Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Cooking

Finding the (real) recipe for mom’s macaroni and cheese

This week I started reading “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk. The book is a tribute to Volk’s family members and the food they made her growing up. Each chapter, which is named after a special type of food, is about a different family member. One of the things I love about the book is how Volk captures the way that food connects us to others. Food, she reminds us, is an integral part of our relationships. We go out to eat with our spouses, we cook meals for our kids, we share recipes with friends …

Food triggers memories of childhood, major events in our life, and the loved ones we hold dear. I can’t look at butterscotch chips without thinking of my maternal grandma, for instance. We used to make butterscotch cookies together a lot when I was a kid. Baking with Grandma was especially fun because I could break the rules; she always let me eat a handful (or two, or three) of the butterscotch chips and lick the spoon without worrying about how messy I got.

Spaghetti with peas reminds me of my dad because it’s the one meal he consistently cooked after my mom died. Coffee ice cream reminds me of a guy I used to date, and lemon loaves remind me of another guy I dated. After my relationship with these guys fizzled out, I found myself craving the food that reminded me of them, thinking it would help me feel closer to what I had lost.

Mac and cheese reminds me of my mom. She made the world’s best mac and cheese, or so I thought as a little kid. My paternal grandma, “Gramz,” has tried replicating it throughout the years, but it never tasted quite the same. Turns out, Gramz had been using the wrong recipe. We discovered this at Christmastime after my maternal grandma pointed out that Mom’s recipe came from my great-grandmother, not from the generic mac & cheese recipe we had been following. My grandma just mailed me the handwritten recipe, so today I decided to make it. It doesn’t taste nearly as good as Mom’s, probably because she improvised it, making minor changes here and there that didn’t make it onto the recipe card.

The look, taste and smell of the mac and cheese I made still remind me of her, though. Someday, when I write a memoir about my mom, you can be sure mac and cheese will be mentioned in it. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to perfect it.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try it:

Ingredients:

–1/2 lb Elbow macaroni

–2 cups grated cheese (American)

–1 cup hot milk

–1 cup buttered breadcrumbs (This seemed like way too much. I’d probably use a half a cup next time.)

Steps:

–Cook macaroni until tender.

–Place a layer of grated cheese in a buttered baking dish, then a layer of macaroni. Alternate until the dish is filled.

–Season with salt and pepper.

–Pour hot milk over the mac and cheese, then cover it with the buttered breadcrumbs.

–Cover the dish and bake for 30 minutes at 350.

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Still Trying to Cook When Time Allows

I wanted to give you a quick update on my blog post about cooking one homemade meal a week. I haven’t been cooking as much as I’d like, but I have made some of the dishes I blogged about, and I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to prepare different meals for myself instead of eating the same thing every night.

In the past month or so, I’ve made cilantro and lemmon hummus, mushroom burgers, garlic green beans, pasta salad, and a birthday cake from scratch. Of all the veggie burgers I’ve made, these mushroom burgers were the best. They fall apart easily when you’re cooking and eating them, but they’re simple to make and they definitely satisfied my vegetarian cravings. They have a pretty strong mushroom taste, so you may not like them if you’re not a big fan of mushrooms. I’d still recommend giving them a try, though.

Below are photos of some of the dishes I’ve made. …

I served the mushroom burgers with a side of garlic green beans. They looked a little wilted, but they still tasted good!

Here's a concoction I came up with myself: Bow tie pasta with arugula, red peppers, goat cheese, pine nuts and pesto. Yum.

This is supposedly "the best birthday cake ever," according to the recipe. I'm not sure I would give it such a high accolade, but it certainly tasted good. Next time, I would make each layer a little thinner.

Cooking Challenge: Make at Least One Homemade Meal Every Week for the Next Month

As much as I’d like to think I’m someone who cooks regularly, I’m not. I want to get better at cooking, though, and take the time to make myself healthy meals. After a long day at work I usually just throw together a salad, heat up a veggie burger or make an open-faced rice cake sandwich with tomatoes, hummus and cottage cheese. (Don’t laugh — it’s actually better than it sounds!)

I figure that if I set a reasonable goal of cooking one meal for myself each week, then maybe I can ease myself into a more regular cooking schedule and start to feel more comfortable around food. Sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal like this is to let others know about it and ask for their ideas and encouragement.

So, I’ve put together a list of recipes from Smitten Kitchen (my favorite cooking blog) and Martha Rose Shulman’s “Recipes for Health” series on nytimes.com. Each week for the next month I’ll cook at least one of these meals and write a related blog post. I’ll include pictures of the final product and let you know what the experience was like and how the meal turned out. It’s always easier to cook when you have people to cook for, so maybe I’ll invite some friends to eat with me and sample the meals I make.

If there are other relatively easy-to-make vegetarian meals that you think I should add to the list, let me know!

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Pasta with asparagus, arugula and ricotta

Black bean chili

Mushroom burgers with almonds and spinach (these look especially good!)

Garlic green beans or mixed bean salad

Asparagus and herb lasagna

Stewed peppers with tomatoes, onions and garlic (over rice or beans)

Red pepper risotto

Black bean tacos with feta and slaw

Spinach and chickpeas

Pizza with red and yellow peppers

Yum.

Creativity Comes out at Cupcake-Making Party

Me having fun at a recent cupcake-making party I hosted.

Last month, my best friend from home got me a cupcake-making book for my birthday, along with some matching cupcake napkins. I had seen the book, “Hello Cupcake!” several times before but had never bought it. I wondered if I’d ever have an occasion to make such elaborate cupcakes and figured I’d just get some recipes online. But having the actual book and sharing it with others is so much better.

This is what happens when you invite friends to your apartment to make cupcakes. 🙂

I posted a Facebook update about the book, saying I was tempted to have a cupcake-making party. Mention “cupcake” on Facebook and you’ll get lots of responses. Mention it in real life and you’ll see a lot of wide-eyed eyes and ooing and ahhing. Based on the positive responses I got, I decided to host a cupcake-making party in place of the usual get-togethers that I have every month with the craft club I’m in.

An adorable owl, made with Oreo cookies.

I bought a variety of toppings — Reese’s pieces, butterscotch morsels, vanilla morsels, M&Ms and more. And I bought ingredients for “sunflower cupcakes” — the seemingly simplest cupcakes to make from the book. (Many are elaborate and require a visit to a baking store.)

Sunflower cupcakes

I baked the cupcakes the night before so that when friends from the craft club came, they could just focus on decorating them. We made the sunflower cupcakes with yellow frosting, Oreos and a red M&M with chocolate frosting for the ladybug on top. We also made owl cupcakes, lion cupcakes and caterpillar cupcakes. Naturally, they were all delicious.

Cuteness. We made butterfly cupcakes, too.

Trying to Find More Time for Cooking, Baking

The food from a dessert and wine party that my friend and I hosted earlier this year.

I’m trying to get better at cooking for myself. It can be tough when you work late and don’t feel like “working” more in the kitchen when you get home. But I know some people who say that cooking relaxes them and gives them the chance to be more creative when it comes to food. I want that to be the case for me, too.

I’ve found that weekends are a good time to experiment in the kitchen, as are late nights when I’m forced to cook for a potluck or a get-together the following day. In recent weeks, I’ve done my fair share of late-night baking and even managed to set off the sensitive fire alarm in my apartment twice — both times after midnight. Oops.

Here are some recent recipes I’ve tried and would recommend:

Homemade black bean burgers & hummus

Cilantro and lemon hummus and tomato basil hummus: I’ve tried several of the About.com hummus recipes, but these two have been my favorite so far. Sometimes I’ll make the hummus to go with black bean burgers.

Barley, corn, and haricot vert salad: This salad is really simple to make, and it tastes pretty good. The dressing has an unusual taste, given that it contains Dijon mustard, shallots, red wine vinegar and olive oil, so you might want to put it on the side and let people sample it first.

Butternut squash risotto: I made this for the Thanksgiving feast I had with friends last month. You can’t really go wrong with Giada De Laurentii’s recipes. After interviewing the Italian cooking pro last year in Dallas, I became an even bigger fan of her food and her approach to cooking.

Giada’s butternut squash risotto recipe calls for a vanilla bean, but you could probably just use vanilla extract. I used a vanilla bean because I had never cooked with one before and wanted to see what it was like. The beans come two per pack and cost $5 a piece. They’re expensive, but I loved the added vanilla flavor they added to the risotto.

Homemade black bean confetti salad

Black bean confetti salad: Again, a simple salad to make, and a great one for the summer. If you’re looking for some other quick salad options, check out these recipes on SmittenKitchen.com, one of my favorite cooking blogs.

Sweets:

Double chocolate-cherry espresso drops: I made these for a cookie exchange I hosted last weekend, and they came out pretty good. I  didn’t use the instant espresso powder that the recipe called for because I couldn’t find any in the store. I’m sure you could improvise, though, and just grind up some coffee beans for added flavor.

Polka dot cookies (aka brownie cookies): These cookies are so easy to make and they’re usually a big hit. Try them!

OK, so they weren't the prettiest looking cakeballs. But looks can be deceiving ...

Cakeballs: A group of my friends and I got together last year to make these tasty — and sickingly sweet — treats. They’re especially fun to make and decorate around the holidays. Just make sure you have a lot of time … and patience.

What recipes have you tried lately?

Cooking/Baking Black Bean Burgers & White Bean Strawberry Blondies

Homemade black bean burgers and hummus.

Homemade black bean burgers and hummus.

White Bean Strawberry Blondies

White Bean Strawberry Blondies

My roommate and I, both vegetarians, started a new Sunday night tradition: making veggilicious meals. This afternoon we experimented with beans and made black bean veggie burgers and Vegan white bean strawberry blondies.

The burgers were so much better than the frozen Garden Burgers I always eat, mainly because they were more filling and they tasted a lot fresher, thanks to the chopped onion and cilantro. Mixed together, the black beans, green cilantro and white onions looked like an earthy tone hodgepodge of deliciousness.

Questioning the deliciousness of breadcrumbs, we substituted them for oatmeal, which seemed to work just as well taste-wise. The oatmeal made the veggie burgers a little mushier than they would have otherwise been, but I liked the mushiness. Since they may have been a little too mushy for buns, we used a fork and ate them with a slice of avocado and a side of hummus I made yesterday. Forget mustard or ketchup.

The brownies were just as tasty. Beans in brownies? Sounds a little strange, I know, but don’t let the beans deceive you. The brownies don’t call for any sugar or oil, and though they probably wouldn’t satisfy a sweet tooth, they’d satisfy a smoothie lover, as they taste like smoothies but in brownie form. The sugar from the jam, bananas and honey (a cheap substitute for the maple syrup the recipe called for) gives them an added sweet flavor. Both the bean veggie burgers and brownies took less than a half hour to make.

The speediness of the cooking process and the tastiness of the food proved that veggie/Vegan foods can be favorable, filling and fun to make. Don’t believe me? Whip up some of these veggie burgers and bean brownies and you’ll have a different opinion — and your fill of protein, fiber and iron for the day.

A Sunday Spent Eating Outside, Shopping at an Asian Market

Today I spent the afternoon with some friends who have a beautiful garden in their backyard. While making lunch — veggie burgers, fruit salad and crackers with hummus — we went out to the garden to get home-grown lettuce for our burgers, which we ate with fresh cilantro pesto. Yum.

As we munched on lunch outside, taking in the smells of the garden, I couldn’t help but admire what a cool backyard my friends have. The patio surrounding the garden is covered in brightly-colored flowers painted by a local artist who stops by the house from time to time to add to the artistic creation. Nearby, a hula hoop hangs on the branch of a tree.

Talking about gardening and fresh produce made us want to go to a nearby Asian market on 34th Street in St. Petersburg. (It’s actually called “The Oriental Market,” which seems politically incorrect.) It was fitting for us to go there, given that after lunch we had looked at about 150 photos my friend took during a recent trip to Beijing. We learned, from listening to the stories behind each photo, all about the Great Wall, the food, the people and the culture there.

A lot of the food at the market was similar to the food my friend had eaten in Beijing, but some of it she had never seen before. Understandably so. The store is filled with a wide variety of Asian produce, meat, sweets and more. It has two aisles full of cheap and elaborately decorated kitchenware, (I bought a spatula for $1.97); nearly three aisles of rice noodles (who knew there were that many different kinds of noodles?!); and freezer cases full of dumplings, edamame and more. There is also a ton of nail polish, which only costs $.50 a bottle — much cheaper than paying up to $7.50 per bottle at a drug store!

Naturally, I came away from the market with two bottles of pink and red nail polish, as well as a bag of edamame, a mango and a package of apple gummy — a chewy candy that’s similar in taste to Gummy Bears. The message on the candy’s packaging prompted me to buy it: “Every drop of fresh apple juice, carefully pressed from the reddest apples, shining in colors of the cheeks of a snow-country child, is yours to enjoy in each soft and juicy Kasugai Apple Gummy.” The color of the gummy does look like rosy cheeks, though not necessarily the rosy cheeks of a “snow-country child.”

I’m glad I bought the gummy and some Asian produce because I’m normally not very adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. When you’re with people who love to grow food and who are experimental with the way they prepare and eat it, though, it’s a lot easier to want to be adventurous yourself. Such was the case today.

Grocery Shopping with Grandma

Showing off some of the items we bought on our last grocery shopping excursion -- a mop, rice cakes, the St. Pete Times, toilet paper ... Gramz recently "gave in," as she says, and started using those little motorized scooters to get around grocery stores. Now she can spend hours racing up and down the aisles!

Showing off some of the items we bought on our last grocery shopping excursion -- a mop, rice cakes, the St. Pete Times, toilet paper ... Gramz recently "gave in," as she says, and started using those little motorized scooters to get around grocery stores. Now she can spend hours racing up and down the aisles!

One of the first things my 86-year-old grandma did when she came to visit me last week was open my refrigerator. It was the first time that she, and my cousin who was on spring break, had been to my apartment, so my grandma was naturally curious to see what the place was like. She opened cabinets, hall closets, the freezer. Her eyes widened when all she saw in the freezer was a small stack of veggie burgers and a single purple Popsicle.

“Oh we need to go grocery shopping, Mallary,” she said.

“I knew you’d want to go the first day we were here!” I said, laughing.

Anyone who knows my grandma is well aware that she loves to grocery shop and does it several times a week. She scours the paper, looking for the best deals, then heads to the store, equipped with coupons, a long list and plenty of meals in mind. In the five days she was here, we went grocery shopping five times — four times at Publix and once at Sweetbay.

These trips were in part to shop for an Italian dinner that my grandma, cousin and I cooked for one of my colleagues. (My freezer is now filled with individually-wrapped veggie lasagna slices.) The other trips, though, were for foods that my grandma wanted to munch on or that she wanted me to have in the house — Italian salad dressing, Brach’s jelly beans, cheddar cheese rice cakes; a mop (“to wash that kitchen floor”), Clorox (“to scrub the black off of the shower tiles and the back of the sink”), etc. As soon as we would come home from the store, Gramz would start up a new list. Needless to say, my fridge is now fully stocked, as is my freezer.

The appeal in having a stocked freezer stems in part, I think, from living through World War II. The idea of running out of food scares seniors because, like my grandma, they know what it was like go to not have food in the pantry and to go to bed on an empty stomach. To this day, Gramz eats every bit on her plate. “I was taught,” she says, “to always clean my plate.”

People in my generation, she said, don’t always understand this, nor do they necessarily value the communal nature of food. Meals are meant to be eaten with families; they’re to be savored rather than gulped down in a few bites while standing over the kitchen sink, they’re to be made with love, care and the kind of creativity that doesn’t call for a microwave.

When preparing a big meal, it’s not unusual for my grandma to spend the entire day in the kitchen, making most things from scratch and usually making far too much of it! Cooking is a way for my grandma to feel closer to her family, and a way for her to get some “exercise” standing in the kitchen and mixing ingredients.

She used to get exercise walking through the aisles in the grocery store, but has since “given in,” as she says. She now uses those little motorized scooters to get around grocery stores. Instead of creeping down the aisles with her cane, she can race up and down them on the scooter and always get the right-away.

Going to the grocery store is also a way for Gramz to get out of the house, to meet people and feel as though she’s part of the outside world. “I could stay in bed and not do anything all day,” she says. “But I make a point to get out of the house every day and go somewhere.”

When she’s not going to the grocery store and making small talk with other shoppers, she’s cooking meals for, or watching “Jeopardy” with, her 87-year-old boyfriend, Gordon. Making meals for him has given her an excuse to start cooking again on a regular basis. Having grown accustomed to cooking daily meals for her two boys and husband, she had to learn to adjust when her children moved out and when her husband later died 10 years ago. It’s just not as fun cooking for yourself, she has said, and sometimes your appetite isn’t there, especially after a significant loss. Lucky for her, Gordon likes to eat, and he likes her meals.

And lucky for me, I don’t have to make any trips to the grocery store anytime soon. I can barely see what’s in the fridge it’s so full. Leave it to grandmas to fill your fridge, Clorox your bathroom tiles and sprinkle your apartment with love.

Do all seniors seem to like grocery shopping, or is it just my granmda?

Having a Ball Making Cake Balls

Some of the dozens of cakeballs my friends and I made.

Some of the dozens of cake balls my friends and I made.

I recently joined a craft group that some St. Petersburg Times folks started last fall. Joining the group has given me an excuse to rekindle my creativity by doing origami, making earrings and more.

I hosted the last craft party and spiced it up a bit. In place of a traditional craft, my friend and I suggested that the group make cake balls — sickeningly sweet treats that are fun to decorate and even more fun to eat. I figured this would be a fitting food for us to make, seeing as you can be crafty when it comes time to decorate the cake balls with chocolate almond bark and colorful sprinkles.

I first found out about cake balls while interning in Dallas last summer. The woman I lived with, who was The Dallas Morning News‘ assistant food editor at the time, edited a story about them and decided to make them on her own. I think this may have been one of the best decisions she made while I was in Dallas. I jest, but they were so delicious I felt compelled to re-satisfy my cravings for them and introduce other people to their addicting sweetness. (Note: the story I linked to above includes cake ball recipes.)

Apparently, they’re pretty popular in Dallas; a new cake ball company just opened there. They cost far too much to buy, though. Better (and cheaper) to make them in your own kitchen with the company of friends.

After looking at that picture I posted, how could you not want to make some?

In Search of Some Good, Easy-to-Make Recipes

Whole wheat linguini with

Whole wheat linguini with green beans, ricotta and lemon.

The long weekend has prompted me to open some of the many cookbooks I’ve been given throughout the years. I gravitated toward Giada de Laurentiis’ cookbook because I learned a lot about the stories behind the recipes when
interviewing her this summer for a Dallas Morning News story. I bought ingredients for Giada’s fresh tomato and goat cheese with herb oil and her whole wheat linguine with green beans, ricotta and lemon. Friday night I tried out the linguine, which actually turned out pretty good.

It can be tough to motivate yourself to cook when you don’t have roommates. I often find that it’s easier to just heat up a veggie burger or throw together a salad. But cooking, I’m slowly learning, can be relaxing after a long day at work, and it doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of time. The linguine took me about 30 minutes to make.

Here is the linguine recipe, courtesy of “Giada’s Kitchen, New Italian Favorites.”

Ingredients:
1 pound whole-wheat linguine
½ cup part-skim ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ pound French green beans (haricots verts), trimmed and halved lengthwise.
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
Zest of lemon

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Transfer the hot pasta to a large heat-proof bowl and add the ricotta. Toss to combine.

Meanwhile, in a large, heavy skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the green beans, garlic, salt and pepper and sauté for four minutes. Add the reserved pasta cooking liquid and continue cooking until the beans are tender, about four more minutes. Add the ricotta-coated pasta to the pan with the green beans and toss to combine. Add the tomatoes and toss gently. Transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with the lemon zest. Serve.

I’m in search of some other recipes. What are some of your favorites?