Stuff that I…

Sharing stuff that I like, cooked, ate, did… you get the idea.

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Cooked: shambles stuffed squash

I’ve always found cooking to be somewhat of a reflection of my current state of mind.  Some of the best things I’ve made can’t be recreated simply because part of whatever emotion I was experiencing at the time influenced the dish, and can’t be captured as an ingredient or an instruction.  The joy of having a bag of beautiful, sweet peaches is amplified by turning them into a cobbler, and taking out the frustrations of the day on a piece of chicken, resulting in a perfect paillard, renders the source of the frustration harmless.  One of the most rewarding experiences can be to make a great dish by putting forth little effort and what seems like scraps of ingredients, as was the case this past winter.

I came home from a particularly frustrating day of work one day this past winter, hungry and with nothing already prepared (a rarity for me).  A hot meal was definitely called for, but an elaborate meal wasn’t a wise choice to tackle.    Furthermore, I hadn’t been grocery shopping recently, and my fridge was in shambles – nothing of sufficient quantity to make a dish.  What I did have was a carnival winter squash, a few straggling sage leaves from the garden, and the shambles in the fridge – consisting of white wine, creme fraiche, a small morsel of pecorino cheese, and a small packet of speck trimmings.

Carnival squash - about the same size as an acorn squash, but without the fibrous texture and shaped more like a pumpkin.

The shambles: Pecorino, creme fraiche, speck, sage.

The speck ends were the shining star of the shambles.  Admittedly, I had no idea what I was going to use the few ounces of speck ends I had picked up, but the ends, boasting a large proportion of the seasonings, served as the salt and spice for this dish.  Once the squash was hollowed out, a quick dice of the speck, a spoonful of creme fraiche, a few strokes of the pecorino across a rasp, and a chiffonade of the sage were folded together in the squash, with a splash of white wine to bring a touch of acidity.  I placed the top back on the squash and put it on a baking sheet, and placed it in the oven, which was on its way to 350 degrees.

The finished product.

After an hour, during which I relaxed, read, and had a glass of wine, I took the squash out of the oven – the squash was tender throughout, and the flavors had permeated the squash to the rind, and the satisfaction of having made something delicious out of seemingly nothing lingered on my tongue.

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Cooked: pastrami style meatballs

On occasion, I have a set of minor kitchen problems that can be solved with one creative cooking session.  Today, these problems included:

– a craving for comfort food, namely meatballs (under normal circumstances this is resolved with Swedish meatballs, but everyone looks at me funny when I say I make them – do they not know how delicious they can be? – and I had no ground pork.)

– there’s some rye bread in the fridge that needs to be used, and I don’t want to waste it

– a container of alder smoked salt is sitting in the cupboard neglected, because it’s so darn smoky

– I had a pound of ground beef that had to be put to good use.

Smoked beef on rye bread.. pastrami, right?  I placed my wager of a pound of ground beef, the rye bread, the alder smoked salt, and a few other ingredients that pastrami style meatballs would work.  The salt has been too smoky to use appropriately in other applications, and using it here with the other spices gives the meatballs the smoky essence of pastrami without the need to brine and smoke.  It’s much faster, as well.

Equipment needed: medium or large skillet, mortar and pestle (or spice grinder)

Ingredients:

Meatballs –

1 lb ground beef

1 slice rye bread (a slice as big as if you were making a sandwich)

1/2 c milk

1 egg

Spice mixture –

3/4 tsp alder smoked salt

1 1/4 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp yellow mustard seeds

1/4 tsp caraway seeds (if the rye bread doesn’t have caraway)

1/8 tsp. ground allspice

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp white pepper (if you don’t have any, substitute black pepper)

1/2 tbs dark brown sugar

Gravy –

1 onion

1 1/2 c beef stock (I use home made beef broth, so no salt was added here – this is important later..)

2 tsp stone ground mustard (if I had horseradish mustard, this is what I would have used)

2 tsp cornstarch, mixed with 2 tsp water

2 tbs cream

Toast the coriander and mustard seed in a pan over medium heat until fragrant.  In the mortar and pestle (or spice grinder) grind all the spices and brown sugar.

Clockwise, starting from the top - black pepper, white pepper, allspice, alder smoked salt. If the smoked salt you have isn't this dark and smoky, consider adding some liquid smoke.

Squeeze excess milk out of the bread.  In a large bowl, combine beef, egg, and bread.  Set aside 1/4 tsp of the spice mixture, and add the rest to the beef mixture.  Lightly roll into 12-14 meatballs and refrigerate.

Heat skillet over medium heat.  Add 3 tablespoons of the fat of your choice – I’d recommend beef tallow or lard, but olive oil would work too.  Brown the meatballs on all sides and remove from the pan – don’t worry about cooking them through at this point.  While meatballs are browning,  slice the onion pole to pole.  Drain most of the fat from the pan.  Add onions to the pan and increase heat to medium high.  Brown the onions, but do not caramelize or soften.  They should look like this when you remove them:

Add stock to pan with the 2 tsp of mustard.  Don’t skip the mustard – it adds a touch of acidity that brings the sauce together.  Add the reserved spice mixture and bring sauce to a simmer.  Add meatballs back to pan and simmer until sauce reduces by 1/3 to 1/2, turning meatballs so they cook through evenly.  Add the cornstarch slurry and gently simmer until sauce thickens.  Stir in onions and serve – this would be good over egg noodles or even between two slices of rye.

If I could make it again:  I’d skip the onions and instead make a flour based roux before adding the stock, omit the cornstarch and throw in a few handfuls of Swiss cheese into the sauce.  That would be more proper pastrami, but hey.. I didn’t have to go to the store.  I’d also try adding some garlic into the spice mixture.

Like: cookbooks that aren’t about recipes.

One of the most onerous tasks of cooking can be to keep track of recipes that you want to try and remembering to obtain all the ingredients for those recipes when you’re purchasing ingredients.  I’ve moved away from a recipe-centric method of cooking in recent years, partially because I am terrible at sticking to a shopping list and also because I’ve dramatically increased my shopping at local farmer’s markets and purchasing fresh, sustainable food.  Rather than unloading sacks of groceries, finding the receipt, and lamenting the impulse buys, it is rewarding to give into impulse purchases at the market and bring home produce that simply looks great.  But how do you assemble your purchases into meals that appear well designed?  Cookbooks that don’t have recipes.  Sounds like an oxymoron, right?  Wrong.

The most heavily referenced cookbooks in my collection.

These cookbooks are excellent references, and for very different purposes, but I’d suggest that anyone that cooks, even occasionally, have a similar set in their collection to serve the following three purposes:

What you’re in the mood for:  Perhaps a soup sounds good, or piece of meat with a sauce, or a salad dressing.  These types of recipes all have a basic formula of how they are constructed, and a book like Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio is a great resource of where to start.  Furthermore, the recipes are scalable.  Only have one egg, but want to make fresh pasta? You can figure out how much flour should be added, or make pie crust for one or twenty. 

How to cook it: these are the little tips that help you know if you’re doing things right.  There are several books along these lines, but I use Harold McGee’s Keys to Good Cooking (this may mostly be because it’s an autographed copy, but I digress)This book is full of short summaries of information that Mr. McGee has provided over the years through his books and columns, including techniques and substitutions.  It’s easy to pick up and flip through a chapter that relates to what you’re planning on cooking and gain some confidence in the process before you start. 

Ingredients you have on hand.  This is ultimate foundation of cooking when you don’t have a recipe.  You’ll find The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg on my bookshelf in a well-worn groove.  I use this book because you simply flip to an ingredient you have and a list of complementary ingredients appears below, along with some classic combinations and words of advice from chefs.  Did you just bring home eight ears of corn, some peppers, beets, and leeks from the market?  This book will help you figure out how to use them best.

There are many other books available to help with these tasks, and these are simply the ones I own.  With these as references, turning out a great meal with no extra trips to gather ingredients is an easy accomplishment.

Grew: the joys and perils of gardening

I look forward to every spring and the planting of my summer garden.  Gardening runs through my veins – one of my earliest memories is playing in the dirt of one of the many square foot gardens my dad has built over the years.  My uncle has a garden that’s almost an acre, which is an incredible space to have.  A few years ago I traced a watermelon vine almost 30 feet – I doubt I’ll ever have the space to let a watermelon patch develop like that, but you never know when I might decide to till my yard under.  Virtually all the family stories I hear involve someone running through a garden, working in a garden, or eating from a garden.  I can’t remember a summer that’s gone by without having grown something, even if it might have been a few pots of herbs.  Gardening has been one of the greatest ways to build my observation skills, to know when to water, when to cut, when to pick, and to know when there are circumstances beyond your control.

I had to leave my garden for a span of several days last week, knowing that there was a zucchini that was a few days away from needing to be picked.  Despite urging my neighbor to pick it, I returned to find the zucchini grown well past a palatable proportion.

That, my friends, is a three pound zucchini in the middle.  Although I was tempted to utilize it as a club to intimidate the wildlife that like to share in the bounty, I accept that one of the perils of gardening is that what is grown must be used – a “next zucchini” cannot be guaranteed, and I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t make use of it.  I sought some advice on what to do with such a monster squash, ranging from zucchini bread, to stuffing it, to latkes.  I have some ideas, and I’ll be sharing the stuff that I make with this accidental giant with you.

Cooked: summer salads: fresh corn and tomato salad

Summertime is filled with celebrations, get togethers, long days of sunshine (and, if you live where I do, oppressive humidity, but that’s another story) and a bounty of fresh, local food.  There is nothing that makes me happier than going out to my garden to pick a tomato or some basil, or going to a farmer’s market to buy a bag of peaches or sweet summer corn.  I admit that the early items from my garden don’t typically make it to a plate – I eat the blackberries straight from the bushes, the cherry tomatoes off the vine, and I’ll stop momentarily to admire the velvet fuzz of a home grown green bean before I happily chomp away at the crisp, sweet perfection.  When summer production finally outpaces my ability to snack, one of the dishes I turn to is a simple summer salad that’s flexible and a great way to stretch veggies that I may have a limited supply of.  It’s also easily scalable for a crowd.

Corn and Tomato Toss

Base:

5-6 ears of corn, husked

a couple handfuls of cherry tomatoes, or garden tomatoes that have been seeded and diced (this salad looks especially pretty with heirloom cherry tomatoes such as sungold, black cherry, or yellow or red pear tomatoes)

olive oil

juice of one lemon

salad onion (or red onion or shallot, or green onion), diced

fresh herbs (along the lines of basil, lemon basil, chives, or cilantro)

Suggested additions:

Summer squash (lightly sautéed), diced cucumbers, feta cheese, goat cheese, bell peppers

Directions:

1. Lightly steam the corn, let cool, and cut off the cob (I save the cobs for corncob stock – it’s delicate and sweet and a great base for soups).

2.  Halve the cherry tomatoes and let the excess juices drain away.

3.  Toss together the corn, tomatoes, and onion, as well as any add-ins you may wish to use.  This salad works best with corn as the main ingredient, followed by the tomatoes, then onion, and a lighter touch if cheese is used.

4.  In a small bowl, combine approximately 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch or two of salt, and the juice of one lemon and whisk vigorously to combine (or, be like me, and shake it all up in a jar.)  Now, taste a little of this, keeping in mind that it will be diluted across all the ingredients.  Adjust the ingredients to taste.

5.  Toss the corn mixture with the dressing.  The dressing should be very light and not pool at the bottom of the bowl.  Ideally, if you were to serve this at a gathering, it wouldn’t accidentally sauce the pasta salad you put on your plate next to it.  Chill the salad at least an hour and up to 8.

6.  Just before serving, chop the herbs and toss with the veggies.  I’m quite fond of the combination of basil and corn, so that’s what I use the most often.  When I use basil, I toss a chiffonade of basil in a little additional olive oil which helps prevent it from browning at the edges.

Welcome to my world of stuff.

My world is composed of stuff.  I may have gone out and done some stuff, cooked up some stuff in the kitchen, or ate some stuff.  Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that I should document some of my experiences, and maybe even have a platform to share all the good stuff that crosses my path.  This is the birth of this blog, and I hope you enjoy reading about the stuff that like.