Wow, have I had a busy couple of weeks. First off, I accepted a job offer for the job that I have been interviewing for. Yay! Of course, this changed my hours at work, which I am still getting acclimated to. What is that famous quote: “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Needless to say, I am embracing the growing pains.
On top of that, we had some old friends come to visit for a long weekend and we toured them all around these parts, trying to give them a nice weekend. As hosts, we like to mix in a lot of quick local adventures, bouncing from here to there, ending it all with relaxing evenings sitting around our table with a few drinks discussing the days events and making plans for the future.
In order, to have that happen without too much of a hassle, I like to make a casserole the day of the arrival of my guests. That way, it will not take much to reheat the dish over the next few nights. This time I made a wonderful lasagna chocked full of Italian sausage and sliced up meatballs. To make it even a little more special, a day ahead, I made a double batch of homemade tomato sauce to use in the lasagna. It was delicious and the weekend went off without a hitch.
The other night I made garlic basil gnocchi to pair with grilled pork chops and grilled shishito peppers. All components of my meal that night were very simple to assemble, but served different purposes. The grilled pork chops and peppers were very flavorful with their charred exteriors, but needed a starchy component to round out the experience.
The gnocchi was perfect with its pillowy softness en-robed a simple sauce of fruity olive oil accented by the beautiful nuttiness of toasted garlic and pungent flavor of basil, topped with the parmigiano reggiano. Having frozen gnocchi made a home meal a little more special, with very little effort. Enjoy everyone!
The roadside stand that we stopped at on our way back home this weekend had nice big artichokes that I was able to nab for this lovely dish. The very first time I had an artichoke was in my foreign language class back in high school. At the time, I thought that I would probably end up in veterinary school, so I was taking Latin. One of our projects was to bring in food from ancient Rome. Being an over achiever, I brought in a yeast risen semolina bread from a recipe that was supposedly from the ancient Roman empire. Now, I would be pretty suspicious of any recipe touting itself as “ancient” and calling for rapid rise yeast granules, pretty sure that is not how ancient Romans went about making bread, but at the time, no eyebrows were raised.
My friend brought in steamed artichokes with drawn butter and lemon juice. Dipping the leaves into the unctuous butter and acidic lemon, then drawing them across my teeth, those sparks ignited in my food memory bank, what a yummy combination. Bringing home artichokes this weekend, I wanted to go few steps further and stuff the leaves with a highly spiced bread mixture.
Luckily, I keep homemade croutons stocked in my kitchen at all times. The fatty element I chose was olive oil and the acidic element was red wine vinegar. The croutons absorb the vinegar and olive oil to make a light flavorful stuffing. These can be prepared a day ahead and gives the seasonings enough time to blend and the cook enough time to be relaxed on the day that they are served.
Of course, the markets are full of all those lovely produce items for salad fixins’ and now there are beautiful greens at almost every stall. Excited, I had to come home and make a homemade salad dressing for the week. To go along with the fresh spring theme, I made a light vinaigrette. If you have followed me for awhile, you know I was a prep chef in a small cafe when my husband and I first were married. I spent most of my time, as the name suggests, prepping things, including sauces, marinades, and dressings. During service, I started out cutting up vegetables and graduated up to making sandwiches and salads. I know, I know, it sounds incredibly mundane, but I enjoyed it. Having no formal training, such as culinary school, I kept my head down, paid attention and tried not to get swallowed up by the mad rush during lunch. I learned a lot about everything there, some of that included food.
Vinaigrette is a mixture of vinegar with fat. What ratio is very personal and unique to your taste. Basically, fat coats your tongue making other flavors muted a bit. If you like more tart flavors, you will need to decrease the amount of fat, if you want it much less tart, you will want to add fat to it. I, personally, like a 1:1 ratio of vinegar to fat, but please play around. Taste while you make it and determine what ratio is best for you. This recipe is very easy to double and can be used as an awesome marinade too.
Most of you that have followed me for a while know for much of my youth, I grew up on a sustainable farm. I grew up below the poverty level and living sustain-ably was not just a mantra but a way of life. Before any meal, if we were lucky, my Daddy would have “bagged” a quail, or rabbit, or best of all, a deer. When I was a child, my father was a house painter, which afforded him a schedule where he could go out hunting just about everyday. During the rainy winters of the southern section of the United States, Dad would be out all day hunting or fishing, because that is how we survived.
I can still hear his loud diesel engine driving up in the yard. With rapid honks of his horn, we all knew that he was back with the days catch. Squinting through the sunbeams in the breezeway, a shadow of an animal strung up by their back legs sways ever so slightly. My father pauses over the body and I hear him muttering a prayer. The mood is melancholy busy-ness. He places a five gallon bucket under the limp hanging head to catch the draining blood. With the precision of a surgeon, the skin makes slight ripping sounds as the sharpened blade of his buck knife slices through the abdominal area. Small plumes of steam rising and evaporating. A light smell of iron hangs in the air as the blood starts to coagulate on the cool concrete. Grabbing a steel bristled push broom, I would sweep the run off blood away, while he carefully pulled out each internal organ, placing them into a bowl of water to soak out any excess blood and impurities. As a rule, we never wasted anything.
In the back yard, were two huge wooden spindles that had housed telephone cables in another life. After Daddy “gutted” the animal, he would haul the body to the one spindle that was used for tanning the hide. Once the hide had been removed, he would move the body to next station to begin the butchering process of breaking it down into various cuts of meat. The portions of the animal that were exercised, such as legs, are naturally tougher and would immediately go into a BBQ pit to smoke over the low slow heat of a tended fire until the next day. Other parts would be carefully sealed and placed into a deep freezer for later use. My brother and I watched with the interest that is only born out of a child’s sweet adoration for their parent. Sure, there was the natural nauseous pangs of grief that I experienced every time Daddy brought a freshly killed animal home. It would be inhumane to not own the emotions of responsibility and remorse over a life lost no matter what the conditions are. Out of this dark reality was the beautiful offering of love that every good man expresses through providing for their family. Our Dad expressed this in his own way.
As an adult I am so thankful that I am not disconnected when I go into a market and see rows of meat sitting in pretty little saran wrap packages lined up as harmlessly as freshly picked fruits and vegetables under the fuzzy glow of the refrigerated cases. I fully understand an animal’s life was lost and I still make sure that I do not waste anything. This includes, dare I say, perhaps holding back on buying and eating meat as often and when available, buying a whole animal from a butcher or farm, if that isn’t available, I like to buy the ground meat that has the lesser cuts in the package. I know, I know, “pink slime” has been all over the news lately, but I honestly do not have a problem with eating the “lesser” parts. Sure I don’t like the idea of eating “modified” foods, that have additional unwanted ingredients such as hormones, have been chemically treated or have unnatural preservatives, but I have respect for the butcher or farm that cleanly grinds up unadulterated trimmings into my meat.
Obviously, this is just my opinion and I have no ax to grind or agenda to drive, but I just wanted to give a more clear picture of my upbringing and how it affects my food choices and style of cooking as a whole. With that said, for me, “using it up” isn’t enough to get the food cooked, but to also consume every bit of it. For my family, this means creative uses of ingredients and leftovers. Today I bring you a step by step, day by day guide to making 4 different meals out of one meal preparation. It will save you time, money and make you a little less wasteful; while, most importantly, keeping your palate enticed.
Returning home from my unplanned trip this weekend, I found myself with not only a house that needed straightening upon my return, but a pretty bare refrigerator. Before I received the phone call of my grandmother’s passing, I had planned to go to the market the next day. On the bright side, I guess, it is better having left with a bare fridge than having a pantry full of fresh items going bad.
What I did have available were a few potatoes and my pantry essentials. Plus a need and want for a project to keep my mind busy and gnocchi provided just that. Gnocchi isn’t a hard project, just a time consuming project. By the end of the afternoon, I had a clean apartment and these beautiful little potato pillows. Half of them I froze, the other half was adorned with a homemade red sauce and Parmesan cheese. So if you are like me and occasionally need a cooking project that relaxes you into a zen like state–this delicious gnocchi is calling your name.
I am about to give away one of my “secret” recipes that is a definite crowd pleaser. This recipe is so simple and and only take a few minutes to pull together; but everyone will think you slaved over it for hours. A great way to use up any pesky pizza dough that may be sitting around in your fridge needing some love. (Or a great excuse to make or buy extra pizza dough at the grocer.)
Last night, I made a family style pasta dish, loaded with the flavors of peppers and Italian sausage you find permeating the air from the local street vendors in metropolitan East Coast cities. My kitchen smelled wonderful and my family was pretty pleased with the outcome, a huge dish overflowing with yummy Italian American deliciousness, finished off with a snow cap of parmigiana regianno.
For our everyday life here, we love very practical cooking. Sure, once a month I will make my own stock, and I have homemade red wine vinegar, and I have been known to have a bread starter living in my fridge for months on end. This is all true, so yes, I have been known to be a little impractical when it comes to preparing food, but there are some modern day conveniences that have crept into my life that I take advantage of. For one, I buy chicken now.
Sometimes I giggle to myself, thinking about the chickens with all the stamps of approval across them– hormone free, free range chickens that are so expensive at the grocer. I grew up calling that yard bird. During the growing seasons of my youth, the neighbor down the way came once a week with fresh eggs and sometimes a chicken to trade my Dad for vegetables. We, of course, would fry it, as is the local food tradition, but now I try to have fried chicken as a treat more than a way of life. What do I do now with chicken?
Entering mainstream society, I have been known to be tired at the end of the day from work or school or whatever my more modern life has held at various times. Sometimes, I just couldn’t be bothered with working with meat sitting in my refrigerator, but I have found an easy solution that my family loves and is a modern day convenience, inexpensive bottled Italian dressing. It gives the poultry loads of flavor, while being cost effective and saves me a lot of time. Plus you can use this chicken in so many other dishes such as sandwiches, wraps, chopped up for salad, tossed in pasta, etc….
On the weekends, my husband and I like to do activities with our pups. One of our pups loves swimming, so we drove out to the coast yesterday to a dog friendly beach. It was much busier than expected. Not only dogs galore, but hang gliders and people horse back riding. Though it was busy with a little nip to the air, it was quite pleasant, because there was a backdrop of the ocean and its beautiful rhythm making perfect balance. The yin and yang.
In art school, I learned that negative space was as important as the positive for our perception. Each balances out the other. Negative space in art is the space around and between the subject of an image. Negative space and not the subject itself may become the “real” subject of an image. Sculptors, more than any other artist, have to work with the concept of negative space, as they work in three dimisions, chipping material away to their final product. Keeping this idea in mind, everything around us can shape who we are. The forces of nature bear down upon us knocking the big chips away, while the good times smooth out the edges. This is why balance is so important. Just like a pendulum, every up has a down, and every effect has a cause, it is the balance of life. In our deepest hours, we need the memory of happier times to provide us with hope and in our happiest times, our experiences of melancholy ground us. From ALL of my life experiences, good and bad, I am provided with a foundation for strength and fervor, because without one, I couldn’t experience the other. It is the natural ebb and flow.
Part of trying to keep balance, I recognize my surroundings and the upcoming events. Pretty soon my cousin will be visiting and I am very excited. However, I know I will be cooking a lot of traditional southern foods that aren’t so healthy. That is my choice and I have accepted that I will have it no other way. Right now, however, I can work on a diet of moderation. Still needing big flavor, the following sandwich, is something that is a favorite because it tastes sinful without being too terribly bad for you. There is no mayonnaise or mustard to bridge the gap between bread and meat. Each flavor component holds its own and melds together. Sometimes when I am in a saucy mood, I will dip it into the Basil Balsamic Vinaigrette and when I feel like putting on heirs, I throw down for some nice prosciutto to sub out for the ham. This week, I was in a ham mood, so that’s what I had and it was every bit as delicious as ever.