Simple wintry goodness

Have I ever mentioned that a classic fall-back meal of mine is to make couscous, some sort of tomato-based sauce, and some sort of protein topping?  This is particularly comforting in the winter, when for some reason, I crave foods that have a more porridge-like texture.

I bought some delicious fresh lamb sausage at the Wedge yesterday because I’d been craving lamb.  This sausage had fresh mint, green onions, and garlic in it.  I made a lentil-based tomato sauce, with spices inspired by the meat sauce used in the classic Greek dish, moussaka.  Then I cut up the sausage into chunks and browned it.  I made some plain couscous, topped it with the lentils, added some of the browned lamb sausage, and garnished it with a little bit of Greek feta and high quality extra virgin olive oil.  The only thing that would have made this better was fresh mint leaves, chopped and tossed on top!

Lentil tomato sauce with Greek-inspired spices

  • 1 cup French green lentils, washed and picked through
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Olive oil for sauteeing
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon allspice
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
  • 1 bay leaf
  • lots of freshly ground black pepper
  • 14 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 3 cups water, or more depending on your lentils
  • Kosher salt to taste (start with 1/2 teaspoon, work up from there)

Sautee the onion and garlic in olive oil until translucent.  Add all the spices, stir and cook for another minute or so.  Add the lentils, coat with the fat and spices.  Add the tomatoes and water and bring to a boil.  Add salt.  Reduce heat to simmer and cook on low until lentils are tender, about 45 minutes to an hour.  Taste and adjust for salt.

Meanwhile, slice fresh lamb sausage on the bias.  Bring olive oil to medium high heat in a pan, add sausage, and brown.  Cook until all pink is gone.  Remove sausage from pan and drain on paper towels.

To prepare couscous, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a small pan.  Add 1/2 cup couscous, stir to thoroughly coat with butter.  Add 3/4 cup water (or broth), bring to a boil, stir again.  Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for 4-5 minutes.  Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and set aside.

To eat: layer couscous in a bowl, cover with a generous spoonful of lentils, top with sausage and a bit of feta, and drizzle with olive oil.  If you have mint, chop it and add as a final garnish!  Enjoy with a plentiful salad and a sturdy red wine.

This recipe is quite flexible and could be made vegetarian or vegan quite easily.  The basic concept remains the same: top couscous with some sort of delicious sauce, and top that with (more) protein.  You can even skip the last step if your sauce has protein in it already, like this does.  Other variations I’ve made or suggested have included a polenta base topped with a buttery, rosemary-infused tomato sauce with white beans.  Sometimes I throw wine in the lentils, and add more robust herbs like fresh thyme and rosemary.  If I’m serving vegetarian friends, I’ll use fake sausage.

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A Birthday Bash

I had a birthday recently, and in true style, I decided to throw a dinner party.  A collaborative, interactive dinner party that was also a beer tasting.

I wanted to showcase all the glory that are fall/winter beers, and to have food that tasted great to go along with it.  So I asked everyone to bring a couple of their favorite fall or winter beers, as well as a cheese that would pair well with the beer, and a stone fruit to contribute to the interactive dessert we’d make.  (I was a little off on the stone fruits – thinking they were still in season.  I blame finishing my Master’s Project on my disconnect from what was in season…)

Take a look at the menu below.  We had quite a blast.

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Unequivocally Fall

I return.  It’s been a while since I’ve written about what I’m cooking.  As I mentioned in my last post, I was out of commission for, well, let’s see, over half a year here, because I was in a bad car accident (not my fault) which broke one of my hands.  I’m still not totally up to full strength in that hand yet, but I am able to cook now.  In addition to the accident, I got caught up in finishing my last semester of classes (which were undoubtedly affected by said accident) and then completing my master’s project.  It’s all official now – you can call me Master!

In the meantime, it’s nearly November.  Temperatures are still wavering back and forth, but the air smells decidedly like fall: wood smoke, decomposing leaves, damp earth.  Nights are crisp and the light is changing.  I couldn’t be happier.  Fall is my favorite season of the year.  Fall is also my favorite cooking season.

Tonight I was craving squash and pork.  I decided to make a beer-braised pork shoulder, roasted butternut squash and braised dinosaur kale.  My love of all things pork-related is well documented on this blog, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  But I also love braising pork because it is exceptionally easy and so flavorful.  The possibilities for seasoning are endless, and the cut of meat and cooking method are very forgiving. Tonight I worked with what I had on hand, which included some delicious leftover Woodcut No. 05 Oak Aged Ale (from ODell Brewing Company), and some Haralson apples from a recent apple-picking excursion.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

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Beer-braised Pork Shoulder

  • 3 lb bone-in pork shoulder or butt (sometimes generically referred to as “roast”)
  • 1 tablespoon bacon fat (or vegetable oil or lard)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 2-3 medium apples, quartered and cored
  • 1 onion, peeled and halved, root end kept intact
  • 12 oz amber or brown ale
  • 1-2 cups water (depending on size of your pot)
  • Salt to taste

Heat your fat on medium high heat in a pot that is large enough to contain the roast and enough liquid to cover it.  Put the shoulder in and brown on all four sides.  Generously salt each side of the meat when you turn it.

Add the bay leaves, peppercorns, apples, onion, beer and 1 cup of the water.  Evaluate your situation: how much of the roast, apples and onion are covered?  You want them to be just almost covered, with just the tops breaking the liquid.  Add enough water to get to that state.

Bring everything to a boil, uncovered, then reduce the heat to a low simmer and cover.  Stir the pot occasionally, every 20 minutes or so, and cook for 2 hours.  You can stop cooking as soon as the meat is tender (around an hour and a half), but it just keeps getting tastier the longer you cook it, in my opinion.  When you are done, remove the meat from the pot and place in serving dish and tent it with foil.  Take your cooking liquid and strain it through a fine sieve to remove all the solids.  At this point you can use this liquid to make a gravy (it will not be thick like gravy on its own), or you can simply set it aside to dress your meat when you serve it.

Roasted Butternut Squash

  • 1 large butternut squash (~3 lbs)
  • A couple tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  Slice the top and the bottom of the squash.  Then cut the squash in half across its middle (i.e., not lengthwise).  Butternut squash is somewhat unwieldy, so doing this will give you a flat surface that will make peeling easier. Peel the squash using a peeler or a paring knife.  Then cut into cubes roughly 1 inch in size. Put all the pieces in a bowl, toss with a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and season with salt. Spread the pieces out on a rimmed baking sheet so that they are all in one layer (overcrowding will prevent browning).  You will bake them for a total of about 45 minutes, turning every 15 minutes to ensure even browning on the sides.  Once golden brown (or rather, golden orange-brown), remove from oven and taste again for salt.  Adjust as necessary.

Braised Dinosaur Kale

  • 1 bunch dinosaur kale, washed
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 cup vegetable (or other) broth

Cut the hard stems off the kale and set aside in a bowl.  Cut the rest of the kale in ribbons about 1 inch wide.   Heat the butter in a medium pot (I used a roughly 2 quart pot), and cook until it browns.  Add the kale stems, stir to coat in butter, and add a little salt to taste. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, until the stems have softened a bit.  Uncover, add the remaining kale and the cup of broth, stir and then cover again.  Cook on medium-low heat for about 10 minutes, then taste the kale.  I like mine just a tad bit crunchy, but you make like it softer.  Keep cooking until it’s reached your desired texture.  Taste again for salt and adjust if necessary.

Enjoy!

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On Food Sourcing

Hi folks.

I’ve been a bit out of cooking commission, and will likely continue to be, for a while.  I was in a bad car accident back in March (which broke my hand), and have been severely limited in my ability to cook like I used to.

In the meantime, I wanted to talk a bit about food sourcing and where I buy what I eat.  Historically, I’ve not had the most flush bank account to be able to spend money on food without thinking seriously about how much the unit price of a meal or serving will be with all the ingredients I’ve bought.  Money has pretty much always been tight, as it generally is when you work in the non-profit world and/or you are a student.  I used to do almost all my grocery shopping at places like Rainbow Foods, or Cub Foods, because it was all I could afford, and I had to prioritize money over sourcing.  Yes, I cared about high-quality, good food, I cared about sustainability, but I wasn’t in a place where I could afford it.  Or perhaps I wasn’t in a place where I was ready to align my politics with my wallet.

Part of this is related to my upbringing.  I grew up near an important and historical co-op in Atlanta, Sevananda, but my family could never afford to shop there.  With four kids spaced such that at any given moment, one was always in college, my family had a tight food budget too.  We shopped at the local equivalent of Rainbow – Kroger’s – but also at a place called Dekalb Farmer’s Market, where in my later years, organic foods started being offered at prices comparable to conventional foods.  So, growing into responsible adulthood, I carried forward many of the same attitudes and strategies towards grocery shopping.

But it’s deeper than that.  I think my tendency to shop in the way I have is not only based on the kind of ethics I grew up with or the reality of my bank account.   It’s also reactionary.  There’s quite a bit of self-righteousness wrapped up in food politics sometimes, and it’s unfortunate, because it’s alienating rather than welcoming.  So alienating, in fact, that I spent a good portion of my energy immediately after college dismissing or avoiding interpersonal interactions with folks who I viewed as proselytizers.   Macalester was full of them, and I felt in a way, as if I had to detox from their politics in order to really center myself and find my own.

Somewhere in this last year, I had a shift.  I realized I care quite a bit about food and about the quality and taste of ingredients – not to mention the ethics – and that I maybe would be interested in starting to do some shopping in a different way, and to do a little cost comparison.  For years already, I had already been going more local by buying most of my produce at farmer’s markets during the summers.  But in January of 2011, I joined the Wedge Co-op and gradually started doing some of my shopping there and at the Seward Co-op.

I won’t share my color-coded budget with grocery item breakouts with you, comparing the costs of food at the Wedge with those at Rainbow, but I did find that generally speaking, co-ops are more expensive than Rainbow.  However, if you are shopping at Rainbow and buying mostly organics, they are more expensive there than at the co-op.   Interestingly, over time I looked at my budget and found that I was spending, on average, about the same amount of money on groceries at the co-op as I had been previously at Rainbow.

But even if I hadn’t been spending the same amount – if the co-ops were indeed costing me more – I was now ok with that.  I’d made a shift.  See, the curious thing I noticed when I first started shopping more – and eventually, almost exclusively – at the co-op, is that I found myself needing to buy less food.  The food I was buying tasted better, was more nourishing, and stretched longer.   How wonderful!  What positive reinforcement for my decision-making.  I was more satisfied – on a physical and emotional level – by what I was putting into my body.

And so I feel like I’m a convert.  One who was philosophically in tune, but financially resistant, to making this change for some time.  And now I’m willing to put my money more readily into the hands of local farmers and food producers.  I’m working within the same financial confines, but my priorities have shifted.   If I need to spend more money on food, so be it – I’ll look elsewhere to cut extra money out of my overarching budget.

I’m not exactly shouting this from the rooftops, and I won’t judge you if you buy your food at Rainbow or Cub or Aldi or wherever.  I understand:  I’ve been there.  But slowly and surely, you’ll notice a shift in my kitchen, a change in my cabinets, and an improvement on that dinner plate.  And I’ll step back and do what I’m best at: letting the food speak for itself.

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Craving spring!

What dinner was supposed to be:

Roasted rosemary chicken, roasted beets, whipped sweet potatoes, quinoa, and dinosaur kale

And what it turned out to be instead:

In other words, I think my body is very clearly telling me that it is anxious for the fresh food, the lightness, and the crunch of spring.

This was an incredibly easy salad to make (and I am one who eats far too few salads, for disdain of assembling):

  • Fresh spinach
  • Grated carrot
  • Julienned red bell pepper
  • Black beans
  • Roasted and salted sunflower seeds
  • Fresh cilantro
  • Dressing of choice.  I used this creamy garlic dressing here – fair warning – it’s from a vegan website that is a little heavy on the anti-animal abuse proselytizing.
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Hodge Podge

I’ve been busy with school and work lately, but I’ve still been cooking.  Here’s a glimpse of what I’ve been up to!

Halwa Puri

Halwa puri is to Pakistan what pancakes and eggs are to the United States: a semblance of a national breakfast.  I was introduced to this delightful, hangover-curing breakfast through some friends sometime last summer.  There’s even a place in the cities where I can eat it on the weekends.  But that place is far away, and I was really craving the meal – RIGHT THEN – at home one Sunday morning a few weeks ago.

It consists of a chola dish (a chickpea and potato curry, mildly spicy, that tastes more than anything of ginger, tomato and cilantro), puri (fried wheat breads), and halwa (a sweet dessert made of semolina cooked in ghee, and studded with cashews, raisins and cardamom).

It may be sacrilegious (I’m not actually sure), but I like to tear off a bit of the puri with my right hand, scoop up a chunk of the halwa, and dip it in the chola.  Mmm: sweet and savory and spicy together?  Yes, please!

Lemon Lavender Pots de Creme

You may recall that I had an epic fail of a dessert, thanks to a very mediocre Martha Stewart recipe.  A friend of mine pointed me toward this recipe, which I clearly adapted to include lavender buds instead of chamomile.  My goodness, was it delicious.  So tasty that I forgot to take any pictures.

Tofu Hash

I marinated extra firm tofu (that I had drained) in a combination of red wine, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, thyme, rosemary, black pepper and a few other things.  I pan fried it and served it over purple potatoes, with a poached egg and some fried thyme.

Beignets

A dear friend of mine went to New Orleans this fall and brought me back a box of Cafe du Monde’s Beignet mix.  Fluffy, crunchy heaven.

Mesir Wat (and therefore nitter kibbeh and berbere)

I had some of this spicy Ethiopian red lentil dish at the Blue Nile and then had a major craving for it the next day.  In order to even make this dish you need nitter kibbeh (a clarified, spiced butter) and berbere (a very spicy paste used to flavor most Ethiopan wats, or stews).  I had all the spices but one (coriander) to make both of those key ingredients, so I did.  I was out of red lentils, so I used green lentils, which are a little meatier and more fibrous than is desired in this recipe, but made do.

Usually mesir wat is served on injera (a fermented, spongy, crepe-like bread made from teff flour that also doubles as the eating utensil) with just a little bit of plain yogurt on the side.  Well, I didn’t have teff flour.  I did, however, have rava iddli mix on hand.  Iddli are a South Indian (Tamil, to be specific) steamed pancake made out of a fermented rice batter called maavu. During a shortage of rice, rava iddli were invented, which use a whole wheat flour base into which you mix sour curd, i.e. plain yogurt.  Once upon a time, I had close connections to folks from Tamil Nadu, and I was given my own iddli steamer.  This occasion was the maiden voyage of the iddli steamer.  In a pinch, the rava iddli served as an excellent substitute for injera because they have a similarly sour flavor and spongey texture.

Hard boiled eggs are a part of the Ethiopian dish doro wat, which is a spicy chicken stew.  I co-opted them and decided to serve them with the mesir wat.  Unfortunately, my hard boiled eggs were not nearly done enough in the middle when I shelled them.  So, I sliced them in half and fried them in a little extra nitter kibbeh until they were good and cooked. The bright yellow you see is from the turmeric in the nitter kibbeh.

Huarache

A huarache is a Mexican delight: a ball of corn masa which is stuffed with refried beans (and sometimes bits of meat), flattened into an oblong shoe shape (hence the name), fried, and topped with a meat and a variety of condiments.

I lack the proper device – a tortilla press – to correctly flatten the ball into the huarache shape.  And being a first timer, I also clearly lacked the skills to achieve the desired oblong shape, and to keep the refried pinto beans securely within the masa ball when flattening it.

At my favorite taqueria, these condiments always include slices of fresh radish, crema mexicana (like a very thin sour cream), chopped onions, queso, avocado and hot sauces.  I didn’t have radishes, crema, queso, or avocado, but I did have carnitas, cilantro, onion, lime and hot sauce.

As you can see, the huarache that I used in the base for this one was not the pretty one I have pictured above.  It was my very ugly, but incredibly delicious, first attempt.

I hope these tidbits find you well.  To good eats!

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Carnitas, Hash Style

What can I say.  I love hash.  Love it so much that I will make it for dinner, even when I’m really craving truffle mac and cheese.

I’d been sitting around the apartment itching to go shopping for all the expensive ingredients I don’t have (i.e. truffle oil), but knew the danger of taking my hungry stomach to a grocery store.  Instead, I decided to look to the fridge. Yesterday I made carnitas for tacos, and despite making quite the dent in them, I have substantial leftovers.  Amidst the ebbing and flowing waves of lustful hunger, I realized that the marinade for the carnitas – fresh orange juice and peel, cumin, garlic and chipotles in adobo – might be interesting to vet against an entirely different flavor profile: rosemary and garlic.  I was recalling – or perhaps constructing? – a vague memory of Puerto Rican pork roast my mom used to make which had lots and lots of garlic, rosemary and orange.

I peeled the eyes off some leftover fingerlings I had, and boiled them until they were tender enough to smash (my favorite method for prepping potatoes for hash).

Then I chopped up some garlic (2 cloves) and rosemary (a little over a tablespoon), and added a couple tablespoons of butter to my cast iron.  I let the rosemary and garlic flavor the butter for a minute or so before adding the potatoes.

In the meantime I got the pork out, and started to poach some eggs.

I threw the carnitas into the pan with the potatoes, and added a little more butter, because you know, WHAT THE HELL, you can never have enough butter.

Pretty soon, the potatoes and pork were warm enough, and the eggs were done…

The result was an out-of-this-world surprise of flavor and texture.  The sweetness of the orange in the pork marinade became a strong savory foundation when accompanied with the rosemary and garlic.  Bits of pork grew crispy and light, and the buttery flavor of the fingerlings was only exaggerated by the actual garlicky butter I sauteed them in.  A bite of egg on top turned the experience into edible velvet in my mouth.

Paired with a Leinenkugel’s (I know!) Fireside Nut Brown Ale, this was quite the nice meal.

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