Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cooking for Two or Fewer

by Bill Holmes

There seems to be a conspiracy by grocers and retailers against those of us who live in a household with one or two people. I've noticed this for several years because I've often lived alone or with only one or two other people. A situation in the last couple of days brought it to mind again so here goes my rant.

Last week, Kroger had crawfish on sale. It was the frozen kind from China (not obvious from the ad) but that's OK for the times Louisiana fresh crawfish aren't available. Seemed like a good time to cook some up. I'm a big fan of Louisiana cooking, both Cajun and Creole. My favorite Louisiana dish is probably etouffee although gumbo ain't bad. I guess you can use almost any shellfish, seafood or mild meat to make etouffee. I'm partial to crawfish and shrimp, either separate or combined. Of course I needed a few more ingredients besides the crawfish. That''s where the problem started.

I'm not a strict follower of recipes but if you're going to make any Creole or Cajun dish you probably are going to start with the trinity. No, not the religious trinity, the Louisiana cooking trinity. Onion, celery and bell peppers. Peppers and onion are not a problem because I use them most days. I tend to eat a salad five or six days a week. Now celery, that's another story. I'm not a big celery fan, except in recipes, and don't have it laying around. I needed about one cup of chopped celery. That's about three trimmed medium stalks. Have you ever tried to buy three stalks of celery? The hermetically sealed washed and trimmed celery packages contain eight or ten trimmed stalks. A fresh bunch of celery is made up of ten or 12 larger stalks plus the leaves and root. If you only need a cup of celery there is going to be a little left over. The fresh bunch is always cheaper and usually better, so that's what I bought.

The next challenge was that I needed some flour. Depending on the recipe, I needed a blond roux or a slurry for thickening. That takes only between one or a very few tablespoons of flour for either choice. No flour in the pantry so that went on the shopping list. The smallest package of flour I found was two pounds. I now have two pounds minus one or two tablespoons of flour. I don't bake and I don't bread stuff to fry. What else can I use flour for? I bought a small bag of flour, probably two pounds, shortly after I moved back to Texas with Dad in 2003. I'm guessing I breaded some veal or pork for Dad. He liked a little breaded and fried meat now and then. I put whatever flour was left over into a glass container to keep the bugs out. Probably about five years later I came across that container. No bugs or mold but I thought it best to dump it, probably two pounds less a few tablespoons. Now ten years later I have another new bag of flour. The original glass flour container has been repurposed and I don't have another airtight container big enough for two pounds (minus a tablespoon) of flour. Need some all purpose flour? I mixed the flour with a cup of white wine (instead of water) for the slurry. Now I have a half bottle of wine left over too. Oh wait, that's not a problem.

These are just my most current gripes. Over the years I've tackled what I thought was a simple recipe only to find out that I needed five new ingredients. Check the bank balance if you need five new spices or herbs. One little jar or tin can set you back more than five dollars. That's five bucks for a pinch if you don't normally use that spice or herb. I'm not talking about truffles or real saffron. That dish you thought you would make with the on sale chicken (or crawfish) suddenly costs $27 per serving because of the other ingredients. Yes, it is sometimes cheaper to go to a restaurant for that food you are craving.

As for the huge packages of food, I have seen some attempts at more reasonable sizes. When in Florida several years ago when Mom and Dad lived in an area with several retirement communities, there were some individual serving sized products tucked away on a high shelf. There were even little jars of ketchup or mustard or mayonnaise, all overpriced. Sometimes you can find the same smaller sizes in a resort/condo area where there is a high turnover, like the Piggly-Wiggly at Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head. The problem is most of the products were neither very healthy nor delicious. In the grocery stores I now shop, I see older people (which I now am) filling their carts with individual servings of frozen and packaged meals. The food companies still make individual serving size prepackaged products. Most of these products are crap. Lean Cuisine, Stouffer's, Healthy Choice, Hormel and a few others occasionally stumble on a dish that is palatable but they still are full of salt, fats and sugars. I know part of the reason folks buy this crap is for convenience. That's OK, I buy convenient crap food too on occasion. When an older person is pushing a cart with a dozen Banquet or store brand frozen meals I know it's not really by choice. It's cheap and convenient. It will also kill you. Some of it is generational culture. Many men of my generation and older never learned to cook and have no desire to learn. My Dad could barely make a simple sandwich, heat up a can of Campell's soup or cook an egg if he was starving. That's it. He either couldn't or wouldn't bother to heat up a jar of Ragu and cook pasta. That's despite the fact that it was one of his very favorite meals. Spaghetti and sauce took two pots. That's at least one too many.

Well as usual, I've wondered all over the original subject and peripheral subjects. Partially attributable to old age, ADD, dementia, derangement, softening of the brain and mental decay.

I wish I could find individual portions or at least more usable portions of some ingredients. I wish those that can't or don't cook could find convenient, nutritious and delicious foods that weren't full of crap. Maybe as we baby boomers become infirm the food producers and sellers will offer alternate product sizes and choices. That will only happen if boomers have enough money and desire for real food to make a difference. I guess the alternative is to live in communes or co-ops. Didn't some of us try that in the 60's and 70's?

So, the etouffee was delicious, the extra celery, onion and bell pepper went into the stock pot along with some chicken scraps I had in the freezer. I also was able to use that wine I had absolutely no use for as stock or broth liquid. Now I have a couple of quarts of delicious stock or broth. I can never tell the difference between the two. I really don't have much to complain about. I use most of my food scraps. I have enough stock/broth in the freezer for several dishes. I haven't had to cooked rice or beans or make soup with plain water in years.

Nevertheless I'll still gripe about food and other packaging. If you go to Costco or Sam's expect to buy two dozen pork ribs or a gross of toilet paper. If you go to a local grocery store, it would be nice to be able to size the purchase to the recipe, family or occasion.

I think my youngest son is coming by this weekend to get this batch of etouffee. I can make more. I even have enough celery and flour for another batch. He loves etouffee and most of my cooking. What good taste he has. He's also very handsome, talented and extremely smart. It must be part of that tree, apple adage.

Anyway, it's hard to shop and cook for one or two. A big freezer helps but eventually somebody has to eat the overflow. 

By the way, I still have almost two pounds of flour for sale. 


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