Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cream of Mushroom Soup... Let me count the ways!

Cream of mushroom soup is incredible.

It is hard to overstate the glorious awesomeness of cream of mushroom soup. It has literally been our mealtime savior for the past year, ever since I realized just how many things one can make from it. (I think the wife is getting tired of it, which is part of the drive to create ever-new recipes using it!)
My obssession with cream of mushroom soup (hereafter known as COMS) began in 2009, when I was staying with my parents whilst easing into a new job situation. A day rolled around where I figured I'd be nice and cook lunch for my siblings as a token of thanks for my parents' generosity. I settled on cooking chicken with a white sauce.

I had never in my life cooked any kind of white sauce, and was certain I was going to screw something up. It has close to a million (okay exaggeration, probably around 800,000) ingredients, and is quite easy to burn and/or have stick to the bottom of the pot in a sort of white sludge. I did get it right on the first try, but just barely. And it took a REALLY long time to make. Food with white sauce was officially off of my A-list of lunch items.

Until I discovered that COMS (cream of mushroom soup) has almost everything that your run-of-the-mill white sauce requires. It already has the buttermilk, the consistency, a lot of flavor which happens to be diverse enough for several applications, and mushrooms (I am part hobbit, I think...). My first white sauce after the original attempt used a can of COMS, a pad of butter, a scoop of sour cream, and milk. That's it. Those are all things that are generally around the kitchen anyways for other things, and since we buy off-brand practically all the time, a can of COMS usually costs about a buck.

So, over the week, be sure to look for recipes involving cream of mushroom soup. I assure you that we have taste-tested all of these recipes for quality and general tastiness (we sort of invented them). At some point I will have stretched the limit of what COMS can do, but at the moment I don't think we are anywhere near that limit yet. Hee hee. --Nick

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Zizi-ology of Cooking

I’ve worked in many restaurants in my, albeit short, time in the public work force, but in that time I have had some wonderful opportunities. I have also been spoilt.  It’s a bit of a comedown to have pasta for three days in a row after having lagonstinoes, fresh swordfish and prime cut steaks at my fingertips—and that I could have for lunch daily.  (Actually, as employees we were not allowed to have the more expensive things very often, and I didn’t like the swordfish anyway.)  
With so many raw ingredients available I wasn’t going to stick to the menu items for my lunch.  I began to experiment.  I’d add fried corn, onions and bacon to the leek soup; one of my favorites was to take the house-made raspberry vinaigrette and fry chopped bacon, onions and our own linguini, and then top it with shredded asiago cheese.  I once made shrimp cocktail simply to see if I could make cocktail sauce; it wasn’t on the menu and I served it to the human resources manager with the hopes of him suggesting it to the chef. 
The best thing was when the chef wanted new items.  I had brought in my own bananas one day and made some banana bread just for the staff (I had a soft spot for the waiters and made them special food often), a few days later the chef asked for the recipe and featured my banana bread on the Sunday brunch menu.   For the restaurant’s 100th anniversary (which was around Christmas) chef wanted to do a special menu and asked me to find a good coconut pie recipe.  I went through all my cookbooks and found one, and then I tweaked it to my liking and served it to him.  We ran that pie through the following spring; one of our customers liked it so much he bought a half of a pie and had us ship it to his home in California! 
What’s the point of all these ramblings?  There is none, I just want to reminisce.
Seriously though, with the opportunities that I’ve had I was able to learn how to cook by taste and smell.   It’s like the way Remy cooks in the movie Ratatouille.  I’ve also learned what certain foods taste like and what tastes go well with what. 
So, now that we’re poor and have no food, I can cook what food we do have and make it taste good.  I can take five or six basic things and pull together an interesting meal.  A popular dinner is to take a few vegetables and some pasta and fry it all together with some pseudo-sauce.   For instance, mustard, lemon juice, vinegar and oil make a half decent lemon vinaigrette; substitute sour cream and milk for the mustard and lemon juice and you come up with a tasty white sauce.   I’ve also played with spices—as we have them.  Coriander is a wonderful compliment to curry. 
To wrap up, aside from the ego-trip that this turned out to be, I’ll say that just because you’re poor doesn’t mean that you have to eat a mundane rice casserole every day. 
Happy Cooking!--Zizi.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Our son seemed to enjoy the aforementioned fish cakes!

Fish Cakes

I was sitting outside with my neighbor, Sandra, one evening and she asked me if I liked salmon. It was completely out of the blue and I wasn’t expecting it.  I do like salmon, and I told her so.  She then said she had a can of salmon for me.   Then she told me how she likes to eat her salmon and told me how she makes salmon cakes.  It was a few days later that I got around to picking up the promised can of salmon, and when I did she also had a small box of corn muffin mix for me.  Two days later I did what she had suggested and made salmon cakes, served with corn muffins.   Sandra’s recipe was very basic, and over the next few weeks I experimented with what different ingredients I had.
  I’ve found that using stuffing mix is good—it adds a variety of flavors (especially if you’re using tuna), but that if you use too much it will make the cakes too dry to cook properly.  I’d like to try a combination of canned chicken and chicken flavored stuffing.  --Zizi
Fish Cakes
1can of salmon**
1 egg
2tbsp breadcrumbs or stuffing
*3-4tbps mayonnaise
*1tbps chopped onion
*1clove garlic, chopped
Dash of sage
Dash of paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl and let sit until the breadcrumbs are soft.
Fry in oil or butter till golden brown.
Serve with a baked potato and steamed broccoli,
or over a bed of lettuce with shredded cheese.
*indicates optional ingredients
**may substitute canned tuna or canned chicken

Fear Not, Noble and Slightly Impoverished Citizens!

There was one day when the two of us, a newly-engaged and not-terribly-wealthy couple, came back to my (Nick's) apartment one night and decided that the two of us were extremely hungry. As it turned out, there was only an assortment of odds and ends around the kitchen without much to choose from.
I looked at my soon-to-be-wife and said, "I'll cook!" She decided to let me play out my chef's fantasy as she sat on a nearby stool and watched bemusedly. (She has cooked at several restaurants and is an amazing gournet chef. However, she chose to be awesome and keep her mouth shut while I fumbled around trying to do it myself.)

A half-hour or so later, I had created my first dish, affectionately titled by the two of us the Poor Man's Meal. It consists of boiled spaghetti (or angel hair), mixed in with canned butter beans, canned peas, garlic, sometimes onions, chick peas, and all fried together into a wonderful mess of tastiness with any kind of oil you can get your hands on along with a good dash of Greek salad dressing.

From that one humble meal, made for the first time three years ago (and still going strong!) came recipe after recipe we developed, using some of the cheapest ingredients available on the store shelves. We might look at an existing recipe and discover that one ingredient on the list is too expensive, so we modify the recipe to do without or take something cheaper. That particular recipe might become ethnically inaccurate in consequence, but it's hard to care when you are on a shoestring budget.

We are here to prove that there need not be complete compromise in food the lower your income gets. Of course, sea scallops won't be available every day, but there is so much awesomeness out there to discover and be discovered concerning food. Our quest for new recipes has actually led me (Nick) to become something of a cook myself, purely because I love doing it.

So just because your income hovers around the federally-determined poverty line does NOT mean that your diet need consist of 90-cent hot dog packages and low-grade baked beans for every meal. There is another way!