Because living dangerously this year has been just… living. Going to the grocery store, the gym, the fruit market. Coffee at a coffee shop (heaven forfend!) Hugging a loved one. Flying somewhere. Cooking has been a respite and a relief, as well as a creative outlet in this Year of All Weird.
It’s also been very Keri-fied. There are constraints around what I can do, like the availability of items here in Tunisia, my limited kitchen equipary, “Someone”‘s aversion to dark meat and coconut milk… nothing that would stop me from cooking something to eat – but I’ve got some useful guardrails that channel me towards more limited pastures and away from risks.
Some constraints were beatable. When there was no butter, early in lockdown, I made it myself. I couldn’t find pretzels, which were suddenly my favorite snack. The eternal lack of cornflour or cornmeal here caused me to experiment.
If I’ve gained weight these last few months, it’ll come as no surprise…
I’ve had some good dinner successes lately, particularly with veggies and dairy, like cauliflower steaks with bechamel sauce, pesto pasta with roasted veggies, and veggie tart with ricotta and feta. Also egg dishes and meat pies, birria tacos, and fattoush salad with pomegranate seeds.
That last one was a taco pie. The packet of taco seasoning that’s been in my cupboard for the last two years spoke to me. It was okay, but there is no good reason to put taco flavor together with flour-based pastry dough. Except, of course, that there are no corn tortillas here (ah ha! But I can make them from my corn flour! Watch this space.) Another really necessary ingredient for tex-mex anything that I can’t replicate on my own is cheddar cheese.
Ancillary cheddar anecdote
There’s no cheddar here. It’s a former French colony so the fromage tradition is strong, but Cheddar, noop. And I do keep an eye out. The other day I saw the following in the cheese case at my local epicerie:
Also not cheddar, but doesn’t it look like Colby-Jack? A worthy substitute! The cheese lady fished it out from the bottom of the case, where it had fallen from disuse, and I gave my standard 200 grams order – that’s my fallback: Olives? Potatoes? Oregano? Deuxcent grammes, s’il vous plait.) Anyway, she confirmed my order with me, since the mask (and not my French skills) muffled my intent. “Deuxcent grammes du Pesto Barbecue?” Yikes. They called the cheese Pesto Barbecue!
I said “SURE!”, embarrassed for having made her root around under the popular cheeses. Took it home. Took a nibble. NOT pesto, NOT barbecue, but in fact almost indistinguishable from Co-Jack. Too late for the taco pie, but it sparked the idea for dinner that night – tomato soup and grilled cheese.
A little unfettered glee never hurt anyone
I get some unfettered glee in doing what can’t be done. I also have to google things like “How can you tell when eggs are bad?” “How many grams in a tablespoon of butter?” and “What does a lightly floured surface look like?” I’d say my route through the cooking canon this year has had an element of fearlessness. (Easy to say this after my recent turkey breast success!) Maybe it would be more realistic to say I don’t know what I don’t know, and therefore am not afraid of it, even if I probably should be. But just straight fearlessness sounds a lot better.
Of all the things I’ve cooked, some stand out for their deliciousness, others for their lack of it. A couple for making us actively sick (sorry, Ramon).
When I met Ramon, he lived in a guest house in Islamabad. He asked its proprietors to make him the same chicken-rice-vegetables soup Every. Single. Night. As much as I don’t understand and wouldn’t want that, and I do not and would not, what’s really shocking is that he hasn’t revolted against my kitchen experiments. There have been nights when he has surely wished for recognizable food.
Some recipes have come out bad, whether because I didn’t know what I was doing, or because I substituted one too many items, or because the recipe just doesn’t hit the taste buds as one or both of us like. Like picking movies – sometimes, ten minutes in, you’re sure this is Not the Movie for You. The trouble with cooking is you don’t know that till the tasting, which is some 96% into the feeding process.
Last night was a bit of a hit, though, when I made potato latkes with salmon! Even Mr. Soup smacked his lips.
I will take my wins where I can get them!
Here’s a running list of things I made this year, from the hits (blue) to the bombs (orange).
Over 100 items, or about one new recipe every three days. As far as common themes, I can only say I’ve cooked what’s fresh locally, because that’s precisely what I can get. Easily four or five vegetarian days per week, which is good by me since I hate touching or dealing with raw chicken or beef. No vegan anything, because that just sounds too hard.
Mayyyybe more butter than is strictly necessary. Plenty of pasta, a fair amount of beans, and lots of eggs, which generally come with feathers still attached here, and are not refrigerated, which used to really freak me out. Many, many recipes from the NYTimes cooking section, which (among many other things) probably marks me as a liberal. Not a lot of Tunisian or African dishes (see previous posts for maps), which I would like to improve upon in 2021.
The two holiday meals – Thanksgiving and Christmas – both came out amazing. I think planning helped! We’re still eating brisket, popover, mashed taters, and cabbage leftovers.
Those of you who are related to me, particularly on my Dad’s side, will know that it would be really hard to fill the shoes of my amazing Grandma Culver when it comes to Christmas cookie baking. The tale gets further exaggerated every year, but Grandma used to back [outlandish number] dozen of each of [another outlandish number] types of cookies, starting in [month prior to September], every year, freezing them along the way, then boxing up the cookies to give to “shut-ins” – a word I invariably associate with people looking out warily from behind shutters. Anyway, Grandma’s cookies were delicate pretty things, which she piped into pretty little green Christmas trees or rolled into fragrant rum balls, or topped with silver dots or chocolate snips, each one more special and time-consuming than the last.
Grandma was a caterer and a chef with a wide repertoire. She made plates of dinner for the workers who clambered down from the train to go pick wheat; she made wedding cakes; she baked me a Barbie Doll birthday cake when I was 9. Her cinnamon rolls made my brother’s eyes roll up in his head; I couldn’t get over her homemade very vanilla ice cream, frozen in little pink cups for summer. She had endless patience and a steady hand for decoration. A favorite memory and photo comes from Christmas season in Missouri. Grandma put me on the kitchen counter to help her knead dough. Sorry I can’t access it from here to show you, but suffice it to say, I was a cute little bugger with my arms in dough up to the elbows. Grandma’s the one who taught me about perseverance
I don’t have her recipes, very unfortunately, so I picked some recipes from the interwebs that sounded good and a little bit special, somehow, either for flavor or decoration or texture. I ended up making a couple dozen, of six types, starting three days before Christmas. (Hey, a grandkid has to start somewhere!) I did the bulk of the decorating on the night of the 22nd after Ramon went to bed. If he had seen how the kitchen looked… well, poor guy, I don’t need to be giving him agita. The man has cleanliness standards, I’m tellin’ ya.
They were eggnog snickerdoodles, peanut-butter paprika, two kinds of sugar cookies, pocky sticks that lent themselves well to dipping in chocolate and nuts/sprinkles, and my favorite choco-meringue with dried cherry chunks.
I boxed them all up to share and then… Ramon’s coworker received a positive coronavirus test, so it seemed unwise to go passing them around. They’re in the fridge now, awaiting a negative PCR test for Ramon (fingers crossed!) Meanwhile, I might have opened a box and eaten the contents…
The life of a sesame bagel
This was, ultimately, a successful experiment – but see if you can spot the “outtakes” bagels.
A pie for Bob Sanger
Bob loved lemon meringue. And this pie looked like it could fill the bill.
I was awfully proud of myself! But it was very nearly inedible. Something went wrong with the lemon zest, I think, because later it happened with the lemon meltaways cookies I made – disgusting. We had to bin the pie and the lemon cookies.
Win-loss ratio holds steady
I keep growing these little grassy things from www.hamama.com, which don’t taste like much but they add texture. I added them to avocado salmon toast and I’m pretty sure I’m hypervitaminated now. Another recent hit was eggplant risotto with roasted beets and fennel. You also have to love the cranberry beans from the market – just so colorful. And cherry scones, which Ramon ate the last three of in one sitting.
The last bit of excitement I can take for 2020. This time of year is good for pomegranates, cranberry beans, and avocados – which are still not a big thing here. But when you love avocados as much as I do, you can consider yourself Avocado AF.