Squash Randomly Stuffed

Yesterday I had the task of baking some acorn squash.  Of course, my first thought was that it would be incredibly boring alone.  Arming myself with random accessories, I went to work.

First up, onion, always have to have onion (it was about 1 cup total).  Diced well, it was.  Eyes watered, they did.  Finger check reveals all are intact, so that went well.  +10 XP for not slicing any fingers!

Next, cashews and Craisins.  Those were set aside to top the squash.  The dosage:  “enough”.  They are accents, so keep that in mind.

Finally, barley.  It had to have some substance to it.  I decided to be bold and not cook it at all before hand.  This, right here, was the very thing that prompted me to muse I hope this doesn’t taste like crap.

From this point, there’s what I did and what I’ll do the next time.

What I did:  Halved two acorn squashes.  Scooped out seeds.  Placed in appropriately sized casserole dish.  Liberally drizzed with olive oil.  Filled with mix of barley and onion.  Topped with craisins and cashews.  Poured a little maple syrup over each (2T?).  Baked at 400F for 1 hour covered.  Covered is important here to keep the moisture in — or you’ll end up with barley pebbles and that does taste bad.

What I’d do the next time:  put the barley in first and make sure it is covered, covered, covered by everything.  Completely.  I might even put 1T of water into each squash cavity.  The barley cooked but, heh, barely.  The barley on top was crunchy — which was not all that great.  It was edible, but not all that great.

Otherwise, this was awesome.  Perhaps adding some apple would be good too.  That would add more moisture and help the barley cook.

But the best part is that this was relatively fast.  The largest effort, in order was: (1) prepping the squash, (2) dicing the onion, (3) washing my hands to get the onion juice off.

And there you have it:  Squash Randomly Stuffed which did not taste like crap.

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Casting (Soupy) Spells with Other’s Ingredients

We went out for pho the other day.  As typical, there was about two gallons of soup on the table and when we were done there was about a quart of broth remaining.  (*burp*)  My wife suggested we take the broth and use it as a soup base.

She leveled up with that suggestion.

And the results were…  I heated the remainder of the soup and added 3 carrots and 2 stalks of celery roughly chopped [1].  I then added about 1/4c – 1/3c of barley (which was eye-balled, so impossible to be exact).  After letting that cook for 10 minutes I added 2 boneless chicken breasts which I had quartered lengthwise.  I then let that cook for 15 minutes.

Once the chicken was cooked, I removed it from the pot and shredded it.  I found that using two forks (one to hold, one to pull) is a great way to do this, especially with steaming hot ingredients…

The chicken was returned to the pot, 1 cup of peas were added, and probably a cup of water was added to get a better balance of broth-to-chunks.

The result was fantastic.  Happiness was conjured, resurrected from leftovers.  And with our different spicing preferences, the soup averaged out to a nice flavor neither hot nor weak.

[1] 1/4″ – 1/2″ slices.  I typically cut the carrots in half (i.e. half the length, not lengthwise).  I then cut the smaller part in half lengthwise and chop it.  I then quarter the thicker part lengthwise and then chop it.  That, more or less, gets even chunks.

Mediterranean Vegetable and Grain Salad

This was last week’s offering for the pot luck dinner. Much less work than tonight’s dish.

One cup of the same old baked barley I’m always talking about. 375 degree oven, 3 cups of water, one hour. Blah blah blah.

While that is cooking, in the food processor combine

  • a dozen cloves of roasted garlic (I make huge batches of this by getting bulk peeled garlic at Costco)
  • lemon juice (a fair bit)
  • olive oil (to match, you’re making a dressing)
  • red pepper flake
  • smoked paprika
  • salt & pepper
  • sumac
  • thyme (dried)
  • sesame seeds
  • cumin
  • oregano (dried)
  • cilantro (dried)

Render that into a dressing.
Course chop the following (either in the processor or by hand)

  • green, black and kalamata olives.
  • artichoke hearts
  • one can stewed tomatoes
  • capers

Toss the barley (after it has cooled and been fluffed) and the chopped veggies with a can of garbanzo beans and a can of black beans. Toss in the dressing.

Salads like this taste best if allowed to mellow overnight, but taste just fine after a couple of hours setting up. Served immediately upon combining, they will seem flat in a way you can’t put your finger on, somehow.

Endlessly Absorbing Grain (+3 against curries)

This past Wednesday I needed to prepare a dish to take to a pot luck dinner which was occurring after Lenten Vespers. The parish I attend is overwhelmingly dominated by Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian families. I neither know how to cook the food of The Levant nor would I want to go toe-to-toe with some of the mothers and grandmothers who can. So, for these kinds of events, I turn to the vegetarian fare of “The Sub-continent” aka India. At least as a starting point. Almost nothing I cook could ever really be seen as an attempt to produce an “authentic” ethnic dish.

So, the plan for this past Wednesday was roasted vegetables, legumes and barley in a coconut milk curry. Pause to store provisions, memorize spells and tune your weaponry, this is going to be long.

1 cup hulled barley
1/2 cup yellow dal
1/2 cup green lentils

Combine with five cups of water in a Dutch oven, bring to a boil, cover and put into a 375 degree oven for an hour.

1 can heavy coconut milk
1 cup tomato soup (I like the tomato and roasted red pepper in a carton stuff, myself)

Place this in a small sauce pan over low heat.

Work in these spices. I grind them all in a coffee grinder to a fine powder both to “wake up” and reduce textural impact.

red pepper flake
smoked paprika
garam masala
muchi curry
turmeric
coriander
cardamom
cumin
garlic powder (not salt)

I use a fairly balanced amount of each, and not much of any. If you want to get precise, I’d start with 1/8 teaspoon of all, if that seems under seasoned after 15 minutes of simmering, go up to 1/4 teaspoon of each.

What follows had been prepared previously

roughly chop a balanced amount of each of these items:

yellow sweet onion
red onion
several garlic cloves
zucchini
baby carrots (can be left whole, or roughly chop big carrots)
celery
fresno peppers
orange or yellow bell pepper [1]
brussel sprouts (whole or halved if fairly large examples)

Combine with a small amount of oil and salt into Dutch oven 425 degree heat, uncovered, for at least an hour. You’ve got a lot of water to drive out, here. Stir every 10 or 15 minutes so that neither to top nor the bottom get burnt. Basically continue this until you worry they’ll get absolutely mushy. You’re doing dry cooking, so you aren’t losing any nutrients anywhere, just driving out water which is tasteless and has no nutrition.

This kind of vegetable combining and roasting is one of my “staple” techniques. I make fairly large batches of this and then re-use it in many ways. Most of the previous batch got rendered down into sauce by pureeing it and adding stewed tomatoes and basil.  I deliberately leave it without seasoning or spice to keep it as versatile as possible.
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Returning to real time…

Fold some of this vegetable mixture into the red curry such that it is neither sparse nor overwhelming. combine this with the lentil and barley mixture.

Ideally, served with naan or some other similar flat bread and eaten with the hands, but as it has grain in it, you can just dive in with a spoon.

What you are supposed to end up with is a kind of thick stew of red sauce in which you find vegetables, grain and legumes. But I needed to make this in the early afternoon, and services were at 6:30. So when I was done, I put this into the serving dish I was going to use, and put it back into the oven at 200 degrees. I should have put it in covered. I was worried it would get watery if I did. What ended up happening is that the barley sucked all the water out of the coconut milk and the soup and so what I served, instead of being a very loose, saucy kind of stew, was a thick, sticky, almost spreadable kind of situation. And most of the color cooked out of it, too, so it was all brown.

It was still tasty, just not what I set out to serve. The good news, I guess, is that it was easy to spread into a piece of pita bread and eat.

[1] Colors equate to specific sweetness levels. Green are bitter. Red aren’t as sweet as orange or yellow.

What Good Is a Spell-book Without a Pouch Full of Physical Components?

I have been wracking my brain trying to remember blatant “happy accidents” since John invited me to co-author on this blog, but so far, I haven’t been to sufficient therapy sessions, it seems, to un-repress them. Soon, I promise. Meanwhile, I will continue a bit on the theme from my first entry with regards to flexibility and working with left overs.

One key to establishing flexibility and adaptability in the kitchen is to develop a core set of “go to” items which you understand deeply and which occur over and over in your spell-book, ehem… cookbook. For me, these items include cans of stewed tomatoes, cans of tomato paste, marinated artichoke hearts, olives (green, black and kalamata), garlic, onion, capers, and then wet items such as olive oil, lemon juice, various vinegars, vegetable broth and then staples like lentils and barley. These are the physical components for casting the spells in your spell-book. I use these things to make everything from pasta sauce to tapenade, soups, stews, and cold salads. I buy them in bulk at warehouse stores. Seriously. Huge quantities. Notice that they’re all things which are unlikely to spoil. That’s the key.

With careful honing of skills, advanced Kitchen Klerics can also use them to polymorph yesterday’s soup into tonight’s sauce or stew.

Behold.

Last night I made lentil soup (what is it with us and lentil soup?!?!). On purpose. Here was my approach for the soup:

Simmer half a cup of green lentils in water until nearly fork tender. I use roughly a 3 to 1 water to lentil ratio. The trick is to not go 100% dry when you reach “done-ness” but you don’t want too much left over, either. Saute chopped leafy greens in olive oil until soft but not disintegrating. Lightly pulse one can of stewed tomatoes w/ basil until rough chopped. Combine with vegetable broth to create 4 cups of flavorful liquid. Add new liquid and greens to tender lentils, retaining any water still not absorbed by the lentils. Season with salt, all three: hot, half-sharp and smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro. Bring all the new liquid up to heat quickly so the lentils and greens don’t go to mush. Add already cooked barley (see Alton Brown’s technique for baked barley) and serve.

To clarify, the salt, half-sharp paprika, cumin, garlic powder, black pepper, dried oregano, sumac and dried cilantro were in a blend provided by Penzey’s which they call “Turkish blend”. The hot and smoked paprika I added myself. Also, as a point of order, that’s as close to a formal recipe as you’re ever going to get from me. Fair warning.

Now, part of last night’s experiment was to avoid past disasters in which creating correct proportions between ingredients resulted in eight quarts of soup for two people. This was probably enough soup to serve four hungry people. I had some left over for lunch after last night’s dinner, and so tonight’s goal would be to use up what remains without simply eating more soup.

There was also a carton of mushrooms (baby portobello, which I think are really just re-branded button mushrooms) in the fridge. I hate mushrooms. I will eat nearly anything. Often in states of cooked or uncooked that would terrify most other people. I am a genuinely adventurous eater. My “no freaking way” list is very short. Wax beans are on it, and mushrooms are on it. Haggis is probably on it, but I intend to never find out. But we ended up with this carton of mushrooms because my wife wanted to make a particular recipe which called for them last Friday. I talked her out of including them in that recipe, but we already had the carton in the house. What to do? Clearly, I need a high level spell which will obliterate the evil fungus into something I can eat. This is where those “go to” components shine.

In a skillet saute chopped garlic and chopped mushrooms with a generous amount of olive oil. In a second skillet defrost a bag of sweet peas. Once the peas are no longer cold and the mushrooms have reduced down considerably, add a proportional amount of peas to the mushrooms (put the rest of the peas in the fridge and combine with black beans for a nice salad later in the week). Add some of the chopped leafy greens from the night before which didn’t go in the soup because you made too much of them (they were also from a frozen bag). Add chopped up artichoke hearts, drained of their marinade. Put last night’s left over lentil soup into the blender and render into a liquid. Add this to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and drive out most of the water. Serve over baked barley or pasta. If it isn’t Wednesday or Friday, add a hard, well aged cheese, shredded.

There is no way I am going to taste those mushrooms. Viola! Food doesn’t get wasted, I don’t have to hold my nose while I eat, and once again, my tried and true “go to” elements save the day.

Speaking of skillets, I remain relatively convinced that the only cooking vessels you really need to own are one large pot for boiling pasta, a Dutch (or French) oven, two cast iron skillets, a couple of simple steel sauce pans and a wok. If you cook eggs, you need something nonstick, otherwise you don’t. The only items here that may ever wear out are the pasta pot and the sauce pans. The cast iron and the wok should actually get better the more you use them. Think of these items as the armor which is permitted for your Kitchen Kleric. Huge arrays of shiny pans or entire sets of nonstick are out of bounds for your character class.

I promise not to mention lentils or lentil soup again anytime soon. Really.