Sunday, January 26, 2014

Give Me A Reason!!!

Is it time to say goodbye?
This past holiday season, I did it early in the morning. Sometimes just wearing pajamas. Sometimes less. Usually around 5 a.m., (no alarm) I would roll out of bed, hit the bathroom, stumble down the hall to the kitchen, start the coffeemaker and then go shopping…in my dining room.  With a lift of my laptop lid I could open the doors to Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Macy’s and more. Not quite the Miracle on 34th Street, but everything those stores offered at my fingertips. I had my list and checked it twice. A click of a few keys and...done!

And here’s the best part of online shopping. No sore shoulders from carrying bags through the mall. No standing in long lines. No cruising for a parking spot isle after isle. Nope. Just push a few buttons, and in a few short days, they’ll be a soft knock on the door and brown paper packages tied up in string were on the porch. 

Really? Be part of this?
And here’s the worst part. I’m not alone; millions upon millions of people were doing the very same thing. And online shopping is beginning to take its toll on what the industry calls the “brick and mortar” stores. This was all brought to my attention the other day (online) by reading the following excerpt; "At one point [the indoor mall] may have met the developer's needs—and even for a while, the consumer's needs—but it has outlived its usefulness," Rick Caruso, founder and CEO of Caruso Affiliated, said in a keynote address recently at the National Retail Federation's annual convention in New York. Caruso then went on to state; and without a complete reinvention, they will be extinct within 10 to 15 years.” What? Pajama shoppers don't want that!

Give me a reason!
Let’s go back to black Friday. Tell my why after cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people, cleaning up, taking everything back out for late night Turkey sandwiches, cleaning up, and finally going to bed at 11:00 p.m.,  I should get up four hours later and stand out in the freezing cold just to get a good deal! This year, most "blow-out" black Friday deals were also available online…at the same times.

On my Christmas list to purchase this year was a Kitchen Aid blender for my son and his girl. Target offered it at $100 off regular price at 5:00 a.m. on black Friday. Now, as most of you who cook know, this is a very heavy blender. Just lifting it from the cart and into the car was more than I wanted to think about. So, while some people stood outside in line huddled under blankets, I got up at 4:45, fixed a steaming cup of hot coffee, stretched, scratched, emptied the dishwasher, lit the fireplace, sat down and bought it! Free delivery was included. Why would I not do that?

Is it hurting the brick and mortar stores? It has to be. “Physical stores need to focus on delivering an experience that customers cannot find on the Web”, Caruso said. “What's more, physical stores cannot only consider themselves to be in the retail industry, but need to embrace the hospitality industry as well.” Let’s explain this to the young man who waited on me in a famous chain store while wearing a hoodie and sunglasses. When I suggested it wasn’t a good look behind the register, he suggested I get in another line. My dining room is much friendlier.
Give me a reason!
I don’t always shop online. And I do enjoy strolling through the mall with a friend, stopping to have lunch. Maybe even doing a little impulse buying.  But when shopping is my main focus, my mission, such as it is at Christmastime, why would I fight the crowds, the weather, and the traffic when I can get everything I want, at the same price, delivered to my door?

I’ll even admit it worries me. I don’t want to see empty buildings complete with tumbleweeds. Just give me a reason to leave the warmth and security of my home to shop. Maybe Mr. Caruso is right. It's time for shopping centers to reinvent themselves.  It just may have to start with better customer service. Better pay for those who provide it. Maybe mature, experienced sales clerks could coax me back in into the stores. Maybe, just maybe, someone who said "Thanks for shopping here" and meant it, would make me want to save their jobs. That you can't find on the internet.

Even my local grocery store offers complete online shopping stocked with virtual isles where you select your items and employees gather them up and deliver the complete order to your house. I haven't gone there yet, but judging by the amount of employees dressed in the black "shop at home" Tee shirts, a lot of people have. 

Laptop shopping is just too easy not to do and it has put us all at retail crossroads. I don't have any answers so I will leave it to the Rick Caruso's of the world to figure it all out.  But right now, I'm doing most of my shopping online and all I can say is give me a reason not to!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Cooking Small...

My freezer is full and it is the result of of two things;

(1) cooking too much food
(2) not knowing how to stop.

And this dilemma is a common one for so many of us these days. After years of cooking large family meals, scaling down is "more than a notion" as my old friend Louise use to say. Whether you are cooking for two now, or like me, one, adjusting can sometimes be a nightmare. I can't buy enough storage containers and bags! I need to exercise some control here...and quickly!

For me, I think the hardest part is that I like to cook! Chopping, dicing, sauteing and simmering are all things that just make me happy. Add to all of that, this first winter living solo has been cold, snowy, icy and windy. Conditions that scream for something warm and aromatic brewing in the kitchen. But...enough is enough.

Spending the last several decades cooking three meals for three males, dealing with "leftovers" is a strange concept to me. So what I first need to do is stop, take stock of the situation and see just where I need to go with this.

Cook once, eat twice
Not three or four times. Just twice. Controlling portions are the challenge here. On one recently very cold Sunday, I had the desire to make a pot roast in my slow cooker. Chopping the carrots, onions and potatoes, browning the well seasoned beef, de-glazing the pan with a touch of red wine (I've been cooking with wine for years... but just recently discovered how good it is in food), well, needless to say, I was in my element!
But by the time I got everything in the crock pot, I actually had to redistribute the ingredients to fit the lid on!
As I stepped back to gaze at my giant masterpiece, I started to panic and reached for the phone to see who was available for dinner. Fortunately, I found someone but there was still plenty to spare. Even after  my guest took a large container home!

Get Inventive
The next week, I took the remaining pot roast from the freezer and turned into a delicious stew by adding a few more potatoes, carrots and a can of mixed veggies. I thinned it out by adding half a can of beef broth, a small can of tomato sauce, and it all worked! I'm also getting very good at turning left over entree meats like chicken and steak into great lunchtime salads the next day. I've discovered that while fresh herbs are great when you are making a larger menu, the dried versions last a lot longer. I was throwing out way to many wilted sprigs of parsley, basil and cilantro. I now stand in the grocery isle with one question, "is this the size I need?" The answers usually "no".

Use Smaller Pots!!! 
This one revelation was my light bulb moment! I was still using large stock and stewing pots that I used when making dinner for two teenage boys coming home from football practice (and usually with a few friends)! I actually couldn't figure out how to make a small pot of gravy (pasta sauce for the non-Italians)! I never measured anything, I just knew by what pot I was using where my ingredients needed to level out at. So I invested in a few smaller pots. Big difference! Now, instead of a large pot of pasta gravy, I often make a much smaller fresh marina sauce in just a fraction of the time. I actually prefer it! Smaller pots, smaller soups, smaller stews! It just makes sense!

The Perks of Cooking Small
Affordability! While shopping the other day, I saw large sea scallops on sale that looked so fresh. At $12.99 a pound, they were still relatively expensive, but I only needed a few so I indulged myself. Why not? It took me several months of cooking for one to take full advantage of this budget friendly fact. I no longer have to eat chicken cutlets when I really want the veal!

The Well-Stocked Pantry...For One
Minus "family-sized" anything, it's really not much different than before. The exceptions of course being healthier cereals, more brown rice and whole grain pastas. Cans of chopped tomatoes, coffee and extra virgin olive oil are staples. I will even admit to harboring a few relatively unhealthy Asian-style noodles in foam cups that I sometimes resort to when I just don't feel like cooking at all. I know they are loaded with sodium, but they are pretty tasty.  And with all that water retention, they are great to eat the night before a long car ride! Another well stocked item comes from my favorite supermarket which sells small, 4-pack carriers of 4 oz wine bottles that are great when just a little is needed for in a recipe. High end, brand name wines, that you can cook with or drink. I love this! I sit them next to my favorite peanut butter. Wait a minute...there is a difference. This pantry is filled with everything that I like!

When you feel the need to really cook, to spread your culinary wings and fly...put  together a gathering. I am fortunately and logistically surrounded by family and friends ( a lot of whom are hard-working and single), and they never refuse a cooked meal! Here's where all the recipes you've been collecting (that are always designed to serve between four and six people) can get full use. Drag out the big pots and big ideas! And at the end of the night, insist that leftovers be taken. I'm sure there is something in the freezer with your name on it!

Friday, January 3, 2014

It's as easy as Chicken Soup!

Thanks Pop!
As I write this, the northeast area of the country (where I reside) has been hit by a major snow storm and cold snap. The wind chill factors in at -5 degrees. It's cold. Since the last few winters have been relatively mild, this one seems brutal. This is our third storm, and so far, I have managed to avoid the craziness of the "pre-storm" supermarket by stocking up on items that I know I can survive on without having to wrestle someone for the last loaf of bread. This seems easier to do now then when I had a full family to supply for, including two growing boys who never thought there was enough food in the house.

And to me, nothing says warmth and comfort more than homemade chicken soup. But I will admit that I was surprised this past holiday season at the amount of people who came to my home looking for it as if I held some well kept secret on its preparation! It's chicken soup people! How hard could this be?

As most of you know, I grew up watching my Dad who made homemade soup every Saturday from September to March. As a widower raising young children, he developed cooking skills through the lean years, that took us from Spam, tomato soup with sliced hot dogs (that was as bad as it sounds) to wonderfully rich soups and stews! He learned to cook full meals when it wasn't popular for men to do so. If he were alive today, I could picture him watching the Food Network and taking notes! All that being said, chicken soup was his go-to Saturday fix, which he served with chipsteak sandwiches, pickles and chips.

So, the next time you hear the words "winter storm warning" and you're fighting to navigate a cart down the grocery isle for something canned or boxed, below are the easy steps to creating a large pot of soul and kitchen warming soup. Everyone has their own version, but this is my Dad's...and now mine.

Ingredients for broth: (Using average 6 qt stock pot)
  • 6 chicken thighs
  • 1 small chopped onion
  • 3 chopped celery stalks, (include leafy tops)
  • 3 chopped carrots
  • 1 can small dice tomatoes
  • 3 or 4 chicken bullion cubes (my dad used salt, I use these instead to punch up flavor while adding needed sodium)
  • 3 tablespoons of parsley (fresh or dried)
  • Water
  • Noodles of your choice. 
  • I start by pulling off the skin of three of the thighs to lessen the fat content. But don't reach for the boneless, skinless thighs, you have to use the bone-in thighs because the bone provides a lot of flavor! 
  • Put the chicken in the bottom of the pot and then toss in all the other ingredients.
  • If using standard 6 qt. stock pot, add about 4 qts. of water (or enough that brings it to about 2" from the top.)
  • Bring to soft boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for two hours with lid partially on.
  • Taste occasionally and season accordingly. 
  • Separately boil water for noodles. It is best to cook them first before adding to broth so they don't soak up all that fragrant liquid!
  • When the taste tells you it's done, drain the pot into a colander that's been placed inside a large bowl.
  • Lift the chicken, and all ingredients, out of the bowl (This will give you a "clean" broth)
  • Once cooled, pull the meat of the chicken thighs and put back in the broth along with the carrots. Everything else will get tossed. 
  • For the noodles, use the pasta of your choice; Orzo, anci di peppe, pastina, whole or thin noddles. Or rice, if you so desire! It's your soup! 
  • Pour the cleaned broth back into the pot and add noodles slowly. This gives control over how much is needed.
  • Bring back to simmer for another 15 minutes and it is ready!
Now in our family, the Italian part anyway, we add a sprinkling of a good grade of Parmesan cheese (like Locatelli) to each bowl. I actually had a cousin say to me the other day, "if you don't have cheese, I don't want any soup". Maybe it's just us, but it is really, really good!

Once you've mastered a great chicken broth, you can freeze it in ice cube trays and add to so many other types of soups and dishes! Over the holidays I made a recipe for a creamy Chicken Tortilla soup that started with 4 quarts of chicken broth. It was delicious!

There is nothing easier, or better for you, than homemade...anything! This is a basic chicken broth recipe that you can add anything to...mushrooms, scallions, chick peas! Get creative, my Dad did. Thanks Pop for all those meals you created and concocted for us! It was an adventure that all of your grandchildren have benefited from!