There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.
It’s not just a trademark Monty Python phrase; sometimes in cookery it’s worthwhile and enjoyable to veer off and say it’s time for Something Completely Different. I’m not talking about molecular gastronomy, because I have neither the knowledge nor the patience to imagine and execute anything quite so transformative, but it can certainly be useful and even tasty to rethink the what-I’ve-always-done approach from time to time.Making broth as often as I do, I’m regularly faced with the aftermath of it in the form of tiny meat scraps, softened bones and mush-cooked vegetables and think it a pity to waste anything that might be salvageable. So a little while ago I got intrigued by seeing what I might do better with this stuff than merely throwing it out.
First thought was that bones are bulky yet biodegradable objects that, in a landfill, will take up a hunk of space there a lot longer than, say, those of a decaying creature left to the elements would do. And that, coincidentally, a soil amendment and critter-control element often required for good gardens is bone meal. So I dried out the bones thoroughly and set them out in a safely remote corner of the yard where the compost heap lives. Waste not, and all that.
More to the culinary point, I thought it silly to toss out all of the vegetable leftovers of the process when, though they will certainly have given up some of their nutrients to the broth, will probably also have gained some back from their fellow ingredients along the way, so they oughtn’t to have lost all of their nutritional worth in the cooking. The carrots are the only members of the party that haven’t mostly melted to nothingness in my usual broth process and can be individually retrieved, so I picked them out of the strained ingredients, along with a few small pieces of celery and onion, and pureed them with just a touch of added broth and a pinch of salt, and had a nice, faintly savory pudding.Adding some juice-packed mandarin orange segments (reserving the juice for later use elsewhere) made it into a really tasty little side dish of comfort food with very little effort. Warming some black raspberry jam and drizzling it on top of the pudding or swirling it in made it into an even jazzier little light dessert. The contrast of the punchy colors was matched by the contrasts in savory and sweet, in the soft pudding and bursting orange sections and the tiny crunches from the berry seeds.All that was left for reinvention from the broth straining was the marrow and meat that, while not enough to make a meal alone, still filled a bowl with beefy goodness. It was clearly too soft to be especially attractive as a pot roast sort of thing, let alone a plated slice of anything recognizable as meat. Paté came to mind. Heck, I’d already had the stick blender busy to make my carrot pudding, so why not put it to further use on the day? The beef bits, along with a couple of hefty tablespoonfuls of butter, a half teaspoon or so of salt, and a little broth to make it workable, got pureed into a smooth, buttery spread that waits in the freezer for the time when it will be thawed, chilled in a ramekin, and served with crackers or toast, cornichons and cocktails, just as though I were an ideal 1960s magazine housewife. Well, I grew up in the ’60s and I’m a homemaker; close enough.
Shared companions at their best help to strengthen individual relationships.
This is true of people, any great net of friends and acquaintances woven, knit and spun together making the two people at their center-most intersection better through their support. It’s true, too, of meals, where the cast of side dishes and sauces, condiments and accompaniments all work together to make the main dish better and more interesting than it would be on its own, and make a standard entrée a standout, distinctive and more memorable for the occasion.
Now, when these two instances of the supporting cast making the show coincide, things can be tons of fun. As on our latest anniversary, for example. We enjoy our twosome time immensely, and are glad to celebrate at any excuse, but we’re not sticklers for specific dates or rigorous traditions. So when our anniversary lined up with a rare opportunity to gather with a houseful of students, we merged our various celebratory plots into one plan.
Dinner for any more than four people is inevitably served buffet style when I’m in charge; besides my preference for informality, I like people to be able to sit at tables for ease of dining, and while I can make that happen for up to a couple dozen in our contiguous living, dining and kitchen spaces, it doesn’t leave much spare room for elbows, let alone heaps of serving dishes, on said tables. So it’s easier to concoct big-batch comestibles in big-batch pots and pans and let the guests scoop up platefuls of their own design at will.
This time, the centerpiece of the meal was my lazy version of carnitas, one of my pet make-ahead foods for carnivores, surrounded by a range of things that could keep the vegetarians, the allergic and the whatever-averse all reasonably well filled.
Carnitas de Señora Loca
Don’t forget some coleslaw when there’s shredded meat, whether BBQ style or otherwise; the two are simply good friends for a good reason. The version of the day had sliced almonds, black and white sesame seeds, and a light lemon vinaigrette with a dash of honey. See, addicted as we are, I can sometimes vary slightly from my standard sushi ginger flavored creamy coleslaw. The creamy dressing, whether made with mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream in its dressing, would’ve added elements not all vegetarians like, so I wanted to keep an option or two open. Cheese dip for the vegetable crudites was not going to allow such a thing, including not only the grated sharp cheddar and Parmesan cheeses but also an equal mix of mayo and sour cream, along with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of bacon-flavored salt), and I had asked ahead and was pretty sure I didn’t have any true vegetarians, let alone vegans, coming that day, only lighter meat eaters.
Since the non-meatatarians in the crowd might otherwise have been stuck with just salad and fruit, vegetable, cracker sorts of foods, I did make up a big batch of rice without my typical inclusion of homemade bone broth, substituting homemade vegetable broth for the occasion. I credit myself with making a pretty dandy broth, no matter what the kind, so no one was shortchanged in the equation, I hope.
The last side dish leaned back toward the savory and did include a little mayonnaise: corn salad made with fresh kernels of sweet corn, diced tomatoes and avocados, and for those who wished, crisp bacon pieces to sprinkle on top. You know me: if a passel of pork is a good thing as the main dish, why not more pork alongside it?
Among those of us who have the privilege of eating affordably and often, there should be no reason at all for us not to eat well, too. Least of all should we eat mediocre meals for lack of time. Today’s solution: a main dish precooked and finished at top speed at the very last minute, accompanied by super-quick fixes as side dishes. No reason to make it more complicated than it is on its own merits.
Precooked pork tenderloin was in this instance a dainty piece of meat seasoned with salt, pepper and butter, sealed in a vacuum pack and simmered gently in the sous-vide to a tender pink overnight–easy-peasy. If one has the luxury of a sous vide cooker. If not, I think I’d try to do the same in a slow cooker, because that’s the way this chica operates, though there’s no reason I couldn’t also steam it low-and-slow, covered, in the oven.
At suppertime, easiest of all. The tenderloin, removed from its vacuum pack and cut into pieces about 1-1/2 inches in length, is tossed into hot bacon fat along with a handful of sliced almonds and caramelized until lightly crisp on the outside, getting a nice deglazing bath of very dry sherry to moisten at the last and loosen up all of that lovely fond. While the meat is browning and falling into delicate pulled shreds, it’s a moment’s work to fix the side dishes.
Green beans slicked with a little clarified browned butter, and my standby creamy ginger coleslaw, go pretty well with sherried pork tenderloin and almonds, as it turns out. Once it came to the end of the meal, I wasn’t exactly dessert-starved, but given this time of the season it would almost be a crime not to have a prime piece of fruit. A pear, silky and sweet as syrup but a whole lot juicier and more fulfilling, is dessert in the loveliest of ways. Hope I have another pear handy for breakfast, though . . . another good meal should always lie ahead . . .
Some people love cars. Some are attracted to bling (you would think I’d be quite the blingy specimen, given my magpie eye, but I don’t at all like to wear it, generally) and others are collectors of shoes, antiques, sports memorabilia, whatever inspires them and warms the cockles of their hearts. Me, I’m a fool for tools. I try to restrain myself reasonably when it comes to actually buying them, since I haven’t the budget, storage space or skills to use many of them in reality, but there are some that do have a place in my pantheon of tool treasures. Some, also, in my pantry.
Simple is often best, to be sure. I do love my two cast iron skillets. And when it comes to kitchen tools, good knives are just about the pinnacle of both necessity and happiness for most cooks I know. I have a selection of knives (looking exceedingly dusty here after the granite was re-cut to fit our new cooktop properly), and I use all of them on occasion, but I pretty much devote my favored attentions to using one particular knife, a fairly modest Henckels 6″ stainless sweetheart that keeps its edge with very little sharpening and is just the right heft and balance for my ordinary purposes. I’ll bet there are plenty of others among you that are like me in this: no matter how many lovelies you collect of your most-used sort of tools, find you’re using the same one ninety percent of the time. When it’s right, it’s right. And knives, while they can’t make a chef out of anyone, can bring the average home cook closer to mastery than possible otherwise.
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I also luxuriate in the privilege of having some more specialized and, indeed, expensive kitchen tools. The sous vide immersion cooker that my husband kindly presented when we moved into this house isn’t used constantly by any means, but when I want fall-apart ribs or a beef roast as near to perfection as I can make, it’s absolutely the go-to favorite tool for those sorts of labors. The internal temperature monitoring version of my heavily used slow cooker, if you will, which gets a fairly constant workout cooking my various broths down to dense savory heaven, with the occasional chili or pot roast thrown in for good measure. The more high-tech tools in my kitchen arsenal include, of course, a good microwave; besides being so convenient for warming lunchtime leftovers, it’s great for steaming vegetables quickly, making a one-person egg souffle, or melting butter or chocolate for the current concoction.I like my hand tools, too, both the powered (I use my stick blender not just for pureeing things for soups and sauces but for whipping cream or eggwhites, too) and the old standbys of a small whisk, tongs–updated with nice gripping heat-proof silicone ends–or that lovely construction tool that has moved into the kitchen, the Microplane, which is a snap to use for zesting fruits or rasping nutmeg or finely shaving some nutty Reggiano. And that large strainer to the left is so very well-suited to my broth clarifying. I just wish it could work on my thoughts too. One present thought that is crystal-clear, however, is that the new cooktop–that smooth black glass on which the hand tools are resting–is going to be such a boon to this cook as has seldom been seen. While we’d love to have afforded the line plumbing and cooker for using gas, this functional and even topped electric will be such a stupendous improvement over the literally half-dead and wholly uneven old coil burner stove that I am elated just to have made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Such is the improvement in life of a new and improved tool.
The oldies are still goodies, as well. I am so fortunate as to have bought a house with (albeit thirty years old) a double oven. The pair shows its age visually, to be sure, but once I painted the two oven doors with a slightly glittery metallic black finish they don’t stick out of the updated kitchen decor too terribly, and they operate remarkably well in general. I’ve pulled together some meals for largish gatherings without much difficulty in finding enough space to roast, bake, broil and warm whatever was needed for the crowd. That’s when I pull out lots of my more specific and seldom-used other tools from my bag of kitchen tricks, too, to go with the less common ingredients I might use for special occasion eating events. Okay, the ice cream scoops and the wine bottle equipment aren’t all that rarely used around here, nor are a number of the other utensils here in these drawers. More often, it’s the pretty old silver and plated serve-ware–those sugar tongs with claws, and the beveled-bowl spoons and ladle, the pewter handled Norwegian forks and spoons–that makes me smile on mere sight.
Some of the tools I treasure most are, of course, sentimental for various reasons. Probably among the best of those in my kitchen are ones I don’t necessarily give constant notice precisely because they are so constantly in use and so well suited to their uses. My everyday stainless flatware is a perfect example. My paternal grandmother was a rather tender and sentimental lady (in her eighties, she still couldn’t hang up photos of her little daughter who had died at age two) but almost never showed it; she wasn’t much good at overt expressions of such emotion so it arose in subtler ways, like her declaring that it wasn’t right for young women of my generation (and my sisters’) to wait until we might-or-might-not get married to have well stocked home lives, so she told each of us when we entered high school to choose a flatware pattern, and she would give us Christmas and birthday gifts each year of a place setting of that pattern. The pattern I chose–Design 2 by Don Wallance–turned out to be singularly interesting in the event: first of all, I immediately found out that the company producing it was being bought by another and as it was produced in Europe and the new company favored an Asian manufacturer the pattern was likely to be discontinued (it wasn’t, as it happened, but the switch to a different mfr. changed some significant details, as well as the heft, of the pattern). Grandma, bless her, went off and bought a complete 12-place set of it and then just doled it out after. I, being forewarned, bought up serving pieces and extra teaspoons. And I have never once regretted my selection. I guess I’m not alone; at some point I discovered that it’s one of the few flatware patterns that was chosen for inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art‘s design collection in New York.
All things considered, it’s practicality that does win my heart most readily in my kitchen utensils as with my other tools. The true affection I have for my flatware is that it sits in the hand so very comfortably, the forks have strong, even tines and slight spoon-like bowls, the knives have no joint in them to collect food or get weak but do have a remarkably good edge, and both men and women seem to appreciate their balance and utility. They are in fact very attractive to my eye, yes, but if they didn’t do the job so well they wouldn’t have remained favorites for so very long (high school was an eon ago). It’s the same way I have come to be so pleased with my choice of kitchen sink when we renovated on moving in here a couple of years ago. I do enjoy it for its handsome looks and the way it neatly complements the granite counters, but more than that I love that its black composite surfaces are so incredibly easy to keep clean, are heat resistant when I stick in a hot pot to fill it with soaking water, and those deep and deeply useful double bowls could even, if some accident should demand it, be sanded back down to perfection. Now, if I could easily apply that sort of abuse and restoration to my body, that would be a welcome technique. But at least in this kitchen I have the tools to feed my body pretty well and–I hope–forestall any such extreme necessity.
How do I love broth? Let me count the ways.
So versatile and so flexible an ingredient, it’s surprising that broth should be so UN-intimidating, so simple to concoct once you get the hang of it. After all, it’s water and flavorings simmered together for a nice long party in the hot tub, nothing more really. I’m extraordinarily simplistic when it comes to broth: if it ain’t easy to brew and full of tasty smooth liquid-gold goodness when it’s done, it ain’t gettin’ made in my kitchen. It ought to have a nice dose of nutrients beaming out of its depths as well, but I’m not getting any meters and test strips and laboratory lunacy involved to prove my point; if the ease is easy enough and the soup is slurpy enough, my litmus test is satisfied.
Every time I slide the old slow cooker off its shelf and out to start the party going, I clutch at my heart to still the palpitations of happy-tude. Because somewhere along the line, this kitchen commitment-phobe who dreaded attempting to prepare anything that looked complicated and fussy and mysterious discovered that while a good broth may require a certain amount of attention and a couple of brief periods of semi-assiduous activity over a couple of days (!), it doesn’t have to be scary and impossible, even for me. And hooray, it doesn’t have to follow a persnickety recipe full of esoteric ingredients either.
Good soup-secret factoids I’ve learned:
1 – Don’t think too hard. The more I muck about with a Plan in the kitchen for anything, the more I tend to want to give up.
2 – Use good ingredients. Don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t be willing to eat as nearly unadulterated on its own as is safe or any booze or juice you wouldn’t be caught drinking on purpose. That age-old wisdom is handed down from the earliest generations of cooks precisely because it’s True and it works.
3 – Choose tools that work the way you want them to and keep the techniques as uncomplicated as possible. Good broth can be made without much real skill, I’ve learned, so don’t go and make it more daunting than necessary.
4 – Let the ingredients, tools and time do the work for you as much as possible.
I use a Crock-Pot®, because it’s the slow cooker I happen to have and I like it. I’ve had it for about a decade and it puts up with all of my kitchen monkeyshines without breaking a sweat. Okay, that’s a complete fib: slow cookers tend to “sweat” profusely inside; it’s part of what they’re designed to do. Mine has a see-through (except for that condensation) glass lid and a removable stoneware lining that lets me soak all of the evidence away after whatever I’ve wrought in my cooking frenzies.
The rest of my broth-making arsenal is basic as can be. My 10×14″ Pyrex® casserole baking dish (not seen here–it was in use elsewhere during today’s modeling photo-shoot) to put bones and/or vegetables in for roasting before the big simmer starts. Tongs and a sturdy spoon for tending and fishing around in the broth contents once in a while if needed, and a sturdy cooking spider (this 6″ diameter baby works great for my purposes). Our old pasta strainer cook pot, lined with a flour sack dish towel, is the perfect way to finish the broth straining once the cookery is done.
The ingredients of my broth parties are variable. A basic vegetable broth from my kitchen is likely to be nothing more complex than the classic aromatic combination of carrots, celery and onion, with seasonings dictated by my mood and the intended uses of the broth (mmmm, shall I go southeast Asian this time? Head for something more Spanish and gently tuck in some saffron at the end? Throw in some fruit?).
Seafood broth starts with the same aromatics and gets whatever shellfish parts–yay, I get to say exoskeletons, because it’s correct and such a cool word!–I can get my paws on thrown in along with the available vegetal treats. I’m not entirely open-minded when it comes to the veg that gets added to broth blends, because there are some (cruciferous culprits, I’m looking at YOU, for example) that will take over the pot the minute they get a chance and you won’t taste anything else. No matter how much I like broccoli, I’m saving it for Cream of Broccoli soup where it can show off all it wants without being a pest, but otherwise I’m a segregationist lest there be a liquid coup d’état.
Roasting almost anything before simmering it in liquids, thanks to the ethereal effects of caramelization or Maillard reaction, is a great way to enrich and intensify the flavors of the brew, so if there’s time to do a medium-heat roast beforehand, it’s always a dandy addition. And since that process is so ridiculously simple, it’s one there’s no reason to avoid.
How I roast this stuff: scatter coarse chunks of tasty ingredients in a big flat pan (the aforementioned Pyrex, in my house), season them with a light sprinkling of good salt and black pepper and a spritz of some delicious fat (coconut oil, olive oil, butter, lard, bacon drippings–whatever the mood requires that happens to be on hand), and stick it all in the oven at around 350 degrees Fahrenheit until it smells irresistible and looks as pretty as a roasted-goodies picture should look. What to roast: aromatic vegetables, root vegetables, sturdy mushrooms, and/or any protein supplements headed for the pot. That shellfish armor, some hunks of not-very-tender meat or just bones from the same birds or beasts that are destined to be the centerpiece–they can all benefit from a bout in the tanning bed. If some of it browns nicely before the rest, pull it out earlier and throw into the cauldron to get a head start simmering.
So. Pre-roast whatever you want browned. Then you load up the slow cooker with the browned goods, vegetal parts, and seasonings, cover it all with water and/or white wine (red almost always overpowers the flavor too much for mere broth), throw in another knob of butter or other fat if so moved. Me, I’m almost always moved to add fats, okay? Then Let. It. Cook. No need to fiddle with it again for a very long time. I usually let my broth simmer for a whole twenty-four hours and get all of the flavor and life I can out of the meat, bones, vegetables and seasonings I’ve corralled in my concoction.
Dedicated vegetarians, I accept your choice, but please allow me to differ; while I relish good vegetarian dishes any time, I also respect and admire quality seafood, poultry and meats that are simmered down to their essences in broth. I cook mine so intently–but not, I insist, intensely, as that would kill their flavor and defeat the purpose of this slow ritual–that often the heaviest beef bone in the pot will break into several pieces when I begin the straining process by shoveling out the solids with my spider. Waste not; taste’s in the pot.
I cannot emphasize enough how little it matters to me to do the constant-skimming, water-changing, pot-cosseting stuff that I’m sure has perfectly meaningful and scientific reasons for being done by so many expert chefs. I can’t be bothered, because when I finally do strain out my broth and let it cool and chill it overnight and pull off the fat cap, I haven’t got any leftover grunge I won’t happily glug down plain or in a recipe. I have clear, rich, smiling, shimmering soup stuff that straight out of the fridge wiggles like a happy dashboard hula doll from all of the natural gelatin in it, soup that has rich, deep flavor from the roasting and the combination of delectable ingredients, and especially from the long sensual spa treatment melding it all together, and that I personally think has benefited greatly from not being pestered or treated with distrust. I’m not above poking the spoon in about once every two hours during daylight to slightly rearrange the parts and just make sure everyone gets an equal soak, not to mention to let a little of that intoxicating steam float around the house, but otherwise I’m all about letting the low heat and long time do their thing without interference from moi.
My general favorite broth combination these days is as follows:
Yellow onion, skin and all. Sweet onions are too soulless for soup. Sorry, sweet onions!
Carrots and celery, washed but not peeled or trimmed.
Beef: shanks, oxtail, short ribs, marrow bones, and all of the trimmings from steak dinners that got set aside in the freezer for Broth Day. Chicken: the picked carcass of last week’s roast chicken, plus a piece of fried chicken that didn’t get et at the picnic on Saturday, also all rescued from freezer purgatory. Beef and poultry are great as soloists, but together they rock the house. Just sayin’.
A small palm-full of black peppercorns, several good bay leaves, a big sprig of thyme, about a half-dozen whole cloves and a half-teaspoon or so of whole allspice. Sometimes a stick of whole cinnamon. I never add salt at this phase, since the roasted stuff was lightly salted, the meats were seasoned for their previous meals, I don’t (yes, I confess it right here in front of God and everybody) bother to use unsalted butter, and I concentrate this brew all too well to get anything but seawater if I’m adding further salt incautiously.
[Sometimes I add a knob of grassy pastured butter at this point. Because it’s insanely delicious. If I don’t put it in the pot I’m tempted to just eat it anyway, so better in the broth than in me. Maybe.]
Lop everything into approximately 2″ rough hunks. Neatness doesn’t count. Fill the cooker loosely up to the max-fill mark and then fill in the nooks and crannies with liquid. Set it a-simmer and wait for the angels to come and alight on the kitchen counter in anticipation of the unveiling lo these many hours later.