Street Food

Why is street food something I’m willing to break all the rules for? I’m a bit of a germiphobe when it comes to food. Like, I don’t care if something was dropped on MY kitchen floor. I’ll wipe that off and throw it on the plate and eat it. But I’m always leery of other people’s germs getting on my food.

For example, I rarely eat at buffet restaurants or eat the salad bar. I am just super freaked out about the fact that the masses eating at these restaurants have direct access to the food. I know there are tongs and spoons and that silly glass that is supposed to protect the food from them, but we’ve all seen what crazy things people do. And we have no idea when the last time they washed their hands. Like I want to wash my hands after I touch the tongs behind the person in front of me before I go eat the food.

But street food defies everything. Give me the most unregulated looking guy selling tamales outside a grocery store or a lady with a pop up tent on a dirt road in Belize and I have no qualms about eating those tacos she’s selling. Food trucks are the greatest thing ever because they bring this to life, even though in a somewhat more regulated way than the tamale guy hitting the bars late at night. Unfortunately, Chicago stifles the food trucks way too much, and so the ability to enjoy them is more limited, but I have hiked an insane distance in the middle of a workday to get to them.

Part of my desire to travel is inspired by food. I cannot wait to visit more countries where street vendors are encouraged and enjoyed by all. And I swear to you, the more unregulated it looks, the more likely I am to go ahead and order 2 of them. I have no idea why they don’t trigger my insane germophobic tendencies, but I love street food. Well, I love food in general, but you get the idea.

Cooking Binge

I occasionally go on cooking binges. I don’t mean eating binges. I mean cooking. This weekend has been a prime example. Friday night, I got the urge to cook all the things, so I made a grocery list. Those who know me know that I am not a “get up and get going” personality in the morning. But Saturday morning, I got up, got dressed and went to grocery store number one to get items on my list for all the things I wanted to make this weekend. I came back home, unloaded those, ate breakfast and then set out for another trip to my local spice shop, my favorite local cheese stop, and my local grocery, Harvest Time, for the rest of the ingredients.

On Saturday, I made homemade gnocchi with a mushroom mornay sauce. This started with first making ricotta cheese. It was a fun adventure. I’ve never tried making my own cheese but have always wanted to do so. It was pretty simple. Mine did not come out exactly like a store bought ricotta, but I think that was impatience on my part. It was just a little thinner, but it tasted awesome. I used the ricotta in the gnocchi batter along with cheddar and Parmesan. Apparently, with more patience and pressing, I can also make paneer, so that will surely happen soon. I also made some more hummus while waiting on the cheese to set.

On Sunday, I started a pot of chili around noon and let it simmer 8 hours. When I make chili, nothing comes from a can generally. This was fresh tomatoes, dried kidney beans, etc., so you need the time to simmer and get all the ingredients cooked down properly. I also made Morning Glory Muffins for Eleanor, but this time I substituted walnut pieces for pecans. We’ll see if she notices a difference. The walnuts are one-third the price of pecans currently. I finished the evening by making a Chicken Pot Pie because I’ve been experimenting with the recipe and wanted to try a new technique on the roux.

The good news is that the chili and the muffins freeze well, and Katie took a large portion of the gnocchi to her dad’s house, so while we do have a ton of leftovers, it should just provide lunches and dinners throughout the week for the husband and I. The bad news was that my poor husband has done a lot of dishes this weekend. (We do not have a dish washer.) He tells me it’s okay because he loves the food.

Weirdness from a 9 year old on food

Eleanor is 9, so sometimes, she’s a super interesting tiny human. (She hates when I call her a tiny human, and in fairness, she is taller than every other kid in her grade and probably the grade above her.) However, kids at this age, while wildly frustrating at times, are also still in that most interesting phase where they are still developing their own ideas and opinions. This starts about the time they start school and start being exposed to new opinions and customs and such that are different from what they know from their family. It’s kind of really cool.

So recently, I’ve been taking note of some of these interesting ideas, beliefs, etc that come from her. Some make me laugh. Some are just crazy wrong. But they are all interesting. As an example, she likes broccoli stems. She prefers the stems over the florets. I think it’s partly a texture thing, but I found it interesting. It also made me observe how little stem is on the broccoli sold at most grocery stores. This is likely because most people prefer the florets. But that either means the stems are being thrown away, which is a food-waste problem, or it means they are being separated and, I don’t know, sent to companies that make pot pies and cream of broccoli soups? I hope so, but I am concerned they are being wasted.

Another funny example recently took place because she was doing a theater program for school. It was the week of the actual performance, so she had to be at school later than normal. When we picked her up, she had not been able to eat her snack, so she ate it on the way home. She had apple slices, and they had browned slightly, as they do. Owen asked her if she minded that, and she informed us that she likes it because the brown makes the apple a little sweeter and it tastes good. Who knew? We’ve been avoiding apple slices because we figured the browning would totally be a “no” with all her picky eating habits. I guess we know why there is a saying about assumptions.

Trust me, there are so many antidotes, many unrelated to food that I could share, but for this blog, we’ll stick to food. She also watches a ton of Food Network (No, I’m not solely to blame for that!) and so her descriptions of food, even if sometimes made up because she doesn’t really have a reason not to like a dish, are very articulate at least. But they almost always have a little bit of that 9 year old innocence and peculiarity that is so entertaining!

Cooking my stress away

My husband often thinks I look stressed in the kitchen. I’m sure I do. But in reality, cooking is my favorite form of stress relief. I’m one of those people who often has trouble shutting my brain off for even a few seconds. Yoga, while great, does not do it for me. I need something that consumes my mind, and cooking does that for me.

I can spend hours reading cookbooks and searching recipes. Give me a new cookbook, and you can guarantee I’ll read it cover-to-cover like I just found the newest best-seller. Even though I rarely follow a recipe as written, I get so many ideas and just general technique knowledge. Also, several of my “cookbooks” are really more about technique than the actual recipes.

Stress-eating is one of those things we are not supposed to do, right? So, stress-cooking, while totally relaxing, does present a dilemma. What do you do with all that food? Sometimes I do go overboard, and like today, we still have part of a pot pie, homemade ricotta, gnocchi, muffins…okay, too many leftovers in our fridge still at the end of the week. But this just means that my stress-cooking binges also require strategic planning. So there’s one more thing for me to obsess and focus on when planning my binge the night before that takes my mind off whatever life stresses I’m trying to escape!

I have a few simple rules I try to remember before going on such a binge:

  • Variety: I try to make sure I make some foods that are hearty meals and some that are great snack or breakfast items. So maybe one dish is a hummus, dip or pasta salad that’s good served cold.
  • Storage: I consider how long each food will last and make sure I make some that can be frozen, or sometimes my food fun involves dehydrating foods that can then be stored in the cabinet. While I haven’t done much of it, pickling is also a good option to consider.
  • Weather: I also consider and plan for what the weather is going to be while cooking as well as the week ahead. This seems obvious, but I don’t want to run the oven for 3 hours if it’s hot out, and I’m probably not smoking meat in the rain. Also, if I know it’s going to warm all week, soup is probably not going to be eaten.

So yes, sometimes I do look stressed while cooking. But that stress actually makes me feel better. It’s like when you go for a nice run, and at the end you’re out of breath and aching. It feels great even if it looks a little disturbing. And at the end of cooking, I get to share my creations!

When is this food appropriate?

Some people believe there are certain seasons when you should eat certain foods. For example, soups and casseroles are typically thought of as foods good when it’s cold outside. There are also people who think certain foods are for certain times of the day. The best example of this is that until recently, you could only get a Sausage McMuffin at during a certain time frame because that is a “breakfast food”.

While I will admit that I enjoy some foods more in certain seasons, I am definitely a rebel when it comes to whether my food choice is time appropriate. Yes, I eat more salads and cold sandwiches typically when it’s hot. And yes, I have ordered soup before a meal just to warm up on one of those horrifically cold Chicago days in January. But I will also eat chili for pretty much any meal, any day of the week. I don’t care if it’s 110 outside, I will still eat a bowl of chili. Did I mention I really love chili? And while, no, I won’t bake and heat up my house to make my chicken pot pie (recipe to come, working on a new rendition) when it’s 100 degrees outside, I might smoke a pork roast!

Who decided certain foods were “breakfast” foods. It wasn’t the French. In Paris, omelets are definitely available all day. When I was a kid, one of my favorite meal memories is “pancake night.” My father would make pancakes for dinner. We had the whole breakfast works with it, including the all-star BACON! And in Chicago and the surrounding area, putting an egg on a burger is considered as normal as my southern family would consider cheese. So if you can order an egg on your burger, why can’t you get 2 eggs over easy and some hashbrowns at dinner?

I say go with your cravings. If you want a couple fried eggs and toast as dinner or a midnight snack, do it! If you want to grab a giant t-bone and baked potato at 8 a.m., you should, and who cares that you’re going to need a nap by noon! I like food. I like to enjoy my food. And I think everyone should just embrace the simple joys in life. For me, that is food. For others, who knows. But if what brings you that little bit of joy doesn’t hurt anyone else, eat it up!

Trying to feed the sick and the weary

Nothing is worse than when your kid gets sick. I don’t care how old they are, you feel helpless in a way you never thought possible. I remember the very first time Melanie, my oldest, got sick. She was four months old. It was allegedly a cold. We ended up in the emergency room and spending a couple of days in the hospital because of “pneumonia” (this is in quotes because we’d later learn that there was a bigger issue). I had a four month old who couldn’t breath. We spent the better part of a year in an out of hospitals and seeing all kinds of doctors. It turned out that she had a slight developmental delay that was causing her esophagus not the function properly, which was causing her to get fluids in her lungs. With some great medical professionals and time, she outgrew it.

However, now that I’ve tugged your heart strings a bit (don’t worry, she’s barely ever had so much as a cold since), let’s talk about feeding the sick kid. Before the doctors figured out what was happening, we spent a year or so with the child projectile vomiting on a pretty regular basis. Doctors told me about the “BRAT” diet. We tried. But she would only eat the bananas. But, we discovered some foods she could eat. Mashed potatoes can be a great food for a little one that is having tummy troubles. Sure, I kept them a little more bland than I do for myself these days, but they are mild, can be made rather subtle in flavor, and yet are filling. Oatmeal was also a big hit. Again, you can keep it simple, just add a little applesauce or any pureed fruit.

As they’ve grown older, we’ve experienced all manners of illness, as kids do. Mashed potatoes are still a prime choice with the older two. The youngest one won’t touch them. I will have to say the youngest as not been sick often, and it’s usually just a cold, so it doesn’t really impact her eating other than how much energy she has or is using. And my oldest is “adulting,” so I have not had to cater to her during an illness lately.

But I recently went through an illness with Katie, and it reminded me of what a challenge this can be. We came up with some options to eat when you are suffering from one of those illnesses where you are sure anything you put in your stomach will not stay. Plain pasta is a good option. She prefers ramen noodles without the seasoning, but any plain pasta would work. Toast also works if your child will eat it without the usual spreads. Quinoa or rice with just a bit of salt is gentle. The aforementioned bananas or mashed potatoes are an option. Hot tea can also be good if you choose a mild-flavored tea. The best is find something not too filling, not too spicy, but that is edible.

Hopefully, the kids just never get sick and can just eat what they like. But since we don’t live in a fairy tale, I thought I would share some minor thoughts that occurred to me.

Dehydrating Foods

I purchased a rather inexpensive food dehydrator years ago because Melanie liked dried fruit so much, and stores charge an absurd amount for the smallest quantities. Seriously, they dried them. They didn’t add gold dust, did they? But I’ve recently rediscovered this simple machine as an answer to my concerns about food waste, and it has produced some incredibly tasty results.

Our kitchen inexplicably ripens fruits and vegetables in a fraction of the time one would expect. This is great if say, you bought avocados that aren’t quite ripe and you want guacamole tomorrow. This is not good if you need to have fruits and vegetables for the kid for the week and you don’t want to hit the grocery store 2-3 times a week. I’m not even kidding about how fast it happens. We have had an avocado go from hard and underripe to wrinkled and absolutely inedible overnight.

Mushrooms, which Eleanor, well, all the girls, just love especially do not fair well. I have maybe 2 days to make them or they’re garbage. I’m told you shouldn’t eat fungus that starts growing fungus. I’ll do some thinking on that one later, I guess. Anyway, we had some mushrooms that came in our produce delivery, and I knew we weren’t going to have an opportunity to cook them before they would go bad. So I broke out the dehydrator, washed them, and dried them overnight. It turns out, you just need some warm water and 30 minutes to rehydrate mushrooms and to use your dishes. Now, any time we find mushrooms on sale, we buy a few packages and dehydrate them for later use.

And dried fruit is just awesome. I remember my mother eating orange peels when I was a kid. Now, I don’t remember if this memory may have been during a time she was pregnant with one of my siblings or if, as I remember it, this was just a normal thing for her. I always thought it was crazy. I tried them and I did not see the appeal. But recently, I decided to dehydrate some oranges because they were going to go bad. It turns out that dehydrated orange peels taste fantastic. The orange part is pretty good too. And let’s not even get started on apples and bananas.

Dehydrated tomatoes make an excellent additive to pasta sauces and salads. I’m also considering adding them to a galette like you would sundried tomatoes to a pizza. I’ve only dehydrated cherry tomatoes, but I imagine this will work well with any type of tomato.

I haven’t tried dehydrating meat, but we all know it’s just around the corner. With my love of cured and smoked meats, I have to at some point decide to dive in and try making my own jerky. Currently, I’m experimenting with blackberries to see how that comes out. I didn’t get too brave with this; I just threw 3 or 4 in with the oranges that are currently in the dehydrator.