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!

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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.

It Is Only Ruined if There Is Nothing Left But Carbon

I don’t know how to cook from recipes. My mother uses recipes for anything she’s only done once or twice, but never again after that. My grandmother, who really set out to teach me to cook, not only doesn’t use recipes, she doesn’t measure anything. This means that I’ve spent most of the past 20 years or so (ouch) “cooking without a net”. While no one has ever been hurt or killed [1]  (that I know of) during these high wire antics, I am definitely glad that many of my earliest accidents are forgotten in time. I didn’t really hit my true stride until the occurrence of two things:

  • The Food Network began re-broadcasting the Japanese show “Iron Chef”. Unlike (either of) the American version(s), the original Japanese program spends a lot of time showing you not only what the chefs are doing, but why, and the on-floor commentator asks a lot of questions which get very educational answers. You can learn a lot watching this show.
  • The Food Network began airing Alton Brown’s “Good Eats”. If you watch the earliest seasons of this show, you notice that each episode focuses on some very staple food item, and that rather than giving you recipes, per se, AB focuses on techniques and cooking science. He uses recipes as a kind of condescension to the conversation, but the emphasis is always that these are templates, not narrowly understood. This appealed to a geeky guy like me (and millions of others) and again, I learned a lot.

This new found knowledge allowed me to go into the kitchen with a lot more purpose even when I wasn’t sure what I was about to cook. From this point forward, if I made a mess of things in the kitchen, it was a genuine accident, not merely blundering ignorance. The Japanese “Iron Chef” does not seem to be easily available on DVD, but the early seasons of “Good Eats” are. If you want to “up your game” in the kitchen, even if you are not a geeky guy, I would recommend making the time to watch this stuff.

So in that vein, this first entry is going to be much more about a mode of thinking than about any specific incident in my life of cooking and what happened. The number one golden rule I have learned about food preparation is the title of this entry: it is only ruined if there is nothing left but carbon. One of the most important techniques for cooking without a net is to always be willing to abandon the dish you were trying to make and to serve something else entirely in the event that, dare I say it, things go pear shaped. Examples:

  • You are trying to make a meatloaf and the whole thing seizes up and crumbles — turn it into hash instead.
  • Your vegetable casserole comes out wet and soggy — blend it into a soup. You may or may not need to boil up some small noodles to dress it up.
  • That same casserole, the next time, comes out dry and brown — chop it up, dress it with fine oil, use it as a sauce.
  • Half your dinner guests were a no show and you have a huge left over roast — chili, stew and more hash.
  • Extra lentils can either be soaked in broth for soup or dried in the oven for flat bread.

There may be some exceptions to this rule involving seafood unless you have some truly advanced techniques, but you get the idea.

A good way to build up your skills at this kind of “clutch play” is to create low stakes practice for yourself. Resolve to never, ever waste left overs. Also resolve to never eat them the same way twice. But the real practice in this is learning to let go of whatever goal you had for a dish and to adapt as needed. Be nimble, be flexible, and don’t get too attached. If I was a different kind of person, I’d say cultivate your zen. But I’m not that guy.

By way of condescension in the “Good Eats” tradition, I’ll include two “recipes” (as close to them as I can write) to try to illustrate the basic idea for which I am advocating here. Here is a moong bean curry recipe followed by a flat bread recipe which uses the left over curry.

For this dish, I opted to grind my own curry spices. I ground whole fennel, black and yellow mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek seeds), and kalonji (nigella seeds) to which I added powdered turmeric, garlic powder and cayenne powder. I use my spare coffee bean grinder for spices. I also used fresh tarragon leaves, a storage onion which had been sauted down until brown, some salt (if you want to be super cool, find Indian black salt) and a can of coconut milk. All this gets pureed into a kind of sauce. Near as I can tell, all Desi cuisine cooks any kind of dal (legumes) in a pressure cooker. I don’t have one so I either use the crock pot on days when I have all day, or simmer on the stove on days when I don’t. I start out with a two to one ratio of liquid to lentils, but with moong beans you’ll want to start three to one. Cook until fork tender but be sure not to go all the way to mushy. If you want something more like a soup, add some vegetable broth when you add the flavorful sauce, if you want a curry dish to serve over rice, just add the sauce.

Now that you have lots of extra dal curry that you don’t know how to use up, you can make what I very geekily refer to as Lambas Bread. Remember, that’s Tolkien’s idea of travel rations for the Elven people, a single bite of which is supposed to sustain a grown man for a whole day. Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees. Take your left over dal curry and combine it in a 3 to 2 ratio with buckwheat flour either in your food processor or stand mixer. Let it run a good, long time. Do not, no matter what you do, add water or broth. No matter how over-dry or over tight you think it is, that’s fine, just leave it. Spread this out as thin and even as you can on a non-stick baking surface (silicon sheet, Teflon pan or parchment on a hotel pan) and slide it into the oven. The idea here is to drive out as much moisture as possible. But of course, you don’t want to burn it. This is the reason for the low heat. The first time I did this I started at 350 and had to radically reduce the heat to avoid burning the edges. As it stands, you may have to cut off the edges as too far gone in order to get the center truly dry. Once done, use either a pizza slicer or a big cleaver to cut into large cookie sized squares.  Be warned when eating. This stuff is dense and will fill you quickly. I would recommend having it with a few chutneys and maybe just one vegetable or meat dish and nothing else. Otherwise, you’ve got even more left overs.

I hope this gives you a flavor (sorry) for what it is I’m describing here. Flat bread, travel bread, really couldn’t be any less like a soup or a curry. I hate the phrase “think outside the box”. What you really need to do is not get over-focused. Think in potentialities and properties rather than in goals and actualities. Curry is wet and mushy. But it is high in protein and can easily give up its water with heat. High quality cuts of meat have great grain and marbling, but these are the very things which eventually render down so wonderfully into either chili or stew which have neither grain nor marbling.

This is in danger of becoming a ramble in search of a dead horse.  Just remember, if you never announce your menu ahead of time, your guests won’t know that the soup, stew, chili, pasta and sauce you’re serving is an “accident”. They’ll just know it is tasty.

Happy cooking!

~ Jim

[1] OK, OK, I had to go to the emergency room. Once. But that was a knife accident and had nothing whatsoever to do with the food.