Thursday, December 16, 2010

Fast Food

I vividly remember the very first time I tried to cook for real.  I was standing next to my mom in our kitchen in our Boston apartment.  I was seven and had just immigrated from England so that my dad could work in the brand new sports complex at Boston University.  He was off at work and I was home due to Christmas break.  Mom and I were going to make a pie together.  I don't remember what kind.  Could have been meat could have been apple.  My mom laid the cookbook in front of me open to the pie crust recipe.    She also piled the ingredients in front of me on the table.  I very carefully and precisely measured out each item in the ingredient list and placed it in the bowl.  I felt very grown up and wanted to do this perfectly.  After putting everything in the bowl I got to the instructions and realized that there were specific steps to follow and I immediately burst into tears.  I was mortified.  I had screwed up everything.  My wonderful mom consoled me and told me that it was okay and that everything would be fine and it wasn't a big deal.  Hence the memory is seared into my brain.

I've cooked ever since then going through various phases.  I've gone through the homemade bread phase, the baking phase, the vegetarian phase, the gourmet chef phase.  I'm still in the organic phase.  I am self taught.  I've only ever taken one chocolate making class in the now defunct Kitchen Etc store.  Since I have been cooking for 41 years now I have gotten quite good at it. The Joy of Cooking and The French Chef cookbooks no longer scare me and I have a huge collection of pans and utensils.  I also make a killer pot roast and flourless chocolate cake.

I have found that now that I am living the chronic life I have had to change my cooking style drastically.  I used to make elaborate meals where I even made the dinner rolls from scratch.  Nothing came from a box and everything was fresh.  The only thing in my freezer was ice cubes and the only cans in my pantry were cat food. 

The first adjustment I had to make was about ten years ago when I found out that I had osteoarthritis of the spine.  I have bone spurs on several vertebrae right at my bra line.  They pinch the nerve that wraps around my left lower rib cage and on a bad day makes it very painful for me to even breath.  Turns out my arthritis is aggravated when I hold my hands out in front of me for any length of time, i.e. doing any type of assembly work such as sewing or chopping vegetables.  I gave up sewing until recently and had to modify my cooking.  Since that day I gave up making dishes that required lots of vegetable chopping such as ratatouille and I gave up breadmaking from scratch.  Kneading bread sent me running for the bottle of pain meds.  I started hunting for anything that was presliced.  Thank goodness baby carrots had just some onto the market and someone had the bright idea ot sell presliced mushrooms (love my fungi).  So I couldn't make bread and ravioli from scratch anymore, not a huge loss.  A few minor adjustments and I kept on cooking.

The second adjustment came about five years ago and was massive.  I discovered I had a severe wheat sensitivity.  While I didn't have a true allergy (eating wheat didn't send me into anaphylaxsis), eating wheat regularly made me bloated, caused plumbing problems (to put it politely), caused horrible fatigue and severe brain fog.  It was affecting my work horribly and almost cost me my job. 

Now five years ago there weren't any prepackaged GF anything available.  You had to make everything from scratch and Betty Hagman's books were the only ones on the market.  I bought her books and found she couldn't cook very well (sorry) so I had to modify a lot of her recipes.  I found rice bread unpalatable so gave up sandwiches; one of my all time fav foods on the planet.  And to this day I crave pizza that tastes like the real deal.  I discovered that in the US wheat is added to EVERYTHING.  OMG, what is the deal with the American pallet?  Anything that came in a packet had wheat in it.  So I struggled along, made lots of rice, ate more vegetables and built up a new cooking repertoire.

Now the third adjustment.  I am on the verge of having an honest to God CFS diagnosis.  I am on the severe end of the scale.  I am mostly housebound and have the occasion several days running where I can't even get off the couch.  I go out for doctor appointments and now that I have a wheelchair I can go grocery shopping again.  I live mostly on my couch.   Thank God I have the internet and I love to read, write and watch movies or I would be having a nutty about now.  To give you an idea of how bad I am hubby had to buy me  a shower stool so that I could bathe myself.  Most days I can't stand up in the shower either I dont' have the energy or I get too dizzy and it is just safer if I sit.  You can imagine that as prime cook for the family this has caused some HUGE issues in our marriage and family life.  I've written about some the blow outs in prior posts.

So I'm in the middle of my third huge adjustment to my cooking.  I started the food blog Fast Foodie to chronicle some of the recipes and tips I discover along the way which can help other chronic chicks in the kitchen.  So what does my kitchen look like now?  What is in my freezer besides ice cubes and my pantry besides cat food?

We had to buy a fridge with a bigger freezer.  Most of my GF baked goods I buy frozen.  This makes it easy to defrost (keep fresh) as needed since I am the only family member with this problem.  The stuff is so expensive I don't want any of it to go to waste.

Also in there are bags and bags and bags of vegetables: chopped onions, sliced carrots, peas, chopped broccoli, diced squash, veg mixes.  There are also a lot of herbs.  I found these wonderful frozen cubes of basil, garlic, parsley, oregano and the like.  Each cube is the equivalent of one teaspoon and the garlic cube equals one bulb.  However since it is frozen fresh beware; the garlic is atomic and one cube has the flavor of 3 or 4 bulbs depending how long the fresh has been sitting around.

Packets of frozen rice.  This is a wonderful invention and I encourage you to look for it.  I've found it in my local grocer in the organic freezer section or at Whole Foods.  The rice is already cooked and flash frozen so all you need to do is heat it up.  Either it can be served as is or I tend to add it to soups or crockpot dishes.

  • Single serve packets of tuna. 
  • Many many jars of tomato sauce and cans of diced toms. 
  • Many cans of beans of different types; lentils, black, butter and baked.  I love how I can just rinse these off (except the baked of course) and dump them into a dish.  Very convenient. 
  • Several aseptic packs of chicken and mushroom stock.  Also aseptic packs of GF turkey gravy. 
  • Cans of peaches and pears.  I love eating fruit and can't get to the market often enough to keep fresh in the house all the time. 
  • Packets of all sorts of rice and pasta ( I prefer corn and corn blends to rice pasta).  I love different flavors of rice.  I must have every type of Lundberg rice mix they make along with some specials like bamboo green rice and Bhutanese red rice. 
  • Lots of packets of GF mixes for brownies and cakes.  And recently GF Bisquick mix which makes wonderful pancakes.
  • Bottles of different cooking wines; they have a long shelf life and add an easy burst of flavor. 
  • Boxes of risotto mix.  I can only make this on good days though since it involves too much stirring.

Indispensable Tools:
  • Rice cooker.  Must have!  Just add water/stock and rice, turn on and walk away. 
  • Crock pot.  Another must have.  Again throw stuff in, turn on and walk away. 
  • Mandolin slicer.  This takes way less energy to slice things up than a knife.  You just have to be careful not to take the tip of your finger off with it. 
  • A very good vegetable peeler.  I don't use this much just for peeling cucumbers but I prefer a weird type that slips over your finger to fit into the palm of your hand.  Very ergonomic. 
  • A bottle opener from Oxo good grips.  This takes very little energy and strength to open stuck lids.  Love the thing. 
  • Sharp knives and several cutting boards.  I try to use them as little as possible but they are necessary.  The sharper the knives are the less energy it takes to chop things.  It is worth it to invest in some good quality knives and keep them sharp. 
  • A good nonstick skillet with lid and spatter screen.  The screen allows you to cook messy stuff without having to clean up the stove afterwards.  Make sure the screen can go in the dishwasher so you have minimal cleanup.
  • Microwave oven.  Poohey on anyone that balks at this wonderful invention.  I use it to defrost my breads prior to toasting.  I cook the frozen vegetables in there in the serving dishes.  Hey, no pans to wash!  Bonus!  I also use it to heat up frozen rice.
  • Collander/strainer.  Another must have for draining and rinsing beans and pasta.  Again make sure it is dishwasher proof.
  • Food storage containers.  Keep all leftovers and freeze.  These can reheated in the wonderful microwave for homemade instant dinners.
Another adjustment I made is to sit down at the table to do the prep work.  I used to stand to cook but now I sit whenever possible.  Gotta save those spoons somehow.  Like my mom I pile everything I need on the table including bowls and measuring cups and spoons and then sit to chop, measure and stir.  BTW, I keep all of my measuring spoons in a coffee cup on the counter.  Makes it way easier to find what I'm looking for since I never liked having the little buggers chained together.  If it is a stovetop dish then I put the measured ingredients into separate bowls to take to the stove.  Yes, more dishes but that is why I have a kid and a dishwasher. 

I still haven't gotten to the point of making too much food and then freezing the leftovers.  No one in my house will eat leftovers except me and my freezer is already full.  However, it is a good idea and I might incorporate this strategy in the future.

As a chronic cook I am also constantly on the lookout for books and recipes that are fast, easy to make, have very few steps or I can modify as such.  Here are some resources:

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