Gift Guide 2021 #3 — In the Kitchen

This is the third installment of the Apt. 11D Gift Guide for 2021. Here’s the Intro. Part 1 was on investment clothing. Part 2 was about exercise and outdoor activity.

I love the transformative process, the magic, of converting a bag of ugly roots and berries, meat fresh from the butcher, and a handful of fragrant leaves from the pots on the back patio into a feast that lasts for days. It connects me with centuries of women across the world, who have fed humanity with these simple ingredients, a pot, and some fire. When I’m cooking, I’m on the prairie making venison stew in a hearth, reducing fish sauce in a stone home in the hills outside of Rome, grilling fresh caught salmon over a campfire. Those women, not the Instagram food stars, are my cooking role models.

But then there’s reality. Pre-pandemic, my reality involved feeding two constantly hungry teenage boys, while managing heavy chauffeuring after-school chores, without the help of a husband who was processing contracts on Wall Street. Since there wasn’t much time to channel my inner ancestor-women to create a three-hour stew on the average Tuesday, we resorted to burritos and other lower end, take out food.

After March 2020, food production in my house increased dramatically. Jonah wasn’t eating in the college cafeteria. Ian didn’t get lunch at school. On Fridays, Steve didn’t get his lunch at the biryani cart. Four people ate 21+ meals in my kitchen. Now that the boys are back in school and college, things have eased up, but we’re still not back to pre-pandemic eating styles.

We stopped get convenience food, because we are rushing around less, and Steve is home to help. In addition, the price of restaurants has gone up so significantly, that we don’t want to waste our restaurant budget on bad food. I would rather have one really good meal at a beautiful restaurant with energy and ambiance than get three tasteless, cold take out meals.

Last week for Thanksgiving and afterwards, I channeled the ancestor women, while brining my turkey that I got from the farm. I stuffed the bird with onions from the farmer’s market, and rosemary from Steve’s garden. Steve’s cranberry sauce recipe came from his great grandmother, whose roots go back to the second boat after the Mayflower. We roasted pumpkins for the pies. On Friday, I boiled down the bones of the bird, along with some nubby carrots and other leftover root vegetables to make ten quarts of stock, which are now frozen in mason jars. Broth is liquid life.

With all this cooking and stewing and boiling, I need solid, quality cooking tools that can withstand heavy use: Le Creuset dutch oven, solid knives, a thick cutting board, roasting pans, pots that nest together neatly in drawers, serious oven mitts, and salt and pepper shakers that won’t quit. And we use gadgets, because primitive cooking has its limits. So, we have an Instant Pot as a bean shortcut, a pasta machine, and a Cuisinart food processor.

At the same time, I am rethinking my cooking methods, because it’s suddenly become important that Ian quickly learns to cook. We’re looking at a residential program for him, where the students cook all their own meals. My pioneer woman thing isn’t the right approach for a 19-year old with autism living in an apartment, so we’re building a list of some no-nonsense meals under his belt, like hamburgers/salad/tater tots, chicken patties/frozen rice/frozen corn, and pasta for one. I spent some time with him in frozen section of the supermarket talking about possibilities.

The good news is that frozen dinners have come a long way from the Swanson frozen dinner days. (Ah, remember the Salisbury steak and apple pie? I loved frozen dinner night!) Anyone can easily eat really tasty, nutritious meals using all frozen ingredients. (I suppose I can channel a Siberian hunter gatherer cooking up some frozen mastodon steaks.) So, we making him a basic bachelor pad, autistic kid cookbook and buying some some basic tools. The best way to make those tater tots and frozen chicken patties is with an air fryer. So, I’m giving him one for Christmas along with his Switch video games.

Last night, Ian was in charge of making hamburgers. He cut the ground beef into five equal rectangles and then molded them into patties. I have to say that it never occurred to me to cut up ground meat like that before. So logical and smart.

28 thoughts on “Gift Guide 2021 #3 — In the Kitchen

  1. Love that your baby is learning to prepare and feed himself food that he wants!

    It’s a life skill I value highly because it’s one I struggle with, enough that I’ve lost some weight over the pandemic. The loss has been mostly OK (I had it to loose) but I’ve had to revisit my food & what I can prepare for myself in some of the same ways you are describing for I-an, “no nonsense” food. Am intrigued by the idea that an air fryer would be useful and look forward to updates when Ian is using one. I can’t handle the preparation of ground beef (or chicken) (grew up vegetarian, consume when it is prepared by others or in frozen form) and so am particularly impressed.

    My elder, who is pretty picky, has gotten the preparing food for herself down over the pandemic. She prepared meals carrying her purchases the grocery store, and up flights of stairs and is now off board and cooking with friends. Younger is at home, and doesn’t do as well; like me, he forgets about food until he is too hungry and then then can’t be bothered by anything that takes more than a couple of minutes to prepare. He’s going to need a board plan or some serious planning (or he’ll eat take out sandwiches every day).


  2. A friend who has worked from home during the pandemic has been able to develop her love of “pioneer woman” cooking, using new ingredient, raw materials, inventive flavors and experimentation. It’s been a concrete joy to hear about.

    (I have been making elaborate flower arrangements which give me joy but not physical sustenance)


  3. I love that Ian’s logical approach to dividing up the meat for patties was new to you.

    I’m struggling with Mr 14 – who loves to cook – but only ‘celebration’ style things. So lots of pannacotta – but no meat and 3 veg.

    I have a (super well organized) friend who presented each of her children with a home-made recipe book (family tested recipes & favourites) when they went flatting.

    Flats – shared housing – where a group of friends rent a house together – is a rite of passage here in NZ – both for uni-students and young adults – it’s their first experience of living co-operatively with people other than family, when they have to negotiate all the adult housekeeping stuff (Do we have a cleaning and cooking roster? What does ‘clean’ look like? When is ‘dinner’? Do we shop co-operatively (one buy for all the household), or separately (each buys their own), or a combination? What are the house rules for parties?, etc.)

    She reported that the daughter’s flat enjoyed the recipes, but the 2 sons flatmates were blown away by their cooking skills. Yet again, a reminder that girls are ‘expected’ to do this stuff – but boys get all the kudos when they do….


  4. We started a Google Folder to share recipes with our oldest when they were in college and spending the summer working on campus without a meal plan. The other kid joined when he went to college and is learning to branch out from pasta and bacon-and-eggs. It’s been a great way to share both the no-nonsense basics as well as the House Favorites and heirloom recipes. Now Kid#1 is adding recipes they think we would enjoy, and we’re learning from them!


  5. My 16-year-old has two chums and they’ve been rotating houses doing different cooking projects this fall. They’ve done tres leches cake, mochi (our house) and crepes so far. Our 16-year-old came home from the crepe project with a box of crepes, a sample of mascarpone, and a nice little container of homemade ganache. (I believe the hosting mom probably helped with the fancy fillings.)


    1. I let the broth cool down a bit before putting it in the jars and then I let the jars go down to room temp before putting them in the freezer. I guess I could do the proper canning method and store them in the basement, but I’m too lazy.


      1. We use deli containers for our frozen stock (and beans and gumbo), which lets us throw a container directly into a pot on the stove without defrosting it. I hadn’t thought of canning soup in jars until your post, and am now considering it for turning my gumbo into gifts.


      2. You leave space at the top of the jar for the soup to expand as it freezes.

        Our local grocery store offers soup frozen in plastic bags. The long, rectangular blocks are more space efficient in the freezer.

        I admit I don’t freeze broth, after an early experiment with homemade broth. The whole house smelled of it for quite some time, it took up useful freezer space, and I’m happy enough with using Better than Bouillon bases.

        I’ve been resisting buying an extra freezer for some time, because I don’t think we’d actually eat the frozen food. We’d just feel virtuous for having frozen stuff. The effect of relatives who survived the great depression and WWII lingers for my husband. He bought 40 lbs of dried chickpeas during the pandemic panic. I think that bag will sit on the shelf for a long time.


      3. My friend who had time to cook over the pandemic has been systematically using up all her purchased pandemic stock, sometimes very inventively (too inventively?).

        I went through my pantry for the first time in years and years when Laura did her first pandemic shopping (and pantry clearing) and need to do it again. I bought cans/pasta in the first run up when I thought we might not be able to leave the house that have probably expired.


      4. I use quart size freezer bags. Stock is cooled, then put in the bags. I lay them flat to freeze, then stand them up like records. Like Ben, it makes it easy to use, just cut the bags and drop in the pot.


  6. I bought Global knives at the beginning of the pandemic and like them very much. If I wre going to buy one dutch oven, what size should it be?


    1. It depends on how much food you are making. The Le Creuset website, I think, gives info on size and number of servings. I have a super big one, but most people don’t need something that big.


      1. I have a smaller le Cruset and a larger Lodge Dutch oven. Both work equally well. If you are unsure, I’d start with Lodge, which is cheaper but still great quality. We use ours for stews, soups, and roasting chicken on a bed of potatoes and baby carrots. (The chicken gets done before the veggies; we just take the bird off and wrap in foil till the veggies are done.). We combine the veggies with garlic, salt and pepper and olive oil and thyme if we have it before baking. They taste delicious because of the chicken juices.


  7. For everyday use, to make recipes sized for 4 people, I’d use the size 26 dutch oven, which has a 5.5 quart capacity, according to the tables. You could use a size 24 (4.5 qt) instead, although it depends on how messy a cook you are.

    I often use a size 30 (9 qt), but that’s because I find it convenient to use as a substitute for a skillet for dishes which require meat to be browned at the start. The sides are higher than a skillet, the capacity means items aren’t crowded, and it can go from the cooktop to the oven.

    However, cast iron is really heavy. I can tell there will be a time when I won’t be hauling it around the kitchen. I tend to throw my enameled cast iron in the dishwasher, though, and I don’t mind scratches. I prefer enameled cast iron to plain cast iron, because you can put it in the dishwasher.

    Le Creuset is beautiful. They also have a wide range of colors, and some people get into collecting Le Creuset. If someone were to give me a fancy cast iron pot as a gift, though, I would love Staub. If I’m buying it, I would first look to see what’s available in the Martha Stewart Collection at Macy’s. I just looked online, and it seems the 6 qt size in that collection is already sold out. The Martha Stewart line is well made, at a significantly lower price point than Le Creuset/Staub, with a nice, but not as extensive, line of colors.

    Sometimes you’ll find fancy pots at TJ Maxx; I’ve gotten lucky there a couple of times, usually after Christmas. I’m not a collector, so I don’t mind if the color isn’t perfect. I wouldn’t try to buy it before Christmas for myself, rather I’d wait until after Christmas.


  8. If you don’t give him an instant pot, you are failing in your maternal responsibilities.

    And, there are SO many easy things he can do to make a meal – five minutes to prep, walk away for an hour, and there it is.


    1. ha. Thanks. I’m a little afraid of the instant pot – Steve is the main operator of that contraption – so I think I should figure it out first.


      1. The instant pot has modern safety controls. There is a safety valve, unlike earlier pressure cookers. If you use the pressure cooker option, it shuts off at the end of the specified time.

        Urvashi Pitre has a blog; she’s also written cookbooks for the Instant Pot. She is apparently known as the “butter chicken lady” for this recipe, posted on her blog:

        My grandmother would cook peas in a pressure cooker, which is kind of the definition of overkill. I do appreciate the ability to set up the instant pot to cook asparagus for 1 minute, which gets fresh, young asparagus just right. It also makes it much easier to caramelize onions.


  9. I don’t know if this would work for Ian, but this is how my Dad taught me and I taught my kids: I’m sure it has a culinary name, but we called it the brown and bake. Preheat oven to 350. In a cast iron skillet brown the meat (chicken, pork, or beef – fish is more advanced) using a little olive oil. While meat is browning, prep vegetables – 2. For example, cut carrots and parsnips into matchsticks and toss with honey and cayenne pepper, or peel and cube potatoes and apples and toss with rosemary or thyme, or slice mushrooms and brussel sprouts and toss with rosemary. When the meat is browned, add the vegetables and put in the oven for 10-15 minutes. When 10-15 minutes is up, remove from oven, flip the meat and stir the vegetables. Return to oven for another 10-15 minutes. When meat is done, serve with a small salad and you have a complete meal.


    1. Ha. That’s more advanced cooking than half my family does. For Ian, I think we’re going to start off with frozen dinners in the air fryer and rice in the rice maker. But maybe we’ll try out frying pans and ovens after he masters the machines. Thank you!


      1. I find that Trader Joe’s has great Indian frozen dinners. Their frozen Mac and cheese is pretty good too.


      2. Marianne wrote, “I find that Trader Joe’s has great Indian frozen dinners.”

        I’d add that just about all frozen Indian dinners are pretty good. If you like Indian food, it’s much closer to the real thing than most frozen Chinese is. (Our family has been discovering frozen dumplings and potstickers and those are usually great. But in general, frozen Chinese food is DREADFUL.)


      3. HMart’s dumplings are very good, but then they specialize in Asian foods. I wish we lived closer to an HMart.

        Someone gave me this cookbook as a wedding gift; I bought a copy for my son when he was starting to cook:

        Of course, a bachelor living alone can cook a standard meal of 4 servings, then partition it into quarters, and be all set for 4 dinners!


  10. Cranberry said, “HMart’s dumplings are very good, but then they specialize in Asian foods. I wish we lived closer to an HMart.”

    The suburb about 15 minutes from us just got a little strip mall Asian grocery and we’re really enjoying it.

    I like the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (the red and white checked one) for general how-tos, although it’s true that their dinner recipes are too big for the single gentleman. Our teens have learned a lot from it.


    1. I’ve put my kids into cooking classes whenever I had the chance, and I’m really happy with how that has worked out.


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