Monday, October 27, 2014

Diverging Food/Memory

The stories on here often appear first in an Iowa newspaper. It's supposed to be a food column. And sometimes it is.
This column isn’t about cooking. Or eating. If it’s anything it’s stories that include food. There are recipes (sometimes) because the editor demands it. But mostly this is a few hundred words with food as one of the characters. 
I can’t say food has always been an important part of my life. For the longest time it was an afterthought. There were no nights around the dinner table as a child. Maybe a few special recipes before the grandmothers died. A holiday here or there. Depression. Disinterest. There were a lot of reasons I found a good meal was peanut butter on saltines and an adequate meal was peanut butter on a spoon.
As soon as I were old enough I got a restaurant job. 
Food became french fries and burgers. A steak if the chef happened to like you. But I didn’t learn to cook a meal until I was much older, married and raising children, and even then my techniques consisted primarily of boiling water or opening a box.
That all sounds woeful, but my point is this: If you grow up without enough food on the table you look at eating differently. Meals become important enough to plan and wasting one is a pity because there have been so many wasted chances already. The same goes for taste. There is a difference between those tinned tomatoes and ones you picked up at the farmers market. Why waste the energy on something that tastes like nothing?
If a co-worker brings in extra zucchinis — a regular occurrence as we wait for the first frost — I’m more than happy to take them because sometime soon real food, food that tastes like food, will be difficult to find. It’ll take some time and effort to bake a gluten-free zucchini bread or shred it up for fritters. 
Zucchini Fritters.
Peel and shred the zucchinis according to your tolerance for vegetables. Put the shredded zucchini in a colander, squeeze to take out as much moisture as you can. Place in a bowl and add 1/4 cup flour and a couple of eggs, salt and pepper. (Sometimes I’ll chop up an onion and drop that in too.)Try to form a patty. If it holds together nice, kind of on the damp side, you’re good. If not, add a little milk or a little more flour. 
All this time there’s been a cast iron skillet with olive oil or something on the stove on a medium-high heat. The oven is also on. Drop a couple patties in the oil. If you didn’t get enough moisture out, it’ll splatter, but no worries. Just step back. Brown one side, then the other. Put it on a cookie sheet in the oven and keep it warm while you finish the batch.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Cooking the Halloween decor

Bought as decoration, used as dinner. 

One of the first rules of entertaining is don’t serve a meal you’ve never made before. All sorts of things can go wrong in a new recipe because, like so much in life, what you see on the page isn’t always what you get. Recipes aren’t always carefully proofread and that 1 tablespoon of salt is meant to be a single teaspoon. Or the recipe creator mistakenly leaves out a very important ingredient. We’ll assume it’s a mistake although there was that one aunt who happily shared recipes, but not the whole recipe. She’d leave out an important ingredient or two to be sure that her version of the dish always tasted better than the copy. It took me years to figure that out. Years of feeling like a kitchen failure. Instead I’d lost to a cheater. A hyper-competative kitchen cheater.Don't be that person.
I’ve served more than a few meals that didn’t work, but many more that have. And yes, they’ve been served to guests. That first rule, the one about never serving an experiment is one I refuse to follow. Because of that, some friends recently had the opportunity to share a newly conceived Pumpkin Lasagna that came into existence only because there was a pie pumpkin taking up too much space on the counter. I thought it looked festive when I bought it. Then it just looked like dinner. If I'd bought a butternut squash I would have used that. 

Pumpkin Lasagna

Filling
1 pie pumpkin (or 2 14-ounce cans of pumpkin - NOT Pumpkin Pie Filling) Make sure it is a pie pumpkin. About 3 pounds. Those big carving pumpkins will not work. 
1 cup ricotta
1 cup mascarpone (or leave this out and double the ricotta. There was some in the fridge, so I used it.)
2 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste.
Sage, 1 teaspoon or more

Peel a small pie pumpkin and cut into 1-inch pieces. Toss with olive oil and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes or until it’s fork stabbable. Puree. Should make about 3 cups. Leave it in the food processor and add the ricotta, mascarpone and egg.

Sauce
1 medium onion, diced
2 or more cloves garlic
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 to 2 cups cream or half and half
Pork sausage or 4 to 6 pieces diced Canadian bacon (optional) 

Sauté the diced onion in olive oil until translucent. Add the garlic and sauté. Set aside. Brown the sausage or bacon. Set aside. Make a white sauce with the butter, flour and cream. (Add some of the parmesan to the sauce if you’d like.) I use a large cast iron frying pan for all three of these steps. Combine the pork product and the onion/garlic mix in the sauce. Set aside.

Assemble
12 ounces of mozzarella
1 cup shredded parmesan
1 box of pre-cooked lasagna

Spread 9- by 12-inch baking dish with a layer of sauce. 
Layer 1: Noodles
Layer 2: Pumpkin filling.
Layer 3: Mozzarella and Parm
Layer 4 Sauce
Repeat, ending with a layer of sauce-covered noodles sprinkled with Parmesan.

Cover pan with sheet of oiled foil. Bake in 375-degree oven for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake 20 more. Let sit 10 minutes before serving.



Thursday, October 02, 2014

The Tyranny of Perfect Fruit


           
pear tart recipe
 Everyone knows one of these people. Ask them to bring something for a potluck and they'll arrive with a 7-tiered Venetian fantasy. It looks amazing. Like something on a Pinterest wedding board. And it tastes like decayed plaster.

Food doesn't have to be pretty to taste good. Presentation helps, but it's that judging a book by its cover thing all over again. The outside doesn't accurately reflect the inside. I was thinking about this little lesson in morals while I was looking at the bushel of pears I'd acquired.

My friend, Lillian, has an abundant pear tree. Every year, she gathers the fruit and gives it away in exchange for a donation to a charity. So every year, for as long as I've known Lillian, I end up with a lot of pears.

Pears are one of those fruits that I am loath to use. Their odd shape makes them difficult to peel. Not like an apple, round and nearly symmetrical. Pears take a little knife skill. They are needy. So they sat in the refrigerator, picked off one by one for snacking.

And after a week there were still a lot. Too many. Time to bake. So when a friend asked me to throw in a dessert for an impromptu dinner, I thought "Pear tart!" like it was an epiphany.

Anyone who has cooked a pear tart - or seen one in a cookbook - knows that the fruit is supposed to be sliced into identical wedges and lay in a pinwheel on the crust. It is a daunting task with more effort spent on creating the picture than the food. I don't do that. (And that should surprise no one.)

Ugly Pear Tart 

FILLING
6 smallish pears, peeled, cored and chopped into pieces (enough for about 3 cups)
Lemon juice
1 t cornstarch
(Some people like a spice, like cinnamon or nutmeg)

CRUST:
3/4-cup flour, plus extra
1/4-cup sugar
4 Tbs cold butter
Ice water

After chopping up the pears, toss them in a bowl with a little lemon juice so they don't get brown and some cornstarch so they don't get watery. Then make the crust just like any other piecrust. I use a food processor and then put the dough in the fridge for a half hour before pressing into a tart pan. Or a pie plate if I can't find the tart pan. Bake the crust, which looks like a large sugar cookie, at 425 for 15 minutes or until golden.
Drain the extra liquid from the pears. When the crust is done, reduce the oven to 350, dump the pears on top of the crust and bake for 40 minutes.
If I'm feeling fancy I'll drizzle some melted chocolate across the top. That happens seldom.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rainy days and risotto


It’s raining, one of those rains that clears out the gutters and turns the river a dark metallic grey, leaving a damp chill in the air between storms. It’s been raining on and off for days and because of this I have not shopped for food. On days like these I swear I will can more. Freeze more. Set aside a stockpile because if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s leave the house when there’s rain or snow. If it weren’t for four-wheel drive and good county road crews proving me a liar, I’d happily stay home all winter, insisting the roads were impassible if my presence were necessary.
But that particular scenario is still weeks away. And while the calendar is saying Fall, the weather is insisting “Not yet.” But today there is a chilly rain, which means it’s slow cooker weather. For years, I avoided slow cookers, embarrassed to even have one in the pantry. I’ve relented, especially on days when I want something filling. Something rich.
Today want a creamy risotto, but I don’t have the right kind of rice. A starchy rice that breaks down into a creamy goodness when cooked. I do have barley, however, which is better of its high fiber content and I can claim I chose it because it is healthier, not because it is what I have left in the pantry. Risotto isn’t just the name of the dish, it’s also the cooking method, which roughly translated means Hours Stirring Grains and Broth On An Open Flame. Which is nice kitchen performance art, but I want something easy. And good. Adding the cheddar gives it a mac-and-cheese feel without the white flour guilt.

Crock Pot Barley Risotto


  • 1 cup barley
  • 3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable if you want vegan)
  • 1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces
  • 2 Tbs leftover non-sweet wine (optional)
  • 4 cloves garlic or equivalent garlic powder
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced and sautéed
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese (faux or otherwise)


Mix the  broth, barley, butter, wine, garlic, onion, salt, and black pepper in a Crock Pot and cook on High for 2 to 2 1/2 hours. Stir in cheese.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Tailgating for the non-fan

Peach Salsa, step 1
College football  has started, which around here means an empty house on Saturdays. Everyone is either at the game or watching the game somewhere else. It’s a day of catch-up for this non-fan. Reading, cleaning, cooking and just being thankful I’m not standing in a crowded stadium asking people around me to explain what just happened on the field.
I’ve stubbornly refused to become a fan. That might be different if I’d gone to a college where the football game was worth waking up for. And I know it’s possible to become a late-life convert. But there are only so many brain cells in a life. Why squander them on false enthusiasm?
There is one part of the football ritual I can get behind and that’s the tailgating. The guys man the grill, cooking manly meats. Bratwurst. Burgers. Steaks. Neighbors share, creating their own culinary currency. A breakfast bagel for 2 hotdogs. Pork burger for a veggie burger + a dessert to be named later.
The women have packed the accompaniments. Brownies, breads and baked goods. Chips and dips. Chips and salsa. A plate of cut-up vegetables that will go back home nearly uneaten because it’s football, not a bridal shower. Who tried to sneak this healthy stuff on the table? 
Tailgating is a communal meal of pre-thanksgiving, a ritual victory feast because no true fan would dare believe that there is anything but a win expected by day’s end. And like a celebratory meal, everyone brings an offering, more humble than fantastic because the setting — a truck bed as altar, lawn chairs as pews — necessitate a casual approach to both food and comfort. China is replaced by paper plates. Forks by fingers. Napkins? They’ve blown off the table in a gust of warm wind. 
On a quiet Saturday, when I’ve stayed home after waving the fanboys goodbye, I begin my own football ritual of preparing for next week’s tailgate. A mountain of peaches wait and I’ve got peach salsa on my mind. It’s 88 degrees, a horribly hot day for football and canning alike. But peaches don’t wait and neither can I.

Peach Salsa (Canned or not)

6 cups peeled, sliced and pitted peaches, about 4 pounds
2 or more jalepenos, diced
1 1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced yellow, orange or red pepper)
1 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp cayenne
3 tsp garlic powder or 3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cup vinegar
3/4 cup sugar

Combine everything in a large dutch oven and boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid becomes syrupy. This makes about 4 quarts. Divide it up and can it with 15 minutes in a hot water bath. Or cool it in the refrigerator and eat at the next couple tailgates.  (Adapted from “Food In Jars” by Marisa McClellan)


Friday, August 29, 2014

This is what we eat here

It's home.

Some people love the bed and breakfast experience. I’m not one of them. It’s the breakfast part I hate, sitting at the dining room table, forcing interest in your fellow boarders. Just give me a cup of coffee and a piece of bacon. That’s all I’m asking.
But last fall, we found ourselves in just such a situation in Willamette Valley. Oregon’s wine growing region has beautiful views, interesting wines, amazing restaurants and a handful of housing options. So it’s no surprise to find a self-proclaimed foodie or wine snob sitting across the B&B table, as hung-over as a college student. 
They are generally gregarious, anxious to impart their wisdom about a super-secret restaurant that they’ve stumbled on, to add to their street cred, drive traffic to their blog. And after the soliloquy on last night’s food rapture, they ask the question: Where are you from.
“Iowa. On the Mississippi River.”
And a look of horror passes over their face. It takes a moment for them to form the words.
“What do you EAT there?” As though Iowa were a vast food desert. Nothing but flat acres of corn fed to cows somewhere else. 
It’s a question I struggle with sometimes and I have learned that most often the question means “Where do you eat there?” The food tourist isn’t as interested in the meal as they are in the stamp in their mental passport so of course they’ve never considered Iowa.
We have our restaurants and they serve us admirably. But there aren’t many where I can say “This is what we eat and you can get it nowhere else, nowhere better.” 
The question comes down to local foods, meals that remind a homesick Iowan of home. We’ve got our Maytag cheese. We’ve got our morels. We’ve got our Sterzings. We’ve got pork tenderloins and Windsor chops. We’ve got … that’s my list., my You Know You’re From Iowa When … list. We have our points of pride.
But I didn’t run down that list when confronted with the “What do you eat” question. 
“We cook at home. We have friends over. We raid our friends’ gardens.” 
Because a meal isn’t just about the food. It’s about the people you share it with. The connections you make and keep and cherish long after your favorite restaurant goes the way of arugula pizza. 

Sweet Potato Breakfast Hash For People Who Hate Breakfast Food

Diced up an onion and toss it into a skillet where you’ve already melted some butter. Peel a sweet potato and chop it into little 1/4” squares. Or grate it. I don’t like it grated as much, but you might. Toss that in with the onions and fry it on medium heat. Too hot and the outsides brown but the insides don’t cook. You’re looking for that nice brown caramelized outside. When it’s almost done, toss in some left-over chicken cut into little bits. (What, no leftover chicken? I thought everyone had leftover chicken.) Season with salt and pepper. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A history of Labor Day in 3, maybe 4, beers

Nick at the tavern.

The last Hooligans Picnic was probably 40 years ago. The guys that hung out at my grandparent's Southside tavern — that's the south side of Chicago, Roseland to be exact — would reserve some tables in a forest preserve, rent a few kiddie carnival rides to keep us occupied and throw some charcoal in a 55-gallon drum that had been sliced in half and sandblasted at the corner auto body repair shop. It was Labor Day and the neighborhood celebrated it vehemently. St. Patrick's Day was for rookies.
    A few kegs of PBR or Schlitz were rolled in, the neighborhood beer, back before they were ironic or cool. The ladies circled their aluminum chairs near the kegs because that was the best shade. They refused the beer and drank highballs out of plastic cups.
    I remember the drinks. Remember sneaking a sip when no one was looking. And I remember making 7 and 7s for the aunties (Seagrams 7 and 7-Up, but not too much 7-Up. They were very specific in their instructions.)
   But I don't remember the food. Hot dogs, I'd guess. It was Chicago, after all.
    The Hooligans broke up, moved away, drank themselves to death. It's what you'd expect from a group created on a bar stool. I moved too. To Carbondale — Southern Illinois University — where the Labor Day picnics were on rotting old porches and the beer wasn't much better. But the entire bottle was now mine. I didn't have to sneak sips.
    A grill was always going. There were hot dogs. And hamburgers. Standard grill fare, far better than standard cafeteria fare. Some ambitious girl would show up with a salad of shredded iceberg lettuce and grated carrots, not realizing there was nothing to eat it with. We were moving up in the world.
    Years later, the calendar pages flying past as if blown by a tornado, I flip through a pile of cookbooks, looking for a great Labor Day meal. I already chosen the beer. A home brew quietly aging in the basement. But the meal? It has to have zucchini in it. And tomatoes. Because that's what I picked up at the farmers market. I've found several complicated recipes, a dozen ingredients that look beautiful in the after pictures. But so much work.
    Last week, a friend, Nathalie Girod, posted a picture of her lunch on Facebook. Just slices of the freshest vegetables, lightly grilled. I didn't ask her for the recipe, because she won't have one. She never does. Great cooks don't work that way. So I made one up.

Grilled Zucchini

Cut  zucchini lengthwise into 1/4 inch slices.. Brush with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and pepper and put it directly on a medium hot grill until the grill makes marks on it. That'll be about 6 minutes. Flip it over and repeat on the other side. I'll sprinkle some parmesan on top sometime. Maybe.