Tuesday, June 16, 2009

This started off as a quick chili

Spring has come and almost gone. And I finally had another opportunity to walk to work (and home). It's 2.8 miles and takes me about 40 minutes each way, and it's a good workout. I need to wear hiking gear and change at the office, otherwise it's just way too sweaty.

All of which is just to say that when I do this, I have 80 minutes of unencumbered time to let my mind wander. I don't do earbuds. So -- no music, no NPR, no books on tape. Just me and my brain and whatever the scenery, sounds and smells happen to be. So sometimes, especially on the way home, I get to think about dinner.

I have a pretty good sense of what's in the pantry and what's in the fridge, so I can compose themes and variations in my head. And let the concepts emerge, percolate, simmer, and then when I get home, all I have to do is make it happen.

This started out as a simple, quick black bean chili. I'd done a very nice black bean chili from scratch at the cabin (post coming soon!) and I was eager to try something with black beans, even if they were canned, again. The canned black beans had been in the cupboard for months, as had the canned tomatoes. So those were a given. Seasonings I could make up -- probably cumin, maybe some others. Onions, garlic for sure. And there was this big bunch of mustard greens that Eleanor and I had picked up a few days ago. I figured that would make a good addition.

So I got a roughly chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic going in the olive oil as soon as I'd changed out of the walking clothes, had a long drink of water, and got my heart rate down to something manageable. AFter they started to sweat just a bit, I added a good teaspoon or two of cumin, another of fenugreek, and another of coriander, mixed them around a bit and then the drained black beans and a chili-infused diced tomato can and got them to simmering. That part was on auto pilot. And I added about 3/4 cup of the rest of the bulgur and about a cup of water...I figured that would add an interesting texture.

Then what? The greens. There were A LOT of greens. A BIG bunch. The last time I'd used them, I also had a lot, and they'd cooked down to almost nothing, so I figured they would just be a nice addition to this "chili". I pulled out the center rib and chopped them up and added them, covered, and waited for them to wilt.

While that was happening, I was pondering some additions. I recalled the idea of using fish sauce in small amounts in unusual places to add some umami, so went with about a half teaspoon (probably less, actually). Then, I'd been playing with seaweed a bit lately, and toasted a handful of laver to just smoking. This was probably too far, but they didn't taste burned, and they made a good addition. I could've probably used five times as much if I'd wanted them to be a little more dominant. Lesson learned -- don't put laver in the toaster oven and walk away. They go to smoking pretty quickly -- a lot quicker than the 5-7 minutes at 350 that the package suggests. Some salt and pepper rounded out the seasonings.

As you can see, calling this "chili" would be a stretch. It's greens. With some beans and tomatoes and other interesting flavors. The mustard had a nice bite, but not overwhelming, that went well with the built in chili flavor of the tomatoes. The fish sauce and laver added a nice umami element, but not overwhelming. And I added a few sunflower seeds at the table for crunch.

All told, a pretty good effort that I'd easily try again with mustard or any other kind of greens, different grains, and maybe some other flavors. Maybe some anchovies? Or smoked fish chunks? Or...pork of course....

Friday, June 12, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 3

May 28, 2009
The free range, super duper organic chicken bought from the farmer who raised it was sitting in the fridge, defrosted, and waiting for its turn. Today was the day. The weather was PERFECT. The fire pit in front of the cabin was equipped with a hanging grill. I’d never cooked over an open fire before, and here was the chance.
I was going to try out three new things here. One, cooking over an open wood fire. Two, using a super duper free range organic chicken. And three, salting and seasoning the chicken well in advance, as advised by Cooks Illustrated, to first draw the moisture out, and then return the salt and seasonings to the interior of the meat. I’d tried the last of these once last week when cooking some steaks, and the results were fabulous – but in that case, there were no other seasonings – just salt and pepper. I tried it again a few days later with some chicken pieces on the gas grill – this time with salt, pepper and pimenton. Again, fabulous. So, I guess I knew that that technique worked. But I still wasn’t very experienced with it.

This time, the seasonings were salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, allspice. Part of my usual “middle eastern” mix. My day of adventuring on the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin went quite a bit longer than I thought it would. And I didn’t get home (the cabin) until after 6 PM. Why I look at the clock or wear a watch here is beyond me. When I’m around the cabin, I don’t wear it at all, and I should cover the clock!

The first step, then, was to get the bird split and seasoned, which was a quick affair. Then, to the fire. I knew that I would need to be patient, build a fire, and wait for a good bed of coals to set. I had no idea how long that would take, but I figured at least a half hour, and more likely longer. The advantage to eating alone was that I could be patient – this activity could take as long as it needed to. A few rosemary olive triscuits and some grapes was enough to hold me over till the main event.

I built a nice roaring fire...that settled into a nice smoldering pile of wood. Still burning, still coal-like, but still, not really anything that I would cook over. I needed to give it some more oomph, so added some small pieces to build up the flame, to encourage the wood to burn. In the meantime, I prepped the rest of the meal – small red potatoes coated lightly with olive oil, salt, fresh ground pepper (new pepper mill!), rosemary and oregano – and the last of the asparagus, coated in olive oil, with just some salt and pepper. These were ready backstage, waiting for their cue.

The fire took over an hour to be ready. More like an hour and a half. Which was, I think, a good thing. It gave the salt and seasonings a chance to do their job. And it taught me some patience. And let me enjoy the evening full of wind rustling the trees and birdsong. Punctuated by short periods of activity to tinker with the fire.

Finally, finally, the fire was ready. A nice glowing hot red bed of coals. With enough wood remaining to fuel the fire for what was likely to be a half hour to an hour of cooking. My biggest fear was hanging the chicken over the fire and have it ignite and burn immediately. And then be unable to extract the bird from the blazing inferno. So I was cautious. I hung the bird (and the potatoes) a good height from the base of the fire (maybe a foot, perhaps even 18 inches) with the skin side up, to give the bird a taste of the flames and the heat. I figured this was probably too high, but I could always adjust downward. Remember, there were still flames dancing around…it wasn’t just a bed of coals (as you can see in the pic).

This seemed to work pretty well. In retrospect, I was probably too cautious. After about fifteen minutes, the amount of time I would normally flip chicken pieces on my gas grill back home, I took a look. I had certainly not burned the underside of the bird, but it was cooking nicely, although perhaps a little slowly. I flipped lowered the bird a few notches of chain, and watched to see what would happen. It took to the new heat nicely, and I let it go another ten minutes or so.

By now, it was almost 8:30. And it was still daylight! But the light was starting to fade. I flipped the bird (he he), flipped the potatoes, and added the asparagus. Waited to see if skin side down would cause fat to drip into the flame and cause a conflagration. But it did not. I let it go another half hour, continuing to lower the bird as the flames died down, and the coals were big, glowing and hot. One more flip of the bird somewhere along the way, along with a surprise phone call in the middle from Jeff to see how I was doing in the cabin, and I figured I was done.

The asparagus were clearly nice and done. A little limp, but with a teeny bit of snap remaining. The potatoes seemed done – a little firm, but done nonetheless.
The chicken – I wasn’t so sure. By now, it was darker – not dark dark, but dim, and it was hard to see what was going on. I moved around the leg joint, and it was still pretty firm – which I didn’t think was a good sign. I was eager to try it, so I piled the vittels onto a dinner plate, headed outside to my table lit by a single candle (the sky now in the final stages of light – almost 9:30!) and tried the chicken. It was tough, and clearly not done.

Fortunately, Jeff and Emily have a microwave in their rustic cabin. And I was able give it another five minutes or so of quality cooking to make finish it off. Those last five minutes were the toughest to wait out.

Back outside, back out to the plate, for the first taste, and it was a winner. The chicken was tougher than I was used to, but I think that may be the free range part. It was tasty – very tasty. I could taste the chicken and I could taste the seasonings, all the way through the bird. My mistake, if there was one, was to do all three new things at once. I would have like to have tried the super duper bird with minimal seasonings, just to see what the bird tasted like without all the help I gave it. But I didn’t, and I was happy with the outcome.

The potatoes were the perfect foil to the flavorful chicken. And the timing of appreciating the role of potato as perfect foil was perfect as well, as I had just read an essay by M.F.K Fisher on the topic. And grilled asparagus takes the natural complex flavor of the vegetable to a new height. I’ve had grilled asparagus several times now this season, and I think it is my favorite way to eat it.

So, a fabulous, slow meal. With many lessons learned. And an entire meal of leftovers remaining. The fridge now contains at least two meals of leftovers, which means I don’t think I’ll be cooking tonight. What will I do with the time?

The cabin...

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 2


So the first night, May 26 was asparagus, potatoes, carrots, corn. The second night May 27, I concocted a variation on that theme, because that's what I have the cabin. I didn't want to do potatoes again so I did onions instead. And to make sure I had enough protein, and enough to eat in general, I made up a batch of mixed white and red quinoa (about ¾ white and ¼ red), with a generous handful of chopped parsley added after it was cooked.

There's not much to say about them, the picture is worth 1000 words. As you can see, all I had with salt and pepper and the pepper was already ground -- so I used lots and lots and lots of it. A nice simple meal for a simple place. The onions in particular were a real pleasure. They were cooked so that their sweetness started to come through, slightly browned, but they still had some of that onion “bite”, with the edge taken off.

The other revelation was the parsley in the quinoa. I had not planned this when I bought the parsley. I just knew that parsley would come in handy somehow. This part of the dish was like hot tabouli. The quinoa by itself doesn’t taste like much, so it needs something. And I gave it enough parsley to make that flavor a dominant theme…with parsley being my greens for the evening…just like I enjoy tabbouli. I would do this dish again without blinking, even if I wasn’t in a remote cabin.

By now, I had gotten a little bit of a feel for the place, so here's a little bit to give you a feel for the place!


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 1

I am writing this from a personal retreat and cabin in northern Wisconsin, with no running water, no cellphone service, and no internet. Perfect! Without the internet service I stashed away a few blog entries for posting upon arrival back in civilization. I'm back, so now I'm posting. Here's the first.

May 27, 2009

After scouting out the accommodations (thanks Jeff and Emily!) the first order of business was to make some food. Emily took me to the the Farmer's Market in St. Paul, which was conveniently running this Tuesday morning, and purchased some olive tapenade cheese (from the cheesemaker), summer sausage made a bison (from the sausage maker), and some asparagus (from the asparagus grower). The asparagus was the only fresh vegetable available, which is not surprising given that it's only late May. I also picked up a frozen free range chicken that was sustainably raised. At the grocery I picked up some carrots, various grains, potatoes and sweet corn.

I did not want to spend a lot of time cooking as it was a little chilly in the cabin. I thought using the oven would be a good thing. So I decided to roast the asparagus, corn, carrots, potatoes in the oven with a little olive oil and salt. There was only spray olive oil, but it was worth a try. Roasted at 350 the asparagus and carrots were done first. The asparagus and carrots were done to perfection, and the first ear of corn was pretty good but still a little hard, so I left the other ears of corn a while longer with the potatoes. While this was cooking, I kept myself busy with the summer sausage and cheese and some rosemary Triscuits.

The simple roasted veggie meal was the perfect easy meal that also served to heat up the chilly cabin. Filled me up, provided some leftovers, and got me familiar with the kitchen. The lack of running water will be a fun challenge...