Friday, November 20, 2009

A Little Advice, or, Making the Best of Stupidity

Yesterday, inspired by smittenkitchen, I decided to do two new and daring things in my kitchen: 1) gratin 2) greens.

By far the most daring thing was combining the two.

So, in a typical act of preparation I started making a grocery list. Now, I could claim that while I was making said list my puppy had an accident, my husband lost his glasses and fell into a symptomatic cursing fit, my stepdaughter needed geometry help and the butternut squash that was supposed to be roasting in the oven caught on fire, but those would just be excuses. Determined, I stuffed the list into my jeans pocket and got the heck out of dodge.

I would like to pause for a moment to recap:

a. I was attempting something daring and new.
b. I was distracted.
c. Even on the best of days, my memory is that of an goldfish.

Now that we're all on the same page, it may not come as a surprise that while I was supposed to come home with whole milk, gruyere cheese, sweet potatoes and fresh swiss chard, what I actually brought home was no milk, smoked gouda, red skinned potatoes and frozen kale.

Also, I forgot that the list was in my pocket and now I have an entire load of laundry flecked with paper pulp.

(Side Note: No, I was not drunk or strategizing world peace. This is just me. My mother chooses to think of it as "easygoing", probably because if it weren't for flexibility and improvisation, I would have starved to death long ago. My fourth grade teacher, on the other hand...well, let's not get into it. Let's just say she will NEVER be my facebook friend no matter how many times she requests it. Revenge is sweet. )

So, what to do with all these flubs? Roll with 'em.

I decided the potatoes were irreconcilable, so I mooched a ride past the store from C while she got lunch. The rest I just improvised.

You can find the original recipes here. Needless to say, I made a few changes, and it is deliciously wonderful. The smoked Gouda adds a wonderful flavor -- so gooda in fact (get it, gouda?) that C thought I'd used bacon. No, I did not use bacon; this is a strictly vegetarian dish. But I always take bacon as a compliment.

My version:

Serves 12

1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 pound chopped frozen kale
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 whole milk (or, if you're like me, use 1.5 cups of heavy cream and 1/2 cup 2%milk)
2 garlic cloves, minced (garlic presses are wonderful and save so much time!)
2 tablespoons flour
2 pounds medium red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
1 tablespoon minced fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup coarsely smoked Gouda cheese

1. Preheat the oven to 400. Using a heavy pot, sautee the onion in butter until it is soft, and then add the kale, nutmeg and some salt.
2. Combine milk and garlic in small saucepan; bring to simmer; keep warm. Melt 2 tb butter in a small heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, whisking, one minute, then slowly whisk in warm cream/milk and boil, whisking, one minute. Season sauce with salt and pepper.
3. Assemble gratin: Butter deep 9×13 baking dish. Layers as follows:
  • Half of sweet potatoes
  • sprinkles salt and pepper
  • 1/4 of the herbs
  • 1/4 of the cheese
  • 1/4 of the greens
  • sprinkles salt and pepper
  • 1/4 of the herbs
  • 1/4 of the cheese
  • 1/4 of the greens
  • half of bechamel sauce
  • the remaining sweet potatoes
  • sprinkles salt and pepper
  • 1/4 of the herbs
  • 1/4 of the cheese
  • 1/4 of the greens
  • more salt and pepper
  • the remaining herbs
  • Pour the remaining sauce over the top of the gratin, spreading it around as evenly as possible.
  • Top with the remaining cheese.
Bake for about 50 minutes until golden and bubbly. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Ultimately, life throws all kinds of curve balls, even when you're focused and organized. For those of us that suffer from chronic absentmindedness, curve balls are just a way of life.

A little advice:


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Little Advice, or, All Thai'd Up

(Hmm. I seem to be "up"ing a lot in my post titles recently.
Maybe it's a sign.
I did see that movie "Up" a while ago with HC. It was good, but I wasn't aware of any long-lasting side effects... )

The most significant thing about raising a lovely family, in my opinion, is food. When well-adjusted people wax nostalgic about their formative years, you can bet your bottom dollar they mention food more than...more than...well, working toilets or adequate laundry-turn-over rates or being on time for "Godspell" rehearsal.

Which, in my case, is a pretty good thing.

Cooking I can do! (The other stuff I can do sometimes...sort of.)

Once accustomed into the routine of cooking dinner on a regular basis and even throwing together the occasional pancake or waffle, any domestic darling will come face to face with a common culinary conundrum: leftovers. Even worse, some family members I've heard of won't eat ordinary leftovers. They have to be disguised, transformed, reinvented, before they're considered appropriate nourishment. While I can't relate to this type of dysfunction (in our house labeling a doggy bag is no guarantee of victual security) I can at least help my fellow darlings arm up and prepare for battle.

(Side Note: I'd like to address a disturbing situation that has recently come to my attention. Apparently, some domestic darlings don't keep leftovers. This is not good. This is seriously not good. Leftovers save time and money, two things which are of the upmost importance to those running a household. Also, leftovers can provide some inspiration when nothing else does. The eternal question: what am I going to do with that? looms large in the dinner ponderings. It can produce many a tasty meal which might not otherwise come to be.)

In this post I'll try to illustrate how easy it is to use up some leftover pork chops without making them seem like leftovers. In fact, they won't even look like pork chops!

You ready? Here goes somethin':

The first step, if we're being literal here, is to prepare and serve pork chops to your adoring and gracious family. In my case, it was a couple nights ago, I was uninspired, and it was an off-the-cuff unbreaded, fried in the skillet pork chop meal with asparagus, rice and pan gravy. Boring, but sort of yummy. There were two large bone-in chops leftover.

I kept these leftovers in the back of my mind while I planned other meals. Being that the original preparation didn't have any thing fancy goin' on, I was aware that those pork chops could be turned in to just about anything. I was thinking of something involving pasta and a white sauce, barbecue and maybe even a sandwich or two.

Then, while forcing myself to think about our Thanksgiving menu and therefore leafing through some of my cooking magazines, I came across this bad boy:

Thai Lettuce Wraps. Ohhhhyeah.

I play favorites with Thai food on a regular basis: tom kha soup, pad Thai, panang curry...mmmmmmmm. When I lived in Chicago my apartment was above a Thai restaurant. Oh, for the days of waking up to the wafting smell of coconut milk intermingling with lime and chilis...

Here's the original list of ingredients:

2 pounds ground pork
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 small shallots, minced
1 large jalapeño, seeded and minced, plus sliced jalapeño for garnish
Juice of 1 lime, plus lime wedges, for serving
2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon Sriracha (chili sauce), plus more for serving
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup chopped basil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup chopped salted peanuts
1 large head Boston or other leafy lettuce, separated into leaves

The directions are pretty straightforward. Combine the pork, garlic, shallots and jalapeno, and cook together in a skillet. Separately, whisk together all the ingredients listed from lime to chili. Add the mixture to the meat, along with all the rest of the ingredients. Serve wrapped in large pieces of lettuce.

Now, I know you're on the edge of your seat for how I manipulate this recipe. It's really pretty simple:

1. Chop the leftover pork chops into tiny little pieces.

2. Depending on how much there is, use the chopped chops to offset some of the ground pork (I didn't bother. I guess there was just extra pork in mine).

3. Follow the recipe. For some stupid reason involving my lack of discipline in the TJMax food section, I have a jar of dehydrated, chopped shallots which I reconstituted instead of buying fresh ones. They worked fine. I only had one lime and one jalapeno, so I didn't garnish the plates. Besides, my family doesn't really know what to do with garnishes. Once, when P and I were eating sushi I inquired as to why he never ate the wasabi or pickled ginger. Too spicy, I wondered? Too weird? His response: "Oh. That green stuff? I guess I just never took it seriously."

On the other hand, this is the same man who thought wedge salad was supposed to be eaten with the hands, like a piece of watermelon.

4. Serve to your family. They'll never know the history of that pork on their plate. They'll never know it's intricacies, it's dark and twisty path from lame leftover limbo to deliriously delicious dinner.

In some families, that's considered success.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Beefing Up

Why is it that for most people, chicken is a comfort food but beef isn’t? This doesn’t ring true to me. Perhaps because I grew up in Texas and learned early on the miraculous ease and flexibility of cooking with ground beef. Beef: it’s what was usually for dinner.

Is it because a chicken is less intimidating than a cow? If that’s the theory, then the theorist clearly has never been chased by a crazed chicken attempting to peck his hand off to get to the bucket of corn. He also has probably not spent hours watching the long-unmoving ruminant bodies sway across a swath of land, or peered into those warm, lucid brown eyes while rubbing the stiff but soft bovine ears.

I’d take a cow over a chicken any day.

(And don’t even get me started on goats. Fortunately, goats have never been considered comfort food for anyone outside of Ethiopia so it’s really a non-issue.)

Is it because chicken is often less expensive than beef? Because if that’s the reason I better reevaluate my comfort foods list. Right after mac’n’cheese I have caviar and truffles.

Is it because in days of yore, all the warm, cozy, peaceful wholesome places had chickens running around in the backyard? Because I’m not sure that’s even true.

In any event, I need not worry. We now have enough beef to produce many, many moons worth of comfort food.

The obvious practical question here is, why? In response, I have several answers, and I’m sure that other people (C included) could provide several more. Hear me out:

1. It is better for us.
It is better for the cows.
3. It is better for the environment.
4. It was on sale.

With regard to reasons 1-3, I’m a little uncomfortable sounding so granola. I don’t normally buy organic and we’re (clearly) no vegetarians. I don’t drive a hybrid and we occasionally eat instant ramen noodles for dinner. That said, as a gardener, a pet owner and a mother, I can’t avoid the obvious connection between wholesome foods and wholesome beings. As a Christian, I can’t avoid the stewarship responsibility we have to take care of the earth.

I’ve been reading recently about the realities of corn-fed beef and it is pretty sickening, both from an animal-welfare perspective and a human-health perspective. When an animal is made to only (only!) digest grass, (that’s why they have those extra stomachs after all), it seems to me they should be fed … GRASS. Feeding cows corn makes them sick and miserable, and requires them to be pumped full of antibiotics. In turn, we as the consumers are then forced to feed our families sick, miserable and drugged up meat. In this context, maybe beef isn’t such a comfort food after all (although I doubt chickens are much better).

Economics (mostly tax-subsidy policy) has made it so that corn-fed beef is pretty much the only thing normal people can afford on any kind of regular basis.

Which brings me to reason #4: There was a sale!

As a result of all the rain we had this year, the grass grew like crazy, which in turn made the cows grow like crazy and many of them came to weight before they were expected. I worked out that with the price they were offering, it was actually cheaper for me to purchase a half steer from this free-range, grass-fed farm than it would be to buy store bought beef through the winter.

I gave my pitch to my trusty companion C, who immediately agreed to split a half steer with me.

So, as of last Tuesday, I have about 200lbs of happy beef that was raised practically next door!

I even got the offal. What is offal (other than awful)? At our un-adventurous table, it’s going to be the choicest doggy treat on the market.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Puppy Love

Okay, okay. I know last time I blogged, I mentioned that this post would be about the massive amount of beef I currently have residing in my garage deep freeze. Don't worry, that meat is not going anywhere fast.

In the meantime, meet Ulrich, the newest member of our menagerie. He's fuzzy and fat, sweet and lazy, and just so darn adorable that every time he pees on the floor we end up forgiving him.

Ulrich came from a local shelter, where his mother was saved from a high kill pound. His father didn't make it -- he was euthanized for barking after just one night. The next day, Ulrich and his siblings were born. Our local shelter stepped in right in the nick of time: Ulrich's mother was slated to be killed because of "dog-aggression", which would have been the last of the little puppies as well.

"Dog-aggression" apparently means that one dog is aggressive toward another dog, which, quite frankly makes total sense in the context of having recently given birth to 6 puppies. So the rescuers rescued and the little canine family flourished.

Eight weeks later, and here he is!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Stockin' Up

It's fall. Did you know that? Well, it is.

Which means that it's time for harvesting, hoarding and preserving.

Side Note: I wanted a synonym for the word "preserving" that started with the letter "h" but all I could find was "husband", as in "animal husbandry." I'm just not convinced that's an actual synonym for preserve. I mean really? Are farmers in the business of animal preservation? That makes it sound more like a park ranger type situation. Too bad park rangers aren't referred to as park husbands. Talk about commitment to the job.

...get it? Commitment? 'Til death do us "park"?...anyone?... *taptaptap* this thing on?

Anyway, I have tackled this domestic duty head on: the first step is to make tons of chicken stock while the vegetables are still in season and therefore cheap and environmentally friendlier.

C and I have discovered the most amazing recipe for the most delicious stock. After you taste it (or just smell it cooking!) you won't ever buy canned or boxed stock again, and you won't even want to look at chicken bouillon. It will give you chills. It will also cure chills, as any good chicken broth can. It will warm your home, make your husband love you even more than he already does, make your children behave and your flowers will deadhead themselves. No, seriously.

Don'tcha wanna at least try it?!

The first step is to assemble all the ingredients.

Now, I realize that I instructed you to assemble *all* the ingredients, and the photograph does not include *all* of the ingredients. But I trust you can use your imagination. I'm new to the whole taking-adequate-pictures part of my life, having grown up surrounded by photographers, so you're just gonna have to take what you get.

Here's what you actually in-real-life-not-photographed-above need:

  • 1 really ginourmus pot
  • 3 roasting hens
  • 3 large yellow onions, unpeeled and quartered
  • 6 carrots, unpeeled and halved
  • 4 stalks celery with leaves, cut into thirds
  • 4 parsnips, unpeeled and cut in half, optional
  • 20 sprigs fresh parsley
  • 15 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 20 sprigs fresh dill
  • 1 head garlic, unpeeled and cut in 1/2 crosswise
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

Variations: Sometimes, other parts of chicken are on sale for real cheap. I have made this recipe with one hen and about twenty chicken thighs, or a ton of wings or whatever. I've even made it with one split chicken, some drumsticks and a picked-apart chicken carcass. Also, with regard to the herbs, I think buying fresh herbs at the store is kinda overpriced. I grow a lot of herbs at home, but sometimes I come up short (plus I don't grow dill). Just supplement dried herbs as you see fit. Generally, when substituting dried herbs for fresh, I reduce the amount by about half, more if the dried herbs are ground. Also, I've left out the celery before with no disasters resulting and for various unexplainable reasons I have a superfluity of whole white peppercorns so I use those instead of black, I just throw in a few extra.

In other words, work it as you will, this thing is pretty hard to kill.

  1. Put it all in the pot.

  2. Looks nice, doesn't it?

  3. Turn up the heat real high until it boils. This may take a while, since there is so much crammed in there.

  4. Once it boils, reduce the heat so that it pipes down a little and let it simmer for four hours.

  5. Cool it until it's about room temperature. (Or you can be like me and procrastinate by sticking it in the refrigerator for a day before buckling down and pulling it out again to strain the broth and debone the chickens.)

  6. Strain all the vegetables out and debone the chicken.
Now you have a choice:
  • you can either dump all the deboned chicken back in the broth and make yourself some "sippin' once, sippin' twice, sippin' Chicken Soup with Rice"
  • OR you can make something else out of it (like chicken salad, tacos, enchiladas, stir fry, casserole, etc)
  • OR you can divide it up and freeze it a pound at a time for later use.

The broth is very freezable too. I usually freeze it in two different sizes of container: one set that holds only about two cups and one that holds more like 6. That is what I find most flexible, and therefore useful, for later recipes which require thawing.

Next fall food discussion topic:

Q:Why On Earth Did I Buy All This Beef?
A: Because That Half-Steer Needed Me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I never understood those women who say that being a stay-at-home Mom is boring. I mean, sure the housework is boring and occasionally being around nothing but kids can get tiresome. I’m sure no one loves every single minute. But the reality is that being a stay-at-home Mom is the most flexible job I’ve ever had. When you think about it, a stay-at-home Mom has as many bosses as she has children, but she’s allowed (encouraged!) to tell them to calm down, mind their own business and say “please”. How many people can say that to their boss?

Recently, my usual boss and I came to the realization that Halloween was quickly approaching (like, within 24 hours) and we were seriously lacking in the costume department. For once, this crisis was not brought on by procrastination or forgetfulness. We really tried! We went all over God’s green earth looking for an adequate and appropriate Snow White costume.

Is it just me, or are there only two categories of Halloween costume these days: toddler and stripper? And they’re the same size.

So while HC went to school on Friday morning, sadly assuming that she would have to wear something fashioned out of an old white bedsheet, I made one last venture out.

We used to have a sewing store out here, but it closed about a year ago and my options are now limited to Walmart, which, by the way, was a TOTAL MADHOUSE. Since when does Halloween get its own shopping surge?

The week before Christmas, sure. The grocery store on the day before Thanksgiving, absolutely. But the day before Halloween?! All you need is a costume and some candy! There is no excuse for so many people to be shopping at one time.

Usually though, even when the rest of the store is packed, the sewing department is tumbleweededly empty. This time, not so.

I squeezed past several desperate looking mothers in order to get a better view of the Halloween sewing patterns. It was mostly witches and pirates, with a few princesses and zoo animals thrown in.

Slim pickin’s.

I reluctantly picked up a boring adult pattern for what was supposed to be Snow White, I guess. I recognized the puffy sleeves and blue vest, but was puzzled by the checked skirt and red hearts decorating her bosoms. Perhaps I can just leave those out, I thought and dejectedly made my way to the never-ending line to cut the fabric.

Wondering how in the world I was going to convince HC that this was indeed the costume of her dreams, I flipped through a McCall’s book and waited for the line to move. Suddenly, there is was:

Hallelujah! I celebrated my find all the way down the checkout line (and let me tell you, that was like half and hour).

Nevermind that my sewing machine hiccoughed halfway through the vest, or that in the process of fixing it I replaced the needle with another needle of the wrong type, and so then the machine malfunctioned and I thought it had bitten the dust, so I went on a three hour tour trying to find the broken part, only to discover that the needle was not the wrong type but just facing the wrong way and could have been fixed in two second instead of three hours. And nevermind that I didn’t have enough bobbins to handle the several colors of thread I needed so I had to load one up, use it, and then unspool it all again so as to be able to change the color, and then repeat. And nevermind that I was supposed to drive into the city that night but instead stayed up until one in the morning pricking myself and cursing the tissue paper instructions without any dinner. And nevermind that…oh, nevermind.

The point is, I finished. And it looked awesome. And HC was delighted.

She even dragged A out to help her trick-or-treat and managed to get him to don a cowboy costume to boot.

(Get it? Boot?)

Happy Halloween.