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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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.

How to Not Follow a Recipe, Part 1

As you will see, my relationship with recipes is varied. Let’s take yesterday’s bolognese sauce. Marcella’s recipe calls for:

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 3 tbsp butter plus an additional tbsp for tossing w/ the pasta
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 2/3 cup chopped celery
  • 2/3 cup chopped carrot
  • 3/4 lb. ground beef chuck
  • 1 c. whole milk
  • nutmeg
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1.5 cups canned imported Italian plum tomatos, w/ their juice
  • salt
  • black pepper, ground fresh from the mill

to be tossed with 1.25-1.5 pounds of pasta (i.e., about a box and a half of dried pasta)

I had intended to double the recipe all along, because I had the meat and because it’s a great thing to have in the freezer. Instead of this list, I used (approximately, because I didn’t measure a thing)

  • 2-3 tblsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tblsp butter
  • a sizeable chunk of pesto from the freezer, which had been getting a little worse for the wear
  • 2 chopped onions, and most of a third (one was a bit funky on the inside, so I just tossed that part)
  • about 8 cloves of garlic
  • 4 hefty carrots
  • no celery
  • 2 pounds of ground venison
  • 2 cups of 2% milk (or maybe 1%; I’d have to go check)
  • about 2.5 cups of pinot grigio
  • 3 quarts of tomatos

Why the variations? Well, the most important one is that I was cooking with what I had. Ground venison is very lean, and normally (or so we’re told) requires a lot of fat. I have found that’s not true, so long as it’s cooked and seasoned properly. In something like this sauce, it wouldn’t make any difference at all. Also, the milk and wine tenderize the meat.

In general, I cut down on the fat in recipes–in this case, by reducing the oil and butter and by using 2% milk rather than whole milk. I find that it rarely makes any difference at all. In baking, sometimes I’ll add something to increase the moisture–e.g., pumpkin or applesauce–but in general the lower fat products work just fine. That said, I only use good-quality unsalted butter. No margarine, nothing like that. I pay a bit extra for butter that doesn’t have RBGH, and, if it’s cheap enough, I get organic butter, but Woodman’s in Wisconsin is the only place I’ve seen that for a reasonable price. (A side note about butter: cheaper butters often have a higher water content and slightly lower fat content. This rarely makes a difference, except in some baking.)

I don’t normally have celery around; unless I’m making stock or some other recipe that really must have celery, I just do without. It tends to turn into a science project, and I hate wasting stuff, so I just don’t get it that often. When I do, I find a few recipes that utilize it so I can use it up.

As for the extra wine, there was a half a cup left in the bottle, and it was too early in the day to start drinking, and we were planning on drinking beer with our pizza last night anyway, so I just added the extra wine. I like garlic in my sauces, and I like the tang of the pesto, so those went in, too, and I used more tomatos than called for because I like it to be a more tomato-y sauce.

So there you have it: yesterday I told you that I was using a specific recipe, and, indeed, I glanced at it to recall the order things went in the pot. But what I made diverged fairly significantly from the original, except for the basic notion of cooking the meat first with milk and then with wine before adding the tomatos. Was it good? Yup. Plus, I have enough left over for 8 or 10 more meals–into the freezer with it!

On the other hand, the recipe for crackers was nearly unchanged. It called for whole wheat flour, sunflower or pumpkin seeds ground into flour, whole sesame seeds, flax seeds ground into flour, salt, water, honey, and vegetable or olive oil. I had pumpkin seeds and ground those up, but discovered that my sesame seeds smelled a little off so I used this blend of seeds and stuff. I didn’t have flax seeds, but I did have some flax flour (also from KAF, but I don’t see it on their website any more, which makes me sad). I started to make one batch, but realized I had put in double the amount of oil, so I just went ahead and doubled the whole recipe. I haven’t rolled these out and baked them yet–Reinhart recommends letting nearly every dough sit overnight–but, as you can see, there were many fewer changes in the whole enterprise.

The other thing to be baked today, though, is some kind of banana muffins. I had a stash of old bananas in the freezer, and it’s time, but I haven’t settled on a recipe yet. My go-to recipe, sort of, is a test recipe from Cooks Illustrated that eventually ended up in the magazine (no free links to them), but I usually end up changing it. In general, when I’m baking things like breakfast muffins, I look for ways to increase the fiber and reduce the fat, so the product isn’t just a fat and sugar bomb. I’ll let you know what I end up doing, but it’s a good bet that whole wheat flour, some barley flakes, and maybe some golden flax meal will end up in the final product.

One last note: nearly everything in the bolognese sauce came from Wisconsin. The tomatos, onions, garlic, and carrots were from the CSA share, the venison was hunted by a friend. The milk, wine, oil, and butter were from somewhere else–presumably the milk and butter could have originated nearby as well. The basil for the pesto was from a back yard, I think, and I probably left out the pine nuts when I made it.

Welcome to Your Kitchen!

As everyone I know knows by now, one of my fantasies is being the next Food Network star–and, indeed, they had tryouts in Chicago a couple of months ago. Did I even attempt to audition? No, not at all (though I had some brief thoughts about it), in part because, even supposing I could get on the show (and take off several months from my current job to do so), and even supposing I could win (which is a huge supposition), I don’t actually want to be on television. For one thing, I’d have to stop cursing, which I’m not sure is entirely possible.

All that being said, I watched last season, and I realized that my angle–or, as they say on the show, my “POV” (i.e., point of view)–would be Iron Chef: Your House. This all started several years ago, when a friend was unemployed. He bought the bruised and battered–and cheap–veggies from the leftover produce rack at the local small grocery store, because they were, yes, cheap. I’d often go to his house of a Sunday, and we’d make dinner, and I usually handled the veggies and side dishes. He’d point me to whatever he purchased from the rack, and I’d have to try to make something tasty out of it. I succeeded more often than not.

Now, the new CSA year is about to start. Yes, my CSA does a winter share, too, though this is the first year they’ve tried it. Unlike the rest of the year, it’s every other week, and it will apparently include some frozen and canned stuff from the farm. I’m already excited about the frozen butternut squash–in the weekly newsletters, Chris, the farm owner/manager, said that they had squash that were too bruised to include in the boxes but were otherwise perfectly good. This pleased me, not least because I like butternut squash, but also because I liked the idea of not wasting imperfect veggies. This is the fourth year I’ve done this, and the CSA box is a similar exercise in using what’s on hand, even if the veggies are more expensive and in better shape. And that’s really what this is all about: how do you cook what’s on hand? How to you minimize waste? And, in my case, how do you eat local, sustainable, etc., as much as possible? (This may not be an option for everyone, because it can cost more, but you can at least try to eat seasonally.)

As I’ve thought about this whole thing, I realized that I have several things going for me that might not be the same as your life. I’m nearly an omnivore. I can’t eat a few things (bell peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe, iceberg lettuce), but otherwise am willing to try just about anything. I do not eat very much meat, but I do eat it, and what I do cook tends to be wild game (venison, wild turkey, occasionally rabbit), because I have a friend who is a hunter (and a getter; turns out the hunting is only useful if you actually get some meat at the end). In addition, when I buy meat or fish, I am privileged enough to be able to be very picky about it and pay more for it–my basic principle is that the flesh I eat not have been tortured in a factory farm while it was alive–but I also recognize not everyone can afford that. Even without the privilege, though, I don’t eat all that much meat, and I may go days without eating any.

For another thing, I don’t have to feed a family. It’s usually just me, with possibly one or two friends, and the friends I feed are also omnivores, so I don’t have to deal with kids or picky eaters, and I don’t have to deal with getting a meal on the table at a certain time. But I do bring my lunch (and sometimes breakfast) to work every day, and lunch is my main meal, so I cook with the intent of leftovers, and I package and freeze things so that it’s easy to do that: meal-sized packages are always my desired result. When I was in grad school, and even after that, when I was broke and not making much, I would spend part of a weekend making several big batches of stuff, and then portion and freeze it all. While it would probably require more cooking over all–to feed more people–the same approach could work for families. Thus, one of the purchases I recommend, if you can afford it, is a good stand-alone freezer. I have a 7-cubic-foot chest freezer, and it’s very nice to be able to throw things in it.

Finally, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve lived alone for a substantial portion of my life, so I’ve rarely had to cook to please others, which has given me a lot of room for experimentation. Some experiments are more successful than others, but I haven’t really had to worry about something not coming out properly and still have others waiting for a meal. If you haven’t been cooking from scratch for all that long, or if you’re used to only cooking from recipes, you’ll see pretty quickly that my approach is different from that. I do use recipes–though now more as a starting point than as a complete guide to what I’m going to do–but what I do more often is amalgamate what I have on hand with what I’ve learned, maybe with some glances at some recipes along the way.

Okay, enough intro for today. I’ll do more of these things as I go along, though.

Today’s food is going to be pretty simple: homemade pizza. I made the crusts several weeks ago and par-baked and froze them, because I was hauling them elsewhere for a meal. We had leftovers, so the unused crusts came back to my freezer. I also have some vegetarian tomato sauce in the freezer, as well as some sausage (from the farmers market this summer–the vendor buys a whole pig and then butchers it and makes various things from it, including sausage), fresh mozzarella, and spinach. I’m also making a bolognese sauce today, from the ground venison in the freezer. My recipes for these things are from:
Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (the bolognese sauce) and Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Baking  (the pizza crusts). The tomato sauce I already knew how to make, and I’ll walk you through a version at some point. The Reinhart book has become my new scripture, and it is completely awesome. If you are at all interested in baking your own whole-grain breads, it’s a fabulous source. I plan to make crackers from that book as well.

One last thing: partly because I worked in a bakery for two years, and partly because I’ve been doing this so long, I tend NOT to chop and dice everything before I start. I gather it all to make sure I’m not missing anything, but I don’t do all the chopping first. I know how long onions take to soften or caramelize, so I’ll chop the onion first, throw it in the pot, and then start cutting up the next thing that will go in the pot. This approach reduces the amount of time things take to make, but it may take some practice.

So, welcome to the kitchen! I hope you come back.