Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rich Sister's Hearty Winter Fare

Julia Child has a nice phrase about consuming the South-West French dish, cassoulet: "We who are about to diet salute you." Yes, you can dine on the hearty gladiator's dish which they undoubtedly ladled themselves from a big pot in Toulouse (or Nimes or anywhere they still have those arenas now devoted to bull-fights and rock concerts - the Red Hot Chili Peppers were performing at Nimes last time we were there). But you don't want to eat this stuff at the height of summer. Summer is for lighter fare and lots of black olives. Cassoulet is something even a Cro-Magnon might recognize and be grateful for after a long snowy walk in a quest for food, so long has it probably graced the tables (or big flat rocks) of the region.

What is a cassoulet? It's basically pork and beans, with some duck thrown in. Every little region in the south of France has its own formula, and perhaps the closer you are to the Pyrenees, the more violent the disputes about how it is made (check out Ariane Daguin of  D'Artagnan on YouTube, describing her traditional methods, alongside her chef friend from Cercle Rouge). They are opposed to smoked meats in the dish, forbid the use of lamb, and also despise the breadcrumb toppings of the uninitiated. The lady comes from Auch, France - musketeer country - where her father was or perhaps still is a chef.

As it happens, you can succeed in duplicating a proper Gascon cassoulet with a kit from D'Artagnan which consists of fat-preserved cooked duck legs, ventreche (a piece of salt pork belly rolled up and lightly spiced), two types of duck sausage (one made with the garlic, the other with Armagnac), Coco Tarbais (d'origine controllee) large white beans, duck fat and demi-glace made with duck (basically a bouillon to add liquid and flavor to the beans as they cook in the Dutch oven for about three hours). Supply lots of your own garlic, some herbs in a little sack (bouquet garni), onions, carrots and celery, and you can make quite a satisfying feast to serve, as we did, about ten people, three of them young men who would make good gladiators if the need arose. Even if the diners go back for seconds, you'll still have enough for leftovers. The kit is nothing if not generously proportioned. Of course you can duplicate it, but in my opinion, you ought to stick to the Coco Tarbais beans or other Tarbais bean, because they just melt in your mouth like nothing you ever ate.

I made this dish in December in Massachusetts, and in January during a frightful cold spell in Pasadena, California, in which the temperature dipped during the day to about 45 degrees. I tell you, the Pasadenans were shivering worse than the Patriot Nation while losing the hope of the Super Bowl to the Ravens. "Quoth the raven, Nevermore," or at least not until next year.

And not until next year on the cassoulet either. It's a sometime thing, most appealing in January.

We also have been trying fresh game from Scotland, such as wood pigeon and red-legged partridge, also from D'Artagnan (which also sells locally sourced meats and foie gras). Right now, there is a wild hare marinating in a concoction of wine and brandy to create "jugged hare", a useful technique to know how to prepare given the ubiquity of rabbit and hare in this world. Plus, if our squirrels ever get out of hand again - well, the principle is the same. I'll let you know how it tasted. Soon the menu will become more austere - Lent comes early, and it has probably pre-dated Christianity by millennia. I'll bet our ancestors the Cro-Magnon had a version of it. Lent comes early this year: Ash Wednesday happens on the eve of Valentine's Day, so all that guilt can overwhelm those of us who attended Catholic school (if we choose to experience it) as we indulge in that box of chocolates with the ashes still clinging to our foreheads (so to speak).  The nuns though would have had the last word as the bathing suit goes on and feels like an overly tight girdle. "Repentance is good for the soul," to say nothing of what it does for the derriere.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Our Pilgrim Fathers: How did it come to this?

Just a note after the prior Thanksgiving blog - I think there is a lot of evidence that the Pilgrims really did get along with the local tribes in Plymouth, near Cape Cod. But the problems were baked in from the start. For one thing, agreements in those days were very personal and had to do with individuals deciding how they would live together. When those individuals passed on, the next generations did not always see things in the same way. In the contact between a group of people who lived by written charters and bowed to distant rule (even if they didn't want to and had left to get away from it) and with another group of indigenous people who saw things from an ancient perspective with long-standing rights, you were inevitably going to get friction. But the Plymouth colony enjoyed good relations with the native population for about fifty years until all hell broke loose. The rest became the miserable history of double-dealing and outright genocide. The original set-up made the surviving Pilgrims (only half made it to the first Thanksgiving) heirs to ploughed lands which a people decimated by European diseases had left them. How did they get the diseases? Well, the Pilgrims weren't the first white people with whom they had come into contact. Fishing crews had been in the area for more than a century, many from the more Latin parts of Europe. They just never settled there, only traded. But in that contact they brought such scourges as smallpox and maybe TB (which had become for them a chronic disease but which for the nonresistant Indians moved like wildfire and killed in weeks not years). It was not deliberate infection in those days - after all the fisherman would not have wanted to kill their trading partners who brought them necessary supplies in exchange for their catch. The sinister stuff was yet to come, and the first Thanksgiving was most likely amicable on both sides. It was in the grandchildren's generation that the wars broke out (notably King Philip's War, named for the grandson of the Thanksgiving sachem or tribal leader), exacerbated by competition among European countries like France, Holland and England, each trying to control the region of the first colonies.

My memory of Thanksgiving is different than Frugal Sister's to some extent. "Family drinking" never included our mother or later our stepmother. But eight years can make a difference in the traditions observed, particularly when there is a parental split. I don't put on rose colored glasses, but what I do recall is that my father always took charge of Thanksgiving. He was the Mayflower descendant of the two parents, but he was also a neat and efficient sort of worker who later employed those skills in creating a very successful business. He had a flair for organization and paced himself so that we always had a nice dinner by around three in the afternoon, the earliest we ever ate. I also remember that when he and my mother were married, he never drank at home. That's my contribution to the memories. We actually have a record of them in a family movie made into a DVD, from the early sixties when Frugal Sister was a tot. It's pretty Norman Rockwell, with extended family present (his sister and her daughter). So that's my contribution to the feast.

We Gather Together: The Frugal and the Spendthrift

It's hard to talk about the upcoming holiday with out a discussion about food. I can wax nostalgic over Thanksgivings past and all of the traditional meals: Dad's first rate gravy and Deb's excellent pie crust.  I have reached a point in my life when I can even distance myself from the disturbing memories of the post turkey family drinking. Yep, hardly remember it at all. Oh, those were the days! We were innocent and spoiled by the idea that good times would just never, ever end. Anaheim in the 60's? Just the epicenter of California dreaming Suburbia. We had Disneyland in the backyard and everything was new and bright. Thanksgiving was truly a holiday to thank God for our blessings!

I recall a poster from my 3rd grade classroom titled "First Thanksgiving",  an inspirational depiction of tidy, freshly pressed, robustly healthy Pilgrims reverently bent over with hands clasped in prayer.  A large golden turkey sat at the center and ears of multi-colored corn were piled high. At this bountiful table were the happy Native Americans, squeaky clean and modestly dressed, with their hands held up flatly, as if to say "How".

"How" indeed did it morph from this 'feel good' pot luck into a reign of brutality?' How' are we to forget the introduction of sweeping plagues and a geographical disenfranchise that nearly extinguished these people from the planet? Maybe my gloom is just good old fashioned White American guilt. Years later in my life I heard about the Trail Of Tears and the California Mission system. Today's teachers who try to put together a history lesson must get sort of confused, sort of, I don't know, evasive when it comes to giant chunks of the American story. Chipping away the veneer to expose the real story has got to be exhausting.... given the pay scale, probably not worth it.

Just try to recall that history has a way of repeating itself, Pale Face! Try not to notice that all of our wampum is coming from China, cuz while we accumulate our trinkets, we want to retain our innocence by distorting the story in a way that will always keep us the good guy/winner. Simply not noticing that the land underneath us is being yanked away doesn't make it any less real. And how! 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In Which Frugal Sister Enjoys a Hearty Breakfast

Even California has seasons. It might not mean snow tires and numb fingers, but we too put away the shorts and turn up the heater.

My daughter was looking for a high nutrition, low calorie morning meal before she heads off on her run. In addition to the calories and vitamins, it had to be warm and (for me) budget conscious. We have been eating oatmeal for breakfast about every other day. You can mix some great stuff with oatmeal. Blueberries are terrific, but, since they aren't really in season right now, it's a budget issue. Raisin and Cinnamon is the big winner for me. We chop up frozen fruit (bought in restaurant size bulk at the discount food store), leave it on the counter at night and in the morning add it to the morning pot. I've calculated that this meal runs about $2. The stove top does double duty because it warms the kitchen.

Right now, pumpkin is my favorite ingredient. I found Libby's canned pumpkin on sale and gobbled (!) up 3 of them. I make pumpkin bread for holiday gifting. Maybe I should have grabbed the case!

Pumpkin is high in Vitamin A and nearly matches the fiber content of bran cereal. It's nearly fat free and very low carbohydrates. Stuff is amazing. Seek out ways to put it on your table. I'm not really crazy about eating it as a soup (tastes sort of like a raw pumpkin pie heated to room temp), but baked and spiced? Absolutely.

D.'s Pancake Delight
(adjust for taste)
1 1/4 C. flour
2 Tbl. sugar
1 egg
1/2- 1 C. pumpkin puree
1 tsp. pumpkin spice  (Cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg)
2Tbl. butter  (this is a taste issue. make it 1 Tbl. oil if you must!)
salt... or salt like replacement.

The usual mixing method: liquid first, follow with spices and sugar and then flour. Add water if it looks more like play dough than batter.

(Directions for making a pancake? If you've never made one, I want to spare you the agony of raw/burnt/into the trash experiments. 
This is a pancake recipe for a cook who knows that heat needs to be adjusted in order to get crisp, but not burnt.  Just try the pancake mixes first and then come back here and we'll talk).

Wait until the pancake is in the pan before you add the fruit or raisins. Peaches are incredibly tasty with this recipe. Ditto choc late chips.... but then again, it's always about chocolate, isn't it, sweetie?

Sometimes, because of the more bulky nature of the pumpkin, you might have to put it in the oven to thoroughly cook. Not a problem this time of year! The smell of Cinnamon and pumpkin wafting through the house on a cold morning? Not a problem at all.

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Monday, November 12, 2012

And the Reviews are In!

I found my "Don't Bother Me" curry came out with a properly thick sauce with no special treatment. Frugal Sister and I were brought up on Irish stews, so we are accustomed to this process for making dinner, except that it was generally a stove-top affair. Not everyone has that background, and Rich Brother-in-Law is one of them. He does not like stews, but he likes curries. What is the difference in the way I make curry and the way my sister does? The ingredients are pretty much the same, by the way.

First, here's how I made Frugal Sister's curry, from the previous post:

As you may recall, it is based on chicken and tomato sauce, with the flavoring as "curry" and frozen vegetables as a source of vitamins and fiber:

I began with skin-on chicken thighs (yum!), the remainder of a can of stewed whole tomatoes which I had recently used in something else, and two cans of tomato paste.

I took two packages of Trader Joe's mixed vegetables out of the freezer, one with eggplant and peppers, the other with cauliflower, both lightly spiced in a sort of vaguely Italian way. Unfortunately the eggplant one had tiny mozzarella balls that I took for pearl onions at first.  But I left everything in anyway, in the spirit of experimentation. I also tossed in some frozen peas.

I added a big dollop of Patak's tomato and coriander Balti paste as my hot sauce/curry flavoring.

I chopped up a big onion, threw in some garlic cloves without even peeling them, and also four small red potatoes cut in quarters, unpeeled. I also chopped up a small, tender carrot in its peel.

Into the oven, set at 400 degrees F, it went, in a covered Dutch oven. At the half-way point, I stirred the bubbling, slightly soupy mix. But after two hours, it was thick and definitely the way it should be. By the way, the mozzarella balls had totally dissolved in the sauce.

I enjoyed it, but my husband thought it was too much like stew. Well, duh.

Now how would you do it differently but not have to work too hard? It's all a question of adding caramelization to some of the same ingredients. Only problem is, it just isn't as easy nor as safe for a child to do. You would not probably want to encourage a young kid to stir fry in your absence, since most of us have had grease catch on fire at least once.

If you want to make a one pot curry, as I often do, you start with a big frying pan that has a lid. Chop the onion and throw into into a small amount of hot oil, using the high heat to caramelize the sugars in it. There are also sugars in the chicken skin, which you can treat the same way. The other thing to subject to high heat is your Indian spice, whatever you are using, because the oils are brought out this way. By the way, "curry powder" is a British invention.

The word "curry" is Tamil for sauce. But those who like to prepare Indian food from scratch know there are myriad spice mixtures, many of which have ingredients in common with the all-purpose curry powder, attuned to different dishes. More about this later. Suffice it to say that Indians are busy people too, and they buy boxed spices the way your mother bought boxed cake mixes of all sorts, and they use a LOT of spices on their cauliflower, string beans, cucumbers, eggplants, etc. You wouldn't believe how much they consume and how therefore cheap it is. They live here and shop in ethnic markets where you can join them and have a lot of fun experimenting for little money with exotic spice mixtures specifically labeled for what they go with, be it kidney beans, carrots or potatoes. The Indus Valley civilization (Wikipedia informs us) was grinding spices at the dawn of civilization ten thousand years ago, and trying to figure out how to burn your tongue without the benefit of those hot peppers they would later pick up from the native American cuisine (along with tomatoes, potatoes, and other nightshade family plants).

Back to my curry, where I use one of  Patak's pastes and I usually toss it onto the onions once they are caramelized to my liking. When you've got the smell you want and the degree of surface toastiness you want (though the chicken is by no means done at this point, just the outer part), you can put in first liquids like tomato sauces, then additional vegetables such as chopped up raw potatoes or fresh carrot.

Bring to a simmer and cover pot, not letting the heating level get so high you are boiling the meat and toughening it. Frankly, I am not sure why there is the difference in effect between a simmer and a boil, because it seems we are talking about similar temperatures. Maybe I'd better hit the books on that one, such as Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking, which goes into the theory of just about every cooking process. He went to Caltech, too, so he has that Big Bang thing going on.

Speaking of television shows, what did head cook Mrs. Bridges mean on the first Masterpiece Theatre Upstairs Downstairs series when she told her little apprentice Ruby that "A stew boiled is a stew spoiled"? The intellectually challenged Ruby eventually sussed out what "boil" meant as distinguished from "simmer" and became more than a mere scullery maid. I know just the same as Ruby did about it. But why? That will take Dr. McGee, I believe.

Okay, back to the curry which is nicely simmering along and not turning the chicken into rubber bands: if you want to add frozen vegetables like peas, carrot cubes or something equally tender - even chopped cilantro, wait until everything else is cooked (chicken, potatoes, etc), and just use the hot curry mixture to defrost them and cook them the tiny bit they need so they retain their color.

This is the dish Rich Brother-in-Law prefers. It isn't objectively that much better, if at all, but it is what he is used to having. It might taste more aromatic (due to the heat treatment of spices and onions and chicken skin) and have a less acidic taste due to less tomato sauce being used and the slightly burnt onions which may neutralize it.

But notice that this stovetop curry takes a lot of separate processes and the presence of an adult to supervise high heat.

It fails for convenience and safety. I would suspect that in most homes today, it would be more of a special occasion food, where there is about a half hour or more to prepare it and fuss over it.

I thank Frugal Sister for sharing her brilliant recipe, which is both delicious and convenient as all get out.

And "Get Out" is what a woman needs where kitchens are concerned, unless she wants to be "All In" by choice.

"Don't Bother Me" Curry by Frugal Sister

I hate cleaning the kitchen. There are just so many hours in a day and I would rather spend them doing...... well, just about anything that does not involve repeatedly cleaning the same dishes, the same pots and pans. I look at my sponge and think "Us again?". It's like deja vu. Like it's happened before. Like deja vu. Like it keeps happening. Cook. Clean. Repeat.

There are ways to keep the mess down and still have economical, nutritional food.

One of my all time favorite recipes is also my daughter's pick for best meal. We eat it once a week and she brings the leftovers to school the next day. Takes less than 10 minutes to make it in the morning and when you come home tired, just turn on the oven. Or, better yet, when your teenager comes home, she can turn on the oven and get the show on the road in a way that does not turn the kitchen into a two hour clean up! (I love you sweetie, but please DO NOT make spaghetti EVER AGAIN!).

Don't forget to write out the instructions and  (for the sake of safety) MAKE YOUR TEENAGER USE THE OVEN TIMER! I've always felt that smoke detectors were a bad way to be notified that the meal is not just done but REALLY done.

                                              Don't Bother Me Curry Chicken
(Note: you are an adult, I'll let you decide how much of each ingredient you want)

Frozen Chicken pieces. STOCK UP WHEN THEY ARE ON SALE!!!  (thigh's are best because you want SOME fat)

Chopped Onion(s)

Chopped potato(S)
Bag of frozen veggies (whatever is on sale)

Tomato paste, sauce or soup. Again, whatever is on sale.

Curry seasoning. Don't have any? Turmeric, cumin and garlic powder are the big 3 ingredients.

Salt. This dish needs salt. Or, a salt-based seasoning

Hot sauce (the small bottle of hellfire type) or, cayenne pepper powder. Be generous, it really adds zing!

Start with a roasting pan (one with a lid so you don't waste foil). 

The size of the pan is up to you.... I make several meals at a time and I use the huge Turkey Roaster.

Put the frozen chicken in the pan and sprinkle all of the spices on top of the chicken, follow this with onion and potato. Dump the tomato on top of these. No mixing needed. Dump the frozen veggies on top and put the cover on. You just leave alone. Throw away the onion skins and the kitchen is STILL clean!

Shove it in the cold oven and just forget about it because all the work is finished. Really. The chicken defrosts and marinates at the same time. Leave it for at least 3 hours. All up to you and your busy schedule.

Cook for 2 Hours @ 400 degrees F. 

After an hour, take off the lid and stir. Put it back in the oven. 

If the ingredients seem too soupy, leave the lid off. 

All done. Some people will like rice with this. You can pick up naan at Trader Joe's, but it's really tasty just like it is.


Rich sister's note: If you get to the end of two hours and it's soupier than you like - although with potatoes in it, maybe you've starched it up enough -  and you don't mind messing up a saucepan, you could tip off or spoon out some of the sauce. Avoid taking too many big chunks of the curry itself, and just boil the heck out of this sauce until it reduces to whatever consistency you like; then it could be poured either directly back into the curry or held aside to be used as a gravy

Also, if you've made white rice, and are facing scrubbing out a starchy pan anyway, it might make a good vessel to boil the soupy curry juice you want to thicken - I'll bet the rice starch will do "wondras" for it. - must try and see -  and then you'll have reduced the amount of cleaning up by a tiny bit where that pan is concerned.

Rich sister adds that she has, this very day, just thrown together a pot of this stuff and considerably reduced the burden on the motor which keeps her freezer cold by taking out a heap of forgotten frozen veggies. She wonders how the mozzarella balls she just found in that eggplant dish from Trader Joe's will look after cooking for two hours in this curry.  But after finding them part of one of a frozen veggie "melange", she decided not to take them out one by one, just leave them there as an exercise in "What the hell?" in the spirit of "Don't Bother Me" curry and Frugal Sister's approach in general. Hey, Indian food uses paneer, which is cheese balls, fundamentally.  

P.S. Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It should be interesting, as Rich Sister makes a meal for twelve relatives and Frugal Sister finds her own creative path to honor our Pilgrim forefathers and mothers. 

Mayflower descendants are like serial killers: they look just like everybody else. If you say you are one, half the people won't believe you anyway. So why say it? You know what happened to Senator Elizabeth Warren when she told everyone she was a Cherokee. Well, every Mayflower descendant knows that there is another trail of tears too, and that's the one you get when they beat you up on the way home from school because you told the teacher that John Alden and Priscilla Mullins were family. Seems like there were more Cherokees than Pilgrims where I grew up -- Rich Sister
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Friday, November 9, 2012

International Tastes

So proud to be an American! Thank God I live in this country! I might look poor standing next to Rich Sister, but compared to the other half of the world? Puh-leeze! 

Unlike so many other  places in the world where a person might look at their scrawny dog, drool and think  "I just can't face another bowl of rice...... what else is there to fill this hole in my stomach? What else can I eat?", we have different foods on our table every night. It's like the kitchen is a magic portal, always there to satisfy whatever fussy little craving we have. And that food is almost always a reflection of another country: Pizza (Italy), Stir Fry (Asia), Tacos (Mexico), Curry (India) and Hot Dogs (Soviet Gulag). 

One hundred years ago, you ate what was in season. You ate it baked. You ate it fried. You pickled it. You ENDURED it because you had no choice. In Michael Pollan's book, "Omnivore's Dilemma" he shows how modern humans are overwhelmingly victimized and placated by the industrial food complex. It's getting worse because food is getting cheaper and the competition for your dollar is getting more aggressive. 

Little Caesar's in downtown San Mateo started offering a large pizza for $5. Where in the world can you possibly get a decent pizza for 5 bucks? Nowhere, really. Total crap. But if you HAD to have a pizza and only had 5 bucks (and you had no taste buds because of a tragic disease where your taste buds were sacrificed to save your life) you could go and get yourself a pizza! I almost want to ask the people waiting around for their orders to come up "Have you actually tasted one of these? Do you think there's any dairy in the 'cheese topping'? How can you tell the crust from the cardboard circle? Ever eaten it by accident and didn't notice?" The only people waiting for those pizzas are poor Mexican families and their pudgy children. An all carbohydrate diet is generally cheaper, but this tasteless, high caloric fat bomb is just the ticket to childhood obesity. Getting fat on food that tastes crappy? What a rip off!  Fat and tasteless! Oh, how unfair. Full does not always mean satisfied.

I suppose my point is that even the poor among us can find SOMETHING. I can make black beans into something really special with an onion, a can of stewed tomatoes and some spices. All for under $5. My daughter has "issues" with leftovers and so this stuff gets frozen and reappears (like magic!) with tortillas a week later. And it's a cheap protein, baby.

Meanwhile, in Sub-Saharan Africa, a woman mixes grain with water and boils this into a broth that she can ladle into her starving child. 

This world could just tip over and spin off into space for the lack of balance.