The freezer jumble

I use lots of frozen vegetables since it makes cooking single servings much easier without having to waste produce. Then there are the soups that come out in large quantities so some goes into the freezer for later.  I do use zipper-lock freezer bags and store things flat, try to label everything, but it still seems that a jumble results eventually no matter how good my intentions.

Then there comes the yearly clean-out-the-freezer adventure. I have a bottom freezer on my refrigerator and a chest freezer (without any bells and whistles) on my back porch. I try to synchronize the cleaning process so that I don’t have to haul out the humongous cooler while I’m doing it. The chest freezer has to be defrosted which means it’s a warm-weather task.

My email from the Kitchn had an article that was very timely as the yearly troll of the chest freezer is imminent:  “The Best Freezer Organizing Hacks on the Internet” and I discovered the category of “freezer intelligence” that includes information on packaging and what can (and can’t) be frozen.

Even though I’m doing some things right, there were some trucs that I’d not (and probably would not) have thought of.  Some of these ideas just might help me avoid the avalanche from the under-refrigerator freezer and with organizing the chest freezer as well.

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Pesto variations

I get the impression that lots of people think “pesto” means what we consider “traditional” basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan.and/or pecorino romano blended in olive oil. The name really refers to the method of preparation–pounding or crushing using mortar and pestle.

With the convenience of a blender or food processor you don’t have to do the laborious pounding so this is an easy, no-cook sauce–right up there with gremolata  or persillade to at zip and zing to summer (or winter) dishes. It’s also a way to preserve some summer bounty into the winter when you want to resurrect a bit of summer–when you have an excess of summer herbs, make it, and freeze it.

As hot summer weather looms, pesto of various sorts is great for use in lighter meals–pasta, bean or legume salads, and with summer vegetables. Bon Appetit just posted recipes for different kinds of pesto–with recipes: 22 Pesto Recipes for When You Want Greens *and* Cheese might just provide some inspiration for summer meals.

Go ahead, get wild an crazy with variations on the traditional basil pesto!

A son gôut!

Spring is here?

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Mertensia virginicia

Here in NC it’s beginning to feel a lot like spring! The maple outside my house is well into bloom; on my deck there are Virginia bluebells or cowslip (Mertensia virginica) blooming, and other green shoots (including the sorrel) are starting to peek out of the ground.

The birds are acting like it’s springtime, too; the Pine, and the Yellow-rumped Warblers that suddenly appeared (just in time for the Great Backyard Bird Count) seem to have disappeared as quickly as they appeared, and as I write I’m listening to a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk calling close by . Other harbingers of spring, catalogs from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Brushy MountainBailey Bee Supply, and Dadent, have arrived, too (and I’ve ordered my package of bees to restart by beekeeping career).

I’ve been happily indexing with the doors and windows open on some days (like today) when the temperature rose into the 70s, and my cooking thoughts have turned to more spring-y things–like shad roe, fresh garden peas, and asparagus–instead of things like pot roast, chicken and dumplings that are so comforting in cold, winter weather. That was until I looked at the weather forecast this morning while I was imbibing my morning quota of caffeine. On my second cup of café au lait, doing my Facebook catch-up, I spotted a post from a friend about possible snow on Sunday–that’s right on 12 March 2017–after days of warm weather and blooming flowers!

Ever on the lookout for “fake” news these days, I pulled up the Weather Channel, and WRAL for local forecasts–sure enough–after daytime temperatures of 70 to 75ºF until Friday the forecast highs plummet to mid-40 to 50ºF for the weekend–and freezing (to below freezing) nighttime lows for the weekend and Monday. Yes, there were those cute little snowflakes in the graphics with the raindrops!  Here’s hoping that whatever we get, it’s not one of the infamous “ice storms” with freezing rain and all its complications.

That shifted my cooking thoughts in a rather abrupt manner: one last fling of winter food before we get to the kind of weather that makes me cringe at the thought of things like beef stew, pot roast, or beef and barley stew just because it hot and humid.

9780393081084Those specific things came to mind because I’ve just been reading  The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J.Kenji Lopez-Alt. Yes, food science with attached recipes (and experiments to demonstrate his points)–a good book to get you started with cooking by understanding the science (without too much science detail to bore you).

Considering that my freezer is already pretty well stocked with pot roast to get me through the damp, drizzly spring weather, I decided that wasn’t my option for my last winter cooking fling.

(So you’re asking why I’m doing one last bit of winter cooking instead of just pulling some pot roast out of the freezer? Well,  for me, part of the satisfaction of winter cooking is all about the the aroma of whatever is cooking in the oven (that’s also helping make the kitchen warm and cozy). It’s not all about putting stuff in the freezer for later although that’s good–it’s about the immediate experience, too. That’s what I mean by “comfort food”!).

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I’ve decided that I’ll try the recipe for Beef and Barley Stew. This may be the first time that I’ve ever used a recipe for it but this one looks interesting, and maybe, an improvement on my usual throw-together version. So–from The Food Lab (Kindle location 3875), here’s what I’m going to try (though I’ll adjust the quantities since it’s to serve only me–and the cat). The recipes in this book are very easy to follow–instructions complete, and the science explained before the recipe, thought it’s easy reading and not so tedious as some food science can be. The recipe below is a good example of what’s in this book.

Beef and Barley Stew

from The Food Lab (Kindle location 3875-3896)

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled, split in half lengthwise and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
  • 2 medium stalks celery, split in half lengthwise, and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
  • 1 large onion, finely diced (about 1-1/2 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Marmite
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, minced or grated on a Microplane [grater/zester] (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 4 cups homemade or low-sodium canned chicken stock
  • one 14-1/2 ounce can whole tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped
  • 1 cup pearl barley
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 4 cups loosely packed roughly torn kale leaves

Preparation/assembly

  1. Toss the short ribs in a large bowl with salt and pepper to coat. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over high heat until smoking. Add the beef and cook without moving it, until well browned on first side, about 5 minutes. Stir and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until browned all over, about 10 minutes total; reduce heat if necessary to keep from scorching. Return the meat to the bowl and set aside.
  2. Return the pot to medium-high heat. Add carrots, celery, and onion. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables begin to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the Marmite, soy sauce, garlic, and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Add the stock and scrape up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes, barley, and bay leaves, then return the beef to the pot, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce to the lowest possible heat and cover the pot, leaving the lid slightly ajar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is completely tender and the barley is cooked through, about 2 hours.
  4. Stir in the kale and cook, stirring constantly, until wilted, about 2 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve, or, for best flavor, cool and refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 5 days before reheating and serving.

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Why did I decide to try this recipe? Well, in a word, umami. Good food is all about flavor–and I’m investigating an ingredient that I’ve never tried before: Marmite. I’ve read that it’s a love-or-hate thing with Marmite, but it’s supposed to enhance umami. I don’t think I’ll hate it–after all I’m not going to eat it straight, and I do use anchovies and nam pla (fish sauce) so why not try this one?

I’m not dissatisfied with my usual beef and barley stew or soup (which does contain most of the ingredients here except for tomatoes and Marmite), but I’m feeling adventurous–my ever-present curiosity about ingredients that I haven’t tried rears its head.

However, I’m thinking of one modification here–depending on my work schedule for Sunday. If an anticipated manuscript arrives for indexing, ending my hiatus of goofing off and spending quality time with the cat–meaning I’ll actually be working–the 2-hour cooking may take place in a slow (275 ºF) oven–with the lid slightly ajar as suggested in this recipe since it reduces the watching necessary with stove-top cooking; it’s usually my preferred method because it eliminates the possibility that I’ll get involved and not give the pot proper attention; nothing worse that a scorched pot to clean up–not to mention ruining good food!

There’s one other deviation that I’ll use with this recipe–because I’m only cooking for one and bunches of greens tend to be a bit overwhelming (read just too damn much of even a good thing), I’ll be getting my kale out of a freezer package (my usual  Stahlbush Island Farms chopped curly kale) so that I don’t have to deal with the excess. Since I’ve got a few “winter” veggies in the crisper that need to be used I’m planning  different vegetable sides for the week–something with rutabaga, and kohlrabi.

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Always Hungry? What’s in the pantry?

I don’t do meal planning well…I don’t like to do meal planning.  I’d much rather be spontaneous about my cooking and eating. Okay, I’m a picky eater–my appetite varies with the weather, the season, and even mood. While I’m managing to be moderately successful with the Always Hungry? meal plans, I really appreciate the “how to” section for each phase. It gives me much more freedom to cook what I want to eat. Even so, I’m looking forward to getting past the first two weeks of Phase 2 when I can do even more improvisation. Besides weight loss, one benefit of reading the book and starting this has been a close look in the pantry. In my pantry inventory, I found very few items that were on the discard list so doing without a lot of the prepared or processed things was not really a big issue.

I’m fortunate that from where I live it’s easy for me to stop at the grocery store on my way to and from other errands, so I tend to shop for perishable several times a week–check out the market and see what looks good: meal planning on my feet.  There is a farmers’ market close to me that is open on Wednesday evenings and one on Saturday mornings.

Many times I cook without a recipe and improvise something from what is in the house; improvisation is much easier if you have a well-stocked kitchen and pantry.My only purchase that was specific for the Always Hungry meal plan was the whey protein. That may remain in my pantry after Phase 2 is over–shakes for breakfast work well for me since I really don’t want major food first thing in the morning.  The Stahlbush Island Farms frozen berries have been a huge help with these when fresh berries aren’t of best quality.

There are a number of  things that I almost always have around.  You can find lots of lists in cookbooks for things you “should” always have on hand, but all of those lists need to be modified to suit your tastes.  If you hate anchovies, then there is not much point in having those in the pantry.  I may not want to eat them on a sandwich, but they can add a very subtle, rich background flavor to vegetables like broccoli–used in very small quantities they won’t scream “fishy” at you, and they can stand in for nam pla in providing umami.

Though I do shop for perishables frequently, I want to be able to prepare a meal even if it’s so hot that I just cannot face going outside, so I  keep a reasonably well-stocked freezer, refrigerator, and pantry. Even just from the canned (not many things) and dried goods, I could produce a meal at the drop of a hat.  Canned tomatoes in several forms–diced, whole, fire-roasted (add a little smoky flavor to a dish) and quick sauces–are such a pantry staple that they need not get more than a passing mention.  Sun-dried tomatoes, a tube of tomato paste, capers, and roasted red peppers are some other things that get frequent use.

Some of these supplies also stand in for the emergency kit in case of hurricane or ice storm that results in a power outage.  Peanut butter is a staple, but that doesn’t mean that I want to have to pull that out of the cupboard for supper–that’s snack food or for breakfast on toast, or with slices of apple or stuffed into celery ribs.

Dry pasta is a great base for improvising, so it’s good to have several different shapes around to harmonize with what is going in it or on it.  Once the package is opened,  if the unused portion is transferred to a Ball or Kerr Mason jars so that it’s tightly sealed it will keep until the next time I need this particular pasta. It will be good to add that back into my meal (in moderation, of course).

Dried lentils are another pantry staple–they don’t need soaking before cooking; it’s so easy to make a side dish or a soup using them.  There are many kinds of lentils (as there are beans) that can easily add variety to your cooking and allow improvisation.  The basic “brown” lentil can be found in most supermarkets in the section with the dried beans and rice.  My favorite is  the French Le Puy lentil which are small and hold their shape well when cooked. If you use them often, it’s worth looking for other lentils such as small black, or Spanish brown lentils.  You might have to find a “gourmet” store, but these are worth having on hand as a pantry staple. Lentils combine well with rice or other grains, and can be cooked with rice, or alone, in the rice cooker.

Although it does take a bit of pre-planning cooking your own dried beans instead of using canned ones it is worth the effort, but canned beans are still a pantry necessity. Cooking your own has the advantage of controlling the amount of salt and seasonings.  (That is not to say that I don’t have canned beans of various kinds in the pantry–I do–and I would not want to be without them.)   Some heirloom beans and/or specialty beans have such different flavors that they are worth searching out.  You can soak and cook more than you need for a single serving and freeze them with some of the cooking liquid so that you have them for quick use when you haven’t planned ahead. (One of the reasons I’ve been able to stick with the Always Hungry meals as will as I have is that legumes are part of the program.)

barley and rice

Barley (left) & arborio rice (right)

Grains are another staple in my pantry: rice, barley, quinoa, and some of the commercially available mixes that provide variety in a convenient way.  Being able to add some of these in Phase 2 is so welcome!  Since I love polenta, but corn is off limits, I’m going to try the millet “polenta”, though I don’t expect it to replace the real thing.

Basmati rice (brown or white) is a favorite for long-grain rice.  Since risotto is a great way to improvise a meal,  arborio or another short-grain rice that is suitable for making risotto is on hand too. It’s good to use in soups as well.  Barley is also a grain that to have on hand at all times–it makes a hearty soup, it can be cooked like risotto, and it makes wonderful side dish instead of rice. Depending on the season,  bulgur and couscous, both the fine and the Israeli, are also likely found lurking on my pantry shelves. Especially in the summer, with tomatoes abundant, tabbouleh is quick, healthy, and easy as a salad or a side dish. There are so many good grains that we use all too infrequently, just waiting to be added to out diet.

Though not “dry” cans of broth/stock are good to have on the pantry shelves, right along with the canned beans.  As a further backup, something like Better Than Bouillon in whatever flavor you use most often–chicken is a good compromise.

American Tuna image of canOther helpers for improvisation, include good quality canned tuna (personal preference is for oil packed) which can make a salad heartier, or be used with pasta or beans for a main course salad. Sardines make a good meal with  crackers or bread and fruit. These are good staples in the emergency food kit (which should also contain a can opener–the manual variety) as well. Salmon is part of the pantry, too, for salad or for salmon cakes.

Some other ideas for “pantry” cooking recipes inspired me to add some canned goods to my emergency stash–but that doesn’t include using cream soups and the like for “dump” cooking–that doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but having some carefully selected cans on the shelf can be useful.

There are some freezer things that I have found particularly useful while using the Always Hungry? meal plan adapted for single-serving cooking: chopped kale and spinach, chopped onions lend themselves particularly well to getting green veggies into my breakfast. Instead of the formality of making a fritatta with veggies, I find making scrambled eggs with the veggies much easier and quicker. A handful of chopped onions, a handful of frozen chopped greens quickly sautéed before adding the eggs does the job in a way that fits my morning functionality. If there are some cherry tomatoes lurking in the kitchen, those go in as well. Between supplying that quick handful, the opened bags live inside a zipper-lock freezer bag, right back in the freezer for quick access. I find that i use them so frequently that I don’t even do the vacuum seal–just pressing as much air as possible from the freezer bag will do fine since I buy the smaller bags and use them quickly. Now that I can add starchy vegetables in small quantities I’ve found that the Stahlbush Island Farms frozen butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and beets are good to have for use a handful at a time.

In anticipation of maintaining the weight loss the I have achieved so far (and hope to achieve in Phase 2) there have been two additions to the pantry–the whey protein, and chickpea flour. In addition to the recipes with the meal plan for waffles/pancakes that use chickpea flour, I’m experimenting with making my own crackers from that, rather than the usual wheat-based ones that I like to have around to go with the pickled herring or cheese. Here’s to maintaining weight loss, eating in a healthier way, and enjoying good food.

A son goût!

 

Always Hungry? Mediterranean Chicken

And the weight loss is back on track, and meals still really tasty. From the Always Hungry? today I picked the Mediterranean Chicken recipe to try. The recipe struck me as  lacking oomph that I needed today, but a meal plan is a meal plan. This was, at least, a one-pot meal, and easy.

Refrigerator tidying was in progress at the same time as I started preparing the chicken. Some of the things that I found lurking in the back of the fridge ended up in the  Mediterranean chicken–though I played with it a bit, the final dish contained all the ingredients called for in the recipe–well, except one. That recipe called for putting green beans in near the end of the cooking time. I didn’t do that. Just didn’t trip my trigger, and since I made the whole four servings I’ll need to reheat and that wouldn’t work well with the green beans. (The haricots verts that I had in the fridge turned into a side that has always been a favorite: room temperature with sweet marjoram infused olive oil, and a sprinkle of Maldon salt–keeping with the spirit of the meal plan.)

The basic recipe is simple: chicken thighs cut into bite-sized pieces, sautéed with onion, then simmered with canned tomatoes with garlic, olives–salt and pepper, of course. The recipe called for kalamata olives–not what I had so I used a mix of green (that had been marinated in garlic and red pepper flakes), and oil-cured black olives to make up the 3/4 cup called for in the recipe. I was surprised that there were no herbs called for here–but I remedied that!

Ingredients

NOTE: The pickled garlic cloves were from tidying the fridge and I thought the bit of tartness would be nice since the tomatoes were very sweet smelling. The garlic cloves and the green olives both had hot red pepper flakes, so I didn’t need to add. If I were doing this without these, I’d likely add about 5 or 6 cloves of garlic sliced thin, a dash of red pepper flakes, and a splash of vinegar–likely white wine.

  • 1 pound of skinless, boneless  chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3/4 cup of pitted oil-cured black olives and green olives, halved
  • 1-1/2 cups of chopped onions (I cheated and used frozen ones)
  • a 28-ounce can of whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed into the pan,  the thick juice added as well
  • 1/2 cup of pickled garlic cloves, sliced
  • one 14-ounce can of garbanzo beans
  • 1/2 teaspoon of dried Turkish oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (olives were salty)
  • 1/3 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 3  tablespoons olive oil
  • feta cheese for garnish

Preparation

  • In a large skillet or brasier  heat the olive oil
  • Sauté the onion until translucent, add the sliced garlic a continue to sauté until fragrant
  • Add the chicken, salt, and olives a sauté until the chicken is opaque
  • Add the tomatoes, black pepper, and garbanzo beans
  • Simmer uncovered for about 35 minutes until the sauce thickens nicely
  • Garnish with feta cheese and serve with vegetable or salad

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In my tidying of kitchen and fridge, there were a small handful of cherry and grape tomatoes on the counter, so I pitched those in as well. I think that my modifications were in keeping with the spirit of the meal plan–even though the green beans migrated to a side dish. Those were a nice contrast to the dish–and now I can put part of it into the freezer for later use. This nice spicy, garlicky combination of chicken, tomatoes, and garbanzos would have been lovely accompanied by a glass of red wine, but–that will come later; meanwhile, I’m eating healthy, tasty food and losing weight.

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Always Hungry? Cabbage Casserole

white cabbage cropped IMG_6018One of the recipes from Always Hungry?  that I wanted to try was the Cabbage Casserole (pages 236-237) since I feel that cabbage is an underappreciated vegetable that should be (at least) a winter staple. I suspect that when many people hear cabbage mentioned as an edible thing, they think “coleslaw”, or the St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage, or, perhaps, stuffed cabbage.

The other advantages to me were that it was an “all phases” dish, and I didn’t see anything that would make it impossible to freeze for later use. So, the Cabbage Casserole happened today. When I’m trying a new recipe, I like to make it as directed, except for seasonings that I thought needed adjustment for my taste. As usual, I found one thing that I felt could be modified without changing the results, but would make the recipe easier.

The directions call for blanching the cabbage in boiling water. I assumed (yes, I do know what “assume” does to you and me) that the blanching was to soften the cabbage a bit so that the texture wouldn’t be crunchy in the finished dish–just as you soften the leaves when making stuffed cabbage with whole leaves. Instead of blanching, I put the cabbage, with a splash–maybe a tablespoon–of water into the microwave until it had softened–about 5 minutes, then proceeded with the layering of the meat mixture, the cabbage, and the apple-tomato mixture as instructed in the recipe. Then, into the oven.

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cabbage casserole and serving on blue plate

cabbage casserole

The casserole is out of the oven, and I’ve enjoyed a serving. It’s another keeper. I’m surprised and pleased. The seasoning as in the recipe is good as is, though for my taste, I may add a little more garlic next time. The amount of cinnamon is perfect.  It’s another keeper even though it’s associated with a weight-loss program. The final result has a bit more liquid than I hoped, even though I baked it uncovered a little longer than the recipe called for. The recipe did not call for draining the tomatoes, but I’ll do that next time.

The microwave was apparently a good substitute for the blanching: the cabbage is tender, and not at all crunchy. I’ll happily eat this again, looking forward to having a glass of a hearty red wine to accompany it.

cabbage casserole up close

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Snow day. . .

Well, not really a snow day (I wish!), but an ice and wind day, the second in a row here. It’s a grey day with a few snowflakes fluttering around. It’s not so far been a productive day. I’ve been wandering from room to room, fighting the urge to take a lesson from the cat. Neither did he go with me to make morning coffee nor did he get out of bed when I started rattling around in the kitchen. He simply got under the duvet instead of on top.

Cat looking into refrigeratorSo I’ve resisted the lure of book and duvet to try to accomplish something, even if not useful or productive, just something I can say that I did. The motif today seems to be opening, peering inside, and closing doors, figuratively and literally, including internet browsing–opening a site and then just passing on to another. I’ve peered into the cabinet where all the plastic storage containers live and close the door tightly and firmly, then opened the internet door (Google search) on organizational ideas for empty containers.

Peering into the refrigerator led to the conclusion that I didn’t want to eat anything that was already in there. The threat of power outage led me to follow a link on what foods were safe after a power outage, but that didn’t catch my interest either (no new information, and no power outage here yet). My list of blogs that I follow l did provide something that held my attention: posts on one taste at a time caught my interest–food waste and eating mindfully. After reading (and reblogging those) my meandering led me back to the kitchen with thoughts of something warm and cozy to eat this afternoon.

This recurring theme eventually led to the freezer compartment of the refrigerator which has been needing organization and sorting for a while. Gazing at a container of stock finally got my interest. What better way to start sorting and organizing that to make something from what I found in the freezer that was approaching its end-of-life-even-if-frozen state.  Thus: mostly freezer soup happened–with additions from the crisper drawer.

Ingredients

  • pulled pork (from a large pork butt, slow-roasted in the Schlemmertopf)
  • two packages of stock (one pork, one chicken)
  • the last package of sofrito (a staple, but needing to be used and replaced)
  • carrots (the last of a bag that had been vacuum packed for later use)
  • 1/2 small rutabaga, diced
  • two handsful of cabbage, in bite-size pieces (a crisper staple)
  • about 1 cup yellow split peas
  • about two teaspoons Hatch red chili powder
  • a dash of dried oregano
  • (a retained bay leaf from the pulled pork)

Preparation

  • thaw and sauté the sofrito to brown lightly (frozen with olive oil)
  • add chili powder and oregano to bloom in olive oil
  • add frozen stock
  • add pork
  • add rutabaga, cabbage, and split peas
  • simmer until rutabaga and split peas are tender (about 40 minutes)

Supper is on! IMG_8880

As is typical of all soup making, there is more than I’m going to eat, but some will go back into the freezer for a quick meal on another grey day–carefully labeled, and dated.

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