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The 104-Meal Challenge

November 7, 2009

Cookbook pile 1A clean cookbook is suspect.  I never trust anyone who claims to be a foodie and brags about a vast cookbook collection that looks to me like the book bindings have never been broken.  Cookbooks are meant to be used, worn out, written in and dripped on.

One of my favorites – a purple self-published collection from a bed and breakfast in Cape May, New Jersey, is in three purple pieces. It opened automatically to the peach soup recipe.

Growing up my mother Nina Camuti Danielsen was a great cook. At the heals of her Italian grandmothers, Louisa Biggi Landi and Corrine Camuti, Mom learned early that cooking brings a family together. Everything happens from the kitchen. No matter how a home is managed it seems to start around a table and with something to eat or drink. There were dietary reasons for keeping their food simple, not spicy, but that never meant they had to dismiss favor.

Mom’s kitchen always smelled inviting. There was always one pot on the stove and a well-greased cast iron skillet on the other burner. There wasn’t a lot of working space on the itty bitty counter at home. It was clogged with canisters, little jars of food, utensils, and ingredients for the next dinner. To feed nine children, two adults and often a neighborhood friend, my mother knew how to stretch a food budget and put dinner on the table by 6 p.m. Every meal was planned out. This way there was no waste. During the busy work week it was easier if we just stayed out of her way in that 8 x 10 kitchen. My job was to set and clear the table and sweep the floors.

While standing with her back to me at the stove Mom would instruct. I knew how to set a formal table by the time I was nine, including the proper way to fold cloth napkins. What went on inside the kitchen was foreign to me, however. I had baked, but I didn’t really know to cook.

I figured if I could read then I could cook.  How hard can it be? Just get started.

In college I bought cookbooks that would help me cook out of a hot pot.  There were books that focused on cooking for one or two. The clearance racks at local bookstore chains beefed up the bookshelf with $3-5 specials. It became a game. Italian. Fish. Breads. BakeOff Recipes.  For awhile I bought everything that featured meals from the backs of bottles, boxes and cans. My dessert cookbook phase was very tasty.

When I discovered the Cooking and Crafts Book Club a mild hobby got out of control. First, I got 12 free books and then another one arrived every month. I had the subscription for about five years. Sometimes I gifted my monthly arrivals away. I knew it wasn’t necessarily the best deal on the books, but I enjoyed the opportunity to learn something new.

Two trips endeared me to the kitchen forever. First was a weekend at the Barnard-Good House, a bed and breakfast in Cape May, which was known for its fabulous breakfasts. It’s been 25 years since the owners, Nan and Tom Hawkins,  lingered over an extended breakfast, telling me their philosophy of using Jersey Fresh produce whenever possible. They allowed me into their kitchen and let me play with all their cookbooks. I grabbed a notebook and started writing. Those tired little pieces of paper are still in my recipe card file, covered in dripped thumbprints.

On my first trip to New Orleans, I took a one-day cooking class where I learned how to make classic Cajun eats. The chef said, “Even a church mouse goes hungry in a Cajun kitchen. We use everything.”  That’s when I started cooking a little spicier food, making my own soup stock, reusing all stale bread for bread pudding or breadcrumbs and thinking through how to use all the food in my kitchen.

What got lost in translation was the planning process. Over the years I haven’t done a good job of planning my meals each week based on my family’s school and work schedules. It’s embarrassing to admit that the lack of planning has wasted money and food, both a crime according to Mom.  I’ve gone through brief periods where I’ve done that very well, but nothing’s stuck long term.  I’m still standing in front of my pantry at 6:30 p.m. with a hungry child at my feet and asking, “What should we eat?”

Without planning it’s hard to put together a nutritious meal plan.

I’ve got to change things up in the kitchen. So here’s my challenge.

Cookbook pile - mary

Me. I counted them: 118 cookbooks

I have an insane amount of cookbooks; so many that I have to keep them on an industrial storage shelf in my basement. I brought them home one by one, because there was something I liked about them. I never meant to cook cover to cover.  Some are well broken in. Others need to be opened again. All of them have been used a few times.

MY CHALLENGE: Cook two new meals a week for a year. Something I’ve never tried before.  Incorporate it into real meal planning for a year.  THE RULES: Use what you have. Enjoy the challenge. Don’t be safe. Stay healthy. Creative adaptation of recipes is allowed. Buy locally, if possible. No waste. Document how it changes your food budget.

FIRST MEAL: Pumpkin Potato Soup from In Nonna’s Kitchen by Carol Field (HarperCollins 1997).

Scant 1 1/2 lbs pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled seeded & cut into 1-inch thick slices (3 cups) (I used a large can of pumpkin puree. Hey, it was Monday)

2 medium potatoes (I used locally grown sweet potatoes)

1 1/2 tbs unsalted butter

2 1/2 cups chicken broth

A pinch of course salt

1/2 to 1 chicken bouillon cube, well crumbled (optional)

1/3 cup milk

Tiny cubs of croutons (optional)

3 tbs finely chopped flat-leaf parsley (My backyard variety)

In a large bowl, cover the pumpkin and the potatoes with two inches of water and leave for 30 minutes to an hour. (This is a good night-before step) Drain well and pat dry.

Melt butter in a large, heavy pot and sauté the pumpkin and potato over very low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are slightly soft and very slightly golden. Stir occasionally to ensure they don’t stick.

Bring the chicken broth to a boil and slowly add it to the potatoes with a pinch of course salt. Simmer the mixture for 20 minutes. Drain the vegetables and puree them in a food mill or processor (or use an emulsion blender if you’ve got it. Just avoid spraying the kitchen with soup parts.)  Return to the pot and add the bouillon cube if you’re using it  and slowly cook for 5 to 7 minutes.  If the soup tastes pallid add another half bullion cube or a bit more salt. (I think I added too much canned pumpkin puree, because the soup seemed too thick to me. I added more chicken broth.)  At the end add the milk, tiny croutons and parsley.

While making this dish my four-year old climbed onto a chair and declared he was now going to help me cook. He asked, “Are we making applesauce?” I explained we were making soup. He handed me a Golden Delicious apple and said, “Well, I think we should add an apple.”  So we did.  Yum, yum. The leftovers were gone the next day. We ate so fast there is no photo.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Brandon Werner permalink
    November 8, 2009 12:52 am

    I agree that the best cookbooks are the ones that are used. My mom’s two favorite cookbooks are a cookbook from a church ladies fund raiser in the little pocono town her aunt lived in and one from a bed and breakfast in new Hampshire. Both of them look like they were typed on a manual typewriter. She had to start cooking with photocopies of the pages because they started to fall apart!

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