When I started writing this column 10 years ago, I confess I was a bit nervous. I was certain my weird cooking, eating and housekeeping quirks were unique to me, and that once I exposed them, you would know how strange I am and judge me for it.
But over the years, I’ve stopped worrying. Not because I’ve changed — I still have all the same bizarre traits. It’s just that I’ve discovered you’re in no position to criticize. You’re pretty strange, too.
It didn’t take a lot of research to find out. You tell me so yourself. Just about every time I write about something truly peculiar I do or think, I hear from a dozen or more of you, informing me you do or think the exact same thing.
Either you guys are all misfits, or I’m not the oddball I thought I was.
It has almost become a game for me as I write the column. Every week I ponder my life, trying to pluck a topic that will truly separate me from the herd and prove I’m not Everywoman.
So far, I haven’t had much luck. No matter what quirk I write about, someone out there claims it as his or her own.
But I think I’ve finally come up with something that will stump you all this week. Because judging from numerous events I have attended recently, I am truly alone in this one:
I refuse to buy convenience foods, except under the most dire circumstances (like guests arriving in the next 10 minutes). I think just about everything tastes better if you make it yourself. So, as a rule, I only shop for ingredients, not shortcuts.
In particular, I avoid pre-made dips and other party nibbles.
See? I told you I’m weird.
Now, I don’t want to be a scold. I’m not saying that store versions are terrible. Trader Joe’s makes pretty decent hummus and guacamole, OK spanakopita and passable Chinese dumplings. Costco sells many of those as well, along with big fat meatballs that are fine if you doctor them with a good sauce. Supermarkets also have numerous perfectly adequate entries in the instant appetizer class.
How do I know all this, since I never buy them? Alas, I am way more familiar with them than I would like to be. They’re impossible to avoid. At numerous gatherings I’ve attended recently, just about every item on the table came pre-made from the store. (Further evidence I’m alone in this.)
My problem with these foods isn’t that they aren’t edible. They are usually made with good ingredients, are fairly fresh and can be a life saver for the time-crunched. People like them. I get it. I understand their popularity.
My beef is that they are predictable and a bit boring — and eating them over and over again is dumbing down our taste memories, giving us a very middle-of-the-road version as our baseline. They are made to a set recipe, so they are the same every time. That’s good in terms of reliability, but with it we lose something I value far more: the interesting variability that comes with homemade.
When you make it yourself, that extra squirt of lemon, unusual spice, too-hot jalapeno, odd juxtaposition or last-minute addition has the potential to elevate your snack from the ordinary to the sublime. By being a little unpredictable, a homemade dish can startle your taste buds into noticing it.
I prefer what I serve to be noticeable. So I refuse to buy those perfectly inoffensive store-brand products; I insist on making my own. I’m not sure if that makes me a purist, hopelessly old-fashioned, a cranky pants or just plain eccentric (though I admit cranky and/or eccentric are the most likely).
Do any of you agree with me on this point? Or, as I fear, does everybody like predictability and convenience more?
Let me know.
I’m wondering if I have I finally done it, and come up with a quirk that none of you share.
Chinese-Greek Phyllo Triangles
Just in case there are a few hardy souls out there willing to try DIY, I thought I’d reward you with this interesting and delicious fusion recipe I’ve been guarding for many years. I love the unexpected juxtaposition of flavors — so much more interesting that the usual cheese or spinach triangles.
If you want to taste it, you’ll have to make it, though. Because it combines two very different cuisines, it fits no easy category, so you are unlikely to ever find a convenience version at Trader Joe’s.
4 dried shitake mushrooms
1½-inch piece fresh ginger
1 large carrot
8 ounce can water chestnuts
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
9 ounces ground chicken
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 tsp. mirin or dry sherry
1 tsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 egg, beaten
1 package phyllo
8 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
Defrost the phyllo overnight in the refrigerator.
Soak the mushrooms in hot water for 20 minutes.
In the meantime, peel and coarsely chop the ginger and carrot. Put the ginger into a food processor and process until finely chopped, then add the carrot and process until it is minced. Add the drained water chestnuts and pulse a few times until chopped but not ground into a paste. Remove to a bowl.
Remove the stems from the mushrooms and discard. Squeeze the water from the caps. Put the caps in the food processor and chop until minced. Add the mushroom, ground chicken and parsley to the bowl with the ginger-carrot mixture.
In a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch, rice, mirin, sesame oil and soy sauce. Whisk in half the egg (discard the rest or use it for another purpose) along with the salt, pepper and sugar.
Add this mixture to the chicken and stir vigorously until everything is incorporated and the mixture sticks together.
Cut the phyllo lengthwise into strips about 3-1/2 inches wide. Take a strip and place a small amount (a teaspoon or two) of the chicken mixture about an inch from one end. Fold the end over the chicken, then form a triangle by folding the phyllo over and over down its length, the way you would a flag. (If you weren’t a Girl Scout and don’t know how to do this, look it up online. It’s simple to do, but hard to explain in words.) When you get to the end of the strip, wet the last bit of the phyllo slightly so that it will stick and stay closed. Repeat until all of the chicken mixture is used up.
Work quickly and keep the unused phyllo covered so it doesn’t dry out. This should make a couple dozen or more.
If you are going to bake them right away, place the triangles on a cookie sheet and brush them all over with melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.
If you want to freeze them for later use (my version of a convenience food), don’t use the butter. To freeze, place them separated from one another on parchment paper on a sheet pan in the freezer. Once they are frozen, you can store them in a freezer bag. To bake, place the frozen triangles on a cookie sheet and brush them with melted butter at that time. Frozen ones will take about 15 minutes to bake.