Foodie Tuesday: A Frosty Reception can Warm the Heart

Hot weather makes us crave chilled drinks. We need to re-hydrate, but biological science says that hot drinks are the sensible approach, inviting the body to cool down in compensation for the introduction of additional heat. But that’s not nearly as satisfying, in reality. So we look for our respite in iced drinks.Photo: Mr. Frosty's Root Beer

I’m pretty much an All-American girl when it comes to my tastes in that regard: briskly icy soft drinks in a frosty mug are particularly welcome. I grew up with the benison of special-occasion A&W root beer in said frosty mug, and I’ve never outgrown that treat. Coming to north Texas, I was happy to find a comparable comfort waiting for me when the ugly reality of Texas summer heat became just a little too much for my tender Northerner sensibilities: the vintage joint Mr. Frosty.

Their in-house root beer is sweet and vanilla-kissed like the aforementioned A&W’s, and is served in freezer-chilled mugs. That it happens in a place that hasn’t changed substantially  in its long life and offers a swell menu of classic diner foods with the appropriate tinge of Texan and southern character is, well, icing on that icy deliciousness. So the frosty mugful of root beer can be accompanied by a burger or hotdog and fries, or that fine and mythic dish, Frito Pie. Chili served over corn chips of the named variety, and occasionally, topped with the usual chili toppings of onions, shredded cheese, and/or sour cream.Photo: Mr. Frosty's Frito Pie

The beauty of this combination is that the temperature and spice of the chili (preferably, without beans, if you’re a traditionalist in Texas) can perform the body-signaling duty of changing one’s internal temperature a little to better suit the weather around it, and the root beer can do its part by providing the psychological cooling that brings it all home. Meanwhile, there’s the pleasure of people-watching, seeing the widely varied crowd that can be pleased by a visit to this kind of old-school eatery. And, like some of the place’s vintage fellows, this diner is host to regular gatherings of vintage-car enthusiasts as well, so whether it’s one of those times or simply a hot afternoon when the need for an icy root beer is high, there can often be a sighting of a classic car or truck to enhance the entertainment. It all goes down so well with an order of Frito Pie and root beer, as any experienced soul can tell you.

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!

Foodie Tuesday: Even a Classic can Take Plenty of Twists and Turns

Being a fairly dedicated eater and happy to grab my utensils in the blink of an eye almost without regard to what’s on offer, I still do enjoy the familiar and comfortable on my menu too. There are occasions when I just plain crave the known and cozy to fill my plate and my empty stomach. Sometimes nothing will do but the good old-fashioned classic.photoSo when I’ve made a batch of roasted vegetables that I can pop onto the platter at a number of meals in the next few days, it can be nice to tuck it alongside a variety of things while it lasts, just to keep things interesting. However, having some of those many different entrees be lovely old-school stuff doesn’t in any way diminish the range and color of what I’m going to eat. That just makes it doubly fun to puzzle together the menus that, despite a repeating item and a well-known dish, still easily keep their sense of invention and surprise enough to brighten up both the day and the meal.

One obvious way to accomplish that is to introduce minor tweaks: ingredient combination, presentation, and so forth. The simple roast beef from last week gets thoroughly sliced and diced and then piled into buttery grilled french rolls, and finally, dipped in a dense jus reduction of roast drippings, butter and a big slosh of red wine, and served with a touch of horseradish cream (softened with sour cream) alongside side for enhancing either the beef dip sandwich or the roasted vegetables on the way down the hatch.photoA different day, a different tweaked standard: macaroni salad with bacon and eggs. Not sure I’d recommend one of this latest round of tweaks–I tried it with rice pasta (the gluten-free twist on the occasion), which was just dandy when the salad was first made, but in the refrigerated leftover salad soaked up the dressing so thoroughly that the pasta tasted pretty much just like cold rice later. It wasn’t hopeless: I added more dressing each time I went back to it, and I found that it rehydrated decently. But it wasn’t as stable in that aspect as traditional pasta, which I think I’ll still prefer in the long term. The other slight variations, however, I enjoyed very much, and by the way, so did all the others at dinner.photoMacaroni Salad with Bacon and Eggs

Cooked [elbow macaroni–still my favorite for macaroni salad] pasta gets dressed simply with mayonnaise, a good squirt of cartoon-yellow mustard, and cream. A sturdy grind of black pepper gives it a hint of depth, though it’d be great with a splash of hot sauce or a sprinkling of cayenne as well. A big handful of diced pickles playfully zings things up a little; I used half dill pickles and half sweet gherkins. You know me and my sweet-plus-salty fetish. Traditionalists would of course hard boil egg and mince or sieve it before adding it to a picnic salad. Me, I just semi-scrambled the egg until it was just fully set and minced it up. Pretty much the same result, with less time and effort. Lastly, fried up a whole lot of bacon into crispy, smoky pieces.

The end product? About like what you’d expect if waiters carrying platters of the familiar summer macaroni salad and of pasta Carbonara crashed into each other and fell into a breakfast buffet table. But involving a lot less flying cutlery and cussing. Unless you count people diving after the salad avidly waving their forks and yelling, Damn, that’s good! Not that anyone at my table would ever behave in such a reckless and uncouth manner. Well, me, maybe.