Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Holiday Prep and Woolgathering

Despite the best efforts of retailers to convince me that it's already Christmas and I need to ZOMG BUY SOME STUFF OH GOD PLEASE BUY SOMETHING, I'm focused entirely on Thanksgiving.

No, Wait, Not This Turkey Day
This year, it's Turkey Day Proper at the In-Laws', where my FiL will cook up a tasty turkey, and there will be all the usual trimmings - cornbread stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberries, green bean casserole, bread pudding and gravy.  Melissa will be bringing her unique baking wizardy to bear in the pie department (chocolate and pecan, I hope), and I think I'll be throwing together these honey rolls.  Friday, we're having our annual Day-After Leftoverpalooza, a casual affair with no set ending, and lots of turkey soup and a clearing out of leftovers and free-flowing wine and (I hope) enjoyable conversation.

I've always preferred Thanksgiving to Christmas - don't get me wrong, I love Christmas as a time for being with family, but it's a little too... frenetic for me.  Thanksgiving, though - a day dedicated to a good meal and just eating and enjoying.  I don't have many bad Thanksgiving memories - I'm lucky enough to have a pretty stable family, without the drama and simmering fights that some people have to suffer through (and to those unfortunates, you have my empathy - I'd gladly invite you over to my place for a drama-free meal, as long as you don't torch the furniture or drink all the booze).

My parents have never been afraid to have a non-traditional Thanksgiving.  We had our share of turkey-and-all-the-trimmings growing up, but we also did some pretty offbeat celebrations as well.  One of my favorites was during my high school years.  We drove down to St Mary's, Georgia and camped nearby, then on Thanksgiving Day, took a ferry to Cumberland Island and spent the day hiking.  It was cold and blustery, but I remember enjoying it, despite my status as a Surly Teenager and desperate desire to Not Enjoy Anything Suggested By Parents.  We hiked to the northern end of the island and near lunchtime, found a spot on the beach sheltered by dunes and set out a picnic lunch.  I don't remember what we had - maybe turkey sandwiches -I just remember it was something we could easily pack in our backpacks.  As we ate, a stranger rounded the dune and asked if we minded if he sat down out of the wind and ate his lunch.  My parents got to talking, and invited him to share our meal, and we got to know him.  He was retired, from New England, and was driving a friend's car down to Florida for them, and had decided on a whim to stop and see the island.  We spent the rest of the afternoon hiking with Bob, and after we left, he and my parents kept in touch.  Several times, he stopped over at our farm on his way north or south.  In my memory, that Thanksgiving memory stands out the most - not for the food, but for the feeling of it.  As I look back, I think on how that welcome, and the friendship my family got out of that, sums up for me what Thanksgiving should be about.  For me, it's about finding commonality with people - with family, with friends, with complete strangers - and finding things to be joyful about.

So that's how I approach Thanksgiving.  No matter what, I see it as a chance to, if only for a brief while, acknowledge the things that are going right.  The rest of the year, I worry, and stress out, and get agitated.  Right now, though, it's noticing the things that I don't have to worry about.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I recently bought a new knife.

We've had the same wooden block of kitchen knives since we got married.  The knives were good enough, but *coughcough*twenty years*coughcough* was a long run.

So since my sister-in-law recently started selling Pampered Chef products (hi, Laura!), I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone.  A new knife, to gradually rebuild the set to replace the wobbly-handled, perpetually dull, old knives and also, I help out someone in the family.  I ordered a chef's knife, since that's my go-to Implement Of Kitchen Destruction.

Gotta say, I'm loving it.  Got a knife with one of those self-honing sheaths, so it's always nice and sharp, and it's made a huge difference.  It's easy to forget how much difference quality tools can make in getting work done - I get things cut and chopped faster, and it's a great deal safer, too.  Given my impressive record of self-inflicted kitchen injuries, this is an important thing to take into consideration.

Next up, I need a paring knife, and then I'm thinking of upgrading our single-use gadgets - a vegetable peeler, a new garlic press, an extra set of measuring spoons, and then maybe a new food processor.

My current favorite kitchen tools:

(1) Kitchen-Aid mixer.  These things are awesome - indestructible, sturdy and simple.  I need to get some attachments, like the meat grinder and the pasta roller, to round it out.

(2) The Knife.  Nicely balanced, sharp and I don't let anyone else use it.

(3) Wooden spoons.  I use them for everything from stirring soup to tasting to waving in a threatening fashion at people or animals that get in the way while I cook.

(4) The dishwasher.  It's a standard model, but it's a true labor-saving device.  It's so nice to just load it up and run it without having to stand and wash and rinse everything from dinner.

How about you?  What are your favorite things in the kitchen?  Apart from the food/beer/wine - that's a given.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

School Lunches, Or No More Mystery Meat

Does anyone have fond memories of the lunches they were served in school cafeterias?

I don't.  No excessively horrid memories either, which is almost worse - the meals weren't anything special either way.

Last year, I spent about half the school year, or maybe a little more, eating lunch every day with our youngest son (I'll call him Danger!Boy).  Most days, I brought a lunch from home, but some days, I was in a hurry, or just couldn't be arsed to get around to packing a lunch, so I bought lunch at the school.

Lunch at school isn't the way it was when I was a kid.  It's better, and worse, and just... different.

I polled some folks on Facebook about their least favorite lunch options, and the results of my utterly unscientific poll are below:

Kind of a wide range, but we're talking a time range from the 1940s to the 1980s, and geographically from all over the US, from Canada and the UK.

For most of the 2010-2011 school year, I ate lunch at the elementary school with Danger!Boy every day, and  I can tell you that the offerings at the school aren't as varied these days.  Sure, the school lunches are slightly more nutritious, but that's not saying much.  There are vegetarian options, but they generally go with chicken, both for cost and to avoid dietary issues.  The food isn't cooked at the school any more - it's cooked at a central location, and reheated at the school

These are primarily cost-saving measures, allowing schools to provide low-priced, nutritious lunches for students, and I can't fault them for trying to get as many balanced meals out to as many students as possible.

I'm led to understand by Only Daughter and the First Born that it's a little different in middle and high school - there are more options, and they're generally more appealing, though there's less effort spend making sure the kids get properly balanced meals.

Schools tend to get short shrift budget-wise in the US, and after the Arts, meals suffer the most from every cut.  I've followed Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution as it's developed, and I have to say I agree with him - it's worth it to spend a little more to give our kids quality food.  We don't generally get exposed to a lot of real food at school, as Michael Pollan describes it.  It's heavily processed, and grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.  Our vegetables tend to be bland, bred for transport and durability on the shelves of the produce department.  I understand the need for institutional cooking to be cost-efficient, but at the same time, using local produce, and cooking the food fresh on site would help our kids develop a taste for variety, and mixing regional cuisine with something new for the kids would also help broaden their horizons.  There are a lot of teachable moments around new cuisines, and finding ways to build those into the curriculum is a way to unobtrusively stretch education into currently empty areas.

This is, I realize, very much in the realm of wishful thinking, but it's something I've been mulling over for a while, and will continue to do.  It costs me nothing to consider it, and it's a worthwhile topic for discussion.

Readers, what are your thoughts?  If you could change one thing about school lunches, what would it be?

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Poll About School Lunches

Those of you facebook-enabled, pop over to my FB page and answer the poll about school lunches.  Looking for some data to crunch as I write a post about lunches and my thoughts on them.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Another Thinky Thoughts Post

I'm still finding my feet on the blog, and sorting out my voice. I'm partly running off of feedback I get, and partly making it up as I go along. Let me know what works for you, and what doesn't.

That said, I'm moving into winter mode. I'm planning lots of soups for the menu, and looking forward to Thanksgiving, and the pies that come with it. More homemade bread, as well - I'm trying out some new cooking methods, including baking the loaves in cast iron skillets, and trying some inclusions, like cheese and baked garlic. Or dried fruit.

I've done some homebrewing in the past, and yesterday, I picked up (thanks to some friends that really want me to do it) the equipment necessary to make wine at home.  Thanks, guys!  I've got a kit for a malbec shiraz and a reisling, and will start with the shiraz.  I'll post photos of the process, for them as are interested.

Also, I bought some local blackberries at the grocery store today, along with pectin and the rest of the stuff I'll need to render those into some freezer jam.  My peach and strawberry jams were hits at home and in the neighborhood, so I have high hopes for the blackberries.  Photos of that process will be posted as well.

I've got some thoughts about school lunches and Halloween to post, as soon as I get them sorted out.