Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Learning How To Be Fearless: Lessons from a Lousy Cook

Having the privilege of knowing today's guest blogger in person, I can easily sum her up in one word: Adorable. A second comes from her post today: Fearless. Keep in touch with Jessica through her blog, Learning Out Loud, and be sure to try the recipe she shares from Milwaukee's own famous Bartolotta Restaurants. Take it away, Jessica! ~ Lisa

Jessica in the kitchen
Photo credit: Ernie Mastroianni
by Jessica Zappia

"I am so sorry to hear about your wife; I never knew!"  That's the kind of repsonse my husband heard after my dirty little secret came out. I guess it was a tragedy to some.

I didn't know how to cook.

I have no one to blame except myself really, not for the cooking part, but for the secret getting out part.

You see, I busted myself, and big time.

Two years ago, our newspaper had a "want ad" so to speak. "Do you burn water? Are you clueless in the kitchen?" The ad was talking directly to me! Our paper wanted to do a 'lousy cook' story, to show that even the worst of the worst could learn.

I sat down and e-mailed a letter to the food editor. That's how it all started. Well, I "won". The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel named me "Lousiest Cook in Southeastern Wisconsin"! Luckily, I shared the title with a gentleman so the title was not all mine. (Whew! I don't know if I could handle that kind of pressure!)

Our grand prizes were cooking lessons with local chefs, and let me tell you, I had the time of my life!

I got to learn how to make so many yummy things with Chef Peggy Magister of Crazy Water. The biggest lesson Peggy taught me was how to cook with passion and joy. She combined so many amazing things and had so much FUN! I saw how cooking could be a creative experience. I learned how to make killer Spinach Lasagna from Chef Juan Urbieta of Ristorante Bartolotta. I actually have people ask for a recipe for something that I made! Making desserts with Kurt Fogle of The Pfister Hotel was an absolute delight. I made a soft-centered chocolate cake that had a soft center on purpose!

Finally, the amazing staff at Milwaukee Area Technical College taught me the basics. All of the professionals that worked with me were so kind and reassuring. This cooking thing really wasn't so scary at all. I just had to have fun and give it all a try.

I really learned to be fearless.

Photo credit: Ernie Mastroianni
Overall, that is the lesson I want my kids to remember from this experience as well. Their mom didn't know how to do something, so she learned how. It's never too late to learn. I don't know if I would recommend airing all of one's failings so publicly, though, unless you want to be reminded of it from time to time.

It's now two years later, and at least once a week someone will still ask me, "How's the cooking going?" Most recently, I was asked by all five of the voting ladies. "She won a contest you know."

Cooking is a learning process, that's for sure, but I am having a lot of fun. Right after all of this silliness first happened, my 8-year-old daughter said, "Maybe you could get cleaning the house lessons, too!"

Okay, I think I am done sharing my dirty little secrets!

Here is Juan Urbieta's recipe for Ristorante Bartolotta's Sausage and Spinach Lasagna:

Makes 6 to 8 servings
  • Fresh tomato sauce
  • 1 box no-boil lasagna (9 ounces/16 sheets)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil plus more for layering and serving
  • 1 pound (2 cups) raw Italian mild fennel sausage
  • 8 cups pre-washed fresh spinach (9-ounce package), de-stemmed
  • 1 pound (2 cups) fresh ricotta
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (1/4 pound), preferably imported Parmigiano 1 1/2 cups (3/4 pound) fresh mozzarella cheese, drained (see note)
1. Make fresh tomato sauce.

2. To assemble lasagna: Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

3. In a nonstick skillet, heat the 3 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Crumble and quickly brown the sausage for about 1 minute, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add spinach to skillet (it will seem like a lot at first) and season with salt and pepper to taste. As soon as spinach begins to wilt, turn off heat.

4. Lightly drizzle a 13-by-9-inch pan with olive oil. Evenly spread 1 cup of the fresh tomato sauce over bottom of pan, then lay down four sheets of lasagna pasta to cover bottom of pan. Over the pasta layer, once again evenly spread 1 cup of tomato sauce, then sprinkle on half the browned sausage-spinach mixture, distribute a third of the ricotta in small spoonfuls and sprinkle on a third of the Parmesan cheese. Repeat this process, starting with a new layer of pasta but this time using six sheets and slightly overlapping the pasta.

5. To finish assembling the lasagna, lay down and overlap the last six sheets of pasta, spread on the last 2 cups of sauce and the remaining third of the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses. Finally, cover the lasagna with the mozzarella; break off small pieces from the balls of cheese and distribute evenly over the top.

6. Cover pan tightly with aluminum foil (oil the bottom side first, or use nonstick foil) and bake in center rack of preheated oven one hour. After one hour, carefully remove the foil and return pan to oven to brown top of lasagna five to 10 minutes. (If you wish, increase the heat to 500 degrees or so - but watch carefully.)

7. Remove from oven and let lasagna set 10 minutes before cutting. Serve immediately with a drizzle of good olive oil.

Note: Urbieta used the small mozzarella balls sold in tubs.

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cooking with Iron

A few weeks ago, I stopped in at the doctor's office for a prick of my finger and a surprising revelation. "You're a little anemic," the doctor told me. This might explain, as I understood him, why I would get out of breath so easily walking a flight of stairs, why I would arrive home at two in the afternoon and think only of sleep, sleep, sleep. I had hoped he'd mention something about how a low iron count would also explain my inability to jump-start a simple exercise plan. However, I suspect that issue has more to do with "lazy" and "stubborn". At any rate, I left the doctor's office and headed straight to the store for supplements.

Here's the thing, though. Vitamins are my nemesis.

Vitamins!A strong gag reflex ensures that any time I have to swallow a pill of substantial girth (or of any girth), I take a series of steps that hint I might also suffer from OCD:
  1. Place pill on tongue.
  2. Fill mouth with water.
  3. Toss back head, one...two times.
  4. Feign to swallow.
  5. Toss head again, one...two...three.
  6. THIS time, swallow.
  7. Wait. Gag.
  8. One more toss.
  9. Choke it down, dammit.
  10. Follow with a tight fist, a foot stomp, and the hard crust from a piece of toast.
It's the same every time, so dramatic that my kids join in the fun, imitating me in the middle of a head toss. Since I manage to take only half the recommended amount, I boost my iron in other ways, including one that fires up my Texas roots and honors my grandmother: cooking with iron.

When I got married, one of my friends gave my husband and me a big cast-iron skillet. There's something primal about a cast-iron skillet. You're not messing around when you've got one sizzling on the stove. Mine has seen years of cooking, off and on, but it hits the gas flame much more often these days. This post on Kitchen Daily lists three healthy reasons to cook with iron, one of them being that meals made in skillets really does increase your intake of a necessary mineral.

"While cast iron doesn't leach chemicals, it can leach some iron into your food ... and that's a good thing. Iron deficiency is fairly common worldwide, especially among women. . . . Cooking food, especially something acidic like tomato sauce in a cast-iron skillet can increase iron content, by as much as 20 times."

I cook plenty in my skillet, including tomato sauce. But, this week, I fried up some Catfish.

Catfish is (surprisingly) one of the dishes my son will eat, willingly, so I cook it up knowing I'm killing two birds with one stone: fortifying my diet and tempting his taste buds. Catfish is easy to make, as long as you pay attention, and frying it in the skillet makes me feel old school and Texan all over again.

Pan-Fried Catfish, from

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 (4 ounce) fillets catfish
  • 1 cup milk
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
In a mixing bowl, stir together cornmeal, cayenne pepper, paprika and onion powder. Mix well. Pour mixture onto a large sheet of waxed paper.
  1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  2. Pour milk into a medium bowl. Dip catfish filets into milk and hold up and let the milk drip off. Roll the milk-soaked filet in the cornmeal mixture until completely covered. Set aside.
  3. Fry the garlic in the hot skillet, but do not burn. Add the coated catfish filets and cook for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, sprinkling salt on the fish after each turn. Cook until golden brown and fish flakes easily with a fork. Drain on paper towels.

One note, if you make this dish, get everything set and ready to go before you start frying. When the recipe says "do not burn" the garlic, that means watch it close. Really, you only want to let it cook for a minute or two before dropping in your catfish.

For some real Texas fun, cook up a batch of hush puppies for the side.

How do you measure up with your iron? And, what do you do to make sure you get enough?

*Vitamin photo credit: bradley j on The catfish is all mine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Between the Vending Machine and the Take-out Counter

Balsamic Garbanzo Salad

At one point I practically lived off feta cheese, spinach and Kalamata olives. Those were the days I worked in a cube farm with charcoal walls and windows about a half mile away. I was so healthy people said while I constructed enormous salads in the breakroom and pinned sarcastic notes to the freezer about food nabbing and socialism. That's were I watched the I.T. guy burn down the microwave with a take-out pizza box lined in foil. I think he still owes me for not ratting him out.

It's not that I was so healthy, it's just that I got sick of vending machines and restaurants and the money, money, money of eating at work, and I realized that lunch on the cheap also meant carrying it in. The thing is, I didn't bring a proper sack lunch. I've been vegetarian for I don't know how long and sandwiches were more of a hassle than I wanted to deal with. So I decided on salads--huge salads decked out in grape tomatoes, sunflower seeds, olives, feta, hard-boiled eggs and vinaigrette dressing on a bed of baby spinach. If I piled enough stuff in the bowl I wouldn't have to look at the egg salad sandwiches and plain white bagels riding around and around in their electric carriage; I could sit at my desk with headphones on and listen to something sinister by Clive Barker while obsessing over wedding cakes and Pacific Northwest treehouses.

There's something wonderful about working in a mindless job gnashing out minute by minute in pointless abandon. I had my first NaNoWriMo behind those charcoal walls. Later, when I managed my own team of misfits and Death Eaters, I wrote a few short essays and started up the Team Evil zine. Fifty hours of structure can kick out a good lot of creative energy if you have a mind for it, and I'm pretty sure my mind was starving for a formative kihap.

I'm still a huge fan of the spinach and feta fandango, but with two kids at home and a constant need to keep the food lively and inventive, it doesn't get as much play. These days we're into anything that can be made into the shape of a face, a rocket ship, or an animal. Also anything made from fruit, blended or frozen, or whipped into a muffin and toasted in the oven will do. Still I keep feta on my shopping list and spinach in the crisper for nights like this, when I get a hankering for an old recipe misplaced at the bottom of the box.

Balsamic Garbanzo Salad

(All measurements are approximate. Use your discretion)

1 Can of low sodium garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 Cup of roasted, unsalted, sunflower seeds
A Handfull of Kalamata Olives
1 Ounce of Feta Cheese
Some Grape tomatoes or one tomato finely chopped
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
1/4 Cup olive oil
Crushed black pepper and salt to taste

Mix ingredients in a bowl and serve over a bed of baby spinach. Be sure to wear headphones and listen to a compelling audio book of your choice. Create something beautiful. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Get in a Rut! Why Kitchen Routines Are Good for Creativity

by Lisa

For the past several weeks, I’ve enjoyed nearly the same breakfast, at the same time, every single morning: a bagel with veggie cream cheese, orange juice in the same glass Batman mug our son got at a rare visit to McDonald's oh so many years ago, and a handful of raw almonds. They aren’t necessarily my favorite morning foods. I love nothing more than a diner-style plate of scrambled eggs and hash browns and whole-wheat toast with butter and strawberry jelly. But my current daily menu is what I’ve come to think of as my working breakfast, my writing breakfast. I don’t need to think about it as I focus on taking full advantage of what, for me, are the most productive hours of the day.

One of the myths of creativity is that every moment of a creative person’s life is filled with excitement and novelty. We tend to imagine the most creative among us as never living the same way twice, including what they wear and how they spend their leisure time and even what they eat.

The truth is more boring. In his study of over 90 eminent creators, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that a certain level of routine is conducive to creativity:
“Most creative individuals find out early what their best rhythms are for sleeping, eating, and working, and abide by them even when it is tempting to do otherwise. They wear clothes that are comfortable, they interact only with people they find congenial, they do only things they think are important. Of course, such idiosyncrasies are not endearing to those they have to deal with…. But personalizing patterns of action helps to free the mind from the expectations that make demands on attention and allows intense concentration on matters that count.” ~ Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, p. 145
Dinner time is when I like to be more creative in the kitchen, after my writing and teaching are finished for the day, when I can scan the contents of the vegetable bins and imagine what combinations are possible without wishing I were doing something else. For other people, however, dinner might be the perfect meal to make more routine, so that the time leading up to it isn’t filled with thoughts of “what to make for dinner.” Our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generations were perhaps on to something when they designated specific meals to days of the week: Meatloaf Monday or Leftovers Thursday. Doing so gave them one less thing to think about in a very busy schedule.

Don’t misunderstand me. I love adding variety and spice to my meals. Just not all of them. Sometimes I need to save me creative juice for the page.

What kitchen routines allow you more creative freedom?