Advice for the Newbiewed Cook

My sister the newlywed lives a few minutes away from me now. She’s new to the area and calls me when she’s shopping for groceries.

“Is this a good deal?”

“Do you like this brand?”

“Can I substitute in this recipe?”

I love it. I love being the one she calls when it comes to cooking. When it comes to cooking. Just wanted to emphasize that because I emphasized it to her.

“Marital advice is not my forte,” I told her before she got married. “Call Mom.”

She nodded and pretended I’d told her something she didn’t already know. She’s kind that way.

Her estimation of my cooking/grocery advice must be pretty high because, so far, I continue to receive her calls. This pleases me very much. It has also helped me realize that I have some pretty fantastic advice to give! So, now I’m going to give it to you. No need to thank me for my generosity. Really.

Woman Cooking in a Kitchen.
Woman Cooking in a Kitchen. (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Advice for the Newbiewed Cook

Make a Weekly Menu.
The weekly menu is the hub of all kitchen activity for me. I’ve tried monthly, and I tired of it quickly—tired of the meals, tired of the planning. I can handle one week. I think most people can. If you can handle more, great! Most newlyweds have enough to handle, so why not start with one week?

Keep your Special Meals Special.
The majority of your evening meals should be something you can make in a reasonable amount of time. Pounding out meat and rubbing fresh herbs into it is special. Keep it special or you might get overwhelmed.

In my first year of marriage, I made so many new recipes. That got old fast, and not just for me. Realm looked up from his plate one evening after we’d finished some crazy dish and asked, “Can’t we just have fried chicken?”

Oh, and don’t turn your nose up at those staple meals you make so well. Your life is one big change right now; give yourself permission to make the staples. You have years to impress him with your culinary skilz.

Crank up the Crockpot!
I make at least one meal a week with my Crockpot. Once you’re planning menus, throwing ingredients into the Crockpot is a breeze. I’m not one for “brown it first and add it to the Crockpot.” If it can’t go in all at once, I might make that one of my special meals for the week. I don’t have a timer on my Crockpot, so it’s only turned on low when I’m cooking overnight.  My Crockpot generally goes on high in the mornings so it’s ready by 5:00 p.m. We eat later, but it can be on warm. (You can always make it cook slower, but you’re generally stuck once you figure out you need it to cook faster.)

Cut the Process in Half with a Food Processor
I can’t cut. I’ve discussed that more than once on my blog. Chopping on a chopping board isn’t my thing, either. I tried one of those manual choppers when they were thought to be so wonderful–you know, for cutting up onions and stuff. Meh.

I have two pieces of equipment I use in my kitchen every day: my Ninja* and my Salad Shooter*. The food section parts of both of these appliances are all dishwasher safe. I’ve gone through half a dozen food processors. That means I’ve rendered at least half a dozen food processors useless. I’m tough on them. The Ninja is the only one that’s lasted. I bought my Salad Shooter at a garage sale for $12. Or was it $7? Anyway, slicing is a joy.

Be Prepared to Paper-Plate-It.
Yes, I’ve turned ‘paper plate’ into a verb. I’ve repeated this one the most to my sister. It’s really my best advice. It’s true that paper products cost money, but scrambling to catch up with the dishes costs time and causes stress. Provide yourself with a fallback plan. I also keep plastic cups, forks, and bowls on hand, which makes life so much easier when the kitchen takes on the decor of a mass science project involving volcanic eruptions and tornado devastation. Yep, that happens sometimes. Just to clarify, this is a fallback plan. Regular dishes really should be the norm.

So, there you have my 5 amazing tips after 17 years of wedded cooking. What are some things you do to make your meal-making run smoothly?

*These links depict the models I use. I receive no money or other remuneration of any sort from Amazon or the manufacturers of these products.

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Love Means I Finally Made Him Breakfast

Before Realm and I married, we sat down and talked about our expectations for married life. We used a workbook to help direct our discussions and jotted down our answers in it. I still have that workbook. When we came to the his tasks/her tasks section, it went pretty smoothly. It was simple to say, “Yeah, I can take the trash out every week. No biggie.”

“Sure, I can handle paying the bills.”

“Mow the lawn? No problem.”

“Can I wash a toilet? Like a pro.”

One of the things I signed up for was making breakfast. Easy, right? I certainly thought it would be easy. Married bliss began with Little Rilla Homemaker in the kitchen overcooking scrambled eggs and burning bacon. Plus, the orange juice was watered down. He was disappointed; I was disappointed. But I would not be so easily dissuaded! I couldn’t make eggs and bacon…so what? I could make muffins from a package and turkey bacon! We were still good, right?

Realm is an eggs, bacon, toast and o.j. man. Some people need their morning coffee. My husband needs his morning breakfast. No deviations. (Well, maybe biscuits instead of toast, and maybe sausage instead of bacon, but absolutely no turkey bacon. Blech.)

I, on the other hand, can’t eat when I first get up. Hunger does not hit me at 6:30-ish, but nausea from the aroma of eggs cooking on the stove does. I love my husband. I love to cook. Making eggs in the morning for him was pure torture for me. Go figure.

Gradually, I began to quit cooking breakfast. Okay, it wasn’t that gradual. It happened in that first year. Now here we are, fifteen years later, and I haven’t made breakfast for my husband in…um…fifteen years. Do I feel bad about this? Yes. I feel like I’ve defaulted on our original agreement. Realm has long past forgiven me. He’s over it, so why can’t I just let it go?

Stupid perfectionism.

So guess what I found this week? A recipe for Egg and Sausage Muffins. I think I found it on some gluten-free website—or maybe it was a low-carb recipes website. I can’t remember. Anyway, I touched up the recipe a bit, and here it is:

10 eggs
2 Tbl heavy cream
1 lb breakfast sausage
¼ cup minced onion
¼ tsp pepper
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

It makes 18 regular-sized muffins. And it’s so simple!

My egg & sausage muffins
My egg & sausage muffins

I pre-heated the oven to 350 degrees, greased the muffin pans, and browned the sausage and onion in the skillet. I whisked the eggs, heavy cream, and pepper while the sausage mixture was cooling in a bowl, then poured the egg mixture over it. I added the cheese, mixed it all up nice n’ cozy, and spooned it into each muffin cup. 18 minutes in the oven, and they were done.

Packing up the muffins...
Packing up the muffins…

Realm tried one.
His eyes lit up.
It was love.

And the darling muffins can be packed away in the fridge to be warmed up in just a few seconds in the microwave.

For the first time in fifteen years, I’ve made breakfast for my husband. And I don’t feel sick to my stomach from the smell of eggs! Go, Little Rilla Homemaker! Don’t you love life’s tiny triumphs?

The Tried and the True

Sriracha hot sauce
Sriracha hot sauce (Photo credit: kattebelletje)

There are two things I have a knack for. One is cooking, as long as there’s no serious pastry work involved. (Pastry and I stare at each other and circle distrustfully.) I enjoy trying out new recipes with ingredients I can incorporate in other recipes. I want to use up what I buy, not use it once and have it taking up space in my fridge until it curls up and dies, rots, and stinks. For example, there is an almost full bottle of Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce in my fridge leftover from an Asian dish I tried during our China unit study. It’s a niggling reminder every time I open the fridge. (The spiciness is not getting the thumbs-up from my kids. Someone please give me some mild-tasting ways to make it palatable, else I have a feeling I’m going to become all thrifty and try to add it to a homemade shampoo or facial toner. Save me!)

dolmas
dolmas (Photo credit: tofutti break)

I follow some kindred spirit food blogs—those are blogs that promote recipes with comforting staple ingredients—like Maggiesonebuttkitchen. Yes, the word “butt” is in the title of a food blog, and it happens to be a good food blog. Many of Maggie’s recipes require simple, everyday ingredients, like her Peach Snack Cake. She also showed me how to roast garlic, and her Dolma is on my “gotta try this” list. Okay, so grape leaves in brine aren’t hanging out in my pantry, but Maggie persuades me not to listen to myself about leftover ingredients. Mmm.

Last month I was introduced to at350degrees. Warning! This one’s pretty much all about sweets. Just going to the blog homepage will make you drool. At least, it makes me drool. Carissa finds recipes, tries them, and provides links for the recipe. My next guilt trip will be the Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Fudge. And then I will be dead of sweets overdose and become an example to food bloggerdom of what not to tempt your readers to try. But until then, let’s be optimistic and pretend I can get away with eating things that pair cookie dough and fudge together, shall we?

I also have a knack for writing. Surprised? Yeah, I’m full of surprises. My forte is character-driven fiction, and I have a ton to learn. I receive a lot of encouragement in my craft from the thoughts, questions, and discoveries of other WordPress writer-bloggers. Here are the ones on my instant email list, the ones who often speak to my writer’s soul: (They are in chronological order, the first being the one I’ve followed the longest.)

Twisting Threads: There’s a rhythm to Twithre’s thoughts. I can relate to her frustrations. She talks about floundering at times. She’s not afraid to admit defeat. In fact, she gains ground as she think-writes her way through situations. Her post Home Sweet Park is a glimpse into her interesting childhood experiences.

Ayesha Schroeder—One of my favorites is: Lofty Goals and the Like, where she reminds her readers, “Don’t let the fear of failure stop you from setting your goals.”

JMMcDowell: She recently wrote Am I Good At This—Or Not, and it was a candid look that reassured me of what every writer faces.

Thursday’s Child: Her writing style has an intensity I admire. Many of her posts express how she relishes life and love, like Feelings of Nostalgia. She wrote a post in December entitled, Developing Characters. It has some great suggestions for writers with a philosophical turn.

Joseph M Kurtenbach likes to entertain with his posts, and he is super imaginative. I think we share a dread of posting something we’ll regret, but I’m not certain about that one. Maybe that’s just me. 😳 One of his adventures that makes me laugh is My Run In with a Ninja Ant.

This month I’ve added wogginswriting. His “De Baiting Game” is hilarious and so true.

What are some tried-and-true blogs that have inspired you?

The Soup with a Stone

Have you been slurping soup to stay warm this month? Good, because it’s National Soup Month. One of my favorite soups is Stone Soup. A rather anticlimactic name, eh? Why not a more appealing title, like Chicken Tortilla or Mushroom and Brie? Stone Soup may sound unimaginative, but in my family this soup is magical.

When I was growing up, my brother brought home Stone Soup from the library. He begged my mom to make it. Of course, I had to read the book, too. Any book that can make you ask your mom to make soup from a rock must be incredible.

And that’s where the magic began. If I’d been given the soup without the story, I might have liked it. Maybe. It was the story that made me crave a soup with a stone.

Bringing magic to the mundane often relies on how you introduce it. I remembered this when I made the first pot of Stone Soup for my kids. Toddlers have finicky taste buds, so I didn’t think they’d go for turnip greens floating in their bowl. (How many of us do?) I told my kids the story of Stone Soup just before I served it—my version. Wanting them to anticipate the soup, I played up the flavor with lines like, “Oh, it smelled so good!” and “They took the first bite, and it was delicious!” and “They ate it all up.” I told my kids it was a magic stone. I romanticized the whole experience and then put the bowls of soup in front of them.

It was really funny the first time because they didn’t know how to react to that first bite. It was a wholly new taste, but the story made it wonderful. Over the next few weeks, I introduced the soup again. They brought rocks to me, asking “Dis make S’one Soup?” If I’d cooked a ham recently, then I’d tell them they’d found the magic stone to make Stone Soup! (I never actually put a stone in the soup. In my version of the story, the magic stone disappears when the soup is made.)

Here’s my recipe:

Rilla’s Stone Soup

3 cups of water
1 hambone with some meat pieces still attached

Heat to a boil in pot on the stove. Simmer until the meat falls off the bone. Remove any pieces with gristle and remove the bone. Add:

5-6 potatoes, diced
4-5 carrots, sliced
1 onion, minced (almost puree for tikes)
salt & pepper to taste
3 cups of water
1/4 to 1/3 cup ham drippings

Cook until carrots and potatoes are done. Add:

14 ½ oz can turnip greens

Simmer a few more minutes. Serve with bread or crackers.

And here are two important ingredients for storytelling:

1. Be animated. Use your hands and your expressions. Play the parts. Be vocally dynamic to convey the mood of the story and the feelings of the characters.

2. Use tangibles. Anything that is experienced through the senses sticks in a child’s mind like glue. And it doesn’t have to be food. Stealing out of the house to a patch of woods beside a buggy little pond to share a book like The Witch of Blackbird Pond makes a setting come alive for a young mind.

Essentially, aren’t these the things that make a book magical, too? We write about the physical actions of the characters, how they feel, and their mannerisms. We write about what they see and smell and hear to make it come alive, to make it memorable.

Rilla's Stone Soup
Rilla’s Stone Soup

So, the moral of this story is: Never judge soup by its name.

I Write of You, Solanum tuberosum

You know how I said I wasn’t going to write when I was really hungry? Scratch that. I was thinking about potatoes today. Potatoes are really one of the easiest foods to make. You basically put them in the oven on a low setting. Sometimes I even remember them a few hours later. I’m not the most reliable cook because of the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. If I remember to set a timer, everything’s fine. Otherwise, it better be potatoes in the oven. Can they be overcooked? It’s been my luck they are always done when I recall where they are.

They have a starchy satisfaction to them. Everybody understands what it means to say, “A real meat and potatoes kinda guy.” You can take him at face value; no need to ask about salad dressings or anything. Potatoes are the same way, hearty and dependable.

A potato complements almost anything. Simple butter, some salt and pepper, and it’s done. Restaurants add all kinds of toppings, like broccoli and red onion. Have you ever watched a person’s eyes when the server begins listing the toppings on the “loaded,” “super loaded,” and “add more pig” potato? Me, either. I wasn’t ordering potatoes.

Recently, my sister found out she wasn’t eating enough starchy carbs in her diet, which resulted in her body working to convert the proteins. She was lethargic and losing weight. She and I happen to ascribe to the same diet, consisting of lots of cruciferous veggies and meats. For me white carbs, like rice, potatoes and noodles, are flavor squelchers. They don’t originate with the flavor, and they can even be known to mute it. I prefer a piping hot tray of mushroom tops with freshly minced garlic simmered in butter, or sautéed green beans.

So, I’ve decided to give ol’ Idaho a chance again. I’m thinking of composing a verse as an ode to this incredible tuber of the nightshade family. I plan to compliment its eyes, of course.

In case you think I’ve forgotten the point of this post, here it is:

A writer’s story is not like a potato.

Brilliant, eh?

1. The potato baking in the oven will forgive you when you forget about it, but your story may not forgive your neglect. Inspiration can be fleeting. If you don’t cultivate the plot and invest the time in seeing the story through, it may dry up to become but a few flecks of dull, unreadable scenes.

2. The potato’s starchy makeup will leave you feeling full. While I think an ending should leave one satisfied, a good story should leave one hungering for more from that author. It also doesn’t hurt anything to keep the reader wondering whether there might be a sequel.

3. Potatoes can be better with toppings, a.k.a., fillers. Stories? Bleck.

4. The flavor of a potato doesn’t change. Good old potatoes. They are the same all the way through. If a book were like that, it would have no readership.

Now I will return to my mountain top to meditate, and you may go on with your journey through the wilds of WordPress.