Kitchen disaster. . .

. . . but a happy, tasty ending.

Cat looking into refrigeratorI’m feeling a cold draft–very cold draft–around my ankles!

I know I’m not dreaming though it’s the middle of the night or somewhere in the wee hours of the morning–I’ve come to the kitchen (without turning on the light) to get a drink of water. . . .

Cold draft? Really, really cold draft–on my ankles.

Reality gradually seeps into consciousness:  I’m standing in front of the refrigerator–which has a bottom freezer, which I have stuffed pretty full.. . .

Light on. Obviously I’ve stuffed the freezer a little too full or something has fallen out of place. The freezer door is very slightly ajar. Even in my rather sleep-befuddled state, brain clicked on. Several epithets which should not be printed. Open freezer door and palpate the front packages: kale, butternut frozen onions, kalesquash, chopped onions. Soft, but not obviously completely thawed, but destined to turn into a huge clump of re-frozen vegetables.The only meat even close was a game hen which was still hard as a rock.

I closed the freezer door and checked that it shut completely, and tightly. Back to bed, knowing that I would have to do something with those veggies in the morning. (The ice cream was far enough back and in a corner that it was still hard or I guess I’d have been compelled to eat it right then and there–hmmmmm, should I go do a careful check on the ice cream?)

Morning after: I’ve got work that that to be done NOW so spending a bunch of time in the kitchen or skulking through cookbooks isn’t on my agenda. It’s time for some improvisation: take chopped onions, chopped kale and cubed butternut squash. . . .add some bratwursts that are in the fridge. Add a portion of mixed grains (brown basmati rice, red rice, barley, rye berries) and one multipurpose rice cooker.

I’m sure you’re not surprised that I’d resort to the rice cooker, given all the other things I have it to cook. Once you understand the physics of its function, it’s really easy to make it do what you want. So here we go again with the rice cooker.

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Kale, butternut squash with bratwurst

Cook’s note: first this is not a recipe–it’s an improvisational happening. Secondly, it’s recommended that you deliberately thaw the vegetables in the refrigerator or on the counter instead of the method described here if you wish to have them unfrozen. You can put frozen vegetables in the rice cooker without thawing unless you have a great big blob of frozen stuff. You can adjust the proportions of kale, onions, and squash as desired.

Ingredients

  • one standard-sized package chopped kale, thawed
  • one standard-sized package chopped onions, thawed
  • one standard-sized package butternut squash, cubed
  • 4 fresh bratwursts
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2-1/2 cups water (or amount called for in the cooking instructions of your grain)
  • dash of red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of oregano or herb of choice

Preparation

  • add olive oil to rice cooker bowl
  • add thawed onions and let sauté briefly
  • push the onions to the sides of the rice cooker
  • lay fresh sausages in a single layer and then redistribute the onions evenly over the bottom and partly over the sausages; they will brown lightly on the side in contact with the bottom of the rice cooker bowl
  • add 1 cup of grains
  • add kale and distribute evenly over grain and sausages
  • add red pepper flakes and herbs
  • add scant 2 cups of water; your rice cooker may need more or less, adjust as needed
  • close rice cooker and leave until it switches to “warm” function
  • stir contents (grains should be a bit underdone)
  • add remaining water
  • add butternut squash on top of greens, grain, and sausages
  • close rice cooker and leave until it switches to “warm” function a second time
  • check doneness of grain; if needed add a bit more water and wait again
  • when grains are cooked as you like them, serve!

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Despite the ridiculous circumstances that gave rise to this recipe, it was very tasty, and I’m sure some version of it will be made again. The combination of kale with the butternut squash was delightful. The combination of grains gives some interesting texture and flavor to the dish.

A son goût!

cat on kitchen counter

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Too much convenience?

Mueller's Pot-Sized PastaI was striding purposefully down the aisle of my local Harris Teeter when a package caught my eye–and brought me to a screeching halt–pot-sized spaghetti? This is something that you buy?  You don’t just take the regular spaghetti and break it, assuming that you’re not going to just put it into the water slowly, letting it soften until it’s all in the water?

Pot-sized angel hair?

Pot-sized thin spaghetti?

Pot-sized linguine?  Really? I was amazed, or maybe stupefied, or maybe the only thing that really covers my reaction was what I understand the British expression–gobsmacked–to mean!  Are we so far from “home cooking” that we can’t even deal with pasta unless it’s pot-sized. As you can tell this catapulted me right onto my soapbox, or maybe even onto my high horse (which every you prefer). Has having pot-sized pasta brought down the price of my plain spaghetti that’s too long to fit in the pot unless I stand there and lower it slowly into the water? Not being a marketer, or an economist, merely a consumer, I really doubt that  it has. (Besides, I think this would be too short to twirl effectively to wrap it around my fork.) Not something I’m likely to buy (even though I do sometimes buy other Mueller’s pastas.

jar of mixed rice and grainsI went past the pasta display because I was on my way to something of a convenience nature for me: one of the packages of grain mixes. Those don’t leave me gaping.  They are very useful for single-serving cooking.  My latest is an HT Traders mix of basmati brown rice, red rice, with barley and rye berries. That’s my idea of convenience–I don’t have to buy the standard package of each of those grains: that would be about 1-3/4 pounds of basmati rice, and who knows how much red rice and rye berries. I most likely would not use that mix if I had to buy each of those separately–unless I could buy each from bulk supplies.

That kind of convenience I can get my mind around. I do have packages of barley, oats, but even the dried things don’t have unlimited shelf-life. They don’t  spoil–in other words they are not perishable. If you store them carefully in glass jars with good seals, they should not get buggy, but keep them long enough and they won’t hydrate as well, taking longer to cook. For some dried goods like beans, you may get to the point where they will never soften appropriately.

Of course, there’s also the issue of storage space–for those of us without the luxury of a large pantry with miles of shelf space, but who do like variety this is a great alternative. It has another benefit: it’s compatible with the rice cooker.  I’m happy to more of the “esoteric” grains show up in my local supermarket–they are cheaper than if I were to go to a specialty shop, not to mention just closer to home.

mixed grains

Lamb leg steak–continued

lamb leg steak on plate with ratatouilleThat lamb leg steak that I cooked a couple days ago was a big steak–weighing in just a bit under a pound. That’s a lot of meat–couldn’t possibly eat all that at one time.  As vehement as I’ve been about not liking, or dealing well with leftovers,  that does not apply here.  I don’t really consider the part of this steak that I didn’t eat then as undesirable. I couldn’t have that luscious steak without some left for other uses–not when it needs to be at least an inch thick to cook well. You’re wondering what happens to the rest of this steak?

Often the remains of a beef steak or a pork chop goes into a sandwich–since roast beef, lamb, or pork is not on the single-serving menu. Other times it does some metamorphic changes.  The remainder of this steak went into the rice cooker with a convenience mix of grains,  some garbanzo beans to give me some additional meals that were not meat-centric.

Ingredients

  • about 1/2 pound of cooked lamb steak, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • one 15-ounce can garbanzo beans with liquid
  • one 10 ounce can of diced tomatoes with jalapeños with liquid
  • 1 cup of brown basmati rice, red rice, barley, and rye berry mixture (uncooked)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons dried Turkish oregano
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 cup water (to bring total liquid to amount required for grains)

Preparation

  • Add all ingredients to rice/multi-cooker, stir well.
  • Set on rice cooking mode.
  • When cycle finishes, check grain for doneness.  If needed add more water in 1/2 cup increments until grains are done.

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Since the lamb steak had been well-browned on the griddle, it provided good rich flavor for the grains and the garbanzo beans.  Some of this was an extra meal (with a side of ratatouille), and the rest was packed (with the Handi-Vac®) for the freezer for later (especially cooler weather) meals.

mixed grains with tomatoes and lamb

Ratatouille (slow-cooker)

vegetables for ratatouilleDuring the summer abundance of eggplant, squash, and tomatoes  we’re often in the OMG-what-can-I-do-with-these-zucchini mode. Ratatouille and caponata  provide some good eating even when the hot weather has rather killed the appetite. I thought that being able to do this in the slow-cooker instead of stove-top would be an advantage in sweltering weather that is already taxing the A/C without adding more heat.

It’s easy to find ratatouille recipes–a quick search on the internet will provide a plethora.  The question:  are they  “good” recipes”?  I’m not sure I can tell you what (specifically) tells me “good”, “passable”, or “oh yuk”.  Most likely past experience, and reading a lot of food science, and (from America’s Test Kitchen) “why this recipe works”.

Here is a ratatouille recipe given by a friend, from Food.com, reproduced below. I’ve never made ratatouille in a slow cooker so I thought this was worth trying. In reading the recipe, I had only a couple questions, so I decided to make the recipe as directed–well, almost–as much as I can–I’m just a compulsive tinkerer, and constitutionally unable to follow a recipe strictly, but almost.  ratatouille ingredientsLooking at the recipe, I knew I’d want more garlic. Had I not been using part frozen peppers (from a Kitchen Disaster), I would not use green peppers–I prefer ripe (red, yellow, or orange) like them. I’m changing the herbs to thyme and oregano,  rather than basil (for reasons explained below in Cook’s notes).  My other question about this recipe had to do with that quantity of tomato paste. Why?

When I started the prep, I was still undecided about the tomato paste.  My inclination was to leave it out because this is an “all fresh” dish, and (to me) tomato paste tastes canned and cooked. Since this does not call for the tomato paste to be added until later, my obvious solution is to wait and see how it tastes, especially since these are summer tomatoes. If  I were wanting to supplement the “tomato” part of the flavor I would likely add some sun-dried tomatoes, rather than tomato paste–unless there is a dearth of “umami” (which is one of my reservations about slow-cooker dishes).

Slow Cooker Ratatouille (Food.com)

The modifications that I made on this recipe on the first round are shown in parentheses after the ingredient. These were just to meet my seasoning preferences, not for any other reason.  Don’t hold this on “warm”–it just doesn’t do well.

Serves: 6 to 8

Ingredients

  • 1 large eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
  • salt
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2 cups chopped fresh tomatoes–about 3 medium
  • 1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1/2 inch squares
  • 1 large red bell peppers or 1 large yellow bell pepper, cut into 1/2 inch squares
  • 3 medium zucchini, sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons dried basil (substitute 1/2 teaspoon thyme and 1/2 teaspoon Turkish oregano)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed through a press (4 garlic cloves)
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground pepper (held until end as I think it gets bitter with long cooking)
  • 1 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
  • 1 (5 1/2 ounce) cans pitted ripe olives, drained and chopped coarsely (oil cured black olives)
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (substitute chopped fresh oregano)

Directions

  1. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt; let stand in a colander 1/2- 1 hour to drain.
  2. Press out excess moisture.
  3. Rinse the eggplant with water and pat dry with paper towels.
  4. Place the eggplant in crock pot.
  5. Add onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchini, olive oil, basil, garlic, pepper and 1/2 tsp salt.
  6. Mix well.
  7. Cover and cook on high setting about 3 hours or until the vegetables are tender but still hold their shape.
  8. Stir in the tomato paste, olives, and the fresh basil.
  9. Serve hot, room temperature or chilled.

Notes:  Being of scientific orientation, I decided to do an experiment–half the recipe is cooked as above; and the other half cooked separately, with modifications after I had tasted the results of the original method. First, I had to cook for an additional hour–I thought my rice cooker/slow cooker ran rather hot, but not according to this.  After tasting I did add the tomato paste as the tomato flavor was not at all pronounced, but I think the tomato paste (unless browned before adding) doesn’t add the depth I want. I needed more salt (which kind of surprised me because I don’t usually need to add much. Oregano and thyme needed to be bumped up as did the garlic. Those minor things were done to the first batch. So far the onions  have stayed crispy and I think I’d prefer them a bit softer so maybe microwave them before putting into the slow cooker (that had to wait because they were already mixed with the other vegetables). This came out with more juice than I’d expected.

Now for the second batch. I’m adding more olives, more garlic (sliced rather than pressed), some red pepper flakes (about 1/8 teaspoon) for a little zing (but not a lot of heat), and sun-dried tomatoes (instead of tomato paste), a bay leaf, and increasing the oregano and thyme. Instead of increasing salt, I’m going to add just a touch of nam pla (fish sauce)–or an anchovy fillet mashed would work. This is not intended to make it at all fishy just more flavorful. This needs to be stirred after an hour so that the bottom veggies don’t mush and the top be a bit undercooked. Check for doneness–don’t just trust the time. I prefer my veggies cooked but with a little “tooth” to them, so in my slow cooker this finishes in about 2 hours. I like this one as there’s no added liquid, except the dash of nam pla and what the veggies give off. Minced fresh oregano added the last 15 minutes of cooking leaves it very fresh tasting.

Bottom line: this is quick and works if you want a very light ratatouille, not complex ratatouille.  I don’t want my ratatouille over whelmed with herbs and garlic, but I’d like to make it a bit more complex, or layered flavor–maybe it needs a little more umami It has the advantage of being very quick to assemble.

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As you likely know if you’ve read other posts, I’m somewhat partial to recipes from America’s Test Kitchen.  When the published Slow Cooker Revolution I had to check it out.  I was hoping that those recipes would improve my attitude to (and increase use of ) my slow cooker. There’s no denying it’s convenience, but generally I’ve simply not been happy with the results when compared with oven or stove-top methods.

A comparison of America’s Test Kitchen recipe with the one above is interesting. One of my “complaints” is that their recipes sometimes  seem more complicated–though they do increase flavor.  The recipe below is from the Slow Cooker Revolution (Kindle edition). This is the recipe that inspired me to try the one above.  The cooking instructions are quite extensive so I’m only going to summarize them for purposes of comparison. I’m trying to find a compromise of best flavor and easy preparation.

Slow-cooker ratatouille (America’s Test Kitchen)

Serves: 10 to 12

Ingredients

  • 6 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 eggplants (2 pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 3 zucchini (1-1/2 pounds), cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 2 red bell peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil or parsley
  • Salt and pepper
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Preparation

  1. Brown eggplant, half at a time, in olive oil (5 to 7 minutes), and transfer each batch to slow cooker.
  2. Brown zucchini, half at a time, in olive oil, transferring each batch to slow cooker.
  3. Cook onions, bell peppers, garlic, and thyme until softened and lightly browned (8 to 10 minutes), stir in flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in reserved tomato juice, scrape up browned  bits, and smooth out lumps, and transfer to slow cooker.
  4. Stir tomatoes into slow cooker, close and cook until vegetables are tender (4 to 6 hours).
  5. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

Notes:  The time it takes to brown the vegetables really is not that long, so it’s worth the extra flavor. It’s a drastic difference, even when you add some umami-hyping ingredients to the Food.com recipe.

The differences here are, notably, the use of flour to thicken, the lack of tomato paste, and the preparation of the eggplant. One of my reasons for trying the recipe from Food.com is the handling of the eggplant, with the idea that salting to remove fluid might eliminate the need for flour–I doubt that you’d know there was flour in this recipe simply by tasting.

After tasting the first batch of the recipe from Food.com with the adjustments noted in Notes, it’s a keeper for simplicity. The America’s Test Kitchen is a bit richer since you’ve browned the veggies. Either is good–depends on the time and effort you want (or have) to invest.

. . . a son goût

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cooked ratatouille

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