Foodie Tuesday: Zombies, & an Old Lady with Good Bones

Zombies are still surprisingly popular these days, considering their poor (or, at best, wildly over-eager) social skills. The current crop of them was, impressively, a resurrection of many previous generations’ versions of the species, which means that they are not just returned from the dead, but returned from being returned from being dead. Or something like that.

In my kitchen, I am mostly nicer than a zombie-master, intending only good things to happen via my culinary experiments. But no matter how kindly my purposes, sometimes I am an unintentional bringer-of-doom. Many are my fellows, I’m sure, but perhaps fewer are those who will admit to stumbling around the cooktop in their experimental work, lest they be accused of attempted poisoning or any such mean-spirited rubbish. Sometimes I’m even dumb enough to try to revive the dish that had already failed, which I suppose makes me guilty of the same sort of resurrectionist hubris that has brought about many a modern-day pop-cultural scene of zombie-apocalyptic grocery shopping. At least I don’t attempt to feed the second variation of my experiments to anybody else before carefully being my own lab volunteer. But I hate to be wasteful.

Photo: Who's been Messing with My Cooktop?!

*”WHO’S BEEN MESSING WITH MY COOKTOP?!” roared the Giant. There was silence in the wreckage, for the Zombies had eaten the Cook—along with her only semi-successful Spätzle as a side dish, because her tiny brains alone were clearly not filling enough to assuage their ravenous collective hunger.

So when I made that recent jiaozi whose dumpling dough was less than perfect, I couldn’t resist trying to rescue the remaining dough. It was, honestly, closely based on other cooks’ supposedly successful versions of gluten-free pasta doughs, so I figured my inability to achieve a particularly shining success with the same wrapper recipe was more a matter of practice or tiny ingredient tweaks than anything more serious, and sought to revise the dough just enough to make it noodle-worthy. An added egg did, in fact, help it to have much more of the texture and malleability that I’d want in a pasta dough, although it was still just loose enough that unless I added further flour I couldn’t hope to roll it out in thin sheets. So I thought about thicker noodle variants and opted to give this dough a try as Spätzle, since those tiny schwäbische Schätze (southern German gems) aren’t rolled out before cooking. Indeed, the dough went through my grater rather handily (if extremely messily*), cooked at a good speed in my boiling broth, and floated up as light, petite, pale golden dumplings, just as I’d hoped.

They even tasted quite lovely, straight out of the steaming pot and doused liberally with browned butter and a sprinkling of grated cheese (I used Parmigiano-Reggiano for its added nuttiness). But tasting them ahead of time like this, as well-meant a prophylactic measure as it was, did mean that I would have to reheat the mess yet once more, and alas, even the most gently handled of pastas simply couldn’t survive another round of stasis-and-revivification. Sometimes the dead remain dead. The last reheating left me with buttered paste rather than pasta, and the only effect of adding the egg to the dough was, ultimately, to leave me with egg on my face. Ah, well. Of such mini-disasters are legends, or at least jokes, made. The joke’s on me.

Photo: Tasted Okay at First

Thankfully, the Cook had inadvertently saved the world by cooking dumplings that tasted okay at first but quickly became unpleasantly cement-like in the Zombies’ remaining innards and turned them all into stony statues of their *former* Former Selves. And so the Apocalypse was averted, and simultaneously, a glorious, artful monument in statuary made to commemorate the moment of this, the world’s rescue. You’re welcome.

Don’t get me wrong: being an old enough geezer (“lady” might be a stretch) to want to get the most out of my grocery money and cooking efforts isn’t always a bad thing. I’m ancient and experienced enough, in fact, to know that I should occasionally admit defeat and throw out the last of that failed dough. Chalk it up to been there, tried that wisdom.

Other forms of wisdom are well worth the earning in the kitchen, too. Like, when there’s a fresh batch of bone broth cooking, a really, really fabulous batch made with my usual ingredients plus both chicken feet and beef feet that did indeed come out of the slow cooker as rich, glossy, and jellied as the most beautiful classic aspic of my dreams—but there’s still a pint of the last batch in the fridge, rather than bolt or toss the latter, I simmer it down and get an equally gorgeous reduction for sauce base and soup enhancement. I added some dry sherry before cooking it down. Just for fun. Oh, and a little sweetness. This little tub of wondrous demi-glace is good enough to melt for a beautiful finishing sauce for anything savory that isn’t vegetarian, just as it is.

Photo montage: The Broth Brothers

But another old-lady bit of kitchen witchery that more people should know and respect nowadays is that, while minimal cooking of vegetables can preserve more of their original nutrients, not to mention textures and colors, than boiling them to mush in the fashion of days long past—or as though they’d started cooking back then—softer veg is not nasty. Gentle handling is the difference. Some good Southern cooks in the US have not entirely forgotten and forsworn the low-and-slow glories of vegetables simmered for ages in bacon grease or butter, and any culture that values its stews, dutch-oven artistry, and slow cooker magic, for example, retains something of this truth.Photo: The Softer Side of Vegetables

So for a recent lunch with a couple of friends, I opted to carry on these traditions at both levels, piling up a batch of bite-sized cauliflower, carrots, and celery in my trusty small Pyrex covered dish, put a knob of browned butter and a quarter-cup of said demi-glace, still jellied, on top, and steamed the lot gradually in the microwave into lightly softened submission. For the finish, I stirred the vegetables, topped them with a piquant garnish “salad” I’d made earlier and refrigerated, a mix of preserved and chopped green olives, pimientos, black olives, and mushrooms. I added a generous sprinkle of Parmesan shreds, and let the dish heat one last bit before serving. Old-fashioned vegetable happiness. With a deep undercurrent of old-fashioned cooking from a rather old-fashioned person.Photo: Old Fashioned Covered Dish

Foodie Tuesday: Chili with a Chance of Quesadillas

Photo: Slowpoke ChiliIn the cooler parts of the year, my fancy often turns to chili. It’s hot and hearty, filling and lightly (my versions) spicy, and it can be made in big batches and frozen in smaller ones for later ease of meal preparation. And I am quite open-minded when it comes to chili. I say this with full knowledge that as a Texas immigrant I risk censure, if not being thrown bodily into someone’s smoker. But of course, one has only to do a quick online search for Texas Chili to discover that while there are certain characteristics generally accepted as required for any chili to qualify for the Texas stamp of approval, the variety of actual recipes is just as broad and full of little surprises as the flat and arid plains of West Texas. And trust me, that’s going some.

The central tenet of Texan chili religion, as far as I can tell, is that it is meat-centric and it contains no beans. Northerners and other heathens are quite accustomed to thinking of meat as just another potentially wonderful addendum to a stew-like, tomato-y dish characterized by its spices rather than its more concrete contents, and I confess that I find it a little surprising and somewhat confusing to see “chili con carne” listed on a Texan menu, under the circumstances, but meat does seem to be the universally assumed Truth about good Texas chili. I am happy to make or eat all-meat chili, but I’ve nothing against chili with beans, with or without meat, or even a lot of other sorts of chile spiced vegetarian dishes. The latter are rarely what I would consider chili, myself, but if the texture and flavor profile of the concoction suggests that identity, I’m not going to waste valuable eating time on arguing the point.

You notice that I do differentiate between chili and chile, but that’s a simple linguistic issue in which the tongue plays only a minor role, not the happier and more significant one of tasting: chili is the dish seasoned with chiles, the spicy peppers or capsicums. Many use the spellings interchangeably, and there is no problem with that in my mind, either; I am always more interested in how these things play out on my palate than on my linguistic palette. In any case, it is the flavor of these deviously delicious capsicums, combined with a few other characteristic tastes, that most readily identifies a dish as chili to me.

I have nothing against making what I call ‘instant chili’* when time is short and the appetite yearns for that warming food. Since it’s the spice blend that carries the main weight of the dish’s identity, as long as I have that handy I can make what I think is a pretty fine facsimile of the long-cooked treat. So what are the flavors that I most want my chili to have?

Chiles. My favorite ways to introduce them to my cooking include, at various times, a number of possible dried, crushed, and/or powdered versions of capsicums, sold by spice companies as Chili Powder or Red Pepper Flakes or, simply, as individually named ground peppers or whole dried pods. While the pods of dried capsicums can certainly be made into a nice dusty powder in a good mortar, or can be rehydrated and pulverized to a paste (with a stick blender or food processor is most efficient), they are easier to keep whole and ground to powder in a dedicated spice grinder, like my tiny and cheap old electric coffee grinder that has never even met a coffee bean. I always have my go-to chipotle-spiked salsa in the kitchen, and that’s an easy ingredient to use as well. My favorite, though, is to mash or blend chipotles canned en adobo. I find San Marcos brand delicious even though they have never deemed it worthwhile to change their misspelled label. See? I’m not that picky about linguistics.

The other spices and flavors that I most care about putting in my chili are cumin, smoked paprika, a bit of black pepper, garlic powder, freeze-dried minced shallots, and usually a bit of oregano (Mexican oregano, if I have it). Cumin is the second-most characteristic spice flavor in this and many other Tex-Mex or Mexican foods, and having a kitchen bereft of that spice would leave me feeling like half a person. So make sure there’s plenty of warming, soul feeding, earthy cumin in my chili. And salt! But I don’t add much of that during the process, because of course one of the other secrets to chili is its long, slow melding of flavors, and if I’m making ‘instant chili’ it’s going straight to the bowls of individuals who will choose how salty they like it.

What is this ‘instant’ chili*, you ask? Just a quick fry-up of ground meat (usually beef, but whatever minced meat I have on hand, mixed or singly) with the aforementioned spices, dosed with enough tomato sauces (salsa, tinned tomato sauce/puree/pieces/paste) to make a nice thick stew, and if I want them, tinned beans—black beans, kidney beans, pintos or black-eyed peas or (a little White Trash favorite of mine) field peas, whatever shelled, cooked beans I’ve got on hand. When one is hankering, one makes do.Photo: Slowpoke Chili

When one has oodles of time, one makes the real, slow-cooked stuff in quantity. You could call it a name I think appropriate enough:

Slowpoke Chili

I start mine with a batch of homemade bone broth. Then, after preparing dried beans (I like to mix black beans, pintos, and small kidney beans for a fun range of colors and textures), I cook them in some of that good broth. Meanwhile, the meat chili is essentially a separate preparation: I like to put a batch of beef in my slow cooker, well covered in more of the same broth and seasoned with the spices and peppers I choose for the occasion. I use a mixture of coarsely ground beef and cubes (about 2 cm or 1 inch) of stew beef, and the amount of fat in even high-percentage ground meat is generally balanced out by the lean toughness of stew cuts, so I don’t need to skim the cooked meat-broth combination at all. If I’m putting any vegetables into my chili, those will almost always be mirepoix and sometimes, sweet capsicums. I’m less of a fan of green capsicums (bell peppers) than of the milder, less burp-inducing red, orange and yellow ones, but if bodily noises were really a serious issue, I’d hardly be making chili at all, would I. Wink-wink. Preparing the beans properly, if they’re included in the mix, does make a difference in that regard, anyway.

When I have vegetables to add to my chili, I pre-cook them with a slow sauté in butter, both enjoying the bit of caramelization and the butter itself as added flavor elements, and then they can jump in the pool with the meat. Whether with vegetables or without, the meat is likely to cook at a very low heat for at least 24 hours, if not more. I enjoy the freedom to potter around and do other household tasks while sniffing that great perfume for a long time, as it builds the appetite while infusing the flavor. Somewhere in that day or three, the meat (and veg) will have absorbed most of the broth, and I’ll add my tomato elements. While the spice blend is perhaps the identifying signature of chili, it’s no chili to me without good tomato flavor, so again, I add about enough to make a fairly soupy spaghetti sauce consistency, knowing that eventually the cooked beans will be added, or in the absence of beans, the meat and veg will soak up yet more of that tomato goodness.

This is less of a recipe, as you know is pretty typical of my approach in the kitchen, than a guide to possible combinations that will please me. The proportions are different every time, and whether I add beans, or even vegetables, is a matter of mood and company more than a matter of Texan patriotism; I am, after all, a Northern invader. But I can tell you, it’s generally pretty darn good stuff. Add a few tender corn tortillas that have been layered with salsa or tinned enchilada sauce, plus cheese: cheddar, Monterey Jack, Cotija, Queso Blanco, or any such blend or substitution of similar types of mild and sharp, melting and melt-resistant chewy cheeses that suit your fancy and then heated through. If that meal doesn’t fulfill your chili dreams, there are always a multitude of cooks around here who have what they will assure you is the one, true, Texan article.Photo: Quesadilla or Enchilada?

Foodie Tuesday: Clean Hands and a Cooked Chicken

 

photoNo fingers must be licked for chicken to be considered notably delectable. Still, being no stickler for any particular sort of manners, I am not averse to slurping at any remnants of good food stuck to my fingers no matter what they are or, possibly, where I am. And I find that some of the appeal of eating chicken is that it lends itself to an enormous range of edible iterations that are a pleasure in the making, in the dining, and in the finger-licking aftermath of it all. Chicken plays such a lovely supporting role to any number of costars among the pantheon of possible flavorings and ingredients that it’s never difficult to imagine yet another wondrous way to enjoy a chicken dish. Add to that the potential for re-imagining the chicken in numerous follow-up dishes if there should happen to be any left over from dinner, and you’ve got one fine, fine companion in the kitchen.photoOur friendly chicken on this occasion, a handsomely fat-breasted creature of purportedly wholly organic origins (and who am I to argue), was gently consigned, in a Dutch oven larded with a generous quantity of sweet pastured butter, and wearing a good dusting of homemade lemon salt and pepper, to lie on a bed of neck and giblets, celery chunks and quartered limes that suspended it above the cupful or so of white wine pooled underneath. The oven, set at about as low a temperature as it could sustain below the mere warming of its interior light could generate, brought the chicken up to moist-cooked interior temperature over a long, slow afternoon before being brought out from under its protective lid for browning under the broiler at the last moment. Not the fast food version of ‘finger-lickin’ good’ but rather a lengthily slow-cooked bit of tenderness that deserves hand-cleaning after the fact all the same.photoThe simple sequel to this supper can come from any number of inspirations. On the latest occasion it was pairing the chicken with some crisp-tender hash browns, along with warming some leftover marinara sauce, butter-cooked mushrooms and herbs together to create a facsimile of Chicken Parmigiana. Rather than create the breaded cutlets in the traditional style, I simply layered the slices of moist chicken next to the potatoes, spooned on some mushroom marinara, sprinkled on some shredded Parmigiano, and melted the cheese just a little to round out its flavor. Far from the heights of authentic Italian culinary art, but let me tell you, it wasn’t hard to eat all the same. Might be having some again soon, since there’s still more of that nice chicken that I cut up and popped in the freezer after roasting it the other day. Of course, I could veer off toward some Tikka Masala . . . or chicken noodle soup . . . or quesadillas con pollo. photo