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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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.

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.