By Murray Schulman
The past few months have been challenging for all of us. To all my readers and their families, let me offer my best wishes that you are staying safe and well.
I do have to say that many of us including Liz and I have become very creative. Liz and I, who are technological dinosaurs, have learned to video chat through a variety of mediums. This newfound skill has allowed us to participate in virtual birthday parties, Passover Seder, Easter dinner and sadly one memorial service.
My son’s family lives in California and we have “facetimed” with them. My granddaughter is a fifth-grader. She got all of us together on Zoom for a violin concert since her school concert was cancelled. For the most part, we have been very disciplined with social distancing. At the same time, we have managed to stay in close touch with family and friends with the help of technology.
If we can find some levity in this sad and scary time, it is in our eating habits. We have all become spoiled to some degree in what we eat. My family members have to cook for themselves and their kids. This one doesn’t like this and that one doesn’t want that and the other one wants something else. When and how did this selectivity happen? I remember my parents and in turn me telling my kids that “this is what we are having for dinner tonight.” The only choice that was offered was eat what I serve or don’t eat. That seemed simple enough. In the end, guess what? We ate what was served.
This pandemic has forced all of us to make some hard choices when it comes to how and what we eat. We are hard pressed to find the particular brand or style of packaged bread that we prefer. The easy, pre portioned cuts of meat that we have gotten used to are not always available and the list goes on and on. What do we do? How do we handle this? The good news is that most of you that read my column were brought up in the same or similar background as Liz and I. We learned to cook from the time that we could walk. Yes, I made a career out of cooking. But, even if I hadn’t gone that route, I still learned early on how to read a recipe and do what my mom and Nana did with food. We watched as that tough generation of immigrants opened the freezer to see what they could find to cook. They searched the pantry for a box of pasta, a can of tomatoes, maybe some beans. I remember the loaf pans, roasting pans and muffin tins that were always within easy reach. There was always flour, corn meal, an egg or two, milk, an onion, a couple of potatoes and olive oil. What they did and we learned was to cook what we had on hand. To be honest, even though times were tough, we had meals that were tasty and filling.
Now we find ourselves staying in the house, avoiding the stores and looking for things to do. Here is a suggestion for you. Cook!!! It doesn’t have to be fancy. See what you have on hand and make something to eat.
Just a few days ago, I was looking through my freezer. There looking back at me was a big ol’ chicken. They call them roasting chickens. No, this is not the pre-cut boneless chicken breasts, boneless skinless thighs, thin cut cutlets or chicken tenders. It was just a whole roasting chicken. I pulled it out of the freezer and transferred it to my refrigerator. Remember that raw chicken always goes on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Three days later when the thing finally thawed out, I opened the package, thoroughly washed and dried the chicken and was ready to go. By the way, be sure to remember to remove the giblet pack from the chicken. Next, I preheated my oven to 350 degrees set on convection roast. If you don’t have a convection setting, don’t worry. Nana didn’t have that setting either. In a small bowl I combined Kosher salt, course ground black pepper, granulated garlic, minced onion or onion powder, a sprinkle of poultry seasoning, some dry parsley and a sprinkle of paprika. I mixed the spices together. Then, I poured in a half-cup of olive oil, and mixed well to form a slurry. I rubbed the slurry all over the chicken – inside, outside, under the skin, around the drums and wings, everywhere. I lined my roasting pan with a piece of parchment paper to make cleanup easier and set the chicken on a rack in the lined pan. At this point, I set the seasoned chicken aside for around one hour. This allows the seasonings to get into the meat. Once the chicken had time to rest, into the oven it went. I closed the oven door and set my timer. As I mentioned earlier, mine was a large roaster chicken. It took about 90 minutes to roast to an internal temperature of 170 degrees. Once cooled, I pulled all the meat from the bones and packaged it to be used for a couple of meals. Tonight, I will use one of the packages to make chicken and biscuits. I just happen to have a half box of Bisquick in the pantry that is just begging to be used.
Another day, I found a box of Kodiak Power Cakes in the pantry. There was about one cup of the mix left in the box. On the back of the box was a recipe for banana muffins. Unfortunately, the recipe called for two cups of the Power Cake mix. Did I let that deter me? No way! I modified the recipe to include ingredients that I had on hand.
I pulled out my well-used muffin tin and fired up my oven to preheat to 350 degrees on the bake setting. I tend not to use the convection setting when baking. Recipes just seem to come out better when I bake on the standard setting. I prepared the muffin tin with a nonstick spray applied generously. I am not a fan of using cupcake or muffin paper. That is just my personal choice. This recipe is easy in that it is hand mixed. No mixer is needed. Fewer tools equal less cleanup. Next, I grabbed a large mixing bowl and a medium mixing bowl. Again, this is my preferred method even though the recipe claims that you can combine everything in one bowl.
The recipe called for 2 cups of the Kodiak Power Cakes mix. I used the 1 cup of the Kodiak mix that I had. Then I substituted a half-cup of self-rising flour and a half-cup of quick oats to replace the second cup of mix that I was short. I combined these dry ingredients in the large mixing bowl. In the medium bowl I combined a half-cup dark brown sugar creamed with a quarter-cup or 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted. I added 1 large egg and mixed it well into the sugar and butter mixture. Next, I added 1 tablespoon of cinnamon and 1 tablespoon of pure vanilla extract and mixed well to combine. I had 2 very ripe bananas that I smashed into the mixture. I also had some fresh blueberries in the refrigerator. I added a Chef Murray-sized handful of the berries to the mixture. While continuing to mix these ingredients, I began to add three-quarters of a cup of 2% milk. Any type of milk will work. Once the wet ingredients were well incorporated, I poured them into the large bowl with the dry ingredients and mixed everything until the batter was fully blended. Once I had the batter ready, I grabbed my prepared muffin tin and filled each well three-quarters full. I placed the full muffin tin on the center shelf of the preheated oven and baked the muffins for 18 minutes. After around 16 minutes, I tested the muffins by using a toothpick. Once I saw that the toothpick did not come out clean, I knew to continue baking for an additional two minutes. At that point, the tester came away clean and I knew that the muffins were ready. I carefully removed the muffin pan from the oven and set it on my rack to cool. After about a half-hour of cooling, I turned the muffins out and set them directly on my rack to finish cooling. Clean up was a breeze with only two bowls, a mixing tool and the muffin tin to clean and put away.
Remember, I was improvising with this recipe. The finished muffins came out moist, a bit chewy and super tasty. Once cooled completely, these muffins can be stored in a zip-lock bag for a few days.
The best part of this is that the recipes that I described were all made from things that were already in and around my home. While preparing these goodies, my mind was on things that are pleasant and comforting. At the same time, the smells from cooking permeated the house which just makes us feel good. During stressful times like we have been experiencing, try to find something that you enjoy doing and that brings you pleasure. For me, writing this column for all of you is something that I enjoy doing. Making life a little bit better through cooking and baking gets Liz and me through the day. Find a little something every day to smile about and stay safe. I will have all of you in my thoughts.