Foodie Tuesday: Rinse and Repeat

You all know what a fan I am of leftovers and ‘repurposed’ ingredients. Most of the foods I’ve been fixing lately have been a continuation of that tradition of mine, especially because it’s been a particularly busy time around our place. We’ve had the usual spate of spring concerts and recitals, more than the usual number of social and business-social events at home and other places, and planning and preparation for a large quantity of upcoming happenings. The garden’s been coming in at top speed. I’ve been trying to clean house more seriously than I had in a long time, because it’s really overdue and I’d love to sell off and give away a lot of underutilized Things. Oh, and I’m trying hard, really I am, not to fall behind with my writing and artwork.

That latter means, naturally, keeping my blogging current, but in addition it means working on two art commissions—one a super-fast turnaround project I just got a few days ago. It also includes attempting to continue with the development of several books to follow up on the one I published in January.

I’m neither complaining nor bragging, just stating a truth that is pretty much like the daily one facing the majority of people I know, each with his or her variations on the details. And it reinforces my attachment to quick, simple, reusable and flexible ingredients and dishes more than ever. Today, for example, I made and froze what will (I’m certain) be a delicious potato side dish for later this week, when friends are coming over for a casual dinner visit. I used a combination of a smashed microwave ‘baked’ potato, a handful of chopped and mashed leftover french fries—good hand cut ones from our favorite old school steakhouse—a handful of crushed leftover potato chips, and enough leftover pimiento cheese from the batch I made for our party the other night to make it all into a cheesy potato casserole. I had some crisped bacon in the fridge, so the casserole is topped with that for the finish. It doesn’t look like so much yet, being in the freezer and all, but I’m expecting to enjoy it quite a bit, along with whatever else I manage to put together for the occasion.photo

Confession: I got an itch to do something trendy, despite being so rarely trendy myself, and I made a lattice out of the bacon. Silly, but kind of fun. And if one is going to wrestle with trying to cook a little in the midst of lots of real life busyness, shouldn’t there be a little bit of silly fun involved? No, wait: a lot?

 

Foodie Tuesday: Ten Thousand Things I’ll Never Know

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Nash your teeth over this! Celery, raw . . .

Okay, you are all very well aware that there are more like ten squillion things I’ll never know, but it doesn’t make for as mellifluous a title, now, does it? Ahem. Confession is all well and good, but I might as well please my inner critic, too.

I am referring, in the title I did choose, to the multitude of cool tricks and fabulous skills I am quite unlikely to learn and/or acquire as a chef in this lifetime. Some of them I could undoubtedly get the hang of, if not exactly master, were I to make a dedicated effort. But I’m such a dilettante by nature and so easily moved to any attractive tangent, that such dedication is a fairly rare commodity in my personal performance toolbox. I certainly admire all of you artistes and culinary technicians who have such an abundance of graces in the kitchen, at the grill, and around any old fire pit you can conjure out of architectural rubble, used tuna tins and flammable leaf-mold. And I’ll leave such things to you.

If I were a serious student I might be able to learn how to poach, candy, spherify, souffle, smoke, sear and pulverize the universe of edible things into perfect submission, but I am instead the kid who sits in the corner and stares alternately out the window and down at my left shoelace until galvanized by the lunch bell, whereupon I am first in the cafeteria line and probably sticking my fork into my food well before I have sat at a table. So my hopes of becoming a great chef are limited at best. Part of the problem is getting practiced and patient enough to merely remember what I just did in preparing a dish to have even the remotest chance of either replicating it at some future date or–if it turns out it’s awful–avoiding said replication, at least by improving those things that were unsatisfactory about it in the event. That makes one of the Ten Thousand Things that ranks very high on my list the ability to prepare and eat the same thing twice.

While I’m all for playing Variations on a Theme and enjoying change and novelty, I’m not entirely free of the rather common human urge to indulge in familiar favorites. That means it’s often wisest not to stray exceedingly far from the few techniques I do know and the moderate batch of ingredients that are well-loved in my cookery adventures, or I’m surely doomed to a perpetual cycle of this battle with my limited memory, always eating whatever random concatenation or ridiculous concoction happened to come out of my latest crash course dans la cuisine.

Today, I was faced with a fair fridge-full of unrelated leftovers that, if I didn’t want them to die of old age, needed to be made into something approximating tastiness that I could at least freeze until we would be home to heat-and-eat them. Combined, there were the makings of a whole simple meal; it only required my ‘repurposing’ everything, if that’s not too odd an application of the term, and the time was decidedly now. Tonight the garbage and recycling bins get put out for morning collection, and if we’re not going to actually eat the stuff, it’s clearly better to cut losses before that cleansing event than after it.

So, since the ingredients presented themselves, I prepped three simple recombined dishes as follows. The main course: a BBQ meatloaf of sorts. Sides couldn’t be simpler than yet another version of my mainstay potato casserole and steamed vegetables, and that’s what we’ll have to feed our hunger and clear out the refrigerator this time. What I’ll do with the leftovers of the leftovers is anybody’s guess. I’m quite sure I won’t remember how they got this way in the first place.

Meatloaf probably sounds a bit better, or at least a little more identifiable, than A Hunk of Barbecue-Sauced Meats Put Together, but either way, it’s the simple truth. This loaf came out very tender, indeed, almost to the point of falling apart, so there’s clearly a spot that I could adjust in the recipe, if there were a recipe. Ah, well. I simply took equal parts of leftover pit ham and roast beef (both thoroughly cooked already, obviously) and a little bit of roasted chicken that I had, too–a little under 3 cups of meat in total, I suppose–and put them all together with about a quarter-to-half a cup of barbecue sauce plus two eggs (raw) in the food processor and chopped them all together into a light minced meat ‘dough’, pressed it into a lightly greased loaf pan, and baked it at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes or so. Pretty nice tasting results for so little effort, really. Even better when I will have only to warm it up when it’s time to eat. And when, of course, I will already have forgotten entirely what I did with what ingredients to have made the food.

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Whatever you call me, just don’t call me Late for Dinner . . .

The other food is and was equally easy. The potato casserole this time is a mix of a cup of leftover good french fries (chips) plus one raw Russet plus 1/4 cup of queso blanco, all diced into similar small-sized pieces and mixed with a tablespoon of butter, a handful of shredded Parmesan cheese, and sprinklings of ground black pepper and salt and a small pinch of grated nutmeg and microwaved until the queso was just beginning to melt. I cooled this mix and put it in the fridge, and when it’s time to fix it for eating I’ll put it in a heat-proof container and warm it through thoroughly with a half cup or so of heavy cream. That always gives potato casseroles a nice texture somewhere in between baked and mashed potatoes, both of which I think are pretty fine, and helps the cheeses blend into the mix well.

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I’m always making a hash of things . . .

The steamed veg is prepared in the way that makes the dish, if you can even call it that, the easiest of all of them. Carrots and celery, cut into 1″ pieces and steamed with a pat of butter in a half cup of chicken broth (vegetarians can obviously substitute veg broth, wine, water or juice) plus a splash of Limoncello–that’s all there is to it. This one will get salted at the table because I don’t want to get any of that metallic hint of mixing salt and booze in cooked food that can sneak through when the dish is so wholly uncomplicated. The carrots and celery should mostly speak for themselves. And they will still taste pretty fresh and sweet, even in a day or two, rather than wilted and antique as they would have been had I not preemptively cooked them today.

Best defense is a good offense, so I’m told, and nowhere do I see it demonstrated as often as in getting food at least par-cooked before its shelf life has ended. A pseudo-science I learned because, among all of the other kitchen cuteness I will probably never know is the refined art of getting everything prepared and eaten exactly when it’s at its peak, never mind not having odd-lot leftovers or not losing time, tears and groceries if we get invited out to dinner after I’ve half-prepared a meal so it sits around extra days waiting for our attentions. Perfection in the kitchen? No, never. But this old dog does know a tiny trick or two, and that has kept us alive reasonably well so far.

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Celery, stewed . . . or steamed . . . oh, just hush up and eat your vegetables while they’re hot!

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 3: Relishes and Remnants

photoBest way to have a head start on preparing a meal: keep lots of shelf-stable or frozen flourishes convenient–they don’t have to be artificial or toxic, you know–and be kind to the best of your leftovers. It’s important to have the usual dry goods in stock; flour or thickeners, if you use them; spices; rice or oats or that kind of thing, but small prepared items are just as crucial for time and taste’s sake. Yesterday it came in handy to have stashed a few servings of easy-to-serve chocolate dessert items like my homemade nut truffles and almond-flour brownies. Today it was an assortment of fresh fruits that rounded out the meal with no cooking and virtually no prep, unless you count washing and cutting just enough for two plates; I certainly don’t find that onerous compared to prepping and cooking actual side dishes. Tomorrow, who knows? If someone pops by unexpectedly and we sit to lunch or dinner, it’s just nice to know that there’s almost always something in the pantry that can be served up in a trice.

Or in a casserole, if one prefers.

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I like to have a variety of types and flavors of oils, vinegars and the like close by me–including a couple of spray-on kinds of oils for pan prep.

You’ve no doubt noticed in any previous food posts, especially if I’ve referenced my pantry shelves, that I’m mighty fond of pickles and toppings and condiments of many kinds. I tend toward the salty, savory and sweet rather than extremely spicy ones, though I’ve been known to crave some good north Indian lime pickle with my Palak Paneer or pickled jalapeños with my Tex-Mex treats. Mostly, I like a fairly wide assortment of olives, vinegar-pickled vegetables like green beans and carrots and asparagus, preserved lemons, mild pickled okra or clove-scented beets; relish, chutney, sweet watermelon rind pickles also tickle my palate, as do pickled ginger and preserved sauces, and so forth ad mortem. Because I do concede that it’s just possible I could eat myself into a happy coma followed by cheery death, given constant proximity to such dainties. Nearly all of these delights, not to mention those aforementioned (okay, I did mention! deal with it) garnishes and toppings, like the ubiquitous southeast Asian fried shallots, salted and unsalted nuts, fried herbs, candied peel and ginger, shaved coconut, and so much more, can be nicely preserved to be either shelf-safe or freezer friendly without too much difficulty.

And yes, there are commercial preparations of those and other easy-to-keep foods and edible accoutrements that I willingly stock and use. Perhaps one of the most favored is tinned tuna, but I admit I don’t like many of the commercial brands, preferring those that can only the tuna itself, usually with a little salt, and simply let it be preserved in its pristine glory and its own juices. There are more and more good guys out there who are trying to do right by the tuna and our tastes, so it takes very little effort to find them out, and the boost in flavor and concomitant decrease in artificialities are well worth it. Canning fruits and vegetables does commonly act as a killjoy, destroying much of their texture and flavor and, not surprisingly, nutrients as well. Now, I know that much of the destructive character comes from mass production and that many people are able to home-preserve beautiful specimens of both fruits and veg, but frankly, that’s almost always too labor-intensive and plodding for my energies and attention span.

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Dried fruit: check. Coconut: check. Tinned seafoods: check. *Lots* of good coconut milk: oh, yeah, Baby (throw-it-together curry, here we come)!

So I tend to lean toward decent quality fast frozen green-groceries if I’m keeping some around for quick use. These are often perfectly delish in soups, cooked dishes and quick pickling, where they take up the dressing and seasonings more readily than raw foods because of the slight cellular breakdown inherent in freezing. And there are, for that very reason, also a few commercially canned things besides jam or jelly or pickles that I will concede to stock on my shelves and eat. For example, I wanted a speedy picnic sort of salad the other day, so I took out tins of cut green and wax beans and baby carrots, all of which I admit would be strikingly unappealing to me for straight-from-the-can eating, and bathed them in a light dressing of plain rice vinegar, vegetable oil, orange juice, orange zest, salt, pepper and snipped dill, and had myself a tasty little salad that has fed me all week long, gaining in flavor as it sits but having been quite edible right from the ceremonial Opening of the Tins.

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Not quite the traditional Three Bean Salad, but perfectly edible all the same.

Salmon is something I generally prefer fresh or smoked over tinned as well, but having a couple of cans on hand does have its moments. If, as with the tuna, it’s prepared well enough to not taste of the tin rather than of the sea, why it too makes a very useful salad when mixed with good mayonnaise and seasonings and can sit lightly on crackers, in a sandwich or stuffed into hors-d’oeuvres plenty well. I’ve made mine up with Asian-grocery wasabi mayo (another good condiment to keep in the refrigerator, mind you), minced gari, and a splash each of ginger juice and soy sauce, and enjoyed it even more for those uses. When the salmon is not tinned but instead left over from yesterday’s dinner, it can do similar things. We’re not overly enamored of leftover seafood, my spouse and I, in its previously served form, always feeling a bit like it’s sure to have gone bad. But a little change-up can rescue that leftover fish too: the oven roasted salmon, smoked salmon, and a few cooked prawns from the other night’s dinner got mashed to a pate with the stick blender, using some mayonnaise, and then spread on a small Romaine leaf and topped with slivers of yellow capiscum, a curl of gari and a dab of that nice wasabi mayo–whose squeezable bottle charmingly arrives with its own built-in star tip for decorative application–and voilà! Snacks.

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Salmon salad–straight from the shelves of the pantry, fridge and spice cabinet.

I’ll grant you that any amount of ‘trim’ kept in the kitchen guarantees nothing like conferring gourmet status on what I make of it. And it’s a virtual miracle when I bother to gussy up my food as much as even that last little snackable item, so presentation isn’t instantaneously improved either. But having the stuff right here at my beck and call is the only way either is likely to happen, even by accident. And who says I can’t eat all of this tastiness right out of the box, bottle, jar or tin, anyway?

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Foodie Tuesday: Good Housekeeper Cooking, or One Man’s Baking Disaster is Another’s Ice Cream Starter

Every cook of any skill or talent level knows–or should–that one of the best inspirations for the next dish or meal is found in cleaning and tidying the kitchen. It doesn’t mean I have to completely reorganize and sanitize every square centimeter of the place constantly, though undoubtedly I could stand to do both a little more often. But even the most cursory, quick cleanup of fridge, pantry or cupboards can remind me that I’ve stashed away a number of tasty items that ought to be used before they become lost in the mists of time. Petrified vegetables and mossy fruits, sandy-bleached spices and unrecognizable bogs-in-jars are all interesting science projects in their way, I suppose, but rarely likely to serve the purpose of good taste or nutrition for which they were initially acquired.

So I’m setting out on a mission, albeit at a sauntering pace, to see if I can’t catch up with some of my longtime plots and plans in the culinary realm and get a neater and more easy to clean workspace in the bargain. Today’s inspiration came from a fellow blogger who offered a recipe that sounded like a wonderfully easy mash-up of a traditional German chocolate cake’s glaze (with the broiled coconut topping) and a raisin spice cake. Mostly, it made me want to bake a gooey cake, something I’ve simply not done in forever. In my typical style, it was not that there was the remotest chance of my following the inspirational recipe even to a mild degree of accuracy, but the initial concept that thus urged me on was greatly appreciated all the same. In honor of the inspiration I went through my stores of dry goods like a little tornado and came up with a few ingredients that I thought would suit the occasion pretty well. I give you:

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Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9×13 baking pan.

Blend together the following ingredients. I did so by pulsing it all together in the food processor until it was a coarse flour-like consistency, but you could certainly hand shred, chop and mince the ingredients and then blend them.

1 cup of raw cane sugar

1/2 cup dried apricots

1 cup shredded raw carrots

2 Tablespoons of candied orange peel

2 Tablespoons of candied ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon of more of ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg

In a saucepan, bring to a boil 1/2 cup of butter and 1 cup of water, adding the prepared coarse meal of previously blended ingredients and cooking briefly to blend. In a separate large bowl, blend together 1-1/2 cups of mesquite pod flour, 1/2 cup of coarse almond meal, and 1 teaspoon of baking soda. When the wet ingredients have come to a boil, pour them into this dry mix and blend quickly. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish and level it as needed, and pop it into the oven for about 15 minutes.

While that’s baking, mix together the sticky topping ingredients. I just squished it all together quickly with my hands.

1/2 cup butter

1-1/2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup almond meal

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon crunchy flake salt (I used Maldon sea salt)

When the cake comes out of the oven, crumble the topping mix over it fairly evenly, and pop it under the broiler just until it caramelizes. Cool, cut, eat. A little ice cream or whipped cream would not, of course, be amiss with this, but it can be eaten like a brownie or blondie just fine, too.photo

The problem is this: the stuff is too darned tender to even hold the shape of a small bar or square of cake. Needs better structure. Flavor? Oh, yeah–I mean, after all, look at all of the butter and spices and the mesquite flour and apricot and orange nuances. But it’s as crumbly as heck. What are gooey cake crumbs good for? Yes, that’s right folks: ice cream add-ins. So now I give you Texas Tornado 2.0:

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Yes, it looks mighty mish-mashy, like it’s right in the middle of the tornado. But by golly, it’s a lot pleasanter than being pelted with flying cars. In fact, it tastes pretty danged delicious. All it took was to crumble the whole pan of erstwhile cake up into chunky crumbs and stir them into unsweetened vanilla whipped cream. Yes, unsweetened–you saw how much sugar went into that cake, y’all. 1 pint of heavy cream, whipped up with a generous 1 teaspoon splash of good vanilla; fold in all of the delicious ‘dirt’ you made of the cake, put it in a sealed container, and freeze it. If you can wait that long. It really makes a pretty tasty pudding without ever freezing it, if your sweet tooth is aching already. So I’ve heard.photoThe surprisingly spiced-mocha scent of the mesquite flour is quite strong when the cake bakes. So much so, that I almost forgot it wasn’t actual brownies or chocolate cake in the oven. Which in turn may mean that I have some chocolate baking to do soon too. Something that holds up structurally, I should think. But I’m not sure I care. There’s always an alternate use for good food-parts. These things happen when I start rummaging around in the kitchen stores, don’t you know.