Monday, January 5, 2015

UnRecipe: Cook Whatcha Got

A new year often prompts a bit of reflection. I'll keep my reflective thoughts specific to this blog, but I realized how much my personal cooking behavior has changed since starting the blog many years ago (2008/2009 - whew, that's a lot of posts). The nice thing about cooking is that repetition pretty much guarantees improvement. When you prepare meals 2-3 times a week, there's no pressure to make everything super-duper gourmet, you learn as you go, it's a constantly evolving process where it's not the meals that are the project, it's yourself. Cooking becomes less about the meal and more about methods of preparation, use of ingredients, and time management -- or at least, that's what I've gotten out of blogging and cooking regularly for the last several years. So this is my post -- I'm sharing some midweek meals over the last year that weren't necessarily conceived as blog projects, but I liked the look of them, and I feel like altogether, they represent what this blog has become.

You see: spice-rubbed pork with veggies over polenta / I see: clean out the fridge - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Let's play a game -- I'll show a photo and describe what most people typically see, and then I'll say what I see in the photo. For example, the above image: you see seared spice-rubbed pork with caramelized onion and wilted greens, served over polenta, drizzled with pan gravy. What I see: damn, the fridge is full of random crap, I don't want to go to the grocery store, time to clean it all out in one dish.

Yeah, my version kind of takes the romance out of cooking, but it's totally true. I had a rapidly wilting bundle of Swiss chard in the fridge, I always keep onions handy in the pantry, along with a package of cornmeal for last-minute starchy sides, and because we buy our meat in shares (we literally have half a pig and a quarter of a cow chillin' like a villain in a box freezer), I almost always put a package of pork chops in the fridge to defrost, never really knowing how it would be used.

Take the meal below for example -- you see pan-fried pork schnitzel over root vegetables. I see: pork chops are defrosted and require cooking, and oh hey, I forgot about these carrots and potatoes from the CSA.Both meals are in a way, identical -- random vegetables and the versatile magic of The Other White Meat. Pork chops can be seasoned and seared up like a steak over a creamy starch, or it can be sliced thin, pounded flat and breaded, and made into a crispy treat.  

And they're all one-pan meals -- note the schnitzel photos: I tend to sear the meat first in a large pan, and while the meat rests (it can be placed on a baking sheet, tented with foil and kept in a warm oven), I use the same pan to cook the vegetables. The browned meaty bits and leftover cooking oil/butter perform double duty, flavoring the vegetables. Even the first image with the spice-rubbed pork: understand that pan gravy is just a nicer way of saying, deglaze the pan with some delicious mixture of stock or wine to lift up all the caramelized bits off. Your post-meal cleanup is a million times faster, so promises a self-proclaimed Hater of Dish-Washing and Kitchen Cleanup.

Holy schnitzel, this is a tasty midweek meal - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I know, you're probably still wondering: half a pig and a quarter of a cow? That's an F-ton of meat. The Mister is a dyed-in-the-wool carnivore, and at the end of the day, it's cheaper to buy in bulk. But it's also a way we can choose the quality of our food -- we know the family who raises the animals locally and sustainably, we are in contact with the butcher so we can specify particular cuts, and since we go in for shares, the cost is spread out across a few households, so it keeps things reasonable. True, you need space to store all those cuts of meat -- we keep an upright box freezer in the garage and pray to the weather gods to be merciful whenever there's a windstorm that could knock out power for days. And you have to put yourself on a regular Meat Defrost Schedule -- even if you don't know what you're making that week, you have to start defrosting something. But it's not as scary as you would think -- pork and beef are easy to work with; I often choose a whole cut of something, like pork chops, since it can be cooked like a steak, or sliced and stir-fried, and one package of ground beef, since that could be made into anything, from meatballs to hamburgers to the humble meat loaf.

One million ways to enjoy potatoes - Photo by Wasabi Prime
What if you get off the defrost schedule or don't have the crazy meat surplus? You can still cobble together a fuss-free meal with a minimum of pantry/fridge basics. I always wind up with potatoes, either ones from our CSA delivery, or I over-buy sweet potatoes at the store, and I realize I have a random one or two left and not much else in the kitchen. This is when being a Kitchen Basics Ninja is helpful -- at any given time, always have these items around:
  • Milk 
  • Butter
  • Flour
  • Cornmeal (Why?See above pork dish)
  • Aged cheese (Whatever you like, asiago, parmesan, etc.; anything that lasts a while in the fridge)
  • Chicken stock
  • Cooking wine (I like Marsala - nice sweetness)
  • Onions
  • Bacon
Sure, these are beyond basic, but it's amazing what you can throw together with a few lowly spuds when you have these basics in-hand. Milk, butter and flour are the root ingredients for making a simple bechamel sauce, which can be flavored further with cheese or bacon. I consider bacon a cooking ingredient, since I often cook with it a few strips at a time, rendering the fat first, and using that to cook vegetables or start the base of a creamy sauce. These basics are especially good, since with the exception of the milk (just buy a small carton if you don't use it a lot), they're all relatively long-lasting ingredients. Goods like Marsala, flour, and cornmeal are pantry-friendly, and aged cheese and bacon last long enough in the fridge for you to enjoy across several weeks of meals. As for the onions, I use them in everything, they keep fine in the pantry for long periods, and if you find yourself with too many onions and leftover stock, make a quick French onion soup!

Potatoes in a creamy sauce are a common weekday meal. I don't fuss with peeling them, I just slice them thin enough to where they pan-fry quickly, I set them aside, and use the same exact pan to make a milk-based sauce, flavoring it with cheese, bacon, or whatever I've got handy. If I have greens getting too wilty for a salad or the ubiquitous bundle of kale we get in our CSA, that gets cooked with the potatoes, and it all gets mixed together when the sauce is complete. Super fast, super easy, plenty delicious -- that's my set of rules for weekday meals.

Sweet potatoes with greens -- you know, healthier - Photo by Wasabi Prime
So what about everyone else who isn't a crazy Doomsday Prepper Food-Hoarder? When I'm at the grocery store, I still put my meal's destiny in the Fickle Hand of Fate and buy what's seasonal, which conveniently ends up being what's on sale. In this photo, you see: seared chicken over a bed of asparagus and a vegetable mash. I see: Ooh! Ooh! Asparagus is on sale!! I'm buying 3 bundles!!

You see chicken dinner, I see asparagus on super-sale at the grocery store - Photo by Wasabi Prime
While I don't adhere to recipes, I will plan a meal around a specific ingredient. When asparagus is in season, it's like Christmas all over again. We're eating these stinky pee-inducing veggies for every meal, whether the Mister likes it or not! I had a whole chicken sitting in the freezer, which was promptly defrosted and broken down to be roasted. Pork or beef would have gone with this just as well. The dish didn't need an additional vegetable, but as always, I had extra potatoes and wilting spinach, so that became a mash of spuds with greens.

The same could be said for Costco shopping. I get staples like canned tomatoes, dry quinoa, butter (you can freeze it, so buy lots), and the Monster Truck-sized supply of toilet paper, but I like browsing the produce area for seasonal finds. Those seasonal finds inevitably become impulse buys, which leads to meals like this chanterelle mushroom feast. There's chicken under there somewhere. Or maybe it was pork. I don't even remember. Who cares -- CHANTERELLES ON SALE! 

Much like the asparagus binge, I had no qualms about going through a giant box of chanterelles in a week's time -- it's totally OK to base your meals off a surplus of delicious fungus, I highly recommend it. Mushrooms cook down by quite a bit, and when roasted, you get a more intense flavor. Searing off a meaty protein like pork or chicken, and then making a simple pan sauce with milk/cream, some wine and stock makes the dish heartier, but just a big plate of roasted chanterelles tossed in a light cream sauce is delicious on its own. The roasted stuffed tomatoes were an afterthought -- again, our CSA has the habit of giving us odd quantities of ingredients, like the lone avocado, and three or four too-small tomatoes.

Costco, I love you and your seasonal mushrooms - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'm sure a lot of folks adhere to the Cook Whatcha Got/Iron Chef/MacGyver Cooking methodology of meal prep, I'm just especially in favor of it, because I feel like that's guided our meals so much since we started buying shares of meat and having a regular CSA delivery. Sure, I get cravings for certain dishes, which I'm happy to make, but for the most part, we've let ingredients and seasons guide our eating, and I couldn't be happier. Sure, it's not always the most grand or fancy of meals, but it also means we have home-cooked, tasty meals almost every day. As for coming up with what to make, I should emphasize the power of cookbooks, which are still handy references or inspiration-makers. I take bits and pieces from cookbooks all the time, whether it's a sauce recipe or a particular method of cooking. Stick with cookbooks that have indices -- often times, the first thing I do when looking at a cookbook is flip to the index, and based on what I have, I look up what that book contains about that ingredient to get some ideas going.

Also, Pinterest is your friend. If I'm feeling uninspired by the random cuts of meat defrosting in the fridge, I'll just type in search phrases like "pork chops" and "kale," or "ground beef dishes." I'm a visual learner, so if I see something that catches my eye, even if there's a recipe or not, it gets me excited about cooking.

I hope this post inspires you to be adventurous in your UnRecipe cooking and letting the seasons and impulse food buys guide your meals in the new year!

1 comment:

  1. If you're looking for a sweet wine to cook with, try Madeira. It lasts forever (practically indestructible) and very nice to sip on while you cook. I like Broadbent and Blandy's 5 year. Also, meat defrost schedule? ;-)


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