It's been pretty slow times around the catering kitchen and a by-product of that, if indeed the word "product" can be used when there is not a lot of anything being produced, is that I find myself doing a whole lot more cooking here at home. And since the by-product, or lack thereof, when one is not working is a lack of serious cash flow, one makes do as one must, with left-overs, freezer raids and eyes to that which goes on sale at the local market.
The last week has found me turning out soup, hash, tacos, a slow-cooked cheap cut of pork and in one fell swoop of a splurge, a whole roast chicken with risotto. The soup, hash and tacos were fashioned purely from refrigerator and freezer foraging and the pork and chicken were the result of carefully eying the sale section of the meat department.
The soup was a classic "homemade" project, based on some leftover barley and lentils that Kathy had made for a salad. I started by sauteeing your basic bottom of the crisper drawer vegetables; a couple of carrots, two or three ribs of aging celery, an onion and plenty of garlic in bacon fat (always a stash of that in a jar in the refrigerator door), along with two smoky pork sausages that were lurking in the back of the freezer.
Once that had filled the kitchen with it's splendidly garlicky aromas I added the lentil/barley mix and part of a bag (about two cups) of our "roasted tomato shmoo", (see earlier entries) made in large quantities last year as fall neared its end. I filled the soup pot with a little over a cup each of homemade chicken stock and water. There wasn't much to do at this point but bring it up to a boil, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for an hour or so into something resembling dinner.
And a fine dinner it was, served in deep bowls, steaming hot on a cold night. We stretched it out with warmed Tandoori Naan, a package of which had made its way home with me after a sample case had been left at work by our thoughtful Sysco rep. When I do work, it's good to work in the food service industry.
Hash was something I had not made since the days I worked at the Elite Cafe in San Francisco. There, each week, we used our leftover filet ends and trimmings to make an extremely peppery and popular poached egg topped hash for Sunday brunch. Here at our house it wasn't exactly the ends of beef tenderloins, but rather a largish chunk of turkey breast that had been cooked in the crockpot along with cream cheese, soy sauce, roasted red peppers and dried herbs according to an old recipe of Kathy's.
I had come across a ziplock bag of said turkey during one of my monthly freezer purges and had wondered what in the world I was going to do with it. As providence would have it, the night before I had cooked a simple dinner of some kind of protein product and served it with sauteed broccoli, red peppers and yellow crook necked squash. Quartered roasted potatoes from our "root cellar" had filled out the menu. I had asked Kathy what she wanted me to do with the leftovers and the first thing out of her mouth was, "make hash." The mother of invention, indeed.
I cut up yet another onion and sauteed it slowly in more bacon fat along with a quarter stick of butter. While the onions cooked I shredded the turkey, chopped the vegetables and cut the potatoes into small cubes. I caught the onions at just the point of turning a lovely golden color and sprinkled a tablespoon or so of flour over them to make a roux. I still had chicken stock because I almost always have chicken stock, so I poured some in, brought it to a boil, and there it was, the gravy that would bring everything together, binding the hash, if you will.
I knew I couldn't and shouldn't stir the hot gravy into the coolish turkey-vegetable mix, so I stuck it in the refrigerator while I went out for herbs. I snipped several lengths of chive, grabbed a handful of parsley and a couple of sprigs of thyme. I brought this back into the kitchen, destemmed it and chopped it up to add to the hash base. When the gravy was cool enough, I mixed it into the turkey and vegetables and it bound it all together quite nicely. The whole mix went into the refrigerator so the flavors could get to know each other informally before being cooked and eaten.
It didn't seem as if hash on its own would be enough so I put together a small green salad; red leaf (of which there seems to be a lot around this winter) lettuce along with some diced hothouse tomato (sigh) and a small Hass avocado. I heated up a non-stick 12" skillet and rubbed it with just a bit of bacon fat (can you tell how I feel about bacon fat?) before pressing the hash mixture into it. It browned nicely on one side before I did my former breakfast cook show-off thing and flipped it all over in one piece. I put the pan (and the hash) on the bottom shelf of a 450 degree oven for about ten minutes to assure that it would heat through and that each side would have a nice crust. Crust on hash is critical.
It came out great!! The top and bottom were crispy, it was just moist enough from the gravy, and the flavors had gotten to know each other in a most advantageous way. The green salad provided just enough crunch on the side and we had feasted yet again, while spending virtually nothing. I like that.
On a day we were snowed in the craving of the day turned to tacos. Oh yes, spicy and well garnished tacos on a cold and blustery day would be perfect! There was a chunk of flank steak, a nice ripe avocado, plenty of cheese, onion, tomatoes and even cilantro, but, oops, NO TORTILLAS.
This sent me scrambling in the pantry looking for something I wasn't even sure was there, but, lo and behold, there was a nearly full bag of "Bob's Red Mill Masa Harina", a corn flour ground right up the road in lovely Milwaukie, Oregon. Indeed there was even a recipe on the back for making tortillas which I set to immediately. Hot water mixed slowly into the masa, not too sticky, not too dry, roll into a ball and let rest. Easy, but in the back of my mind it seemed as if something was missing.
Putting that thought away, I turned to making a nice little "guisado", or stew, out of my meat and vegetables. I peeled a couple of cloves of garlic and sliced my onions into thin half-moons and tossed them in a skillet with some (yes!) bacon fat. I seasoned the stuff in the pan with chile powder, a dash of cumin, some ground chipotle, salt and pepper and a hit of smoked paprika while I sliced the beef into thin strips. I always cook my dry ingredients, particularly chiles, into the mix for a while to bring out their flavors. I added the meat, a chopped tomato and about half a cup of chicken stock and after it came to a rapid boil, turned it down to the barest of simmers.
I turned to the garnishes, everything that would elevate our tacos on this snowy afternoon. I peeled and diced the avocado and tossed it with a splash of lemon juice and a little bit of Cholula hot sauce. I grated a mix of pepperjack and cheddar cheeses, shredded a couple of leaves of romaine, chopped a bit of cilantro and plopped some sour cream into a bowl. The guisado smelled great and the liquid had cooked down just a bit; ready. Now for the tortillas.
I heated up a ten inch cast iron skillet and rubbed it with (yes, again) more bacon fat. Using a smaller cast iron skillet I pressed out the tortillas between sheets of wax paper. Surprising to me that we had wax paper, beyond the surprise that they still even make the stuff. The tortillas were not easy to peel off the waxed paper, however. When they were the thin-ness I wanted, it was damn near impossible, so I went for a thicker more rustic feel.
Into the pan the tortillas went, one at a time, and I called Kathy into the kitchen to stand at the ready to assemble our tacos. The first tortilla came out, crisp and smelling so, so very good, and it was here and now that it came to me what I had left out of the tortilla mix. As we folded them, they cracked at the back; they were not at all pliable and it was clear to me now why professional tortilla makers put lard in the mix. Yes, of course it adds flavor, but it also lends a certain moistness that enhances and strengthens the fold.
Despite having ingredients that fell out the back, we fell upon the tacos rapaciously. The snow fell, the ingredients spilled and we stuffed our faces, going back to the pan again and again. And this is something we will do again and again, at least when we forget the tortillas.
In addition to scouring out the kitchen in search of cookable leftovers, I have also, for the first time in my life, been scouring the food ads (not to be confused with the food sections) of our local newspapers looking for deals on whatever may feed us and fill us without mauling our pocketbooks. And I struck pay dirt, so to speak. There it was, Boneless Pork Shoulder Roast, reduced to $2.39/# (limit two per customer). I made my way on down to Roth's IGA, our local grocery and picked us up a 3.5 # chunk of pork and happily brought it on home.
This is one of my favorite pieces of meat to cook and it takes so well to a variety to treatments. I decided to go with the "low and slow" version this time that is almost like a Mexican-style carnitas. I fine chopped 12 garlic cloves along with some of Philipe's Kitchen Witch (straight from N'Awlins) Seasoning and some sea salt. I rubbed this all over the roast, making sure to get it down into the crevices and cracks between the muscles. I thin sliced an onion, laid it over the top and into the refrigerator it went for an overnight get-together of flavors.
The next day it was an easy start: Put the meat in a low roasting pan, pour in a cup of water, cover tightly with foil, stick it in the oven at 275 and walk away. I came back four hours later, took off the foil, basted the top of the meat with the nice fatty juices that had collected in the pan and left it for another hour to lightly crisp the top. Presto! Crispy Carnitas without any frying, and meat that literally falls apart at the touch.
From this point on, once the meat is cooked, it becomes so many things to so many people. The first night we ate it over mashed potatoes with the pan juices (defatted, of course) ladled over the top. Oh My Goodness was that good. The second night I shredded it, mixed it with a bit of a red chile enchilada sauce I had made last summer and it became the filling for burritos. The other day while we were working outside in the cold, I darted in, heated some up, slapped it between two pieces of bread with cheese, griddled it in a pan and made toasted pork and cheese sandwiches. Tonight it will become the "World's Best" Pulled Pork Sandwiches and that still leaves us enough for soup and maybe another meal. It's hard to imagine a better deal for your dollar and the flavor of slow-cooked pork is to die for.
Last, but hardly least, Kathy's very best friend Terry was here visiting from Costa Rica so we put on a good show for her. Whole, locally raised Draper Valley chickens were on sale so that seemed like the way to go.
I did a simple roast chicken; salt, pepper and a lemon and butter rub. I roasted it for about an hour at 400 and it came out perfectly; crisp golden skin and very juicy. We served that over a risotto made with some liquid from the very last of some dried mushrooms we had mixed with chicken stock. I sauteed some fresh crimini mushrooms to make the risotto a bit more "mushroomy" and the chicken, sliced, went over that. We had just gotten some decent asparagus at the market and a simple steamed and buttered prep made the whole dish come together. I made a little gravy out of the pan juices and we sat down to a lovely dinner of roast chicken by candlelight.
We may not be working much, but we can still eat well, and sometimes, that's the best revenge and remedy both.