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Food For Thought

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column about cooking for one, and some ways to prevent food waste when forced to buy groceries in family-size packages. Several people responded to my comments, and said they appreciated the suggestions. A couple said they still miss the cooking column I used to write. So, maybe it’s not too soon to write about food again.
Cooking in hot weather isn’t the misery it once was. Most of us work in air-conditioned kitchens and, aside from making the air-conditioner work a little harder, heating up the oven creates no big problems. Hot-weather cooking usually takes less time as well as less energy (yours as well as the kind from the power company) and offers some variety to keep your family interested.
Most families like fried chicken and, especially in summer, we have it often. Frying up that batch of chicken takes quite a while, around an hour, even if you can get it all in the same pan at once. You can cut down on the cooking time considerably by making chicken nuggets. Simply cut the chicken into smaller pieces, coat and season it as usual. The small portions will fry in a fraction of the time and you may even be able to avoid making gravy by serving it with a choice of sauces to dip it in. I like barbeque sauce, ranch dressing or honey mustard, but there are lots of other things you could try. How about your favorite chip dip, salsa, or Thousand Island dressing?
Speaking of Thousand Island dressing, if you’re around my age, I’m sure you remember what a big deal an iceberg salad was in the ‘50s. It was just a big wedge cut from a head of crisp iceberg lettuce, slathered with that tart, pinkish dressing. The salad chefs didn’t even tear up the lettuce, they left it in a big chunk, I suppose it was supposed to look like an iceberg, and you had to attack it with a knife and fork. But it was always crisp and refreshing. There’s something to be said for simplicity.
Another hot-weather side-dish I like to make is what I call jazzed up cottage cheese. I remember the days when we bought cottage cheese with chives– I don’t think I’ve seen that in the stores for some time, but it’s easy enough to make your own with fresh chives or dried, just mix it ahead so the flavor gets a chance to develop. A version I like even better has thinly sliced little green onions, black pepper, crumbled blue cheese, and a dollop of sour cream stirred into it. A brother-in-law used to love cottage cheese and diced ripe tomatoes together. My sister stirs crushed pineapple into hers. And she puts pineapple in her coleslaw, too, (my sister likes pineapple.)
The microwave has taken a lot of heat out of the kitchen, but some things just don’t taste or look right when cooked that way. The microwave essentially steams most foods, and is a space-age miracle when it comes to leftovers. Things that take a long time cooking on the stove-top can be cooked in big batches and reheated in the microwave as needed. I use wild rice in a lot of recipes and like it as a side-dish in place of potatoes or pasta. Since it takes about an hour to cook wild rice, I cook enough for several meals all at the same time, then divide it into smaller batches and freeze it. It takes less than a minute in the microwave to defrost and heat one serving. Wild rice, by the way, is more closely related to grass than it is to rice.
Other hot weather favorites are those big salads of the Chef Salad variety. Traditionally, they’re mainly lettuce with onion and julienned ham, turkey, and cheese, further garnished with tomato wedges and sliced hard-boiled eggs. Newer versions have chunks of hot cooked meat such as fried chicken (even spicy buffalo chicken) or shrimp, roast beef, bacon or barbequed pork strips. These are easy to make with deli-sliced cold meats or frozen, cooked meats that need only to be warmed up. Instead of the usual shredded cheddar cheese on top, try crumbled feta or goat cheese.
It’s easy to avoid that dark ring around the yolk by making sure the eggs are thoroughly chilled as soon as they are taken out of the boiling water. Before cooking, cover the eggs with hot tap water and let them set for about fifteen minutes to warm the eggs gradually and keep them from cracking. Boil on high for at least one minute to make them easy to peel, then reduce the heat to a gentle boil for another ten minutes. Drain off the hot water and flush them with plenty of cold tap water until you can no longer feel any heat when holding one in your hand. Crack the shell gently all over, then roll it between your hands until the shell loosens. Keep them cold until ready to use. (A perfect hard-boiled egg will have a tiny drop of oil in the center of the yolk when cut in half.)