Welcome back frequent Mysteristas guest, Judy Alter!
Why in heaven’s name am I cooking on a hot plate?
Am I turning from mystery to cookbooks? Not quite. The mystery is why I, whose avocation has long been cooking, am fixing full meals with a hot plate and a toaster oven. Three years ago, I was happily living in my home of twenty-five years, pursuing my writing career, and enjoying retirement with friends and family. I dined in restaurants a lot, drove an aging but cute Volkswagen convertible, loved on my dog, and thought life was peachy—except for the worsening pain in my low back and left hip, increasing fear of falling, and lack of balance. But I was pushing eighty, and it was time to look ahead.
Life changed dramatically when a family council decided that my youngest daughter, her husband and son, would move into my house, and we’d convert the garage/guest apartment into a cottage. Months later I found myself living in 600 square feet, cozy and cute but with a tiny kitchen.
Local zoning laws forbid more than one full kitchen on a property. I cannot have built-in appliances such as a stove or dishwasher. Anything you plug in is okay, so I have a large refrigerator, toaster oven, magnetic hot plate, and coffee maker. Limited counter space rules out a microwave and other high tech plug-ins.
Cooking in this new space came slowly, complicated by health problems that put me on a walker. But gradually I cooked again—mostly elaborate appetizers. Then came spaghetti sauce from scratch, fettucine with smoked salmon for a lunch guest, a salmon loaf, beans on toast, chicken pot pie, Welsh rarebit, and other main dishes for guests. My repertoire kept growing, and I was having fun in the kitchen again.
The idea for my new cookbook came about gradually as this friend and that suggested I write about my kitchen experiences. Believe me, there were some negatives. I regularly burned things, even in the toaster, which set off the smoke alarm more than once. I drop things constantly, mostly because I still must chop and stir from a wheelchair. It took me a bit to remember to push “Start” on the hot plate. Little things.
What pushed me toward publication was a friend’s suggestion of the title: Gourmet on a Hot Plate. I began with a sort of trial run—a cooking column in the neighborhood newsletter which, conveniently, I edit. The book grew from that column and from my continuing experiments. My intent was to share the possibilities of a tiny kitchen. My target audience: everyone from college freshmen in the dorm (one of my grandchildren) to seniors in assisted living, with tiny house pioneers in between. Since publishing I’ve found it helps people of all ages who live alone, because most of the meals feed two—there’s your dinner and lunch tomorrow.
A chef friend claims the section on platters—charcuterie, antipasto, and cheese—is worth the entire book, while I particularly like the various pastas. Appetizers seem to dominate because that’s how I entertain—no dining table and comfortable seating only for six. But I tackle some main dishes, like Tuna Florentine.
Tuna and spinach are two of my favorite foods. This one, meant to be a good-sized casserole, is a bit of work but well worth it. Might be a good one to bake in two individual casseroles. I have cut the original recipe in half here, so feel free to double it and bake in batches or whatever works for you.
1 Tbsp. butter or as needed, divided use
½ half small onion or six scallions diced
1 10 oz pkg frozen chopped spinach
Salt to taste
A good pinch of ground nutmeg
1 7 oz. can oil-packed tuna, preferably olive oil
1-1/2 Tbsp. flour
Slight pinch of mace
½ c. grated Swiss cheese
1 Tbsp. Parmesan grated
1 Tbsp. white wine
¾ c. soft bread crumbs
1 Tbsp. Parmesan
2 Tbsp. melted butter
Sauté onion in melted butter.
Cook spinach separately until tender; drain thoroughly, reserving cooking liquid. Add onion and butter, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Simmer briefly to blend flavors. Set aside.
Add milk to spinach cooking liquid to make ¾ cup.
Drain and flake tuna, reserving oil. Put 1 Tbsp. reserved oil in skillet with ½ Tbsp. butter and heat to melt butter. Blend in flour, mace, and salt and pepper. Add spinach liquid/milk mixture and stir to create a smooth sauce. Remove from heat, add cheeses and wine. Heat again until smooth. Add tuna.
Place spinach in bottom of baking dish(es), top with tuna. Add topping, made by mixing melted butter, bread crumbs, and Parmesan thoroughly.
Bake, uncovered, until lightly browned. In two small dishes, check it at 20 minutes and again at 30.
Gourmet on a Hot Plate: Tiny Kitchen Tips and Recipes is available in print from Amazon and as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, several library and subscription services.
About Judy Alter
Judy Alter is the author of historical fiction about women in the American West and mysteries set in contemporary Texas, notably her Kelly O’Connell and Blue Plate Café series. Her novel, The Gilded Cage, captures the conflict between robber barons and labor movements in late-nineteenth-century Chicago, Judy’s home town.
Her work has been honored by Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame, the Texas Literary Hall of Fame, and others. The mother of four and the grandmother of seven, she has lived in Texas over fifty years and calls herself a Texan.