Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gardening and an observation on compost

It has gotten really hot here, for April, so I set out three tomato plants. One is a grape tomato, one is an heirloom "German yellow" and one is called "Mortgage lifter." I couldn't resist. Apparently the guy who developed it in the '40s sold so many that it paid off his mortgage!

I gave each of them a nice dose of my homemade compost, which doesn't smell bad at all. Meanwhile, the neighborhood reeks from the county-supplied "leaf mulch" that everyone is using -- I can't even stand to have the windows open at night, or sit in the backyard to sip a glass of wine. So for everyone who is afraid compost will stink, I can only say, no.

I was also lucky enough to find a summer savory plant at the garden center this year. Usually I look to no avail.

These are all planted on the west side of my house, the only truly sunny spot, and a few feet in front of a west-facing brick wall that should keep them nice and warm if we have a cold spell. In fact, my only concern is that it will get TOO hot and I will have fried green tomatoes! Guess I'll be spending a lot of time watering.

Hummus, a quest

Had dinner last night at a Lebanese restaurant that has the best hummus I've ever tasted. In fact, not long ago, I didn't think I even liked hummus, which means what I had tasted was, well, not very good. So that will be one of my next recipe quests. I could swear there was yogurt in the hummus, but all the traditional recipes I've seen use chick peas, tahini and lemon juice. It appears to be very simple to make, but again, this was special. Maybe they just really whipped the tahini and lemon juice together to make it so fluffy, like making mayonnaise. Anyway, that will be a challenge to replicate.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lasagna, Part II

Well, I have learned that lasagna is about the perfect food to take to work and reheat in the microwave. I like almost everything about it, but as I said earlier, I might rethink the noodle part. And I also think the real key is seasoning the bolognaise sauce, which in my first attempt was a little wimpy. More seasoning is called for, probably especially because I was using ground turkey instead of ground beef.

On the positive side, I really do like that I put the grilled eggplant in. I think I will always try to buy an eggplant anytime I am planning on firing up the grill. Turns into sort of a freebie on the coals. Just like my old trick of throwing a few extra potatoes on; leftover baked potatoes are always a bonus. (I also do that when I'm using the oven for something -- throw a few potatoes in; I don't care what anyone says, an actual baked potato is way better than a microwaved potato any day. And you can do so much with them.)

Monday, April 20, 2009

First-timer's lasagna

Yes, it's true. I've never made lasagna before. I have a lot of nerve even trying it, as my sister-in-law is half Italian AND allegedly has a killer lasagna recipe. Of course, she could share it. ...

I used basically a sauce bolognaise that I made in order to use some ground turkey that I had gotten on sale. I spiced it up pretty good. I had Parmesan, but bought the lasagna noodles, mozzarella and ricotta. I also had some leftover grilled eggplant slices, and thought, "Why not?"

I am not entirely sure I believe the lasagna noodle package that said I didn't have to precook them. In a couple of places, the noodles were a little crunchy. Maybe my sauce was a little too thick to give them enough moisture. But this still beats any frozen lasagna I have used.

So now it is a matter of getting my hands on the best recipe. Ahem.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Stuff it! (If it's a pork chop)

My grocer had beautiful thick-cut pork chops -- over an inch thick. They begged to be stuffed.

In the category of "How did THIS happen?" I discovered in my pantry a package of dried morel mushrooms that for some reason I had not used. Obviously an oversight, because they are my very favorite fungus. So I knew I would include them in the stuffing.

2 thick cut pork chops. Mine were 1.99 pounds for 2, including the bones.
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 cups warm water
2 cups apple juice (or just more water, I happened to have apple juice)
4 cloves garlic, smushed, peels removed

For the stuffing:
1/2 medium onion
3-4 morel mushrooms (or any kind, but it won't be as good!)
cracker crumbs (from a handful of crackers, actually the dregs and broken pieces I had save) and bread (I used 1 big slice of a 12-grain bread) You could use all bread, but I wouldn't use all crackers.
1 egg
chicken broth (or water)

For the garnish: The rest of the package of dried mushrooms and some arugula

In a large non-reactive container that has a leakproof lid and is big enough for the chops -- I used a food storage container made from that rigid plastic -- combine the water, sugar, salt, garlic and juice. Put the lid on, making sure it's on tight, and shake, shake, shake. Add the pork chops, put the lid back on and shake a little more. Then stick the whole thing in the fridge for about an hour. This is called brining, and it helps make sure the pork chops won't be dry. Plus, it starts adding flavor.

Rinse the dried mushrooms and put in a glass bowl. Cover with chicken broth. Put that in the fridge, too.

Chop the onion fairly finely -- if the pieces are too big, it will be difficult to get them inside the chops.
Saute the onion in a little butter or oil, but only until it just begins to turn color.
Crumble the crackers and bread in a bowl and add the onions.

After the mushrooms have soaked for about half an hour, or until they've plumped up, chop 3-4 of them fairly finely. Add them to the stuffing bowl. Add one egg.

If you haven't used seasoned crackers, as I did, you might need to add some salt and pepper. I didn't.

If the mixture seems too dry, and it probably will, add a little of the broth that the mushrooms were soaking in.

Once the chops have been in the brine about an hour, take them out and dry them on paper towels.

Using a boning knife or thin-bladed utility knife, cut a slit in the center of each chop, starting from the center of the edge opposite the bone. You want to insert the knife until it touches the bone on the other side, but not poke through the meat. Keeping the "entry hole" as small as possible, probably an inch or so, work the knife inside the chop to cut a pocket. I also use my finger to feel along inside to see if I can enlarge the pocket a little.

Cram as much of the stuffing in each chop as will fit. The chop will definitely "pooch out" to let you get in more than you probably thought. Put any extra in an ovenproof dish to bake as an extra treat.

Set the oven for 350. While it is heating, grind some fresh black pepper onto the chops. I would not add salt at this stage because of the brine. Brown the chops in 2T oil or butter in a cast-iron skillet (or other skillet with oven-proof handle), turning once after about 4 minutes. Tip: Use a pair of tongs AND a turner; it also helps to lift one completely out of the pan to give yourself room to turn the other one, then use both utensils to flip and reinsert into the pan. Move the skillet to the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes.

Remove from skillet to let rest.

There should be a couple of tablespoons of fat/drippings in the skillet. Yay. That means gravy. Add an equivalent amount of flour to make a roux, and use the rest of the chicken stock that the morels had been soaking in as all or most of the liquid, and add the morels. I like to leave them whole, but do what you need to do to avoid fights. (If you need more liquid, grab more stock, some milk or even just water.) Do not be tempted to use the brining liquid, though! Way too much salt and sugar.

And, oh, yes, these chops each would easily feed two people, or last for two meals, especially if you made extra stuffing.

If I had happened to have celery on hand, or had thought to grab a couple of sticks from the grocer's "salad bar," I would have used some in the stuffing. That is, by the way, a tip for getting a small amount of an ingredient when you know you won't use up a whole plant/package. Sure, it's more expensive per pound, but you don't end up throwing a bunch of stuff away. And even if you are wary of public salad bars, and I don't blame you, it's not so worrisome when you are going to be cooking the ingredient!

Depending on many variables, including the crackers you used and how salty your chicken broth was and even how long the chops stayed in the brine, it is possible that you might want to add salt at the table. I added just a touch, mostly for the gravy, because I used low sodium chicken broth.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I basically swiped this recipe from elsewhere on the Web, but I did make modifications, so I feel OK sharing it.
Ukrainian borscht can have 20 or more ingredients. This has 16. I have no difficulty imagining another four or so!

There's a lot of chopping and grating and shredding involved, but other than that, it is easy. It is quite tasty.

Put a big pot of water on to boil. Yes, the stockpot. At least half-way full. It will take a while to come to a boil. The recipe that was our inspiration said 2 quarts of water. I probably used more like a gallon. I was really tempted to use at least partly vegetable or chicken stock, and probably will next time, although it might not matter much.

So, let's get chopping and shredding. I was lucky, because my niece and I did this as a tag-team. Put each ingredient in its own bowl or container, although the carrots and potato can go together in one because you will add them at the same time.

1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 head of cabbage, shredded (I used green, but because the beets are red anyway, you could use purple cabbage if that is what you have)
3 carrots (medium, although if they are large, I can't imagine that it would be a problem), grated
3 medium russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 beets, peeled and shredded or sliced (julienned works for me). Save the tops for another time. Put plastic bags on your hands if you don't want to be caught red-handed! Rinse your cutting board as soon as you can.

Whew. That's the hard part. Really. And if you have a big food processor that shreds instead of pulverizing, well, that would be easy, too. Mine has a small work bowl and seems to think it is supposed to be an atom smasher. Besides, we kind of liked standing in the kitchen and chopping, shredding, grating and chatting. Food processors are noisy enough to make the chatting part difficult. And, frankly, it's easier to wash a cutting board and a couple of knives than the food processor. Your call.

You will also need:
1 pound of pork sausage
salt and pepper and oddly, a teaspoon or so of sugar
1 can of diced tomatoes (8 ounces)
1 small can of tomato paste (6 ounces)
sour cream and something green (fresh arugula!) for garnish

Brown the sausage. I used mild Italian. If you like things really spicy, feel free to use hot. Or you could use any other meat, but then you'd want to add more herbs and spices. You really only need to cook it until there's no pink left, but we all know a little caramelization makes it even better.

When the water is boiling, add the browned sausage and bring back to a boil. Add the beets and cook until they are tender and a lot of the red has come out of them. They will still be reddish, but so will the stock.

Add the carrots and potatoes and cook for 15 minutes or until the 'taters are tender. Add the cabbage and the diced tomatoes. The recipe said to drain the diced tomatoes, but, c'mon, we're making soup here. Dump the whole thing in.

Saute the onions in a skillet (same one the sausage was in, no need to wash first) with a little olive oil. Add the tomato paste and a little water -- or instead of water, a little of the broth -- and stir until mixed. Add to the soup pot. Add the minced garlic, turn the heat off and cover. Wait five minutes or so. Season with salt, pepper and a teaspoon or so of sugar, all to taste. You could add cayenne pepper or just more black pepper if you like things like that. I could easily see adding other herbs/spices to taste, such as paprika.

Serve it up and add a dollop of sour cream and the arugula. Or you could use parsley. You might want some crackers or toast with it, too. The sour cream does kind of melt into the soup, but it definitely adds a nice tang to it, too.

This makes a lot of borscht. It is tasty and it is filling. You could feed a lot of people for not a lot of money. The pork sausage and sour cream were the most expensive parts! And, as I said, you could probably use plain old ground pork or any other meat and just add oregano and more spices. And I know this will be a great thing to have in the freezer to take to work for a microwaved lunch.

When it is cool, I plan on hitting it some of it with a stick -- my immersion blender -- to make a more pureed form. For some reason, that's what I think of when I think of borscht.

But this was really good soup. All the flavors played well together, and the broth reminded both of us of the broth in French and Italian seafood soup, all carroty and tomato-y. The earthiness of the beets and cabbage is balanced with the acidity from the tomatoes. And then you get a bite of sausage and onion. Really good. I think all the shredding and grating helps the flavors get together, plus it cooks faster.

You could easily add mushrooms, just about any other veg, and probably any other leftover from the fridge that needed to go to a good home.

Now, is it authentic? We will find out in a few weeks!

P.S. about the teaspoon of sugar. I thought it was odd, but I remember being told by a woman who knows her collards that you should put a teaspoon of sugar in the water when cooking greens. Even though this doesn't use the beet greens, maybe it's the same principle. Balancing the earthiness, offsetting any hint of bitterness? Whatever, I can't argue with the results.

P.P.S. And yes, put all the trimmings such as onion and potato skins and those rat-tail beet roots into the compost! Just put a small bucket or bowl in the sink and let the peelings fall in.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Wrap, Part II

And here is the wrap. With fresh arugula and a tad of Greek yogurt. It turned out mighty tasty, despite the ground turkey origin.

I now have nine of these in the freezer, wrapped first in plastic wrap, tightly, and then inside a labeled freezer bag. Instant microwavable lunches.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Take-to-work Wraps, Part I

Last July, I made an Emeril LaGasse recipe for Caribbean Pulled Pork that made so much pork I had to do something with it. I mean, it was delicious, but it was a LOT of pork for one person. What I ended up doing with most of it was folding it into wraps, freezing them and taking them to work to heat up in the microwave. And they were good.

Lots of people know that wraps are a very good way of dealing with leftovers and of "mass-producing" relatively inexpensive meals to take to work. Most of us have microwaves at work. Although there are also wraps that would be good cold, and when summer comes, I will make some. Chicken and avocado, with lettuce and honey mustard dressing, comes to mind. Yum.

Just the other day, though, a friend who is a better cook than I am (by a power of ten, at least) mentioned that she was trying to come up with ideas for meals, actually, breakfasts, to take to work and heat in the microwave. She mentioned frittatas, but was open to suggestion. I thought of wraps, mostly because I've never tried freezing and microwaving a frittata. Besides, she said she was going to try frittatas, so, if there's any hope of it working, she can do it and tell me about it.

But it made me think of those wraps. I can buy all kinds of "wrap" wrappings at my local store. Whole wheat flour tortillas, which aren't bad. All kinds of pita pockets, which aren't technically wraps because you stuff them instead of wrapping, but, really, same deal. And then these wonderful long oval wraps that come in whole wheat, multigrain, Italian flavored, yada-yada-yada. I like the whole wheat and multigrain because they not only taste good, they make me feel virtuous.

So on my trip to the grocery store, I had a plan: Potatoes, onions, sausage, cheese, maybe another veg (hey! onion is a veg), wraps. Oh, and to re-stock my supply of plastic wrap and aluminum foil, because I definitely believe in double-wrapping things for the freezer.

But my store had ground turkey on sale. Two for one. And I realized that I have never, ever, cooked with ground turkey. Well, had to do it. I mean, I already knew a pork product would work. Where's the adventure there?

I baked three potatoes, chopped up two small onions and "sweated" them -- not sauteed, they didn't brown -- and then: The turkey.

I seasoned it with salt and freshly ground pepper, of course, and added some dried minced garlic, cayenne pepper, Italian seasoning (mostly oregano, by what my nose tells me) and savory. I feared the turkey would be bland, so I used a fairly heavy hand compared with what I would put on ground beef.

Some olive oil in the cast iron skillet and then, the turkey. I was stunned at how, well, mushy the consistency was. Nothing at all like ground beef. It really was ready to turn into a paste. But as it sauteed, it did break up nice and crumbly, although it didn't brown the way ground beef would, and it threw off an awful lot of moisture. I obviously will need to experiment further, and I invite comments from people who have worked with this ingredient before. I cooked it until there was no pink left and no puddles of moisture in the pan. Then I tasted it, and it did taste pretty darn good, so my seasoning was on the mark.

The reason there is no picture is that everything is now cooling in the fridge. The one thing I do know about constructing wraps is that it is a lot easier to do with chilled fillings. You don't burn yourself, and the wraps don't get soggy. Also, the potatoes will be really easy to skin and dice after they have chilled overnight. And don't tell me you don't do that. If you don't, think about it next time you need to make a batch of potato salad.

I am also thinking that tomorrow I may run back to the store for some mushrooms to add to the wraps. Or I may pick some of my spinach and arugula. Certainly anyone could add any ingredient that they liked. An obvious one would be bell pepper, but I'm not a huge fan.

So ... tune in tomorrow. If I am lucky, there will be something worth taking a picture of.


About Me

My photo
This is me enjoying a limoncello in Rome on the last night of our trip to Italy. Funny thing is, I don't really like limoncello that much, but thought it would be great in a dessert. And wouldn't you know, The Barefoot Contessa just did a great fruit salad with limoncello. So now I can't. Oh, well.