. There is a material difference in taste between fresh herbs and dried herbs and between bottled garlic and fresh garlic – well worth the incremental food preparation time. The biggest surprise in this realm is the extent to which canned tomatoes overwhelm a multi-facted recipe. While far more convenient than preparing stewed tomatoes from the fruit of the vine, canned tomaotes prove to be the “dominant genes” against which everything else seems “recessive.” It’s fine for some meals, but I’ll opt for making fresh tomato sauce for others.
  • This quest has introduced Spike and me to several new ingredients – e.g., celery root, chanterelle mushrooms, calvados, gruyère cheese. By stretching my boundaries, I’ve had to get much more familiar with the inventory at my local grocers. I’m awestruck by the bounty of food stuff we enjoy in the Pacific Northwest!
  • It’s not as hard as I imagined to prepare these foods. Admittedly, I’m not stellar in my technique. (I’m still struggling with pastry!) But I’m “succeeding” at meal preparation for the most part, and I expect to improve with practice.
  • Great food turns an otherwise run-of-the-mill meal into “date night”!

spring vegetable curryIt was fairly light week cooking-wise. We signed onto a meal train in behalf of good friends who are a week out from major surgery and did a “repeat” of the Summer Vegetables with Red Curry and Apricot Chutney. Spike and I worked efficiently in the kitchen having made these recipes before. It felt good to serve up something special for them.

Otherwise, I decided to venture further into soups and stews. I made my first batch of Vegetable Stock for use in the Winter Greens Soup. With a bit more effort, I could have made a double batch of stock and saved myself some effort on the next go round. Stock freezes like a champ. Lesson learned… Meanwhile, the Winter Greens Soup was wonderful!

My second meal of the week was an ambitious one: Winter Vegetable Pie. Even the author admitted: “This is a time-consuming dish to prepare, but well worth the effort.” It had 3 major components: (i) Mushroom Stock from which I made a sumptuous Mushroom Sauce; (ii) assorted vegetables and fresh herbs for the “meat” of the pie; and, (iii) tart dough for the topping. It consumed a healthy part of a day to prepare – although I made a double-batch of Vegetable Stock while I was at it. The end result was a full-on party for our taste buds.

spring vegetable curryWhen I make this dish for company, I’ll opt for individually-sized pie plates (a la chicken pot pie.) As you can see, it’s rather difficult to get a serving out of the pie pan. I’ll also make sure to place a cookie sheet under the pie pan while baking. The filling oozed out the sides and started burning on the bottom of the oven. Spike and I scrambled to ventilate the kitchen before the smoke detectors got in on the action. Oh, well… We needed to clean the oven anyway!

Dad and meIt was a big week for my family. Dad celebrated his 96th birthday on September 16th. We hardly thought this day would come given his failing health. But he managed to sport his 1000 watt smile as we joined him at the Maryville Nursing Home for dinner. I brought a fabulous strawberry cream cake from the Beaverton Bakery. Dad loved it. It was a special night to be sure.

For this week’s Fields of Greens meal, we invited my good friend, Lynn Landrum to join us for a feast of Winter Vegetable Curry, Cucumbers with Yogurt and Mint, and Fiery Pineapple Chutney.

As I’ve worked on curries these past couple of weeks, I’ve witnessed the benefit of boiling green beans and broccoli briefly and setting them aside. Their colors perk up, and they retain their crispness when added to the pot in the final moments of cooking. There’s advanced preparation for mushroom in the Winter Vegetable Curry; they’re sautéed for 7 minutes in oil with a splash of water to loosen the pan juices. The little darlings emit a high-pitched squeal akin to baby mandrakes in the second Harry Potter movie. It sounded like we were torturing them for state secrets… which they never gave up. They were tasty, however…

Having declared victory on another meal, we set off that weekend for a two-day getaway at Cape Meares on the Oregon Coast. Lovely weather. No crowds. Long walks on the beach. Heaven!