Archive for the 'random cooking' Category

The perfect lunch

The other day, I took a lunch break and scrounged through the fridge (as I am wont to do) looking for sandwich makings.  It was a gorgeous day outside, and I knew I had the right ingredients for the perfect lunch:  sun, wine, sandwich, garden.

See, the sandwich was only part of the equation.  It consisted of:

  • Sliced whole grain bread
  • Mozzarella, thrown on one of the slices and slightly melted under a broiler.
  • Leftover king mushrooms (from the Ferry Plaza’s Far West Fungi), sautéed in butter and white wine.
  • Mustard, of course.

The wine was a German riesling (2004 Kalinda Hattenheimer Riesling Dry) that was not as dry as I thought it was going to be (it was American dry, not European dry), and I actually preferred it a day after it had been open.  And of course, since the mushrooms had been cooked with that very wine, it went together perfectly.

But the main reason this was the perfect lunch was beause I was able to sit in our beautiful garden in Oakland, with the heat radiating off the flagstones, and eat my damn good sandwich with a simple glass of wine, and not have a care in the world.

This experience is so much like many of my seminal food – and wine – experiences: it’s less about a particular fantastic meal or glass of wine itself, and so much more about the entire event.

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The secret of sandwiches

I’ve discovered the secret to making sandwiches.  (And I don’t mean I’ve discovered sliced bread.)  I mean, the secret to making sandwiches of various sorts work.  And that secret is mustard.  Well, it can be one of several liquid condiments, but I’m not a big an of mayo, and I haven’t tried others as extensively as mustard.

Again, what I mean is this:  I can scrounge through my fridge, find any sort of bread (baguette, sour, rye, crappy white, whatever), find something to put in between the slices, and it’ll work for me as long as I have mustard.  For example – I got nothing but cheese.  No problem.  Cheese, mustard, bread.  Let’s get crazier – I got tofu and cooked beets.  No problem – beets, tofu, mustard and bread.  That would simply not work without mustard, in my opinion.  I got a piece of quiche that’s not enough for a full lunch?  Leftover shredded-carrot-greens-apple salad and some hard parmesan?

As I said, other liquids will work.  I guess for me, the main isue is that my sandwich isn’t dry.  I’ve used leftover salad dressing, pasta sauce – even salsa, thrown in with whatever veggies and cheese I’ve got lying around.

Have mustard, will sandwich.

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I love legumes

We’re often at a place where there’s nothing left in the pantry but a cup or two of dried lentils or black beans.   And then all it takes is water, some salt, and whatever you’ve got left in the fridge (the number of things we’ve tried in lentils is quite staggering).

We’re discovering what people all over the world have known – and mostly poor folks.  Think about it- just about every culture around the world has discovered that beans/lentils taste good even just boiled – and they can feed a lot of people.  (I’m basically just referring to beans and lentils.  Hey I love peanuts too, but I’m not going to make a stew out of it.  And no, actually, I don’t like alfalfa….).

Even though stews and soups and roots and greens are all staples of “poor” food (and, fwiw, our food at our house), there’s a special place in the cultural lexicon for the bean (and lentil?).  There’s a Brazilian song refrain “Add water to the beans to feed one more” – a similar sentiment that’s found in U.S. southern songs about pork and beans, black eyed peas and even gumbo.  I’m sure there’s even a line in some Bollywood film about needing to add water (and ghee?) to the lentils because there are more people at the door.

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My "random” recipes

I’ve been fancying myself as a burgeoning “chef” – but I’m realizing that I’m being guided by a specific philosophy that does not apply as across the board as I thought it did with people who enjoy cooking.  I’m talking about improvising and using leftovers.  And not just improvising withing certain guidlines, I’m talking about improvising “with what you have.” 

I’ll compare this to a friend who also cooks really well.  He will decide upon a recipe, and then go out and shop for all the ingredients.  IF one of those ingredients is just a tad esoteric – say, pear sauce – the rest of that unused pear sauce will then sit in the fridge until time itself has forgotten about the pear sauce.

In my cooking world, I look for recipes where I know we have at least 60% of the ingredients – then I just start substituting like mad.  And you can imagine how that frustrates more formal cooks.  We’ve come up with a nickname for our kitchen, with it’s random (but slowly improving) assortment of utensils and pots and pans (until a few months ago, we didn’t have a food processor, much less a pot that didn’t have teflon pealing off of it).  That nickname also applies ot the randomness of my cooking – “La cocina del diablo borracho” – the kitchen of the drunk devil.  Sure, it doesn’t really capture the spirit, but it sounds good, and it certainly reflects the frustration of purists who step is an a) see what things we *don’t* have, and b) see what I decide I’m going to substitute in my recipe because of what we *do* have.

I have to chalk it up to Amanda, who has instilled in me an abiding rule that you don’t waste food (yeah, ring one up for my friend Chops too).  Nowadays, even if I want to make a simple pasta, and the turnips are about to go bad, into the pastra they go.  Or I spend my time looking for turnip recipes that I can make.

Another thing has happened: since I feel fine throwing in extra bits and pieces into my meals, I have no problem with miniscule leftovers.  Used to be that if there was less than 2 inches of onion, or 1/3 cup of garbonzo beens, they’d either go into the original recipe or get tossed (eventually, when they went bad).  Now I just keep them on the side, and add them as an extra ingredient when something comes up.  Which is why I keep creating a plethora of “random” dishes.  And frustrating the hell out of my friend Russ.  But you know what?  We have very little food that goes bad in our house.

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Random "winter lasagne”

We had a squash we needed to use.  At first I was trying to figure out how to make veggie gyoza (potstickers) with squash – then I quickly changed my mind to ravioli.  I had just come from the People’s Grocery fundraiser, where they served butternut squash ravioli, so I wanted to try it myself (I’m using a kobucha squash).

On our Xmas errands, we went to Genova’s in Temescal: since 1926, they’ve been a local Italian deli and “ravioli factory.”  Dunno about the latter – didn’t try any, cause I wanted to make my own.  But to no avail – I didn’t see any ravioli sheets available…  Instead, I got some supplies for a lasagne – I was going to find a way to get that squash into a pasta dish somehow (I almost walked out of there with a couple of bottles of lambrusco too….   One of the few places I’ve found that has a stock – however, lambrusco can be touch and go, and I fear it if it’s cheap stuff….)

So anyway, here I am, trying out a squash lasagne – Italian style.  That means I’m skipping the ricotta cheese (I’ve never liked it) and making a cream (bechamel) sauce to counterpoint the squash layer.  OK, so it’s not really Italian – our house never has milk, so I’m using soy milk for the “cream” sauce; and I’m mixing the squash in with some tomato sauce (the ubiquitous Italian “Pomi” carton from Parmalat) and slow-cooked onions, with thyme and nutmeg – both which complement sweet dishes well, and nutmeg is particularly good with dairy.  Thyme and nutmeg together?  Who knows….  I’l tell you in about an hour….

Update:  Wow – that worked, and how!  So much could have gone wrong.  The “plain” soy milk had sweetener added (why?  why?); I was making the lasagne in a “single serving” banana-bread sized dish, but the bechamel recipe I was following was for a full 9×13 pan; I was running short on cheese…  But boy did it turn out.  A hint of sweetness (a lot got “baked out”) – the creaminess I expect from a lasagne, with the crisp top.  That turned out a winner….

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"All American” veggie fry

I say “all American” because I was going for a North American meets South American sauteed vegetable combo.  It didn’t quite work out.  I started with “sweating” some onions in red palm oil – but the oil is so strong and sweet itself, the onions added nothing.  I thinly sliced a large sweet potato, and slowly fried that with homegrown (by my aunt in Tennessee) green chili peppers, and then some kale we had available.  Wrong move, the kale.  Mixing sweet and bitter may work in some recipies (does it, ever?) but certainly not here.  I was going pretty well there until the kale came in – then it became a monster mash-up of flavors.  I’m close to something – sweet potatoes in red palm oil with peppers, that’s something I’ll try again.  But maybe with tomatoes and corn, or okra?  (And if I do that, I’m dicing the sweet potato, not slicing it chips-style, which just doesn’t work when adding other ingredients…..)

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Random quiche thing

I knew I was finally back in my groove on Saturday when I gave up everything I was working on at about 3pm in the afternoon to do a bunch of cooking.  And by the end of the afternoon, I realized I was cooking my nostalgia for summer:  roasted peppers; sauteed chard, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts; cherry tomato salad – it was like a Mediterranean mezze in there (the black bean dish an homage to another warm body of water – the Caribbean).  At the end of it all, I had some leftover… stuff.  And as usual, I tried to throw it all together.  And it worked out pretty well.

Greg’s Random Tartino (a word I just made up):  I used leftover sesame “crackers” – that I originally bought as a snack at Whole Foods – and mashed them up to a coarse powder.   I then mixed this with softened (but not melted) butter, and put that at the bottom of a pie / quiche pan.  (This idea came from my step-mother’s graham-cracker-butter crust for her cheesecakes).

For the filling, I used the last two eggs I had, some milk, parmesan cheese, and some leftover chard-pine nut sauté.  Threw it on top of the crust then into the oven until it was done.  It was pretty thin , but given how much cheese I put in there, this really wasn’t going to come out bad.  Nonetheless, I was surprised at how well the truly random crust worked out.  Most of my preparations were for a dinner the next night, but we ate the beans, some tomato salad and the Random Tartino that night – with Terroir Napa Valley‘s “Dusty Red” – a blended wine that really appealed my tastes – not over-oaked or over-alcoholed, but a lot going on.

Simple.  Random.  Good.