Foodie Tuesday: I was Just Mincing Around the Kitchen, Looking for Something to Eat

Photo: Rice, Lamb & PeasSeasoned minced lamb, rice, and peas. This hardly constitutes a recipe. But if I’m to be honest—and I should, especially since you all know this full well anyway—not much that I do in the kitchen is what anybody would mistake for culinary sophistication. What I prefer is ease of preparation, a tasty and uncomplicated ingredient list, and food that pleases my mood as much as my palate.

So the recent dish of seasoned lamb mixed with broth-cooked rice and green peas met all of my qualifications, especially as the ground meat in question was the other half of that batch I’d cooked up to fill the Jiaozi-of-Mystery some weeks back, and it had been lurking around the darker regions of my freezer ever since. Lacking great inspiration or quantities of time, I did as I often do…

I made a quick survey of the contents of my pantry: hey, a fresh jar of avocado-oil mayonnaise! I could make a plain mayo-and-honey dressing with a sprinkling of ground cardamom from the shelf next to them, zinged with one little jot of lime juice from the fridge, lightly coating an apple-and-celery salad.

I checked the fridge for the apples and celery: Check! Oh, goody. There’s still some of the rice I cooked up the other day, and it’d be a shame to let that go to waste by waiting for me too long. Guess I might just have to crack open one of the last two bottles of beer, too, while I’m at this Fridge Cleaning thing. Of course that’s the main purpose of all this action. What, you think I do this just because I’m a hungry looter?

I looted (oops!) the freezer next, because after all, I was already right next to it and it would be a terrible pity not to clean that out a little as well. What do you know. Minced lamb. It says Jiaozi Filling on the wrapping, which as you know is the virtual equivalent of telling me  not to make jiaozi with it when I am almost morally opposed to following recipes to the letter. Must be intended for, oh, I don’t know, something…with rice and…look! Over there! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Nah, different storyline. It’s frozen peas! Yes. I can use peas in this.

I decided a quick return trip to the fridge and pantry stock was in order. Something liquid but not heavy, to tie up the loose ends of a lamb-rice-peas dish that would otherwise taste a little too haphazardly crumbly perhaps. A sort of teriyaki-ish blend of Tamari, lime juice, and ginger syrup? Yeah, that’ll do it. Done and done.

And that’s how a completely nonsensical trip around the kitchen when I’m already hungry and not in the mood to fuss with food prep goes from rummaging to happily eating in about ten or fifteen minutes, give or take an empty cupboard shelf. That’s also how, I’m glad to say, a slightly late post for Foodie Tuesday gets wrapped up when I remember the meal with a certain middle-of-the-night nostalgia that knows it’s too late for snacking. That’s definitely how a lazy cook keeps from starving, and pretends to clean the kitchen at the same time. We all win. Right?Photo: Apples & Celery

Perspectives on Age and Maturity

We’re well-practiced when it comes to assigning labels and categories to others, even to ourselves, and very often without great regard for fit and specificity. All of the young are immature or energetic or bratty or happy-go-lucky simply by virtue of their calendar age; all of those older than us are instantly deemed wise or experienced, crotchety, inflexible, low in energy, mellowed or whatever our personal biases tell us are characteristic of aging. And all of these generalizations or assumptions tend to be made as snap judgements from which we tend to be loath to move once set.digital artworkMost of us, truth be told, tend to match every one of those descriptors at one time or another in our lives, but very few stay in any of those states perpetually, let alone remain limited to them. We are ever so much more varied and colorful, generally speaking. One day, gentle as a lamb, and the next, rambunctious.digital artworkNot only is there nothing wrong with exploring the differences between us and other people, it’s useful and often highly desirable to get to know the range of characteristics and variations that we ourselves are capable of embodying. And it’s certainly a portal to an endless world of new vistas and horizons, meetings with unexpectedly wonderful others, and times spent learning inspiring marvels and unraveling mysteries when we embrace new encounters without prejudice.digital artworkWhile I am often a little too timid in approaching and meeting new friends and going new places and experiencing new things, I do know that my sheepishness can be overcome occasionally, with effort. And I know very well that what may have seemed quite formidable often becomes a treasured part of my life and loves once I’ve taken up the challenge. If I can’t quite handle ramming speed, I certainly hope I will always try to ramble forward with an open attitude, no matter which phase of character I’m in myself.

Foodie Tuesday: The Daily Grind Need Not Grind Us Down

When I did a bit of checking on it, the name of my variant of Shepherd’s Pie seemed to be, by rights, ‘Pastel de Carne y Patatas’–but you know me, I can’t stick to proprieties very well. So I named it the more mellifluous sounding ‘Pastel al Pastor’, thinking as I do that shepherds get very short shrift in this day and age and can use a little flattering attention. What the dish is calls for it anyway, for it’s a rustic Mexican-tinged take on the comfort-food standard Shepherd’s Pie. In any event, like many longtime popular recipes, it got its start partly by using ground or minced meat, a hallmark of well-fed poor people’s diets since the cheaper cuts of most meats can become tenderer and allow much more expansive fillers and the disguise of plenteous seasonings in order to be palatable while still being relatively affordable.

Rustic and comforting it may be, but the simplicity of the end result in this recipe belies the multifaceted process by which it’s made. Don’t let that put you off, though, because it can be made in large quantities and frozen in smaller batches between times, so it can easily become a quick-fix dish after the first preparation. Shepherd’s Pie, in the vernacular, derives from the longtime concept of Cottage Pie, which in turn originated when cooks began more widely using potatoes to stretch those more expensive ingredients of the meal, the meats. Typically, these pies (and there are versions of them in an enormous number of countries, cultures and cuisines) are simply meat dishes, often made with the ‘lesser’ cuts or a mixture of leftover meats, with a potato crust. Probably the most familiar of them here in the US is the minced meat (and often, vegetable) mixture topped with mashed potatoes that is served in many a British pub and home kitchen and that we co-opted in our own American ways.

Mine, on this occasion, was to veer as I often do toward Mexican seasonings and enjoy my own little twist on the dish.photoPastel al Pastor

Seasoned minced or ground meats, topped with vegetables and mushrooms and gravy and served over smashed potatoes make altogether a hearty and countrified dish, not at all difficult to make but taking a little bit of time because of its individual parts. I make this in a generously buttered baking dish both because it’s easier to clean afterward and because–you guessed it–I love butter.

The bottom layer of the dish is made by frying a mixture of equal parts ground beef, pork and lamb, seasoned freely with salt, black and cayenne peppers, chili powder, smoked paprika and lots of cumin. Those without supertaster spouses will likely want to add some garlic powder as well, though it’s not essential. A splash of rich chicken broth or a spoonful of good chicken bouillon adds a nice layer of flavor, if you have it. Next, add a heaping spoonful of tomato paste and enough good salsa to make the meat mixture very slightly saucy, and just as the meats begin to caramelize, you’re done. [My go-to, if I’m not making my salsa by hand, is Pace’s mild Chunky Salsa with a prepared chipotle en adobo blended in thoroughly–I see on their web page that they’re reintroducing their chipotle salsa, so that’s probably fine too.] Drain the fat from the meat mixture and spread it in the bottom of your baking dish.

While the meat’s cooking, you can be preparing the vegetable-mushroom layer. I mixed about equal amounts of small cut carrots, sliced celery and sliced brown mushrooms, covered them with some of my ubiquitous chicken broth and cooked them until tender. Then I pureed half of them with a stick blender, adding a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle en adobo (that’s about a half a pepper), unflavored gelatin and potato flour for flavor and texture, mixed that with the remaining vegetables, and poured it all over the meat. I topped this with a cup or so of frozen sweet kernel corn and got ready for Potato Happiness.

Today’s version of this meal, Ladies and Gentlemen, was potato-fied with leftovers. I had half a baked potato and about a cupful of good french fries in the fridge, and they worked wonderfully when warmed with some cream and a touch of salt and smashed roughly. It would have been just fine to do the typical Shepherd’s Pie treatment of spreading the potatoes over the meat-and-veg before heating the dish through in the oven, but since this was all concocted of things I had around (taco meat I’d made and frozen, salad vegetables and leftover potatoes), on this occasion we just put nice heaps of mash on our plates and spooned the rest over them like meat-and-vegetable gravy.

For the more normal approach, I’d roast, boil or bake potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and combine with cream for the mash and then top the casserole, possibly adding some nice cheese either on top before browning it in the oven (a mix of shredded cheddar and Monterey jack, for example) or as a fine garnish, a serving-time crumble (cotija on top, anyone?). But ‘normal’ is overrated, and the dish was mighty, mighty tasty even deconstructed in this way. And it’s still flexible–yes, even a dish concocted of multiple leftovers has variety left in it, my friends. Add some peas (so many tasty cottage pies have peas in them), cauliflower, green beans, or any number of other vegetables. Make it spicier. Soup it up into a stew, with potato pieces incorporated. Change the seasonings to Indian and make it a post-Colonial curried version. You get the drift.

Thing is, of course, that this is precisely how the dish was conceived: as a loose general structure into which any number of variables could successfully be introduced, depending upon what was on hand. Save time, save labor, save money. Eat delicious potatoes and whatever flavorful wonders you can afford and imagine to combine under them.

Well, get along with you now, you know how it works. And you can be pretty sure that it’s going to taste good. That’s how folklore ‘recipes’ survive–on flexibility and reliability. Oh, yeah, and great fillers.

Even chicken, which sometimes gets short shrift when it comes to minced meat dishes because it’s left too unseasoned or cooked in ways that make it too dry, can make lovely ground meat dishes with a little effort. In the latest instance, I chose to precook mine in a sort of meat loaf sous vide, keeping the juices and additions in and on it until it was fully plate-safe, but this could easily be chilled in its loaf form, sliced and pan-fried without the intervening hot bath, I’m sure. And a food processor makes the loaf prep a snap, but it can be done with a knife and a pair of hands for mixing, too. In any event, I veered more toward Italy this time with my glorified chicken meatloaf concoction.photoCotolette di Pollo e Pancetta

[About 6 servings.] Mince and mix together the following and shape into a compact loaf: 6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (dark meat stays moister), 3 ounces pancetta, 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon thyme, 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, 1/8 teaspoon powdered lemon peel, 2 eggs, 4 tablespoons cold butter and 1/2 teaspoon minced dried shallot. Wrap and chill the loaf until ready to fry it, or do as I did: vacuum pack it, cook it sous vide like a confit (low and slow–I let it go overnight), and then refrigerate until ready to use.

When it’s time to fix the meal, cut the loaf into slices about 1/4 inch thick and fry them over medium heat until lightly browned. With a well seasoned iron skillet or a nonstick pan, the butter in the loaf is quite sufficient to keep the slices from sticking, and they get a nice little lightly crispy crust outside their tender middles. I served mine with slices of fried cheese (any slow-melting mild cheese would do for this after-the-fact application, or you can top the meat slices with faster-melting sorts like mozzarella or provolone as the meat cooks) and a simple sauce cooked down from jarred passata (simple tomato puree–I like the Mutti brand passata I used, pure tomatoes with a little salt) mixed with the loaf’s excess juices, salt and pepper and oregano to taste. On the side, little ramekins of rice and buttered green beans are plenty, though of course there’s always room for invention on the plate. The whole assembly, since I’d put up both cooked rice and the confited loaf in the refrigerator beforehand, took not more than fifteen or twenty minutes to prepare.

¡Buen provecho! Buon appetito! Now, stop mincing around and get eating!

If It’s Wednesday, This Must be Foodie Tuesday Deja Vu

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Why, yes, if you are a fresh berry. Those sweet little nuggets of juicy goodness are the very epitome of summertime’s joys, and the longer we can extend the berry adventure by means of preserved, frozen or baked goods, the merrier. I’ve already rhapsodized about my mother’s justly famed raspberry pie (the mystic quality of her ethereal pie crusts a deservedly notable part of the equation, in the interest of full disclosure), and she made many a jar of equally brilliant raspberry jam over her wildly productive years of canning and preserving. I will never be her equal in either of these arts.photo

I do, however, have enough fondness for some berries that I will gladly binge on them while their season lasts, and far beyond, in whatever forms are available, because I can practically feel the vitamins rushing into my cells when I do, and more importantly, because they taste so fabulous and are such great utility players on Team Food. On their own, they are magnificent and refreshing. In salads, a divine break from any leanings toward excess of greens. Think, for example, of a marvelous mix of butter lettuce, Romaine, toasted sliced almonds, shavings of fine Reggiano cheese and a generous handful of raspberries all happily commingling with a light creamy fresh thyme dressing. Transcendent! Fruit salad melanges practically insist on having a handful of berries gracing them when the season is right. And I’m told by those who eat blueberries that no berry surpasses them for muffin or pancake making. Me, I’ll gladly stick with Swedish pancakes piled up with whipped cream and fresh strawberries when it comes to the breakfast berry-ations. And of course there are endless possibilities in the universe of fruit smoothies when it comes to berries, whether you’re in the camp that must strain out the seeds or among those who appreciate the fiber therein.

And don’t get me started about desserts! The natural affinity fruit has for sweet foods is showcased wonderfully in so many after-dinner or coffee-time treats that a mere post could hardly suffice to even skim the list. But some goodies do come immediately to mind: strawberries dipped in chocolate; cloudberry cream, as I learned to love it when prepared in the seconds-long fresh season by my brother-in-law’s late mother; blackberry tapioca pudding. Pies, tarts, and crumbles, oh my. A heap of berries and a gentle sluicing of vanilla custard atop a slice of toasted pound cake. Honestly, few ways to go awry.

Still, the berry, with its pristine, bright, zingy flavor, and the hints of sweetness underlying it, makes a superb foil for savory dishes too, not least of all meats and seafoods. One of those ways to slip berry-liciousness into the main dish is to pool any of the multitude of possible berry-enhanced sauces and purees under, over or alongside a portion of entrée. I’m fond of Beurres Rouges ou Blancs made with wine, butter and berries cooked down to dense, flavorful stupendousness. Hard to argue with, say, a blackberry-Cabernet sauce served with lamb or duck, and I can only imagine that a dry, red-fruity Rosé would pair gracefully in such a sauce with raspberries or, dare I say it, salmonberries, to accompany a roasted filet of salmon or breast of pheasant or grilled chicken. Champagne Beurre Blanc is hard to resist with shellfish; why not top that with roasted strawberries and a quick grind of black pepper?

As you can see, what happens when I get the mere image of a berry into my tiny brain is that it plants the seeds for extensive food fantasizing. And that is hardly a bad thing, my friends. Bury me in berries. I could do much worse.

photo

Foodie Tuesday: No Aphasia from Persia to Asia

photoIf America really is a Melting Pot, combining a multitude of cultures into one big, satisfying stew, it’s most believably so in the kitchen. Nobody can convincingly argue this concept to my satisfaction as applied to a nation founded over the centuries by invasive species of the human variety in a bizarre and often violent series of waves, frequently waves that if they don’t actively seek to wipe out everything Other that made a beachhead on these shores before them, are still not very good at blending and assimilating and otherwise embracing each other. We’re fond of ‘talking the talk,’ so to speak, as long as the other guy is willing and able to do it not only in our preferred language but with the same point of view.photoBut when we get to the table, our omnivorous love of good things can at least fairly often override our worst instincts. It’s true that breaking bread together is one of the best ways of finding commonality and even, perhaps, community. So although it’s sometimes quite delightful to be thematic in our thinking and our tastes to the point of specificity, it’s also very possible to enjoy the bounty of whole parts of the world when one is hungry for ideas, culture and especially, for good food. One can easily find a north Indian restaurant or a Sicilian one or a New Orleans-style Cajun one, but it’s not unusual either to find eateries that have a wider-ranging reach: pan-Pacific, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, or Mediterranean, perhaps. My own tastes are shaped not only by the foods and flavors I like, but of course by the versions of them with which I am familiar and those I adopt or adapt for my own purposes and interests.photo

So it’s quite common indeed to arrive at my table and find foods influenced by particular places’ or regions’ cuisines sitting side by side with foods from decidedly different ones, or even trying a little intermingling in one dish, just for fun. The other day the meal consisted of a warm quinoa dish with a bit of Persian inspiration, right along with a salad that had slight Japanese leanings. However incongruous they might be geographically, their flavors and textures seemed complementary enough to me, and I found the combination not only edible but pretty friendly after all. So here for your refreshment, and a table-top vignette of world peace, is a little lunch invention of the Persian-Asian persuasion.

Spiced Lamb Quinoa

Cook one cup of plain quinoa in water or (as I did) homemade broth until tender. While that’s cooking, brown 1/2 lb of ground lamb, seasoning it fairly liberally with salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg. Set both of these elements aside while preparing and combining the following in a spacious bowl: about 1/2 cup each of crumbled feta cheese, sliced black olives of any variety on hand, chopped preserved lemon, diced dried apricots, and sliced almonds (plain or toasted), and about 1/4 cup each of chopped fresh mint leaves and sesame seeds (plain or toasted). Finally, mix the prepared quinoa with that bowl of flavor-boosters, and either layer on or stir in the ground lamb. Dress the dish with fresh lime juice, raw honey and olive oil (I used my favorite blood orange olive oil), and re-season the whole with salt or pepper or any of the other previously included seasonings to adjust to your taste.

Serve warm or hot–let your taste and the weather be your guide. This dish stores well in either refrigerator or freezer and can be reheated in the microwave once mixed. Vegetarians can certainly omit the meat, and those who don’t enjoy lamb might also like ground or diced chicken better in the dish.

Quick Green-&-Orange Salad

Assemble these ingredients and mix freely, or present separately for guests to mix: sweet orange sections, snap pea shoots and carrots are the ‘big three’ here. I put them in separate “stripes” in the serving dish to show off the alternating orange-green-orange of the simple ingredients, and topped the oranges and carrots with fresh lime zest and the pea shoots with fresh orange zest just to exaggerate the color effect.

I had some pre-shredded carrots handy and in retrospect would have preferred to shred my own with the coarse side of the blade rather than have the oversized bulk of store-bought shreds. The pea sprouts are easy to cut up once plated and look kind of pretty as a long-stemmed mini-bouquet, but I’m pretty pragmatic about my food (you may have noticed), so in future I’d probably chop those into 1″ lengths beforehand too. The orange (one large navel orange) was cut into about 1″ dice and was good and juicy.

The dressing for this bright fruit-and-veg combination was a simple blend of about 2 Tablespoons of minced pickled ginger (sushi gari), orange juice squeezed out of the peel I’d cut off the orange sections while dicing it, the juice of half a lime, a splash of soy sauce, a splash of ginger juice, and a hint of honey. The soy sauce makes the dressing a less than picturesque muddy color (maybe I should try white miso next time), so I served it separately so as not to spoil my little orange-green-orange picture before we chomped all of it into moot bits.photo

And if I am to make a statement about interculturalism or ecumenism or any such blending in the way of my household cuisine, it might just be that when we eat food it all gets turned into Us, respectively and eventually, kind of the same way that every one of us on the planet will all turn after living into the same dust (unless we get to be reincarnated), so why not simply embrace the differences that become one in us, eh? At least we’ll eat happily.