Monday, October 29, 2012

a tough old bird

tomatillo husks make lovely flowers, if you have both time and tomatillos on your hands

A while ago our pal Tommy brought us some frozen chickens.  He raises chickens like we do, in the sense that we both have chickens.  We differ in scale (by a couple of powers of ten) and in that his birds retire to the freezer when their egg-laying days are concluded, rather than reclining on a bed of free room and board like ours do.  His is the practical approach.  Ours is the ridiculous approach.  There's no vegetarian moral high ground for us to speak from; we eat chicken, just not our own.

“These are stew birds,” he told me, and I thanked him profusely and stowed them in the freezer and promptly forgot that little tidbit of information.  So the first one that I cooked I roasted, producing something with a texture that pretty well approximated a hot sneaker, or so I imagine.  I have never actually chewed on a sneaker.  But now I have come as close as I need to get to that experience.

Chicken Two was oven-braised, and that was absolutely the correct course of action to take.  I am not congratulating myself for thinking of it, because it happened pretty accidentally as I was whirling around trying to get my house in order for a week away.

Being far away from my family for an entire week is what you might call pretty unusual for me, if 'pretty unusual' is how you might describe a flying octopus.  My family is a stalwart bunch and will be fine while I am away—fine, you hear me, fine.  On a last-minute grocery run before I left, my younger daughter rattled off a number of very practical items she might desire for the making of her lunch while I am not on deck to do the usual nineteen runs to the store that normally occur during the week due to the fact that I shop like a dimwit and always forget something (usually it is my list) so I am perpetually circling back. Then she plunked, with a degree of defiant sass, a large package of mint Newman-O’s into the cart.  Have a nice time away, Cat, said the Mousie. 

Even with a large package of cookies to eat for breakfast or whenever else the mood strikes, any lingering anxiety my kiddos might feel around any departure of mine is generally held in the stomach region.  So I tried to bung a good selection of dinners in the freezer.  They may not eat them, but they were more content to see me go knowing they had something in the bank.  Or maybe that was me. Anyway, the oven-braised chicken thoughtfully supplied four meals—two while I was home, and a matching set that I tucked away.

I can’t show you a picture of any of these things, because the pictures that I may or may not have taken are (or aren’t) an ocean away from me.  Maybe I can rectify that later.  In the meantime, while I watch someone sleep, I will just talk to you about chicken.

You don't have to start with a retired egg-laying chicken, or even a whole chicken.  Parts would work, too.  

salsa in smaller quantities makes less of a mess, don't worry

You can make some green salsa (I did, with my canning pals, and it is heaven to eat and simple to make), or you can buy a jar of salsa and treat this like housewife food.  

It's all sounding kind of vague, I realize.  In recipe terms, I am not sure how useful this will be to you.  But writing it out sure is useful to me at the moment.

I set out to make chicken stew, the kind with chunks of chicken and potatoes and maybe a carrot or a dumpling.  Something Almanzo might have eaten in Farmer Boy.  I took my vintage bird, put a whole, peeled onion and several garlic cloves and a bay leaf in its cavity and set it into my big dutch oven.  I added water to about halfway up the bird, and I rubbed a little olive oil, paprika, salt and ground cumin on the exposed parts.  I brought it all to a low boil on the stovetop, then covered the pot and stuffed it into a heated 350 degree oven, which I promptly turned down to 275.

I went on about my day, which was a full one.  About three hours later, I recalled the chicken.

It resembled a roasted chicken when I looked at it, but a single poke revealed that I had pulled chicken on the menu instead of stew. The moisture in the covered pot had softened it to shreds, but the exposed part had browned and gave the whole pot a nice roasty aroma.  In a matter of minutes, using what my son used to call the "cooking tweezers" (these are tongs, to the rest of you), the bones and gridgy bits were separated from the meat.  The broth was pretty liquid, so when I threw the tidied-up meat back into it, I added the potatoes, since I had cut them up already, and I baked it some more, until the potatoes were done.  It was dinner time by then, so we ate some of it just like that, bland as it was, and were happy enough.

The more memorable thing happened with the second half: a green chile enchilada that was devoured as by a pack of wolverines (notoriously fond of enchiladas).

I think this is how I did that:

12 corn tortillas
3T oil
16 oz tomatillo salsa
1/2 cup chopped roasted green chiles (roast some poblanos if you feel jiggy; buy a can if you do not)
2 to 3c of coarsely shredded jack or cheddar, divided (half to 3/4 #, depending on your fondness for cheese; the cheesy bits are the most sought-after bits in our house)
about half a roasted, shredded or pulled chicken
optionally, 3 or four boiled, steamed or roasted potatoes, cubed

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a small, heavy skillet until it ripples. Using the cooking tweezers, lay a tortilla flat in the oil, count to four, flip it and repeat.  Raise it up to let the excess oil drip off, and fling it on a plate.  Repeat with the remaining tortillas, adding a little more oil as needed. Do not let them crisp, just seal them in the hot oil.

Spread about half a cup of salsa on the bottom of a 13 x 9 (or thereabouts) baking dish.  Lay one tortilla down, put a glop of chicken, a few bits of green chile, a small bit of cheese and a teaspoon or so of salsa inside.  Fold it in half loosely, informally and with a devil-may-care attitude, and shove it to one end of the dish.  Repeat this process until all the tortillas are filled and lined up more or less in two rows in the dish.  Pour half the remaining salsa down the center of one line of tortillas, sprinkle half the remaining cheese on top of that, and repeat for the other conga line.  This is where a picture sure would be worth several hundred words.  The idea is that the edges of the tortillas remain exposed to crisp a little in the oven; the salsa is a wide stripe in the middle, and the cheese goes on top of that to melt and be sought after.

Wrap it and freeze it and leave the house in peace; alternatively, bake in a hot oven, 350 to 375, for about 25 minutes, until hot and bubbly and the cheese is nicely browned.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

what you can rely on

[A quick aside: comment-making on this site, which may have been tricky for some of you before, has just had a makeover, so please give it a try and let's see if it works now.]

Certain things in life can be counted on.  For example, if you forget your umbrella, it will rain very hard.  If you are running late, there will be traffic.  If you are early to meet someone, they will be late, and vice versa.

This is known as Murphy's Law.  Murphy was a real guy, it turns out, and pretty cranky about the "commonplace" interpretation of what he set out to posit as a serious principle of defensive design.  We regular old nimrods who do our thinking outside the field of aeronautics take his law to mean, simply, than anything that can go wrong, will.  Apparently there was some more nuance to it.  Nimrod, you may as well know, was also a real guy (the great-grandson of Noah), and he did not live long enough to see our feeble-minded culture sully his good name with insulting associations, perishing as he did long before Elmer Fudd came along, and so probably he was not cranky.

If you would like to read an excellent piece of writing decrying the low-down, dirty practice of name-calling, look no further than here.  Take that, snarky Ann Coulter.  Take it and get back on your broom.

If you would like to know why I am prattling on about Murphy's Law and restored faith in humanity when I meant to be talking about lentils, all I can tell you is that it traces to my having attended the Parent Education Night event that was the concluding element of the driver's ed process for my oldest daughter.  Commonplace interpretations of the Murphy legislation were all over the place.  If you are tired, and slightly freaked out by life's recent twists and turns, and are among the few who are more or less on time to class, it will follow that several people will prance in up to half an hour late and suffer not even the slightest reprimand, and that the instructor will have--through no fault of his own--both a tendency to trip over the same spot on the carpet every time he paces across it (which is often, as he favors a mobile and frisky lecturing technique) and a set of odd habits (weird coughing!  repetitive phrasing!) that once you notice them, make it impossible for you to form a coherent thought about anything but this.  It will follow that you will run out of yarn on the project you brought along about 45 minutes into the 2 hour class, and that after he shows you the petrifying video about the bereaved parents of honor students who brought a smile to the face of everyone they met before their untimely and preventable, grisly ends, the instructor will say not once, not twice, but seven times, "imagine you are one of those parents!"

And there is nothing for it but lentil soup.  Lentil soup sends you off into this dark night fortified, it waits patiently at home for the staggered and staggering arrivals of the rest of your family, and its tiny leftover amounts morph magically the next day into lunch for three. 

Once cold weather sets in, we eat some permutation of lentil soup, cheese, bread and roasted squash at least once a week.  I develop passionate relationships with lentil soups of various types.  I love one with fancy little green French lentils and olives and greens.  I love one with red lentils and lemon and carrots, one made with whey, and a spicy coconut one.

Presently I love this vaguely Indian one, and if precedent is anything to go by, I'll make it until everyone begins to groan and it is time to branch out again.  The slightly exotic lentils in play here (urad dal and moong dal) require soaking, which is unusual for a lentil.  But I do not grudge them the little bit of fuss that they demand, because their texture is so delightful.  Really any old lentil will do.  Stir some slivered greens into this soup, or don't.  Load it up with grated cheese on top, or don't.  Consider taking some plain yogurt and mixing in a little garlic, smoky paprika and lemon zest to dollop on top.  Call it dal, and serve it over rice, with pappadums to dip into it and a little cilantro on top. Or don't.  It will bear up, and bear you up, regardless.

lentil soup

3/4 c whole urad dal
3/4 c split green moong dal

1/4 c coconut oil, ghee, or olive oil
1/4 c minced garlic
1 T ground cumin
2 t ground coriander
1/4 t ground fenugreek (not essential, but very tasty)
pinch of ground cayenne
1/3 c tomato paste

salt to taste

Soak the lentils in water to cover overnight, and drain.

Heat the oven to 250 degrees.

Heat the oil in a heavy, lidded dutch oven, and sauté the garlic for a few minutes, until fragrant.  Watch carefully, stir constantly and keep the heat low, to prevent browning.  When the garlic is softened and nicely aromatic, stir in the spices.  Now add the tomato paste, letting it mingle and sweeten a moment as you stir.  Dump in the lentils, along with 7 cups of water.  Bring it to a low boil, turn off the heat, and cover the pot.  Slide the covered pot into the oven, and leave it there for a good long while.  About two hours ought to do it, depending on how old your lentils are, but longer will not harm it.  Stir it and test for doneness and salt to taste.  Like all lentil soups, it will improve if it cools and then you reheat it, at which time it may require thinning with a little water.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

my roving eye

We didn't go hungry here, last week.  But nor did we eat a lot of thoughtfully prepared, photogenic food while there was light enough to take its picture.  Well, it was thoughtfully prepared--in advance of a trip I did not end up taking.  Postponed at the last minute, after a whirlwind cookscapade.  Which of the five dinners I made would you like tonight, I asked my kiddos yesterday after school, and as a result my son asked tentatively, at dinnertime, "is this for tonight?" as he eyed the green salad in front of him.

Speaking of food ideas banked against future needs, here are a few morsels I am tempted to try, when the dust settles.

First off, the smashed potato, which in fact we did try, and it was delicious.  I boiled some not-very-large taters in salted water with a garlic clove until they were tender, cooled them down and flattened them between two cutting boards (quite satisfying).  I had just roasted some cauliflower so I had a nice oily, parchment lined baking sheet handy, and I plopped them on there, drizzed more oil over top of them, sprinkled on a little cumin and paprika and sea salt, and baked them at about 400 until they were golden.  Flipping was a fail for me, but you could try it if you feel brave and you have not, in your zeal, over-flattened (which makes them fragile--trust me).

I'd like to make this dukkah, though with almonds, because sadly I can't eat hazelnuts.  I think you couldn't go too far wrong putting it on the potatoes.

These grape tarts, with their custard and thyme, make me drool, and I'm fiddling with a gluten-free pastry crust that will behave enough to adapt to it.

I don't mind the look of these pumpkin doughnuts one bit, especially since they are already gluten free.

I'd like to eat this bibimbap, possibly more than I'd like to make it myself, but enough that I am willing to try.  Some day.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

quince essential

Are you a quince resister?  We shall overcome.  

Here are a few points in their favor:

1. One of the greatest poems ever written, "The Owl & The Pussycat," by Edward Lear, features a quince:

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
    Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
  And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
    They danced by the light of the moon,
      The moon,
      The moon,
  They danced by the light of the moon.

Need more? Really? I thought the poem would do it.  Okay:

According to Plutarch, who ought to know, ancient Greek brides would sweeten their breath by nibbling on quinces before entering the bridal chamber, "in order that the first greeting may not be disagreeable nor unpleasant." Plutarch may have overlooked some of the contributing factors to disagreeable encounters, but he was right on the money about the quince. Awesome dental refresher. 

How about its other ancient pedigrees?  The legendary golden apple of Hesperides that Paris gave to Aphrodite (remember that one?) was really a quince. You know the apples in the Song of Solomon (best bible section EVER--come on!  totally!  "Strengthen me with raisins"!)?  Well, you guessed it. They were probably quinces.  Quinces were originally cultivated in Persia, and if there is a more poetic and enchanting ancient culture to think about (and connect your meal to) than that one, I am all ears to hear about it.

A quick trot through historical quince lore also turns up the belief that pregnant women who eat generous quantities of quinces will give birth to industrious and highly intelligent children. Probably not much of a stretch to extrapolate that eating quinces will make anyone brighter and more capable. Worth a try, anyway.  Painless, to be sure.

If lack of historical grounding was not what was holding you back, but instead you have resisted eating them because you had a bad quince-chopping experience, or because you can't think of a single thing you'd like to do with them, I am about to put all your cares and woes behind you with a little nose-to-tail quince primer.

First and foremost, never approach a raw quince with chopping in mind.  Before you and your knife get involved with the blessed items, roast them.  The benefits are unlimited.  Not only do you get a compliant fruit to attack with your knife, you also get (a) a house perfumed like ancient Persia, and (b) roasted quinces, which are my son's hands-down favorite thing to find in his lunch box.

Second, make this chutney.  Make it in place of cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.  Make it and put it on some meat or vegetable that you have grilled or roasted.  Make it and use it for chutney's highest and best use: the cheese and chutney sandwich.  

Actually, in the case of this chutney, I think the highest and best use may be eating it out of the jar with a spoon, but a piece of toasted whole grain bread, some sharp cheddar and a glob of it on top will do you no harm. 

Third, with the trimmings and tailings of the quinces, make some quince elixir (this sounds complicated and Persian, but really just means: boil stuff and then strain it). Tuck the jar in the back of your fridge.  When the next sore throat comes around, and you know it will, warm this up with a little hot water.  Thanks to all their pectin, quince seeds have a wildly demulcent quality that was used, way back when, to make lotion, and with good reason.  The sore throat you are tending (which may not be your own) will thank you.

My canning coven makes this chutney in giant batches and then we can it, but you can make a small batch and refrigerate it (it's very acidic, so it should last quite a while), or eat it right up. The instructions are long because I am chatty, not because they are complicated.  Chopping and stirring is what we are talking about here. 

quince chutney and all its collateral benefits

about 12 medium quinces
2 cups sugar
juice of 2 lemons

1 cup water or apple cider
1 T minced fresh ginger 

1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2  tsp ground coriander

With a towel, rub the fuzz off of your little yellow pals.  Place them whole in a baking dish and into a 350 oven for 20-30 minutes, or until they are light brown all over and just soft to the touch and your house smells like heaven.  They may require turning halfway through if they are crowded in the pan. You may want to stop here and just eat them all.  I understand.

You can either peel them while they are whole and cut the bulk of the flesh off the core, or quarter them like you would an apple and then peel and core the sections.  Some will be very pithy in the center. Cut them up not very carefully (it's a slippery business, but trust me, way better than trying to deal with them raw) into chunks of 1" or less. Don't fret over stray bits of peel, which will cook away.

Whichever method of butchering you use, save the cores and peels and pithy bits into a separate pot as you go, and when you are done coring and peeling (cut the cores open so the interior, seedy part is exposed, if you have not quartered them as you went), fill the pot with water and set it to boil, then simmer.  Let it simmer a few hours, then strain off the now pink, thick (from the pectin) liquid and sweeten to taste with honey (preferably raw). You can add ginger root to this if you want--and I urge you to want that--just throw a few coin-slices of it in with the peels and cores. Use a very clean (rinse it with boiling water) jar to store this and it ought to last a while in the fridge.  For an epic healing concoction, prepare Alana's magnificent garlic lemonade and mix it with a shot of this elixir.

Meanwhile, throw the quince pieces, the lemon juice and 1.5 cups of the sugar into a heavy pot with the water or cider, and bring to a simmer, stirring.  Watch carefully and stir attentively to prevent scorching the bottom. Add more liquid if you need to, to keep things moving. When the quinces have softened entirely, mash things a bit with a potato masher and continue cooking until you like the consistency (it will thicken considerably as it cools, thanks to the pectin).  Now add the ground spices, stir, and then after a minute or two more of simmering, taste to see how you like it. Add more sugar or spices as you see fit.


Friday, October 5, 2012

de-bunk mates

Has that Stanford study been bothering you?  I mean the one that "established" that organic broccoli was no better for you than a Snickers bar--or so the media seems to have taken it.  If it has been bothering you, filling you with a mute rage or an intense yet unspecific irritation, please read Mark Bittman's excellent article on the subject. 

In it, he quotes a woman named Susan Clark of the Columbia Foundation, who says, “The researchers started with a narrow set of assumptions and arrived at entirely predictable conclusions. Stanford should be ashamed of the lack of expertise about food and farming among the researchers, a low level of academic rigor in the study, its biased conclusions, and lack of transparency about the industry ties of the major researchers on the study.  Normally we busy people would simply ignore another useless academic study, but this study was so aggressively spun by the PR masters that it requires a response.”

Are you not pounding the desk in triumphant agreement?  My poor desk.  I engaged in the same type of aerobic agreement when my daughter, listening to the post-debate analysis this week, said, "it sounds like they are talking about the Olympics--'He kind of turned out on the landing on that one move'--instead of the two potential future presidents of the country."  She was right, of course--what we want to hear is 'HE WAS LYING!  HE WAS LYING!' and instead we get, 'when he was lying about the economy, he really sounded presidential; on his lie about international policy, he could have lied with more vigor so the point goes to the opponent.'

Turning my soapbox lathering back to food, here is another good way to spend five minutes pounding the desk and saying "testify, my brother!": Michael Ruhlman's essay "Is Food Writing Important?"  You might think it would only appeal to someone who is wrestling with self-doubt over this very activity, but in fact he tickles the same nerves that make a person wish to revoke funding for major universities that screw around with fundamental common sense and the people's investment in overturning the corporate stranglehold on our nourishment.

He makes the question anything but narrow: 
"I dream of a day when we no longer need to be obsessed with food, because that would mean that we had figured it out, we had all come to a common understanding of how to grow our food, distribute it, and consume it in ways that don't make us sick and crazy, but rather healthy and happy; that, rather than being guilty, fearful, and intimidated by food, we instead rejoiced in food; that we would cook together, with our families and friends, and then sit down to share this cared-for food and tell each other the stories of our day."

Thanks to the wise words of these two esteemed gentlemen, I have nothing to add but a little simple soup.  You can make it in a snappy snap, and if you do, I hope you eat it with people you like, and you all feel happy together and have a story to tell about it later.

quick fall soup

3T olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small to medium butternut squash, peeled and seeded and chopped
1T curry powder (or you could just use a few teaspoons of cumin)
1 small can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and the liquid reserved, chopped
1 can coconut milk
about a teaspoon of salt

Heat the olive oil and saute the onion until it is nice and soft. Add the curry powder and stir a few times to heat it up.  Add the squash and stir it around for a few minutes, letting it get a little golden on the edges.  Throw in the coconut milk, the liquid from the tomatoes and about a cup of water, along with the salt.  Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat; let it simmer until the squash is totally tender (the smaller you chopped it, the faster it cooks!).  Now hit it with a stick blender (or puree it in batches in a regular blender--just don't burn yourself!), and then add the tomato pieces and taste for salt.

Monday, October 1, 2012

prepared food

There is a voracious, fanged creature that haunts my dreams.  It is insatiable and cannot be delayed or deterred in the relentless pursuit of its hapless victim: me.

Here is a little artist's rendering of the perpetrator:

by Mark. A. Hicks
The lunchbox is particularly fearsome because it does not work alone.  Its cronies include dueling soccer games and violin lessons, meal-time dance classes and after-hours meetings.  Anyone who stares down a week of three meals a day for as many people as live under their roof (let me do a rough calculation: ok, looks like every person lucky enough to have food to eat) faces a few moments in that week when What is Needed is not exactly What's On Hand.

I like to shore up my defenses on Sunday.  I don't always make good on this intention, but when I do, the week seems to unfurl with a little less twitching and gasping at calorie time.

A monstrous pot of beans or black bean soup, a batch of fruit tapioca, custard or chocolate pudding--these are all Sunday money in the midweek bank.  My rushed Wednesday self thanks my pajama & apron-clad Sunday self for stirring something up, and if I can siphon off a little bit of the soup or beans into a freezer container, the future Wednesday self whose Sunday pal decided to take that week off can still save herself a few steps.

I've yabbered before about Alana's car snack, a recipe for a granola bar-like item that she herself asserts is meant to be monkeyed with until it suits your niche of the marketplace.  She has at least four versions of it, each with their passionate fans.  I am not sure which version I started with anymore, but now I have a reliably repeatable rendition of my own that everyone around here seems to like. 

An 9x13 pan of these bad boys forms the backbone of the lunchbox attack plan.  Jimmy with it until you get it just how you like it, too.

go bars

1 stick of butter, or 1/2 c coconut oil
3/4 c honey (oil your measuring cup first)

2 c rolled oats
1 c crisp rice cereal (or you could use puffs, or cornflakes)
1/4 c oat bran
1/4 c flax meal
1/2 c almond meal
fat pinch of salt

a handful of dried apricots, chopped (or dried cranberries, or whatever you like)
about 3/4 c of chopped or sliced or slivered nuts--I like a combination of almonds and pecans

3 or 4 pieces of crystallized ginger, minced
about half a cup of chocolate chips or chopped chocolate (*see the note below)

Heat the oven to 350 and tear off a piece of parchment that will line your 9 x 13 pan.

Melt the butter (hang on to that butter wrapper though--don't throw it out) and the honey together in a large pot, stirring all the while.  Let it come to a nice boil over medium heat, then remove from the stove. 

Add all the dry ingredients and mix well. Then add the fruits and nuts and mix again.  *If you are adding chocolate, either be at peace with the fact that adding it now means it will melt, or alternatively be at peace with letting the mixture cool for about fifteen minutes before you add it.  You can probably guess how my hamster-brain works out the math here, when we do the chocolate variation.

Glop the mess onto the parchment in the pan.  Use a spatula to pat it out as smoothly as you can, and then reach for that butter wrapper and really whomp on it to tamp it down.  Still do not throw away the butter wrapper.

Bake for about twenty minutes, until it is a lovely golden, toasty brown at the edges and the top looks solid.  Set the pan on a rack and let it cool for about five minutes. Grab your trusty butter wrapper (you are old friends now) and resume the allover whomping and tamping.  This greatly increases the chances that you will be able to slice these up into tidy squares.  Cool down to almost room temperature in the pan, then while they are still slightly warm, use the parchment to slide the whole block onto a cutting surface.  Using a large, sharp knife, portion them out into squares, and store in an airtight container, or wrap individualy in wax paper.