Tenser’s Cheesy Disks

In addition to celebrating Bright Week with meats, we celebrate with dairy as well. In addition to cream in my iced coffee [1] once again and milk in my steamed steel cut oats, our house has been a veritable chees-a-po-looza (see previous mention of tacos).

Last night was quesadilla. Normally I would make these in a cast iron skillet on the stove top, but last night I got the bright idea to do several of them at one time on a half sheet in the oven. 350 degrees, 15 minutes on each side, perfect.

I de-seeded four large jalapeno peppers and sliced the fruit into small crescents. I cut one sweet onion (not a “Vidalia” brand, and yes that word is a brand, but whatever the local variety is) into similarly sized shapes. These were set about to browning in some olive oil, roasted garlic and salt over high heat in a cast iron skillet. Meanwhile, a can of cannellini beans was opened and drained. Once the savory items were well along, a tub of baby spinach was tossed into the pan and wilted. Some left over rice and left over pico de gallo may or may not have been thrown in just to use it up.

Several small tortilla were arranged on the half sheet. Shredded pepper jack was applied. The beans were spooned onto the cheese. The skillet mixture was placed on top. Everything was worked a bit to flatten it out, and then tortilla were placed on top of each. Half sheet went into the pre-heated oven directly onto the oven stones. After 15 minutes the tray was removed, each item was flipped, and then the tray went back in for another 15.

The cheese melts, the beans melt, the roasted garlic melts… SO GOOD.

[1] Any time the temperature is above 85 degrees, I require iced coffee to function. Living in Houston means I drink a lot of iced coffee these days.

Beef soup for Level 0 Kitchen Klerics

This is a follow-up to my Marrow and Fatness post from a few weeks ago. As part of my celebration of the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, during this fastless Bright Week, I made myself a batch of no effort instant soup, with a slight detour into tacos.

Last night we had tacos. I did a kind of fajita style filling using strips of fresh jalapeno peppers and seitan with cumin seeds. Liz had this in crunchy taco shells with shredded cheese, and some raw produce from my garden plot (romaine, radish and a “blushing beauty” bell pepper which is a pale green and strikes a nice balance between a true green pepper’s bitterness and a yellow peppers over-sweetness). I had also bought some grass fed, local (Step 4 on Whole Foods new meat ethics scale of 0-6) beef brisket for my own tacos. I thought it would substitute for flank steak nicely — it didn’t. I put it in a skillet with some olive oil, salt and pepper, chili del sol powder and liquid smoke and cooked it as slow as I could stand. I sliced it as thin as I could manage, across the grain. The result was still impossibly chewy. Take note, brisket makes fantastic properly slow smoked barbecue or corned beef or pastrami — but it is not flank steak. It needs to be cooked very slowly to be edible.

Thankfully I made enough of the rest to get myself filled at dinner time without the brisket, so I put the rest aside. I knew I had a slab of Step 4 bone-in shank in the fridge as well, so I had the luxury of patience with a plan (which I always find easier than patience in the abstract). Today I put that shank into my Dutch oven, covered it in water,  lidded up, and put this onto the stove to get it to a slow boil while the oven heated to 250 degrees. Once heated, I moved the whole set up into the oven for the rest of the day. I cooked this for about six hours, all told. About three hours in, I took that brisket from the night before and tossed it in as well.

When the six hours were up, all the marrow and gelatin had melted out of the bone, all the connective material had melted out of the meat as gelatin, and much of the fat had melted as well. All that was left was a bone, which will go to the dogs once it has cooled, some of the tougher bits of fat and gristle, which will also go to the dogs, and some absolutely crumblingly tender meat, which will go to me. I strained all this off, and put the deep amber broth into several glass containers to cool while I set about separating the solids and shredding the meat while it was still hot.

Yes, it took six hours to cook. But the actual amount of work I put into this was cumulatively about 15 minutes over course of an entire day. I now have 3-6 servings of beef soup, with meat, which can be augmented with vegetables, noodles, barley, rice, or eaten exactly as is — or used as a gravy or sauce base for any number of other, more decadent dishes. I could even make gravy and use the shredded beef to make meat pies.

And I made my saving throw versus wasting failures.

There is literally no seasoning, no measuring, no technique skills of any kind required here. Put one or two slabs of shank into a cold pan, cover in water, and insert into a barely above boiling temperature oven for a whole day. You can’t over cook it, you can’t over or under season it (seasoning will be done when the results are put to use, not now), the only thing that can go wrong, really, is you could spill it.

It seriously doesn’t get any easier than this. Even Step 4 beef shank is only $6/lb so it isn’t even expensive to go ethical on this one and you’re helping use up cuts that can’t be rendered to ground meat or sausage and can’t be sold as presentation cuts.

Breakfast Djinni (in a jar)

I picked up a breakfast conjuration from Lifehacker and ran with it for this week.  My regular breakfast wish is something quick, healthy, and able to keep me from overindulging for my mid-morning snack.  And so, this morning I rubbed the magic breakfast lamp and *poof* I had breakfast in a reasonable amount of time without it being a shake. [1]

The premise is simple:  prepare some kind of cooked oats on the weekend, put them in jars, reheat each morning for breakfast.  The nice thing is that it really is that simple.

I cooked about 1c of steel cut oats in 3c of water to get something firm but not chewy and also something that would take well to reheating with a little water added.  I’ve learned that oats do not reheat well without some kind of hydration.  This means when following this plan, making something slightly under-cooked is required because it is going to slightly cook when reheated in the microwave.

Oh no!  Use of black magic!

Before you point back to a previous post, remember that this is reheating.  You can’t reheat without cooking something a little bit more, especially in the microwave, so I dare say reheat and cook in the same context here.

I portioned the cooked amount of oats into 5 jars, tossed a dash of cinnamon in each, sealed them, and got them into the fridge.  It is best to do this while the oats are hot as this will help seal the jar as they cool.  In theory, this should help them keep better over the week, especially if you aren’t using small jars and end up with a fair amount of air in the jar.  Ideally, appropriate sized jars would be used to minimize the amount of air within.

I also prepared a jar of mixed fruit and put that in the fridge.  I used frozen fruit [2] and dried cranberries in about equal ratio.  This consisted of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and the dried cranberries.

This morning I added about a tablespoon of water to the jar and heated it for about 22 seconds in the microwave.  Heating slowly helps ensure the jar doesn’t explode from any heat change.  It should’t as canning jars are meant to handle high heat, but don’t tempt the Black Magic Box.  I then stirred the oats and heated for another 44 seconds.  I was aiming for warm not hot so I could eat these immediately.  I then added a few table spoons of fruit, a teaspoon of molasses, and a bit of soy milk to make this mixable and quickly consumable.

The outcome was quite good, and the upside of using a larger jar was that I could continue to summon this strange Djinni in this bottle without dirtying anything else.  Tomorrow I plan to add soy yogurt instead because it is good to get the little Health Gremlins in yogurt on a daily basis.

Another variation I will try is to reduce the amount of steel cut oats and use a balance of rolled oats — mostly because steel cut oats are crazy expensive, and party because variety is good.

[1] I have recently hit a wall with this vegan diet I am temporarily on.  This includes a slight aversion to intense soy.  There are studies that indicate too much soy for Westerners isn’t a good thing as it hasn’t been a part of our dietary culture and our metabolism isn’t properly geared towards it.

[2] Quality frozen fruit can be second best to fresh fruit because it was frozen at its peak freshness.  Don’t shun it because it came from the freezer, but certainly shun Ye Generice Brande — goodness knows the quality and origin of that!

“Instant Soup”, Marrow and Fatness — Homemade Stock and Broth

[Editor’s note: I do not actually advocate that you make this recipe. After reading The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend, I basically stopped eating chicken entirely — unless I know that it came directly from a small, local farmer. Chickens are a bit different from other livestock raised for butchering in that in the industrialized, factory style they are routinely “de-beaked” to prevent them from pecking one another; something which isn’t an issue so much with pigs, cows or sheep. Apparently terms such as “free range” or “cage free” have not been regulated sufficiently to require that either eggs or meat sold under these labels come from animals which were not de-beaked. Which means it is basically impossible to get ethically sourced chicken unless you buy it directly from a farmer.

With the hope that someday ethical farming is one day normative as it was just 100 years ago, I include not only this recipe, but instructions on what exactly to buy as if one were shopping in the grocery, not simply buying whole birds from a farmer.

Again, please don’t actually make this unless you are certain you know how that chicken was raised. Alternately, you can adapt this recipe using ox tail and similar bits to make beef stock and broth — just remember the resulting separated fat is not schmaltz and not kosher, if you care.]

1 O God, You are my God;
Early will I seek You;
My soul thirsts for You;
My flesh longs for You
In a dry and thirsty land
Where there is no water.
2 So I have looked for You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.

3 Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
4 Thus I will bless You while I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
5 My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall praise You with joyful lips. (Psalm 62 (LXX))

Growing up, I used to hear the word “schmaltz” or “schmaltzy” a lot. Usually in relation to bad acting or an over the top broadway show. But I never knew where the word came from or what it really meant. Back before my wife became a strict vegetarian, I started making my own stock and broth in huge batches and freezing it, and that’s when I found out what schmaltz really is — and why you wouldn’t want your art  to ever be compared to it.

Making sauces, soups, glazes and gravy can be a huge hassle and a huge time sink. At least, this is true if you prefer not to open a can or carton full of shockingly thin, yellow liquid every time you need a shot of umami and thickening power in a dish. [1] Rendering the water out of things can take quite a long time. But every good culinary spell caster should have this trick up their billowing robe sleeves. “Instant soup” — no not that powdered nonsense, and not bouillon, either. Salt licks are for cows. There is one variety of faux beef bouillon I use for making pho at home, but that’s another show post. So why did I bring up schmaltz? Well, the great thing about making your own stock and your own broth is that you get a third fantastic cooking substance which comes along for the ride for free. Schmaltz. You’ve heard about all these trendy places that have started serving potato frites which have been fried in duck fat, I’m sure. Well? There’s a reason for this trend. Cooking with the rendered fat of poultry adds amazing savory to dishes. And should you ever need to serve a kosher meal, this will be essential since you can’t use butter or lard (not just pork lard, the fat of all hoofed animals was forbidden to be eaten).

So let’s make our own stock and broth (and schmaltz). What do we need to do? Well, first you need a caldron. No, your pasta boiler is not big enough. In fact, unless you routinely cook for more than 10 people at a time, you don’t own anything big enough for this task. If you already own a turkey frier, that will work. When I was making this a few times a year, I just went to a restaurant supply wholesaler and bought myself a huge, cheap, aluminium pot. Mine is roughly fourteen inches high, and of about the same diameter. It has a flat bottom, flat sides and a flat lid. It has two stout handles. That’s about it, feature wise. If you are going to commit to making your own stocks and broths routinely, it is worth the investment — and it isn’t all that much. Why do you need such a big vessel? Well, it only is really instant soup if you do this every great once in a while and then pull the results out as needed “in an instant”. If you’re spending every fourth Saturday making small batches, that kind of takes the wind out of the whole thing.

OK, you have your pot. Now you need chicken. In an ideal world, you’re buying whole chickens (with all the internals intact and all the weird bits included) directly from a farmer. If this is the case, then all you need to do is quarter anywhere from two to four birds (depending on size of batch and your pot) and put them into the pot. Then add just enough cold water to cover them. The water has to be cold. If you drop bones into boiling water, the gelatin won’t actually come out into your stock, it will instantly congeal inside the bones and the whole operation will be a huge waste. If your farmer was kind enough to include the “giblets”, don’t save them for gravy, just include them here.

In a less than ideal world, you do this. Go to a reputable butcher, or at least the meat counter in a reputable grocer. Because the world we live in has been distorted by so much black magic, people are utterly obsessed with the white meat of chicken. Why is this the known result of black magic? Because white meat has less flavor and less nutrition than dark meat. The only reason people prefer it, is because skinless, boneless chicken breasts look pretty for the sorts of people who buy into all the “eat first with your eyes” presentation nonsense. I will grant that you can’t just throw food onto a plate with no consideration for appearances. But if you use “plate” as a verb, I will hurl magic missiles at you, and if it takes you longer to arrange the food than it did to cook it, I will laugh at you. Why does this business about white meat matter? Well, aside from being the cause of the truly heinous industrialized chicken factory, it also means that, believe it or not, whole chickens are more expensive than packs of dark meat parts. Well, some dark meat parts. Legs are still pricy because people like to fry them. Wings, for reasons I will never understand, are pricy because people like them, for reasons I will never understand, slathered in hot sauce (if ever there was a mode of cuisine that ought to be vegetarian, since you can’t taste the meat at all, it is the Buffalo wing). But chicken thighs are almost completely ignored by the American diner and you can get enormous “family packs” of them for extremely reasonable prices. If your world isn’t quite so black, you can also ask the butcher if they still have the chicken backs, which nobody ever seems to want [2], and mention that you’d also be willing to buy keels, necks and giblets if they are at odds for what to do with them. If you can become known to your butcher as the sort who is not only willing to buy the odd bits, but is interested in the odd bits, you may find yourself in a budding friendship which has fantastic consequences for your wallet and your kitchen. Because Americans insist on eating only pretty, lean meat (that comma is important), butchers find themselves with a lot of stuff they don’t have much use for — even products like scapple have been fading from the marketplace, making these things even harder to get rid of. Stock and broth makers can step in and reap the benefits and help prevent waste. Again, once acquired, put your bits into your big pot and cover with cold water.

Apply heat and bring the whole thing up to a gently rolling boil. This may take a while. You’ve got a lot of cold mass, here. Be patient. Once you have your simmer, begin checking fairly often for when the meat will easily come off the bones and tendons. If you want to make stock and broth separately, at this point you need to take the meaty pieces out, remove the meat, and then return the bone and tendon to the pot. If you’re just making a flavorful stock, you can skip this step. [3] For the stock, you want to continue this gentle boil until you find that the bones break far more easily than the size of the bone would suggest and the tendons no longer actually hold anything together. This means you have rendered all the gelatin from these parts and there is nothing left to do. You will need to remove all the bits, somehow. If you have a second large vessel, and a big screen strainer, this is easily done. If not, this is going to be tedious — good luck. Actually, I would have a plan for this before you get started.

Lastly, you now need to get this to cool down as quickly as you can. This is mostly for safety reasons. You just created a low acid, nutrient rich liquid environment that is nice and warm — just the kind of thing that bacteria love. If you can get your vessel of liquid into a big cooler surrounded by ice packs or ice, that might be ideal. Once the liquid is cooled, you should notice two things immediately. The first is a thick layer of schmaltz floating on the top. This can be scraped off and saved. The second is that the liquid shouldn’t be a liquid anymore. In a cool state, this stock should have so much gelatin in it that it starts to actually set up like a dessert. If this is not so, and you don’t have any noticeable thickening at all, something went wrong and you should go get more chicken bones and try again (with the same liquid). If you have some thickening, but not much, you can just very gently drive out some of the water by re-heating for a long time and then re-cooling. Once the schmaltz is skimmed off, transfer the stock into as many small containers as you can spare. Small is better because you’re going to need to freeze most of this, and it can’t be instant soup if you have to defrost a huge block just to get a cup or two you can use. In fact, if you have room for lots and lots of ice cube trays, that’s a really sweet hack to employ at this stage.

So what do you do with stock? Remember that stock is not broth, and broth is not soup. If you separated the meat and other bits as described above, your stock will have very little flavor of its own. It exists to thicken. It can not only be used to make soup, by being combined with a flavorful broth, but it can also be used to speed up gravy making, or to improve the mouth feel and texture of sauces and glazes. But, if you have small, frozen blocks of stock and small frozen blocks of broth in your freezer, you can make “instant soup” the likes of which no one has ever tasted before by simply heating the two together in a pan.

[1] Yes I often post recipes calling for cartons of vegetable broth or tomato soup. For whatever reason, commercially available chicken broth is absolutely awful, while other kinds of basic soups are very good. So this derision is for chicken broth specifically.

[2] Sign of how rapidly industrialized meat took over. When I was a kid, just 25 years ago or so, packages of chicken backs were right out in the case next to everything else. We used to buy them to use as bait when we went crabbing in the tidal flats of coastal New Jersey.

[3] For the broth, in a smaller pot sweat coarsely chopped carrots, celery, white onion and any other savories you enjoy. Once soft, add your chicken meat and enough water to cover — hot water is fine in this case. Bring to a simmer and let it sit more or less until you’re too bored to tolerate it anymore. Add salt and any seasonings. Chicken broth is so popular because it is such a blank canvas. You can keep your base very simple with just salt and pepper or pre-prepare a deeply complex flavor profile. At some point, start putting the stick blender to the whole thing and when the result is smooth, take it off the heat, cool it and store it.

Sour and Spicy Sea Bug Soup

Strictly speaking, the Lenten fast is not “vegan”. Vegan is a contemporary term and does not really correlate directly to what is and is not proscribed during this season. For example, honey is always permitted during this time. Also, aquatic animals which have neither spine nor fins (shellfish, basically) can be consumed. This seems to be a quirk of culture. “Oil” is specifically off limits, because in the ancient Byzantine Empire, fine oils were eaten more or less alone as a feasting food, while shellfish were essentially viewed as “bait”. So yes, in today’s world, during Lent, you can have a $30 lobster, but not a $0.50 hot dog, and still be “fasting”. In the Gamer Geek world we call that “rules lawyering” and it isn’t seen in any better light in the faith than it is at the gaming table.

Why am I talking about this? Because today’s recipe involves shrimp, and I didn’t want to confuse anyone. My wife is out of town for a few days, which means I can cook seafood in the house without her complaining about the smell or running around casting “scented candle” spells everywhere (which make me sneeze).

One concession I made to the Lenten season was that I bought a bag of block frozen shrimp (better quality than individually frozen, actually, just more frustrating to get thawed out for use) rather than fresh, to keep the expense down. For this recipe, though, you want shell on, raw shrimp. Ideally you would make this recipe with fresh, whole shrimp. Whole as in heads and legs intact. Shrimp shells and brains contain an enormous amount of flavor which is ideally suited for sauces and broths. However, I’m unaware of a way to get frozen shrimp with the heads still on, so I had to settle for shells intact but headless.

Shellfish should get cooked one of two ways: as hot, fast and brief as possible, or as slow and low as possible. Given that I was starting with something frozen, I had to opt for the latter. I used a stainless skillet for this, and the glass lid with the vent hole from my pasta pot just happens to fit onto this skillet. So, I put the shrimp into the pan with the lid on over very low heat, and turned them over from time to time. This cooking is going to create a lot of water in the pan. Keep this. Hence the lid. Once the shrimp are cooked through, put the shrimp into a bowl in the freezer and transfer the resulting liquid into a large sauce pan.

In a food processor or blender combine stewed tomatoes, roasted garlic, lots of lemon juice (lots), a couple tablespoons of white vinegar, heavy coconut milk, fresh cilantro, a generous amount of “rooster sauce” (or similar sriracha type hot sauce) or a combination of hot peppers and honey/sugar, and kimchee if you have some (I make my own approximation of this as a source of probiotics).

Once the shrimp have cooled, shell them. Put the meat aside, and put all the shells into the sauce pan where your retained liquid is. Add a carton of vegetable broth. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for a long time. Strain, and dispose of the now thoroughly depleted shells. Add the blended items and bring back to a simmer. Make adjustments with lemon, vinegar, honey and heat to create your desired level of “ouch”. If you have access to kaffir leaves, add them during this simmer stage. Be sure to remove them before serving.

Put shrimp meat into a bowl and pour hot broth over them. This will warm them through without making them over cooked and tight. I recommend serving this with either glass noodles or rice noodles. Prepare them separately and add them to the bowl with the shrimp, and then pour over the broth.

Just don’t forget to cast an immunity to fire spell on yourself before digging in. And to have a breath mint after.