“Why didn’t I think of that…?”

Ever have one of those “Why Didn’t I Think of That Before?” moments? 

The chore-a-day approach to household cleaning is one of those. Why did it take me 70 years to figure that out? How come it never occurred to my mother? Duh!

Well, I just came up with another one.

As you may have noticed, the price of beef — particularly of steaks — is through the roof. I no longer can afford to eat steak at all. However, I do require at least one serving of some kind of meat per day…sorry, I’m simply not the veggie type. I don’t like the icky flavor of farmed chicken and also can’t afford organic free-range air-cooled chicken. Nor do I care at all for farmed American pork (ech!). So one way of filling this gaping hole in my normal diet is by substituting Costco’s excellent hamburger (which really is first-rate) for steak.

But…really…I’m just not that nuts about grilled hamburger patties. Once in a while…okay, whatEVER. But I find the “while” gets longer and longer. So now what do I have in the freezer but a TON of hamburger, divvied into patties and frozen as single servings. Which — let’s face it — at the rate my enthusiasm is flagging, is not likely to be consumed anytime soon.

So I’m sitting here thinking am i gonna throw all that meat out? don’t think so…but what’m i gonna do with it?

While, no, I’m not nuts about grilled hamburger, I do love a pot of chili. Or Caribbean-style stuffed squash. Or curry. Or cheese ravioli or spaghetti or lasagne bathed in tomato sauce spiked with hamburger.

For all of those, you start with the same first step: sauté some onion and garlic (add celery and carrot if you want to go all out). Remove from the pan and then brown the hamburger in the veggie drippings. Then mix the cooked veggies back into the cooked meat. This is the basis of most American-style tomato pasta sauces. And it’s where you start when you make chili.

But it’s enough of a chore that when you’re tired and hungry at the end of the day, you just don’t feel like bothering.

But…but…wait…BUT? Why do you have to do that every time you cook one of those dishes?

Why couldn’t you cook up the foundation  for any of these sauces or stews ahead of time and freeze it? Why not take that mountain of Costco hamburger, chop a couple of onions, a couple of celery sticks, and a carrot, and sauté the vegetables, brown the meat, let it cool, and then divide it into meal-size portions, pack them into Ziplock bags, and toss them in the freezer?

Estimate how much of your meat mixtures would go into any one of the desired final dishes. That’s how much you’d pack into one bag.

Then, when you a crave a pot of chili (let’s say), you pull out a bag, defrost it, dump it into a stew pot (or a crockpot, if you’re in no hurry), add a hefty dose of chili powder, a big can of tomatoes, a can of tomato sauce or paste, maybe a little beef broth if have some around, and a generous splash of red wine. Allow to simmer long enough to blend the flavors, And voilà! Chili without the work. You could easily throw this together after a day of work.

Same for any other dish that requires a base of sautéed hamburger (or sausage!) and aromatic veggies.

It’s a weekend project that could feed you for many weeks to come.

Why didn’t I think of this before?

Scallop Delight

I love scallops, having learned how to cook them properly from that august avatar of Bumhood, SDXB. And every now and again, Costco sells packages of wild scallops — especially at the stores in fancier parts of town. So the other day when I was over at the Paradise Valley store, I grabbed a packet of the things.

They freeze reasonably well (in fact, the scallops Costco sells on the fresh-fish counter are “previously frozen”), so buying a lifetime supply is a rational thing to do. Divvying it up into seven scallops per serving (which IMHO is probably excessive) gave me three meals’ worth.

Sauteed scallops are exceptionally delicious when served over carbs: pasta (!!) or rice (!). But I’m going to fat again, so trying to stay away from comfort foods full of flour, rice, and potatoes. So decided to serve these things only with a side of fresh veggies. Ideally, I would’ve coveted a side of roast asparagus. But lacking asparagi and feeling no compulsion to drive out into the homicidal rush-hour traffic, park, dodge panhandlers, stand in line to pay, dodge the bums again, and drive back home, I decided instead to use some of the chard that grows in the backyard. Also residing in the backyard: a crop of fresh, juicy, tree-ripened limes. The result was very pleasing.

So: try this…

For the scallops

Enough scallops for the number of diners (four to six large ones apiece)
Chopped garlic (one clove or more, to taste)
Sprinkle of ground cumin (optional)
Butter
Fresh lime or lemon
White wine (optional)

For the greens

A couple fistfuls of fresh spinach, chard, kale, or whatever lights your fire
Sprinkle of nutmeg
Olive oil
Dash of balsamic vinegar (probably optional)

You’ll want to set up everything for both dishes before starting to cook, because the cooking goes very fast. So first, dry the scallops on some paper towels and sprinkle lightly (if desired) with cumin. Place a chunk of butter in a frying pan. Slice the lime or lemon open, and of course pour yourself a glass of the white wine.

I added some beet and lettuce sprouts culled from an over-enthusiastic new garden crop… Mix & match as desired.

Also, roughly chop the greens. In another frying pan, pour in enough olive oil to lightly cover the bottom of the pan.

Because the greens will take just slightly longer than the scallops, you’ll want to start with them but have the pan for the scallops ready to go.

So, heat the pan with the olive oil over a medium to medium-high fire. Toss in the cut-up greens.

Immediately turn the heat on under the scallop pan so as to melt the butter. Stir the greens while waiting for the butter to melt; as soon as that happens, toss in the chopped garlic.

Stir the garlic around for a few seconds and then add the scallops. Gently cook the scallops over medium- to just barely medium-high heat until they’re cooked through, which will not take very long. Do not overcook. They should just begin to brown, but probably because the butter is browning more than because the shellfish is browning.

At this point, squeeze a generous amount of lime or lemon over the scallops. If you don’t have any citrus, then just splash in some of that white wine you’re drinking. You probably could add the wine with lemon or lime, but I personally prefer one or the other.

Quickly remove the shellfish and the veggies to a plate. Serve with…yeah…the wine.

How can you lose?

Share your favorite Christmas recipe!

What’s your all-time favorite holiday dish? It could be an old family recipe or something postmodern, an all-day production or no-muss-no-fuss.

Give a Christmas gift to all your blogging friends: share your all-time favorites for holiday meals. If you’ve posted it on your blog, leave a link in the comments below. If not, either post and link or simply type your recipe into your comment.

If we get enough good ideas, I’ll try to get us into the Make It from Scratch carnival.

My choice? IMHO one of the best parts of Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner is real brown gravy.

Image: Riki7, Wild Turkey. Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons.

Costco and the Single Girl

Yesterday I spent half the day running around reprovisioning, a new paycheck having landed in my checking account at the start of business. A large part of that trek was devoted to the big once-a-month Costco run. Often when you see blog discussions of Sam’s Club and Costco, you’ll find one or more commenters remarking that they can’t cope with the lifetime supplies of this, that, or the other arcane product. And I have to allow, when you’re single and none of your friends want to split up bulk purchases with you, taking advantage of the quality and price available at these outfits can be a challenge.

Over time, I’ve developed two strategies:
1. Divide and conquer the perishables
2. Convert every nook and cranny into storage

dcp_2221Conveniently, my house has a large garage with a door, and it also has a spare bedroom. A few months after I moved in, I’d squirreled away enough cash to have a guy come in and build some inexpensive garage cabinets. They don’t look bad, and they hold several lifetime supplies of Costco merchandise. The house’s previous owner also had bolted one of the old kitchen cabinets over the washer & dryer at the time he changed out the kitchen; that holds a fair amount of junk, too. One shelf in the new cabinets will hold an entire gargantuan package of toilet paper, about half a giant package of paper towels, a huge box of kitchen trashcan bags, and enough food storage bags to last me upwards of a year. The paper goods represent several months’ supply.

The rest of the paper towels end up over the washer. That industrial-sized bag of Arm & Hammer baking soda, a substance I use for cleaning, laundry, odor control, and fire extinguishing as well as in cooking, will dcp_2222not go bad and so lives in the garage for two or three years. Part of it has been dcp_2223transferred to a more convenient glass jar on the kitchen counter, where I can easily grab a fistful if a grease fire starts on the stove (note the actual fire extinguisher next to it, though—in behind the vinegar bottle).

The spare bedroom serves as a gigantic storage closet. Instead of yard-saling the extra bookcases that had been serving as garage shelves before the particleboard cabinets were installed, I cleaned the old things up and moved them into that room. dcp_2220They serve conveniently not only for craft supplies and books that won’t fit in the front room but for a month’s supply of Corona. We’re thinkin’ outside the box here…

All well and good, say you, but what about food items? How can you eat 30 bushels of green beans before they turn to a pile of mush and mildew?

And the answer is…the freezer! After hauling the loot inside yesterday afternoon, I spent another hour or so preparing, packaging, and storing fresh foods in the freezer. No law says you have to eat all those steaks as they are cut, for example. For one little old lady, about a third of a strip sirloin will serve for a dinner. So, I cut the steaks into serving size pieces, wrapped them individually in plastic wrap, and stashed them all inside a large Ziplock freezer bag. A single package of four steaks morphs into 12 meals for me. Ditto things like shrimp and scallops.

dcp_2206Yesterday I found some nice brussels sprouts, perfect for the holidays but in an amount meant to serve all the guests at a big fat Greek wedding. Costco also sells tasty little French green beans in massive quantity, and I also picked up some very nice sweet corn on the cob.

It’s easy to freeze fresh produce, and the result is much better than the frozen veggies you buy in bags from the grocery store. Flavor is better, and you know what’s in the stuff. The trick is to blanch the dcp_2207vegetables briefly before you put them into the freezer. “Blanching” means dropping them into boiling water briefly, until their color brightens or deepens, and then immediately transferring them to ice-cold water. So, I brought a stockpot full of water to a rolling boil and started with the beans.

As soon as they turned bright green, I dumped them into a mixing bowl full of ice and water. This stops the cooking—your goal is to blanch, not to cook, the produce. Slosh them around in the cold water to be sure the entire batch is thoroughly chilled. After they’re all cold, drain them and then spread them on a clean kitchen towel in a single layer, cover with a second towel, and pat and roll them dry. They need to be pretty dry before you can package them.

dcp_2209dcp_2211

After the produce is dried off, wrap it into serving-size packets made of wax paper. This is cheaper and greener than using sandwich-sized plastic bags, as the wax paper is biodegradable. Also, you can microwave the frozen veggies inside the wax paper, whereas it would be inadvisable to cook them (and probably even to defrost them) in plastic. Once they’re all packaged, place them inside a large Ziplock bag, press the air out of the bag, and seal it tightly shut. Now you’re ready to freeze them. They’ll keep for quite some time, and whenever you need a serving of vegetables, all you have to do is pull it out and microwave, stir-fry, or sautéto your heart’s content.

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I repeated the blanch-dry-and-wrap process with the brussels sprouts and the corn. Since I’ve never tried this with corn on the cob, I decided to test only two cobs. I’d already raided the package and gobbled two of them for lunch, and so freezing two left only four pieces to eat within the next few days, a challenge to which I believe I can rise.

dcp_2215dcp_2214

After this project was finished, I held out a handful of brussels sprouts to eat with a piece of ribeye that evening. Brussels sprouts are particularly delicious when they’re fresh and braised in butter with the tarragon that grows in the backyard. You can, though, use dried tarragon to excellent effect.

Butter-Braised Brussels Sprouts

You need:

dcp_2216-trimmed brussels sprouts, blanched
-a chunk of unsalted butter (but salted will do)
-a tablespoon or so of fresh tarragon or a teaspoon or so of dried
-a little ground nutmeg
-a saucepan with a lid

Melt the butter in the pan over medium heat. There should be enough to coat the vegetables and also leave a shallow layer of melted butter in the bottom of the pan. Add the sprouts and tarragon, and season with a pinch or two of nutmeg; stir to coat well in butter.

Turn the heat to low and cover the pan. Allow to cook slowly until the sprouts are done to your taste. Season with salt and pepper.

And so that was my day. Not bad, all things considered.
🙂

Real brown gravy

Okay, I’m going to tell you how to make the real stuff: turkey gravy the way my great-grandmother used to make it. It was brown, it was intoxicating, and it was delicious.

Back in the Cretaceous, we didn’t worry about things like fat. Calories were known but not a focus of obsession. As a consequence, food tasted pretty darned good. Gravy, in particular, was very good, indeed. Here’s the trick…or rather, the series of tricks:

Reserve the turkey neck and giblets. At the time you’re preparing the turkey for roasting, put the neck and innards in a small pan with a coarsely cut up onion—no need to peel the onion. Just hack it apart and toss it in there. Add water to cover these ingredients. Pour in a little white wine or sherry, if you have some around. Bring just to a boil and then turn to a low simmer.

While the turkey’s cooking, let the turkey parts and onion simmer slowly. Add a little water or wine if the liquid reduces by as much as half. If it seems to be wanting to reduce too much, turn off the heat after two or three hours.

About the time the turkey is ready to come out of the oven, pour the broth through a strainer into a bowl to strain out the turkey meat, bones, and used-up onion. Set aside.

Lift the turkey out of the roasting pan and set it on a carving platter to rest. While someone else is fiddling with the other fixings, inspect the pan drippings. One of these two possibilities will present itself:

1. The drippings may consist mostly of fat; or
2. The drippings may contain a lot of liquid.

If the drippings are mostly liquids, take a big cooking spoon or the baster and skim off a fair amount of the fat floating on the top. Discard this fat (not down the drain in the kitchen sink!). Pour about a half-cup of white wine, sherry, or cool water in a mug or measuring cup and add one or two tablespoons of flour. Beat this up nicely with a fork to get rid of any lumps.

Place the roasting pan over one or two burners on the stove and turn up the heat. Remember to use a hot pad when handling this pan, since it will already be hot as a bygod and you’re about to make it even hotter. Bring the drippings to a fast boil. Add the floured liquid and mix briskly with the fork or a wire whip. The liquid should start to thicken shortly. Add the strained turkey broth as the liquid is thickening. Continue to cook at a fast clip, reducing the liquid substantially—the idea is to concentrate the liquid and all the flavors you’re mixing together. If you can reduce it by about half without leaving too little gravy to go around, do that.

If, on the other hand, the drippings are mostly fat, you’re in luck. This makes a far more delicious and richer brown gravy, IMHO. With your spoon or baster, skim off all but about two tablespoons of the fat. Don’t waste any delicious other liquids in the bottom of the pan. Place the pan over one or two stove burners and turn to medium high. Sprinkle one or two tablespoons of flour over the drippings and stir briskly with a wire whip or wooden spatula. As the flour starts to brown, carefully add the turkey broth. Stir smartly to combine all ingredients, scrape up all the drippings, and avoid lumping. Allow the gravy to reduce a bit—at the very least, it should simmer along for five or ten minutes to mellow the raw flavor of the flour.

Personally, I’m fond of adding a dollop of red wine to this second type of gravy. Be sure the gravy is deep brown, though…otherwise, you can end up with purple gravy. If you have any doubts, use white wine or sherry instead. Or nothing: it’s not really necessary.

To give either of these gravies a little extra polish, add some chopped parsley just before serving.

If you have brined the turkey…don’t even think of trying either of these recipes. Brined turkey exudes salty pan drippings. Way salty. If brining is your preferred approach to making flavorless mass-produced turkeys taste like something, use canned gravy instead; add a little wine to zing it up.

And if your opinion of commercially raised turkey is the same as mine, you’ll be pleased to know that this recipe works just fine with any other holiday roast: a nice standing rib roast, for example, or a leg of lamb. Substitute a combination of wine and canned beef bouillon, beef broth, or chicken broth for the turkey broth.

Fast & easy one-dish meal…

…in which The Human nabs some of Little Dog’s food and turns it into dinner.

Don’t panic! As some of you know, dog food around here is really human food. We’re still working on the mound of hamburger we got for $1.72 a pound when the Human had an on-sale roast ground at the butcher counter.

Half starved (having consumed one piece of cheese and a handful of blueberries all day long), I didn’t want to wait while food defrosted and the charcoal caught and on & on.

Little Dog needed some rice, she having consumed the leftover potatoes from two nights ago. And some meat: defrosted burger was waiting to be cooked. Since I had to cook the beef and the rice anyway, here’s what I came up with by way of a fine dinner shortcut:

dcp_22021You need:
-As much hamburger as needed for the number of humans on hand
-Ditto, cooked rice or macaroni or potatoes
-A couple cloves of garlic, chopped
-A handful of fresh spinach, chard, or any other stir-fryable or frozen vegetable
-A couple of green onions, chopped
-A tomato or two, cut up
-A small handful of pecans or walnuts
-Some honey
-A little olive oil
-Cinnamon
-Salt and pepper

My hamburger was already cooked, because you can’t feed a dog garlic and onions. Bad garlic, bad onions! But if I were going to fix this for humans only, here’s how I’d combine the ingredients above:

Skim the bottom of a frying pan with a little olive oil. Over medium heat, cook the garlic and the nuts briefly—don’t let the garlic scorch. Turn up the heat a bit and add the meat. Stir until the meat cooks through. While the meat is cooking, add a little honey (oh, a tablespoon or so), a bit of cinnamon (turn the grinder a few times, or use about 1/8 to 1/4 tsp.), and salt & pepper to taste. When the meat is cooked, add the spinach and green onion and stir around till the leaf vegetable is appropriately limp. Then add the tomato. Toss gently to heat through.

Serve this slumgullion over rice, noodles, macaroni, or potatoes. Very good. Very fast.