Thursday, July 3, 2014

Cooking My Way through Life--Guest Post by Author Judy Alter

Please join me in welcoming guest author Judy Author to Killer Hobbies today.  In addition to being the author of over 60! books (many of them mysteries) Judy has a talent I certainly don't share--cooking.  Check out the recipe at the end of the article.

In my next life, I think I’ll come back as a chef. I love writing, but if I’m not at my computer (or in Scotland or at a gathering of my family), I’d just as soon be in the kitchen. It’s a legacy from my mom.

Food has always been important to me. Like my faith, it sustains me. It is part of my self-assumed role as a nurturer—I love to feed people—and it’s a big factor in my social life. I’d rather go out to dinner with friends or have them into my house than go to the theater or a movie. At the table, there’s sociability and interchange and friendship; at the theater or the symphony, each person is pretty well isolated until afterward, when talk may flow in comparing reactions.

For me, food is also about continuity—and change. I bring to the table today the recipes of my mother, still often used and some, I’m sure, from her mother. I bring a few from my ex-husband’s Jewish tradition. So my cooking preserves the past and carries it on for my children and grandchildren.

But cooking is also about change. Now well into my seventies (can that be true?), I’ve seen a lot of changes in what we Americans eat. I’ve seen fast food mushroom beyond belief and the family dinner hour almost disappear—both trends I bemoan. I’ve seen foods come and go—remember when the “in” thing was to order fondue at a fancy restaurant?  But not many eat fondue today, although I hear it’s making a comeback.

In the ’80s there was all that fuss about crepes—whole restaurants devoted to them—and quiche, and the book Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. Pasta changed from spaghetti and meatballs to all kind of exciting things, beginning with fettuccine Alfredo and moving on to goat cheese pizza. Italian food in the United States today is much more sophisticated than lasagna, and that’s a good thing, though I still love lasagna.

Pretty much gone are the Chinese restaurants of my youth, with chrome and Formica furniture and little white take-out boxes (not that I ate at them very often—Chinese was not on my dad’s list of acceptable foods). Today, we eat pan-Asian food—Thai, Vietnamese, everything from glass noodles to sushi and sashimi (which I love)—but who would have eaten raw fish in the ’60s?

Hamburgers have morphed from a meat patty on a bun with lettuce, tomato, onion, and mustard into imaginative concoctions of which guacamole and bacon are the least exotic additions. We’ve added game to our menus, and now the trendiest restaurants serve elk tacos, venison medallions, wild boar chops, and buffalo hamburgers. 

I’m a believer in experimenting with the new foods, and I’m as ready as anyone to try a seared scallop on a bed of pureed cauliflower (even though I don’t much like cauliflower) and topped with foie gras (it was probably the best tapa I’ve ever had). But I also think it’s important to carry on the recipes of the past—King Ranch chicken and meatloaf and tuna casserole, albeit with a twist. In many ways, the path of my life with food traces the ways that our food has changed in this country and yet, I hope, emphasizes the importance of keeping tradition.

I’ve thought about the different foods that have been in my life at different times: a sheltered child in a middle-class, slightly British meat-and-potatoes household; a young adult who married into a new culture (Jewish) and moved to another new one (Texas); a single parent of four making a lot of casseroles; and now an older adult, living alone and entertaining often.
I am not a gourmet cook. My friends call me that, and one who has traveled the world often says she’s never had better meals than she has at my house. But I know better. I use prepared ingredients—I’m not above admitting that I use Campbell’s soup in some recipes, and have for years. When a recipe says “the finest French chocolate,” I use Baker’s if I have it on hand. I figure my friends and I can’t really tell the difference, and, frankly, I don’t have time to make my own pasta, and I often don’t have the money for French chocolate. So I fudge in ways that a true gourmet never would. I also use shortcuts, and I cook ahead of time rather than killing myself trying to coordinate a meal by preparing everything at the last minute for freshness. True gourmets would discount my cooking—but my friends and guests love it. So maybe my story is how a busy woman with a limited budget can still come off as a gourmet cook.

Recipe for Doris Casserole

This is a family favorite, beloved by all but one of my children (she doesn’t like cream cheese, sour cream, etc.). It was served to me at a dinner party nearly fifty years go by a woman named Doris. I didn’t see much of Doris in later years but when I did she barely remembered the casserole. I gave the recipe to a friend who insisted the noodle layer should come first. I assured her it shouldn’t. This is supposed to feed six, but it disappears quickly.

First layer:
1 lb. ground beef
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
2 cloves garlic, crushed in garlic press
2 tsp each sugar and salt (I cut back on those but sugar is important in tomato-based sauces—my mom taught me years ago it sort of rounds it off.)
Pepper to taste

Brown ground beef in skillet. Drain grease and return to skillet. Add tomatoes and tomato sauce, garlic, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer 20 minutes, until it thickens a little.

Spread in a 9 x 13 pan.

For noodle layer:
5 oz. (approximately—they don’t come in this size pkg.) egg noodles
3 oz. pkg. cream cheese (here again, you have to fudge; cream cheese doesn’t come in 3 oz. pkg. anymore)
1 c. sour cream
6 green onions chopped, with some of the tops included

1-1/2 c. grated cheddar

Cook egg noodles and drain. While the noodles are hot, stir in cream cheese, sour cream, and green onions. Spread over meat mixture. Top with grated cheddar, bake 35 minutes at 350 or until bubbly and cheese is slightly browned.

 Leftovers, if any, freeze well.
Click the cover below for a link to the cook book!
Judy Alter, an award-winning author with over 60 books for young adults and adults to her credit, has written her own cookbook/memoir, Cooking My Way Through Life with Kids and Books. Currently she writes the Kelly O’Connell and Blue Plate Café mysteries series. The fifth Kelly O’Connell book, Deception in Strange Places, will launch as an e-book July 31 and a stand-alone mystery, The Perfect Coed, will be available as an e-book and trade paperback October 15.

Find her at,; or on her blogs, and (a food blog—no surprise!).


John said...

Great post with nice introduction. Food is also important to me too. Anyway, the Doris Casserole sounds really delicious! This will be perfect for dinner tonight. Thanks for sharing.

Monica Ferris said...

My cuisine, too, is a mix of things I learned from my mother and things I've learned from friends and even cookbooks. I've never learned to like sushi, but I love other Asian dishes, particularly Thai.

Tracy Weber said...

I'm a cooking disaster. But food definitely unites us through the generations.

Judy Alter said...

Tracy, you are a cook. Look at all those smoothies you tried! John, let me know if you like Doris' Casserole. I have a friend who calls it American Lasagna but it's not. Monica, I'm just the opposite--Thai is usually too hot for me, but I like salmon sashimi a lot! My favorite sushi place just caught fire--sob!

Tracy Weber said...

I'll be back trying smoothies again real soon. As soon as I'm off the dastardly antibiotics. I miss my smoothie experiments!

Kait said...

Doris's Casserole - I know it as Poor Man's Lasagne and I got it from my sister-in-law. I still make it to this day - unadorned by new century jazzing. What a great post Judy. It brought back memories of where we have been and glimpses of where we are going. I'd like to be a guest at your cyber table.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

Judy, you just endeared yourself to me in ways i never expected to see. I also have a Jewish ex-husband and favorite recipes i picked up from kosher cookbooks. I even occasionally make "fried crackers" (as i thought of matzoh brie when he first made it for me) with saltines, a little shredded cheddar, onion powder and sage, and think how fitting it is in these economic conditions. I imagine it was originally developed like meatloaf and gefilte fish to make a tight budget go farther.

John said...

Judy, the Doris' Casserole taste really good! It was a hit! I'm glad that I made it, of course with your recipe. Thanks.