Sautéed Spinach of Shrinking

I have finally learned that boiling spinach should result in a night in the stocks.  Many nutrients end up in the water and often the result can be mush.  Steaming spinach is a great alternative, but there are just so many options that can be explored with steamed spinach.  So I took a long look at my inventory tab and decided to try a duel between a pile of spinach and a skillet.  When this starts out in the skillet, the spinach seems like it will win, but after a short time in the heat of sautéing the spinach ultimately gives up and shrinks into tasty, tender leaves.  The fun variation with this recipe is the oil.  With so few ingredients, the type and quality of oil used really stands out and can change the flavor dramatically.  I typically use a #8 cast iron pan for this with a lid.  Alternatively I suspect a “dutch oven” (or similar item) could be used.  The goal is to keep the spinach and steam contained.

Heat 1T of oil in the pan over medium heat.  Add 1T of minced garlic and let that cook for a couple minutes.  Add spinach and 1t of sesame seeds.  Stir around to coat everything with oil (that part is easier with a larger pot – in the skillet I carefully flip clumps of leaves using tongs).  Add 1T of water.  Cover.  Reduce heat to low for about 5 minutes.  Serve and enjoy.

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Pudding of Crumby Reincarnation

At times, an epic adventure can turn into an epic loss.  However, some failures can make ingredients for other successes.  Bread and crumb pudding is, for me, the result of a fortunate accident or surplus leftovers.  Sometimes the bread I make doesn’t come out right.  Sometimes cookies get a little too dry.  Sometimes I do this deliberately because it is very, very tasty.

Most often the event that yields this pudding is a failure for the bread gremlins to do their job and the dough does not come out big and strong. If I don’t manage to whip the gremlins into shape in time, the bread can bake up too dense and have uncooked spots.  This can be due to ingredients temperature.  If the starter is too cold, the dough will not rise well.  If the dough is not stored in a warm enough location, it will not rise well.  Temperature is important.  And when that fails, there is pudding.

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Whole Grain Bread of Gremlin Goodness

First, I will give credit to a cousin who passed this along to me.  I’ve had my adventures with this bread recipe since learning it, and sometimes it continues to be an adventure.

Modern Merchants seek to attack our bodies with things that can survive a troll’s breath, or transportation under a saddle. While the alchemy they employ to transmute the unpronounceable into the ingestible is impressive, I always lower my visor and raise my shield a bit before approaching the ingredients list. I’d rather face a troll. I know that even in the best breads all those unidentifiable ingredients are preservatives, binders, and other such things to help the bread survive packing, shipping, trolls, handling, handling by trolls, and shelving at the store. But rationalizing away something that gives me flashbacks to my Organic Chemistry by proxy[1] experience isn’t something I want to eat.

So I turn to biology! A living brew of foaming, fermenting, and emotional bacterial gremlins! But emotional? Indeed! I have to pay attention to it or it will fail to serve. However, too much attention and I could smother it into being introverted and selfish with its cultured (har har) goodness. It’s alive!!!

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NEVER Use Black Magick

It just occurred to me that we have over looked one very important topic for the young cook in training. Morals.

No matter how advanced you become, no matter your skills, either natural or learned, there are simply some spells you do not cast. Not if you want to use the name of this school you don’t, at any rate.

I am speaking, of course, of microwave ovens. Black Magick.

Now, unlike in other aspects of my life, I’m not dogmatically Orthodox on this subject. If you’re reheating a cup of tea (not coffee) or reheating (fairly wet) left overs for lunch, then spells in this realm are just fine.

But I’m old enough to remember when these devices “went mainstream” and to remember the marketing that went along with that effort. Like much of the kitchen marketing in post-WWII America, it was all about freeing women from their enslavement in the kitchen (I will ignore for the moment that much of this marketing was done in a pre-feminist culture when almost no one actually wanted women out of the kitchen, thus making all such marketing very suspect). You can cook entire meals in SECONDS! This was the battle cry.

But very quickly people figured out that this was a very bad idea. If you followed the Recipes of the Space Age for making a pot roast in your new device, what you got was a fully cooked, hot, ready to eat, GRAY pot roast. In fact, all meat cooked in the microwave comes out basically gray. There’s no browning, no Maillard reaction. Belated attempts were made to market “browning pans” and to include dozens of preset elaborate combination of time and power levels, but in the end, people realized that proteins cooked this way were simply Bad Food[tm].

On the other hand, vegetables somehow didn’t get nearly the same level of bad press. Probably because it was exactly things like pot roasts, whole chickens &c. that had been at the core of the “set you free” marketing, not bags of frozen peas. But the reality is, if you take a fresh vegetable and microwave it, you’re almost certainly going to get a dish of slime.

There is one acceptable spell for dealing with frozen vegetables, but it involves what Alton Brown calls a “mono tasker” — a kitchen tool so specialized it only does one thing. Not all specialized tools are mono taskers, however. The “pizza cutter” is actually useful a shockingly wide array of tasks, for example. On the other hand, egg separators or cherry pitters only do one thing. Anyway. I must confess that I own a steamer device which is made of plastic, thus making it only useful in the microwave. I don’t remember if I bought it or if it was part of a wedding gift, or how I came to own it. But I do. And what I use it for is when I’m serving frozen vegetables as a lone side dish — which I rarely do. If you have an electric kettle, you can create boiling water, pour it in the base, add your frozen veggies to the top section, and then “nuke it”. The results are not unpleasant, in fact, they’re better than boiled. But honestly, if you throw frozen veggies into a cast iron skillet with a minimum of butter or oil, you get much better results than either boiling or microwave steaming.

So, reheat your tea and reheat your lunch. But beyond this, do not cast Black Magick.

Just for the Sake of Amusement ~ The Early Years

Back when I was a Level 0 cook, and my efforts were confined largely to scrounging up lunch for myself while I was home for the summer and Mom was busy with Mom Things[tm], there were a great many “oh, I thought I was making something else” moments. Many meals started out with half remembered spells for cheeseburgers or omelets which ended with saving throws to transmogrify into hash. Important lessons during these years included notions such as:

  • Always cook eggs in a nonstick pan. Nothing sticks to a well seasoned cast iron skillet — except eggs *
  • With almost all proteins, the higher the heat, the less likely things will stick to the pan — except eggs *
  • Keep flattening a ground meat patty with a spatula often and hard enough, and it will completely fall apart.
  • When cooked ground meat falls apart, it doesn’t go back together again. Ever.
  • Trying to convert crumbled hamburger into sloppy joe or chili after you’ve cooked it never works.
  • Always start the potatoes first. Potatoes take way longer to cook than they look like they should.
  • You are not clever enough to cook two things in the same pan which are not supposed to eventually be combined.
  • The only thing which sticks to a pan more permanently than eggs is cheese.
  • Always have the pan scraped and cleaned before Mom gets home.
  • Leftover transmogrified hash may actually be a potion for the ending of all life on earth.

* Advanced spells involving bacon grease can prevent eggs from sticking to pans, even cast iron, but over use of this spell eventually leads to saving throws versus myocardial infarction and death — use with caution.

Breakfast Gruel ~ Or How to Make Oatmeal, Not Glue

Unlike John, I simply can’t cope with drinking my breakfast. I love milkshakes, I even like some smoothies. Maybe I’ve seen WALL-E and taken it too much to heart, but I just can’t do breakfast-in-a-cup. But, also wanting to get through my day without getting into the chips left over from the last gaming session, and wanting to acquire some basic daily nutrition, I too have a daily morning routine.

Half a cup of steel cut oats, steamed (basically).

Now, I never liked rolled oats as a kid, nor cream of wheat, or really any kind of hot cereal, whether it was breakfast fare or otherwise. To me they always ended up in a form better suited to papering walls than filling my insides. But this radically new approach has changed all that, especially with the switch to steel cut oats. Steel cut oats have much more fiber than rolled, they just take a lot longer to cook — typical Western approach to food, convenience over nutrition, right?

I will freely admit that a lot of what I know about generalized technique I got from Alton Brown’s early seasons of “Good Eats”. Over time, I’ve noticed a pattern when he’s dealing with starches in some kind of small, pellet like form (rice, oats, barley, polenta, &c.) – start with high heat and fat (butter, oil, what have you) to get some caramelization going, get boiling water into the situation as quickly as possible, cover as tightly as possible, and then let things go low and slow for as long as possible without losing a very gentle simmer/very low boil. Because this is almost like baking, and the margin of error is very narrow, I actually have this down to fairly precise details at this point to avoid disaster.

I use my smallest sauce pan, with a lid, and a kitchen towel (for weight on the thin lid, if you have a heavy lid, don’t bother). In the small pan I heat a silver dollar sized pour of olive oil. Once good and hot, into this goes the half cup of steel cut oats. Begin moving them about immediately and quickly so that all the kernels are coated in oil and none are sitting there deep frying in a small pool. Keep this over fairly high heat, moving frequently. When you start to hear consistent popping noises, pour in one and one eighth of a cup of water, a pinch of salt and whatever spices you like. I usually go with cinnamon, but powdered ginger, clove, nutmeg or all four can be very nice. Heck, I’ve even had it with zatar and it was really good, too. If you have an electric kettle and don’t mind the effort, make that cup of water already boiling when it goes in. Otherwise, get it up to a boil as fast as you can. Once boiling, slap on the lid, pile on the towel to help keep it down (being sure none of the edges hang over near your flames!), and reduce the heat to low. I sometimes do this on two different burners, the big one for the very hot stages and my tiniest one for the simmering stage. Set a timer for 30 minutes. Yes. That long. If you do the first half in your jammies, breakfast is ready by the time you get dressed and have a cup of tea.

When the timer goes off, uncover, add a reasonable amount of honey and if you like, a splash of milk (not half and half or cream!) or almond milk works on certain days. Stir briefly and serve immediately.

No more cereal of limitless sticking potential! Hello daily fiber.

Draught of Fortitude (aka My Morning Shake)

When was the last time you saw an adventurer linger over breakfast?  It’s always a victory feast or some such.  Perhaps it’s because putting on all that armor takes so long, saddling the horse takes time, or perhaps they’re just focused on the loot.  Me…?  I’m usually bleary-eyed, uncoordinated, confused, trying to brush my teeth with my comb, and hoping my socks match.  So I really need to make sure my breakfast is nutritious, quick, and sticks with me.  So what better than a protein-like shake that I can just pour and quaff?  I could try not eating, but I fear I’d join the ranks of the Commuter Zombies.  Nrrg…

I started with a shake that would fill me up, and then moved on to a shake with extras which help contribute to my general well-being.  It’s kind of the same logic as “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down”.

The ingredients all have a rationale.  The plain yogurt avoids adding too much sugar.  This shake does not suffer from lack of sweetness, and if something like Vanilla yogurt was used this would be too sweet.  The whey protein is one of the good proteins (note that flavored varieties have sugars added…), and protein sticks with a person longer; part of the goal here is to manage hunger and snacking.  The oatmeal is there for the fiber, but not too much because oatmeal is also a carbohydrate – which is bad sugar.  Turmeric is good for joints.  Cinnamon is good for the heart.  Ginger is good for many things.  Bananas taste good – oh, and they have potassium.  The frozen fruit mix is mostly for flavor, but if you choose wisely you can work in some anitoxidant properties.  Fairer weather (or climates) are great for this because it’s easier to work in readily available fresh fruit.  The milk is simply a thinner; calcium is good for a person and the yogurt already has plenty of that.  This could also be thinned with alternatives to milk such as rice or soy milk.

I also think I’ve finally found a process of blending this together so it does so cooperatively.  This is mixed half-batch at a time.  I don’t have a Blender of Holding… only a Blender of Might.  So half-at-a-time is necessary.

Draught of Fortitude (serves 6 humans, or one human six times, or one Giant)

  • 1 Blender of Might – using a whimpy blender for this may result in dodging a lid (roll save vs. blender lid…)
  • 32 oz plain yogurt
  • 2 oz whey protein
  • 1/2 c oatmeal
  • 10 dashes turmeric
  • 10 dashes cinnamon
  • 4 T chopped ginger
  • 4 large bananas
  • 24 oz mix frozen fruit (blackberries, strawberries, etc. – fresh is nice if you have it)
  • milk to thin

Add yogurt (16 oz), followed by (remember… half) whey protein, oatmeal, turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger.  The whey protein and oatmeal add body; protein will stick-with-ya longer.  The turmeric is for joint health, cinnamon is good for the heart, and ginger is good for many things.

I usually halve (as in break-in-half) the bananas and then stick them down into the yogurt.  They don’t have to be buried, just slightly submerged to help make room for the rest.  Add the fruit and then the milk.  Usually I will add the fruit, cap the blender, and pour the milk through the pour cap in the top – but I’ve seen a few blenders that don’t have a pour cap.

Start blending this slowly, perhaps on the second speed.  Your blender may go up to 11, but if you start there, you’re probably going to break something – especially if you fail to dodge an ejected blender lid.  Not that I’ve ever done that.

When you’re done, the blender may be too full to pour.  I usually use a ladle or a measuring cup to scoop some out into appropriate vessels.  If I am not serving 6 humans or a giant, I will put these into something I can keep in the refrigerator all week.  This is one of the reasons for the mixed fruit; they make the shake a pleasant rich-purple color instead of a strange brown due to the turmeric and banana (after a few days).

Since I don’t strictly measure the ingredients, I’ve had this last all week some times.  It keeps well over that time, and doesn’t adopt a funky flavor.  One reason for this is that I will separate it into multiple small containers.  The less contact it has with air, the longer it will take to spoil when kept in the fridge.

So this one is more mixing that strict “cooking”.  That’s why the rules are really more like guidelines!