Look in Your Mental Pantry

                                                                                           January 15, 2016


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHi! Thanks for dropping by. Here’s what’s on my mind today.

My cooking philosophy can be summed up in two words—Common Sense. Wouldn’t it be great if we could channel Thomas Paine as he was writing his famous pamphlet Common Sense back in 1776? Paine was trying to convince the colonists to use common sense in deciding whether to fight the British in the Revolutionary War, whereas I am asking you to embrace common sense as a tool to help you cook great food. Maybe these two ideas seem ridiculously incongruous to you, but I believe they may be closely intertwined … hmm … right … never mind.

Common sense is a quality you may forget you have when you’re rigidly measuring every ingredient like an obsessive/compulsive compounding pharmacist. Common sense (CS) is your most reliable cooking tool. It’s conveniently stored in your mental pantry, at the ready, whenever you need it. CS will remind you, when you dislike a particular ingredient, to leave it out or substitute it for something you enjoy. For example, if you don’t like lima beans, but you adore fava beans—well, need I say more? (Other than to ask, is your last name Lecter?) And sprinkling dried basil over your fresh caprese salad doesn’t mean that the Ingredient Police are going to pull ice picks from their holsters and storm your kitchen. A recipe is a suggestion, not an edict. When you cook from a recipe, you are the master. Perhaps there’s too much cumin to suit you in that taco recipe you’re trying. CS will tell you to add a little at a time. Taste as you go. You can always add, but you can’t take away. Build flavor slowly, especially when you’re trying a new recipe. Make your kitchen a center of empirical research. You might even create a better recipe than the one you’re using!

I add a bit of salt to all my dessert recipes. This is an Apple Dumpling in Creme Anglese, with a marzipan blackbird perched on the plate’s rim.

Trying to discern why your dish doesn’t taste right can be daunting. How do you begin to figure out what’s wrong? So many times it’s just a matter of being unbalanced—not you—the recipe. I personally think that salt and sugar are the great balancers. Most recipes need a bit of both, no matter if they are sweet or savory. (I’m not a professional chef, but I do believe I have CS when it comes to fine-tuning a recipe, and many of you have it, too.) So, I usually try to correct a problem dish with sugar and/or salt first. If it’s savory, I may add more onion, garlic, celery, green pepper, etc. Maybe it needs to be brightened with lemon juice or vinegar, or softened with olive oil or butter or cream. Or perhaps I need to increase the umami with stock or broth or bouillon or soy sauce or bacon. Sometimes it simply needs an overnight “merger” in the refrigerator. Maybe it needs to be served at room temperature instead of being chilled. It might need punching up with cayenne or Tabasco or more freshly ground pepper or white pepper or a few selections from the spice cabinet. It may require more mouth-feel—adding toasted nuts or pine nuts or sunflower seeds or a panko topping will help. Sometimes sweet treats such as candy or cookies or frostings seem to have a “blank” spot in their flavor profile or they may be downright cloying—this tells me that a pinch or two of salt is going to make a big difference. Often desserts need vanilla, good vanilla, maybe lots of vanilla. But never artificial vanilla, though some would disagree. And go easy on that almond flavoring. A little goes a long way. Same for cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves. Butter is better; it’s the real thing.  Always use the real thing if it’s within your means.

A member of the Ingredient Police investigates a fraudulent buttercream frosting. (He reminds me of my brother-in-law, Fred.)


If you close your kitchen blinds before you add that margarine to your buttercream frosting, it’s a sign that you are living a fake life and you might require an intervention. If you run afoul of these draconian no-imitation-food policies, please be warned that the Ingredient Police may have grounds to beat down your door and search your premises!! (Whoa, I need to simmah down! I am browbeating you into a creamy consistency with all this common and not-so-common sense!)

If you don’t own an oven thermometer, buy one (in the gadget section of the grocery store, Target, Kitchen Collage in Des Moines’ East Village, etc.). For a very small investment, you can rest assured that your oven is calibrated to the correct temperature. The success of many recipes depends on it. If it’s off by 25 degrees or so, you can usually compensate by adjusting the baking time of your recipes. But if your oven seems more like an industrial blast furnace,  smelting your baked dishes into slag, then you’d better call your appliance guy.


I fear that all of my earlier fretting about food failures has worn you down to the nubbins, so here is a simple dish with an almost-guaranteed success rate because it only has three ingredients! When you serve these, there will be plenty of ambient buzz in the room, and it will be all about you and your crazy-good recipe:

Crockpot Ranch Mushroom Appetizers


When we spent New Year’s Eve with our dear friends Lynn and Gordon, Lynn served these mushrooms with our before-dinner drinks. She found the recipe online. It’s possible you may already have tried them yourself. (One of the protocols for a good blogger is to credit the origin/author of a recipe that is reprinted in the blog; however, I could not find this information when I did an online search. This recipe is available on many sites, but unfortunately, I don’t know who first created it. Also, I realized that I haven’t learned how to use the recipe-formatting tool, so I apologize for the amateurish format of this recipe.)

Crockpot Ranch Mushroom Appetizers

1 pound fresh whole button or baby bella mushrooms

1/2 cup melted butter

1 (1 ounce) packet ranch salad dressing mix

Fresh minced parley for garnish (optional)

Clean mushrooms with a damp paper towel or soft brush and place in crockpot on low. (I removed the stems.) Pour in melted butter and ranch dressing mix. Stir. Cook on low 3 or 4 hours. Place in a bowl, garnish with parsley, and serve with toothpicks. (Great on steaks and pork chops, too.)

Tracy’s Tweak:  I used 1 pound of sliced (instead of whole) mushrooms and reduced the amount of butter to 5 tablespoons. I added 2 tablespoons of white wine and a clove of minced garlic, as well as the ranch dressing packet. To serve, I placed homemade crostini around the bowl of mushrooms to add some crunch and make a person’s bowl-to-mouth experience less messy. A spoonful of mushrooms and juices drenching crunchy crostini provides a burst of deep, satisfying flavor!


Last Bites

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.—Truman Capote


Most of us have experienced failure in the kitchen. Remember, a botched recipe is not always your fault, and it’s often redeemable. Sometimes though, no matter how heroic the effort, that beautiful soup you made (from the fancy slick magazine you bought at the checkout line) still tastes like the contents of your dog’s water bowl. You must forgo common sense, admit defeat, and throw it out. Don’t look back. The sun will come up tomorrow … unless you’re a blackbird. My sister Kris, who is a phenomenal cook by the way, attempted to make fancy dinner rolls many years ago. Despite a big booster shot of yeast, those rolls would not rise up and be fluffy. They steadfastly remained as doughy marbles rolling around in the pan. Kris threw them out in the backyard for the birds. Later, she looked out, and to her horror, she saw several lifeless blackbirds on their backs, claws in the upright and locked position, their tiny gullets presumably clogged with dough. (Well, that story certainly took a nasty turn, didn’t it?)

Posting schedule: I plan to post on alternating Fridays. The next post will be published on January 29, right here in beautiful Des Moines, Iowa. Thank you for following my blog!—Tracy Mullen



12 thoughts on “Look in Your Mental Pantry

  1. Common sense – I sure could use some of that!!! As always, your writing inspires, entertains, and motivates us all to get in the kitchen! Am trying the mushroom recipe – A la Tracy – for a dinner party we are hosting this weekend. Will be thinking of you with every bite!


  2. Tracy,
    I enjoyed reading your cookbooks, so I know this blog will be great. It will stimulate our creativity and inspire our common sense (I love that idea!). I have to try the mushroom recipe – I am sure you have perfected it meticulously. Happy blogging!


  3. Great approach – Common Sense! Wish I had possessed more of it as a young cook. Experience is a great teacher. And no more murdering blackbirds. Not good – wouldn’t be prudent. Never throw out failures in the back yard. I learned. Great blog stuff!


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