Quantum Meat Loaf

Most meat loaf are “comfort food” and really don’t amount to much but a lump of protein that plays well with mashed potatoes, reeking of caramelized ketchup or canned brown gravy. This meat loaf can be sliced thin into pita with yogurt sauce, sliced thick, cubed, and simmered into red sauce for pasta, cubed and simmered into something like wedding soup or slow cooked until it crumbles with smoked chili to serve over rice… you name it. This is the meat loaf that does not know what it will do until the observer opens the left overs carton and resolves the quantum uncertainties  You can cook this on Sunday afternoon and eat off it all week without ever having the same dish twice. I recommend cutting the cooked loaf into large portions and freezing them until you’re ready to consume just to ensure you get long life without any microbial mischief.

First, make sure the cat is or is not dead, and put it out of the room. Then…

Puree a white onion and a red onion, put into a screen and let the water drain out for at least 15 minutes (30 would be better).

Put the puree into a large mixing bowl… no, not that one, a really big one. No, seriously. A big one. *sigh* fine, it’s your counter top.

Put the puree into a mixing bowl and add proportional amounts of salt, pepper, garlic powder, sumac, smoked paprika, hot paprika, red pepper flake, dried oregano, dried thyme and ground fennel seed. Chiffonade a few handfuls of basil leaves, and add.

Work into this a pound each of ground lamb, beef and pork sausage (I like Italian sausage for this, the mild kind has a lot of fennel and will work well, but “breakfast” sausage will also work) and combine thoroughly — probably with your hands unless you have a stand mixer with some kind of very gentle paddle device.

Slowly work in plain bread crumbs until any remaining moisture from the onion has been sufficiently absorbed to allow the entire mass to form a free standing loaf on a hotel pan.

  • DO NOT ADD EGG
  • DO NOT PACK INTO A LOAF PAN
  • DO NOT MAKE ANY KIND OF GLAZE

Just don’t. You’re going to get something better than dry corners with this, and more of it, properly mixed and balanced meat loaf doesn’t need egg (which, according to Alton Brown, represents a health hazard, anyway), and we’re going to make gravy, so you don’t need a glaze.

Form an oblong loaf on the hotel pan, and surround it with course chopped carrots, small potatoes (or course chopped big ones) and either chopped fennel bulb or sweet onion.  Place under the broiler, low setting, and watch carefully. You don’t want the top of the loaf to burn, but you do want the entire loaf to brown and char as much as you can manage without burning any of it. How you shape your loaf will play a factor here. Too much dome will give you a burnt top and under-browned sides. Too flat and while you’ll get a nice even char, there won’t be enough tender interior.

Once you have your desired char, set the oven to 250 and cook until the loaf reaches an internal temperature of 140 degrees F. It will easily coast, once out of the oven, covered in foil, well above the safety threshold for meat. Given you’re cooking a well over three pound loaf, this will take a while at such low heat. If you have one of those probe thermometers with an alarm based on temperature instead of time, I highly recommend that approach. Otherwise, begin taking soundings for doneness after 45 minutes.

Reserve all the vegetables and all the pan drippings. The drippings can be used to make gravy, or can be added to a red sauce, or  simmered to make broth for soups… almost anything you want to be heartrendingly delicious.

I recommend giving the vegetables (that have been roasting in the fat all that time) as rewards to children for A’s on quizzes and tests.

That outer char on the loaf will give you that flavor people love from dry corners without

  • having such a limited amount of dry corners to go around
  • ruining the texture of the meat by drying it out that much

 

You can probably modify this recipe only just slightly, especially if you can get (or make) finely ground meat, compress the loaf under pressure around a skewer and make a loaf from which thin slices can be carved for gyro sandwiches. The original recipe above will work, but will crumble up when sliced too thinly. A finer grind and a compressed loaf will hold shape better when carved.

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Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Beholder

Beholder

I have said it before, and I will say it again after this: I am not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan.

I have said it before, and I will say it again afte this: I am a huge snob when it comes to food and drinks.

Amusingly, this latter point crops up in some not so snobby ways, like “what is the best pizza” or “what is the best cheeseburger” not just “what is the best 18 year single malt scotch”. What it means in the upshot is that I have strong opinions both on how to correctly define various food terms, and on what the near Platonic actualization of that term then may be — whether you want them or not.

Being from New Jersey, and thus wedged between that holy junkfood trinity of Philadelphia, New York City and The Jersey Shore [1], I have especially strong views on the word “pizza”. A strong case can be made that of all the styles of pizza to be found throughout the United States, “New York style” is the closest to the Neapolitan original (yes, pizza is really a genuinely Italian food, believe it or not), and since this is the style one generally finds throughout the heavily Italian immigrant populated regions around the holy junkfood trinity, most notably the highly lauded “boardwalk pizza” of the Jersey Shore, those of us who grew up eating this style have a tendency to insist that this is “pizza” and that all else is at best inferior and at worst (like Chicago style) not pizza at all.

I say all this, and mention once again in passing that I am not a vegetarian/vegan because I am about to discuss something we cooked the other evening for dinner, and I am going to very deliberately not call it a pizza. While it did involve a traditional dough (purchased in a small, frozen ball from the grocer), fresh tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh oregano, fresh “blushing beauty” bell peppers, and was cooked in a rocket hot oven on top of ceramic tiles, it did not have any cheese on it. None. And because of this, it was not a pizza.

So call it a veggie flatbread. And we had it on a whim, mostly. It wasn’t a fasting day in the Church cycle that required us to skip the cheese, we aren’t deliberately watching our dairy fat intake or anything like that. We just tried this to see how it would be.

In addition to the already mentioned items, all from my organice community garden plot, we also caramelized a red onion.

My primary concern was whether or not the veggies would stick to the dough without cheese. They did. Mostly. If I had rendered the tomatoes more into sauce, it is very likely this would have bound everything to each other, and the dough.

Tonight we are making another attempt, this time with a chunky sauce of fresh tomato and oregano, faux sausage crumble, black olives, and cheese.  In other words, we’re making pizza.

pizza

pizza

The really important thing here, when you have your oven up to 550 degrees and you’re cooking directly on ceramic tiles, is to actually sit and watch the thing cook after the first 10 minutes or so. I used a timer to do 10 minutes, and then a second timer to do an additional 5, which was about 2-3 minutes too long. Much of the crust without toppings on it was burnt. Thankfully, the crust was overwhelmed with toppings, so the loss was minimal.

My plan tonight is to do the first ten minutes, add the cheese, then watch from there rather than using timers.

[1] Please note that the cast of the TV show of that name are not from New Jersey. Most are from New York, at least one is from Rhode Island, and in any case, the entire show is set in a location that residents of New Jersey universally despise precisely because people like that from New York have completely overrun the place. When a resident of New Jersey says “the Shore” they are more likely to mean Wildwood, Ocean City, Atlantic City &c. rather than Seaside Heights.

Szechuan Tofu

John has been shaming me on the recipe posts, so I’ll sneak in two weeks worth of Lenten pot luck dinner recipes and redeem myself, somewhat. Both are vegan (for Lent). I’ll start with tonight’s and work backwards. The first week of Lent’s dish was already posted here.

I LOVE spicy tofu dishes. While I’m not one of those people who wrinkles their nose at tofu, in fact I like it quite a lot, I do kind of insist that frankly, by itself, it tastes like nothing at all. BUT, this just means that it is all the more perfectly prepared to be the canvas for a universe of sauces and preparations. Thick, sticky, dark, sweet and blow your head off spicy just happens to be my favorite. As with any genuine culinary tradition, I have no idea what I’m doing, but like any good wizard or cleric, I know how to put on a good show and fake it.

Keep in mind, these are preparations for a communal meal where a few hundred people show up, so if the quantities seem big, they are — adjust down as you see fit.

Two tubs of firm (not extra firm, too crumbly) tofu, drained. I have seen this dish done with silken tofu, but it requires more finesse than I have. Slice in half such that you have to fairly flat, big rectangles — like a stack of 3×5 note cards. Lay the four rectangles out on something very flat, either plastic cutting boards or the bottom of cookie sheets. Place a second cutting board (or cookie sheet bottom) on top, and then pile on as much weight as you can find. I stack my #8 and #10 cast iron skillets and my #8 Dutch oven (with #8 lid) and that’s just about the minimum I’d use. Press and drain (this is why the cookie sheets have to be upside down, if you use the normal surface the liquid can’t drain off) the tofu for at least 30 minutes. Longer is better. Undo your press and then slide the rectangles into large squares. I usually cut the long way into four strips and then six pieces the short way for a total of 24*4=96 chunks of tofu. This is not actually as much as it seems.

Coarsely chop one good size stalk of lemon grass into pieces you’ll be able to remove easily later.

Put your wok (or other very large vessel that can take big heat) over your hottest heat source (dragon’s abdomens are just about hot enough), add a liberal amount of a high heat oil like canola or peanut and augment with toasted sesame oil (for flavor). When the pan (not the oil) begins to smoke, throw in the tofu and lemon grass. Boil the tofu in the oil, moving frequently, until the tofu just start to shrink, then scoop them out into a sieve of some kind to drain. Pick out all the lemon grass which is probably now rock hard and flavorless. Pour out the excess oil but do not wipe down the wok.

Dice a red onion. Split six Serrano peppers in half the long way. Remove seeds and membranes according to how hot you want your end result to be. The less you remove, the hotter the dish. I took out all of the membrane and seeds and the end result still wasn’t exactly tame. If you are unaccustomed to cooking with hot peppers, maybe try just one pepper the first time, left intact, and ramp up on subsequent occasions if you find you enjoy more heat. Take the long halves and make thin crescents.

In the blender or food processor place four to six big chunks of fresh ginger, peeled, along with dozen or more cloves of roasted garlic, soy sauce, honey, molasses, Chinese five spice, liquid smoke (or smoked spice alternative) and vegetable broth — enough broth so that the result is too thin to be a sticky sauce, but not so thin it will take too long to drive out the water to make it a sticky sauce. Now take a good measuring cup’s worth of tamarind paste and rehydrate it with boiling water. Once soft, push through a screen into the blender (or food processor). Alternatively, have the good sense to buy tamarind paste in a jar that you can just spoon out rather than a block of mashed tamarind with all the seeds and pulp still in it, like I did.

Put the wok back on the dragon’s belly and begin to saute the onion and peppers. Open one can of bamboo shoots and one can of sliced water chestnuts, drain both. Once the onion and pepper begins to make you sneeze violently, I mean, brown up, add the bamboo and water chestnuts. Once the extra water is off the canned veggies, put the tofu back in and pour on the liquid. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir or fold occasionally to prevent sticking down at the bottom center of the wok.

Meanwhile prep about half a pound of snow peas and a half dozen green onions. I like to leave the peas whole, with just the tips cut off, and slice the green onion into very thin rings. Get both the white and green from the onion, because both the flavor and texture are quite different.

After the sauce looks like it will be quite thick when cooled, taste it and make any adjustments. If you need more cooking time, add more veggie broth so that it doesn’t get too thick and start to burn. Once the sauce meets your requirements, add the peas and green onions, fold in and immediately remove from the heat source as well as the wok itself into a serving dish. Steamed rice, brown or white, is the obvious accompaniment.

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.