recipes of sorts

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.

Cultures, Generations, and Rhubarb

Since I got the buttermilk and yogurt cultures from Cultures for Health early last week, I've been a bit preoccupied in my new science experiments. Cultured buttermilk is where I began, after reading on the website that having different cultures too close together could result in cross-contamination. Since my house has been on the cool side, I thought I'd play it extra safe and do one at a time, held in the oven with the oven light on. As I mentioned the other day, this creates a mildly warm culturing environment, perfect for buttermilk making.

The cultures I received were large enough to start two portions. You begin with a small amount, and then build it into a larger amount - which I have determined to be a good thing since the future generations improve vastly. My first buttermilk was on the thin side and very "curdled" looking (I suspect in part due to the non-homogenized milk I've been using), but now that I have the 4th generation, it is thickened nicely and has nudged it's way into the List of Things I'll Never Buy Again.

The only somewhat bothersome thing is that to continue culturing, it is recommended that you use a portion of the existing batch to make a new batch at least once every 7 days. It could seem like a bother, but really, it is as simple as mixing 1 part buttermilk with 3 parts milk and then letting it sit. I'd bet even the busiest person with a hankering for homemade buttermilk could manage this! You let it sit undisturbed except for a peek here and there for 24-48 hours, so in scheme of homemade things, it doesn't get much easier than this. To make a silky smooth version, I used my little milk frother to approximate a bit of homogenization, and then the finished buttermilk was exactly perfect in every way.

After I had a nice 2nd or 3rd generation, I used a bit of it to make sour cream - a good way to use up the leftover heavy cream that I bought for the Schaum Torte Ice Cream. The first attempt at this turned out more like a Mexican crema, but after traipsing around the internet, I heated the cream to 80 degrees for my second attempt, and it was so thick I could turn the jar upside down! Ah, the wonders of culturing! I wish I could remember where I saw that tip, so I could give credit, but alas, my brain is full of microorganisms and I just can't recall. To make sour cream, use 3 tablespoons of buttermilk and 2 cups of heavy cream (half and half will yield a lighter sour cream), mix well and let sit at room temp (70 degrees) for 24 hours. If you have thickening issues, try heating the cream gently to 80 degrees, and then continue.

After the buttermilk was in full swing, I started the yogurt. Per the Cultures for Health instructions, I let the initial cup sit only about 8 hours. It was tasty, but very thin. However, when I used it to start a quart of yogurt and let it incubate for a full 15 hours, it was considerably thicker. This Bulgarian starter also has a wonderful flavor, much less tangy than YoGourmet culture I was using. This culture too needs to be re-cultivated every week or so to keep it viable and healthy, and the Culture for Health people purport that these can be used for years! We'll see how it goes, but so far, I am a very satisfied customer.

Meanwhile, my Mom came down for a visit, bringing a bagful of rhubarb from the garden, and color coordinating vintage finds as an early Mother's Day gift for me. After we got her in the door, she washed and cut up all of the rhubarb: some for the freezer and some to go right into some rhubarb juice. I really wanted to make Mostly Foodstuff's Rhubarb liqueur, but after some discussion (and inspiration from so many of the last CanJam pictures of cordials and infusions from so many different sites lately), I opted to go for rhubarb juice. I canned 4 pints in a hot water bath for 15 minutes (hot-packed). I felt a bit on the wild side, since I didn't use a proper recipe. Since rhubarb is high acid, I used the amount a rhubarb seen above and enough water to come just about half way up. My Mom has canned rhubarb juice this way for quite a long time, though hers is much sweeter than the one I produced. She helped me strain it through some cheesecloth, and told me if I wanted absolutely clear juice not to press on the cheesecloth to get all of the juice out of the expired vegetable. I always go for delicious quantity over color clarity in things like this, so I squeezed until the remnants of rhubarb looked kind of like dry paper pulp. But just look at the amazing color!

I added a scant 1/2 cup of sugar for what turned out to be about a half gallon of juice, but it would be a matter of taste. I would also imagine you could freeze the juice instead of canning it, but I was happy enough to can just 4 little pints of something. I think this is the first time I've done such a small batch, and it got me considering joining the CanJam...

I had just enough leftover juice to have a small cup. I drank part of it hot, which reminded me of a cider, and then put it in the fridge to cool. Cold, the juice has a such a pleasant viscosity, and without too much sugar, it is truly a delicious aperitif. I think it could be used rather well as a cocktail base, too, so everyone can be happy!

The remaining 12 cups or so of rhubarb is now being patient in the freezer. There are so many good rhubarb recipes floating around right now it is certainly not going to be difficult to find inspiration for it's use. The only caveat being that I will need to eat it all myself, since I am the sole rhubarb lover here. Something tells me that won't be much of a problem...