Friday, December 7, 2012

Leftovers, Lunches & Learning Lessons in the Kitchen

I felt so lucky today. I had some leftovers. Not just any leftovers.

Homemade Beef Stew. 
With emphasis on the Homemade part. 

It was sooo tasty! Big chunks of creamy potato. Sweet carrots. Lots of onion and garlic to make it flavorful. And a can each of corn and green beans. Okay, green beans aren't my fave in beef stew, but it gets the kids to eat them more than they do, and I am trying to be a good mom and give the little shavers a well rounded diet. The stew even had barley. I never remember to buy the stuff, but I had found a bag of it amongst my beans and oats in the back of the cupboards the other day. So extra hearty and flavorful, especially when I compared it to the bowl of orangey mac n' cheese in my preschooler's bowl. 
(He didn't want to share and neither did I, so we were both happy.)

As I was enjoying my bowl of soup, I was grateful I didn't have to make it from scratch today. Way too busy. But when I had made it two days ago, the process had started at lunchtime, so the beef would be tender and flavorful by dinnertime. Earlier in the week, I'd made Chicken Noodle Soup. From scratch as well. Again, I started it hours ahead of time.

Now, I'm not  all 'Whole Foods'. Nor do I eat homemade, organic, wheatgerm pasta with sauce made from tomatoes grown in my garden, from seeds I planted nine months ago.

I just happened to have a mom who stayed home and taught me a lot of her homemaking skills. And I lived close to her when I was newly married so I could go over and really pay attention, now that I needed to know that stuff.

I don't make ALL my meals from scratch,either. Heaven help me, I've got 5 boys! I do not have enough time for that! But some afternoons/evenings, it works out to do that. 
Especially since cooking from scratch is so much cheaper than the more fully prepared varieties. And since my dear husband is a school teacher, you can guess why "cheap" is an often used word in our household.

But cooking from scratch has a great side benefit if one is a writer of fiction of any variety earlier than the last forty years. Because every character, though only between the pages of a book, they gotta eat. And if they live before McDonald's existed and don't have enough money for servants or eating out every night, they gotta be able to find their way around the kitchen, even if it's just to make scrambled eggs or make toast (and I'm not taking about in a toaster either!!!).

So far, my stories are set in pre-kitchen appliance times. And food then was never fast or convenient. A medieval guy's version of fast food was a hunk of cheese and a heel of bread. Easy to carry in one's pouch, purse. Easy to grab and go. (Though of course the bread had to be made before hand.)
Or, if the season was right, some berries or nuts off the bushes. Highly convenient when that happens. 
Really not convenient if it's late autumn to early spring. Nothing's available. 
And no corner grocery store.
Or $5 Little Ceasar.

Oh my goodness, we are so blessed! 

As I've been writing these stories and sticking in a few details here or there about feasts, everyday meals, and snacks, I've  pondered how much our eating habits have changed over a hundred years. There is so much preparation that we skip now days. 
Washing and chopping vegetables. 
Browning and slow cooking tough cuts of meat. 
Heck, we don't even have to butcher the animals! 
 For that matter, I don't have to keep my husband and boys chopping wood all year, so I can have a fire in my fireplace/stove to cook my dinner. I don't have to bend over that hot fire.
I don't have to be careful of keeping my skirts from the embers. I don't have to worry about catching fire while cooking my stew. 
(I've read that a hundred and fifty years ago, more women died from cooking related injuries than any other cause of death, except childbirth.)

When writing a historical novel, or historically based fantasy novel (which is me!), one must not only think of the differences in clothes, transportation and housing. But food (and how one gets it or prepares it), is a very important part of a character's life. And if that character is not modern or isn't a child anymore, then a good deal of consideration should go into what efforts they must make to obtain their 'daily bread'.

At my last SCBWI conference, I was in an intensive with Carolyn Yoder, editor for Calkins Creek Books,and a senior editor at Highlights magazine, who spoke about common mistakes she stumbles across in manuscripts. One thing she mentioned three different times in those three hours, was:
"Make sure your characters eat!"
(And make sure it is historically correct.)

Now, if you are looking for help in the kitchen or in your text-only kitchen, I recommend the following resources: 
Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book or Baking Book
(Lots of side notes, pictures and explanations)

Good Housekeeping Cook Book
(My mother-in-law gave me her old one and I learned much from that tattered copy)
(Lots of great photos from start to finish. Not historical per say, but very good step by step directions for yummy food.)
There are lots of food blogs out there, I just find Jamie's a very easy to follow, simple ingredients, but still good kind of blog.

Or, really the best resource....
Go to your church or synagogue or other organization that has regular 'pot-luck' type gatherings and ask around for the lady who brings the best dishes.
Casserole, soup, rolls, pies, homemade candy, etc.
Find this lady (it possibly could be a fellow), and ask to become her student. Offer to go in halfsies on the ingredients and make/eat dinner together.
 Or invite over some friends. Or a family in need.
 Or a group of starving artists that you've been dying to have an evening with.
Or maybe take candy lessons from one person, bread making lessons from another, and learn to make homemade noodles from yet another.
This will cost little and give so much back to you by way of personal enrichment and expanding of your world, both personally and in culinary matters.
If this person happens to be older and lives alone, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Start asking questions. Find out where she (or he) learned her skills. At her mothers side? In a cafe? During WWII using ration coupons? Lots of amazing conversations will soon follow. And plenty of inspiration, I am sure.

So, expand your horizon in culinary matters, and see how much your life can be enriched.

I shall let you ruminate, masticate and digest these thoughts with only two more words from culinary connoisseur, Julia Child:

Bon Appetit!


  1. Here's a blog you might enjoy. Recipes and frugal ideas galore-

  2. Thanks Ben for sharing! I checked it out and felt a little overwhelmed. I am not on the boat for gluten-free, dairy-free etc. Nobody in my family has food allergies, so I just buy regular grains, milks, and other ingredients.

    I do buy some ingredients in bulk, though not as much as pennilessparenting.

    My in-laws however, are big "preppers" (Prepared for natural or distopian disasters) so Christmas gifts from them the past several years have been huge quantities of oats, beans, wheat (to grind for flour), a grinder for the flour and powdered milk.

    I feel slightly paralyzed sometimes when I look in our pantry. Do I used the wonderful gifts or do I whip out a box of Zatarains/Rice-a-roni and call it good? If I've postponed dinner prep later than 5pm, then the box of flavored rice is chosen. If its still before the kids come home, I try to be a good frugal mommy and grab a scoop of beans to soak or start some bread dough rising.

    I guess my emphasis today was more for the experience of cooking and learning a skill that could enrich one's life (and enhance one's writing).

    But it can seem overwhelming. I know that after watching a TV chef pull off an exquisite meal in a half an hour, I feel completely inept. But, last December my church ladies group asked the resident candy maker to teach us all how to make English toffee and peanut brittle. After watching her do it in real time and helping to stir, I tried it myself at home. My first attempt was a little underdone. My second, scorched. But my third attempt was good enough to share with friends. I had gained confidence and a new skill.

    Maybe I need a new blog post for this? My comment is getting a little long!!! :)

  3. I'll help you navigate the site.

    There are some good recipes, including this one for homemade flour tortillas-

    Here's a link to MSG-free taco, chili, and fajita seasoning mixes-

    As far as rice goes, I lived in Japan for 3 months back in 1998, and learned the secret to perfect rice.

    That secret is a rice cooker, which you can buy for as little as $20-25. Here's a link to Amazon's best selling rice cooker-

    This one is a lot easier to use, as it's just click the button once rice is added and it will automatically turn off when rice is finished-

    Wash the rice with cold water 3-4 times, until the water is clear. The water in the pot should be about 3/4 inch above the rice, click it on, and perfect rice in about 15-20 minutes.

    You can use that method on the stove top as well, but using a rice cooker is the fool proof way to do it.

    P.S. This is Ben from your 9th grade algebra class, by the way.

  4. Hi Ben,

    Thanks! And I remember you from high school. :) It looks like you are quite the culinary master!!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. Writing and reading historical fiction certainly does remind us how blessed we are today.

  6. Yes! Refrigerators, gas stoves and microwaves have revolutionized cooking....Such a different world from a century ago! :)