"Cooking with Economy and Grace".

I must have told 20 people about the book I'm reading, An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler. I usually don't mention that books take me ridiculously long amounts of time to read - I trudge through them so slovenly because I'm exhausted most nights when I finally lay down to read. I usually wake up some time after I've fallen asleep with a book open over my chest, to turn off the light and think to myself briefly that I'll try to get to bed earlier the next night. But no matter what time I manage to get to bed, the same scenario follows me.

I'm on my 6th week of this book; I know this because check-outs from the library run in 3 week cycles. I frequently keep books 9 weeks before forced to return them, and actually it's in the 8th week that I'll really buckle down and finish reading a book - feeling as if I'm under an important deadline. Some cookbooks are perpetual check-outs, lining the shelf in my kitchen like old friends that I've rescued from dusty corners of existence. When I check my account online to see about renewals, I'll feel a sense of dread that my friends need to go back, to become friends to someone else. When my best new friends cause this type of feeling in me, that is when they drop into my Amazon cart - which feels bottomless at times, especially since I'm not buying anything extra right now.

This feeling of thrift (which, for me right now, is an elegant term for "poorness") that I'm currently going through is overwhelmingly perked up by Adler's book. She is single-handedly making me appreciate every last scrap from my kitchen and garden, every dirty pan I reconsider before washing. She has validated me as a home cook, as someone who does pay attention to the sound of the sizzle in the pan, the change of a color, the scent of a crunchy onion as opposed to a cooked one. She makes me feel like I do have kitchen instinct, which she explains as coming from a combination of "in", meaning "toward", and "stinguere", meaning "to prick". "It doesn't mean knowing anything, but pricking your way toward the answer, " she says.

She talks at length about good bread and using it to make toast. That whole meals can be made of toast - and that they are the perfect foil for vegetables. I was overjoyed to read this. Most of my lunches are toasted "old" bread with some kind of vegetables and cheese. I often think to myself how Kingly I eat, knowing where each ingredient comes from, knowing the time and feeling of the dough I made to bake into bread.

summer lunch
toasted bread, "red wax" gouda, roasted beets with salt, pepper and oil, farm market tomato, tellicherry black pepper.

I recently read this post by Tigress, where she admits that she hasn't canned anything since June. I'm not far behind. I don't need to make dilly beans or pickles this year, and I shouldn't be making any more jam. Last Summer was one of gusto, and I'm still admiring the bounty. I do this sometimes, I hoard what is on the cellar shelf. That lemon marmalade I made one day in early Spring (2011)? I still have a jar left. I have 2 jars of preserved kumquats in the fridge, alongside so many "Woodwife Peppers" that are nearing a year old and I'm unsure if I should eat them (except that they are sooooo salty, I'm sure nothing bad could live in them).

The heat that has overwhelmed the Midwest this Summer found me neglecting my garden (though it is much smaller and less productive than the mighty Tigress's). The stifling heat made me intentionally forget a half dozen radishes in the ground, which grew surprisingly tall and bloomed in pretty white or purple flowers. Yesterday at breakfast, I was paging through Linda Ziedrich's Pickling book, and found a recipe for pickled radish pods. After clearing the dishes, I stepped out into the lung-filling heat and picked a small amount, enough for a quarter amount of Ziedrich's recipe. I packed them tenderly into a little glass yogurt jar, topped by the modest amount of brine, and twice as many dried cayenne peppers than called for that were from my garden last year.

radish pods
radish pods.

If you plant some radish seeds now, and just forget about them for about them for 6 weeks or so, you should be able to harvest enough pods for a full batch of pickled radish pods. I got about a cup of pods from 2 radish plants, so I'd figure that 8 plants would give you enough for the pint called for.

Pickled Radish Pods (Linda Ziedrich, The Joy of Pickling)
  • 1 pint "fully formed but still tender radish pods, stems trimmed to 1/4 inch)
  • 1 small, fresh hot pepper like serrano, cut into rings (or 1 dried hot pepper) (I used 2 hot peppers for a 1/4 recipe)
  • 1 sprig of tarragon
  • 1 large garlic clove, sliced
  • 1/2 c. cider vinegar
  • 1/2 c. water
  • 1 t. pickling salt
  • 1 T. olive oil

Pack a clean jar with the radish pods, hot pepper(s), tarragon, and garlic. Stir the vinegar, water and salt together, and pour over the pods covering them and leaving about a 1/8 inch headspace. Add the olive oil, and cap with non-reactive lid. Store for 3 weeks in a cool, dark place before eating. After opening, store in the refrigerator.

radish podspickled radish pods

After my chef/friend and neighbor/coworker/friend dinner (the one in which I served the Gâteau Basque), I was left a whole, stuffed pork tenderloin to make. I cooked it last night, thinking again about the kindness of friends, and the things that come to inspire me when I need it most. I watched my friend make a sauce for the pork (I would never have thought to make a sauce). She used beef broth that I had made from bones I carried back from a steak dinner we grilled out at the farm when I was on vacation. The beef broth made with 4 diners worth of bones was exceptional, and it made about a quart of richly flavored stock. I watched her adding and tasting; we found a bottle of apple cider syrup I made last year and never used on anything. Her sauce was delicious. I figured I'd try to make a sauce when I made the leftover pork - and I began mine in pan of leftover melted butter I had made the night before for our popcorn. I sliced the garlic in, brought up the heat and let it sizzle. I added beef stock and a sprig of rosemary, thickened it slightly with flour mixed with heavy cream, and baptized it after with a splash of cheap brandy (that I got from a friend, so that we could share in the bounty of another season of bachelor's jam).

The potatoes that I had insufficiently braised in the stock to begin with became homefries, because I had not cooked them long enough the first time, they gained momentum combined with onion and more rosemary, and the incomparable heat of a big cast iron skillet. I had just enough of them leftover from dinner to use for breakfast, alongside some perfectly fresh eggs, a gift of my Parents when back home.

saucepandinner redux2

All of these things add up. To the point sometimes that I have no words to describe them. I have enough leftover pork for several days of delicious sandwiches, I am making a new loaf of bread today to take us through the weekend. I have a fridge full of already roasted vegetables, marinated cucumbers from my struggling garden plot, and the validation that I am a good cook without credentials, that I can cook from what seems like nothing in the house so long as I remember not to throw anything away.

There is always something new to be learned, something more to be thankful for. Beyond everything else, I know I am being looked after by the Power on high, in gifts of cupfuls of peas and vacuum cleaner bags, in stuffed pork tenderloins and sincere new friendships. All of these things allow me to cook with economy and grace, just as Tamar Adler suggests. They allow me to "prick my way" forward, finding my way in uncertain time.

dinner redux

Dinner's in the Fridge.

I don't know how to eat lately. Sudden and early Spring with near-Summer temperatures have me thoroughly confused. I feel as if I've channeled my inner European and have taken to eating larger than normal lunches; when the dinner hour approaches, I find I'm not really hungry at all. There is also this thing called March Madness that prohibits me from really scheduling anything that takes my Husband longer than about a half-time to eat, if he eats at all. But it's all fine with me. I like eating little meals, and I also like cooking a little something out of nothing - a good challenge to use up odds and ends in the refrigerator.

Lately I've also been concerned that something I eat is making my skin issues worse. I occasionally have eczema on my hands, usually a condition that only appears under stress and with too much water or overuse. During this particularly awful episode, I am re-examining every morsel that enters my mouth. That is no fun, but on the bright side I have a whole host of new ideas about using food as medicine, and renewed empathy for those who suffer with food allergies.

My worst fear is that wheat or gluten is the culprit of my discomfort. For the past few days I have been diligently avoiding my bread, who sits neglected on the counter, a prisoner under a glass dome. I don't think that gluten is my issue fortunately and, maybe a bit prematurely, have started a new loaf of whole wheat sourdough this morning. The combination of using up the contents of my fridge and my subtle, perhaps unfounded, fear of gluten did lead to this little casserole that I baked efficiently in my toaster oven last night:


When I don't have to worry about my Husband for supper, I feel like I have free reign to make whatever my heart desires. While I classify him as a picky eater, he does surprise me with his likes and dislikes. On the likes list: kale, intestines, and raw fish of all types. On the dislike list: fennel, carrots, and squash of all types. These are abbreviated lists of course, but as a person without any food aversions (except raw cuddlefish, I ate it badly prepared once and had to spit it out), I find it sometimes frustrating to say the least.

Take polenta for example. I really love it, but texturally it's something my Husband can do without. Generally I avoid making it altogether since I don't like eating leftovers for a week. Rummaging through my cupboards yesterday, and noting how they could do with some Spring cleaning, I couldn't get my mind off a quart jar of polenta stashed in the back of my pantry. When I saw a half gallon jar in the fridge filled with more bean pot liquid than beans, and a few tablespoons of sorry looking mango salsa from earlier in the week, I figured dinner was served.

I cooked a 1/4 c. of polenta in the traditional way and spread it into a buttered tiny casserole dish that usually holds my measuring spoons, corn on the cob picks, other kitchen odds and ends in the silverware drawer. I tossed the leftover pintos with cumin, Mexican oregano and chile powder (despite pangs of guilt I wasn't going all out and using whole chiles as I was reminded in this lovely article - but I was going for ease...), and spooned them over the polenta. I mixed my sorry looking mango salsa, complete with edible but totally browned avocados, with a few spoonfuls of canned tomato salsa, and then grated the last of a block of cheddar cheese which I figured would be the best bet for using up odds and ends. I meant to add candied jalapenos to the layer of polenta, and I meant to defrost a little frozen corn, but for about 5 minutes of actual work, this simple one-dish supper was pretty good!


For lunch today I'm planning to have another slice, rewarmed and topped with a poached egg, and maybe crowned with some super hot sauce that I keep forgetting I should use up (oh, and a scoop of cilantro raisin chutney). Then, I'll maybe clean out the fridge some more and see what other little meals may be birthed out of the leftover chaos that often exists there.

But I'll not give up my bread just yet, especially when working more with whole wheat flour, and a higher hydration dough... I haven't been this excited about wild yeast for quite a while. I've also been reading Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads book, which also makes me itchy (pun possibly intended) for new experiments. Real bread has become such a staple part of my life that living without it seems hollow. I don't realize how much I depend on it, long for it, transform it to my needs. I romanticize it to be sure, but it is beguiling and I know when the weather changes and I'm mentally calculating how that affects my rising times that I indeed have the soul of a baker. Any leftover, refrigerated project tastes better on a slice of bread!


poached egg on leftover leftovers.
(I think I liked it even better topped with an egg...)

Soaked Cornbread and Other Things I'm Loving.

Whenever I start a sit down dinner on a Friday night, I remember to appreciate. It would be easy for me to feel a bit bad that I'm not going out and about, seeing shows or fine dining (or just plain dining out), but rather am home-bodied and set for nourishments of my own creation.

My days have been kitchen heavy. Figuring now that this "nourishing diet" thing has really stung me hard, I try and super-nourish my boys, picky as they are, at the expense of creating more work for myself. This morning, I started the cornbread that we'd eat for dinner tonight, and I was careful not to mention to anyone within my earshot all day that it contained yogurt and whole wheat flour. It fermented a good 8 hours at room temperature, before I added the eggs and remaining ingredients, and scooped it gently into a generously buttered cast iron skillet: a number 6 as seen above. It baked up feather light, and no one the wiser that it was actually nutritious.

I wish I didn't get so overwhelmed at the flavors of these things. If the only thing I could tell you about traditional diets it that they are a bit time consuming, and that you'd probably have to quit your job and be nearly Amish to do a good job of it, some of my readership (such as it is) would be spared the little spark in his/her own mind to give it a go. But the truth is, the flavors are so much better than the quick versions, and I don't mind the planning ahead a bit. This cornbread in particular makes me feel as if any yellowish cornbread version could not hold a candle when compared bite for bite. And, having only a paltry 3 leftover wedges leftover only confirms my suspicions.

image from Amazon.

I rented the Culinary Institute of America's New Book of Soups from the library a few weeks ago, and the inspiration has led me to success in incorporating more soup into our diet. I count it a personal success that tonight's soup had cleverly disguised acorn squash politely cubed to the exact same size as some red potatoes that were sprouting up to heaven from my CSA box last fall. No one was the wiser, and even the bigger of the two boys ate an impressive amount of the veg from the Bolivan Beef Stew. (The little one choked down his 5 bites before negotiating more cornbread.) I think it helps that no matter my excitement, I act as if nothing is new and I couldn't have made a more mundane supper - even if I really think nothing is further from the truth.

The best thing about renting a book written by a renowned authority like the CIA is that things are simple and rely on core ingredients and simple technique. I actually followed the directions for this soup, and tell me: who follows directions for soup? Well, I guess I didn't fully follow. I used a quart of home canned tomatoes instead of 2 cups of plum tomatoes and 1 cup of beef stock since I didn't have any on hand, and also subbed in a couple spoonfuls of my candied jalapenos for a fresh, stemmed, seeded, and chopped one. But, I did not add garlic and the last time I checked, doesn't almost every soup on the planet have garlic in it? CIA has an awesome soup book, and you should check it out.

whole wheat, soaked cornbread.

Since I'm on the subject of awesomeness, and I read everywhere that urban beekeeping is the new hot thing, I am proudly devoted (for some time now) to Gentle Breeze Honey. Situated in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, Gentle Breeze produces a wonder. This honey is affordable, raw, and comes in pint or quart canning jars that I can reuse. They are even thoughtful enough to make their labels easy to peel off after a 5-minute soak in warm water! At about $10 a quart, it isn't a luxury honey that I have to judiciously spoon onto a corner of my bread and savor. I can loll about in it's tastiness, using it to bake with, and still enjoy it perfectly well on a piece of toasted sourdough bread. At this point, I am not jumping on the beekeeping bandwagon. I am supporting Gentle Breeze Honey, and finally remembering to write down why I love them so much.

image from Gentle Breeze Honey.

I used it both in and on this remarkable soaked cornbread. Really, the pre-mixing takes less than 5 minutes, and then assembly later in the day maybe another 10. Patience is a virtue, but especially for things as delicious as this - when the payoff makes you look forward to being a habitual planner. Since I appear to be in full out love-fest mode, I really love this website Kitchen Stewardship as well. Many of their recipes come with "levels of healthiness", which is to say that they have quick versions, soaked versions, and other adaptations all written into their base recipes. I like that a lot, since sometimes we aren't all on the same page and we need a bit of variation.

Soaked Cornbread (Kitchen Stewardship - I only adapted the way I put things together...)
  • 1 c. yogurt
  • 1 c. yellow cornmeal
  • 1 c. whole wheat flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 c. coconut oil or butter (I used about half and half)
  • 2 T. honey
  • 2 t. baking powder
  • 1 t. baking soda
  • heavy pinch of salt
At least 8 hours before you want to make cornbread for dinner, mix together yogurt, cornmeal, and wheat flour. Make sure it's well combined, and leave it at room temperature (somewhat warm) to ferment.

When ready to make cornbread, preheat oven to 400.

In a small bowl, beat eggs. Add in honey and melted butter and/or coconut oil and beat together well. Then, add in baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and stir. (It will start to fizz up, but I like to add the baking powder and soda to the eggs because you reduce the risk of a Boy-O telling you something doesn't taste good in the finished baked good...)

Because it starts to fizz up, be ready to pour it into the fermented cornmeal/flour/yogurt bowl right away after you make sure you blended it well.

Mix until everything is well incorporated, and to tell you the truth, I used my hands. I didn't want to run the risk of over beating, and my hands were clean. (Actually, I just used my left hand, since it's good kitchen logic to leave one hand clean - you know, just in case.)

Pour batter into a well buttered number 6 cast iron skillet, or an 8x8 glass baking dish. Total baking time will be about 20-25 minutes, but I found that I needed to reduce the heat to 350 at the 15 minute mark since the edges were starting to brown a bit too quickly. A tester should come out fairly clean when inserted near the center. Let cool in the pan several minutes before cutting into it.

As another week passes, and I am still happily geeking out about traditional foods, I read this link to the Northwest Edible Life that Sean from Punk Domestics shared today. In a nutshell, it's funny but good information that I thought about most of the day. After all, I don't want to be the person that looks down on others and the way they choose to eat, I just get so excited (usually due to taste) and then want to share. I find myself wondering if others think that I'm that "Urban Homesteading A**hole", except that I'm not raising chickens and bees in the backyard, and struggle yearly making a garden I'm actually proud of. I sure hope not. I just sincerely hope that if you are the least bit curious, and you have an "epicurean palate", you will give soaking grains a try.

Not only because it's getting closer to Valentine's day, I love soaking grain. I love my Family. I love Friday night at home. I love being a geek. I love that it takes me a full 2 hours to do the dishes after dinner because I refuse to dry a dish, and because I have to pause to play with puzzles. I love that I am able to share things I love with you... since sometimes I can't divulge as much information as I'd like to my picky boys. Thanks a lot!

MEAT: It's what's for dinner.

After a mostly vegan/vegetarian week, I broke my streak last night when I met Peef and Lo for dinner at Roots. I was so happy they suggested we go there, since I had never been. It dawned on me as I was eating delicious pork nachos, outdoors mind you, that I effortlessly ate no meat for a week until that mouthful. Pork, sustainably raised and melt in your mouth tender is confirmation enough for me that no matter my food obsession, sometimes puerco is just the best think in the whole wide world.

Burp! also posted yesterday about the freezer meals that they like to have, which is exactly how I cook over here as well. I'm never happier than when I can spend the whole day in the kitchen concocting, but then I'm very happy to have a fully stocked freezer at the ready. I am actually getting better at not cooking for a small army. My Husband is not a leftover eater, unless the leftovers appear months into the future, and that's actually a good arrangement for a cooker like myself. I'm as happy doing daily cooking as I am eating a leftover that prevents me from cooking every day until it expires, but when pressed, I would rather cook something new.

So I felt compelled to dig into my frozen wares for supper tonight, partially because I couldn't be bothered to run out to shop and partially because I do like to use up what is on hand. What fun to shop in my own freezer: a portion of frozen Pork and Chile from my Mom - one of our Christmas Eve traditions, some frozen pintos that were from last month, and a half armful of leftovers fruits and vegetables with some cilantro from the fridge side of things made a nice salsa to boot.

My Mom makes the most wonderful flour tortillas. When I first came to live on my own, I tried to mimic them to no avail. I tried and failed so many times that I just settled on corn tortillas made with Maseca. I can make them in my sleep, which makes me feel strangely like a top chef in my small kitchen, cooking for a whopping 2 patrons. I can multitask with the best of them, especially, when all I have to do is make the tortillas when everything else just simmers up to temperature, a few seasonings required. Someday I do want to make nixtamal corn in my kitchen like Alton Brown, my hero, and make them from scratch, but until then, Maseca is my very dear friend.

Pork and Chile is among the easiest Mexican staples I grew up with, the chile ratio gradually increasing with my and both my brothers' years of age. We all enjoy fairly hot food, for which I am supremely grateful. Like I said to Peef last night over conversation, when my eyelids are sweating, that is a good thing. To make it, sear pork (shoulder or leaner meat if you like, cubed and dredged in salted and peppered flour), in hot oil - just a bit. When it is browned sufficiently, remove it, and then brown an equal amount of russet potato, also cubed. Add back the pork, a couple cloves of garlic, halved, and add a quart or two of homemade canned tomatoes and a few or more home canned jalapenos. My Mom cans them in oil and they are usually HOT. They turn a miraculous shade of soft when canned, and since they are whole, they retain the heat magnificently. This combination of tomato and jalapeno, most certainly at Casa Rcakewalk, from my Parents' garden and labors, does transport me, every bite, back to some of my earliest food memories. Those flour tortillas and pork and chile, mountains of pintos that always tasted better at my Gram's since she used pork fat in hers. It was some of my favorite food then as it is now.

Leftovers salsa: mango, red onion, cherry tomato, avocado, cilantro, salt and aleppo pepper and a bit of chili powder.

I love that I can on occasion, and thanks to my freezer, I can cook fast and furiously, without hardly thinking, all the while alone in my kitchen listening in this evening's instance to James Brown, The Gipsy Kings, Los Lobos and the Frida Soundtrack, with a bit of Johnny Cash, Hank Sr., the Cars and the Smiths for good measure. Sometimes that random songs on the iPod does a pretty awesome job. Meanwhile the boys were playing ball in the living room, something that would have never happened with such gusto indoors in my own childhood home... But I continued on, beaming all the while that my boys were having such fun within my earshot.

Boy-O didn't eat one bite for supper, tortilla, bean or even cereal staple. My Husband and I gobbled a couple of tacos each, sides of hot jalapeno for good measure. Easy dinner doesn't get better than this. When I finally commit to perfection of that elusive flour tortilla, I will be truly in culinary ecstasy.

Spring Greens: Leek, Asparagus & Ham "Shepard's" Pie

Spring. Green. Everything is a lovely shade of verde lately. A week full of rain has produced greens in all the shades of the green rainbow, colors of green that you forget exist outside of spring. Chives are happily poking up from my herb bed, and organic leeks at the Outpost were 79 cents a pound! It's really here, no denying it now.

Still thinking about the innBrooklyn call for Asparagus recipes, I decided to use up the rest of my Easter leftovers last night by doing one of my favorite things with leftovers: making a pie. I love quiche, but my Husband does not, fortunately for me it is never hard to get him to eat leftover's by making a Shepard's Pie of sorts, basically a crustless quiche with a mashed potato topping. It is amazing to me that I can go into the fridge, pull out several bowls of languishing leftovers, add a bit of heat and a simple sauce and turn it into something delicious. Perhaps not the most elegant, regal or photogenic of recipes, but satisfying nonetheless. Another plus is that it goes into the oven, so almost all the cleanup is done before dinner begins.

My recipe of sorts for Leek, Asparagus & Ham "Shepard's" Pie: (or the "Or so" Leftovers recipe)
  • 3 medium leeks, sliced
  • 1 c. or so leftover ham
  • 3/4 c. or so frozen peas
  • 1/2 c. or so asparagus (I used leftover already blanched from dinner on Wednesday)
  • 2 T. AP flour
  • 1 1/2 c. water or stock
  • 2 c. or so leftover mashed potatoes
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • salt, pepper, herbage of your choice - chives in my case
Saute the leeks in a bit of butter and/or olive oil until wilted, about 5 minutes, season with salt and pepper (and I also used some Aleppo pepper). Stir in flour, and continue stirring for a minute. Add stock and whisk until smooth and thickened, a minute or two depending on your heat. Add in the ham, asparagus and peas, and continue cooking over medium-low heat until everything is heated through. Pour into a 9x9 glass baking dish.

Mix mashed potatoes with the beaten egg until smooth, and spread out over the top of the dish. Bake at 350 for 35-45 minutes until heated through and the potatoes start to get brown around the edges.

Recipes like these always beg for inspiration, you could add cheese to your mashed potatoes, or add more leeks and veg for a vegetarian version. Ham is a highly seasoned meat, so I really didn't feel the need to add any other flavors to the mix. I added a fair amount more of black pepper at the table, post photographing:

Which reminds me of the saying, "Be a miser with the salt, and a Demon with the pepper". I'm not sure who said that, but I like it, and usually feel that pepper is tremendously unsung in the culinary world. I often add it to the oil/butter I'm sauteing in, to release those oils that bring out the surprising heat in plain old black pepper.

Now my leftovers are gone, and I can start a new week of adventures with no jumping off point. This is good and bad, but something will emerge, I'm sure of that.