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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Here's what's cooking at my house this week!

I admit to being a creature of habit. One of habits that has lasted for years is to plan meals ahead on Thursday and make out a grocery list, so that I can do the actual shopping on Friday. This schedule has the great advantage of leaving weekends free for cooking, reading, and whatever. So here are my ideas for cooking this week.

One night soon, just for me, shirred or baked egg. So easy, so good1

Baked egg

1 half slice good sourdough bread

A handful of baby spinach, cooked and drained

1 slice bacon, diced, cooked, and drained

2 Tbsp. sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1 large egg

1 tsp. cream or milk

Grease a small ramekin well. Toast sourdough and butter both sides. Shape toast into ramekin until it forms a lining in bottom of dish. Sauté bacon and drain, reserving a tsp. of grease to sauté the spinach. Cook spinach until just slightly wilted. Drain and cut into bite sizes pieces. Put spinach on toast; add cheese. Carefully break egg on top of cheese, being sure to keep the yolk whole. Add salt and pepper and pour cream or milk over egg to keep it from drying out.

Bake at 350 for 12-14 minutes, until yolk is set but still runny. Before serving, top with bacon crumbles.

* * * *

For another night, a quick tomato sauce for pasta:

Quick and rich tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. minced garlic

6 anchovy fillets

1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes (or whole and chop them)

            Sauté garlic and anchovies in oil. Don’t skip or skimp on the anchovies. When they dissolve into the garlic and butter, you won’t taste fish or anything strong. They just add a nice, rich earthiness to your sauce.

Drain the tomatoes and save the juice for another purpose, like a pot of soup. Add tomatoes to pan, bring to a boil, and then cook on medium until sauce is slightly thick.

Should provide sauce for a pound of fettucine or spaghetti or four average servings.

* * * *

And for Sunday supper, an easy pork roast without an oven.

Pork roast without an oven

A colleague served this one night, and it was delicious. I didn’t believe him when he told me how he cooked it, so I tried it. Now it’s a family favorite, perfect for the tiny kitchen without an oven. And uses a cheap cut of meat. Can’t beat that.

2-1/2 lb. Boston butt roast, untrimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cups water

2 Tbsp. salt

Ask the butcher to cube the roast for you, if you have access to a butcher. Their idea of cubes is usually pretty big chunks, but it’s a start. You just have to cube the cubes until you get something the size you want—about an inch

Bring the water and salt to a boil. Add the cubed meat and reduce to a simmer. Cook for at least an hour and a quarter, until all the water evaporates. The meat will look unappetizingly white, but cook it longer, stirring occasionally, and the cubes will develop a nice brown crust.

Serve with sauce below and lime wedges.

Garlic sauce:

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

2 garlic cloves, pressed.

Salt and pepper—go easy on the salt, as the meat cooked in salted water, but I suggest at least a half tsp. pepper

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Spam—more than you ever wanted to know

I did it! I bought a can of Spam. I’ve been wanting to try it again for some time. Bought a can a while back and ended up putting it in the church canned goods drive. But this time I ate it.

You see, Spam is a childhood memory for me, a good one. I was a kid during WWII and Spam appeared on our table frequently, although I think for breakfast and lunch but rarely if ever dinner. Introduced in 1937, this canned pork product was developed to meet the difficulty of getting fresh meat to servicemen, but it was also served in a lot of households. It was cheap, and it had a long shelf life.

The name? Spam is a Hormel Food, and the company won’t tell, claiming only a handful of executives know the secret. Best guess? It is an abbreviation of spiced ham. Monty Python adapted the name in a skit about unsolicited electronic messages—and it stuck. Hearing the word spam today, most people think first of the email term and not the food product.

During WWII, military personnel joking called it mystery meat or meatloaf without basic training or ham that didn’t pass the physical. It was most frequently served in the Pacific theater and remains popular throughout the region, specifically in Hawaii where it is the basis for a treat known as musubi—marinated and fried slices placed on rice and wrapped with dried seaweed.  On Oahu, chefs compete with new and original recipes at an annual Spam Festival. In the Philippines, where it is a sought-after delicacy, Spam is often eaten with garlic fried rice and sunny-side-up eggs—a breakfast dish. Statistics show that the average person in Guam eats sixteen cans a year; it’s even sold at McDonald’s on that island. And surprise! It’s available in England, where they deep fry it or make hash with it for breakfast. Actually, in  2003 Spam was sold in forty-one countries and trademarked in over a hundred.

Spam hasn’t fared so well in this country. By the 1970s consumers were dismissing it because of the high fat content and its tendency to form gelatin during the cooking process. It is also high in cholesterol and sodium and is considered by many a poverty food. Probably more people eat it than you think—they may not all admit it. Spam is produced to this day in Austin, Minnesota, home of the Spam Museum and the National Spam Recipe Competition. (Austin, Texas has a tongue-in-cheek cookoff called Spamorama tied to April Fool’s Day.)

The Web site offers an array of flavors—turkey, pumpkin spice (everything is pumpkin spice this time of year!), lite, low sodium, bacon, hickory smoked, jalapeño, chorizo, black pepper, teriyaki, Portuguese sausage, garlic, and torcino (or Spanish bacon). You can
Spam fries
also find recipes on the Web site: mac and cheese, tacos, fried rice, Spam fries, hash, Spam with Ramen noodles, asparagus roll-ups, Spamburgers, a breakfast skillet, a sandwich special, a Hawaiian pizza (with pineapple), and katsu—a Japanese fried version served with mustard, cheese, pickle, and okonomiyaki sauce.

My mom didn’t go in for any such fancy recipes. She often took an unsliced can of Spam, scored it like a ham, topped it with brown sugar and cloves, and baked it. Alternatively, she fried slices.

So what about my taste test? I ate it sliced, at room temperature, and found the texture fine, the flavor vaguely like a mild ham. It was not gelatinous, but it was too salty.

Will I buy it again? Probably not. Would I be polite and eat it, if served to me in someone’s home? Of course. Would I eat it if desperately hungry? You bet!

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The state dish of Texas


With cooler weather, Texans thoughts turn to chili. Anticipating the first cool snap, Jordan told Christian she wanted chili for supper. His reply? “It’s still ninety outside. I am not cooking chili.” But the next day when temperatures plunged, we had chili for supper.

No, we did not steal chili from the Mexicans. A mid-twentieth-century Mexican dictionary describes it as “a detestable dish sold from Texas to New York City and erroneously described as Mexican.” Evidence shows that Native Americans in the Southwest cooked with chili, beans, and peppers—today’s chili bears some resemblance to the native pemmican. But chili as we know it probably originated at a cowboy chuckwagon in the mid-nineteenth century. It had no vegetables, no peppers, tomatoes or onions, but was simply coarsely ground meat with suet (beef fat), the pulp of chile peppers, garlic, and spices such as oregano and cumin.

A distinction: chile is the pepper; chili is the dish we eat.

Chili probably first publicly appeared in the plazas of San Antonio where chili queens, closely chaperoned young girls, set up booths and offered their wares at night. For ten cents a man could get a huge bowl of chili with tortillas, beans, and coffee (somehow women rarely frequented the chili queens’ booths, perhaps because they served at night, perhaps because they attracted men of all classes). The city booteed the chili queens from the plazas by 1950.

Today, chili  is big business, with small cook-offs held throughout the year in various locations. Winners who earn enough points are eligible for one of the two annual cook-offs held each fall in remote Terlingua. Rules for cook-offs are strict—no fillers such as beans, pasta, rice, or hominy; chili must be cooked “from scratch” in the open; commercial chili mixes are not permitted, though commercial chili powder is. Entries are judged on taste, appearance, consistency, and aroma. Men were the traditional winners for years, but in recent times they have been edged out by the women.

The first chili cook-off was a publicity stunt by Frank Tolbert, considered the grandfather of Texas chili. He came up with the idea to publicize his book, A Bowl of Red, and he chose Terlingua because of his love of the Big Bend area. Thereafter, what started as a lark, grew into serious competitions. Somewhere along the way, a rival group split off and held its own cook-off. Thus, today there are two simultaneous cook-offs in the tiny, almost-deserted town of Terlingua.

Some years back I wrote a book titled, Texas is Chili Country, (Texas Tech University Press), which traced the lore and history behind the dish and then offered a whole lot of recipes that illustrate the diversity of that dish we call chili, from Tolbert’s original recipe to vegan chili and everything in between—chili made with chicken, turkey, lamb or venison; low-fat or greaseless chili, which seems a sacrilege; infamous Cincinnati chili, which incorporates pasta. There’s even a complicated recipe with thirty ingredients, including sour-mash whiskey and soy sauce. Chili appears in alternate forms too—Frito pie, chili dogs, chili biscuits, taco salad, and so on. Can you hear the traditionalists screaming in agony?

In our compound household, Christian is the chili chef, and he tries a new recipe every time. Soon, he’ll work his way through the entire cookbook. I love what he produces, but this fall I’m going to sneak in a batch of my chili. My neighbor, a sometime Terlingua judge and chili purist, says this is not chili but stew. Nonetheless, my kids grew up on it.

Judy’s mild and tentative chili

1 lb. ground beef

Enough oil to sauté onion, garlic and beef

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1 8-oz. can tomato sauce

1 cup beer—or throw in the whole beer, but don’t make your chili soupy or sloppy

4 tsp. chili powder or to taste

½ tsp. Tabasco

2 tsp. salt

2 c. beans (I use canned pintos)

Brown onion and garlic; add hamburger and cook until all pink is gone.

Add everything else except beans and simmer for 60 to 90 minutes. Stir occasionally and add more beer as needed (you’ve got that open warm beer anyway). Taste and add more chili powder as needed. Add beans and heat just before serving.

My family likes to top it with chopped purple onion, grated cheddar, and sour cream.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Blue cheese—love it or hate it?

Some people love it, others detest it. There’s no in-between with this strong-flavored cheese. But blue cheese is a generic term for any cheese with blue veins in it. These veins are caused by the mold or fungus, penicillium--sometimes infused into the cheese, other times from the soil in the area where the cheese is produced. The cheese is often said to be an anti-inflammatory.

This generic terms encompasses several kinds of cheeses, and they come from several countries. Some of the most common you may have heard of are Gorgonzola, Stilton, and Roquefort. Gorgonzola is from northern Italy and is made from unskimmed cow’s milk—it tends to be buttery, salty, and can be crumbly or firm. Some people believe that it is milder than, say, Roquefort. I know a man who detests blue cheese but will eat Gorgonzola—go figure!

Stilton is the English contribution to the blue cheese world. Only cheese made in three counties in England can be labeled Stilton—Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. It typically has a strong taste and is crumbly. It is made by piercing holes in the rind of a cylinder of cheese and allowing the air in.

Roquefort, made from sheep’s milk, is France’s contribution to the label. True Roquefort must be aged in the caves of the Roquefort area of France, where there is penicillium in the soil. It is tangy, crumbly, and slightly moist.

In our supermarkets, particularly upscale, we see a dizzying variety of blue cheese, many domestic. One of my favorites is Maytag—yes, the people who make washing machines. Another popular one is Point Reyes. But you simply must experiment until you find the one whose taste most pleases you. You usually can buy a block of cheese or crumbles—I much prefer the block, which will keep longer. I don’t know this, but I suspect crumbles are what’s left from cutting blocks or wedges out of the original wheel. With crumbles, you are usually offered only a generic blue cheese.

There are countless ways to use blue cheese:

Crumbled in a salad

Put a dab of honey on an apple or pear slice topped by a small piece of blue cheese

Melt a small chunk top of a steak or lamb chop us before serving

Stir a modest amount into your next chicken salad

Make a post-Thanksgiving sandwich of turkey, lettuce, mayo, and blue cheese

Use as the base for a good stuffing for a chicken breast or hamburger.

Here’s a simple dressing that’s great for a wedge salad or a tossed salad—or used as a dip.

Creamy blue cheese salad dressing

2 Tbsp. each mayonnaise, sour cream, and buttermilk

            Note: you can substitute plain Greek yogurt for sour cream

1 tsp. lemon juice (or lime juice)

¼ tsp. pepper

¼ tsp. Kosher salt

1 anchovy filet, mashed (optional)

Blue cheese – crumbled, 2-3 Tbsp. to taste

1 finely chopped scallion

Diced tomato (for garnish)

Crumbled bacon (for garnish)

Mix mayonnaise, sour cream, buttermilk, lemon juice, anchovy, salt and pepper adding cheese last. If dressing is too thick, sparingly add more buttermilk. For wedge salad, reserve the green onion. Top a lettuce wedge—or layers of lettuce—with the dressing and garnish with crumbled bacon, diced tomato, and green onion

Creamy blue cheese dip

To use the recipe above as a dip, simply add more buttermilk to reach the consistency you want. You may not need any additional thinning. Don’t let it get too runny, so that it drips off the chip. Mash the blue cheese crumbles with a fork so that they blend into the dip, rather than remaining unmanageable chunks.

Top with green onion which serves as garnish and adds a nice, crisp zing but is still easy to manage with a potato chip. Serve with crudities or good potato chips—I really like Trader Joe’s potato chips.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Quick pastas for those last-minute suppers

The mail carrier brought me a bountiful gift today: the latest copies of Southern Living and Bon Appetit. Couple those with the Food & Wine already on my desk, and it’s a recipe-reading day for me. Once upon a time, I had a large collection of cookbooks, but many drowned when a deluge broke through the flat roof over one part of the house, and most of the rest were surrendered to the great downsizing. So now I don’t cook so much by the book, but by pages I’ve torn out of various magazines. Problem: my collection of recipes is once again headed toward appalling.

But here are two quick and good pasta ideas that you can make at the last minute. We all have those days—it’s five o’clock, the kids are hungry, and you haven’t started dinner yet. Or you don’t get home from work until 5:30 and you didn’t defrost anything before you went to work. These come right out of your pantry.

Bonus: you shouldn’t end up with a kitchen full of dirty dishes with these dinners.

Truffle linguine

            This always makes me think it’s an easier version of cacio e pepe, which is typically hard to master—you have to get the spin of the wrist just right. I find this easier.

1 lb. linguine – (reserve the pasta water)

½ cup good butter, divided use (I use Kerry Gold for everything these days)

2 oz. good, fresh grated parmesan or pecorino (I like the slightly sharper flavor of pecorino)

1 oz. truffle oil—(Oh, go ahead, splurge a little and keep it on hand)

Melt butter in skillet and set aside, dividing into two portions.

Cook linguine; use tongs to transfer it from saucepan to skillet with half the butter in it. Stir to coat. Add 1 cup pasta water, a bit at a time, and stir until water reduces a bit and forms a creamy sauce (you may not want all the water). Add the rest of the butter and stir.

If you want to approximate cacio e pepe, sprinkle generously with fresh ground black pepper.

Remove from heat and divide into four bowls. Sprinkle generously with cheese and drizzle with truffle oil.

Fast tomato sauce with anchovies

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. minced garlic

4-6 anchovy filets with a bit of their oil

1 28 oz. can tomatoes, drained of juice and crushed (I prefer San Marzano)

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooked long pasta

Grated pecorino or Romano cheese

            Heat oil to medium in saucepan and add garlic and anchovies, stirring until anchovies break up. Add tomatoes.

            Bring to a boil and cook about 15 minutes. Sauce should thicken as it cooks—serve with linguine and top with pecorino or Romano cheese.

Buon appetito!