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Do you Cook in Your Head? We & Others Do (Sometimes)

July 24, 2020 Barbara Ballinger & Margaret Crane

Cooking may be a joyful pursuit for many. Look at what everybody has been making and showing off on sites during the pandemic. And at other times they cook, too, or otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many cookbooks, food blogs, food sites, cooking shows and movies with a chef as the star or assistant.

Yet, not everyone shares our passion. Some view it as an arduous, mind-boggling, time-consuming task that requires too many ingredients, too much measuring and certainly too much waiting. “Who needs to prepare something that you consume in several bites and then have nothing to show for it,” said one friend when Barbara inquired why she never cooked and always depended on take-out fare.

Cooking for us started once we married rather than as kids. We grew to love the process of picking a recipe, finding just the right ingredients, stirring, mixing, waiting, seeing the results come together and mostly, of course, tasting and sharing it with others. And then there was the delight in thinking how we might make a lemon olive oil cake or a spicy shrimp entree much better the next time with a bit more of this and less of that, ideas that started in our heads and appeared on our plates.

Both of us have also thought about what we’d make if we opened a restaurant together—if, heaven forbid, there were no more writing assignments and we had to earn a living--fast. One idea was to have a risottoria with every imaginable ingredient offered, from asparagus in spring to squash in winter and heirloom tomatoes come summer. But again, we came to our senses and knew the stats well—that 60% of restaurants fail in their first year and that some crazy diet would proclaim that rice is terrible for weight loss or good bone density or something! 

In the meantime, many of us keep to reading about recipes while others cook the complicated recipes in their heads while awake or dreaming, and then stick to the simple stuff to serve daily. Here’s more about what each of us do, as well as two of our guy friends. Recipes included! 

Barbara’s cooking takes place at night when she ends her day sitting in bed reading the several food magazines she subscribes to and the cookbooks she’s either bought or checked out from the library. And that’s where a lot of her real head time is spent “cooking,” as she salivates over Melissa Clark’s recipes in her new Dinner in French (Clarkson Potter) book that she most recently bought. This makes her think about how she would bake black sesame palmier cookies, gougers, and an asparagus, goat cheese and tarragon tart. She doubts she will make any since they all seem like so much work at a time when she’s happy to prepare something fast with ingredients on hand. She feels she’s done her real-life elaborate cooking for decades for herself and family, starting with her copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking 50 years ago. It’s now quite stained and dog-eared, especially the page for her apple tart, which she continues to make every Thanksgiving dinner. Now, it’s time for her to keep real life simple with salads, salmon burgers, baked pasta dishes and lots of grilled chicken and fish. 

She also favors just thinking about more complicated possibilities. Occasionally, she reconsiders—usually just temporarily--starting a mail-order business for her rugelach. They always elicit so many oohs and aahs because of the filling, which is heavy on chopped pecans and good jam, unlike many bakeries’ versions that are incredibly sparring in what they include. But she catches herself. Barbara knows that if she started making hundreds—and envisions a conveyor belt rolling them out 24/7—picture Lucy and Ethel doing so, she would quickly lose her joy fast. Better in her head than in real life!   

Margaret is a specialist in her food and cooking dreams. In her sleep, sugarplums dance in her head. She has been dreaming for a few years about being a pastry chef who churns out fruit pies with crisscrossed crust on top, gooey butter cookies, thick custards and puddings, and decadent multilayer cakes with rich ganache icing. 

The best meals Margaret has ever made start in her head where she’s the savvy chef who whips up and serves a piping hot crab and shrimp bisque fortified with sherry, and, of course, she ends the meal with a rich chocolate souffle that stands tall—and doesn’t fall too soon—and is served with crème anglaise. How does Margaret pull it all together? By the time she’s about to find out, she wakes up. But that doesn’t preclude her trying one of her dreamy creations during waking hours.

David Schwartz says, “Retiring to bed should be a time to relax, put your mind to rest. As a caterer and chef, wedding, and event planner plus floral designer, I do my best work in bed because I can visualize.” He thinks in technicolor and his presentation is like that of an artist. 

Beginning with a blank palette, he says, that his mind drifts from menu to décor to recipes and/or food combinations.  “I dream, I envision the event, I picture the buffet, and I taste the food in my mind. When I am stumped on a side dish or even an entrée, I take to my couch and am blessed with the ability to know what foods combined with what seasonings and techniques create a finished product that fit perfectly in my vision.” 

David shares one anecdote. “When my daughter was young, corn on the cob was a dish that was unsuccessful for dinner.  I needed it to be easy to consume and digest.  Chopping the kernels would accomplish this and making it a pudding consistency would fit the bill.” Thus,  Lauren’s Corn Pudding was created. See recipe below. 

Then there’s retired attorney Norman Selner who says instead of dreaming up litigation strategies or counting sheep to help him fall asleep, he started making up recipes in his head. Ironically, this food bourne thinking is now starting to interrupt his REM.

To cook well, he says, you need a sense of what flavors work well together and which seasonings to use. He started this dreamy undertaking with a Caesar salad and has progressed up the food chain to what he calls “Norm’s Mexicali Sea Bass.” This dish has gone from his head to the plate. He makes it on a regular basis.  

“It’s simple and delish. Granted the flavor matters a lot, but equally important is the appearance on the plate.” That’s what pleases his palate. “You see the food before you taste it. And if it looks beautiful, that will enhance the flavor experience. So, picture this,” he says as he ticks off his recipe: “White fish placed on a green banana leaf, adding citrus fruits sliced thin placed around the plate for color—dark green lime, sunny yellow lemon and bright orange slices." He then surrounds the fish with canned corn that has tiny pieces of pimento which brings in more nutrition and two new colors, a dull yellow and brilliant red. Norman also makes a healthy fruit salad with a secret sauce, reciple below. 

Then there are folks like Sydney Golde who says she cooks with her eyes only, not her head and follows a recipe religiously. “I can spot a good one like some people ferret out a bargain at an estate sale.” And that’s another special talent. 

The Recipes

Crab and Shrimp Bisque a la Sherry (Margaret)

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons green onion (chopped)
2 tablespoons celery, chopped
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk (I prefer whole milk or half and half)
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4th teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces fresh crab meat
8 ounces cooked shrimp
2 tablespoons sherry
Garnish with parsley or cilantro

Method

Melt the butter in a or large saucepan over medium-low heat; add the chopped green onion and celery. Sauté, stirring, until tender.

Blend the flour into the butter and vegetables-makes a roux--until well incorporated. Continue cooking and stirring constantly for about two minutes.

Warm the milk or half and half in another saucepan over medium heat.

Slowly stir the warmed milk or half and half into the butter and vegetables. Continue cooking, stirring until thickened.

Add the freshly ground black pepper, salt, tomato paste, and heavy cream. 

If the soup is too chunky and you like it smooth and creamy, purée it in a blender or food processor (can do it in batches) and then return it to the saucepan. 

Stir in the crab, shrimp, and the sherry. Bring to a simmer.

Serve hot and garnish it.

This soup is delicious with a salad of sliced heirloom tomatoes and red onion slices topped with fresh basil and a homemade balsamic vinaigrette, a crispy loaf of French bread, and a dry white sparkling wine or sauvignon blanc. 

Rugelach (Barbara) 

Because Barbara and her mother can't find her mom's rugelach recipe, which is the best-best ever, they've adapted Ina Garten's from her Barefoot Contessa cookbook and switched out the apricot preserves for raspberry and pecans instead of walnuts. Barbara also usually adds more cinnamon and eliminates the raisins. The result is pretty close to her mom's, and so good that one friend dubs them her "crack.” They freeze well.

Ingredients

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 -pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar plus 9 tablespoons
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup raisins
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
1/2 cup raspberry preserves, pureed in a food processor
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash

Method

Cream the cheese and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment until light. Add 1/4 cup granulated sugar, salt, and vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour and mix until just combined. Dump the dough out onto a well-floured board and roll it into a ball. Cut the ball into quarters, wrap each in plastic, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

To make the filling, combine 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, raisins, and pecans. On a well-floured board, roll each ball of dough into a 9-inch circle. Spread the dough with 2 tablespoons raspberry preserves and sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the filling. Press the filling lightly into the dough. Cut the circle into 12 equal wedges—cutting the whole circle in quarters, then each quarter into thirds. Starting with the wide edge, roll up each wedge. Place the pastries, points tucked under, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Chill for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush each with the egg wash. Combine 3 tablespoons granulated sugar and remaining cinnamon and sprinkle on top. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove to a wire rack and let cool.

Lauren’s Corn Pudding (J. David Schwartz)

Ingredients

¼ cup butter
¼ cup flour
¼ tsp Salt
2 T white sugar
¼ cup Dark Brown Sugar
1 ¾ cup Half and Half
3 eggs, beaten
3 cups Fresh or Frozen Corn, chopped in food processor

Method

Melt Butter and add flour, salt, and white sugar…Make a roux and add the half and Half.  Cook til bubbly (stirring constantly) and it becomes a thick white sauce.  Remove from heat and add brown sugar.  Add the corn to help cool the mixture and them combine the beaten eggs. Taste to make sure it has a sweet hint. 

Pour into greased baking dish. Place dish in a pan of water and bake at 350 for 40 minutes. Serve warm or room temperature. ENJOY 

Norm’s Mexicali Sea Bass (Norman Selner)

Ingredients

6 ounces of sea bass (or another mild white fish)
4 tablespoons of butter or ghee
Juice of half a lemon
1 can (Libby’s) fiesta canned sweet corn, drained
1/4th cup of chopped pecans (you can roast them in a toaster oven first if you wish)
Lemon, lime, and orange slices, sliced thin
Salt and pepper to taste

Method

Sauté the sea bass in a non-stick skillet in the butter or ghee, add lemon juice, and season to taste. Plate it on a banana leaf “mat” that you cut to fit the plate. The leaves are available frozen at any Hispanic grocery store. Add the lemon, orange, and lime slices around the plate, the fiesta corn to surround the fish, then sprinkle the pecans on top and around the plate.

(Norm’s) Romeo and Juliet Fruit Salad

Ingredients and Method

Norm also applies this colorful concept to making a fruit salad that he enhances with a secret sauce. He starts with any fruit he likes depending on what time of year (i.e. if summer stone fruits are available), he adds berries, melons and other fruit chopped in small pieces, and some sliced mango. And in a simple twist, he whisks up a dressing by combining a ½ cup of honey with Prosecco that comes from the Padua area of Italy, the hometown of the famous couple that never really coupled, Romeo and Juliet. Hence the recipe’s moniker. He mixes the two ingredients together in a bowl, adding the Prosecco slowly until the consistency is liquid but still has the dark brown honey color and pours it over the fruit. He then serves it in a clear glass parfait or glass ramekin and tops it off with whipped cream. Yum.



3 comments

  • Phyllis

    Jul 26, 2020

    I wonder if the four chefs can comment on the butter they use – and if it makes a difference

  • Norman Selner

    Jul 24, 2020

    Fun, fun, fun! Need to cook all that stuff in my tiny condo kitchen!

  • J David SCHWART

    Jul 24, 2020

    can’t wait to do the rugleach….your writing is entertaining and informative.


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