Do Right Feb 14th…

Alright, this one is going out, predominantly, to the guys out there!

On this weeks Big Wild broadcast, we discussed the delicate yet vital concept of cookin’ for your baby on the Day of Love. I’m gonna briefly flesh out some suggested we explored.

First and foremost, if you plant to cook for your sweetie on Valentines Day, then be you male, female, married, dating or trying for one or the other, heed this advice if you heed no other:
DON’T COOK WHAT YOU WANT OR WHAT YOU THINK THEY WANT TO EATAsk the love of your life some pointed questions and base your plan upon their answers, OK? And if you don’t know how to cook what they want, ask us or search elsewhere, find out and make it! There truly are few things nicer than cooking for someone you love, but listening to them and cooking what they really want is one of those…

That is lesson and job #1 for today.

Now, the second thing that came up was, well, errr, food that could possibly have certain advantageous side benefits, as in, in so many words, food that could make you and yours frisky; is there such stuff? The answer is a resounding Yup! As mentioned above, making what your love wants is the best plan; that said stuff like sparkling wine, oysters and chocolate are all reputed to get your motor running, so if your baby likes any or all of those…

Lets start with sparkling wine.

“Come quickly, I am tasting stars,”
Dom Perignon

That quote from the most famous Monk is a pretty good description of what the first taste of a good sparkler aughta be. Only those wines produced within the region of France that bears the name may rightfully be called Champagne; anything called that from somewhere else is simply false advertising.

I am recommending that you try something from the U.S., and that will be sparkling wine. Try something you’ve not tried before. I am not calling upon y’all to break the bank, but if you go this route, one or maybe two decent bottles in the $20 to $30 a pop range aughta do.

As discussed briefly, know what you’re getting before you spring for it. When it comes to sparklers, the terms you see thereon, such as Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Demi Sec and Sec are speaking to the level of sugar in that particular bottle. This stuff can be a bit confusing, so just remember that in this instance, The ‘Extra Brut’ is the least sweet and the ‘Sec’ the sweetest. Brut will serve you very well for paring with dinner, and yes, you sure can do just that!.

When you open sparkling wine, do NOT shoot the cork across the room. Not only is that potentially dangerous, (Specially after the first bottle when your aim sucks), but it does the wine no favors. Cover the cork with a cloth, grip it firmly and gently turn the bottle, allowing the cork to slowly loosen; if you do it just right, you just hear a little sigh of compressed gas as the cork leaves the bottle. Voila!

Last but not least, a decent, non-vintage sparkler should be not be served freezing cold, as doing so defeats much of the magic of complex flavors and tastes. Serve yours at around 42º to 45º F, and vintage stuff between 45º F and 50º F.

Here are some great choices.

The Sharffenberger Brut Rose from California is a fantastic wine with a touch of still red wine added to the mix. The result is tasty, complex and very refreshing. Around $20 a bottle

The Gruet Sauvage from New Mexico is a fantastic, dry complex sparkler often found for under $20 a bottle. Gruet also makes a wonderful rose sparkler fueled with 10% Pinot Noir.

Ted Marks owns my namesake Atwater Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York State; in addition to some amazing still wines, their Cuvee Brut, (Especially the ’08) is a traditionally crafted wine with amazing depth and presence; around $30 a bottle.

The Mountain Dome winery is a tiny operation nestled in the hills east of Spokane, Washington; their non-vintage Brut is, in my opinion, among the finest sparklers from any country and far and away better than anything else you can find for around $20 a bottle.

For your own back yard, if you’ve not tried the Champagne Method sparkling Cider from AEppelTreow (Apple True) Winery & Distillery in Burlington, Wisconsin, you need to! Available from the makers.

Now, as for oysters, I have to be slightly defeatist and say that, if you don’t live reasonable close to a coast, then finding good, fresh oysters is tough and expensive. If you can get them and your baby loves them, then spring for as fresh as you can get; in fact, order ’em from the Gulf Coast and do those folks a favor! Simply shuck ’em and serve ’em on the half shell, (AKA sliders). A little chopped shallot, course salt, fresh lemon, or Tabasco are all allowable but anything more than that would be uncivilized…

So, on to chocolate. Here again, I must encourage you to go outside the norm; we’re not talking Hersheys or M & Ms, guys… It is easier than ever to find very decent chocolate in your local grocery, so go and do that. Chocolate nowadays is often rated for it’s cacao content. If you’re not familiar with this stuff, you can end up scratching your head wondering what’s what.
So when you’re cruising the aisles and see, fer instance, a bar of Sharffen Berger that reads 62% Cacao Semisweet, what the hell does that mean? It means that 62% of the total content in that chocolate bar is derived from the cacao bean, (As some combination of chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and cocoa powder), and the other 38% would be sugar, vanilla and stuff like that. Ya get it? So milk chocolate is gonna be low cacao percentage and real nasty dark chocolate is gonna be real high. Be forewarned, more is not necessarily better – The darker the chocolate, the more bitter takes over from sweet, so unless you and your squeeze really like that, stay below say 70% to 75% cacao.

Sharffen Berger, (No relation, as far as I know, to the wine folks), is readily available and very good chocolate.
Lindt is another very popular popular and is also good stuff.
Green & Black, and Dagoba are other premium brands you should be able to find without too much hassle.

Pair chocolate with fresh fruit as a wonderful desert course. Sliced apple, pear, berries, and even grapefruit make a fresh, tasty finish to a fine meal.

Now, as to all that stuff about whether or not any of this will further your chances of getting lucky, well… That’s up to y’all.

Oh, Stuff It…

The local grocery gets some decent stuff in from time to time – Even Albertsons has to have chicken with no weird shit injected into it if they want to sell things these days… Often enough, they’ll offer decent beef, pork and chicken at buy one, get two free, and if you’re not taking advantage of such a thing, you’re wealthier than we are, (Which isn’t that hard, by the by). So we buy these and use them for what they should be used for, AKA, marinating, braising, or otherwise converting decent flavor to spectacular, and once again, so should you!

Of course, the obvious caveat is, that if you buy them, you should use them before they get nasty in your freezer. We keep track of what we have and when we bought it, and use them before the 90 day mark, which is a good rule of thumb to avoid old taste and/or freezer burn.

So tonight, I had chicken to work with, and thought to myself that something other than pedestrian was in order. Grant and Christie from Neighborhood Gardens had just sent us a care package, and I eyed the dried cherry tomatoes, (‘Cause I know theirs are always spectacular!), and the wild rice. This is, by the way, real wild rice from northern Minnesota, a whole ‘nuther animal from anything you find at the store – This stuff is hand harvested and processed and is to store bought what Little Feat live was to their studio albums, AKA a whole different animal of a higher order, indeed! We also are graced with cheese from the Washington State University Creamery, and this too is not your store bought stuff – Their Pepper Jack is sublime, creamy, with deep and complex flavor and just the right cast of jalapeno fueled heat. naturally, with this core in mind, my inner child kicked me upside the head and said “Sausage, you dope!” So that’s what we did.

Now, a note to you folks who might just have a kitchen in your home; is this you? If so, I’d bet dimes to dollars that you got all kinds of stuff in there you never use – Am I right or am I right? Is one of them a Kitchenaid mixer? Is it? Fess up, now… If so, do you have a food grinder and sausage stuffer attachment? ¿Sí o No? If so, but you don’t use that either, and if not, why the hell not? Both those kits will run you maybe $45, and once you have them, you can say adios to buying expensive, artisanal sausage and hello to making your own, capiche? Good! That’s what we use here; it is easy, fast and very, very fun to do, and funner yet to eat, trust us…

First, some caveats on making sausage.

1. Keep everything you’re using for the project very cold, always.
You must do this to ensure that your components blend well and remain so; heat melts fat and softens proteins and those things remaining cold are the glue for just about any forcemeat.
2. Clean everything thoroughly before and after you use them.
Ground meat gets gross fast and leads to sick people even faster; nuff said.
3. Pull out everything you’ll need and have it clean, staged and ready; it’ll keep the process fun and moving right along.
4. For stuffed sausage, you gotta have cases.
You can use a variety of natural casings, semi-natural, or artificial; it kinda depends on your preferences. Most folks still opt for natural casings. The up side is that they’re natural. The down side is that they require prep to use, most be refrigerated, and can get nasty if you don’t handle them correctly. We prefer natural, edible collagen casings. They are also an animal product, hence the natural moniker, require no prep to speak of, don’t need to be refrigerated, last at least a year, and don’t get funky easily. They’re also cheap – Check them out here at our fave supplier, Butcher & Packer.

Chicken Sausage with hickory smoked bacon, WSU Pepper Jack, sun-dried tomatoes and fresh oregano.

2 Chicken breasts, skinned, fat left on, and frozen.
4 strips quality smoked Bacon; (We use Wrights hickory smoked, which is simply fantastic)
4 oz. Pepper jack cheese
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes
Tablespoon fresh Oregano, (1/2 Tablespoon if dried)
Salt
Whole Black Pepper

Hydrate your dried tomatoes in plenty of cold, clean water until full softened.

Pull out your grinding and stuffing equipment, sanitize it, and ice your bowls.

Cut chicken, bacon, and cheese into strip suitable for feeding into your grinder. Add tomatoes and oregano.

Add salt and Pepper:Salt and Pepper are not just salt and pepper; if you’ve learned anything here, I hope its that! My friend and fellow Foodie Shannon Shipp toured our spice cabinet the other day, and was blown away just by the huge taste spectrum evident in the many salts we use and keep in house. For this project, we used Himalayan Pink Salt and fresh Lampong black pepper from Viet Nam – The flavors of those tow alone rival spice blends of much greater complexity, believe me – It’s not how much you use, but how good the ingredient is and how well you use it that counts! Those last two might sound tony and expensive, but the fact is that lovely, fresh stuff from World Spice runs between a buck and a buck seventy five an ounce, which is chicken feed for stuff of this quality, (Pun intended…).

Throw all that wonderful stuff into the grinder and get it on!

The freshly ground sausage goes right back into the freezer as we clean up and get ready to stuff.

Now, clean and sanitize everything you used! We wash boards and bowls down, spray then with Clorox Cleanup, and allow that to do it’s thing for a good 10 minutes…

OK, stuffin’ time – First set up the toy, errrrr, tool.

Next, cue up some appropriate sausage stuffing music; you want this process to move right along, so choose wisely; I went with Steely Dan’s Can’t Buy A Thrill, (When I posted a song on Facebook as Music to Stuff Sausages By, my old Buddy Doug quipped, “Literally, or is this some kind of code?” I meant it, Doog!).

Pull out your casing, measure off about 2 feet of it, tie off the bitter end with kitchen string. Grease your stuffer with a little cold shortening and ease the casing right on there, bitter end out, of course.

Now you’re ready to get it on!

You really can’t stuff with one of these rigs solo, so get your best kitchen buddy and divvy up the work. One of y’all feeds forcemeat into the stuffer while the other manages the sausage itself. The process is not turbo charged, so don’t get worried; you’ve got all the time you need to make sure you’re getting a nice, even fill. You do not want to pack a sausage tightly – you must leave room for expansion when cooking, so let it fill loose and easy.

For these guys, we think of them as a brat more or less in size. The casings are 3/4″ so that’ll be the thickness of your sausage; length should be about 4 1/2 to 5″ or so. When you reach that length, throw a few twists in the casings and start in on the next one. This recipe will make about 6 snausages that size, more or less. When you’re done, tie each one off with kitchen twine and shove ’em back into the fridge.

Now, we moved on to some left over wild rice from a feast we built the other night. M whipped that into a wild rice salad, with celery, shallot, onion, red pepper, fresh mint, dried cranberries, toasted hazelnuts, white balsamic vinegar and olive oil – No big deal, right? (Yes, she whips stuff like this off the cuff all the time; now you know whay I’m nuts about her!)

Finally, some nice, fresh green beans, ’cause we should and we can!

We browned the sausages, and then let them braise in chicken stock, just to make sure they understood the program, ya see…

Et viola, with a generous shot of King’s Gardens Kraut, because we could and should!

And if that don’t float your boat, well, it just ain’t our fault…

😉

Chicken of the Woods!

This just in from my pal Darcie, who’s become a fountain of vegetarian creativity for us!

OK Eben, I purchased “chicken of the woods” yesterday, a wild looking mushroom . . . now to figure out how to cook with it!!

GREAT catch, Darce! CofW is a wonderful, funky mushroom that I recall with great fondness from days in the northwest. They are truly delicious, with complex, deep flavors. Some think they taste, well, like chicken, (I know, right?), while others lean more toward a lobster/crab kinda vibe. In any case, they’re a great meat substitute that puts tofu to shame.

First caveat: As with any wild mushroom, be sure what you’ve found or bought before you try it! Check a reliable, reputable site for facts before you eat! I like The Mushroom Expert a lot, and that’s where I went to dig up more scoop on these guys.

Second Caveat: Some people don’t do so well with CotW, so it’s best to try a little bit and make sure before you wade into a whole raft of them. Typical reaction symptoms are stomach upset, itchy throat, or swollen lips. Anaphylaxis is not fun, so be prudent!

Third caveat: Some varieties of CotW grow on conifers, cedars, and eucalyptus trees; you shouldn’t eat these guys, as they can contain some nasty toxins specific to those trees that don’t mix well with humans.

That’s a lot to know, but it’s all important. Bottom line is, if you’re buying and your seller can’t answer those questions readily and with clear eyes, don’t buy from them… OK, all that said, whataya do with them once you got ‘em? Here’s a basic recipe that rocks, but first, a couple of notes.

Make sure you’re gtting young, fresh stuff – When these get old, they pretty much resemble plywood in taste…

To clean CofW, wipe them gently with a clean, damp cloth. They are sponges and will absorb a lot of water if you douse ‘em. For the same reason, if you sauté in oil, do so sparingly.

My favorite way to cook these is simple and straightforward, letting the flavor and texture of the ‘shrooms stand out.

Sauted Chicken of the Woods

2 – 3 cups CotW
3 – 5 whole tomatoes
½ cup Vegetable Stock
2 – 3 cloves Garlic
¼ teaspoon fresh Thyme
1 teaspoon Balsamic Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Clean CotW and cut into slightly large bite sized pieces. Mince garlic, and fine chop thyme.

Heat water in a large pan to a low rolling boil. Fill a non-reactive bowl with ice water. Blanch tomatoes into boiling water for about 30 seconds and then dunk them into the ice water. Peel and core after they’re thoroughly cooled. Toss tomatoes into a blender and zap ‘em until they’re uniformly sauced. Pour your sauce through a wide mesh strainer to remove seeds, etc. Set aside.

Heat oil in sauté pan over medium heat. Mince garlic and quickly sauté, taking care not to burn it!

Add CofW and sauté for about 10 minutes. As they cook, they turn bright orange-yellow, which is very cool!

Add vegetable stock and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Add tomato sauce, balsamic vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper. Simmer over medium low heat, taste and adjust seasoning as desired.

Serve hot and go wild. I love these with some crusty bread to sop up all the juice with a nice glass of tangy, white wine to refresh the flavors with. Also goes great tossed with a pasta of your choice, or over wild rice.

Enjoy!

Weird Veggies of the World, Unite!

My dear old friend Darcy sent this in from Sunny California, and I’ve taken way too long to answer!

Ok – fennel (whole) and kohlrobi . . . . picked them up at the CSA and hove no idea what to do with them. Any (non animal) ideas?

Yup, I sure do! And let me just add that this post is titled as it is not ’cause Darce is weird using such stuff, but because all three of the mainline veg ingredients here are often either completely overlooked or, at best, treated as redheaded step-veggies. And they shouldn’t be, because they are all wonderful, unique and very tasty indeed.

So, in the interest of better late than never, here’s a great slaw for summer. We love O & V based slaws as much as the mayo/aoli style, and especially in summer, where lighter is better. This one really lets the veggy mainstays sing!

Fennel – Kohlrabi Slaw with Sautéed Kale.

1 Bulb each Kohlrabi and Fennel, washed and sliced sliver thin.
1 bunch Kale sliced into strips roughly ¼” wide.
Juice and zest from 1 Lemon.
½ teaspoon prepared Horseradish.
2 cloves Garlic.
¼ Cup dry white wine.
¼ Cup Veggy stock.
1 Tablespoon Dijon mustard.
2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Salt and Pepper to taste.

Combine lemon juice, zest, horseradish, salt, pepper and whisk thoroughly. Mix the sliced fennel and kohlrabi until well coated and allow to marinate, refrigerated, for at least 3 hours.

Remove veg mix, discard marinade and set fennel-kohlrabi aside.

Combine white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Whisk in up to 6 tablespoons olive oil slowly, allowing vinaigrette to emulsify – Stop when you hit your preferred mark for the dressing, (And if you like more oil than that then use it!)

Combine dressing and marinated fennel-kohlrabi and coat thoroughly. Return to fridge for at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, blanch kale in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Remove quickly and dunk in a bowl of ice water to shock it, (AKA, stop the cooking RFN). Pat dry, and set aside.

Mince garlic.

Combine 2 tablespoons olive oil, white wine, stock, salt and pepper in a sauté pan on medium high. Sauté Kale to al dente, adding minced garlic in last minute or so. Remove kale and discard sautéing liquid.

Plate a nice layer of the sautéed kale, then toss a nice big portion of the slaw on top. Serve with a nice, crusty bread and some more of that dry white wine!

Enjoy!

P.S. – I apologize for no pics, but I’m working freelance on this one…

Birds of a Feather

Every Thanksgiving, someone says something to the effect of, “Why don’t we cook turkey more often?” Usually, I think it’s left at that, but for us, a few years back, we started to and we still do: Often enough, however, we find a turkey of any size just a bit too much for the two of us, so we’ve taken to downsizing with a nice chicken. I’m sure most of us have walked into the store and seen the ubiquitous pre-cooked chickens sitting there getting old, but since they’re on sale for $3.99, (Such a bargain!), we buy one, right? The problems with these things are myriad, but among the chief violations are these:
1. We have no idea where this bird came from or how good it is as raw product, and
2. We have no idea when it was cooked, and
3. The ‘seasoning’ is commonly barbaric

So, next time you’re tempted, pass the pre-cooked crap, head over to the poultry section, and check out whole roasting chickens.

We have a very nice, natural, no weird crap injected or fed, non-antibiotic filled brand available here and I’d bet you do too; that takes care of concern number one. You’ll notice, while reading the label to assure quality, that a very nice sized bird goes for roughly the same price as the pre-cooked junk, so there’s your bargain.

We’ll cook this ourselves, with fresh herbs and citrus, and that’ll take care of concerns two and three.

One other common concern we’ll address here is this: It goes something like, “OK, I get one good meal and maybe some sandwiches, but that gets boring after a few times…” This, of course, is the absolute wrong answer; stay with me and I’ll explain why.

First off, yes, you should start with a really nice meal. That bird is simply divine, as far as I’m concerned, and the joy of the whole shebang as we do it, a la that Thanksgiving feast, with turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry, Brussels sprouts, crème brûlée, is just too good to only do once a year. Light that menu up any month you like and you’ll have diners lining up at your door. That said, you needn’t go so whole hog to do a really great fresh chicken dinner; simple is best, so start there.

Unwrap, rinse and unpack your bird when you get it home, (how many embarrassing tales of cooked birds with the giblet packet tucked neatly inside must we hear, anyway?).

Follow all your standard safety precautions for handling poultry – Use separate tools, cutting boards, etc, and wash everything, including you, thoroughly afterwards.

Preheat your oven to 375º F.

Now raid the fridge; grab whatever citrus you have, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit all work great. Use maybe a large orange, or a couple of smaller lemons or limes, as you like and have on hand: Cut the fruit into 8ths or thereabouts and throw ‘em into a large mixing bowl. Add a splash of olive oil, a few more of white wine, half a rough chopped onion, then rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper. Mix all that up, put your bird on a rack in a roasting pan and stuff the bird with it. Grab the ends of the bird’s little legs, (AKA drumsticks), and tie them together with kitchen twine, (You DO have kitchen twine, right?!)

Now take a couple tablespoons of butter, a couple more of olive oil, a little more rosemary and thyme and salt and pepper, and mix ‘em all together. Slather the skin of your bird liberally with the mix.

Anything left over from stuffing or slathering? Throw it all in the roasting pan along with 3 or 4 cups of water.

Throw that sucker into the preheated oven.

OK, now a few words about cooking poultry, (Actually, damn near any flesh, truth be told). If you’re a seasoned pro who cooks for a living, I will believe that you can look at and touch a hunk of protein and tell when it is not only done, but properly done to rare, medium, well, etc. If that sentence does not describe you, then you can’t tell just by looking or poking, OK? One of the greatest crimes against good food is improper cooking, so get a leg up, face facts, jump into the 21st Century and buy a decent cooking thermometer. Actually, get several, seriously… I have a candy thermometer and an instant read, both of which are dirt cheap, as well as a nice, probe-equipped digital beast that reads both internal food temp and oven temp; got the latter online for about $20 and it’s well worth it.

Going back to that pre-cooked store bird, let me ask another question; with all the potential; liability of selling cooked poultry, which side of done do you think they’re gonna lean to? If you answered “Grossly, obscenely overdone,” then in the words of Ed McMahon, you are correct sir! For properly cooked whole poultry, we’re looking for an internal temp of 165º F, measured in the thickest part of the bird; once again, take the guesswork out, get a good thermometer and start cooking chicken that makes folks’ mouths water, OK?

Pull your bird out when it hits 165 and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before you cut it; second greatest crime with the preparation of good meat is carving into it right after it’s pulled out of the oven; what that does is virtually guarantee that all the juices are gonna pour out, and you end up with nasty, dry flesh, just like the store bought version – Be patient, let it rest, and you’ll get the juicy, tender stuff you’re after!

Serve this bird with whatever you like; you can’t go wrong with a nice, crisp salad and some spuds. You really must, however, make gravy, right?

Heat a sauté pan to medium high. Pour in an ounce or so of bourbon, and let the alcohol flash off. You do NOT need to light the stuff on fire, gang, just let is simmer and use your nose; when you smell the nice, smoky smell without the booze smell, you’re there. With a baster or ladle, take some of those lovely pan drippings out of your roaster, (And yes, we do want fat, gang, that is what makes gravy great), and pour it into the sauté pan. Let the liquids incorporate and get nice to a nice low simmer; adjust your heat accordingly. Add a couple tablespoons of flour, slowly and gradually, and whisk constantly as you do, to blend everything smoothly and avoid clumps of flour. Stop adding flour when your gravy is a bit thinner than you care for and allow the mixture to thicken by heat alone. Add a little salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste and bring it on!

The variations for this kind of thing are endless – How about southwestern style, with cilantro, onion, garlic, green chile and apple for stuffing and rubbing? Italian, go with shallot, basil, thyme, and balsamic vinegar – Get the picture? As with spice rubs and blends, pick some flavors that you like and that seem complimentary and experiment – The next great blend should come from YOUR kitchen, OK?

Now, place yourself in the not-too distant future. That wonderful meal has been eaten, the leftovers wrapped and boxed and stuffed in the fridge – What happens now?! Well, as we mentioned back a ways, there always is sandwiches; Warren Zevon, shortly before he died, gave this advice: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Indeed we should, Mr. Z… My dad was a sandwich artist, and I like to think I inherited some of his passion and talent – There are few things better than a chicken or turkey sandwich with fresh cut bird, fresh bread, crisp veggies and homemade pickles; do the sandwiches and thank me later.

But there is so much more waiting in the wings, Gang! (Sorry, couldn’t resist). First and foremost, you have the perfect source for stock, and stock means soup or stew, and, well.. Nuff said, right? Take that carcass out, remove the remaining meat by carving or, as I prefer, simply ripping big old chunks off. Throw the remains into a big ol’ pot. Add water to cover, a volume of mirepoix appropriate to the size of your bird, (Remember mirepoix? 50% onion, 25% each carrot and celery, rough chopped), a couple bay leaves, salt, pepper, and put it all on a simmer. Let it do its thing for as long as you can, the better part of a day as a good measuring stick. When you can’t stand the incredible rich smell any more, strain out the remaining carcass and mirepoix, and return the stock to a large pot on medium low heat.

Raid the fridge again, and add what floats your boat; carrots, potatoes, peas, green beans, black beans, cilantro, garlic, corn, white beans, (or kidney, red, pinto, garbanzos – Get the picture?), rice, small pasta, (Boil first and strain well), chicken meat, a little bacon – Viola; homemade soup that puts everything else to shame. Maybe do up some French baguettes while it’s simmering, or fresh corn bread, (More on those later if that thought gave you a ‘Huh?’ moment…)

If you don’t feel like soup, fine – Let the stock cool, pour it into glass containers or plastic bags if you must and freeze it for later use – Nothing makes homemade soup, stew, or gravy better than homemade stock. Pour some of it into ice cube trays and freeze it; then when you’re ready to do up some great green beans you found at the market, pop out a cube, melt it in a sauté pan, add a little butter, and coat your steamed beans in that prior to serving – that’ll generate a wow moment for your diners, guaranteed!

Finally, how about what do afterwards if you DO do the whole Thanksgiving enchilada? How does one avoid the boring doldrums here? Easy, and one word for ya; terrine… The art of Garde Manger is the art of creatively using leftovers, and this is one of my favorites; I think I came up with this one, but I doubt it, frankly; it’s too easy and to good not to have been done before.

Preheat your oven to 350º F. Grab a loaf pan and lightly oil it. Now pull out all your Big Dinner leftovers; spuds, carrots, Brussels sprouts, dressing, cranberry, turkey, the whole shebang. Take your dressing and, by hand, line the loaf pan all around with a thin layer of that wonderful stuff. When you’ve done that, start layering the goods inside; turkey, spuds, carrots, everything except gravy, (Which will make things swim – Not good…) When you’re all layered up, cover the whole shebang with dressing. Pop it in the oven and let it do its thing for 30 minutes. Pull it out and let it rest for 15 minutes, minimum. Carefully cut a slice of the terrine and using a spatula, throw ‘er on a plate; add gravy and maybe some more cranberry; yum yum noises are optional but likely.

P.S. to loyal readers: Notice a diff on this entry? No standard recipe formats with exactly this much of this and that? Exactly; we’re starting down the road to cooking intuitively. Go with peace in your hearts, friends and neighbors! Look, if you’re not up to winging it 100%, OK, but you want to be and you will be and you have to get there somehow – Dive in, use your best judgment and trust that you’ll do fine; worst case scenario is a few learning experiences followed by a lifetime of joy and pleasure.

Herbology


Mint, Rosemary, Garlic Chives and Zinnias

Funny thing, some of the herbs that may be considered aggressive from a taste standpoint can also be quite aggressive in their growth habits; stuff we call herbs can spend a great deal of their time engaged in weed-like activity. Basil, Mint, Thyme, Rosemary, just to name a few; these guys will not only grace a nice dish, they’ll make serious inroads on your backyard if ya let ‘em.

Granted, of those, most can be killed if you really go after ‘em. Only mint has survived pretty much every attempt I made to off it: That circumstance came about not because I don’t like the mint, (I do and ours is exemplary), but because it had worked its way under the back door jam and walls and was growing through and out of the house as opposed to merely beside it. Mint, I have come to realize, like bamboo, is never to be trusted…

Point is, all this wonderful stuff will grow for you darn near wherever you live and probably grow well with minimal attention, and as such, you need to grow it. The bottom line here is taste, and when it comes to herbs, as with any seasoning we want to use regularly, the fresher and higher the quality, the better.

Do a little bit of research and find what you can grow yourself; granted, your gardeners up there have herbs, and you can get ‘em, and you should but, you should also grow your own. Even in a cold climate, herbs don’t take up much room and can even be grown indoors during winter months. There is nothing that I know in cooking quite so satisfying as deciding what herbs you need for a dish, and then simply heading out the back door with a paring knife.

This brings us to the not-so-delicate question; “What about stuff from the supermarket?” Answer; what about it? They’re doing a fine job of holding shelves down, so leave ‘em to it… Seriously, even ‘gourmet’ seasonings from a supermarket are suspect to me. At our house, we treat herbs like we do coffee, and frankly, we buy green beans from very well known and trusted sources and roast our own, so…

Granted, you cannot grow everything you want – Just look at this spice cabinet and you’ll see what I mean:

What you see there also tells a few important stories about storing herbs:
1. There are good places to buy herbs you need to check out. fact is, almost all our stuff comes from two sources: World Spice and Butcher & Packer. As far as I am concerned, you rarely need to go further to find dang near anything, and the quality is as good as it gets.
2. How you store your herbs matters a lot. Glass jars with a very good seal are a must: World Spice sells jars, (As you can see from our cabinet) that are a great size and sport a fine seal. For the stuff you grow and process, you’ll want more. If you have a bunch of spice from the store, you can still put it to good use; toss all the spice, wash the jars and re-use ‘em. 😉 If you’re OCD like me, you can buy new jars with tight fitting lids and various shaker tops for not much dough; I got a set of 16 from Amazon for about $12.
3. Herbs are indeed fun to look at, but sunlight ain’t their friend; keep yours in a cool, dry place out of direct sun and they’ll last longer and stay fresher.

Processing herbs is really pretty darn easy, as you’d expect. Drying them is the best trick, of course, so once again, a cheap dehydrator comes in real handy. The sooner you process after harvesting, the better the flavor and punch, of course. Many herbs can be air dried with great success as well, and a few stems of rosemary or whatnot will smell wonderful as they do their thing.

Inspect your stuff for critters and dirt after harvesting. Don’t strip leaves from stems if your herb is a leafy one; dry ’em with minimal stems attached and you;ll get more flavor. For berries, such as pepper, coriander and the like, keep and store ‘em whole; you can whack ‘em into whatever form you need with that spare coffee bean grinder right before you’re ready to use them. Same goes for ordering spices and herbs from World Spice or whomever: You’ll note that they offer to sell pure spices and blends whole or ground – Get ‘em whole and grind ‘em as you use ‘em and you’ll get longer lasting product and better flavor and intensity.

Some herbs lend themselves wonderfully to flavoring oils and vinegars, as I’m sure you know. Rather than buying Tarragon vinegar, grow and make your own; you’ll get much better flavor, quality and satisfaction, guaranteed. Be careful about sanitation when doing these infusions, of course; being sunk into oil or vinegar does not guarantee safe eating!

Oil in and of itself isn’t prone to growing bacteria, but the stuff we may want to infuse in it is, so proper caution is a must: Your greatest possible concern is Botulism, (Botulinum). With that in mind, blending your own stuff and leaving it out for any length of time is not a great idea. If you’re making oils to be used right away, there’s no concern, but again, if you’re planning on keeping it around, ya gotta be careful: The key is water, ‘cause that’s what the bad bug needs to do its thing. If you have your infusing herbs 100% dried out, you’re fine, but realistically, how likely are we to achieve that? The easy solution is to refrigerate, and by so doing, assuming you’ve kept everything clean, you can store your infusions for a week or two without a hitch. Make sure, of course, that you’re using high quality oil and vinegar! If you’re giving stuff away, include a little card to explain to the uninitiated how to store and when to discard.

Vinegar, on the other hand, is a purty fine preservative; if your herbs are clean and fresh, you should be fine making infusions. Again, drying your herbs is best, just to be super safe, if you plan on keeping them around for a while. Although I’ve never seen it said you should do so, I discard anything over a month old, just to be on the safe side, and besides, after a month things are bound to be getting a bit funky, right?

If you’re making mixes of oil and vinegar, then the caution signs go back up, and the more stringent storage and discard rules apply once again.

For my mind, infused oils and vinegars should be predominantly single note creatures, like rosemary or tarragon solo. Simple mixes, following the Rule Of Three, are just fine too. By this, I mean no more than three spice notes; garlic/lime/dill, lemon/sage/rosemary, tomato/oregano/dill, etc. In all flavoring/infusing considerations, a teaspoon of herb/spice to a cup of oil or vinegar is a good starting point, then adjust as you see fit.

And while we’re talking mixes and blends… Checking into World Spice and Butcher & Packer, you’ll find a bunch of blends from all over the world; I encourage you to try some and then extrapolate on your own from that starting point.

Using spices and herbs can be fraught with danger, mostly from the too-much-and-too-many camp! Granted, some things need myriad ingredients to be what they are, black mole, as a fer instance; but if you watch food TV at all, especially something like Chopped, you’ll notice a pervasive and recurrent theme, wherein a competitor loads 12 different spices and herbs and liquors and such into one dish; invariably, the savvy restaurant pro judges always say “WAY too many spices/herbs/flavors/ideas going on here,” and they’re right.

Here’s my basic philosophy on creating and cooking great food; keep these tenets in mind and I think you can’t really ever go wrong:
1. First and foremost, eat and serve the highest quality ingredients you can find and afford; that really is job #1.
2. That said, let the taste, smell, appearance and overall impact of a great food speak; we choose what we do because we want to taste that, not spice covering that or anything else that masks, detracts or otherwise diminishes the taste of great food.
3. Balance a meal sensibly; be it portions or courses, folks like a nice variety and balance to a meal. Think not only about what folks like to eat, but how much and when. It’s actually for my mind much easier to serve big, multi course meals to a lot of folks then a couple, so plan and execute accordingly.

So, when it comes to seasoning, I’ll refer back once again to The Rule of Three; no more than three major notes in any one dish is a great general rule of thumb. Yes, it can and sometimes must be broken, and yes, salt and pepper do count… Is this for real? Yeah, it is. Love the high-end steakhouse taste and wonder what they do differently than you do? Great quality meat, properly butchered, stored and aged, usually nothing more than salt and pepper on it for seasoning, and done quickly over super high heat. Blown away by that green bean amusé bouche; fresh beans, lightly roasted, with butter, lemon, and salt. Crudité radish to die for; salt and good butter. Guacamole got your tongue; salt, lemon, chile; that’s it…

Get the picture? there are classic combos of course; garlic, lime, dill; lemon, thyme, pepper; basil, parsley, pepper; salt, cumin, oregano, and on and on. Pick some favorite notes, try some blending and tasting, and see where it takes you!

Molcajete Madness

This just in:

Well, I’m not actually asking about pesto, I’m asking about the molcajete. I found that many people were disappointed with trying to season theirs; maybe an inferior product that just gave up grit forever, maybe just for decoration? I’d have to buy one online (not too many molcajete stores around here)–so what do I look for and how do I season it?

Thanks for the great posts.
Chris

Always a pleasure, Chris!

Well, first and foremost, unless you’re in a big cosmopolitan city, you DO need to buy online. I did, mostly because that’s a ton easier and more efficient than traipsing all over Fo’t Wuth!

Secondly, know that molcajetes are made from dang near every kind of stone you can name, and they are not all created equally: If it’s real cheap and/or too good to be true, then it probably is: Safe to say that the cheaper rocks are more prone to never ending grit sloughing off, which we most certainly do not want. The best stuff, (So say my Mexican friends), is granite or basalt with a relatively low sand content. I bought a Granite model, made by Vasconia and sold through Amazon; I couldn’t be happier with this guy; it has a great texture, is very sturdy, and cost about $30, which is right in the wheelhouse for decent stuff.

Now, as for the seasoning issue; a good molcajete will shed a bit of grit, because it is what it is, stone being ground with stone. A lousy one will shed lots and never stop, regardless of what you do; bottom line, avoid cheap, no-name stuff, ‘cause that is, as you noted, just for looks at best… That said, just like a good cast iron pan, seasoning a molcajete takes a loooooong time; this is why both tools are passed down through generations.

In any case, ya gotta start somewhere, so here’s what you do.

1. Immerse your new cool tool in water for 3 or 4 hours.
2. Pull ‘er out and let ‘er dry thoroughly.
3. Put ¼ cup of rice in the beast and grind until the rice is a molcajete-colored powder; stop when you get there and clear the rice dust out.
4. Combine a tablespoon each of garlic, rock salt, cumin and cilantro; grind all that into the molcajete and coat it thoroughly with the paste. Let that stuff sit in the molcajete for 6 to 8 hours in the fridge, then clean it out under cool running water.
5. Now go to town on your favorite recipe; if you got a good tool, you will not be eating grit and things are good to go. The rest of the seasoning happens over the weeks, months and years…

So, get out there and get you one, y’all!