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.

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Cleaning Solution

The powers that be closed our workplace today, which is just as well. As promised, the temperature is -9 to -15, and the wind chill is apparently -45. The schools are closed, as are many other workplaces. It’s deceptive, because the sun is shining brightly, and, given all of the new snow all over the place, it’s nearly blinding, so it looks practically cheery. Nevertheless, it is, in fact, stupid cold, and I’m debating whether I’m going to even step outside. (The cat is strongly recommending that I do no such thing.) Then I think about how long it would take to put on all the clothes I’d need to be safe, even for a walk around the block, and my ambition wanes. It’s still going to be stupid cold tomorrow morning, too, so I’ll get the “experience” on my way to work.

I took the opportunity of an unexpected day off to do some cleaning–yeah, I know, surprised me, too. In particular, I tackled the kitchen cabinets, which reminded me of office chairs.

There have been times when I’ve been sitting in an office chair and I’ve thought that the designer of the chair never had to actually sit in the chair, which would explain the discomfort of doing said sitting. More broadly, there are some things that are so disfunctional in some way that you realize the designer never had to use the thing. In my case, it’s the kitchen in my unit. Let’s start with the aforementioned cabinets. They have this . . . set of ridges? edges? I’m sure there’s a design name for it but I have no clue, and the ease with which crud can embed itself in these ridges is truly impressive.

The crud accumulation process is assisted by the fact that the cabinets aren’t very high-quality. They’re plain painted wood, so kind of rough-surfaced, and the drawer pulls have this scrollworky thing going on, which also–you guessed it–accumulates crud. In addition, someone thought that bead board would make a fine backsplash for the whole kitchen, including behind the counter. They could not have been more wrong. Even a toothbrush doesn’t get at all of it, not least because there’s a line of caulk at the bottom between the bead board and the quarter-round edging, presumably placed there by the previous owner after he installed the wonderful butcher-block counter that extends nearly the whole length of the kitchen on one side and that I adore.

Clearly, the person or people who designed these various bits either didn’t cook in the kitchen or didn’t have to clean it, or both. Certainly the designer didn’t bake in the kitchen, i.e., throw around large amounts of flour, the remnants of which love to embed themselves in the nooks, crannies, corners, and swirls of the design elements.

I cannot wait to redo the kitchen.

What I’m realizing, though, is that even if I suddenly had a bunch of money to do the kitchen renovations, I don’t know everything that I want yet. More to the point, I don’t know what I want the design of the backsplash to be. I want something colorful, and glass tile and/or fused glass decorative bits, but other than that, I have no clue. I have ideas about the rest of it–cabinets, and the window, and recreating the transom, and the sink, and leaving space for new appliances but not actually buying them until the old ones fail–but the main decorative bit is the one piece I still haven’t sorted, and it doesn’t make sense to me to embark on any of the work without having that part. Ah well; no need to worry about it today–and at least the cabinets are clean.

Today’s cooking is a matter of rummaging in the freezer and pulling out things that are getting a little old and that would work okay together (roasted acorn squash; black beans; spicy tomato sauce) and that will use some of the onions, carrots, and celery that are sitting around. I should throw in some turnips, too, because I have them (of course I have them). The purpose isn’t just dinner, though it is that, it’s also creating some lunches–the basic principle is lunch-sized containers of something that can be eaten with cheese melted on top and a hunk of bread on the side. The type of cheese varies a bit, but it’s basically a good formula.

The wrist is mostly a bit better today, despite the cleaning and scrubbing, though it occasionally twinges, and chopping veggies likely won’t help. I’m joined in my injury, however, by my father, who apparently stepped out of the house yesterday and promptly slid down the driveway, eventually landing on and breaking his wrist. My mother said they were also going to x-ray his hip while they’re at it, so here’s hoping it’s just the wrist.

Week 6: Racedy, Go!*

So yesterday I was in Indianapolis for the 97th running of the Indy 500, i.e., The Greatest Spectacle in Racing! (probably trademarked . . .), plus an excuse for all kinds of over-the-top-ness, my personal favorites of which are the checkered-flag-pattern outfits. It was a great race (my 7th Indy 500, and probably my 14th or 15th Indy car race, and probably my 18th or 20th open-wheel race), and the rain managed to hold off until about an hour after the race was over. It was also cold, relatively speaking–in the mid-60s most of the day–so the problem most likely to be faced in previous years was absent.

Typically, it’s hot–last year was a record-setting 92 degrees–and on the track and in the stands, where people are crowded in next to one another, it can seem a whole lot hotter. Thus, the challenge is staying cool, which means staying hydrated but also means eating food that isn’t heavy and greasy. I’ve been experimenting with the food for a few years now (yes, please contain your surprise), and I’ve come up with a solution that meets the specific food needs of the day and also uses farm share produce.

Basically, I make salad wraps. I started with whole-grain tortillas. Next, I make or buy a spread of some kind, like hummus or a similar bean spread: this year I used some of the garbanzos I cooked a few weeks ago, to which I added garlic, cooked in a little olive oil and tahini until it got soft, plus some ginger and lemon syrups, plus some of the Asian greens, which I also cooked with the garlic and oils. I threw it all in the food processor with a little salt and pepper and got a green-speckled hummus-like spread. A little more oil probably would have smoothed it out more, but I was trying to reduce the oiliness. I shredded some carrots, and washed and dried some lettuce leaves, all of which got packed in their own separate bags or containers, and I also cut up some carrots and a pineapple (neither of which we used but will be fine for lunches), and I threw in some shredded wild turkey dark meat and some cheddar cheese. The trick with both the meat and the cheese is to make sure it’s in small enough chunks or shreds so that it wraps neatly.

For the past few years, we have been driving as far as Lafayette, IN, and staying overnight there, which makes it much less of a scramble on race day. I assemble the wraps in the hotel room in the morning: spread the hummus on the whole wrap, layer some lettuce leaves, sprinkle some grated carrots, add the meat and cheese (or not; I’ve also done veggie-only wraps), and roll it up. A sandwich bag goes over one end, sealed as far as possible, and then over the other end, again sealed as far as possible, which makes eating them much easier, as one end is always encased in plastic. It would be easy to add other veggies, even ones that have been pre-cooked in some way. (I’ve done caramelized onions in the past, and would happily do onions and zucchini; I’d prefer cooked versions of both to reduce the water content a bit and thereby reduce sogginess.) Salad-based wraps add water and fiber to the meal, both of which are helpful at hot events, the former for hydration and the latter so that one feels full without feeling so weighed down; the particular veggies vary with the CSA box. I could even imagine doing a fruit-based version, maybe using some Nutella or another nut spread to hold it all in place.

The CSA boxes haven’t been very varied: mostly Asian greens and hakurai turnips, with some lettuce and carrots thrown in for good measure. The carrots are from last fall, but have still been pretty good, albeit just a bit watery. This week, though, there was kale and chard–two of my favorite veggies–which will be featured with the turnip greens tonight, along with some garlic chicken and red rice. All of those things will make excellent leftovers, so I can have veggie wraps all week. Still, I’m very happy that the variety is going to increase; I find the Asian greens to be kind of boring–they all taste the same to me, despite the very different look, and I get tired of them, so this time of year is kind of a slog for me. By the end of June, though, there should be all kinds of things in the box.

*When I was a kid, one of us thought that “ready, set, go” was actually “racedy go,” pronounced “ray-setty-go.”

Eeny Meeny Chili Beanie

There was one other thing in the pork marinade:  ginger. Normally, for something like this, I’d use fresh ginger, but I didn’t have any and I didn’t buy any during last Saturday’s shopathon. What I do have, however, is ginger syrup (and, sometimes, crystallized ginger that’s a by-product of the syrup), so I used that, and didn’t put any extra sugar in the marinade. I used the same basic marinade last night, with some wild turkey breast, and it was awesome. The changes: all chicken broth and no wine, plus more sage.

What this made me think about, though, is how to stock one’s fridge and pantry–and I realized that I may not be able to give anyone very much advice about it. A few of the things I have on hand–tamarind paste, anyone?–I purchased for a very specific purpose (in this case, pad thai, though I have used it for other things), and it continues to hang around. It’s probably not going to go bad, even if it isn’t in its absolutely ideal state, and I might use it again sometime, so I keep it. I have a few spices like that, too.

What I can say, though, is that the thing that most helps me is having things on hand, and the thing that can be the enemy is anything that requires timing. Thus, yesterday’s Bean Extravaganza. I have used canned beans quite happily for most of my life–there are some decent brands out there, and you can get low-sodium versions or can rinse off the canned beans. Canned beans aren’t going to go bad, so I would stock up when they were on sale. Lately, though, I’ve been experimenting with dried beans (years later than the rest of the world . . .), and they’re a perfect example of something that requires both time and timing. Ideally, they should be soaked for 6 to 8 hours, which means if I want to cook beans I need to put them to soak the night before, or first thing in the morning, if I’m going to be cooking later in the day. They then need to cook for awhile before I can put them in anything else.

My solution to this is to just cook a lot of beans, and then freeze what I don’t use immediately. Thus, yesterday I cooked garbanzos, white beans, and black beans, as well as some green lentils to use with the garbanzos for that dish I linked to last post. The black beans will go in some chili later today, along with some wild turkey, and a bunch of the beans will go in the freezer. I think the garbanzos that didn’t go in the lentl and garbanzo thing will go in the freezer.

And the white beans–oh, the white beans–they are awesome. I cooked a couple of cloves of garlic and some chopped fresh sage in some olive oil, on relatively modest heat, until the garlic had softened, and then mushed it up a bit til it was barely golden. I scraped the beans–maybe two cups cooked?–and the garlic, sage, and olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt into the food processor, and turned it into a bean dip. It is extremely tasty. And the rest of the white beans? Into the freezer, until I get around to making some more of the tomato and bean thing. The upshot of it is that I will have the equivalent of 5 or 6 cans of beans in the freezer.

There’s one last thing–I needed lemon juice, but not lemon peel and I hate wasting lemon peel. I cut the peels off and scraped away the pith, and I will eventually candy it, but meanwhile I just put the peels in some water until I can get to that. The principle is the same as with the ginger and the beans. Rather than just trying to make “enough” for a given meal, I make batches of things, extra, knowing that it will eventually pay off. It expands what I have available on hand, and it reduces waste.

Meanwhile, though, it’s time to make the chili.

I Say Tomato

The “chili” I made this weekend is a perfect example of cooking from your refrigerator (and pantry). I have “chili” in quotes there because I included some black beans, and I know that, for some people, it is heretical to put beans in one’s chili. I, on the other hand, like to have something other than wads of meat, and beans are one way to do that. In addition, I had about a cup and a half of dried black beans in the pantry, and I wanted to use them before they got old, so I put them to soak on Saturday evening, plus I mixed up another batch of Awesome Crackers, because I go through nearly a batch a week, especially if I share them. All of the cooking happened on Sunday.

I cooked the beans while I was doing laundry–you don’t really need to do anything to beans while they’re cooking, so they’re a fine candidate for multi-tasking. When I set about making the chili, I chopped up a bunch of onions, including some purple ones; I don’t use the purple ones much in other things, because the color can make the whole dish look kind of grey and muddy. It doesn’t affect the flavor at all, but grey and muddy isn’t really an appetizing prospect for anyone. In chili, though, that wouldn’t make the least bit of difference. I also chopped up a whole head of garlic and a bunch of carrots–I have wads of both from the farm share, and the carrots especially keep for quite awhile. Those got thrown in with the onions. For the spicy part, I had some arbol chilis from a previous attempt (I used the Cooks Illustrated recipe for a batch at one point, and they included multiple kinds of chilis, but the only kind left in the pantry were the arbols), coriander seeds, and cumin seeds, plus those little red chilis from McCormick’s maybe?, and put them all in the extra coffee grinder that I use only for spices. I wore plastic gloves while I was doing all this, I should add.

Once it was all ground up, I threw it in with the onions and mushed it around a bit. I put all of it in the bottom of the stock pot I was using for the chili, and then browned about a pound of ground venison in the same saute pan. That got dumped in with the onions, along with about 8 ounces of wild turkey leg and thigh meat, about three ounces of leftover chicken from my dinner on Friday, a container of cooked turnips from a few weeks ago that I had not gotten around to eating (see above regarding the purple onions: it was a sufficiently large batch of chili that the turnips would just blend in), and a small container of leftover sauce (a combo of vegetarian tomato sauce and venison bolognese sauce), the rest of which had been used to make pizzas on Saturday night. On top of it I dumped two quart jars of tomatos from the farm share, and I dumped in some cocoa powder and a bloop of molasses (both were in the Cooks recipe, though I didn’t measure it out in this case). I stirred it all up and let it simmer very gently for a few hours. I ended up stirring it pretty frequently, because my stock pot is deep rather than wide, which actually wasn’t ideal for this task, but the heat was low enough that the risk of burning was pretty low, especially because I was in the kitchen most of the time anyway. It came out really well–especially with some good 4-year-old cheddar crumbled into it. Most of it got frozen into lunch-sized packages. I suspect it would work well for nachos, too, if you like those.

You will notice that I included leftovers from three different meals in this extravaganza–a very useful kind of recycling. None of the leftovers was of sufficient quantity to make much of a meal itself, and all of the leftovers could be thrown into the pot without affecting the overall flavor of the chili. A few other types of chilis would have deepened and broadened the flavor a bit–it had some heat, but was kind of one-note–but it was still good, and could easily have absorbed some tabasco or other hot sauce for people who like that.

The other use of tomatos also started with onions. (I have a lot of onions sitting around, too.) These I sliced very thin instead of chopping, and cooked them in a little olive oil and butter (the chili onions were only in a little olive oil). Again, I added a whole head of garlic, though I added it earlier in this batch. Then I threw in more carrots, because why not, and some herbs from the window sill (parsley, basil, and a tiny bit of sage; I had envisioned (enflavored?) more sage, but the window box is being taken over by basil left over from the summer, and catnip, but not sage so much), chopped, and a drained can of white beans that had been sitting around forever. I am now completely out of beans, which was another of my intentions for this adventure. And–another two jars of tomatos. This simmered for a few hours, too, as I puttered around doing other chores, and this, too, ended up in lunch-sized packages in the freezer. I had some of this today, heated up with leftover greens (kale and turnip greens, though spinach would be even more awesome, as would chard) and some asiago cheese. It was quite tasty, and I realized the tomato thing is soupy enough that it could go over pasta or farro, or would go nicely with a grilled-cheese-on-whole-wheat-sourdough-bread sandwich, were we to suddenly get a panini maker at work. (I am not holding my breath on that one.)

Even with giving some away, I ended up with at least 12 lunches, and way fewer scraps of stuff.

A glance at the calendar shows that next week includes both Fat Tuesday and Valentine’s Day. I have been known to make “blood”-spattered heart-shaped sugar cookies (actually splashed red food coloring) for VD, and, if my ambition is up to it, that could happen this weekend. Cookies would keep until Thursday. Tuesday I was contemplating a twist on king’s cake. The most common recipes I’ve seen for this include enough sugar to choke a large mammal, a wad of filling of some kind, and enough fat to require an on-the-spot angioplasty. While I am not unilaterally opposed to all of this, I have come to enjoy it less over time, so I’ve been contemplating alternatives. The current lead runner in this race is, indeed, a brioche dough, but one made with 20% butter or so (we’ll discuss baker’s percentages again . . .), and an addition of some pumpkin, which I would expect to augment the moistness and add a lovely color while not necessarily changing the flavor much. And I can sprinkle gold, purple, and green sugar on top to my heart’s content. We’ll see how ambitious I get this weekend.