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Archive for the ‘Making Food’ Category

The Dredging Process

In Making Food on January 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm

We’ve taken a break from cooking together.

One reason is that The Husband and I both work in retail grocery, which means that for the last six weeks of the calendar year, we’re completely entrenched in daily store operations, making sure that we don’t ruin anyone’s holiday by not having stuff like stuffing, candy canes, eggnog and sparkling wine in ample supply. One of us is usually gone by six a.m., the other’s not home til ten p.m. Family dinner turns into Lord of the Flies, but with more hot dogs and frozen broccoli.

The other reason we haven’t been cooking/blogging much lately is that The Burger is decidedly: Over It.

Do you want to help me make dinner? I’ll ask.

No! she’ll shout.

Why not?

Because, she’ll say, sounding for all the world like an aggrieved sixteen-year-old who’s been asked one too many times why she doesn’t want to have family board game night anymore. I’m not a chef anymore! I’m just a kid now!

But there are still a few things I can coax her into the kitchen for. Baking is always met with Olympic-level enthusiasm — and because of that, we went through a record amount of flour, sugar and butter in December, churning out everything from Rice Krispy Treats (super fun to make, mostly because of the spiderwebby look that melted marshmallows get when you stir them), banana bread, sugar cookies, French yogurt cake (which is truly so easy your almost-four-year-old can do it herself; stay tuned for recipe), magic cookie bars, saltine toffee, cupcakes, you name it.

However, lest you think all we eat are baked goods, The Burger is also a devotee of Chicken Smash — or what, in a fancier life, I might’ve called Chicken Scaloppine. The recipe’s adapted from Jenny Rosenstrach’s excellent-for-working-parents cookbook Dinner: A Love Story, and whenever I get out the mallets, The Burger comes running. She loves making it and also (usually) eating it.

A word here about expectations.

Don’t expect your kids to want to help you. If they do help, don’t expect them to eat whatever you make. The Burger once happily spent two hours with me making dozens and dozens of meatballs. She mixed the ingredients, patiently rolled out zillions of meatballs, poured the marinara sauce over them, helped me turn them as they simmered — then flatly refused to eat any of them on the pretext that she only likes brown meatballs with brown sauce, “like the ones at school.” (I felt like Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer when his fiancée informs him, after leaving him at the altar, that she’d fallen out of love with him a long time ago. Information that would’ve been helpful to me YESTERDAY!) Not to sound too faux-Zen about it, but it’s about the process, man.

* Don’t expect your kids to work neatly. “A dropcloth the size of Texas” is what Matthew Amster-Burton, in his excellent book Hungry Monkey (the only book on parenting I’ve actually read), recommends you use when cooking with a toddler or preschooler. Be prepared for your kitchen to get destroyed. (If you’re a neat freak, cooking with kids may not be for you. Or, it may be exactly for you, as you’ll have no choice but to learn to deal with disarray.) Much to my mother’s dismay, The Burger and I actually sit on the floor and cook. It’s easier for her to reach ingredients — if we’re sitting at the table, everything gets knocked over when she tries to grab what she need. If we’re on the floor, she can just scoot or walk over and grab whatever she’s after, and it’s easier for her to leverage herself for tasks like rolling dough, cutting fruit or mixing things in bowls. And it makes cleanup a snap. Frankly, I’d rather just sweep and mop the floors than wipe down and wash the table, then sweep and mop the floor anyway. We work right next to the sink, so as we’re done with dishes I can just reach up and toss them in to get ‘em out of the way. A stack of side towels is also key.

Be prepared for dinner to take approximately six times longer to prepare together than it would if you were flying solo. (This is another reason why I bake a lot with Lulu — making a batch of banana bread is something that can be done mid-morning or post-afternoon nap, and its emergence from the oven isn’t usually something that’s a linchpin of your family’s day. Conversely, if you start making meatballs with your preschooler at 5:30 p.m., odds are pretty good that you won’t be eating until 7:30 at best.) So either start dinner prep as early as possible, or be prepared to eat a little later than usual, and lay out some healthy pre-dinner snacks like cheese, cherry tomatoes or sliced pears.

*Don’t assume your kid can’t work safely or smartly — but make sure you explain the ground rules first. We bought The Burger an adorable little kid’s knife from Kuhn Rikon —it’s got a dog painted it, so you know when it’s right side up and when it’s upside down — but first we taught her how to put a damp towel underneath her cutting board so it doesn’t slide around, and how to hold her non-knife hand with the fingers tucked under so she doesn’t nick them when cutting. (Now when she sees people prepping food on TV, she’ll shout, “Cat’s paw, Mama!”) Likewise, we let her handle raw ground beef, pork, fish and chicken — but explained that she’s not allowed to taste any of those before they’ve been cooked*, and that she’s not to get her hands anywhere near her mouth while she’s got meat juice on them.

*Choose your words carefully. “Just throw it in the bowl” is a phrase you’ll only utter once. Likewise, think ahead when giving directions and try to avert any bogies. Say stuff like “pour it in as slowly as you can” or “just one tiny tiny tiny pinch of salt” or “that measuring cup is super full/heavy/tippy/etc” or “make sure you get all of the milk into the bowl.”

Let your kid do absolutely as much of the work as you can possibly stand.

Back to Chicken Smash:

Set out three shallow bowls, pie plates or baking dishes.

Into the first pie plate, scoop some flour, and season it with salt and pepper.

In the second, crack two or three eggs. Let your kid do this! He’s dying to do it! Explain how beforehand. Tap it on the edge. See that hole? Stick your thumbs in there and pull them away from each other. You’ll have undoubtedly have to fish out some shell fragments — incidentally, the best way to chase an eggshell is with an eggshell — but he’ll get better and better at it each time, and the look on his face when the egg cracks and comes gushing out will be one of: horror, then amazement, then delight. Whisk the eggs up with a fork, adding a couple tablespoons water.

In the third, throw a bunch of bread crumbs (we use unseasoned panko, but you can certainly use regular old seasoned or unseasoned breadcrumbs), and season liberally with salt, pepper and shredded or grated parmesan or pecorino, stirring until (relatively) evenly mixed.

On a cutting board, lay out a sheet of plastic wrap, then center a boneless skinless chicken breast on it, then cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Give your kid a mallet or meat tenderizer and have them go to town. You’re looking for even thickness of about a half-inch — take turns with your kid to get there. It’s okay if it’s thicker, or thinner, or even if it tears. Pile up the flattened chicken pieces on a plate, replacing the plastic wrap periodically.

Once your chicken’s all smashed, start The Dredging Process. This is a fancy term for dragging your chicken through the flour/egg/breadcrumb cycle, and one that I never get tired of hearing The Burger say. Dada! We totally dredged this chicken.

Hand a flattened chicken piece to your kid and ask her to completely cover it in flour. You don’t want to see any pink on there; get both sides covered in white.

When when that’s done, shake off the extra (over the flour dish!), and place it (gently! slowly!) into the egg dish. Same thing here — you don’t want to see any white on there. Get both sides completely covered in yellow.

Then move it to the breadcrumb dish. Same thing here — cover it totally in crumbs. No yellow peeking through.

Pile up the completed chicken breasts on a plate, then when you’re done, send your kid off to wash her hands and watch an episode of Team UmiZoomi while you cook the chicken. (It helps immensely to have someone around to sweep and mop the floor at this point — but if you’re doing this alone, make sure you’ve put on a double episode.)

Preheat the oven to 200, and line a baking pan with paper towels; you’ll use this to keep the chicken warm while you cook it in batches.

Put the largest pan you’ve got over medium-high heat, and liberally coat the pan with olive oil. (This is where Jenny Rosenstrach and I part ways on this recipe — she uses a lot more oil than I do, describing the process as “not deep frying, but pretty close.” I tried it that way a couple times but wasn’t patient enough to let the oil heat up enough, and found that for me, it works better to use less. But do whatever works best for you.)

When the oil’s ripplingly hot, carefully put a couple of pieces of chicken at a time in the pan, leaving plenty of space — don’t crowd it, or it’ll steam rather than fry. (As JR says [and I’m paraphrasing here], “sometimes I crowd the pan, then I spend the entire dinner wishing I’d sucked it up and waited the extra six minutes.”)

One of the great things about evenly pounded chicken breast is that it cooks, well, evenly. Your days of poking that stupid piece of chicken with a paring knife, wondering if it’s actually cooked, are gone. And the thinner you’ve pounded it, the faster it’ll cook. Ours are usually done in about six to eight minutes, which is three to four minutes of cooking per side. Flip carefully, then when the chicken’s fully cooked and firm to the touch, with crust as golden and crunchy as you like it, remove to the paper-towel lined baking sheet standing at attention in your oven, add more oil to the skillet if necessary, and continue cooking the rest of your breaded cutlets.

You can eat these in any number of ways — cut into strips and dipped in various sauces — but my favorite way is to use the chicken as an edible salad plate. I’ll pile a bunch of mixed baby greens on top of it, dot with cherry tomatoes and thinly sliced red onions, use a carrot peeler to shave some parm, and drizzle balsamic reduction or vinaigrette over the whole shebang. You could top with marinara sauce and a slice of provolone cheese, then run under the broiler. You could make a quick pan sauce of lemon, capers and parsley. There are a zillion different things you can do. Just don’t expect any of your kids to eat any of them.

*certain kinds of fish being the obvious exception here. Homegirl loves seafood and sushi, and is always asking to taste raw salmon or tuna. Usually she’ll just sneak off pinches, but the last time we made salmon en papillote (or envelope fish, as it’s known in our household), she picked up the entire filet in her fist and ate it like an apple.

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How It All Began, and How It’s All Changed

In Making Food, Thinking About Food on November 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm

New name! New concept! In marketing-speak, I guess you’d call it a rebranding. Or a relaunch. Or a repositioning. Whatever you want to call it, it’s truer and better.

The whole thing started years ago when I made a New Year’s Resolution — the only one that ever stuck, incidentally — to try a new food every week. Whether it was eating or drinking something foreign or unfamiliar, working with a new ingredient, or attempting a preparation I’d never tried before, it just had to be new, and it had to be weekly.

And it worked, mostly, for a while. I tried all kinds of new junk. I cooked goat and mutton. I made mayonnaise and Caesar dressing. I baked pitas and English muffins. I called the cops and ate creamed herring. (These two events were entirely unrelated to each other.)

But then I had a kid, and everything changed. I no longer had entire days, empty, free to fill with yeasted bread and elaborate, multi-step preparations. My ability to concentrate on complicated recipes evaporated. Frankly, my ability to remember that I’d put something — anything — on the stove completely disappeared. I can’t even tell you how many times I put water on to boil or shoved something in the oven, walked away to check on The Burger, then jumped in terror an hour later when the smoke detector went off, bolted into the kitchen, and stared at the smoking pan thinking what the hell was I doing in here, anyway?

People, I cannot stress to you enough the importance of batteries in a working fire detector.

Trying to pick out a new food every week — trying to do anything every week — became an unwelcome burden, something I resented rather than enjoyed. Even the few-and-far-between times I did manage to bang out a blog entry after The Burger came on the scene bothered me, since I’d strayed so far from the blog’s original conceit. I’d think: This isn’t new. This isn’t weekly. This is dumb.

But I continued to cook, and eventually The Burger joined me.

Now we make stuff that isn’t necessarily new to me, but is new to her, and exciting and joyful and sometimes terrifying to both of us. (You really haven’t lived until you’ve taught a three-year-old how to toss pizza dough.) We sit on the kitchen floor together. She wears her apron and an enormous, ridiculous, glittery, sequined tutu. Sometimes she eats the finished product, sometimes she doesn’t; she almost always tastes the raw ingredients, down to the flour. We both always get messy. And while sweeping up after our breaded chicken cutlet adventure last week (details coming soon!), I looked down at the dustpan and saw that it was full of breadcrumbs and glitter.

And there it was: the essence of cooking with my daughter. And the blog was reborn. As we say in Wisconsin: Forward.

Cutout Sugar Cookies

In Making Food on November 9, 2014 at 8:18 am

I read an article a while ago about a guy who used his computer password to reinforce intentions or resolutions. He had to type his password dozens of times a day, so figured he might as well make it something purposeful, meaningful. He started out with something like “forgive her,” as he was trying to work through a breakup, then moved to topics like exercise, save for travel, eat less, call mom.

This seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t have any reason to change my password. The one I’d been using since freshman year of college — skanking, a relic from my not-so-brief, all-too-intense rude girl phase of ska worship — had reliably proven hackproof since the mid-90s.

Then, like a week after reading the article, my email got hacked.

I was a glass or two into a bottle of wine when I discovered the breach, so promptly changed every single password to everything I could think of — Etsy, my bank account, Netflix, my email accounts, our iPass — picking memorable catchphrases and quips, mixed with meaningful numbers. None of which I could remember the next morning. So I changed everything again to something boring and memorable: my work address.

But typing that in to dozens of accounts, including my personal ones, rapidly wore thin. I hated thinking about work when I was trying to request a book on my library’s website, check my email, buy something on Amazon.

So I changed them all again, this time to something meaningful: Dig Deep.

I have (as those of you who know me personally can attest) a finite amount of patience. It’s a shallow pool, and it’s often dry. I’ve become much, much more patient since having a kid — but I know my limits, which is why we’re stopping at one.

So, when I feel the rage coursing through my veins at work (like when a vendor e-replies to a statement like “I can meet you at our corporate office on X day at X time; address is below my signature” with something like “great! when and where would you like to meet?”) or when I feel overwhelmed by daily-chore-despair (like when I can’t move a load from the washer to the dryer because I haven’t folded the dried clothes yet, and there’s also a huge pile of dry-but-unfolded clothes on the living room floor), I say to myself: Dig Deep.

Feel free to adopt this as your own. Because let me tell you: when baking with a toddler, you’re gonna need it as a mantra.

When your kid sticks her hand directly in the butter: dig deep.

When she dumps flour all over the counter instead of into the mixer: dig deep.

When she pours half a bottle of vanilla into the cookie dough: dig deep.

When you realize that the awesome cookie cutters the two of you picked out on vacation — an octopus! a unicorn! a flamingo! Wisconsin! — are actually too intricate and multifaceted to make actual, recognizable sugar cookies: dig deep.

When you have to explain, for the seventh time, which side of the cookie cutter to use: dig deep.

When you reach into the fridge to grab the eggs and knock over the poorly sealed tupperware of pancake batter: dig deep.

When you hear, from the bathroom (where you were foolishly counting on 30 seconds of peace), the sound of sprinkles being spilled all over the kitchen floor: dig deep.

When you emerge from the bathroom to find that the sprinkles are now commingled with the 10,000-piece Milton Bradley Cootie game your child dragged into the kitchen: dig deep.

When the oven timer starts going off as you’re sorting the Cooties from the sprinkles: dig deep

When the towel you use to pull the sheet pan out of the oven turns out to be wet: dig deep.

When, in your burned-hand haste, you set the pan on the counter and accidentally burn a hole in the ziploc bread bag: dig deep.

Because in parenting, as with life, for every one annoying thing that happens, approximately/at least ten more awesome things happen.

Like when your kid sees a sugar cookie removed from the cutter for the first time.

Or when she hears the opening strains of “Call Me” on Pandora and shrieks at the top of her lungs, “Mama! It’s Blondie!” then sprints out into the living room to dance.

Or when she makes small talk confessions — “One time, at school, someone bit me. Well, actually, it was me.” — while piling hot pink sprinkles on top of a cow-shaped cookie.

Or when she pokes her head into the bathroom, post-sprinkle-spilling, to annouce, “um, something terrible just happened in the kitchen.”

Or when you discover that she’s awesome at holding the dustpan while you sweep, and can actually dump it into the trashcan without spilling the contents everywhere.

Or when the two of you sit down, for the first time, to a snack of milk and homemade cookies.

Or when she suggests that, because the homemade sugar cookies are “so delectable,” that the two of you go door-to-door to sell them to the neighbors.

Rich Rolled Sugar Cookies (adapted* from The Joy of Cooking)

In a stand mixer, beat on medium speed until fluffy and well blended:

  • 1/2 pound (two sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup sugar

Add and beat until well combined:

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (or one-half bottle, if you’d like to replicate our variation) vanilla

Stir in until well blended and smooth:

  • 2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Divide the dough in half. Place each half between two large sheets of waxed or parchment paper, then roll out to 1/4-inch thickness**. Keeping the papers in place, stack the dough onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until cold and firm, about 42 minutes or the length of two Yo Gabba Gabba! episodes.

Preheat the oven to 375, and line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Working with one portion of dough at a time, carefully peel off one of the parchment sheets and replace with a new one. (This’ll make it easier to lift the cookies off.) Flip over, peel off the other piece, and start cutting out the cookies. Place them on the baking sheets about an inch apart, and continue cutting until the dough’s used up.***

Crucial decision point: you can either put these into the oven now, if you’re planning to ice-then-decorate them, or just put the sprinkles on directly and skip the icing step. I’d bought a jar of Amoretti neutral icing, but was already exhausted — and we’d already used up all the vanilla — so I just hid it in the cabinet and told The Burger to put the sprinkles on the unbaked cookies.

Bake for 6 minutes and check. The cookies should be lightly colored on top with just a hint of golden brown at the edges. You can keep baking, checking every two minutes, to the desired color/level of doneness.

Remove from the cookie sheet and let cool on a wire rack, but be sure to eat a couple while they’re still warm. Let your kid decide which shapes you both get to eat. The Burger chose a unicorn and a star for herself, and assigned me Wisconsin and a heart. She’s no dummy.

* Adapted mostly because I let a toddler do the measuring. This was a mistake. My suggestion would be to pre-measure the ingredients into small bowls, then just let your kid dump the bowls into the mixer.

**next time I’d do 1/2″, because I like them a little chewier, plus I think they’d be easier to work with.

*** You can gather up all the scraps and re-roll them, and go through the whole process all over again — or do what I did, which was smash them together into a ball, flatten it slightly, wrap it in parchment, put it in a labeled baggie, and shove it in the freezer for another day.

Stuffed Whole Trout

In Making Food, Shopping for Food on October 14, 2014 at 6:48 am

I used to be cool.

You know the drill. Lived in the city. Had friends in bands. Hosted epic dinner parties. Had hidden-gem, independently owned choices for everything: fishmonger, bookstore, coffee shop.

Then we moved to the suburbs, and in a mere one week’s time, I acquired jeggings, a station wagon, and a Costco membership.

(You know what? Jeggings are actually super-comfortable. I’m sorry I made fun of them for so long. So much time: wasted.)

The Burger, who harbors no suburban antipathy (and no memories of living in the city, for that matter), loves going to Costco. Looooooves it. Admittedly, she’s the kind of kid who loves everything. I’m going to the mailbox; are you coming with me? Yeah! You wanna walk to the dumpster? Yeah! How about we go to the post office? YEAH! But Costco generates some serious enthusiasm, mostly because The Husband finds empty aisles then does wind sprints and donuts with the cart to keep her occupied. When the novelty of that wears off, she gets to pick out her favorite snacks, the boxes of which totally dwarf her. Look, kid! A four-foot-tall box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies!

We usually don’t buy much meat or seafood there, but on our most recent trip, we pushed the cart past the seafood bunker and there it was: a single tray of four whole glistening rainbow trout, scaled and gutted. Crazy — why do they have this? It looks really good.* And why’s there only one package left? Is this seriously flying off the shelves? And how is it so cheap? Fourteen bucks for four whole trout? I picked it up and showed it to The Husband.

“We should buy those,” The Burger said seriously. “What are they called?”

Here’s the thing: The Burger never says anything seriously. She is joyful, she is goofy, and like any other 3.5-year-old, she can occasionally be whiny. But I’ve never heard her say anything in such a firm, calm, serious tone.

“They’re trout,” I replied, taken aback by her tone. “You want these?”

“Yes,” she said solemnly. “We should buy those and cook them tonight. I can help.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes,” she said. “Put them in the cart, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, and duly added them to the cart, a little weirded out by her gravitas. But what the hell, right? We all like fish. I’d steamed and roasted whole ones before. No bigs. We’d have it tomorrow night. (We’d already bought a rotisserie chicken, and I was planning on making our go-to quick dinner when we got home — a cheater’s enchilada casserole. You pull a rotisserie, toss it with a couple cups of salsa verde, layer tortillas on top, sprinkle with chihuahua cheese and run it under the broiler. So easy you don’t even need a recipe. You’re welcome!)

We rolled through the checkout line. The Burger made a point of telling the cashier we were going to cook trout for dinner. Twice on the way home, she asked, “we’re going to make those fish tonight, right?” I lobbed a distracted we’ll see — the parents’ timeworn I’m not going to actually say no to you right now — into the backseat, the week’s dinner lineup playing out in my mind. Casserole tonight. (Yes. I’m from the Midwest. Even with salsa verde, it’s still called casserole.) Fish tomorrow. Pasta Tuesday. You get the idea.

She asked again when we got home. “Can we please make these tonight? Please?”

The Husband looked at me. “Strike while the iron’s hot,” he said. “We said we were going to teach her to cook, right?”

So I rinsed the belly cavities, sliced some lemons, got out the shallot salt**, lined some baking sheets with foil, and sat on the floor. The Burger helped me pat the fish dry, inside and out, with paper towels, then asked if she could touch the fish for a minute. She moved the fins around; opened and closed the tail, accordion-style; checked inside the mouth; then said, “I’m gonna poke the eyeball.”

“Go nuts,” I told her. “Some people eat the eyeball after it’s cooked.”

“I’m going to do that,” she declared, then rammed her finger into the fish’s eye socket. “It squirted and tickled me!”

Ocular destruction complete, we moved on to rubbing the inside and outside of the fish with salt and olive oil, and stuffing the cavities with lemons. The Burger also shoved a lemon slice into each trout’s mouth. The doorbell rang while we were working; it was one of The Burger’s little pals from the neighborhood.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Making fish for dinner,” I replied, half-hoping this would repel her. This was not my favorite of The Burger’s neighborhood pals. But she earned some major points by exclaiming, “Cool! Are those real? Can I help?” I sent her to the bathroom to wash her hands, and the two of them worked earnestly, making patterns of thinly sliced lemons on top of the fish and finishing each one with a chef-ly flourish of salt.

We slid the trays into a preheated 400-degree oven, sent the now-slightly-more-tolerable neighbor girl packing, and The Burger and I called her grandparents for the weekly update while The Husband monitored fish doneness***, sauteed some spinach in garlic-infused olive oil, and portioned out the plates.

“I made trout tonight!” The Burger reported to my dad.

“You did? What kind of trout? Rainbow trout?”

“Ummmmm…Costco trout.” (The next day, confusing her big box retailers, she told her daycare teachers that she’d made Target trout for dinner. They already think we’re strange; I’m sure this sealed the deal.)

Dinner was a hit. The burger cleaned her plate, spinach included, and asked for two more helpings of trout. Despite her voracious appetite, we had a ton of trout leftover. It was a Costco-sized package, after all. The Husband repurposed it into a spread/dip kind of thing (lemon mayonnaise, sour cream, minced red onion, parsley and capers) that we ate ourselves sick on the next night while watching football.

But you know what? We forgot to eat the cheeks. And the eyeballs.

Next time.
_______________

*How do you tell if a fish is good? It should look healthy. Look at the eyes — they should be shiny and bright, not sunken or cloudy. The skin should glisten, and if you poke the flesh, it should be firm. And it shouldn’t smell, well, fishy; it should smell clean and briny.

** Shallot salt. It’s awesome. It’ll change your fish life. It’s just sea salt mixed with crushed dehydrated shallots — an allium, a cross between onion and garlic, but milder and sweeter than both. I bought my first bottle from Penzey’s, my second bottle from Savory, and now I just make it myself with The Burger’s help. Just put a bunch of dehydrated shallots in a zip-top bag, have your toddler smash them with a rolling pin or meat tenderizer, then mix them with fine sea salt. Boom.

*** How do you tell if a whole fish is done? Try to pull the fillet away from the bones (use a knife, not your fingers) — it should pull away without too much resistance. If you’re not worried about appearances, you can also break through the skin with a knife or fork and see if the flesh flakes easily. Remember, too, that your fish’ll continue cooking for a minute or two after you remove it from the heat, so if it seems a shade underdone, you’re actually right on target. This goes for portioned fillets, too.

Hominy

In Making Food on September 13, 2010 at 8:47 am

Week 28
Hominy

It being football season and all, and me being slightly infatuated with my slow cooker, and having found a gigantic angus beef chuck roast from Mint Creek Farm in our freezer, I decided to make chili. More specifically, Lady Bird Johnson’s Pedernales River Chili, which is ridiculously simple and deceptively delicious. She had cards printed up with the recipe, and gave it out freely, calling it “almost as popular as the government pamphlet on the care and feeding of children.” (More, probably. Those things aren’t exactly page-turners.)

In addition to being a hell of a chili maker, Lady Bird was also the first First Lady to actively advocate for legislation. Her pet cause was the Highway Beautification Act, which limited roadside and billboard advertising, and encouraged median and roadside landscaping, prompting The Husband, whenever we drive past a particularly pretty highway median planting, to say solemnly: “Thank you, Lady Bird.”

Lady Bird, by the way, is not her real name. Her first name’s Claudia, but as a child, her nurse apparently commented that she was “purty as a ladybird,” and the nickname stuck. Given that a ladybird is a kind of beetle — i.e., not a bird — the compliment seems, well, dubious. To be fair, ‘ladybird’ is the British term for ‘ladybug,’ but still: some might justifiably take exception to an insect-related nickname.

Like I said, I’m currently obsessed with using my slow cooker,but I’ll give you stove-top instructions since I don’t want to presume anyone else is as crockpot-infatuated as I am. (Though have you tried using slow cooker liners? I don’t usually advocate buying extra packaging-type stuff, but oh man: these’ll become your new best clean-up friend. Please don’t tell me if they have phthalates.)

Dice a large white onion and mince two cloves of garlic, and saute the aromatics in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add four pounds chili meat (beef chuck that’s either been coarsely ground or cut into quarter-inch dice), and brown the meat. Add 1 tablespoon dried oregano, 2 tablespoons ground cumin, 3 tablespoons chili powder, a pinch of cayenne, generous salt, a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, and 2 teaspoons (or tablespoons) of liquid hot sauce. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the meat is tender — it should take about an hour, but it certainly won’t suffer if you let it go longer. (Purists, note that I’ve roughly tripled the amount of oregano, cumin and hot sauce, doubled the amount of chili powder and tomatoes, inserted cayenne, and omitted the two cups of hot water LadyBJ’s original recipe called for.)

I did this in my slow cooker, though, so I skipped the oil and the browning steps, and just chucked all of the raw ingredients into the crockpot, turned it on high, and went to lie down on the couch and do absolutely nothing for three hours while the chili cooked. The whole prep process took exactly 12 minutes, which included: wrestling with a particularly unyielding onion skin; having a hell of a time separating individual cloves from a head of garlic; trying to find the jar of cumin (which, naturally, was on the back of the sink next to the hand soap); dealing with a can opener that wouldn’t finish opening the can of tomatoes; swearing loudly at said can opener; and dicing a five-pound blob of angus chuck roast. (Though to be honest, I did not break the chuck down into minute, exacting, quarter-inch dice. It was more like a sloppy rough one-inch chop. I mean no disrespect to either the Former First Lady or the Pedernales River Basin.)

I’ll usually add some kidney or pinto beans to my chili, though not frozen corn, because my dad always added frozen corn to his chili, and I loved it, but eventually I learned the hard way that most other people in the world hate corn in their chili and/or think you’re crazy for putting it in there in the first place. So the hominy was a bean substitute, a nod to my dad’s chili, and a subtle nose-thumb to everyone who thinks corn in chili is whack.

But I wasn’t exactly sure when to add the hominy to the chili. Nor was I exactly sure what hominy was, so I spent some of my inert three hours doing some half-hearted gastronomic research. Hominy’s basically corn that’s been dried, then soaked in an alkali mixture to remove the bran and the husk. The soaking process increases the nutritional value of the corn, unlocking the lysine and tryptophan amino acids as well the niacin and B vitamins, and also doubles the size of the kernel. If you re-dry the soaked hominy, you can grind it, and then you’ve got grits. (In New Orleans, they call the whole hominy kernels ‘big hominy,’ and the ground grits ‘little hominy.’)


But this alkali thing had me confused. Most of what I read online listed lye as the principal soaking agent, but the can of hominy in my pantry said the corn had been processed with lime. Not being super-familiar with the distinction between “lye” and “lime,” I searched the internet, and was mildly disturbed to see the title of the third result: what works best to disintegrate a human body, lye or lime? Even more disturbing was the one-sentence content preview, which read, in part, “hey dude a 44 gallon drum half full of acid will do the trick, 58hrs37 min and all gone.”

I did not click on this particular search result, which seemed 1) entirely unrelated to my hominy quest and 2) pretty much guaranteed to give me nightmares.

I decided that maybe I already knew everything there was to know about hominy, and I added it to the chili after about two hours, which I figured would be enough time for it to absorb some flavor and heat through, but not enough time for it to disintegrate or anything. (I don’t know if hominy disintegrates, but the aforementioned web search had indelibly planted the word ‘disintegration’ in my mind.)

After three-ish hours, we were too hungry to wait any longer, so we ate. Which is too bad, because the chili really could’ve benefited from a longer stint in the slow cooker. The meat was almost-but-not-quite-fall-apart-tender; the texture seemed a little thin (which is the curse of the slow cooker); and I really should’ve stirred the pot once or twice during cooking. Plus I think it would’ve benefited from the beans after all, texture-wise, since the hominy didn’t seem to add much, and I probably could’ve added more of it, along with salt and hot sauce. But like I said: hunger called.

As usual, I was super-critical of what I’d making, poking derisively through the bowl with my spoon and offering a steady stream of the-many-ways-in-which-this-could-be-better commentary, while The Husband plowed through a bowl like nothing was wrong. When I asked him if he thought it needed beans, he looked at me blankly and said, “No. Yes?”

We ate it topped with a healthy dose of sour cream, more hot sauce, chopped raw onions, and shredded colby jack.


CoJack might seem like a weird choice for a girl who works around fancy cheese all day, but all of the orange cheddars at the store today tasted bitter and poisony (to me, anyway), and I have some weird, atavistic Midwestern aversion to white cheddar on top of my chili. We left the slow cooker on low overnight, and in the morning, the chili was perfect. The flavors had deepened, the meat was falling apart, and the hominy had plumped up a bit, making it both more noticeable and more toothsome. Chili’s always better the next day, anyway, and apparently so is my mood.

Salt-Roasted Branzino

In Making Food on September 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Week 27
Salt-Roasted Branzino

Salt roasting — where you whip egg whites until they’re stiff, fold in a bunch of salt, pack an entire fish in in the salt-egg mixture then bake it, creating a hard crust/shell kind of thing in which the fish steams– has always intrigued me. One, because how can the fish possibly not be ridiculously salty? And two, what a waste of perfectly good salt.

But this week a bunch of things transpired to make salt-roasted fish an imminent reality.

First, whole branzino went on sale at the store. If you haven’t had branzino, you really should. Run, don’t walk. It’s a silver-skinned Mediterranean bass, a white fish, but really meaty-yet-delicate and flavorful and a little oily. It’s common in French, Spanish, Greek and Italian cooking, and in France it’s called loup de mer, or wolf of the sea, which is infinitely cooler than branzino.

Then, I was idly poking through the pantry, trying to take an inventory of heretofore unused ingredients I bought with the best of blogging intentions. (Ghee, steel-cut oats, Chinese sugar rock candy, and some weird kelly green spicy Bombay sandwich spread are all still kicking it on the shelves.) And I found a gigantic unopened three-pound box of kosher salt that I think was left over from our last apartment, which we lived in four years ago in an entirely different time zone.

And then while I was digging through the freezer looking for a package of bacon that I knew had to be in there somewhere, I found a tupperware full of egg whites from my Obsessive Ice Cream Making Era. (Never found the bacon, by the way. Or if I did, I couldn’t tell. Let this be a lesson to all of us: label whatever you put into your freezer, because I promise: you won’t recognize or remember it three weeks later.)

So the stage was set for salt-roasted branzino to rear its scaly head.

Mixed metaphors aside, I let the egg whites — I’m guessing there were about four in there — defrost overnight, then beat them with a whisk until they were foamy. Soft-stiff peaks would’ve been better, but I didn’t have the patience or the energy to do that by hand, and I couldn’t remember where the whisk attachment to my hand blender was living these days. Then I added the salt. The recipes I’d looked at called for one pound of salt per pound of fish, but here’s the thing about that: I’d already thrown away the wrapper with the scale tag on it, and couldn’t remember how much the fish weighed. So I just added enough salt until the egg-salt mixture looked like something that would hold together if I tried packing a fish into it. You’re sort of going for a sand-castle-buildability texture here.

I spread out a bit of the salt mixture onto a parchment-paper-lined roasting pan, then laid the whole (cleaned, gutted, scaled) fish on top of it:


Then I dumped the rest of the salt mess onto the fish, and patted it into a crust-type thing that covered pretty much the whole fish, though I will admit that I left a tiny airhole around the fish’s mouth and where I imagined its nostrils to be, because I felt weird suffocating it, even though I understand 1) the whole concept of breathing through one’s gills and 2) that the fish was already dead:

Then I wrapped the whole roasting pan in cling film, shoved it in the fridge, and headed out to work. The whole process took about four minutes. When I got home, some of the egg white had separated from the salt and leaked out onto the parchment paper. I didn’t sweat it too much; I just heated the oven to 400, shoved the fish in, roasted it for 20 minutes, then let it stand on the counter for 10 more. The stray weepy egg whites lent a cool kind of meringue halo effect to the whole dish:


I do think you’d probably get slightly better results if you prepared this right before roasting — that’d give the egg whites less time to weep and/or deflate — but I don’t think doing it in advance compromised the final dish too much. To gussy it up a bit more, you could shove some lemon or orange slices, crushed garlic cloves, or whole herb sprigs into the fish’s cavity.

To serve, you’ve got to whack the salt crust pretty hard with the back of a wooden spoon. The crust’ll shatter, and while this’d look pretty cool at a dinner party table, I’d worry about getting some flying salt fragments in your guests’ eyes. (Then again, maybe you don’t have to hit it quite as hard or as gleefully as I did.)


The skin’ll peel off easily, and you can lift the top fillet off the bones, flip the fish, peel again, and lift off the rest of the flesh. We served it with some chard that The Husband sauteed with ginger and garlic, plus some awesome Indian spiced tomato rice that I picked up at Patel Brothers and refuse to be embarrassed about using, even if it does come in one of those ridiculous boil-in-the-bag pouches.

The branzino was perfect — exactly done, tender and moist, and not overly salty at all. It did pick up a few of the salt crust crumbs while we were peeling off the skin and transferring the flesh to our dinner plates, but it turned out to be just the right amount of saltiness. We did wind up tossing the salt crust into the trash, though if we do this again in the winter, I’ll throw the salt onto our back steps, because why not?

Funnel Cake

In Making Food on August 21, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Week 25
Funnel Cake

Last week, at the tail end of an emailed dinner invitation, a friend wrote the following two sentences at the end of his menu proposal:

“You look like a girl who can make a mean funnel cake. Just sayin’.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all it took. Within minutes, I was looking up funnel cake recipes and digging through the kitchen drawers for a thermometer suitable for deep-fat frying. (Having never deep-fat-fried anything before, I came up short.) Apparently all you need to do to galvanize me into action is to use the words “mean,” “girl” and “[some sort of pastry product]” in the same sentence.

A state fair staple, funnel cakes are pure Americana. Or so you’d think. They’re common, although more elegantly named and occasioned, in European cuisine — in Italy, they’re called furtaies, made with a grappa-spiked batter, and traditionally served at weddings. In Finland, tippaleipa are served at May Day celebrations. In Austria and Germany, they’re called strauben. And when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought strauben with them (you know, figuratively speaking), thereby setting the stage for the perennial American summer festival snack smackdown: funnel cakes vs. cream puffs.

And you know what? Funnel cakes are ridiculously easy to make.

In a medium bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons sugar, 1 1/4 cup flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking powder. In a small bowl, beat together 2/3 cup milk and 1 egg, then stir the wet ingredients into the dry until you’ve got a smooth batter. Lift the spoon out of the batter — if the dough falls off in clumps (or, worse yet, doesn’t come off the spoon at all), add more milk a bit at a time, stirring after each addition. Ultimately, you want the dough to pour smoothly and evenly off the spoon, so it’ll, well, pour smoothly and evenly through the funnel.

You can, quite literally, make these by pouring the batter through a funnel into hot oil, though you can also use a pastry bag, or even a zip-top bag. (If you use a pastry bag, you’d want to use a number 12 tip.) I have a bunch of pastry bags and this gigantic box of pastry tips from the time I made my sister-in-law’s wedding cake, and I hurriedly shoved them all, along with a zip-top bag full of funnel cake batter, into a bag to take to my friend’s place for dinner.

But on the way over, I started to think about how obnoxious it would look to pull out my 52-piece master decorating kit and sort through the tips for the #12 piece. (What kind of small talk do you make while looking for your #12 pastry tip? About what a pedant you are?) I also thought about what a redundant pain in the ass it would be to transfer the dough from the zip-top bag into the pastry bag. Plus, as my friend pointed out when I told him about my piping quandry, it’s a funnel cake. So I did the easiest, least messy, and most unpretentious thing possible: cut a tiny corner off the zip-top bag, and used that as a makeshift pastry bag.

While you’re debating whether or not you want to use a pastry bag and/or look like a pretentious snob — that is, the exact opposite of a person who would make funnel cakes for dessert — get the oil going. In a deep skillet or wide pot, heat 2 cups of oil until it’s hot enough. If you’ve got a candy/frying thermometer, this means 375. (If all you’ve got is a meat thermometer, don’t even bother pulling it of the drawer, since it won’t go high enough.) If you’re thermometer-less, it’ll take between 5 and 7 minutes over a medium-high flame; the oil should be shimmery, but not bubbling or smoking. Test whether it’s hot enough by dropping in a tiny bit of batter — if the droplet immediately rises to the surface, sizzles and begins browning, the oil’s ready.

Drizzle the batter into the hot oil in a random, curlicue fashion, keeping the bag relatively close to the oil. (If you pipe from too high above the oil’s surface, you’ll get all sorts of stray, unconnected, comma-shaped bits of batter. Delicious, but incoherent and not technically a funnel cake so much.)

Let it cook for 60 to 90 seconds, or until golden brown on the bottom, then carefully flip it over and cook for another minute or so.

Remove to a paper-towel-lined plate, let drain for a moment, then sprinkle with powdered sugar, or cinnamon sugar.

The above recipe’ll yield two dinner-plate-sized funnel cakes that will be 1) totally professional-looking (inasmuch as it’s possible for a funnel cake to look professional, that is) and 2) mind-blowingly good. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy/chewy on the inside, and the perfect chaser to a fully loaded hot dog.

Canning

In Making Food on August 8, 2010 at 7:07 pm

Week 24
Canning

Canning’s something I’ve been meaning to do for, oh, a million years. Once upon a birthday — so long ago I can’t remember which one — my oldest sister gave me an Amazon gift card; I used to it purchase an intro-to-canning tool kit and the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. The unopened canning kit has moved from apartment to apartment, from state to state with me; it’s been a part of my household longer than The Husband.

And while I did read the Ball canning book recently, I can tell you from firsthand experience that raptly reading a canning/preserving book will garner you some very strange looks on the express commuter train (or, probably, anywhere outside of the kitchen).

Canning’s back in a big way — as in, all of the cool kids are doing it (prompting my friend Andy to ask me in a recent email: “When did all this old-school redneck stuff like banjo-pickin’ and chicken-coop-havin’ become de rigeur in the more well-off, highly educated urban areas?”). Google “increased interest in home canning” and the top three results will be from July 2010. Canning workshops and classes are popping up all over the city, but somehow, even though I was dying to get started, I just couldn’t quite bring myself to pony up $65. I mean, who pays for a kick in the pants?

But then a friend of mine who also teaches cooking classes invited a bunch of us to a canning/pickling party at her place. She’s one of those people who’s not really afraid of anything in the genre of uber-complicated hands-on domestic projects. When we were building the raised beds for our communal backyard garden, she mentioned off-handedly that she owned her own circular saw — from when she re-did her hardwood floors. She decorates ridiculously beautiful cakes, teaches classes on things like cracker- and pierogi-making, and always has a jar of homemade pickles at every gathering; I figured if anyone was going to light a canning fire under my ass, it’d be her.

And you know what? Canning is ridiculously, ridiculously easy. In the space of a single (albeit long) evening, seven of us knocked out close to 50 jars of stuff: tomatoes, salsa, cardamom-peach jam, pickled beets, pickled carrots, pickled green beans, eggplant, peppers, and cucumbers.

We took most of our recipes and cues from Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling, and relied on our resident canning expert for advice and reassurance; you too can benefit from her expertise by taking her canning/preserving class later this month.

The jars are all lined up on our counter, and I get this ridiculously simple sense of self-satisfaction staring at them, like a little kid staring at a finger-painting on the fridge. And you know what? It’s about as simple as fingerpainting, and less messy.

Tatsoi

In Making Food on July 17, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Week 22
Tatsoi

Obsession might be too strong a word for my feelings about greens, but only just barely. I love greens; I love them; I do. Mustard, dandelion, collard. Kale, chard, spinach. Bok choy, broccoli rabe, watercress. Sometimes I get more excited about the greens that come attached to root vegetables than I do about the root vegetables themselves: turnips greens, beet greens, and radish greens are all delicious. Thanks to our awesome CSA from Harvest Moon Farms, I’ve got a few heads of kohlrabi in the fridge (which will almost certainly be the subject of next week’s post), and I’m less nervous about, and have more ideas for, cooking the leaves than the actual bulb itself. (This is the part where readers shower me with awesome-kohlrabi-recipe-laden comments.)

So when I saw a bunch of greens labeled ‘tatsoi’ at the farmers market alongside the chard and spinach, I didn’t hesitate. They look a lot like baby bok choy, only darker and greener, and the entire bunch was just slightly larger than my outstretched palm, which looks really weird — botanically speaking — in this photo. (Ignore the asparagus and the inexplicably placed tongs on the left side of the photo.)

We decided to use the tatsoi instead of spinach in a kind of kitchen-sink pasta dish, one of our year-round standbys that’s great for using up whatever’s kicking around the fridge and pantry. (We call these “Sharon dinners” in honor of The Husband’s stepmom, who can produce an awesome MacGyver-esque dinner out of whatever’s in the house. Two carrots, deli ham, kidney beans and feta? Frozen corn, leftover fried chicken, lentils and yogurt? No sweat. Just give her twenty minutes and some duct tape, and you’ll be sitting down to a feast.)

The Husband, who’s been helping out more and more with dinner prep these days, set to work cooking about a pound of spicy Italian sausage from the world’s best meat market* while I prepped the vegetables. I thinly sliced a shallot, cut a bunch of asparagus into two-inch-ish segments, and sliced a zucchini into half-moons. The tatsoi leaves got sliced into inch-thick ribbons, and the tatsoi stems got the one-inch-chop treatment too.

Once the sausage was cooked, The Husband used a slotted spoon to transfer it from the pan to a big bowl. In the fat remaining in the pan, he gave the shallots a quick saute, then added the zucchini and asparagus and cooked just until they started to soften, about three or four minutes. In went the tatsoi stems for another minute or so, then the tatsoi leaves, which took about thirty seconds to wilt. The greenery went into the bowl with the sausage, then we added some garlic linguini, about a half-cup of grated pecorino romano, and some of the pasta cooking water, a pasta-saucing trick that works wonderfully when I remember it:

Just before you’re about to drain the pasta, dip a ladle or measuring cup into the pot and steal about a cup of the cooking water. Once you add grated cheese to the pasta dish, add about a half-cup of the cooking water, and toss well; add a little more water if needed. The starchy liquid’ll combine with the grated cheese to make a poor man’s sauce, and you won’t need to add much (if any) olive oil to help the cheese stick to the pasta (though you’re of course welcome and encouraged to do so).


Apologies for the blurriness of this photo; I can’t seem to get used to the couple-second delay on my phone’s camera function, and I’m usually too impatient/lazy/hungry to try for a really good picture.

The tatsoi was super-delicious, and distinctly different from other greens we’ve used in pastas, stir-fries and sautes before. It didn’t get slimy or ferrous-metallic like spinach can/does; it wasn’t bitter like mustard or dandelions greens; it wasn’t timid like chard or toothsome like kale. It was creamy (which is admittedly a weird thing to say about a green), rich and robust, flavorful without being distracting or overwhelming. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any at the market since, so I’m guessing it’s an early summer crop. And one that I will be planting in next year’s garden, because I’m already (still?) craving it.

* Dude, I’m serious about this meat market. I joined Twitter just to follow them. Well, them, and my friend’s feed of hilarious and super-offensive puns that would’ve gotten rejected from the Snickers ad campaign. (Start a nuclear war with Snackistan! Wear tight pants and show off some Carameltoe! Go bow-hunting with Ted Nougat!) I think he’s stopped posting them now, and for some reason I can’t go back to the older tweets, but: he had a good run. Rejected Snicker, we hardly knew ye.

Black Currants

In Making Food on July 11, 2010 at 9:22 am

Week 21
Black Currants

Black currants really want to get you drunk. When I was trawling the web for black currant recipes, an astonishing number of the results were booze-related. This is in large part due to the black currant’s presence in creme de cassis, its namesake liqueur, which is used in such awesomely monikered drinks as the Boozy Rouge, Beautiful Fungus, Lion Heart, My Place or No Place, Baltic Murder Mystery, and The Red Devil.

Since I’m mostly laying off the sauce these days, though, I stuck to less alcoholic search results. But let me back up.

I came across black currants in much the same way I did the garlic scapes from a couple weeks ago: at the Nichols Farm stand at the Green City Market. I’d never seen them before, so I bought them. (Well, technically, The Husband bought them. Usually when we go to the farmers market, he follows me around patiently, agrees with everything I say about everything, then pays for whatever I point at. He’s a good guy, The Husband.) I could’ve sworn I’d seen a tart recipe involving black currants in my favorite Nigella Lawson book, How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking. But when I got back home and looked it up, the recipe called for white currants and blackberries. So it was back to the drawing board.

The British, of which Nigella Lawson is one, loooove black currants. So much, in fact, that they’ve got The Blackcurrant Foundation, an organization of the fruit’s growers who are dedicated to raising “widespread awareness of the mini superfruit hero.” The foundation touts the latest health research on black currants: the fruit may help asthma, can help fight urinary tract infections, may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s, and has been proven (albeit in a very small study of 33 Japanese women) to reduce dark under-eye circles. The website even features a countdown clock to this year’s black currant harvest, which as I write this sentence, is only six days, seven hours, thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds away.

Black currants, which pretty much look like black blueberries, have super-high levels of Vitamin C. During World War II when citrus fruits were scarce, the British government encouraged cassis cultivation. During the ’40s and ’50s, most of the nation’s black currants were made into syrup, which was given gratis to children to prevent scurvy. The foundation’s hard at work making sure this generation of British schoolkids continue to carry the black currant torch; they recently sponsored a cartoon mascot design contest for elementary school students. To me, the winning entry looks kind of like an obese grape with a giant leaf sticking painfully out of his head, but to be fair, it was conceptualized by a seven-year-old.

But pro-cassis propaganda aside, the foundation’s got a ton of recipe suggestions that can help you incorporate black currants into any meal. (Or into my new favorite beverage-related word: gripe water.) I swiped their recipe for warm venison salad with black currant dressing and made a few changes to it, based on what I thought had in the kitchen. And then I made some more changes, based on what I actually had in the kitchen. And then some more changes, based on how those things I actually had actually tasted.

I was all set to rub our goat loin and rack chops with a homemade spice rub that involved juniper berries, fennel seeds and allspice, but I couldn’t find it. I was pretty sure we’d had a jar of it, but I guess I was imagining it, because now that I think about it, I don’t even know what a juniper berry looks like. I half-heartedly dug around the spice rack for a while, trying to think of what I could use instead, but all I kept thinking about was how easy it would be to order Thai food instead. So I resigned myself to the timeless simplicity and elegance of: salt and pepper.

I seared the bone-in chops in some olive oil for about ten minutes on each side, until they were medium-well-ish, then removed them from the pan to let them rest.

While the chops were cooking, I started making the sauce. I dumped about a cup of black currants into the blender, then remembered that I should taste one, in the interests of science and this blog. I fished one out, popped it in my mouth, chewed, and promptly spit it out. It tasted — and I believe this is the most charitable description available — like bile.

I stared at the blender for a while, hands on hips, and thought again about dumping everything into the trash and calling Cozy Noodle for some dumplings and pad si ewe. But then I thought about what a waste of money that would be, and how we’d gone to the farmers market to get the berries and the goat chops, and how hard the farmers had worked, and how disrespectful jettisoning it all into the garbage would be. I thought (skeptically) about something I’d read that said black currants taste much better when they’re cooked. But mostly I thought about what a wuss I’d be if I threw everything out and how I’d have to find something else to write about this week. And that sounded more exhausting than just making the whole damn dinner already.

The Husband walked into the kitchen just then, and I warned him: “Dinner probably won’t be very good tonight. But we have to eat it anyway.”

He looked at me carefully, and said, “Um, okay.” Were I in his shoes, I would’ve left the room (and quite possibly the house) at that point, but he asked what he could do to help, so I got him started spinning the salad greens, cutting the goat meat off the chops, and thinly slicing a shallot.

Forging ahead with the black currant debacle, I added 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons of port and 1 tablespoon agave nectar, then whizzed everything together then (very, very tentatively) tasted the now-magenta puree. It wasn’t bad — kind of earthy, kind of musky, a little tangy, a little sweet. I added a bit of salt and pepper, a little more vinegar, 2 tablespoons water, and 1 teaspoon olive oil, then whizzed it again. The sauce was full of seeds and skin bits, so I poured it through a finely meshed strainer into a saucepan and gently heated it.

While I was tasting the now-pretty-good-tasting sauce for salt/pepper/sugar/acid (it needed more of all four), I hear The Husband yelp. When I looked up, he was shaking his head vigorously and making the universal “I just ate something awful” face.

“So, we might not want to use raw shallots on the salad,” he said.

I found some green onions in the fridge instead. We thinly sliced them,  then piled the greens onto plates and topped them with toasted pistachios, the green onions, crumbled goat cheese and the sliced goat meat. Then I messily poured the warm dressing over the salads, and there was dinner:

Lessons learned tonight:

  • Check the shelves before you get your heart set on a particular spice or flavor. If it’s not there, and you’re tired and already a little crabby, you’ll be overwhelmed by the temptation to say “screw it” and order in.
  • Shallots are best cooked.
  • Keep going, but always have a Plan B. (By Plan B, I mean “ingredients for a normal salad dressing lying around the house, in case the weird one you’re making turns out to be disgusting.”) I think a lot of things taste or smell gross before they get good. See, for example, the stench of uncooked queso blanco, or the hog-rendering-facility smell of pork belly as it braises. Sauerkraut, vinegar and beer fall into this category too, I’m told.
  • Eating goat meat and goat cheese in the same dish makes me feel weird. I asked The Husband if he felt kind of like a cannibal doing so, and he said yes, so it’s not just me.
  • Duck, venison or lamb might’ve been better in this particular dish, but the goat from Mint Creek Farm is so good it’s hard to care.
  • Black currants are probably not something I’ll buy again, but Bolshoi Punch just might become my signature drink.