battle 2–days 2 & 3–mushrooms

Oh mushrooms.

I don’t actually feel that bad about struggling with mushrooms more than squash since mushrooms aren’t really a vegetable. This is total practice, scrimmage, powder puff.

Tuesday night I got off the portabella crazy train and tried regular ole white mushrooms. With meat. Actual meat. Not pretend portabellas-taste-like-steak meat, actual meat. I saw my friend Sarah F.–who has had a lot of success getting her husband to eat vegetables by covering them with meat and cheese but not onions, so I love her a lot–over the weekend in Portland. She suggested I try stuffed mushrooms with Italian sausage, and when I asked her how she makes hers, she recited her own recipe from memory. Not only was Sarah’s from-memory recipe recitation amazing, it included this gem: Add cheese. When you think it looks like enough, add more. Sarah. Wonderful.

stuffed mushies

The stuffed mushrooms were the easiest meal to make yet since I was pretty familiar with preparing the majority of the ingredients (after a lifetime of Hamburger Helper, I have at least learned how to brown meat, which was the most labor-intensive part of putting together this mushie meal….well, that and grating cheese, which tired my arm out a little). They were also the prettiest. Even though I made them as our main dish/dinner, I got very excited about how lovely they were and started planning our next party just so I can serve stuffed mushrooms hors d’oeuvres .

finished stuffed mushies

And they weren’t bad! They were kind of good! I considered them for a long time and whether what I was enjoying was the meat and cheese or the mushrooms (obviously it was the meat and cheese), but I really tried to pay attention to the mushrooms and I finally decided I didn’t hate them. The texture is still weird, but maybe it’s just because it’s a new taste, a new feel, and I’m just not used to it, but if I didn’t hate it, then it’s something I can work with. White mushrooms, in.

Then I shared them with Melissa R., whose husband is staunchly anti-vegetable (see? other people like me are definitely out there, they’re just mostly dudes), and tried to convince her to convince him to try them, but he’s feeling betrayed by my little project and isn’t really speaking to me right now (OK, he wasn’t home), but she loved them. Success!

Even though a large part of this project is learning how to cook, if I’m screwing up half the shit because my learning curve is steep, it won’t bode well for my battle with the vegetables. So I’m treating myself to a night out every now and then to let an expert cook for me. Last night, David and I and some friends had dinner at Parker’s on Ponce, a little fancy pants independent steakhouse in Decatur, because once upon a time Melissa force fed me a mushroom there and I didn’t vomit in her face. The mushrooms at Parker’s are served as a side, and even though everyone keeps encouraging me to try them in smaller bits, like cut up and sautéed as part of a marsala (I don’t even know what that is) or soup, I think I can only beat these monsters if I fight them with a fury.


I asked our server a bunch of questions about the mushrooms–what kind they were (button), how they were prepared (marinated in red wine and sautéed)–before briefly faltering when I saw they had grilled portabella something or other on the menu. I mean, I really didn’t love my portabella and the idea was to come here to have an expert cook mushrooms for me….but for fuck’s sake, I really wanted an actual steak. Meat, meat, meat. I ordered the 8-ounce filet with a side of mashed potatoes and merlot mushrooms. And. They. Were. De-licious.

Note to Bethany: Julie—2. Vegetables/Fungi—0.

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battle 2–day 1, part 2–mushrooms

Well, my sister, who is more or less a supporter of this project, will be happy to know my portabella burgers were a total failure, so even if it wasn’t mushroom week and I wasn’t already planning to try something new every night, I would be forced to cook them another way again tonight. I’m starting to think this was a terrible idea.

I went to the farmer’s market to stock up on supplies for this week’s battles with mushrooms. When I got there I realized I had been shopping for the same 12 things for so long I had no idea where to look for any of the new items on my list. When I couldn’t find half the ingredients, I decided I shouldn’t go to the farmer’s market by myself anymore and I left rather dejected. I did manage to pick up portabellas for the first battle, but that was it, so I have to go back with a chaperone for the rest of this week’s mushies.

When I got home, I did the same thing I did last week, I sat around and waited. It’s not like I hadn’t learned my lesson from last week, I had. It’s just that I was pretty sure it wouldn’t take long to grill a few pieces of mold. I was right about that. And I was wrong about a pretty similar thing I was wrong about last week, which was assuming the sitting and waiting would be fine, even though I don’t know how to grill. What I learned about grilling is that it takes a while to heat a charcoal grill. People who grill things know this. I do not grill things. I did not know this.

Many people suggested portabellas to me as a good introduction to mushrooms. I was skeptical of this advice because of its sheer size, but people assured me, no, Julie, you will be fine, it tastes just like steak. I believe you will not be shocked to learn this opinion came from a vegetarian. Having never so much as touched a mushroom in my whole life, to avoid mucking up my dinner I prepared the portabellas exactly the way friends and the Internet told me to: I marinated them in olive oil and balsamic vinegar—which I understood to mean washing them, something I assume you’re supposed to do with all vegetables to avoid salmonella and the plague, and then dropping them in a casserole dish filled with oil and vinegar—and an hour later when the coals were fired up, I tossed them on the grill where they promptly combusted. David said it was because of the olive oil, but I had done exactly what everyone told me to do, so I believe everyone’s instructions should have included more specific warnings on how not to explode my portabellas.

cooked mushies

I added provolone cheese just before I took the charred mushrooms off the grill, then I topped them with some fresh tomatoes and viola, portabella charcoal bricks. They looked beautiful. They tasted like crap. Chewy, oily, burnt crap.

Mushrooms—1, Julie—0.

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battle 2–day 1, part 1–mushrooms

I’m a little behind the eight ball on preparation for this week’s battle with mushrooms because David and I were on vacation most of last week and only arrived back in town this morning, on the red-eye. So I’m exhausted, unprepared and kind of uninterested in taking down mushrooms right now. Cooking, blah.

Nevertheless, bleary-eyed and bored, I mapped out a preliminary plan for this week, which will be a little different than most weeks. For one thing, mushrooms aren’t actually vegetables, they’re fungi. I don’t know what to do with that information. I considered removing them from the list, but they’re such a ubiquitous food that I felt I would be doing a disservice to myself by not including them. The other thing is that because there are so many types of mushrooms, I’m going to try something new every night with a different kind of mushie rather than checking out for the week after I win tonight. I know, I’m getting crazy with the rules. Calm down.

Tonight I’m making grilled portabella burgers, which I chose because I’m hoping I won’t have to do too much other than slap that bad boy on some bread and call it a day. But despite how easy I think the cooking part will be, I am most afraid of actually eating portabellas than I am any other mushroom. They’re so big and it will be the main event on my plate (I mean, really, it’s so big), so there’s basically no escaping it. It just now occurred to me that I don’t have a back-up plan for if I fail. Like, if I truly hate portabellas, what am I going to do for dinner tonight? Blastit.

I have pretty solid plans for three other nights–Sarah L.’s creamy mushroom risotto with rosemary pork loin, Sarah F.’s stuffed mushrooms, and Parker’s on Ponce’s side of some-kind-of-mushroom-but-I-don’t-know-which-one-I-just-know-I-was-forced-to-eat-one-once-and-it-didn’t-kill-me with the bloodiest red meat of my choice, mmmmmm (I’m taking a break from cooking and going out for this one)–but I need one more good suggestion for Friday. Something easy.

For christ’s sake, it’s only Week 2.

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battle 1–day 1–squash casserole

Here’s how my day went yesterday leading up to the Battle 1–Day 1 squash meal: Good luck, Julie! You can do it, Julie! Why is your first vegetable the vegetable that gives vegetables a bad name, Julie? Squash? Gross, Julie! Way to go, Julie! Can’t wait to hear how it goes, Julie! Squash reminds me of poop, Julie! Did you buy beano yet, Julie? You have such great hair, Julie!

I also spent a lot of time researching squash casserole. And by “a lot of time” and “researching” I mean, I read my mom’s recipe, asked Lauren how she does it, and Googled one other recipe online. This was very time consuming because then I had to spend time thinking about how to reconcile the differences among the three styles:

  • My mom and Lauren both use fresh squash; the lady online prefers frozen. Since I already had fresh squash, that’s what I would go with.
  • My mom and the lady online both mash the squash after boiling it; Lauren doesn’t because her mom doesn’t. Lauren (who was also making squash casserole last night) and I talked a lot about this and decided in the end that we would stick with what our moms do. So I planned to mash the shit out of that squash. Lauren didn’t.

When I got home from work I still had about three hours until dinner needed to be ready so I immediately…sat on the couch and did nothing. I waited. Right after all that sitting and waiting I learned a valuable lesson: Just because the recipe says a food item will take 30 minutes to cook doesn’t mean the whole cooking experience will only take 30 minutes. To be fair, I did actually build an extra 10 minutes into my dinner prep schedule, so I thought I was looking at about 40 minutes start to finish. But here’s where I went wrong: I don’t know how to cook.

Fortunately, right around the time I was going to have to call my mom or get into some really serious Googling, Christa showed up. Christa is my friend who knows everything there is to know about fresh food. I actually know a lot of people who know a lot about fresh food, but a school of public health gave her a fancy piece of paper that says she knows a lot and a bigwig federal government agency thinks she’s an expert, so I was pretty relieved she appeared right as I was about to mutilate my squash. It took a lot longer than 10 minutes for Christa to tell me 27 times how to slice and cut the squash (the wine had nothing to do with it) and then how to tell if it was done boiling, but we got it done. Thank you, Consummate Supporter Christa.

super supporter food expert christa

I have to admit, once the squash was “boiling” my kitchen was starting to smell pretty good and I was feeling warm fuzzies toward the whole project, mostly because I was pretty convinced I was going to win this one, and if I could win this one, I knew I could win it all. The uncooked squash already had a yummy, buttery smell while I was cutting it, but once it started boiling it filled my house with a beautiful, home-cooked warmth. I was shocked how quickly it transported me back to squash casserole nights growing up, and I remembered how much I loved the smell then, and how disappointed I always was to learn that yummy, yummy smell was yucky, yucky squash. I was really excited that yummy, yummy smell tonight might just turn out to be yummy.

No turning back now

Then the buzzer beeped. We made a big to-do over my Suzy Homemaker-esque removal of the squash from the oven. We took photos. And there it sat. That big pile of squashy, gooey mess. I briefly considered gagging and vomiting, but that seemed self defeating, so I forged ahead.

digging in

We made a big to-do again over my first bite. We took photos. We made a big to-do when I ate the last bite. We took photos. We made a big to-do when I went for seconds. We took photos. We were sort of done with the photos and big to-dos by the time I was licking my plate clean for a second time, but it happened. I ate it and I liked it. Success!

we loved it

And so. My mom’s recipe follows, with my modifications:

6-8 yellow squash, sliced
(I got three massive squash from Uninterested Farmer, and that was plenty, I sliced them and diced them because they were so big)
2 eggs
(I used two brown eggs, which sparked a debate over whether you can really taste a difference between brown and white….I prefer brown)
2 tablespoons butter
(I started with 2 tablespoons and very quickly went to a little more than half a stick….more butter never hurt anyone)
1 cup grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese
(I started with 1 cup grated organic sharp white cheddar, but it didn’t look like enough, so I added a lot more)
1 cup (or so) cracker crumbs, saltines work best
(I used my favorite crackers, Cabaret, which I almost always get at the DeKalb Farmer’s Market, but I think I’ve seen them at Publix, too)

Boil squash with salt and pepper to taste until tender.
(I did not salt and pepper to taste because I think that is a weird instruction; how do I know how much salt squash needs when it’s boiling? I was duly chastised for this. I’ll just salt the shit out of next time and be done with it.)

Drain well, return to pot. Add butter and mash. Add eggs and mix.
(I mashed and mashed and mashed some more. The mashing really worked for me.)

Pour into buttered baking dish.
Sprinkle with cheese.
Top with cracker crumbs.
Bake at 350 COVERED for 15 minutes.
Uncover and cook for 15 more minutes.

Those of you who spent all day yesterday telling me that you think squash tastes like or is the consistency of poop, try it this way, or I will do it for you and I’ll hold your hand. I’m a squash casserole convert.

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harshing my dad’s mellow

I won’t have a sordid history with every vegetable the way I do with squash, so most weeks I’ll just jump right in and tell you how I gagged on the cabbage (ugh, cabbage), but squash and I go way back. Not the warm fuzzy way my friends like to go way back with their vegetables (“Mmm, my grandma’s butterbeans are the best!”), more like a cold, prickly, pit-of-my-stomach kind of way. Through no real fault of their own, my parents weren’t the Leave it to Beaver, five-star chefs my friends’ parents all seem to be (sorry, Mom, sorry, Dad). My mom’s mom was a shitty mom and never told my mom she was pretty or taught her how to cook, and my dad, well, he was a dude in the age that dads weren’t supposed to have to cook, but bless him, he did anyway. I know they’ll come down on me like a hammer for this with all sorts of examples of good homecooking I’m conveniently forgetting (holidays don’t count, folks), but for the most part, we ate Hamburger Helper. And Tuna Helper.

ward and june cleaver...and my parents, the anti-cleavers

Because of this Reagan-era, working mom, add-water-to-a-box diet, it was a big, fat, hairy deal at our house when my mom bought fresh squash, boiled all the nutrition and other good bits right out of it, slathered it in butter and cheese, baked it and called that dinner. Squash, gross. Squash casserole was an infrequent transgression against me, but I hated it every time. Hated. It. My mom was not a shitty mom and she did tell me I was pretty, but she was still a mighty, harrowing force to be reckoned with and a whiny, snotty, vegetable-hating child was no match for her and her squash casserole. We would eat it and we would like it and we would do it happily, she warned every time she made that scary squash.

My dad, on the other hand, was a pretty mellow fellow. He happily went along with our usually egalitarian family dinner dynamics. Whoever “cooked” (or ordered the pizza) didn’t have to do dishes, and whoever cooked or did dishes one night wouldn’t have to do them the next night. We regularly traded and rotated, and no one was ever burdened with too much hardship at the dinner table. He liked it that way: peaceful, calm, ordered.

Then one pretty Southern summer day (read: scorching hot, sweltering, painfully uncomfortable) my sister and I passed the time by being particularly badly behaved, torturing my parents while they ferried us around to sales and discount stores for the loathsome, thankless task of outfitting us for the new school year. After that, most unfortunately, that painfully uncomfortable summer day turned into a hot, miserable, squash casserole summer night, and reasonably, our bad behavior followed us home. While my mom “slaved over a hot stove,” (one of her most favorite and most ironic expressions), my dad, smart as he was level-headed, began to suspect a revolt was brewing at the kitchen table, his peaceful, harmonious kitchen table. Before my mom ever got to her “you’ll eat it and like it” speech, he eyed both of us and in an uncharacteristically stern voice said, “Your mother has worked very hard on this dinner. I don’t want to hear any complaints about it. Not one word. Not one word.”

Really? That’s what he was going with? It was like bait. He was baiting me.

Mom put the plate in front of me and there sat that gooey pile of squashy mess, chock full of onions (aaagggh..ack..gag) and, of course, squash and god knows what else because it’s a casserole and you can’t see what all is in it and so I said….

“Is this…?”

And my dad said,

“Don’t say it.”

And I said,

“Is this that stuff…?”

And my dad said,

“Don’t say it.”

Long pause.

Longer pause.

We stared at each other. And I think he thought it was over. He picked up his fork and went to take a bite of…


BAM! He slammed his fork down and broke his plate. It’s hard to tell that story without putting, really, a LOT of emphasis on the part where HE BROKE A PLATE. But seriously, my dad broke a plate. Over squash casserole. Really, Dad?

my dad broke a plate for fuck's sake

So, I thought it was important, in homage to my hardworking mom and my peaceful, mellow dad, to inaugurate this project with my most hated vegetable (other than onions, which aren’t on the list), and I’m going to start it–Day 1, right off the bat–with squash casserole (except without the onions, obviously). Here’s to you, Mom and Dad. I’m going to eat it and like it.

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the waiting game

Many, many thanks to all of you who are contributing suggestions for this project and believing in me and being general good sports about how much fun this is going to be. You are welcome at my dinner table any time. Those of you who haven’t yet bet on me and are still naysaying, you can suck it.

So I’ve been itching all week to get this show on the road, but per my own rules of engagement, I don’t get to fire my first shot until Monday. In the meantime I’ve gotten my fill of eating out every night, and we had a fantastic dinner at La Tavola, which is celebrating tomato season right now with its annual Tomatofeast. So. Delicious.


Today, unable to contain my excitement any longer, I got up early and went to the East Lake Farmer’s Market to see a man about some squash. I thought the whole thing would be thrilling. I would take my camera! I would buy some squash! I would take a picture of me buying squash! I imagined a photo of me with the farmer, ala American Gothic, but proudly holding squash instead of a pitchfork, and smiling instead of scowling. So, not really American Gothic at all. But the farmer from whom I bought my squash for this week’s battle, a man whose livelihood depends on the consumption of produce items, wasn’t as charmed by my hatred of vegetables as I thought he should be. In fact, he had the same reaction everyone else does. “You don’t eat vegetables?” Boo farmer.


So. I’m all squashed up and ready to go. Ready. Steady. Ready. Steady.
Wait. Wait. Wait.

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