Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Gardener's Reward

One of the nicest things to do for yourself as you spend a few hours gardening on a cold winter or spring day, is to have something nice and toasty in the house to look forward to when the gardening work is completed. A bubbling stew in the crockpot, perhaps, or a homebaked smackerel to accompany your afternoon tea. If you have help, it's especially considerate to put a roast in the crockpot or oven and serve it after a hard day's work.

I learned this well the spring I was pregnant with my first daughter, when my nesting urge manifested itself in a vegetable garden. This was in those glorious pre-drought days when rain was abundant and so I went a little nuts buying tomato and pepper seedlings, to the tune of 60 tomato plants and 30 peppers. There were also hills of cucumbers, beans, sqash and zucchini. And two rows of corn. This was April and my due date was mid-July, and truly, what was I thinking? That I could harvest a garden and care for a newborn at the same time?

My neighbor Diane, good as gold, agreed to help me plant the seedlings on a windy April day. I promised her all the tomatoes and peppers she could eat when the harvest rolled in, plus a supper of pot roast following the planting. This was a few years ago, and my standard pot roast recipe required a can of Campbell's Golden Mushroom soup and a crockpot. I've since decided that a crockpot takes up too much space on either my kitchen counter or pantry and that the convection oven essentially accomplishes the same task without clutter. My tastes have evolved as well. The canned soup, as convenient as it is, just doesn't deliver the flavor and texture that I want in my pot roast, so through the years, I've changed the recipe using, as the chefs say, real ingredients.

Here's how I make my pot roast, using shiitake mushrooms from the last bag of the CSA season. Cremini or button shrooms will work, too. You could also leave them out, but the preachy part of me will look over my glasses with a disapproving gaze, and tell you that you're missing the very best part.

Pot Roast with Shiitakes

1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 (1 lb. or so) beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat
2 medium onions, peeled and cut into wedges
4 carrots, peeled, trimmed, split lengthwise and then into 2-inch sections
2 stalks celery, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch pieces
4 medium red potatoes, peeled and sliced into 2-inch chunks
1, possibly 2 small containers of shrooms, rinsed, dried, trimmed and sliced (for shiitakes) or halved (for buttons)
4 small bay leaves, or 2 large
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup or more, red wine, or perhaps beef broth, or just water, to deglaze the pan
1 (28 oz.) can whole organic tomatoes
salt and pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 350 or find your crockpot and plug it in. Get a good-sized Dutch oven and place on burner set over medium. Fry bacon, until fat is rendered and bacon is crispy. Make the most of this time to multi-task by chopping the vegetables.

2. Remove the bacon from the pot and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but a couple tablespoons of the bacon fat and discard in an appropriate manner (translation: not in the sink drain). Season the roast with salt and pepper and brown in bacon fat. This is a crucial step and will take at least 20 minutes and possibly longer, depending on the size of the roast. Do not skimp on time here. Your goal is to have a crusty piece of meat to roast to perfection. The key to brownness is for the meat to release, if you're using a regular, not nonstick pan. Do not tear the meat, in an impatient attempt to hurry up the process. Like a stubborn toddler, the meat will release when it is ready, and not a moment sooner. When meat is completely browned, place either in a crockpot (if using) or on a plate, if oven-braising is your method.

3. Still over medium heat, in the Dutch oven, with the roast removed, brown the tomato paste for a couple minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine, broth, or water, and scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan. Pour in the can of tomatoes and heat through. This is a good time to taste for seasoning. Return the meat to the pan, top with vegetables, bacon, bay leaves, additional salt and pepper if needed. If you like a little heat, toss in a dried chile pepper. If using the crockpot, place all ingredients in the crock, cover, and cook for a couple of hours at high, or at least four hours on low. If using an oven, place all ingredients in an oven-safe Dutch oven or casserole, top with a lid or foil and bake for at least 2 hours at 350, or longer at a lower temperature. I know that's kind of imprecise and Zen and sounds like how Miles Davis would quote a recipe, but that's how you learn what works. Trust me, each time I make this, I do something different, and it's always delicious. The roast is done when it's fall apart tender and the vegetables, especially the mushrooms, have soaked up the yummy sauce.

4. Serve to your hungry garden helpers, making sure they wash up first. If you need a go-with, try buttered noodles, creamy polenta (the baked polenta recipe from Fine Cooking magazine is especially tasty and easy), or cheesy grits for the starch. You could serve some warm bread, and maybe a salad, but that's beginning to sound like a lot of work. If you need something sweet at the end of this meal, I'd say go for brownies, but that's another story...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pork Chile Chowder for Gringos

Reminiscent of a winter vacation in New Mexico, and a warming meal for a cold night: Pork Chile Chowder. Of course, we're not chile heads and I'm responsible for feeding little ones, so we go with "gringo heat," enough spice to tingle the palate, not enough to require tissues, or gallons of cold water.

This recipe took shape after a foraging mission in the freezer which yielded both boneless chicken thighs and pork chops. I couldn't think of a recipe that would serve four out of each protein alone, so I used both meats in the chowder. You can use either pig or chicken or both in this recipe.

Pork (or Chicken) Chile Chowder
2 boneless pork chops, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 slices bacon (I use thick-cut bacon)
1 (32 oz.) container low-salt chicken broth (or homemade)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon adobo seasoning, or more to taste (I use Penzey's)
cumin to taste
salt and pepper to taste
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 (7 oz.) can diced green chilies, or more to taste

1. Find a heavy soup pot for the stove and place over medium heat. Cut bacon into 1-inch pieces and fry until crisp. Remove the bacon pieces and drain on paper towels. In remaining fat, brown the meat. When meat is seared, remove pieces to paper towels to drain.

2. You should have about 3 tablespoons of fat. If you have more, pour excess out of pot. If you don't have enough, add vegetable oil for a sufficient quantity. With a whisk, stir in 1/4 cup flour and seasonings. Slowly pour in chicken broth and whisk until smooth and thickened.

3. Return meat and potatoes to pot and heat through, up to a half hour. Add bacon, chilies and corn and warm up for at least five minutes. This step can be done in a slow cooker or as an oven braise: put the chowder base, meat, potatoes, bacon, chilies and corn in an oven-proof casserole or stockpot, cover and place in a low oven for a couple of hours. In my convection oven, I would put it on 300 for two hours and check every half hour to make sure the liquid level was adequate. If using a slow cooker, put it on the low setting for a couple of hours.

4. Taste for seasoning and serve.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fudgy Nutty Goodness

What happens when you combine the fiber powerhouse of oatmeal with the antioxidant supremacy of chocolate? Well, it might be extreme to call these chocolatey treats healthy, but a small one with your mid-morning coffee will make you feel great and tide you over to a sensible lunch. These bars were devoured by the folks at work.

Fudgy Pecan Oatmeal Bars

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cups dark brown sugar
3/4 cup chopped pecans
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla, divided
1 (5 oz.) can evaporated milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 10 X 15 inch pan and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, combine oatmeal, flour, sugars, baking soda and salt. Cut in the cold butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers. Add eggs and 1 teaspoon of vanilla and continue mixing until a shaggy dough is formed.

3. Divide the dough into two halves. Add chopped pecans to one half and press into bottom and up sides of baking pan.

4. In a saucepan over low heat, melt three tablespoons butter, then add the evaporated milk and corn syrup. When mixture is thoroughly integrated, remove from heat and add chocolate chips, stirring until smooth. Add remaining 1 teaspoon of vanilla.

5. Smooth chocolate mixture over pressed dough. An offset spatula works nicely to get the chocolate into the corners. Crumble remaining half of dough evenly over surface. Bake in 350 degree oven for 20 minutes. Let cool and cut into smallish squares. Keeps for several days in a covered container at room temperature. They last longer if you don't tell anybody where they are. Once it's public information, all bets are off.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Bedside Table

Books are burgeoning from the bedside table. I don't have a problem, honestly, I don't, it seems harmless enough to leave a couple books on the table with the lamp and the tissue box and flashlight. Except now, I can't find the flashlight under the 16 books stacked on the table. And I can't find the paperback I started two days ago. Did I put it on the table? Aha!, it must be on the table at the foot of the bed with the 30 or so left there.

Found it! This is a book that I just love, and I would never have read it if I judged books by their covers. "The Middle Place" by Kelly Corrigan has a bouncing 10-year old on the cover, bobbed hair flying, bare legs folded, against an impossibly cerulean sky. It reminds me of the cover of a book that I liked - "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," (although the first book, "Little Altars Everywhere" is much better), but still I need a push to actually open the book and begin reading. A push like a boss saying I need to read it. And guess what? I love it. Even if I synopsize the book, you will start backing away saying "thanks, but I don't think that's my cup of tea." But give it a try.

It's a memoir. Of cancer. But it's about so much more. Corrigan is in her late 30s, married and with two young daughters, when she's diagnosed with breast cancer. Halfway through the book, her beloved daddy is diagnosed with cancer as well. The book is loaded with pop culture references to my 80s generation. I'm not sure if I expected Corrigan's voice to be the smart-aleck, been-there, done that, got the tattoo tough chick. She's honest and vulnerable, self-deprecating, but not really needy, which is good, because there's a fine line between mirth and maudlin on this journey through cancer. I'm only halfway through the book and I'm ready to make a bunch of brownies, tote them cross-country and show up for girl gab on her back deck.

More from the stacks:

1. Jacques Pepin, "More Fast Food My Way." If I could choose my parents, I would pick Chef Jacques to be my dad. I've read and cooked through most of his cookbooks & never get tired of his approach to food. This is the second tour through quick-and-easy fare, and promises to be just as yummy.

2. Anne Lamott, "Grace (Eventually) Thoughts on Faith." The remainder table has been very good to me. Lamott could write about plumbing fixtures & I would be fascinated. Lucky for me, it's parenthood, the future of the planet, sobriety and God and Jesus.

3. Ann Cooper, "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children." The reason I have a CSA subscription. I still buy Rice Krispies instead of Kashi, but I've got to start somewhere.

4. Another from the remainder table that I haven't read yet: "These United States: Original Essays by American Writers on Their State of the Union." It's edited by the late John Leonard, whose convoluted prose made me chuckle and think. Occasionally at the same time.

5. Bill Smith, "Seasoned in the South: Recipes from Crook's Corner and from Home." I haven't cooked out of it yet, but it simply screams "sense of place!" Reading the recipes, I want to make something, just haven't made up my mind yet.

6. "Patrick O'Connell's Refined American Cuisine: Inn at Little Washington." Did I mention that the remainder table has been very good to me? This gorgeous book was originally published at a heart-stopping price of $45 (!). I think I paid less than $5, and I guess I can say that it's worth what I paid for it, even if I never cook from it. I usually don't go for pricey chefly ego trip books, but this one's a stunner, with O'Connell's pleasure-seeking id on overdrive. I'm not sure I'll cook from it, but the photographs and the recipes are tempting, at least on a basic level, as in without the truffle dust and Maine lobster. A soup of apple and rutabaga is bookmarked, and Little Yellow Grits Souffles, too.