Fear

Back in 2006, I was working at bakery job that paid about $10/hour; I earned overtime nearly every week, but I had to work at least an extra 10 hours a week or so to see a comma in my take-home pay. I also did consulting work (proofreading and copyediting) to make ends meet with something closer to a little overlap.

Near the end of that year, as many other things were falling apart in my life, my not-quite-ex failed to pay the COBRA for the health insurance that covered both of us (I paid him for my share, I believe), and the policy was cancelled. I didn’t know this for several weeks, but the reality was that, unbeknownst to me, I was doing physical labor, in an environment where I could have gotten injured (and would thus have been unable to work at all), and I had no health insurance. It’s hard to describe the fear that engendered.

I found an insurance agency through a recommendation from a friend, and got catostrophic coverage right away. I then proceeded to try to purchase my own health insurance policy.

Well, you really don’t get to be in your late 40s without having something that counts as a “pre-existing condition,” especially for insurance companies that want to be able to deny you coverage if they can possibly argue that you failed to disclose something. I did eventually get coverage, at a fairly exorbitant rate, and the coverage did not actually cover anything that might result from the (not all that dire) pre-existing condition. That is, the coverage I was able to get did not actually cover health conditions that I was mostly likely to experience, AND I paid a pile of money, out of pocket, for this coverage, every single month. I suppose I could have rolled the dice and gone without any coverage–the catostrophic coverage typically had limits on how long you could get that coverage–but I could not bring myself to truly contemplate doing that. I don’t have kids, I didn’t have anyone else to support, so that was an easier decision than it might be with a different life.

Even though it’s ten years later–and the bakery owner now offers health insurance options to his employees, and I’m working office jobs that have employer-sponsored insurance (for which I pay $360 per month, pre-tax, so while it’s employer-sponsored, and it’s decent insurance, I’m certainly throwing in a pile of money too)–I still remember the fear of not having insurance.

On top of that, I currently work in an environment where many of the people my organization serves have become eligible for Medicaid, in part thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid expansion that came along with it. I see what a difference this makes in people’s lives.

Thus, I would welcome the opportunity to ask the creators of this monstrosity of a tax cut for the rich masquerading as a health care bill (h/t Charles Pierce) how they can consider doing something this awful. It isn’t just bad, it’s mean. It’s nasty. It gives more money to rich people, while basically sending poor and middle class and old people off to die in a corner. You want to talk about “death panels”? This monstrosity is going to kill people. And all for the benefit of people who would regard my monthly premium from 2006 as pocket change–the premium for insurance that wouldn’t actually cover the things most likely to occur to me–that premium is their wine bill, or their taxi fare, or the rent they pay on the garage in D.C. for their extra car, or whatever the hell it is that rich people spend money on each month.

I’ll return to rhapsodies about food–the amazing pulled pork that I made this weekend; my attempts to make my own corned beef–eventually, but this was just too overwhelming to avoid.

Best By

I hate wasting food. The ideal result of this sentiment is that I hack together meals that use what’s in need of being used, even if it means we’ll never have that particular meal again. The less ideal result, though, is throwing things out, and I had to do a bunch of that today. I got it into my head to clean out the cupboards, and several things weren’t just way past the sell-by date (by which I mean years past the sell-by date), they smelled off. In particular, the two bags of baker’s dried milk–“Best by September 2014” – -had to go, along with some old lentils and two bags (one unopened) of a “toffee crunch” topping I had purchased from KAF three or four years ago. I didn’t like the toffee crunch when I got it, and I kept meaning to use it on something I intended to give away, but I never did, and it smelled (and tasted) pretty bad, and the texture had turned gummy. Out it went.

Oddly enough, the one thing I would have predicted would be off–the almond paste, with a “best by” date of 2010–was actually okay, although the color had darkened to a caramel color. I intend to make king cake this week anyway, so I put it in the fridge. I was surprised it was still good; the oil in nuts can make whatever’s made from it go rancid, but maybe this had enough sugar in it to preserve it. Whatever; at least it will get used.

It was also an opportunity to do an inventory: I have been working my way through a substantial pile of cocoa powder, but there’s still quite a bit left (despite dumping some on the counter and the floor as I combined two opened bags). And there’s an opportunity for an experiment. Both bags of diastatic malt powder and the bag of malted milk powder have turned into bricks, but they don’t smell or taste off, so I’m wondering if I can essentially melt them down and turn them into syrup–combine them with water and cook them slowly, until the brick melts into the water. I don’t have particularly high hopes for this experiment, but you never know.

So, to continue with the theme, I raided the freezer as well, and tonight’s dinner is going to be lamb meatballs or patties, the cauliflower I roasted two weeks ago and ended up freezing, some carrots, and probably some rice, all spiced with coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, and roasted tomatoes. And maybe some spinach, as I purchased extra for the farm share this week.

Freezer Follies

Last week’s clean-out-the-freezer session resulted in venison cheese steaks on homemade whole wheat pretzel rolls (the cheese was jack with leeks and morels, so a perfect complement to the venison), with some kind of quasi-curry spinach and potatoes. I was riffing on a recipe from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking and, not so incidentally, trying to use up some potatoes from the farm share. On Sunday, though, I used up some frozen butternut squash, more of the potatoes, and whole wheat flour to make gnocchi, which I tossed with caramelized onions and steamed cauliflower and served next to the last wild turkey breast from last year’s hunt.

This year’s turkey hunting is in a month or so, and Friend wanted to get the old stuff out of the freezer. Thus, this week we’re also going to be making snow goose and rabbit. For the rabbit, I use a recipe from A New Way to Cook, by Sally Schneider (and, incidentally, I strongly recommend that book; lots of rubs and sauces and flavors and variations on themes, without relying on wads of butter and oil). The recipe uses dried cherries, red wine, sweet wine (marsala, I think, though just about anything would work), onions, thyme, and pancetta, but you can substitute for a lot of it–I’d use cranberries, for example, or port, or bacon, depending on what I had around. You can also use chicken if you don’t have access to rabbit or don’t want to eat fluffy bunnies. We just faked it last time we had snow goose; we made it rare, just seared, and it was really good. If you rummage online, most people cook it through and don’t like the texture, so we thought rare would work and it did.

There might be more gnocchi, too. A few years ago, I stumbled across Lucky Peach and bought an issue. I enjoyed it, and kept meaning to get it again, but of course never did. Anyway, this morning I stumbled on the online version and found a really detailed discussion of making gnocchi (even more detailed than Marcella Hazan’s, if you can believe such a thing . . . ) and resolved to make some more this weekend to use up the last of the CSA potatoes. I alter the whole thing–by adding an egg when needed, by using squash, by using whole wheat flour–but I still liked his technique and want to try it. The squash is already somewhat cooked and pureed, so I thaw it AND let it drain a bit to get some of the water out of it; I’ve also cooked it on the stovetop.

What else needs using? More squash. Strawberry jam (that will go in either chocolate cookie sandwiches or strawberry frosting or some kind of oatmeal bar). Tomatoes. Beans. Carrots. Spinach. Thus, I sense more stew on the horizon . . . and more carrot cake muffins. And maybe another batch of dulce du leche to use up the milk, but made with honey this time.

Dull Drums

Or doldrums, as the case may be.
Neither cooking nor baking has been occurring around these parts, at least not in any remarkable way. Oh, there was a brief outbreak of mini-calzone, and an episode of smashed potatoes with brie, topped with venison ring bologna, caramelized onions, and homemade sauerkraut, but otherwise, not much.
Actually, the mini-calzone ended up with food wastage, of all things. I made a batch of pizza dough, with the intent of making actual pizzas, then changed my mind to make some calzone; all well and good. (For the record, half of the calzone were stuffed with caramelized onions, spinach, brie, and the mincemeat stew of a few weeks ago, and half were stuffed with fresh mozzarella, some bison bolognese sauce, and the onions and spinach.) The dough that was left was supposed to be par-baked into pizza crusts that could be frozen and used at some other time, but . . . I just didn’t. I put the sheet pan in the fridge, with all kinds of good intentions, but we know with what the road to food wastage is paved (hint: the same material as the road to hell). I finally just tossed the dough.

So, really, nothing much to report. I’m expecting to do some cooking this weekend, though, so there might be updates.

Today in the Refrigerator Drawer

Things that needed using: carrots (though I still have mountains of those); leeks; potatoes; oranges; roasted (frozen) squash. I washed and cut up the leeks, cut up a large onion into large wedges, and tossed it all with garlic cloves, olive oil, and salt, and then roasted them awhile. The leeks got a bit too papery, so I pulled them off the pan and laid them across the potoatoes. The potatoes got cut up and boiled a bit. The carrots got cut into large chunks (too large, I think), and tossed with grated orange peel, ginger, oil, salt, and some thyme that was sitting in the fridge. I peeled as much of the pith off the oranges (after grating) as I could, cut them into thick slices, and roasted the slices for awhile, too. In retrospect, I could have skipped that step and just used the juice, and we all would have been happier. All the roasted veggies (except the leeks, which I pulled out of the potato pot after the potatoes were cooked) got thrown in the pot with some water and chicken stock and cooked until the carrots were a bit softer. The immersion blender made a coarse puree of all of it, and I tweaked the flavor with ginger sesame marinade, ginger juice, honey, salt, and a little butter. If I had any creme fraiche I’d throw that in as I heated it, and I’ll likely grate some cheddar in there, too.

The rest of dinner is going to be venison and possibly some homemade bread.

Today’s main question, however, was, “What would happen if I put some chocolate in the Anzac biscuits?” Anzac biscuits are an eggless cookie, made with butter, oats, coconut, flour, water, baking soda, Lyle’s Golden Syrup (which is dangerously good), and some salt and vanilla. They were originally sent to Australian and New Zealandian troops (hence the “ANZAC,” for Australia and New Zealand Corps), and are intentially made without eggs so they keep better. There are a million recipes for them, all of which I read in early December in an effort to find one to make for the beer school cookies.

I made a batch this weekend, on a whim, but most of the cookies are gone, so I thought I’d make another batch. But how about adding some cocoa? I like the coconut/chocolate combination, and I like the caramely flavor of the Lyle’s, so I just added some cocoa powder. They’re pretty good, actually, though there’s too much chocolate, if you can imagine such a thing. I also drizzled some Lyle’s and melted butter on top of the baked but still warm cookies, to sweeten and soften them a bit. It will all require some tweaking, but these are just fine.

Rooting Around

So it’s a new farm share season–a new year AND a new season, actually. The winter share is delivered only every other week, and it tends to be pretty much the same from week to week: roasted tomatoes (in jars), carrots, roasted and frozen butternut squash, spinach from the greenhouse, and root veggies if they’re around (turnips, rutabagas). Truth be told, these are some of my favorite deliveries, not least because everything other than the spinach will keep for quite a long time. I think I didn’t use the last of the carrots last year until into May, and they kept just fine.

I have several things on the cooking agenda, though no telling when I’ll get to them. First up is some kind of stew, using mincemeat, tomatoes, carrots, and garbanzos (I cooked up a bunch last weekend and threw them in the freezer), and possibly some lamb, maybe with spices that lean toward the middle east. I’ll look up the Moosewood stew I used to make to figure out what the spices were for that. I also cooked up some adzuki beans, which I had never made before, and I think I’ll make some quinoa to go with those, probably with some kind of greens to throw in as well. At some point I’ll make more bison bolognese sauce–my downstairs neighbor was gifted with some ground bison (it’s labeled beef but she said it’s really bison)–but given the vat I made last week, that can wait. I also got some more pork shoulder at the farmers’ market last Sunday, and I’ll likely make the shredded pork I made on New Year’s Day again. There’s venison to consume, too, and a bunch of baked goods–chocolate cupcakes (with flaxseed replacing some of the butter), the mincemeat cinnamon rolls, some ginger oat pumpkin bite-sized things, and several loaves of bread. Essentially, it’s time to work my way through the freezer and use stuff up.

I’ve also discovered a fabulous new cooking show. The NY Times made mention of it a few weeks ago, and it’s on PBS: the Great British Baking Championship, or something like that. It’s a bunch of regular folks competing against each other. Apparently the season I’m watching now is the fifth season, but I haven’t been able to run down the previous seasons yet. It’s really a lot of fun. Each week they do three bakes. The first is something that they make themselves at home. The second is the technical challenge, where they’re each given the ingredients and a basic version of the formula to use, but they have to have some know-how to actually make whatever it is because the instructions aren’t detailed. The third challenge is the “showstopper,” where they have to make something big and fancy in whatever category of baking they’re in. This past week was bread; last week was cookies (or biscuits, as the Brits called them).

What makes it especially fun is that they’re not professionals, and they come in all ages (which is particularly nice) and from all kinds of backgrounds. The critiques are serious, but not challenging in a Top Chef kind of way, and everyone has his or her own station, so the infighting is non-existant, too–they actually kind of cheer each other along. The other part that’s fun for me is that I can imagine competing in it, and would likely even enjoy doing so.

That said, I’ve been enjoying Top Chef this season, too. The challenges have been interesting without being stupid, and the cooking looks like it has been really amazing. The asshole quotient is pretty low, too; there was one, but he’s been gone for a few weeks. I have a much harder time imagining competing on something like that–I am not a professional chef, and I have never been one–but I definitely get the occasional food idea. Doug’s carrot soup, for example, sounded pretty damn amazing, and I might have to see if I can find the recipe for that one, given the mounds of carrots that will be taking over the fridge. Plus, carrot soup and homemade bread sounds like a fine lunch.

It’s a Pie AND a Dinner!

In another clean-out-the-fridge dinner, with an extra helping of use-up-some-damn-mincemeat, I was, in fact, able to use some mincemeat. Things that went into the pot, in order:

  • three slices of bacon, chopped, and some of the fat cut off first; when the bacon was crispy/cooked, removed it for later use
  • finely sliced onion, sweated then cooked in the bacon fat until getting nice and caramelized; added pressed garlic and the bacon back into the mix
  • the last hunk of shredded wild turkey dark meat from the freezer (Friend throws the wild turkey legs and thighs into a slow cooker overnight, then shreds the result, removing the tendons and natty bits as he pulls it apart)
  • about a third of a jar of mincemeat
  • about two thirds of the diced and roasted butternut squash (the rest went in the freezer; it was probably the equivalent of 1.5 medium squashes)
  • a dash of apple cider vinegar to cut the sweet of the mincemeat
  • about 12 ounces of spinach (the last batch from the farm share)
  • a splash of the ginger sesame sauce from the Ginger People, and some shredded ginger from them as well

I served it over some wild rice, with a sprinkle of grated sheep’s milk cheese (something strong, again to cut the sweet of the mincemeat). Overall, it was pretty good–and I realized I managed to get three different animal meats into the pot (pig, turkey, and beef, the latter from the suet in the mincemeat), which is rather unusual for me.

However, it was still a little sweet, so I think the next effort is going to be a tomato sauce/stew of some kind, with the thought that the acid of the tomatoes will also cut the sweetness a bit. I had a spaghetti sauce made with mincemeat at a dinner party a million years ago (i.e., when I was in college, so probably nearly 35 years ago), and I remember liking it, even though the thought of mincemeat kinda grossed me out at the time. There was a large wad of leftovers for lunches, and today I mixed a little of the pulled pork from new year’s day into the pile as well, and it was tasty.

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