Saturday, August 31, 2013

Vegetables From Space!!!

Some vegetables just look so... Cool. Or do I mean weird? Kind of a great still life, but... does anyone really know how to cook them? Or even what they are?

And are we sure they're not some alien life form? All right - I'm going to date myself, here - child of the Sixties that I am, that picture looks to me as if those things landed from outer space to sit on my dish towel. (Though they're a bit more colorful than most pictures of UFOs I remember seeing... let alone real space capsules.)

The Flying Saucer - on the left - is a patty pan squash. It's a regular summer squash, just like zucchini, or crookneck. Just cut it up and cook it the same way. No, I do not have pictures of a suggested way to cut it - I've never found a way I was particularly pleased with - just hack it into chunks.

If you get some that are small enough, they can be cooked whole, and that's really attractive. I was even served them as an appetizer at a very nice wedding, once! Specialty stores do sometimes sell baby squash (at a premium, of course) for the purpose. I have not had luck with cooking a standard one whole - the outside seems to get soggy before the middle is done. One of these days, I'll experiment with stuffing one, as people stuff large zucchini, but I've never really stuffed vegetables much, so don't have anything yet. I can see it being a very nice presentation, though...

Sputnik, on the right (no, I don't actually remember Sputnik, but it was part of the general culture of my childhood) is a kohlrabi. Actually, the stems have been snapped off this one - the resemblance is much stronger when it still has stems sticking out at all angles! And they come in purple, too - one of the farmers here had piles of green and purple ones all winter.

(Ah - here's a purple Sputnik...)

Five years ago, I'd heard the word Kohlrabi, but could no more have told you how to cook it than, in fact, how to build Sputnik. I was walking past them at Greenmarket... and then I got some, at the CSA. Time to learn.

Well, I was missing out.

It's almost two different vegetables. Now, in Summer, the kohlrabi I'm getting are young and tender, crisp and juicy, and I cut them up raw for salads. They have a very slight bite - much less than a radish, but enough to be interesting, and they are very pleasantly crunchy. As the year goes on, though (and as we move out of salad season... see, it works...) they become harder and more fibrous, and need cooking. A light saute at first, and then, in winter, I simmer them as I would a carrot.

Even the young, tender ones need to be peeled, though. I'm normally all for scrubbing vegetables instead of peeling them, as so much of the nutrition lies in or just under the skin, but some peels are just inedible, and this is one.

I can't even use my swivel peeler for a paper thin paring... this peel is thick and tough and fibery, and if it gets into your dish, you find yourself spitting out stringy bits - very unpleasant. Luckily, once you cut it, the peel is quite visible - no guesswork needed. It is a darker color, and the tender center is very pale. (And the purple ones are only purple in the peel - the middle is very pale green.)

Once I peel them, I just cut them in cubes or rectangles - again, rather like carrot sticks. Right now, the texture is more like a very juicy radish, so I want them bite sized for my salads - not a thin slice, but enough to crunch. A half moon shape would be fun, too, if you have some small enough.

What vegetable have you seen at the market (or gotten at the CSA!) that intimidates you? Or that you just don't have a clue about... what is it, how do you cook it, will you even like it???

I now must go forth and venture where, well, where *I* have never gone before, though many fine cooks have... the tomatillo. I just saw an intriguing recipe on another blog - Not Eating Out in NY . It is, logically, perfectly seasonal here - but I'll probably tweak it... my CSA doesn't give me many beans.  (Eggplant, now... I wonder what it would be like with eggplant...) But, for the first time, I feel I can make something other than salsa verde.

Adventures in vegetables!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In Search Of - Creamy Salad Dressing!

I eat salad - a lot. I eat salads for lunch all summer. With a different assortment of vegetables every week, it never feels repetitive or boring, it readily lends itself to preprep and fast assembly, and it's a great way to eat a lot of lovely fresh vegetables.

And I like to make my own salad dressings. It seems silly to me to pay for an oil and vinegar based dressing when I can make a better, fresher one at home in five minutes (or less) for much less money and with better ingredients.

But I'm missing one thing -  creamy salad dressings. See, when I carry a lunch, and eat in a park, I prefer the thicker dressings. I have a nice little Tupperware leakproof container for my dressing - but then, I pour it into a salad container that... well... is not totally leakproof...  I eat it from that, and that's fine, but I don't have facilities to clean it in the park, and I've found that an oil and vinegar dressing does, sometimes, leak - just a tiny bit, but still... and a creamy thick one does not. So I've been using commercial dressings for that - and I wanted to try something different.

The problem was that most thick dressings are mayonnaise based, and I was making something specifically to carry on a hot day. Now, I don't really carry it long - my schedule swings a bit late in the day - and, if it's really hot, or I'll have it out a while, I do use a thermal bag and ice pack. But still... I didn't want to make something I'd always have to pay attention to, and I know all the mayo based food poisoning horror stories... I decided I wanted to find something else.

First, I decided to try with a bunch of dill. I'd looked up recipes and suggestions, and people seemed to be using Greek Yogurt, which is nice and thick...  So I copped the dill, and put it in a mini food processor.

Processed it a minute, then added yogurt, and just a touch of olive oil to help it cling. Processed that until smooth - it was delicious.

The yogurt is tangy in a very different way than vinegar, and it was really good. But it was also really wet... the processing took away the thickness of the yogurt, even after it had chilled again. So, good, I'll make it again - but not what I was looking for.

Thinking... I saw a suggestion for making one with a fresh tomato, which sounded really good. But... wet... Then I remembered, back in the "All Fat is Evil" nineties, blending cottage cheese and yogurt to make a thick, creamy dip - which people always seemed to really like. That was the texture I was looking for... so...

I only want to make a small amount, with the fresh tomato, as it should be used up in a few days. So, I put 1/4 cup of that Greek yogurt, and a 1/4 cup of natural cottage cheese (without stabilizers - they'll affect the texture adversely - see Note) in a blender with half a very ripe tomato.

Blended it until smooth, then added a sprinkle of dried basil. (Dried, mostly because that's what I had, but also because pink flecked with green is pretty - pink with green fully blended in is muddy...)

Again, delicious, and thicker than the dill, but still too runny. Oh, right - the tomato made it runny... of course!

Well, two possible approaches here. One is just to go ahead with that recipe, but using fresh (or dried) herbs or other flavoring instead of tomato. And I plan to do that, one of these days...  But the other, since we are well into tomato season, and they're just bursting with flavor, is to keep on trying to find a creamy tomato dressing.

OK - the basic idea was sound - adjust proportions?

I used half a cup of cottage cheese, this time. I added a heaping spoonful of Greek Yogurt, for the tang, , and a tablespoon of olive oil (which I'd forgotten last time) remembering that even a little helps the dressing cling to leaves. I blended that - and then, again, stirred in the dried basil. Oh - I didn't add any salt - there is some already in the cottage cheese.

We have a winner! Even right out of the blender, it was thick and creamy - chilling it let it thicken again even a bit more (after the blending made it runny.) And I thought it really tasted good.

I hope showing you the experimentation I used helps. I started knowing enough that nothing was bad, nothing was at all a waste of food or time, but I found the way to make exactly what I wanted, which was not any recipe I had seen. (I have no doubt someone else has figured out something like this - cooking works that way, we're all using the same ingredients and methods -  but I haven't seen it...)

Note: Cottage cheese. I use Friendship, which is a local brand in the East Coast. Its ingredients are basically milk (in various forms - skimmed, cream, selection varies by type of cheese) salt, and enzymes (and these days they pack it with carbon dioxide to keep out oxygen, for freshness.) That's what I grew up eating - and I was confused to find other cottage cheeses that had a different mouthfeel... and seemed... runnier... and didn't work as well in my recipes... Well - many companies, even  organic ones,  now use stabilizers, such as food starch and guar gum. So far as I can tell, they drain off less of the whey, and then use thickeners. At any rate, I find cottage cheese with stabilizers too runny to cook well with - it affects the texture of the final product. I have no idea what brands might make a natural cottage cheese in the rest of the country, but you may want to read labels, and know that ingredients affect results.

Now - in this recipe, the food starch and gum thickeners may in fact work. I did use a brand with them to make smoothies at one point, and it was fine - but it was too wet, when I tried to make a cheese tart. I don't have it on hand to try, though. I really suggest you see if you can find a brand local to you that is just cheese, for cooking, at least.

Creamy Tomato Salad Dressing

1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 T Greek yogurt
1 T olive oil
1/2 large, ripe tomato (or 1 small one,) cut up
1 t dried basil

Combine first four ingredients in a blender jar Blend until smooth. Stir in basil.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Theme: Chicken Vegetable Soup

It's August in New York City. It's hot, and humid, and sticky, and miserable, and... 60 degrees??

Well, every few years, in the middle of our proverbial dog days of Summer, we get just a few days of Fall weather, just to  tease us, before the weather returns to the usual oven. It's a wonderful respite, and really helps for the rest of the summer, too, as the concrete and brick cools off and stops radiating heat at us. You can't count on it, it won't last, but... it is lovely...

Well, we had a few days like that last week. And I had a container of chicken stock in the freezer, and some cooked chicken,  and some odds and ends of both raw and cooked vegetables - and I thought a bowl of a light soup would be a nice addition to lunch.

I looked in the fridge, and assembled my ingredients. Half an onion, half a celery stalk, half a carrot (remember, I'm cooking for two. Sometimes a whole onion or carrot is just too much...) Chicken, and chicken stock. Leftover greens, frozen in cubes.

What? Well... with two of us, a whole bunch of kale or chard is usually too much for one meal, especially as I often serve other vegetables as well. So we freeze the leftovers. My favorite trick, actually, is to freeze them in muffin pans - that gives me little half cup muffins of greens... little manageable chunks. This time, the freezer had been full, though, and we really had some tiny bits,  so Rich (he cleans up, since I cook) put them away in little ice cube holders. (They were my grandmother's - they're useful for all sorts of odd little bits of things... but if you don't have them there are many small containers you can use.) I usually pop them out into a zippered freezer bag the next day, and assemble a bag of muffins and cubes of various cooked greens. They're useful when we carry a meal, they're my go to for  Anne Can't Cook nights, and they're a great size to toss into other dishes.

So, anyway... I got everything together, and put a pot over heat. The chicken fat (there wasn't much) had risen to the top of the stock. I used a spoon to scrape off some of it, and put it in the pan to saute the vegetables. You can scrape all of it off, if you want, and, if there had been a lot of it, I'd have discarded some, but a lot of the flavor is in that fat. It makes more sense to me to just use some of it, instead of adding oil. If I were using packaged stock, which is usually lower in fat, I'd just grease the pan with olive oil.

I chopped the onion, celery, and carrot (Aromatics,  remember?) and put them in the pot. Let them saute just a little, while I chopped the frozen greens. This is one feature I really like about the cubes and muffins rather than one thick chunk - I find them easy to chop more finely, which I want if I add them to soup or a sauce. Let's avoid long strings of kale dripping out of spoons, shall we? They get messy... Then I added the greens to the pot.

Anyhow, when the aromatics had softened a little I popped in the chunk of frozen stock. As it was thawing, I knew I would need more than a pint of broth, and I wanted it to have plenty of flavor, so I crumbled and threw in some dried shitake mushrooms. We're lucky enough to be able to shop in Japanese stores where they are inexpensive, we love mushrooms, and they are very useful for quickly adding some flavor to a broth or sauce. Soup base or seasonings would also be an option here (or just a larger container of stock, if you have one...) Since I was using mushrooms, and not a seasoned soup base, I also added a dash of salt.

While the frozen broth continued to melt, I chopped a piece of the cooked chicken. The soup wasn't going to be a whole meal, so I just put in a little - for flavor, as much as anything else. I added it, then, when the broth was mostly melted, added about a cup of water.

Then I just put on a lid, left it on medium heat until it all simmered about 5 to 10 minutes and all the vegetables were tender, and called it soup.

This kind of soup is a great way to fill out a meal. I use it as part of lunch, as I did here - but it is also a way to get a bit more vegetable, or meat, or... whatever... into a meal that is light on that food group. (I didn't add a grain or bean, this time - but that's easy...)  Or - there is *almost* but not *quite* enough of that casserole left for dinner... or "Of course you can come over!" Or, most often, probably, just that you want to Do Something with those bits and pieces without it feeling like leftovers.

Now, the point of this is to let you cook without a recipe - but I know that, for beginners, it can be easier to have a written out recipe. So I'm adding that, here - and I'm doubling it, instead of actually *calling for* those half pieces of vegetables... but, remember - that's what you can  use...

Recipe - Chicken Vegetable Soup

1 onion
1 carrot
1 rib celery
olive oil (opt.)
1 c cooked greens (any assortment - kale, chard, spinach, beet greens - whatever you have on hand)
1 qt. chicken stock or broth
4 dried shitake mushrooms (or 1 t soup base)
salt, to taste
6 oz cooked chicken

Chop onion, carrots and celery.

Grease the pan with either the fat from homemade stock, or olive oil. Saute the aromatics for a few minutes, until they start to soften.

Chop the greens finely, add them to the pot.

Add stock, and mushrooms or soup base (breaking the mushrooms up into small pieces.) Add another 2 cups of water.

Chop chicken into small chunks, and add to pot.

Let simmer about 10 minutes, until all vegetables are softened and flavor is blended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Variation on a Theme: New York Collards

I wrote about the way I generally cook greens.  I like spinach, chard, beet greens, even mustard greens and kale cooked with the light saute and barely simmer method.

You may (or may not...) have noticed that I didn't mention collard greens...

I didn't grow up eating collard greens. My mother, somewhat unusually among people we knew,  did cook beet greens in the country (when she could get them,) so I did always know how good they were - but pot greens in general, and collards especially just weren't on  the middle class Manhattan Irish radar. I started buying them from farmer's markets as a young woman, but I cooked them the same way I cooked other greens - and didn't like them. They always were tough and unpleasant... and it took me - well, let's be honest - it took me *years* to accept that the problem was my cooking method. Maybe all those Southerners who boil them were onto something...

So, I started asking around. There seemed a wide variety of precise recipes and methods, but there were constants. Start the same way I do, with sauteing washed greens in  a pan, but perhaps use just a little more fat - enough to be sure all the chopped leaves do wilt in it. And most recipes made it something with flavor - bacon or some such - or added other flavorful meat to the pan - smoked pork or turkey, for example. The big difference, though, comes now - add liquid, usually broth, and simmer for a good while - perhaps half an hour, on a very low flame. And many people then serve them with some sort of hot sauce.

Well, I tried that, and it was certainly an improvement. So I've cooked them like that for several years. But... I don't usually have smoked pork in the house... and... well...

I had hot Italian sausage.  It's a flavorful pork product, it contains fat that cooks out, it even had the pepper built in... I couldn't see any reason that wouldn't work...

I cut up the sausage, and dropped it into my heated pan. Then I chopped an onion, and stirred it in, as enough fat cooked out of the sausage so that the onion wouldn't stick, and could brown. Stirred them both around, as the meat and onion browned.

While they cooked, I washed and chopped my collards, as I did in the Basic Greens. The one major difference is that I do always remove the stems of collards - they're just too tough and stringy.  I didn't have to let as much of the water drip off as I do using the other method - after all, I was going to be simmering them - but I did want most of it off. Then, when they were no longer actively dripping, and the meat and onion were browned, I dumped the collards in the pan. I used the tongs to stir them around very thoroughly. As the collards touch the hot fat, they turn a bright green - very attractive looking. I kept stirring until all the chopped leaves were bright green and slightly wilted. (in the picture, you can see some bright and wilted, and some, at the edges, that are still fully raw.)

Then I added water, heated it up, and let the whole thing simmer. As the greens cook, the color darkens. My goal is to let them simmer (and darken) until tender, but catch them just before they turn a dull olive green, which is overcooked, to my taste. That's fairly personal, though - many people like them that soft. I find it usually takes a bit under half an hour - I check regularly after about 20 minutes.I know that some people do cook them as long as an hour, though.

Then you eat that delicious cooking liquid, as well as the greens.  That's the traditional "pot likker" sopped up with bread or served over potatoes and grits - or rice, in my case, or pasta, or...


1/2 pound hot Italian sausage
1 small onion
olive oil (opt., as needed)
I bunch collard greens, chopped and washed, stems removed

Cut up the sausage and the onion.

Brown the sausage in a large fry pan or saute pan, until fat cooks out. (Depending on your source for sausage - if there isn't enough fat to fully grease the pan, add a little olive oil now.) Add the onion, stir to mix with the meat, and saute over low to medium heat until the meat is browned and the onion starts to turn golden.

Add collards. Stir around with the sausage mixture until coated with fat, and let cook, stirring often, until the leaves are a bright green. Add about a cup of water. Bring to a simmer, and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for about half an hour, until cooked to taste.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Browned meat with Beans (and no time...)

In a post last week, I described the situations in which I might used precooked browned meat.  

I then promptly hit the trifecta... 

I was delayed on a job, and got home late. With a (very mild) migraine. And I had a container of cooked beans in the refrigerator... which could be the basis for dinner, but were not, alone, enough. 

But, I had my cooked meat with onions...

I broke off a chunk, and dropped it in a pan.(I didn't even bother to heat the pan first...)

If I'd been more together, at this point I might have added any spices, such as cumin, or hot pepper, which I might want to heat. This time, I didn't bother...

I poured in the beans, and bean cooking liquid.

I routinely cook enough beans for more than one meal, so I have some to use later. This time, as you see, I was using up odds and ends... (OK - so, I could claim this is my Three Bean Special. It was odds and ends dumped in the same jar until I had enough to use... This time - kidney, navy, and garbanzo beans... maybe a couple of pintos?)

If I were using canned beans, which would work just fine, I'd drain them and rinse them off. The starches that accumulate in the can are one of the causes of... um... digestive disturbances, shall we say... for some people. I'm never bothered by beans I cook myself, but I sometimes have trouble with canned beans - one reason I usually cook my own. I do find that cooking them a little longer, not just heating them up, also helps prevent problems.

If I were using canned beans, I'd also add a little water - I want it just a bit soupy, to begin with, because I'm going to simmer it all a bit, and I don't want it to stick.

I sat down for a few minutes, while it heated, and the meat thawed.

I then cut up a yellow summer squash, and tossed it in, and let it all cook for about five minutes, until the squash was just tender. (I sat down...)  I also had a small container of some broccoli rabe from dinner the day before - I tossed the cooked greens in. Then I just stirred it together until everything was heated up, and served over rice I had handy (Yes - I cook enough brown rice for 2-3 meals at a time, also - it heats up beautifully in the microwave.)

I had Rich take pictures every time I stopped (and sat down a minute...) while that step cooked. Neither of us remembered a picture of the plated food. It wasn't, to be honest, particularly pretty - though not bad, with the green and yellow  vegetables - but it tasted awfully good for something that was ready in 15-20 minutes - including breaks for the cook to rest...

I could still, of course, write this up as a Recipe - but that isn't the point. The point, here, is cooking within the constraints you face. What time and energy do I have? How much cooked or canned beans do I have? What's a vegetable that will take little or no effort? I have the frozen cooked meat...

How would your family like it?  Would it need to be something recognizable - say, chili - for them? In which case - chili powder in the pan with the meat,  kidney or pinto beans, a can of tomatoes added with the beans, and other veg on the side. Not your Prizewinning Chile Recipe - but something fast the kids will eat...

Or - skip the beans, use more meat, add a jar of decent commercial  pasta sauce. I'd go ahead and add the squash and rabe (though I'd chop the greens a bit more) and serve it over pasta. We always have a jar or two of commercial sauce in the pantry, just in case... though I usually make my own, when I have time and energy.  (We often have a container or two of that in the freezer - but not always.)  If I didn't have the jarred sauce (or didn't want to use one) I'd use plain canned diced or crushed tomatoes, and crush  in some basil and oregano. Like the "chili" - not exciting, not as much flavor as I'd usually like, but it works.

Or...  What would you do with something like this,  for your family?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Summer Saute - Theme

Sometimes a meal just tastes like a season, to me...

We have corn, now, and zucchini... We have the first tomatoes, now, and are glorying in them raw in salad, but I'm not cooking them, yet. That comes later, with abundance.

I get most of my vegetables from the CSA, but I stop at Greenmarket to buy fruit, and occasionally fill in something specific I need. Last week, one of the farmers had beautiful shallots - at the same price as yellow onions! So I bought some.

When I started to cook, I chopped a few shallots and dropped them into my prepared pan.  My what?

I put a frying pan or saute pan over medium heat, and let it heat for a minute or two, while I chop my onion/garlic/shallots. Then I pour in a very small amount of olive oil, and rotate the pan - the heated pan warms the oil and lets it spread all over the pan quite easily, so there is a film of oil covering the surface. I really use a teaspoon or even less... even in multi-ply stainless steel or cast iron.

Then I add the aromatics. That's a handy phrase for a variety of vegetables used, in this context, mostly for flavoring. Onions and garlic, other aliums such as shallots, or leeks, but also peppers (either sweet or hot,) celery, sometimes finely diced carrot... Which ones you choose strongly affect the flavor of the finished dish - enough that simply varying them can change a whole meal.

I've mentioned combining flavors in traditional ways. The choice of aromatics is so traditional that it has names in several cultures. French mirepoix is onion, carrots, and celery. The sofrito I've heard about from neighbors was onion, garlic, and hot pepper - but I gather that varies widely in different Caribbean cultures, and is different still back in Spain. The Cajun combination (sometimes referred to as the Holy Trinity) is onion, garlic and green pepper. And, of course, you can use your own selection, dictated by family tradition, desired taste on the day, mood, or simply what you have on hand. (The latter, of course, is a major influence on all the traditional mixtures - we're fortunate enough to have choices.)

So, anyhow, I cook the aromatics, usually just until soft. (And, in this case, I only used the shallots, not a mixture.) Then I add the rest of the vegetables.

I had zucchini from the CSA.

This is a Japanese cutting technique called a roll cut. I learned it back when I was first cooking, and have used it routinely ever since for round vegetables like carrots and summer squash. It creates irregularly shaped chunks with a lot of surface area, and I find it allows the vegetable to cook very evenly. When I was a child, I didn't like zucchini, because it was often cooked to mush. This technique helps prevent parts becoming mushy before the  rest is soft.

Basically, you cut the vegetable at an angle, instead of slicing it. Then you roll it slightly, so the knife, held at the same angle, is now cutting the vegetable at a different angle. This gives you oddly shaped chunks, with a great deal of surface.

And, of course, you can slice or cut your vegetables into cubes - it's your cooking, do whatever you and your family like!

I then added the zucchini to the hot pan with the onion. (This all took much less time to do than to explain...) I stirred it around, and let it cook.

The abundance of summer... corn... We've had corn on the cob, but sometimes we have a single ear, sometimes I can't use it for a day or two (so even supersweet isn't at its peak,) sometimes I just want it off the cob... And it is (not surprisingly) a wonderful combination with the other midsummer vegetables.

In this case, I took an ear of corn, microwaved it just three minutes, and let it cool a little still in the husk. I then cut off the kernels. You can, of course, cut it raw, but I've found that cooking it slightly makes them easier to cut (without getting them all over your kitchen...) I added the corn to the pan with the now softened zucchini, and scraped the ear to get all the germ and milk.

The corn was already mostly cooked, so I stirred it around until everything was heated through, and cooked to our taste.

Then I served it with small boiled new potatoes, and a piece of roast chicken. The perfect summer meal!

Summer Saute

olive oil for pan
4 shallots
2 small zucchini
1 ear of corn, slightly cooked if desired,

Heat the pan over medium heat while chopping shallots. Oil the pan, add shallots. Stir.

Cut up zucchini. Add to pan. Stir.

Cut corn kernels from cob. Add corn to pan when zucchini and shallots are almost cooked to your taste. Stir.

Cook until all vegetables are cooked to your taste - usually just another few minutes.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Convenient Food: Browned ground meat with onion

As I've said before, one reason I keep convenient foods on hand is so that I can always put a meal together with very little time or effort.

I have several situations driving this need. For one thing, I have chronic migraine. They're mild, as migraines go, but I never know either when I'm going to get one, or how disabling it will be. I can have a lovely meal planned out, and then find that I'm not able to do more than throw a few ingredients together - or even that I'm just going to Lie Down Now, and tell Rich to Make Dinner Happen. I need a backup plan for those nights.

On a happier note, I sometimes need something after a day at work. I freelance, and, while some of my gigs are by the hour, some are by the job. I go in, and do the set job, however long it takes. Usually it is pretty predictable, but sometimes I'll hit a snag, and get home an hour or two later than I had expected. Then I need something fast - I may have been planning to start the brown rice, and chop the onion, and cut the chicken, but now I want something on the table in 15 minutes. (And, of course - that is everyday reality for many people. I'm in a position to serve a late dinner - most schedules don't allow that.)

Enter browned and cooked ground meat - with or without onion already added. I buy ground meat in so-called Family Packs, which save me money. I'll use some right away, and freeze some raw for later use - but I always brown a good chunk of it right away, and then freeze the precooked crumbles. Then Rich can break off a chunk and put it in a commercial pasta sauce, over pasta, with frozen vegetables (either commercial or leftovers we freeze) and I don't have to do anything.

Or, when I get home late, I can just saute some vegetables, add this, serve it over heated commercial polenta (a commercial convenience food I keep on hand, for this reason - it's still a whole food, it sits in the pantry, and it's ready to go in a couple of minutes. Sure, I can make polenta myself - and I do, when it's a planned meal with plenty of time to cook - but this is to avoid takeout...)

The cooked meat is also useful if I am making a bean dish, that I feel needs just a little boost in protein. This way, I don't have to use another pan, take time for another step - I just break off a bit, and let it heat right in the simmering beans. Another time, I might add hard cooked eggs, or cheese... I like to have choices.

I usually (but not always) saute some onions just slightly, first. Most dishes I use this in will benefit from a little onion - but, if I don't have them handy, or I'm in a rush, I can leave out this step.  I just cook them until they soften a little, as I don't want them overcooked.

Then I break up the meat. Now, you may notice, I keep saying "meat" - not just "beef" or "hamburger." I often mix two kinds of  meat, here - half beef and half turkey or chicken, for example. The mixture is lower in fat than beef alone, but more juicy and flavorful than turkey alone. (Turkey is also usually less expensive - I'm all for stretching budgets...) As it happens, though, these pictures are just of beef.

The pan is already hot from sauteing the onions. If I didn't cook onions, I heat the pan, over medium heat, before adding the meat, so it will brown nicely. I break the meat up in little bits, and sort of sprinkle them over the pan, to maximize surface. I let them sit a while, and then stir occasionally, until it is brown.

I find a lot of ground meat these days has a surprising amount of water in it. I hadn't cooked much meat for many years (and when I did, I wasn't cooking hamburgers) so I really noticed the difference when I started again. So, as the meat cooks, you should be getting some grease cooking out, but you may also get liquid. I let it cook off, as much as I can (and I try to find sources that don't make me pay for water...) When the meat is brown and cooked, though, if there is much liquid in the pan (fat or water or a mixture) I pour it off.

I have seen suggestions that you then rinse the crumbles under hot water, to remove as much fat as possible. That's also going to remove a great deal of the flavor, so I would not recommend it under normal circumstances. I mention it, though, as it might be useful for someone who needs to be on a very low fat and cholesterol diet... Mixing the meats and rinsing might be an occasional alternative to avoiding beef altogether.

Then I let the meat cool. After it is cooled, I bag it in zipper freezer bags. I press the air out, then flatten the bags, and lay them on their sides to freeze, so that I end up with a thinnish slab of frozen food. I find that I can break off pieces, that way, and use the amount I want at any one time. 

Plain looking for a lifesaver, isn't it? But a couple of those bags in the freezer give me a base for a wide variety of quick, easy meals, as needed. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mustard salad dressing - Variation

There are several classic variations of the traditional oil and wine vinegar French dressing. One of the simplest is a similar dressing, with mustard added. The mustard helps the oil and vinegar emulsify, which can be helpful if you don't have a shaker bottle, and it adds a little bite. I like it with traditional chef's salads, or one with hard cooked eggs, or plain beans, while I prefer the herb dressing with feta cheese, or chicken. Just my own preferences - you may differ! And, in fact, I use whichever is on hand - but my choice of which to make can be driven by what I'm going to be eating in the next week.

I use cider vinegar for this. Normally, I use wine vinegar, and that certainly works, but I like this combination. I tend to look at traditional flavorways when I am improvising.  Mustard was commonly used in Northern European cooking, where apples were more common than grapes, and cider vinegar more common than wine vinegar, and the flavors go well together. I'm not consistent, though - I still use olive oil!

I pour the vinegar into a measuring cup. It's convenient to mix it right there in the cup - I'm measuring as I go, and only using one container. Then I mix in 1 teaspoon of prepared mustard. Here, I used a commercial grainy Dijon - but you can use whatever kind you like. Varying the mustard itself varies the taste of the dressing - a grainy horseradish blend will be more assertive than a smooth yellow mustard. Whatever you have in the refrigerator is presumably what you like, and any will do, here.

I love that there are so many kinds of mustard. It makes it easy to give variety to simple meals. The change of condiment makes a plain cheese sandwich different. When I first lived away from New York City, local supermarkets had lots of space, and very little variety - there would be a whole aisle with only two national brands of mustard. Perfectly good themselves, mind you - but I was used to a choice! The tiny store I shopped in while growing up had about three feet of shelving for mustard - and half a dozen brands with 10-15 flavors overall. All in small jars...    I understand, though, that now stores offer a greater assortment, as consumers demand more. I know that the stores I went to in New Jersey had started to carry the variety I had expected, shortly before I moved back to New York. And, if you normally only use one or two kinds, it might be fun to try something a little different.

Anyway... I mix the spoonful of mustard into the vinegar first, as it may dissolve more readily, then add oil. Pour it into the container. Again, if I'm using a container that I know holds 8 ounces, I mix slightly less than the full 2/3 of a cup in the measuring cup, and top it off in the bottle. If I'm keeping it in a jar or covered bowl, I'll mix it all in the cup.

And there you are. Again, a truly fresh dressing to put on your lovely fresh salad, made in just a few minutes. 

Oh - I store this at room temperature. The oil will solidify in the refrigerator, and there is nothing in it that needs to be kept cool for short term storage. It's rather nice (in a prettier bottle than this one) on the table. That's one advantage to the emulsification caused by the mustard. It will separate over time, but you can shake a bottle, or stir a spoon in a container, and it stays together long enough to serve yourself, while a regular oil and vinegar dressing will separate instantly, and can leave you pouring oil on your salad. 

Mustard Salad Dressing

1/3 c cider vinegar
1 tsp. prepared mustard
2/3 cup olive oil

Mix all ingredients, in order. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Corn on the cob - in the microwave?!

I grew up eating fresh corn only when we went to my grandmother's in the country. That was dairy country - Central New York - and all the farmers grew huge fields of field corn, as well as hay, as winter fodder for their cows. And around the cornfields, they would plant a row or two of sweet corn, for their own use, and for sale. The stalks weren't as tall, they ripened a little earlier, and every August, you'd see stands selling them. We could buy it from the grocery store in the little village, we could buy it from the farm stand where we bought most of our vegetables - but you'd also see, at the edge of the road along a field,  an overturned crate with a bushel of corn and a handwritten sign - "Sweet corn - $1/dozen." (Yes, this was when I was a girl - it's higher, now.) You left your dollar in the mason jar next to the bushel basket,  picked out your dozen, rushed them home and  into the fridge, and ate them that night.

Granny had a big old pot - I think she may have used it for canning when she was younger. We would fill it with water, put it on to boil, and my brother and I would shuck the dozen ears, right before cooking them. There were five of us, so we'd cook five ears at a time, for about five minutes at a time, putting the second batch in when we pulled out the first, and usually he and I got the extra two... We never ate corn unless we knew it had been picked that day - and usually went to the farm stand, where we knew it hadn't been sitting in the sun. Even a few hours made a difference in sweetness, as the natural sugar in the corn turned to starch.

Enter the new supersweet corn varieties. They don't turn to starch as quickly as the old cultivars, but still have good flavor. I still don't buy them in a supermarket, but if I can't eat them the very day I get them from the farm market or CSA, they're still good - and that day, they're sweeter than the ears that sat out in the sun in those bushel baskets, when I was a girl.

I have bought corn at Greenmarket, or eaten it from the CSA. I shucked it right before cooking, as I'd been taught (Don't ever remove the husks when you buy them - they help keep it fresh!) and boiled it in my soup pot - two ears at a time, for just two of us, now.

Then,, we were visiting Rich's parents, and they had corn bought at the supermarket. (I was polite, but not hopeful...)  I offered to shuck it, but his mom said no - she was cooking it in the microwave. (Now I was really skeptical...)

Well - I was wrong. It was astonishingly good, and quite easy. And I said "Please, ma'am, teach me!"

Basically, I leave the ear in the husk, and the steam generated from the kernels itself cooks the corn. I don't need to cook the cob, after all, just the kernels themselves. This method doesn't lose any flavor to the cooking water, it means I don't have to boil a large pot of water in midsummer, the steamed silk comes off easily. Removing the hot husks is a bit tricky - though I cheat - I get Rich to do that...

I take each individual ear of corn. If I bought it from Greenmarket, I will have pulled the end open a little, to make sure the ear has filled out - and that there are no bugs (left over caution from those bushels on the side of the road - I don't think I've ever found bugs in corn at Greenmarket.) For this method, though, I need to make sure I don't open it very far, and straighten it up, and close the end, as it has to hold the steam.

Then I use a heavy knife to trim the ends - cut off most of the stalk (but leave a bit for a handle) and much of the silk at the end. Again, though, I make sure the husk encloses the corn.

Now, the problem with microwave recipes is that the timing varies a great deal. Some microwaves have more power than others, cooking three ears will be totally different from cooking two, and so on. So, all I can tell you is what I do. I find that, in our current microwave, cooking two ears for five minutes seems about right. The first ears of the season - still milky,and so tender - I cooked about four and a half minutes. Corn I get late in the season (or an ear that has sat for a few days, if I have schedule problems) gets five and a half or even six, if I think it is getting starchy.

Then Rich takes over... That blue thing in the picture below is a silicone pot holder, which is the best choice for holding anything steamy, as it does not itself get soggy and scalding. He holds the ear with it in one hand (sorry - I forgot to get pictures...)  and, very carefully, pulls the husk back with the other, carefully avoiding the steam rushing out. The steam is really the only hard part, though, as the husk peels off much more easily than it does on a raw ear - it has been softened in the cooking. The silk also just mostly peels right off with the husk, and any left just comes off with a brief rub with a clean dishtowel.

This ear is a  butter and sugar or bicolored type, which I've always fancied - often thought to be less starchy, though I'm not sure I've really found a difference. Brings me back to childhood, though...

Butter, salt or a seasoned salt, freshly ground pepper... and I know that it is midsummer, and that, even in the heat of the city, that is a wonderful thing.

Edited to add: In the interests of giving credit where it is due...

Rich read this, and told me his mom learned the method from Microwave Gourmet by Barbara Kafka. (That's a link to one edition on Amazon, so you can see the book - it doesn't appear to be currently in print. They seem to have several editions, from several vendors. And no, that's not an affiliate link - I don't have an affiliation...)