Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The 365 Dinner Project

What's cooking tonight: venison stew with sweet potatoes and my new favorite way to eat cabbage
This year, you can find me blogging at The 365 Dinner Project. Every night after I do the dishes, I post the picture I've taken of dinner, and I talk about what I made.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Watch me pull this rabbit out of my hat

A backyard grilling competition yields a rabbit recipe worth sharing with a crowd.

This weekend, Kevin and I competed in a local, queer grill-off, in which each team is given a "mystery protein" to make the centerpiece of a grilled dish. The game's host imported this event from the midwest when he moved to the Valley; this was our first time playing. 

Kevin and I like to watch "Top Chef" while we eat dinner. It's light entertainment, lightly interactive: we both feel free and qualified to talk back to the TV. The repeated exposure has improved my home cooking. I'm less likely to serve an entirely beige meal, more likely to think about plated food as something other than flat.

For this event, we felt prepared for anything. I had a short list in mind of proteins I would probably screw up: anything I had to shuck, eel, and anything amphibious. We were ready to grill mussels, trout, or tuna. I figured I could handle anything that walked or flew, that could also be obtained from the local Whole Foods. (I've never seen gator or frog legs for sale there, have you?)

A representative from each team stepped forward to draw a number, and then we were given our platters, covered in foil. When we pulled off the wrap, a new twist revealed itself: this year, each team got the same protein to work with.

"It's rabbit," I breathed.

Kevin is my grill master. He had the coals ready for competition in the half hour before we received our proteins and were turned loose on the sparse pantry. There were many kinds of fresh herbs, several fruits and vegetables, but there were few other ingredients: a couple kinds of vinegar, oil, some fish sauce we brought. But no dry spices: no cumin, or coffee, or cayenne. We were allowed to bring as much equipment as we wanted, but no notes, and no Googling on our smartphones.

It had been years since I ate rabbit. Now that I think of it, I can't recall when I have ever eaten it. I'm sure I must have. I've had squirrel, and that is the closest to rabbit that comes to mind. Butchering a rabbit is less like taking apart poultry, much more like a tiny, tiny lamb, though I started off as if with a chicken, taking off the rear legs, then the front ones. Once I had the legs off, which continued to remind me of chicken parts, in their size, shape, boniness, and flavor, the remaining meat was a very thin loin roast, which Kevin grilled on the bone, and then I took off and sliced to serve with the rear legs. We ate the front ones ourselves: they were like chicken wings. Rabbit loin is much finer than chicken, but the comparison holds: it's white meat, and when done right, juicy, yet fairly lean.

The meat is mild, to my palate. It's also exceptionally tender. Because it's got some flavor of its own, and is also tender, it makes for fine grilling. A young rabbit like this one would have also been good fried. Although a rabbit is roughly the size of a chicken, it has no breast to speak of. There's not much meat on one. Two light eaters can share a rabbit for dinner. 

Kevin made a couple of side dishes, one sweet, one savory. The savory one was a mix of light summer vegetables: zucchini, onion, and tomato, with a touch of fish sauce and lemon juice, oil, salt and pepper. The sweet one was my favorite: foil packet sweet potatoes with apples and blueberries, some sugar, thyme, and mascarpone, and a finish of lime zest.

We didn't win the competition. But the judges liked our costumes and said our rabbit was their favorite of the three. And we got to meet a lot of really cool, queer foodies, so in the end, everybody won.

Grill the Rabbit

Serves 2

One whole rabbit, skinned and butchered (about 3 pounds)
1 T coarse salt
Zest of one lemon
Sprig of rosemary
1/4 white peach, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 red onion, diced
1 T rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp ground black pepper

Remove the legs from the rabbit. Sprinkle salt on all surfaces of the rabbit pieces. Place the salted rabbit and all remaining ingredients in a ziplock bag and shake and massage to distribute the marinade. Hold at room temp (or in the shade) for about 30 minutes.

Build a small charcoal fire. When the coals are ready, grill directly, turning as needed, until the outside is golden brown and the internal temperature is 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from grill and rest five minutes before serving.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Miracles in the starving time

It's maple sugaring time in western Massachusetts

Late winter, early spring, in New England, is a time of wild confusion. It starts when the trees begin to glow red with sap at their tips. Then I notice the return of bird noise: the whole world is waking up. Some of us wake up confused, aroused, foul tempered, or hungry, or all of these. It's not just me.

The way to get through the starving time in western Massachusetts is by laying in reserves: not just of provisions but of personal vitality. I move, and gather sunlight, while I can, every day, even if a short march through burning sleet is the best I can manage. Only now, as my world thaws, does my faith in the natural world---to feed me again, next spring---quicken. It is not so much that I doubt as that belief is suspended for the winter: dormant, not dead.

This weekend, we had our friends Julie and Reggie over, so we got to see them for the first time since we married them, last year. I make gooey vegetarian lasagna. We eat every kind of forbidden junk food, get a little tipsy, and talk about our families. It's very therapeutic.

Reggie asked me whether I believe in miracles. My answer was full of cultural relativism---that's what you get when you come to me with your pastoral issues. I told her that when I was in the hospital, just after back surgery, it helped me to bring to mind the faces of the people who wished me well. Does it work to ask? Yes, but not in the way you might think.

It's been just over three months since I went through spinal fusion surgery: my full and speedy recovery is timed to arrive with the longer and warmer days. Friends coming for dinner tomorrow, have gotten me here, one week at a time, by showing up, even on the Thursday nights that I couldn't cook for them. When Kevin had his hands full, caring for me, they brought food and company. Last week when they came in the door, I realized how important this was, this gathering of four guys to eat sandwiches once a week and check in. Even on the weeks when I felt hopeless. Especially those.

Some miracles are hard to bring about, but some of them happen without our having to do anything at all. I'm certainly run down on vitamin D stores, and I'm positively craving fresh spring greens, but the sun is returning. I have my practices in place for capturing the goodness while it lasts, making it last. No human sacrifice necessary.

Not that I want to continue coasting on zero effort. I'm moving past the couch bound stages of healing into active trudging, and occasional artistry. Tomorrow, for dinner with the guys, I'm making a mojo criollo from leftover orange juice and fresh oregano, to marinate a ham steak, and roasting potatoes in freshly rendered suet; I've still got lots of kale in the freezer. I might even make a pudding. It's how I like to say, I'm glad you've come back.

Image credit: BugMan50/Flickr

Friday, October 25, 2013

Plain tomato sauce and, "You've Gotta Have Heart"

Late season fruits are the sweetest... I turned the last tomatoes of the summer into a plain, sweet sauce that I can use through the winter. And, organ meats!

I've been asked by people who want to eat more healthfully, for advice on selecting produce. The good news is that we can all do it. If there's one thing human beings have been doing forever, it's picking out what's best to eat. A school of thought in personal nutrition that has always fascinated me are the Instinctos, or Anopsologists, who always eat their foods singly---there is no Instincto "cuisine"---as well as fresh and raw. They choose their nutrition, one food at a time, and eat it until they no longer want it. This is the way I'd advise you to select your fresh foods, at least as a starting point. Be a human animal, first: if it helps, pretend you're a gorilla, or a chimpanzee. Look for what catches your eyes. Pick it up and weigh it in your hand. Prod it gently with a finger. Give the bunch of celery or melon or whatever it is a sniff. Do you want to eat it? Put it in your basket.
Beef heart stew

I was late to the fields this tomato season, so I only got one unlimited harvest. By then, most of the fruit was on the ground. The one kind of tomato that was most plentiful was a small, orange variety that was similar enough to last year's golden tomatoes, which made a wonderful sauce, that I was willing to take some risks to get some home. The other shareholders were avoiding these tomatoes, for being on the ground, but I got down and started gathering. If it felt firm like a grape, I picked it up for further inspection. If it was especially dirty, I'd wipe off the dirt so I could check it for bug holes. I was looking for an unbroken skin, no bruises, and especially no round marks, indicating that a bug had made its way in and might still be inside---it or its offspring. If the tomato met all those requirements, I put it in my bag.

At home, I dumped them all into a sink full of water and started washing and sorting. Some tomatoes got squished on the way home, so they went into the compost bucket. I gently rubbed each fruit's firm skin with my palms and fingertips to get the dirt off, and removed the stems, then set the clean tomato in a colander to drip.

From top: Red dal (see link for recipe), spinach sauteed with garlic,
well cooked broccoli, and roasted sweet potato with butter
In batches, I ran the tomatoes through the food processor, then into a big pot on the stove to simmer. I added a generous glug of red wine and one of olive oil, and a little salt, and let it cook for several hours. The resulting sauce was thick like jelly. And when I say it was sweet, I mean that I didn't even use onion, and the sauce was still nearly as sweet as store bought. That's vine ripened sweetness for you.

I let the tomato sauce cool, then bagged it in cups and quarts for freezing. Some of it I used right away in place of fresh or canned tomatoes: in the red dal in the photo above, and in a stew of beef heart, turnip, and kohlrabi that we're eating right now. Like the beef tongue I posted about last time, heart makes good stewing meat, and is very cheap. This heart was given to us by the farmer when we picked up our order---some people don't like the organs and just won't take them. Honestly, I'm not crazy about kidneys or livers, and I've never tried brain, but heart and tongue are muscle: a good starting place if you're just trying organ meats for the first time. They cook up like beef and are lean, but become tender with stewing. Heart has a touch of that organ-y taste that liver and kidney have, but not much. I'm surprised beef hearts haven't caught on more, especially with the Paleo crowd.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A week of locavore meals in late September

The easiest month to eat local in New England might be September. This is what we ate---and shopped for---this week to feed two.

I’ve had a couple of requests for our weekly meal plan and grocery shopping list. We keep a spreadsheet where we track our appointments for the week in a condensed form, as a reminder, and columns for food we must plan to eat, as well as what we eventually plan to make and eat each day.

Sunday morning, we sit down with our coffee and update the “Considerations” column for each day of the coming week: any appointments that shifted, or other plans we have that will affect available prep time, or put extra restraints on the hour dinner is served. Are we expecting company? We’ll make a note of that.

Once we map all that out, we take a look at what’s in the fridge and freezer. Since we’re at the end of the last quarter beef and half pig we bought, we’ve been keeping a list of what’s still in the freezer that we need to incorporate into meals. Anything still left in the fridge that needs to be used goes in another column of the spreadsheet.

We plan each day’s dinner around a piece of meat or entree, decide what starch we want to eat with it, and then I plug in the vegetables after I see our farm share haul on Monday night. Here is this week’s meal plan:

Main meat

out of food
sausages, red sauce, pasta
Farm share pickup, J chiro at 2
pork chops
pork chops, sweet and white potatoes, quick salad
J - Jason @2, K - Jason @7:30
tongue, potatoes, roasted vegetables and/or greens
J writer's group 7 - 10

J - chiro at 4:30, dinner with the boys
baked dk meat chicken, fresh and cooked vegetables, rice, cornbread

leftovers or cod/mac

cod and mac n cheese, vegetables incl fresh tomatoes


We just got back from vacation, so the fridge was particularly bare on Sunday. We always plans at least a couple of leftovers days, which I manage by cooking more than four servings at least a couple of times during the week, if not more, so there will be extra beyond lunch the next day. Right now there’s a serving of beef tongue with cabbage and carrots still in the fridge that I showed our friend Dave, mostly out of foodie pride because he’s also a foodie, and forgetting that he’s kind of squeamish about strange meats. Kevin grabbed a slice and popped it in his mouth right there, knowing it makes good cold sandwich meat, and I offered it to Dave, too, but he wasn’t even considering making a move on it. “Dave’s going to tell people I tried to slip him the tongue,” I said.
Tongue: the meat that tastes you back
Also, this is the plan we made, but I don’t always stick to it. The vegetable part of the plan is always very loose. I just let the vegetables inspire me as to what I should make from them, for the most part, while also making sure to get from the farm what I know is in season and that I’ve made particular plans for. Like right now, it’s tomato season, so I can plan to make tomato sauce. That sauce we had Monday, however, was some I’d made before we went on vacation and I still had around that we needed to use, so we bought sausages from the meat counter and I simmered them in my leftover sauce.

Meal (planned)
Meal (actual)

sausages, red sauce, pasta
Mild Italian sausage (from co-op), homemade ragu (leftover, made from farm share tomatoes and 2# beef bones from freezer) with rice pasta, ricotta, parmesan.
pork chops, sweet and white potatoes, quick salad
Pork chops (co-op), sweet & white potatoes (TJ’s), spinach (farm share)
tongue, potatoes, roasted vegetables and/or greens
Stewed beef tongue (freezer), braised cabbage and carrots (farm share), salt roasted potatoes (leftovers)
Various leftovers: pork chops, sausage, eggs, potatoes; and freshly made pan roasted kohlrabi, carrots, and broccoli stems (farm share)
baked dk meat chicken, fresh and cooked vegetables, rice, cornbread
Baked dark meat chicken from 2 birds (freezer), macaroni and cheese (homemade w/ quinoa pasta), roasted tomatoes and green salad (farm share), pumpkin creme brulee (farm share pumpkin)
leftovers or cod/mac
Planned: leftover chicken, etc
cod and mac n cheese, vegetables incl fresh tomatoes
Out to dinner
Planned: buy sausage and roast it with eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers; polenta

We have to keep the plan flexible, of course.

In our meal plan this week, we forgot to schedule in Date Night, which is Saturday, and we’re making plans to go do things during the day, like the Big E or King Richard’s Faire, so instead of thawing cod and heating leftovers, we’ll go out somewhere, if we don’t get to the co-op first and buy sausages to roast. (Fresh sausage and eggplant is Date Night food, even if we have to make it from scratch, but leftover dry fish isn’t. Go figure.) I had the idea when yesterday I looked in the produce bins and realized we have a lot of eggplant and peppers. Making it this weekend will give us something to eat for lunch on Monday next week. 

Lunches are usually leftovers. Sometimes breakfasts, too.

We usually eat leftovers for lunch, or I’ll have eggs and toast, or eggs with leftovers. I also make leftovers part of the meal plans for dinner. Sometimes I make extra entree, and other times I make extra of some side dish that we’ll eat several times throughout the week. This week, it was salt roasted white and sweet potatoes. I made them Monday, before the farm share arrived. When Kevin got home with it, I washed up the spinach and we ate it with pork chops. Tuesday, I processed a lot of greens: I blanched and froze kale for the winter, and washed salad for the week. 

On Wednesday this week, when leftovers came to a head, Kevin packed pork chops and cabbage and potatoes for his lunch, and I had eggs over spinach with butter fried slices of baked sweet potato for lunch. I boiled four more eggs and yesterday took them and half the leftover salt roasted potatoes, minced half an onion, and made egg and potato salad, which I ate on garlic toast with a green salad for lunch. When I got back from writer’s group, I ate a big pile of pan roasted vegetables on buttered bread, a page right out of Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal,” which I brought with me on vacation and took inspiration from this week in my cooking. I ordinarily do a bit of “striding ahead” and “catching my own tail,” as she eloquently puts it, but giving these activities poetic names makes me more apt to do them.

Yesterday, which was Thursday, we had a couple of friends over for dinner, so I “monster cooked,” as someone described it. I made lots of food, of which we had some leftovers, but not so much mac and cheese that it’s going to do double duty. However, we have three eggplants and maybe half a dozen peppers, and a bag of Romas getting ripe, so I’m going to make an Italian meal again this weekend with some more sausages, roasted eggplants, peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and whatever herbs and soft or hard Italian cheese I still have around by then. Eating it over polenta is half of what makes this a treat worthy of Date Night.

Because we have a farm share, freezers in which we keep meat we buy in bulk direct from farmers, and a well stocked pantry, we don’t have to buy every single food we eat each week. This is what we did buy, and made sure to pick up at the farm:

Middle Aisles/Household
Health and Beauty
Parsley (lots)
peaches, apples, grapes
ginger chews
half and half (2 qt)
pork chops
bread - any good plain loaf
udi's gf bagels
fluoride toothpaste
pasta for tonight
Ital sausages

chocolate ice cream
sw potatoes
backup laundry soap and softener


white rice
cottage cheese

peanut butter


dried cherries

We also keep running lists of items we want to buy the next time we go to Costco or Trader Joe’s, and will run down to the Liquors 44 and the Stop N’ Shop whenever we run out of wine or milk.

What else do we eat, besides dinner?

Kevin keeps a jar of trail mix at work that he keeps restocked with dried fruit and nuts from the bins. We both eat peanut butter as an occasional snack, breakfast, or lunch food, as well as to pill the dog. We split a pot of coffee each morning, and Kevin still drinks a fruit and yogurt smoothie each day, though I’ve fallen out of the habit. Now I’m more likely to have toast with a spread and some fresh fruit. We like to snack on potato chips, wine, and ice cream in the evenings.

Every week’s different, and our diets change over time and with the seasons. I’ll do this again soon so you can get another idea of a typical week for the two of us. Let me know what kind of information you’d find helpful, too.

Friday, September 6, 2013

More lunch, please!

Are your kids getting enough to eat?

Sometimes in the winter, I didn’t get enough to eat at lunchtime when I was a kid. I wouldn’t get enough to eat all day, actually, until dinnertime, when my father’s presence relaxed the rules my mother laid down about pretty much everything. At dinner, I could take as much as I want as the serving bowls went around the table and chops were removed from the platter onto plates. I could even have seconds.

A typical breakfast in summer was a bowl of Cheerios, and in winter of Cream of Wheat (131 calories) and a glass of orange juice (112 calories) with a multivitamin (0 calories) that I usually skipped because it gave me a stomachache.

On school days, I’d eat my single bowl of cereal around 7 AM. On Saturdays, eating my second, third, or fifth bowl of cold cereal in front of hours of cartoons, I’d hear again and again, “part of this complete breakfast.” I studied the examples given: a bowl of the advertised cold cereal with milk, surrounded by toast, a glass of milk and a glass of juice, sometimes a grapefruit half. Weren’t the toast and milk beverage repeats? I wondered. There’s cereal and milk in the bowl.

On schooldays, some five hours after breakfast, I would join my classmates in the cafeteria and in winter, opened my lunchbox to two Thermoses: one filled with milk (150 calories) or fruit juice (100 calories), the other with chicken noodle soup (only 60 calories). The Saltines (66 calories in 5 crackers) laid on top of the Thermoses (Thermii?) hardly made a difference. After a 240 calorie breakfast and perhaps 270 calories for lunch, it’s no wonder that after school my sister and I were like starving animals, prowling the kitchen for junk food before dinner. We were seriously hungry, underfed for most of the day on a regular basis.

I have to assume that it was not because our parents were too poor to feed us properly---we were working class, my parents homeowners---but because they didn’t know how. Hot soup in winter: it must have sounded like a good idea to my mother. When I finally identified the liquid lunch as the source of my discomfort in the afternoons, she stopped sending two Thermoses, and instead allotted some of the precious real estate to more calorie dense food, like a sandwich, and let me buy my milk in the cafeteria.

In the warmer months, the food she packed was enough---PB&J (343 calories), juice or milk, a granola bar (190 calories), some fruit---at least in calories, if not a well balanced meal. Cereal, milk, and fruit juice… more bread, more milk or fruit juice, fruit, yet more cereal… there were just three food groups repeating, without much variation. Only at dinner were there vegetables and meat.

I feel like I’m making excuses for my mother, but in truth, I wondered then and I do now, whether she tried to estimate whether what she made us to eat was balanced, healthy, and sufficient. (I don’t even ask if my father knew: I’m sure he did not.) My personal history with food is why, when I look at the slate of “Back to School” blog posts on lunches you could pack for your kids, or quick and easy breakfasts for the before school rush, I scrutinize them eight ways from Sunday. I reality check them against prep times (not their estimates, mine), kids’ nutritional needs, and whether they will eat it: children are notoriously choosy eaters. For a while, all my son would eat in my presence were turkey sandwiches, and raw carrots, apples, grapes, and lettuce. I let that phase play itself out without comment, because the meal met my heuristic for a minimally healthy meal. What was I looking for?

Is it enough?

Preschoolers eat about 1000 calories a day. Then their requirements increase, from around 1200 kcal/day for a four year old to as much as 2200 kcal/day for a large, active 16-18 year old. For an active kid of 8 or 9 years old who needs about 1400 calories a day, divided by three, that’s around 466 calories per meal.

Find out what your kids are supposed to need according to the charts---heck, do you know what you need?---and keep an eye on what they naturally eat, without prodding, to confirm that figure. If you’re always monitoring their food consumption, you’ll notice that kids will go through phases where they eat more or less. These are normal; if you’re used to these, you will know if some other change is cause for alarm.

Always offer enough. We take our cues for what to eat from serving sizes. When you pack your kid’s lunch, you’re sending a lesson on what to eat and how much. See what comes back: lots of kids won’t bother to dump the leftovers. If there’s nothing there, day after day, ask whether they’re eating it, giving it away, or throwing it out.

Is it healthy? Will they eat it?

I feel like these are related questions, because the answers to both come down to what you typically make and serve at home. What you eat is a powerful model. If you want your kids to eat good food and make wise food choices, you have to show them by doing it, yourself, most or all of the time.

Being raised on Wonder bread isn’t a life sentence, but it’s hard to break. It took me years of cooking for myself, experimenting with cigarettes and fast food in my twenties, before I came around to a way of eating that was healthy and all my own.

When I study those cute bento boxes from the mommy bloggers, I wonder how much they resemble what they feed their kids at home. In The Huffington Post not long ago, registered dieticians admitted to feeding their kids crap, saying their kids won’t eat healthy food. How did this come to be? At some point, these mothers must have given their kids this unhealthy food they now can’t do without: babies aren’t born clutching a bag of Cheez-Its. Why do these RDs sound so bewildered about how their kids got so addicted to junk food? I know: it’s because the parents don’t eat what they wish their kids did.

Is it balanced?

There were foods my parents enjoyed that we thought were weird and wouldn’t touch---foods they made occasionally, like BLTs or eggplant parmigiana---not the stuff we ate every week. Those foods, we ate without complaint: baked chicken with Shake N’ Bake coating, and London broils coated with garlic powder, pasta with red sauce and meatballs. Lunches were sandwiches on white bread. Breakfasts were cereal, French toast on Sundays. On the whole, not many vegetables, and too much processed food: very typical for Americans.

What does a balanced meal look like? I look for balance in three ways: calories, macronutrients, and food groups. I’ll cover these next week.