Salmon Burgers, Ceviche and Other Delights

Rather than dwell on the unnamable ball of twisty angst in my gut, today, let’s talk fish. This post is one of those that lay foundering in my draft box, and it’s really not fair to you to keep it locked up. Silver season is upon us.

Now that we are back in Cordova, you are going to be hearing a lot about fish. Namely sockeye  and silver salmon. I know this is a cruel taunt for most my readers, but some fair number of you live in Alaska or the PNW and might appreciate a recipe here and there. Not to mention that most fish recipes are adaptable to whatever species you can lay hands on….

Sockeye season is over here, we are fully in to silvers. For those of you buying from the market, silvers are considerably cheaper and still a great fish. There are other species of pacific salmon sometimes in stores too. Pink salmon has gotten a bad rap from years of shitty canning practices, but can be perfectly fine food. Chum salmon, called “dogs” here, are also entirely edible by humans. I ate them and canned them and enjoyed them before Cordova turned me into a hopeless fish snob. Folks here can get snitchy about these “lesser” species, and it’s true they don’t have near so much flavor and luscious fat as sockeye and king salmon. But that doesn’t mean they can’t spell dinner.

I can’t help it, as a devout Alaskan, I have to preach for just a minute here. Please don’t buy farmed salmon. It’s bad. Bad for fishermen, bad for the environment, and certainly not as amazingly good for you as it’s wild counterpart. Be aware that stores will often label farmed salmon, misleadingly, “Atlantic salmon” as if it came from the Atlantic ocean. Atlantic is in fact the species name, and although there are wild runs of Atlantic salmon, it is the species of choice for farming and that is what you will be looking at in the grocery store. You can be pretty sure unless it is labeled wild salmon, it’s farmed, probably in Chile.

Someone commented awhile back on the conundrum of too much salmon and what to do with it. I have never personally gotten sick of good sockeye salmon, though I have at times eaten it about as much as person possibly can. I think the trick, as for using up any bountiful food item, is two-fold.

1. Take excessive care to preserve it in the highest possible quality. I have most certainly not always done this. In fact, I’m quite sure I have made all the mistakes available to the novice. For example, it’s not at all hard to get tired of frost-bitten, fishy tasting salmon that was packed into zip-locks for reasons of thrift. This is what I believe they call “penny wise, pound foolish.” Ahem. Over smoking is another way to make yourself sorry, as I can also attest. My ex and I once smoked a batch of jerky so much that it made our mouths numb to eat (yes, we ate it anyway).

2. Don’t think about recipes for salmon, per se. Just cook the way you usually cook, but forgo your internal food rules and substitute salmon for every other flesh you might have used (bear in mind that it must never be overcooked!) I love a plain sockeye fillet baked or fried with nothing more than salt, if the quality is very high. But when you are tired of that, or using up a cheaper lesser flavorful fish, just use it in everything you ordinarily cook. Soup, casserole, pot pie, tacos, spaghetti, stir fry. If your fish is getting a little “fishy” use lemon, tomato or a tiny splash of white wine to cut the fishiness back out.

That said, here are my favorite ways to cook salmon, after the thrill is gone.

Ceviche

The only hard part of making unbelievable salmon ceviche is removing the skin and pin bones. Those bones run in a single line down the length of the fillet, and if you are careful you can cut out the whole strip of ’em without losing much meat. Bear in mind as you cut down that they angle toward the belly. Or, you can use pliers to remove each one individually. To remove the skin of any fish, lay it on the cutting board skin side down and run your sharp (essential!) knife right under the flesh. Ceviche is a good time to practice these techniques because you’re going to be chopping up all the fish anyway, so mistakes don’t matter.

Mix 1 lb chopped up fish with 1/2 red onion, 1 red pepper, 1 bunch of cilantro, 1/2 cup fresh lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon salt or more to taste. Let the mix sit at least 1 hour, 3 or 4 is even better. Serve with a pile of warm corn tortillas (fried in a lightly oiled pan) and black beans. So, so good, with any species of fish.

Fish Sticks

Everyone loves homemade fish sticks. They convert people who think they don’t like fish, and blow the minds of fish snobs who think they are too good for something that usually classes with TV dinners. They’re just as good with silvers as reds. De-bone and remove the skin as described above. Cut into stick sizes. Use a “bound breading” with Panko and cornmeal, and pan fry in half an inch of olive oil for a phenomenal stick.

Bound breading is a good trick to know, if you don’t already. It makes a perfect, crispy crust. Get three bowls. Put flour in one, an egg or two whisked smooth in another, and Panko, breadcrumbs and/or cornmeal in the last (Panko is a secret to itself, just some incredible kind of  Japanese breadcrumb stuff that blows everything else out of the water.) Dip the fish pieces first in flour, then egg, then Panko. It’s messy, but worth it. Panko is meant for deep frying, but pan frying (just a half inch of oil) works fine for these fish sticks.

To complete the experience, mayo + pickle juice + dill weed=tartar sauce.

Gravlox

Do you know this stuff? It’s “cured” salmon, meaning you salt it heavily and let it sit (in the fridge) for a few days, then eat it uncooked, sliced thin on crackers. Sounds very unpromising, right? I was incredibly skeptical the first time I had it. But I could hardly stop eating it! If you like salmon sushi, you will like Gravlox. This isn’t exactly a using it up recipe, you need absolutely prime perfect salmon to make it, and a little goes a long way. But it is soooooo good, and so easy, I just have to share it. Silvers make equally wonderful Gravlox. Just take a fillet which has been frozen for several days at least (to kill any potential parasites since you won’t be cooking it), lay it into a glass baking dish and cover with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons freshly dried dill (not ancient tasteless dill from the bottom of your spice drawer that you’ve had longer than your children, throw that shit away right now!) Cover and leave in the fridge for at least one, preferably 2 or 3 days.

Now, this is the hardest part, slice the cold Gravlox paper thin (a 15-30 minute stay in the freezer will help, but don’t forget about it!!!!) and serve with crackers, cream cheese, finely sliced red onion and lemon wedges. I assume you will do this for a special occasion, but don’t pre-assemble them, or the crackers get soggy. Let folks make up their own, squeezing just a few drips of lemon onto each bite. Oh glory! It is a show stopper. Absolutely mind blowing.

An entire fillet makes a huge crowd’s worth of Gravlox. Too much for all but the most enormous party really. This year, I made up a fillet and then cut it into four chunks, vac-packed and froze each separately. I think it will slice up even better when it’s still mostly frozen, making it a relatively quick, totally fabulous treat to share with unexpected guests.

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

Here is the requested recipe that started me on this post in the first place. It makes the best salmon cakes or burgers you’ve ever had. I have at times in my past nearly lived on very humble canned salmon patties– a jar of salmon with just enough flour mixed in to hold things together, shaped and fried. Very spare, very emblemic of a particular period in my life.

These are not they. These are made with fresh (or thawed) fish, a bit of old bread and that coy magic– mayonnaise. Nothing makes good like mayonnaise.

The original recipe is from Cooks Illustrated, crown glory of annal retentive perfection in the kitchen. I discovered it via a friend, who explained that rather than take a perfectly good fillet and mince it up into tiny bits as the recipe instructs, she scrapes down her filleted carcasses with a spoon and uses all that residual goodness. Having done both, I can say that the latter actually makes for a better texture, and certainly a more profound frugal housewife righteousness. It is an especially useful trick if you are still learning how to fillet and leave lots of good fish of the carcass. Myself– not to toot my own horn, I am incredibly slow— I have gotten to be pretty good at removing all the flesh intact to the fillet. So good that I am actually a bit disappointed how much is left to scrape up for burgers.

But, when I did up those 20 sockeyes in July, I did get a giant bowlful of scrappy bits. I made a whole big batch of these and popped most of them into the freezer. You can cook them straight from frozen, and you will really feel like a rockstar.

Note: I think these would work with any kind of fish, though they might be a tad dry with a less fatty kind. Maybe add more mayo…?

The Best Salmon Burgers Ever

  • 1 1/4 pounds salmon, or a pint sized mason jar packed full and heaped up high
  • 1 slice stale (but not dried out) bread, ground up in the food processor or very finely minced
  • 2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 2 Tablespoons grated onion, don’t be tempted to just mince it, grating is important
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • a bit of fresh parsley or dill if you have it, minced super fine

for the breading:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 3/4 cup Panko or regular breadcrumbs

If you are using a fillet of fish, use a sharp knife to finely slice/chop/shred the flesh, you want it to look like ground meat. Do not be tempted to put it into a food processor, which will turn it into a disgusting paste. I have however had great luck running fish through my Kitchen Aide’s grinder attachment using the coarsest blade.

Once you’ve got the fish looking right, just mix it with the rest of the ingredients up top. It will be very sticky. Form patties as best you can and lay onto a baking sheet dusted heavily with flour. Put the sheet into the freezer for 15-30 minutes (don’t forget!) until they are very firm.

Now get set up for a bound breading experience as described in the fish sticks section. Bread each patty and set back onto the sheet pan. Obviously you can skip this step, they will still be very good, but this is what really what blows them out of the water. So to speak.

Fry the patties in a half inch of oil, till nicely browned on each side. Serve hot, on buns with full garnish, or just plain jane on a plate with some fresh steamed rice and a salad. Yum!

Dinner Every Night: Pasta with Lentils

I never get too far away from this subject in my mind, apparently: the challenge of putting good food on the table day after day, after day, after day.

Though I have waxed poetic in the past, today’s revisit is purely practical.

Pasta. With lentils. Damn is that some fine food! Every time I eat beans and noodles together I promise myself I will remember how good the combination is. And every time, two days out, I forget again and think “Pasta? With beans? Wouldn’t that be weird?”

Last night’s incarnation involved leftover penne mixed with leftover lentil soup thawed from frozen two days ago (complete with potatoes and carrots) mixed with one leftover hamburger patty, crumbled up. Sounding crazy? Wait, there’s more! The soup was very thick, so I added a puck of frozen chopped tomatoes and a healthy glug of olive oil to the skillet. I had a small handful of peas from the garden too. I heated it all up over high heat so that the pasta got that little bit of a fried texture and all the flavors thoroughly infused.

How can something so humble, concocted of such seemingly random and incongruous items, taste so delicious! Leftovers or no, I encourage you to try lentils with pasta soon.

What to Feed Kids When You Really Need Them to Eat

Yes, Halloween yesterday. Giant candy binge, pre-bedtime. Brilliant. Whoever thought of including the under 5 set in this scheme should be spanked.

What was I doing yesterday afternoon to prepare for a fun holiday? Putting the last touches on cute hand-sewn costumes? Nope, I had intelligently finished our giant rolling ice cream truck and two matching kiddie-aprons (4yo’s idea) in the morning, and spent that last hour preparing a fortifying feast of macaroni and cheeseandfishandpeas. Because if my angels are going to gorge on sugar, pure and unadulterated, by god they are at least going to start with a belly full of protein and whole grains.

What do you cook at your house when you really need a sure bet? Here at Camp Apronstringz, I am lucky damn dog. Both my kids love fish, and the aforementioned mouthful macaroni is the only kind they’ve ever known. I make it with whole wheat noodles (read this old post if you think they’re no good), high quality canned salmon, about half as many peas as noodles, and very little cheese sauce. It’s not so healthy as to warm my heart when I see them eating it, but it’s hardly crap food and it’s my 4yo’s self-proclaimed favorite, so I always score points when I make it. We were at a friend’s house the other day and she offered some macaroni and cheese. “Andfishandpeas?” my girl asked. I had to convince her that plain mac and cheese was in fact very good.

I’ve mentioned this macaroni and cheesesandfishandpeas business before, I make it probably once a week. But I recently found a revelation in cheese sauce making and thought maybe it was time for a real recipe. Here’s the trick– with enough fat, grated cheese will melt into a beautiful, velvety sauce without having to make a roux! The recipe I saw called for heavy cream, but I never have that around, and this meal needs to be made from stock components. I am a half and half addict (almost as essential as the coffee itself) so I tried it with that and butter. It’s worth a try with plain ole milk and butter, if that’s what you keep in the fridge.

CJ’s Easy Win Mac n’ Cheesenfishnpeas

  • 1/2 lb macaroni noodles
  • 2-3 Tablespoons butter
  • 1/3+ cup highest fat dairy you got
  • a few ounces grated cheddar
  • 1-2 cups frozen peas
  • 1– 6 oz can high quality canned salmon (not that nasty stuff with the skin and bones) or tuna

Boil the noodles as per usual. When they are about half cooked carefully set a shallow mixing bowl on top of the pot of boiling pasta and put all the dairy into the bowl. Give a stir every few minutes, it will melt into a beautiful sauce. Don’t leave it too long or it will separate. Pour frozen peas into another bowl in the sink, with the colander set over the top. Drain pasta into colander, allowing peas’ bowl to fill with water, defrosting your peas. Return pasta to pot and pour cheese over, or stir noodles directly into the mixing bowl of sauce if it’s big enough. Open your can of fish and dump, juice and all, into the noodles. Break up with a fork. Drain peas and add. Stir the lot together and serve hot! If you rinse the peas bowl and pasta pot right away (they’re hardly dirty, right?) you’ll only have the one dirty dish.

Happy Halloween!

Chicken an’ Biskit: Poultry Through the Ages

I don’t remember how it got started, but we have one of those private family jokes about a crusty old timer going on and on about “chicken an’ biskit, chicken an’ biskit.” From some old Monty Python, or maybe Kids in the Hall? Don’t know. Anyway, it’s a solid in our household now.

I buy pastured chicken from the farmer’s market, and in case any sad soul out there is eating supermarket chicken and thinking, as I used to, ‘Am I just imagining things or did chicken used to taste like something? Like… chicken?’ Local family farms are still producing that old-fashioned chicken flavor, in chickens no less. No test tubes involved.

Of course, ethically raised meat is expensive. It should be. $4 a pound for a whole chicken (half of which is bones) might seem expensive if you’re used to supermarket prices, but when I think of all the work that goes into just plucking and dressing a chicken I can hardly believe they sell them for that cheap. It’s all a matter of perspective.

We eat meat at most meals. Locally raised goat and chicken or grass-fed beef from Whole Foods. At least once a week, I cook a chicken or roast and allow us a bit of a gorge, then eek the leftovers out in the next meal (or meals). A few nights ago we had two guests for dinner. I cooked a 4 pound chicken. We ate up most of it, but after a thorough picking over I was able to glean enough bits and pieces to make chicken an’ biskit the next night.

I usually make dumplings actually, which are just a biscuit recipe plus an egg. Is there any more satisfying food than dumplings? But yesterday I had leftover actual biscuits, and thought, what the hell? Time for some real chicken an’ biskit.

I’m not at all sure how the crusty old-timer in whatever original piece of comedy ate theirs, but I made a quick chicken stew with carrots, onions and peas and then topped each bowl with a split biscuit, so that the bottom sides got all soggy with chicken juices. So yum, so fast.

Here’s the journal of a single bird in my kitchen:

Unbelievably Easy Roast Chicken and Potatoes

Fill a baking dish with cut potatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Quarter your chicken, if you don’t know how check out my photo heavy tutorial from last year. Quartering a chicken might not exactly be “easy” but it’s almost the only work involved in the recipe. Place the whole breast in the middle of the baking dish, on top of the taters, with a thigh/leg on each side. Put the back bone in the fridge for stock later. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, and add any spices or herbs you like.

Bake at 375 for an hour to an hour and a half. To test for doneness poke around in the thick parts with a fork, the juices should be clear, not pink. Quartering makes the breast and thigh cook more evenly than whole roasting, and all the pieces get a beautifully burnished skin. Also, all the fat runs down into the potatoes and oh my dear god! Those are some spuds worth eating! Every bit as good as mashed potatoes and gravy, and a fraction of the work.

After the hurricane of dinner has abated, carefully pick every last bit of meat off of the bones, including the ones left on your kids’ plates. They’ll get cooked again, fear not the germs, my friend. Put the bones into a pot with the reserved back bone and make a good strong stock. Leave one pint of broth in the fridge with the meat, and freeze the rest.

Chicken an’ Biskit, Two Ways

Pour the reserved stock into a pot and add a good bunch of chopped carrots and onions, celery if you have it. Aim to fill your pot no more than half full, veggies should be barely covered by stock. Bring to a simmer. While it’s cooking, make your favorite recipe of biscuit dough (what? You don’t have a favorite? Remedy, coming soon!), substituting an egg for 1/4 cup of the milk. When the carrots are just tender, add the chicken pieces and frozen peas, salt and pepper to taste and bring back to a boil. No need to thicken this stew, the dumplings will do that as they cook in the broth. Scoop spoonfuls of dough over the top of the boiling stew. Turn the burner down to low, lay a tea towel on top of the pot rim (careful of the flame under there!!!!!), set the lid atop that, then fold the corners of the towel up over the lid to keep them out of harm’s way. Cook 5-10 minutes or until dumplings are cooked through.

If you have leftover biscuits, which are never very good plain, this is an awesome way to use them up. Make the stew as above, but thicken just a bit at the end with a roux. Lay the split biscuits on top right after adding the frozen peas, then just turn the heat off and let it sit for ten minutes. The heat will equalize and the biscuits are good as fresh again.

Make sure to yowl, “Chicken an’ biskit! Chicken an’ bisket! Chicken an’ bisket!” in a crusty voice as you rally everyone to the table.

Caution: Martyr in the Kitchen

Yesterday I did it again. I can’t be helped. After a few weeks of diligent survival cooking, I saw a recipe over at Food on the Food for goat gyros. I love Food on the Food. I love gyros. I had a package of ground goat in the fridge, a cucumber going soft, a vat of plain yogurt and mint growing outside. The stars were aligned.

I mixed and baked and pressed the goat loaf. I diced and salted the cukes, drained the yogurt, minced the mint. I had really intended to just use white flour tortillas to wrap it all up in, but I couldn’t bring myself to put those luscious ingredients on store-bought tortillas. So I made flatbreads. Proofed, divided, rolled, cooked.

I started, wisely, in the afternoon during the 1YO’s nap. I got back at it around 4:00, and by 5:30 I was setting the table, small children notwithstanding. I was even up to date on the dishes. I’d cracked open a beer while I was at it, and I was feeling pretty good.

As smarter people might have predicted, it played out like any other family dinner. Apparently no one had got the memo that I was making a “special” meal. My Man sat down saying “I ate lunch late,” as an advance way of explaining why he wouldn’t eat much. It didn’t really matter what he said, because all I heard was the lack of “Oh my god, you made gyros for dinner!!! Homemade gyros, hip-hip-hooray!” The kids, for their part, wouldn’t touch the meat, let alone the tatziki or (first of the season!) homegrown tomato. They ate the flatbread without comment.

I sat alone in my own world, tasting and remarking in my head. Mmmm, delicious. Pretty crumbly meat, but the flavor’s right on. Oooo, that tatziki’s good. It’ll be even better tomorrow. Bread came out perfect, if I do say so myself. Soft and so wrap-able. And all would be well if that had completed the conversation in my head. But unfortunately there was a rip tide of Bitch Martyr Housewife. No one appreciates me. I try to feed my family wholesome, responsible, delicious food. I cook all day to make something special. No one even notices. No one cares. I work my fingers to the bone. Etc, etc.

Of course, the kids would rather I just fry straight-up patties and serve them with boiled potatoes. 25 minutes. That’s all they ask. Simple, separate, plain foods. And My Man has never been a big food person. He eats to keep from dying of starvation. He tries to get in a ‘thank you, it was good’ at every meal, for my sake, but with the uproar of small kids at the table niceties are often lost in the shuffle.

Which leaves me– passionate eater, indefatigable cook. Setting my higher cooking notions aside to be a ‘mom cook’ has been a long, painful journey. I do have hopes for the future, the 3YO particularly had an incredibly adventurous palette and lust for food at the outset and may well come back around. But for now, my audience is callous. Cooking brilliances fall on deaf ears. Everybody (else) wants plain simple food. They sure as hell didn’t ask me to make gyros. I can hardly hold them responsible for being less than exuberant.

It’s selfish really, the fancy cooking. Selfish under the guise of generous. Which I guess is what turns a good person into a martyr. I’m doing all this for you, so you’d better thank me. Starts with ‘I,’ ends with ‘me.’

Every time I tell myself, ‘This time I won’t be mad. This time I know full well that I’m doing this for me. I will just eat it and enjoy it.’ And every time the Bitch Martyr Rip Tide comes up out of nowhere and cuts my legs out from under me.

No more! I say. Survival cooking from now on. Protein, starch, veg. Leaving time to clean the house, or read a book. No more guilt trips, no more terse looks at the dinner table. No more ranty morning-after blog posts.

Until I find another recipe I just can’t live without.

This time will be different.


Dinner in Real Life

One of the subjects I really wanted to delve with this blog, and one of the books I fantasize about writing, is How to Be a Home Cook. I don’t mean how to make a bechamel sauce or caramelize blood oranges. I mean how to put healthy food on the table and into your family’s belly, day after day after day.

macaroni and cheese'n'fish'n'peas, a toddler fave. With whole wheat noodles, mama's happy too.

There’s a million cookbooks out there, and I’ve yet to find one that really covers the subject. Maybe they used to write them, back before housewifery got put in the doghouse. Now the only kind of cooking that’s cool to do is weekend-brag-cooking. Loads of books can walk you through taking all of Saturday to create an impressive 5 course dinner for eight (adults only), they’ll tell you just what to drink with it too. And I don’t mean whether to get your water out of the tap or the Britta.

But what about the cooking we do every day? Every. Single. Day. Breakfast, quick before it’s time to go. Lunch of foraged leftovers. Dinner– shit is it already 5:00?!

The shopping lists, the balancing thrifty with responsible, the kitchen layout and pantry storage, the bare minimum tools, thawing in the morning to cook in the evening, taking everyone’s appetite into account, starting meals with what you’ve got instead of the other way round, trying to make the same old ingredients taste new all over again, using up everything before it goes bad, and importantly, how to keep your spark alive under the day-to-day weight of it.

In any revolution, the mundane, basic changes often get lost under the big, fun, showy changes. You know I’m all for gardening, preserving the harvest, crafting punk goodies of any type. But at the base of it all should be the simple, understated and vastly underestimated task of cooking wholesome food for your family every day.

I wrote about my own style of cooking some time back in the post Not Menu Planners. Basically, open the fridge and see what needs using. The only problem with so rarely following recipes is that I easily get stuck in cooking ruts. My spark sputters. A fridge full of gorgeous garden produce and wholesome groceries, and all I want to do is order pizza.

When I asked for survival tips the other day, y’all offered up the jacket potatoes and fried rice suggestions, both of which are beautifully simple yet for some reason, I hardly ever make. I realized I need to break out some. I started a new discussion over at Homegrown about good, easy, healthy meals, but I know you’re not all signed up over there, and I certainly don’t want to be the one to lure you into more computer staring. Nevertheless I don’t want anyone (and their kitchenbrain full of good ideas) to get left out. So leave all your family’s secret non-recipes for good home cookin’ right here in the comments.

For some of my faves, check out this old post It’s What’s Fer Dinner. And, even though it’s considered winter fare, I just have to mention pot roast, which is the ultimate in easy, delicious food.

Empanadas: A Confession

Very few people understand what it’s like to be addicted– obsessively, compulsively– to cooking. It’s rough. I’m not joking.

For example, what should I have been doing at 4:00 yesterday afternoon? Should I have been taking down the laundry and folding, picking up the drifts of junk and sweeping the floors, or otherwise restoring some order to this whirlwind of a house? Yes. Should I have been packing boxes for our move, a mere 6 days away? Absolutely. Should I have been putting a pot of brown rice on the stove for a simple, wholesome dinner to top with some sauteed greens and fried eggs? That would have been a reasonable plan.

But no, what did I suddenly get a hair up my ass for? Empanadas. I had a beautiful bunch of Tuscan kale from my garden, and it spoke to me, oh whispery siren’s call. It said, ‘Cook me with the ground lamb from the farmers market and some potatoes, stuff me into some oily dough and fry me to flaky perfection….’ And I was helpless to the call.

Those of you reading this who don’t cook might look through the many posts on food and cooking and be impressed. How can she cook so much with two little kids? You might wonder. But I am a victim. A slave to my own whim and taste. You think it’s funny, but I’m actually really truly not joking.

Maybe victim is too strong. There are some goods in it for me. Part of the addiction comes because I find cooking so soothing. Especially now that I’m a mama. So long as I am solo in the kitchen, cooking is like a balm on the cracked lips of my day. It’s so relatively predictable, controllable. Note, I say relatively. I’m no freak, my food often comes out not as I expected. But it mostly comes out. I mostly have an edible product at the end of an hour of cooking. Something moderately delicious to show for my work.

The same cannot be said about all one hour periods in my day.

Sometimes I cook purely as a means of keeping my head above water, my survival mechanism. It keeps my sanity. And that’s good, I don’t begrudge it for that.

But other times, I just really really want to make empanadas, and no amount of rationalizing can stop me.

I think a lot about you mamas who didn’t get any scrap of job training. I mean, I was a blank slate as far as the kids were concerned, and I’m no housekeeper we all know. But at least I could cook. I’ve been cooking since I was 14. I’ve cooked in every kind of situation, from campfires to restaurant kitchens. I know how to make food good, and I know how to make food fast.

This is not to brag. Almost the opposite. I just want to say that if this were not true, if cooking were an anxious, bewildering chore for me, I sure as hell wouldn’t do it. I cannot even fathom learning to cook while having small children. It would be the contrary to my ‘balm.’

So, it’s with a bit of hesitation that I am going to share with you my empanada recipe. This recipe is for those of you who, like me have a borderline psychotic addiction to cooking, or for anyone who has enough free time to relish the process without addiction. This recipe is not for those of you who feel overwhelmed by the task of feeding your family, who feel like you are drowning in the kitchen. I mandate that this recipe must not inspire guilt in anyone! Homemade empanadas do not a better housewife make. You can get these same foods onto your table in half the time if you just forgo the indulgent wrapping and frying of the pastry crust. Leaving you an extra hour to accomplish other good-housewifely duties, such as for example maintaining even a modicum of cleanliness in your home.

Lamb and Kale Empanadas, for those who can’t help themselves

Fry up about a pound of fatty burger. If you’re burger is frozen, like mine was, just dump it in the pan with plenty of oil, pile 3 medium sliced potatoes around it and put the lid on. Cook over low heat, stirring every few minutes. Sprinkle with salt, garlic powder and plenty of black pepper. When the burger has all been crumbled and cooked, and the potatoes are just barley soft, throw on one big bunch of kale, stemmed and chopped small, 3 or 4 stout green onions, sliced, and several cloves of minced garlic. Stir over medium heat until the kale is vivid green and tender. Remove from the heat and let cool.

For the dough, whisk together 3 cups white all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, and 1/2 Tablespoon of salt. With a wooden spoon, mix in 1/2 cup of oil and 1 cup of tepid water. Add more water as necessary to make a medium soft dough. Pinch off golf ball sized pieces, round off, and set on a floured baking sheet. Cover with plastic and let rest 30 minutes or until you have a window of time with no little kids underfoot. I’m all for even the tiniest kiddies helping, with simple cooking projects. But ‘help’ with this one will make you crazy.

Roll each ball of dough out to an 1/8 inch thick, using plenty of flour to prevent sticking. Stuff, fold and crimp into half moons. If you’ve never made a stuffed pie before, G**gle it, I’m sure there’s good instructions out there.

These are great baked. But they are traditionally fried, and even though nothing else about this recipe is traditional, I happened to have some leftover palm oil from an emergency doughnut making session a few days ago. So I fried them and they are little nuggets of deliciousness.

That doughnut emergency was not for me, but for my budding little food addict 3YO who was having a really rough day and wanted to make doughnuts more than anything.

The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

But then again, origin is not destiny?

Time will tell.

Of Green Tomatoes and Turkey Enchiladas

A couple of weeks ago, I sorted what was left of my slowly ripening tomatoes. The ones that were still very green, I decided to make into a green tomato jam. I had been enjoying slices of green tomato, fried simply (unbreaded) with my eggs in the morning, and then stacked all together on whole wheat toast. Yum. I imagined a savory jam which captured that fried green tomato flavor, and I could use it in the same toasty egg combination. I quartered them, roasted them at 350 for an hour (since I had the oven on anyway) then promptly forgot about them. Still in the oven, yes, days later when I remembered. They looked fine, it’s been cool here.

I chucked them into a pot, covered with water and boiled them for some long time, till they were falling apart soft, then rubbed them through a fine mesh strainer to puree them. Then I stopped for a moment and noticed they didn’t smell… that good. I mean, they smelled fine, but extremely vegetal. Not like anything I could imagine calling ‘jam,’ even of the savory variety. I shoved the pot to the back of the fridge to think more about later.

Or preferably to try to forget until rotten so I could dump it.

Yesterday I finally pulled the pot out, sure they had reached “dumpable” by now. I took the lid off and tentatively sniffed. Damn. Still fine. Still that sort of weird smell, but not remotely rotten. Guess I really have to figure out how to use these, I sighed to myself.

I kept ‘green tomato puree ideas’ in the background of my mind overnight, hoping for a brainstorm.

Eureka!

Green enchiladas!

That slightly weird smell was in fact quite a lot like a tomatillo smell. Hmmm, green enchiladas have chicken, but I didn’t have any chicken. If I got a whole chicken at the farmers market, it would have to thaw, then cook and wouldn’t be ready for enchiladas for days. Hmmmm…

Turkey!

I still had several packs of Thanksgiving turkey left in the freezer. It seemed like I’d even heard of turkey enchiladas with green sauce. It was brilliant!

Or rather, the idea was brilliant. I still had some trepidation as I committed lots of time and good ingredients to that slightly weird smelling sauce. I assembled it in the afternoon, so the suspense was at a fever pitch by 5 o’clock when I set it on the table, with a nice Mexican slaw alongside.

Yum! After all that neglect and weirdness, it came out sooooo good. It was like spinning straw into gold, without any fear of losing a first-born child to a tricky dwarf.

Most likely y’all are done using up green tomatoes in any way possible, but in case you have any still kicking around– fresh, jarred or frozen (I chucked some into a ziplock in the freezer back in my early December panic)– I can’t recommend this highly enough. Of course I don’t have any kind of real recipe to offer up, but here’s the basics.

Fry an onion. Add some garlic. Shake on not too much cumin, and whatever other mexican spices are your faves. I had a jar of chipotle sauce, so added a tablespoon of that and let it fry for a minute. Then I stirred in about 1/2 cup of dark beer. I love cooking with beer, not only does it give a great flavor, but then– oh darn, what am I gonna do with the rest of this beer?

I dumped in the green tomato puree (oh, something like 3 cups) and the juice of one blood orange. Hey, it needed to get used up. Think creatively, right? Then I added my defrosted turkey scraps and let the whole thing simmer for an hour or more. Salt to taste.

(If you had any green chiles they would be ever so appropriate here. I was actually concerned about the quality of green enchiladas without green chiles, but they turned out dandy.)

Grate plenty of cheese, I used a mix of cheddar and mozzarella.

Fry your corn tortillas. This is a must for really good enchiladas, whatever the color. I used about 12, I think.

Then I strained the sauce off of the turkey mixture (reserve sauce of course) and kind of mashed the turkey around to shred it, it was super tender by now. I mixed the turkey with a cup of cottage cheese– again, cuz I had it– and because I was adding the cottage cheese I thought I’d better throw in an egg. Then a big heap of cilantro from my garden. Check the salt.

I used a 7×11 inch pyrex. A smear of sauce in the bottom, then 3 tortillas, evenly spaced and overlapped. Lump a third of the turkey filling over the tortillas and spread it evenly, not to the edge of the pan, but just to the edge of the tortillas. Thin sprinkle of cheese, 3 more tortillas, and repeat for two more layers. Finish off with tortillas, the rest of the sauce, a bit of cilantro and cheese. If you have what seems like too much sauce, and it pools down into the space between the tortilla stack and the edges of the pan, don’t worry– it thickens right up into a nice extra tangy side spooge.

We’re big fans of coleslaw round these parts. Particularly, the 3YO who can shovel away a good pint of it all to herself if she hasn’t had it in awhile. And who am I to stop her? Whenever we eat Tex-Mex, I add a bit of cilantro to my regular slaw, and lime juice instead of vinegar if I have it. It adds just the right lift to the otherwise heavy Americanized Mexican food. Plus, well did you see the size of the cabbage in the last post? We’ve been at it for weeks already.

(Sorry I don’t have any photos, our camera is in a bad mood lately. But honestly, it wasn’t pretty food. Delicious, yes. Pretty, not so much.)

Here’s to green tomatoes and using up the harvest!

Calamity in the Kitchen, Day 2: Stretching Your Bird

As you noticed on Day 1, my cooking tends to happen when the Babe is napping. I’ve been really trying to get in the habit of starting dinner during his AM nap, to avoid the heat of the kitchen in the PM. But I can’t seem to get it together. I usually end up: A. blogging if I can ignore the disasterous house, or B. cleaning if I can’t.

Day 2 I didn’t make dinner in the morning. Nope. I blogged, remember? I didn’t even get lunch made while he was napping, bad mama. Instead, in a rush after the Babe woke up and before his Fussy started, I threw together a picnic lunch for us to take to the zoo (we live just 6 blocks from the zoo, have a membership and often use it like a cool park with exotic animals).

Our picnic included many of the things grilled on Day 1:

  • flatbreads
  • eggplant and walnut dip
  • grated carrot salad
  • leftover grilled sliced eggplant + peppers, mixed with feta cheese and a lemon garlic dressing

I know that all sounds so incredibly healthy, so don’t think we didn’t follow it with ice cream cones from the Hagen Daaz stand.

I would love to regale you with a story about that dip, and how much and which things the 3YO ate, etc, etc. But, I’m keeping this spare, remember? You can see how I used up leftovers, which is much of the point here.

Dinner needed to be two things, quick and stretching of meat. Because I told you how tiny that chicken was. Really it was just one meal for two people, but I stretched it, somewhat wantingly, into two. Starting here with chicken fajitas.

carmelizing the onions and peppers makes the flavors richer, darker and more satisfying
I brushed these with oil first, then grilled them for just a minute on each side. I usually do it in my skillet, one at a time, but this worked fab! Please don't ever eat corn tortillas without a little fat and some heat.

Several of you mentioned stretching meat in your comments, so I’ll focus on that a bit.

The typical meal of meat, starch and vegetable keeps all the meat flavor concentrated in one package. Which is great, super satisfying if you have plenty of meat. But, if you don’t, here’s some tricks.

Stock. The biggest and baddest trick of all. I hate to harp on it, but really, throwing bones away is a huge waste. If you get a whole chicken, think of the bones as at least 1/4 of the value. You might think store bought stock is really cheap, so why bother. But homemade stock blows that boxed stuff right out of the water. When I made the fajitas, I added just 1/2 cup of stock to the pan of fried peppers, corn, onions and token pieces of chicken, and it infused the whole dish with the most intense and delicious chicken flavor that you didn’t notice most of what you were eating was not chicken. In case you missed the link from the Whole Chicken post, here’s a lot more about stock, from my old blog. Just a note though, a lot of stock recipes call for onions, carrots and celery. You surely can use them, and it makes a dynamite stock, but just plain bones and salt makes a damn fine stock too. The critical factor is time. If you do it stove-top, allow at least two hours of simmering. If you have a crockpot, just let it cook overnight on low. If you make fish stock (which I highly recommend!) nix everything I just said, fish bones shouldn’t simmer for more than 30 minutes or they get a funny flavor.

And now that you have your homemade gold, what do you do with it? Soup is the obvious answer, but if you put some stock in the freezer in smaller portions (ice cube trays or small tupperwares work good) you can just throw a little into almost anything to give it an extra meaty oomph.

Never wash your pan. When you fry up some meat in your trusty cast iron, the pan is not “dirty” the pan is “meaty.” Do not scoop your food out and put said pan in the sink! All that dark brown sticky stuff is concentrated and carmelized meat juices. Fancy gourmands call it ‘fond,’ but we can just call it yum. You get the yum off by ‘deglazing’ which means, keep your pan on the heat, food still in or out, depending on if you want it to cook more, and pour in 1/2-1 cup of liquid, preferably stock, booze, or tomato juices. More on those in a minute. Now boil hard, and scrape the bottom of the pan with a pancake turner. Congratulations, you’ve deglazed your fond! You don’t need to be making a saucy dish for this to work, because after a few minutes of boiling, it will have boiled down to just enough thick liquid to coat your food. If you took your food out, return it to the pan, off the heat, and mop it around to pick up all that yum. That’s how I did the fajita shtuff.

Meaty flavor boosters. Booze is a pretty classic flavor enhancer, and you don’t even have to drink it first to get it to work. Wine is quite common, but I discovered last year that dark beer specifically makes meat taste meatier, and even makes not meat (like mushrooms) taste meaty. I posted about it here, Good News for Half Beer Lovers. Other good meaty flavor enhancers include:

  • soy sauce
  • Worchestershire sauce
  • peanut butter
  • tomato paste

You don’t want to add much, just a bit. Not enough that your meal tastes like peanut butter, of course unless it’s peanut sauce, just a couple of teaspoons.

Fear not your fats. Now that the Weston Price movement is hip, fat is finally losing it’s bad reputation. Thank god. That was the stupidest idea we ever had. Traditional peoples all over the world ate plenty of fat, got plenty of exersize, and were always ready for swimsuit season. If you are trying to cut down on meat (I will assume it is because you are trying to be a conscientious consumer on a tight budget), remember to cut up on butter, or olive or coconut oil. I mean, it’s only fair to add back in the fat you’re taking out. A few tablespoons of organic butter is still far cheaper than a pound of organic meat.

Beans, beans the magical fruit. I love beans. This is saying a lot considering I ate them twice a day for an entire summer when I was at my most ascetic. Unless I have the habit of doing it every single day, I never remember to soak them, and I hate recycling a whole can just for a few beans. So I cook them in big batches and freeze them. When I had a pressure canner, I used to jar up my own beans, and that was fabulously convenient, but the freezer works almost as good. Beans are good on their own, but can really help stretch a small amount of meat. I recently made a batch of refried black beans with a traditional amount of fat (butter tho, not lard) and boy am I a convert.

Meat stretching tricks in action: Plenty of fat, carmelized onions and deglazed pan with stock, refried (more fat) black beans

Calamity in the Kitchen: Day 1

Oh I’m so excited that you all actually want to hear me ramble on and on about food, cooking and my own brain’s inner workings!

I just wish I had so, so, so much more time. I know I won’t really be able to write a post every day, but we’ll see how she goes.

Okay, Day 1!

[Caution: The following is a description of one of my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. This is not necessarily to be emulated or envied folks.]

I don’t know why I do this to myself. One thing leads to another, and then there I am, in the middle of 16 cooking projects at once, and I never even got the kitchen clean. It happens once every couple of weeks. If it coincides with a kids’ good day, it might pan out. If it coincides with a bad day, take cover.

How it went was this, and I’m going to tell the whole story, because this is not about how to cook, it’s about How to Be a Home Cook, which includes all aspects of food in your life, right?

So. Start scene at 8:30, when I am otherwise ready to go, and trying to rally the 3YO for our morning outing. The Babe needs an outing round about that time, or he just fusses and fusses endlessly and drives me up the wall. Understandably, the 3YO likes to stay in her home and play in the morning, . It’s an ongoing clash. A part of motherhood that really confounds me. Let alone one’s own needs, how are you supposed to balance two separate kiddos’ needs with a mere one life?

The reason this has anything to do with anything is that it was Tuesday. Farmer’s market. In order to get there, do our business, and get back before the Babe is falling asleep all floppy headed in the bike trailer, we have to leave by 8:30.

This is pertinent because even though we did leave shortly after, he was tired early, and fell asleep in the Ergo at the market. Thus completely destroying his nap schedule for the day.

Do I need to explain why that is pertinent?

At the farmer’s market I usually get eggs and some kind of produce. Whatever looks good, which is of course how fresh markets work. But yesterday I was in the mood for some protein as well. What I wanted was fish, but get this– fish at the market is more expensive than shrimp. Jumbo shrimp were $5/lb (!) so I figured, better enjoy those Gulf shrimp before their stocks are all decimated, right? Then a small whole chicken from a nice older farmer couple selling all manner of fowl. A 2 1/2 lb chicken at $3/lb. And, it’s hot so we eat a lot of fruit here, a 3 lb box of peaches, $6. I was on my way out at that point, but Holy Shit, could it be? Eggplants 3 for $1 ?!?!?! Wow. Mostly I’ve found the farmer’s market prices not that exciting. But geez, I’ve payed $4 a piece for eggplant before in Cordova. So of course, I got 6. They were small. Ish.

Now. Do you see now how this sets the scene for the day?

In fact, the shrimp were the only things needing immediate using. If I were a saner person, I could have put the rest in the fridge for tomorrow.

But.

As soon as I saw those eggplants I remembered something I made for my last big birthday dinner which has haunted me since. An eggplant and walnut ‘pate’ with pistachio oil a friend gave me drizzled on top. Dynamite, I tell you.

The recipe was from Paula Wolfert’s Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, an incredibly gorgeous, drool inspiring book. I didn’t bring it to New Orleans with us, dammit, but I remember that the recipe started with roasting the eggplants over open flames. (I remember because, not having a grill back home, I raked the hot coals in the woodstove to one side, layed a short piece of 2×4 down opposite, and set the eggplant on that, turning it every time one side was blackened. When I pulled it out I thought, shit, I overdid it. It’s completely torched. What a waste. But no, it was magnificent.)

So. That is how I determined to fire up the grill. Then (and here’s what always happens with me, that I can not necessarily recommend, particularly to mothers of two) I thought ‘weeeell, if I’m gonna grill… I might as well grill the shrimp, that would be delicious. And heck, if I grill the chicken, it will be all cooked and ready to throw into whatever later in the week.’ And, oh yeah, I recently discovered baking flatbread on the grill. I’ve never read anything about this, but surely others have figured it out because it is absolutely brilliant. I love flatbreads. Not the cardboard pita from the grocery store, have mercy! But good fresh, chewy flatbreads, like you get at Lebanese restaurants. I have a wonderful recipe I got ages ago while traveling. But you have to bake them at 500 degrees, and even when I live in a cold place it’s hard to justify all that heat.

Enter my new propane grill. It works fantastically. They’re just like from a restaurant, in fact I suspect that must be how they do it. I’m still working on the technique a bit. More later.

So. There’s my mental line-up.

  • make flatbread dough
  • carve chicken
  • grill eggplant
  • + shrimp
  • + chicken
  • + flatbreads

But even though my brain was tick-tick-ticking all the way home, it’s not like I get to set straight to work, remember. Oh, no. The Babe, having taken a cat nap at 10 am, wouldn’t go down until noon. And then finally, with the 3YO plugged into Curious George, I got started. Like so:

Yup, a little mental space is a necessity. And, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I was also too excited to not try the second batch of ice cream in my new ($3 at a garage sale) ice cream maker. Chocolate gelato, there’s no way I was going to put that off for a more sane day.

Now, after ten minutes of recipe perusal (can’t linger long, with a 45-90 minute timer ticking away in the other room), I was ready to face the kitchen.

And here’s the truly insane part about my ‘cooking frenzy’ days. Almost never do I start them with a clean kitchen, because almost never is my kitchen clean. And although it would make (heaps of!) sense to say, ‘okay, gotta clean the kitchen and then I can get cooking,’ do I? Oh hell no. I tell myself, ‘I’ll just get this one thing started, and then I’ll clean in between times, in the lulls.’

A truly disappointing thing to me about life is how, even now after a good 33 trips round, I fail to learn from my past. How, how? can I tell myself the same fairy tale day after day after day, for years running, and never catch my own lie?

Note to self: There will be no lulls.

Do I need to get it tatoo-ed on my arm?

So, after clearing a space just large enough for a bowl to mix up the gelato, I told myself (in earnest even! What a fool!) ‘I’ll just get this gelato going so it can be cooling. Then I’ll clean up.’

gelato is basically a cooked pudding that has to cool completely before churning it in an ice cream maker

Once the gelato was in the fridge, I remembered that the flatbread dough really needed to be started, so it could be rising. Okay. Then I’ll clean up.

I use a big white garbage bag, cut open, as a reusable cover for rising dough. Works great.

Once the dough was rising, I started looking around with my cleaning eye, and realized there was The Cantaloupe to deal with. Shit.

I had gotten the cantaloupe the day before at Whole Foods. Seduced by memories of What Melons Can Taste Like (in Italy). It had an unusual look to it, not the regular cantaloupe look, and I thought, ‘What if it’s actually good?’ So I bought it.

Of course, it was just another American cantaloupe. Almost crunchy even. Fortunately, in Central America I discovered ‘liquados.’ They take any kind of fruit and stick it in a blender with water and sugar, and mi amor! the most amazing things happen. I did this recently with a watermelon, and it was divine. A perfect answer to sub-standard fruit. So, instead of getting on to cleaning, I chopped up a less-than-desirable cantaloupe, whizzed it with water and a little sugar, and yes, made it 12 times more desirable. Magic.

the rest of the cantaloupe juice got put in the freezer in popsicle molds

But, by now, The Babe had woken up. My kitchen time was over till the afternoon nap. Sometimes he’ll play happily on the floor with tupperwares and clangey lids for awhile, but lately he’s been too fussy.

So I left the kitchen, and my half finished projects thusly:

wait a minute. I can't just leave a chicken thawing on the cutting board. Even I have some standards.

After an exhaustingly difficult mid-day, a very long lay down session, then infuriatingly a wake-up-by-3YO and subsequent re-lay-down session, I was ready to get back to my projects.

I cut up the thawed chicken (photo shoot to follow in separate post). Rolled out my flatbreads. Cut one of the eggplants up for dinner, and picked my first ever red pepper (!) for the grill as well. The 3YO played in her new trash-find swimming pool while I fired up the grill.

rolling flat breads on an oiled (virgin) trash bag

Now you’re wondering how and what exactly we are going to eat for dinner, because isn’t it about that time by now? Well, with all my projects going on, I wasn’t about to do anything else complicated. I knew I wanted to eat those shrimp, so I boiled some pasta in Trixie, then I just tossed it with garlic and shrimp. A quick dressing for the grilled eggplant slices, and at the last minute while I am trying to rally the family to the table, I am peeling the red pepper to go with the eggplant salad. Chop, chop, stir, stir.

Me: Yes, dinner really is ready. Can’t you guys set the table? (Insert last minute cooking annoyance)

My Man: Is it really ready though? You look like you’re still cooking.

Me: Listen. Set the table. By the time you are actually sitting down with your plates and forks in hand, this will be on the table.

Real Life Dinner Night #1: Shrimp and Garlic Fettucine

This is super simple once you’ve cooked and peeled the shrimp. If you aren’t grilling them like I did, just toss peeled shrimp around in a hot skillet with garlic and butter/oil until barely cooked through.

  • 1 lb whole shrimp
  • 1/2 lb whole wheat fettucine
  • 3 + Tablespoons butter
  • 3 cloves mashed roasted garlic (you know I am now addicted to that Trixified garlic but if you don’t have such Tom-foolery, just saute up 3 cloves)
  • 1 clove freshly crushed garlic
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper

Grill shrimp, cool and peel. Cook pasta. (See post about whole wheat pasta to follow. Soon, really. It’s already half writ.) Drain, reserving a little of the cooking water (1/2 cup?). Heat butter and roasted garlic, or saute your 3 cloves, whichever. Add shrimp. S & P to taste. Stir in fresh crushed garlic for a few seconds, then mix in pasta. Serve!

Grilled Eggplant and Red Pepper Salad

Cut one eggplant into rounds. Cut a red pepper in quarters. Brush each with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Grill all till tender, placing pepper skin side down so that the skin gets all black and charred. Yum! While they’re cooking, in the ‘lull’ you’re supposed to use for cleaning, make a simple dressing, then toss hot eggplant with it. ‘Sweat’ red pepper under an overturned bowl for a few minutes, then remove peel. Chop and add to salad. Get on the table before the Husband sets the silverware so you can say, “Nyah.”

Culinary lessons to be learned tonight kids:

  • Always save a little pasta water to use in your sauce. Especially if your “sauce” is just butter and garlic.
  • Cooked plus fresh garlic equals zinga-dinga-bing-bong!!
  • Butter is good.
  • Grilling is good.
  • If you’re making a cold salad out of cooked veggies, dress them while they’re still hot, for maximum flavor, baby.

Dinner Every Night

I found a link recently to a blog that was doing a Home Cooking 101 online class. That’s cool. But it was a lot of money. I just hate the idea that anyone should have to pay to learn how to cook!

I was wondering if there are any of you readers who would appreciate more instructive posts on the art of home cooking? It seems like most of you know your way around a kitchen, and have your thang going. But believe me, I would love to go on and on for hours the way I can about How to Be a Home Cook, if anyone out there wants help. I touched a little on it in this post. Being a home cook is about so, so much more than the actual cooking. I think it mostly boils down to creative thinking, and a familiarity with ingredients that can only come from lots and lots of fucking around in the kitchen.

The other night when I realized at the last minute I was out of potatoes and decided to brave substituting cubes of homemade wheat bread in my chick pea, tomato and spinach casserole (!) I thought of you, dear readers. I thought it would be fun to give a more intimate peak into what goes on in my brain when the dinner hour approaches.

I do so much leftover management that I hardly know how to cook without something that needs using. That particular day, without any scraps to start from, I had felt adrift. Hmmm… I have…. Well, lets see. (Start with starch.) We had rice last night, pasta the night before and rice the night before that. So. Potatoes it is. Okay. (Next, protein.) We don’t have more than a few special occasions worth of meat and fish from home. So. Chick peas from the freezer? That sounds good. Ummm, potatoes, chick peas… Should I go Moroccan (a favorite of mine), northern Mediterranean or Indian curry? I had just made those roasted garlic in oil yummies, so a Mediterranean style casserole of potatoes, chick peas, plenty of olive oil and garlic, tomatoes, and (always last on my mental checklist for no good reason) what vegetable? Unlike the FDA I do not consider potatoes a vegetable when meal planning. And tomatoes are a fruit, plain and simple. So. Spinach from the freezer?

Sounds like dinner! I blundered along, assuming the constant presence of potatoes in my fridge, until, Crikey! Could it be? But I don’t feel like pasta again! Let alone rice. Or even quinoa. The mix would be good dumped out on a pizza crust. But I didn’t have a pizza crust. I was stumped. I scanned the fridge 12 times before the loaf of neglected bread finally registered. Hmmm. Could you maybe…? Like– stuffing? Sort of? Without even toasting/drying it first? It seemed like complete culinary heresy at the time. Now it doesn’t sound so strange at all. But that could just be because now I’ve eaten soggy bread, chick peas and tomatoes and yes, it was perfectly good food. Don’t know that I’d do it again, exactly like that. The pasty bean texture next to the slightly soggy bread texture was just a bit not right for me, but My Man loved it. Toddler ate her share. And it was a revelation that stuffing doesn’t have to start with dried bread cubes, and doesn’t have to taste like celery, onions and turkey.

In this vein, I thought I would follow myself around for a week of dinners, and report. I could just describe my thought process and ingredients, one cook to another, or I could give real instructions, if you’d like. Vote here and now if you want instructions!

Not Menu Planners

There’s been lots of buzz about menu planning on all the cool, frugal blogs. A bit of rebellion has been on my list for ages. But, when Gina at Clutterpunk started despairing her own troubles with the concept, I was finally spurred into action.

My friends, without judgement or malice, I have to say that there are two kinds of cooks in the world—menu planners and not menu planners. There is surely nothing wrong with menu planning, in fact it is a useful tool for many of the righteous homemaker babes I so admire. Whatever helps you get a thrifty, nutritious yet savory dinner on the table in a reasonable amount of time, I’m all for.

But, for any of you out there who are thinking, like Gina did, how many extra hours the menu planning will take and isn’t there any other way, I feel compelled to assure you—there is!

I have been cooking every day of my life since I was seventeen (that adds up to 16 years btw). It might be a little hard to suss out exactly how I don’t menu plan, because I suspect it’s all wrapped up in my essential Way of Cooking. This might get involved.

One of the things I really wanted to do when I first started this blog was try to share for anyone new to revolutionary housewifery, just how to be a home cook. I’ve never seen a cookbook on the subject. No one ever really talks about it. I guess everybody figures it out in their own way eventually, but many of us did not grow up in a home with a home cook, and it seems unnecessary that we should all have to reinvent the wheel.

Home cookery for the revolutionary housewife is only partly about knowing how to cook. The rest is a balancing act. Between being frugal and upholding your values, between cooking healthy and cooking delicious, between respecting your families preferences and keeping the diet varied and inspired. The skills you need are far beyond the scope of how to poach an egg and make a béchamel sauce. You truly are conducting the economy, social structure and artistry of your home. Although housewifery involves plenty of other work, food is central. We eat three times a day (unless we’re toddlers, then it’s five), and keeping up with all that home-cooked food is a complex endeavor.

But, back to not menu planning. I’ve been trying to dissect my Way to figure out what exactly it is that allows me to cook efficiently and with almost no waste without ever planning dinner beyond 24 hours in advance (and usually not until I start to feel hungry). I think it might have something to do with being an Alaskan. People in any rural place are completely used to not having a store around the corner. There are three important principles that I’ve picked out so far. Stocking up, doing without and thinking creatively.

Like all rural people, I always have a large stockpile of food. Whenever some natural disaster sparks the media to advise people to keep 2 weeks of food on hand, Alaskans look at one another with disbelief. Any Alaskan worth their salt always has at least two months of food in the pantry, and probably could survive for a full year if all hell really broke loose. I am not exaggerating.

Even though I’ve lived within walking or quick driving distance of a store for all but five years of my life, I still grew up with this principle in action, and have even far surpassed the stockpiling of my childhood.

I am a hoarder.

When you have all your staples on hand, you don’t need to plan out at the start of the week what exactly you’re going to cook in order to do your grocery shopping. Instead you keep a list, mental or tangible, of what you’re low on to get next trip to the store.

You can’t keep everything you might ever want in your cupboard at all times, so this must necessarily be followed by the principles of Doing Without and the subsequent Thinking Creatively.

This is a catch 22. On the one hand, I can’t follow a recipe to save my life. On the other hand, I can successfully cook a hundred different and distinct meals out of the same 12 ingredients*. I can (and have!) substituted fish for chicken, cabbage for eggplant, carrots for red pepper and onions for almost anything.

[*Here’s my top twelve: potatoes, pasta, meat, fish, onions, canned tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, lentils, butter, cheese, eggs.]

Leaving something out of a recipe is straightforward. But bringing in a new ingredient instead takes a certain kind of culinary courage. Fight back the cultural taboos that tell you what does and does not go together! Experiment! Tasting of many different cultures’ cuisines will help. Ever had B’stilla? It’s a Moroccan “pie” that rocked my worldview. Phyllo dough layered with: shredded chicken spiced with sweet spices like cinnamon and cardamom; ground almonds and powdered sugar; and scrambled eggs.

Sounds horrid, but I have never seen anyone biting into their first B’stilla exhibit anything but wide eyed, ecstatic marvel.

So, play around. Occasionally you’ll make a dud, and your husband will quietly raise his eyebrows across the table and politely refuse seconds. Once in a great while you might even have to throw food away. But far more often, you will be shocked with delight.

When it’s time to make dinner, I don’t consult a menu plan (though as I said, nothing against ’em. We all find our own way), I consult my fridge. I have a mental list of staples on hand, and as I peruse what needs using up from the fridge, I make test combinations in my head.

Me: “Oh, right, that smoked salmon’s getting old. Better make something with it. Ummm…. Salmon cakes? Too much work, I’m tired. Macaroni and cheesenfishnpeas? Na, we just had that. Hmmm… alfredo? Too rich, I’m not in the mood. Well, there is that half can of corn. Something Tex-Mex sounds good. No tortillas though. Cornbread and….? What if I put the fish in the cornbread? Hmmm…. That’s weird. But… I like it. And the corn, and some cheese? Maybe with half an onion chopped up? Say, that sounds pretty good! I’ve got a little a chunk of lime, I’ll make some Mexican slaw to go with it.

Dinner!

How do you manage the daily dinner routine?

Good News for Half Beer Lovers

Surely I’m not the only mama who can hardly finish one beer anymore. While I would make an economical date (if Hubby and I ever got such a thing), I hate wasting half a beer. After this last Babe popped out, it still being hotter than hell here, I jubilantly went and bought myself a six-pack. Nothing satisfies at the end of a hot, mama day like a cold beer, right?

Half a beer later, I put the bottle back in the fridge and wondered if dark beer would make a good beer batter. Then I remembered a recipe I’d been meaning to try, Beef Carbonade, I believe it’s called. It sounded basically like stew, but with dark beer thrown in, instead of the more typical red wine. So, throwing any actual recipe to the wind, I set out to make a a beef stew with the second half of my dark beer.

Only, I don’t generally buy beef. What I have is lots of frozen and home canned moose and black bear meat, brought lovingly from Alaska. And for reasons I can’t remember, rather than you’re typical potatoes in the stew concept, I made essentially a gravy, and poured it over noodles.

Voila, my new favorite food!

I’ve made variations on this theme several times now, and I can say without a doubt, cooking meat (or mushrooms) with a dark malty beer is divine! The deep, bittersweet, rich flavor marries bee-utifully. And vegetarians, wait! Don’t click away yet! Because that same flavor, combined with mushrooms makes about the meatiest non-meat gravy I’ve ever had. I made a big batch for Christmas dinner, with two vegetarians in attendance, and I thought it far superior to the turkey gravy.

So here’s my most recent incarnation. I threw in a jar of home-canned moose meat, but most of y’all won’t have such items in your cupboard. You could easily add some fried up burger if you wanted to meat it up:

Shitake Mushroom Carbonade!

If you’ve never had fresh shitakes, holy smokes are them some good eatin! Completely different than the dried variety, which I’m not so fond of. Of course, any mushroom would work.

To coax the meatiest flavor out of the mushrooms, you need to brown them, which means– don’t crowd the pan. Plenty of oil and one single layer of shrooms, on a pretty high heat makes….

Yummy goldeny brown nuggets of mushroom joy! (Note how much they shrunk)

Move the shrooms to a separate dish and caramelize some onions in the same pan. Add the shrooms back in, heat the pan back up to sizzling, then pour your half beer on top. Should roil and boil like a witches brew. Let it boil down till thick and syrupy (a few minutes). Now make a rich brown roux, gravify with the stock/broth/bullion of choice, and stir into your mushrooms.

Simmer a few minutes more to marry the flavors and season to taste. Pour over noodles and serve with sauteed cabbage to enjoy some of the most satisfying comfort food imaginable!

Leftover Queen

I hate to toot my own horn, but it’s true. I’m good at cooking a planned special meal, great at looking at what’s in the pantry and designing a meal, but my true genius is re-purposing leftovers. A good skill to have for thrifty eco-wifeys like us.

Consider this.

The other night I looked in the fridge to see what I should make for dinner. Here’s what I found:

one cooked sweet potato

one cooked weird little decorative squash (left over from post thanksgiving scrounging)

leftovers from the night before– baked potato with cauliflower and broc saute

half a package of thawed, frozen spinach

feta cheese that really needed to get used

scrap pie crust

I didn’t think to take a photo, so it’s understandable if you don’t believe me, but what I turned out from those ingredients could easily grace the menu of a fancy vegetarian restaurant, and is going straight onto my favorite quickie meals list. It’s part quiche, part gratin, part pot pie. And all yummeronies! It would work with just about any kind of leftovers. Granted, how often do you have leftover pie crust? But I think it would have been almost as fantastic with a breadcrumb and cheese top “crust.”

Layer your kitchen sink ingredients in a greased baking dish. Make sure there’s some kind of cheese in there. Whisk up 3 eggs with one cup of milk and a tablespoon of flour. Salt and pepper too, and any other spice that strikes yer fancy. (I used a small sized Pyrex,  I think it’s 5×7, it fits in our toaster oven. I’ve got two and use them constantly. They also have a rubber fitted lid, so when I’m not using them to bake in, I use them for non-plastic tupperware. Anyway, if you use a bigger pan, you’ll want to increase you’re egg/milk mixture.) Then pour over the top, shaking the dish a little to settle the liquid down into all the cracks and crannies. Of course, many ways would work, but I had the liquid just below the level of the ingredients. If you put in lots of liquid it would go more towards a quiche and less like a veggie pie. I wanted just enough egg to bind it all into one cohesive leftover ambrosia, not enough so’s it tasted like egg. Then I just set the crust on top and cut to fit. If you don’t have a pie crust, top with a layer of cheese, then a thick layer of breadcrumbs, with a little more cheese sprinkled on top.

Here’s the only drawback. It only takes 5 or 10 minutes to put together, but then 40-60 minutes to bake. So, it’s not exactly in the quickest class. I nuked my layered ingredients, pre-egg mixture (that’s the other great thing about these small Pyrexes, they fit in the micro too!) to get a little jump on the baking time.

That’s it! Prepare to be delishified!