battle 3–day 2–peppers

Green peppers. Greeeeen pepperrrrs.

Can we just clear up a few things about peppers? A) Did you know they aren’t all hot? OK, that’s it. Just A. Don’t you think there should be like a Pepper Association of America (or of the world or the galaxy or the universe) that’s responsible for disseminating information to the public about the fact that only some of the most notorious peppers are hot? I think so. I’m going to look into this. Here’s why: I generally don’t love hot foods. I generally like bland food (David says I like beige-colored food). I’ve gone my whole life avoiding all peppers because I thought they were hot. Hot-t-t-t-t, HOT. And don’t you think, given the pepper’s position in popular culture (…ever heard of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers? Or the little Johnny and June tune Jackson? “We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout…”), this is a reasonable assumption? I’m going to go ahead and blame my parents for allowing me to stereotype all peppers just because of a few unruly, spicy sizzlers. Thanks, Mom, thanks, Dad.

So everyone has been going on and on to me about how much they hate green peppers, and I just figured this was why. Because my world revolves around me and I don’t love hot shit, I figured green peppers must be the hottest. They’re not. I don’t know what the big fucking deal is about the green pepper. I didn’t love it, but I don’t know why it has to draw such ire from all you naysayers. Lighten. Up.

cutting peppers

I put my green peppers on pizza. I figured if it was such a scary monster, the best way to tame it would be to put it on something I love and I love pizza. And the main reason I love pizza is because it’s a big piece of bread (beige food) drowned in cheese (beige food). So yesterday when I was all like, ‘I’ll probably default to pizza a lot,’ what I meant by that was pizza equals easy. But of course I’ve never made pizza before. Surprisingly, I actually forget sometimes when I go into the kitchen that I don’t know how to cook, and I think things like, eh, it’s pizza, how hard can it be?

peppers and mushrooms

Not only was pizza not easy, it was probably the hardest thing I’ve made so far. And I almost fucked it up so much it nearly didn’t happen at all. I got the pre-made dough in the bakery section at Publix (many thanks to Occasional Supporter Melissa B. for pointing me right to it yesterday), some expensive organic tomato sauce (I don’t know crap about tomato sauce, but expensive and organic seemed like a good combination), basic mozzarella cheese, mushrooms (to prove that once I’ve added one vegetable to my diet I can keep eating it week after week), one green pepper and Italian sausage (obviously). I thought I was off to a brilliant start with these ingredients; I would make a fresh, colorful, homemade pizza all on my own. Then I opened the package of dough. And looked at David. And he shrugged. I struggled with it, kneading and pulling and wadding it back up again, for a solid 20 minutes before giving up and asking David what he thought I should do. He shrugged again. “I don’t know anything about pizza.” I glared at him. All these years he had me duped into believing he was this amazing cook, but really he was just saying that because he didn’t have to cook because I wouldn’t have eaten whatever he wouldn’t have pretend cooked anyway. Naysayer!

prepizza

Eventually we got around to rolling out the dough with a rolling pin we fashioned out of wax paper and a Kleen Kanteen bottle (of course, because why would we have a rolling pin?), and there laid a blobby amoeba of dough on which I would create my pizza masterpiece. So I started piling shit on. I smeared a thin, thin layer of tomato sauce around the center, because despite my love for tomatoes I don’t really like sauce. Then I added cheese. Then I sprinkled on a few green peppers. Then I added cheese. Then I scattered a small handful of mushrooms. Then I added cheese. Then I loaded it up with ground, browned Italian sausage. And then I added more cheese. And then some more. And finally, more cheese.

precheese

While all this was happening David was heating the grill, which is a Big Green Egg at our house, because our friends Tom and Melissa B. just rave about pizza on the Big Green Egg. I had talked to Tom earlier in the night to make sure I had dotted my Is and crossed my Ts for preparing the egg for pizza, which included putting corn meal on the cooking plate so the pizza didn’t stick, and I was pretty sure we were square. Pizza assembled, check. Egg fired up, check. Transfer pizza from baking sheet to egg….blastit. Corn meal on the baking sheet would have helped a lot. Right about then was when David read aloud from the Big Green Egg manual that they suggest assembling the pizza on the grill. So too little too late, DP.

postcheese

David tried some fancy tricks to get the pizza off the baking sheet, but I had fantastic visions of the whole thing upending and my peppers (my one pepper) going to my begging dog panting at our feet, so I just abandoned the grill entirely and popped that bad boy in the oven. Better luck next time, Big Green Egg.

The oven pizza was fine. It was pretty even. The Italian sausage was great, the mushrooms were delicious, and the green peppers were….crunchy. Ugh. I didn’t mind the flavor they left on the pizza after I picked them all out one by one, but the crunch, ouch, it was like nails on a chalkboard. It reminded me of onions. Green peppers on pizza, out.

pretty pizza

I’m back at it with green peppers again tonight, though, and especially since I didn’t mind the flavor, just the crunch, I feel fairly certain this battle is not yet lost.

Green peppers. Greeeeeen pepppperrrrrrrs.


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battle 3–day 1–peppers

Although my newfound love for tomatoes precipitated my interest in learning about other vegetables, it was really one meal I had a few weeks ago at my favorite restaurant, Watershed, that catapulted this whole project into being. Watershed makes the most amazing vegetable plate and during the summer it is usually filled with delicious Southern foods like fried okra and creamed corn, the only vegetables I ate before a few weeks ago. The project-catapulting veggie plate included two slices of tomato (seriously, the best in the universe), fried okra (also the best in the universe…maybe the galaxy…which is bigger? I think the universe…should of paid closer attention in 5th grade science…my husband the-space-freak is going to hate this side note), some other deliciousness I can’t remember right now, and butterbeans. I had never had butterbeans before, but these looked all creamy and fatty, and they were probably soaked in some heart-attack-in-a-vat ham product, plus they’re called butterbeans, not lima beans (ugh, ack, gross), so I couldn’t help but try them and then obviously lick my plate clean. It was after reporting this incident, of which I was most proud, to 200 of my closest friends on Facebook, and sorting through the various responses about how lame my diet is, including one rather vulgar response from my Mom (way to go with the foul mouth, Preacher Mom), that I got the idea to soak every other vegetable in the (what’s bigger than a universe? I really don’t know….) world (seems OK to just stick with what I can get from here for now) in hamhock and see how it goes.

Today, I went back to Watershed for lunch and broke the rules again. I got the vegetable plate, which thank god had fried okra, creamed corn, sliced tomato and cornbread (that really should be enough, right?), but it also had green beans and black eyed peas. Those are pretty far down on the list, like, I’m not even thinking about having to gag on those right now. I mean, this is pepper week. But I have a special affection for Watershed and their fatty, meaty vegetables, so…I…tried…them. The beans and the peas. Beans and peas weeks are going to be hard. I’m not saying they’ll win, I’ll win, but not without a lot of effort.

Watershed

The best suggestions I’ve gotten throughout this project have been process-oriented, like not making veggies the main feature of my meal, and although I think peppers seem like a good veggie to test drive that suggestion, I’ve got basically no ideas. The best I can come up with are fajitas and pizza (I think I’m going to default to pizza a lot). I’ve also had no fewer than four people offer to make stuffed peppers this week (Supporter Melissa R. wins this one; she made her family recipe sound most appealing and even though the project’s biggest naysayer also lives under her roof, he’s probably the one who will have to do most of the cooking, so who’s naysaying now, sucka???), so that’s a couple of nights, but otherwise peppers are stumping me. I want something awesome!

Because I didn’t go to the grocery store or farmer’s market Sunday, I wasn’t really ready last night, and because Mondays suck, I wasn’t in the mood to go to the grocery store or farmer’s market yesterday either, so I didn’t. We went out. I could pretend I wanted to start this week off with a bang and have an expert cook my very first pepper (er, second) to get me started off right, but really I was just lazy. We went to Mezcalito’s Cantina in Oakhurst in search of fajitas. It turns out Mezcalito’s is more Spanish-Venezuelan-Cuban fusion than it is Mexican or Tex-Mex, so I was shit out of luck on fajitas. I panicked for about a minute because now that meant I would have to actually order something with peppers in it and I wasn’t going to be guaranteed to appreciate the other things on the plate the way I knew I would with fajitas (meat). Fuck me and my laziness. I studied the menu intently, considering items with peppers, ruling out items with peppers, salivating over the chicken special that did not contain peppers, and finally settling on something with a Spanish name I didn’t recognize that was served on top of poblano pepper mashed potatoes. At the very least, I could scrape off whatever was on top and just eat the mashed potatoes.

Mezcalitos

!!!!! It was beef!!!!! The Spanish name I didn’t recognize and didn’t write down and isn’t on the Web site was beef! Beef shoulder actually. It was awesome. And the poblano pepper mash was excellent, too. I want us all to just take a minute to sit with this: I had meat and potatoes for my first pepper meal.

This project rules.


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battle 3–peppers

I went to a cookout Friday and put this whole project to its first major test: one of the vegetables I’ve supposedly added to my diet permanently was on the menu…and I ate it. And it was great. And it was only Week 2! It’s working! We had kabobs on the grill, which fortunately had a ton of red meat on them, and they were colorfully decorated with mushrooms and red, green and yellow peppers. And onions. I ignored the onions, of course. New Naysayer Chad is convinced he can get onions on the list or trick me into eating them (which is absolutely against the rules). Silly, deluded Naysayer Chad. And hipster Tom. And Mellow Dad. Onions are out. You lose.

Back in the real world, I excitedly enjoyed the mushrooms, and I inaugurated pepper week early by cutting a grilled red pepper into tiny little squares and nibbling on it carefully, fearful it would scorch my mouth (aren’t peppers supposed to be hot?). But I liked it. I haven’t determined yet what this means for red peppers, like if I’ve committed some major transgression against the project by breaking the rules and battling the red pepper two days early, if I still need to incorporate them into this week since I already know I like them, or what, but I know I’m going to have trouble with green peppers, so I’m going to concentrate more on them and worry about my departure from the rules with the red pepper later (I blame it on the vast amounts of tequila I consumed before dinner and the fact that my dinner companions dared me…even though they knew peppers were on deck for this week and I would get around to all of them eventually…naysayers and rulebreakers!).

Even though I had a relatively successful week with mushrooms, I did also learn two more valuable lessons from the parts I flubbed:

  1. My inability to cook could possibly hinder my total victory over some vegetables. For one thing, because I don’t know where shit is at the farmer’s market or grocery store I wound up completely abandoning the mushroom risotto last week (does anyone know what Arborio rice is or where to find it at the store?). The other thing is, unless recipes or instructions specifically say to dig out all that weird looking stuff under the mushroom and cut the stalk-y bit down to the very nub, I’m not going to know to do that, and then my portabella is going to fill up with oil and catch on fire, which it did. Spectacularly. So, if you send me recipes or ideas–and please keep them coming, I need them–assume you are working with someone who has the culinary skills of a nine-year-old.
  2. Partying hard on the weekends makes planning for the week and shopping for veggies on Sunday a real drag. This is another reason I’ve never really cooked. I have a life. I’m not sure what’s valuable about this lesson, actually, I’m just telling you, it blows. In other news, Paul McCartney was amazing at Piedmont Park this weekend. Have you heard of this guy? He was in a little band called the Beatles. I mean, we lost our shit when this happened.

Onward to peppers. Bring it, peppers.


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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.

Parkers

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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