Frugal Plex

Sometime last week, before the heat wave, we had one of those perfect spring days that just makes one all giddy, what with all the fecundity and the burgeoning and the blooming and the sweet breezes and such. There was still a chill in the shade, though, so something roasty seemed appropriate, and firing up the grill to celebrate the season seemed pretty mandatory.

I spatchcocked a good chicken and gave it a rub of salt, pepper, and a few flavors I’m really liking on chickens these days: smoked paprika, cumin, and 5-spice. And on the fire it went (actually off the fire until it lost a little fat and the fire cooled down, at which point it went directly over the fire flare-up free.) Meanwhile I took the last of the Easter parsnips (this was a while ago, remember) and combined them with more freshly-steamed and mashed with a little yogurt and enough of the steaming water to reach a good smoothitude. It was brought to my attention that barbecue sauce would be a good, nay excellent idea, so I put a bunch of stuff in a pan and let it simmer. It was so long ago, I don’t remember anymore, but my BBQ sauce usually includes tomato paste, tamarind, cider and balsamic vinegars, soy sauce, maple syrup, random fruit juice, any leftover broth in the fridge, ditto with wine, and some spices of the 5- and 7- variety.
And last I chopped up some bok choy and gave it a quick sauté with garlic and lemon.

There’s nothing particularly special about a grilled chicken, but there was indeed something special about the first one of the year, eaten with perfect local vegetables and a funky homemade sauce. Even specialer still was the addition of a Prince Florent de Merode 1979 Corton Clos du Roi. Past its prime, no doubt, but I paid $20 for it- and at that price it was unbelievable. Fading octaves of dried plums, horses, and tobacco serenaded us while we ate.

As always, I made broth from the carcass. Then, flash forward to today, with some of that broth still in the fridge. It cooled off dramatically today- we might catch a hint of frost tonight- so soup was back on my radar. I made the quickest of all miso soup with the roasted chicken broth: brought to a boil, then taken off the heat and white miso whisked in. Freaking fantastic. Instead of the delicate smokiness of dashi, the soup had a sublime char-grilled undertone that really made us pay attention.

Our asparagus is in full effect, and there were leftovers of both brown rice and the quinoa-pesto thing I made with the venison, so I combined them, made mayonnaise, and rolled up a bunch of asparagus maki with sriracha-mayo inside for a little fatty decadence in an otherwise very clean meal. Last up was a perfect bowl of local, organic pinto beans pressure-cooked with onion, a smidge (seriously, like a teaspoon) of salt pork and the rest of the roasted chicken broth, then mixed with some of the pepper ketchup from TNS Reuben night.

The broth has gotten me all excited for grilling season, and not just for the normal reason; every bone that comes off of the fire in the coming months is going to be turned into some variation of this magic potion that makes everything taste just a little better.

Tonight, On A Very Special "According To Jim"

This will be a quick one, since I’m completely knackered from the continuing herb (now technically herb and fruit) garden which I’ll take pics of when it’s done. Until then, I’m going to try to make some progress posting some of the backlog of meals that lurk on my desktop, mocking me. Since I’m too tired to cook tonight, it’s nice to have some things on hand.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to Debi’s birthday party–a pot luck, with the usual suspects–and it was an epic meal as they always are. Our contribution, in addition to some wine, was to bring the makings of a paella-risotto hybrid and prepare it there. I bought 18 clams and half a snow crab, pulled two quarts of chicken broth from the freezer, and tossed them plus the rice, saffron, pimentón, a bell pepper, peas and some ramps into a box and we set off.

So I basically just made risotto, but using all the Spanish flavors, I steamed the clams and legs in a separate pot, then stirred that liquor into the rice at the end. There was a ton of other good food, but I can’t remember most of it. Some great BBQ chicken, grilled halibut, and so much more. The rice turned out quite well (the rest of the clams were served in a bowl alongside.) John and I coordinated the wine beforehand, as always, and each brought a Beringer reserve, among other things. His was a 1993, mine a 1992. It was interesting to try them side by side; the 93 seemed pretty good until we tried the 92, which was much richer, more elegant, and beginning to go to the cedary place that good old cabs specialize in. Not a world-rocker, but a damn fine bottle of wine. It was a refreshing change from the norm, where he pretty much always brings the wine of the night.

Dear Deer

On a recent trip to a local market, and thanks in no small part to the random peregrinations through the store which the company of a small boy can engender, I happened upon a certain freezer compartment stuffed full of various exotic game meats- many of which are responsibly farm-raised in the vicinity. I was pretty excited, and loaded up our basket with several different cuts from several different beasts: venison, elk, bison, and quail- and for reasonable prices. They all went in the freezer upon our return, banked against future dinner-time time shortages, impromptu entertaining, or other such eventualities. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

And yet today, upon defrosting a hunk of deer in a bowl of water, I noticed that somehow I had unwittingly bought a 1 lb. piece of venison loin for $32. After a quick re-check, all the other cuts in the freezer were in the $10 per lb. range, but somehow the much pricier loin had slipped into the basket unnoticed back at the market (I am not someone who pays 32 bucks a pound for much of anything in this world.) And the resulting sticker chagrin got me all motivated to treat this piece of meat in a manner befitting its station.

So I took the loin and cut it apart into its component muscles, removing all the silverskin as I went. The result was a perfect tenderloin about an inch and a half around and six inches long, and, uh… the other part, which was amazingly enough the same length but flatter and a little unkempt post-butchering. It occurred to me at this point that the two pieces could be prepared in two completely different ways, thus wringing more value out of the pound of flesh.

So the second cut went in a marinade of white wine, pepper ketchup from Reuben night, soy sauce, mulberry syrup, balsamic vinegar, apple juice, 5-spice, and smoked paprika to sit for an hour or so while I dealt with other things, like the tenderloin. Seasoned with salt, pepper, smoked paprika, and herbes de Provence, and then vacuum-sealed, it got dropped in a 52˚ C water bath. The very last of our now-bolting overwintered kale from the garden, chopped fine, had a pleasant wilt in a pan with a smidge of minced guanciale, onion, garlic, and chicken broth until soft but still bright green. A little bit of leftover quinoa commingled with a bit more, freshly made, and then had a toss with olive oil, herb and allium pesto, and peas to make a kinda pilaf. Once cooked through, the tenderloin got a quick sear in a shrieking hot iron skillet. And last, the marinated cut- after a deglazing swab of the same skillet- got all simmery with the marinade until the meat was just cooked through and the sauce was sticky and bubblicious.

The result was pretty good- very good, even, and yet I wish that I had figured out how fancy this was a little earlier; the plate was missing one more element to elevate it to another, more expensive-tasting place. Having said that, I am very glad that I took the extra few minutes to give this accidental purchase its intentional due. The tenderloin, with a little bitter green mash on the side, was meltingly tender, with a lovely gamy character. The second half, liberally doused with marinade reduction sauce, had almost a spare rib flavor, with a buttery, rare bite swaddled in an Asian-inflected sauce that straddled hoisin and barbecue. And quinoa pilaf with pesto and peas is a new staple as of right now.

If it had been less hot today (we’re in day three of temps well into the 80′s) I would have gone for a rich, funky red, but given that I was still sweating after my shower I opted instead for a well-chilled Château de Roquefort Corail rosé. These Southern French pinks are no-brainers from here on out on warm days; they go with everything from austere vegan slaws to decadent, overpriced venison steaktaculars- and this one, at a mere 12.5% alcohol, and elegantly endowed with ethereal strawberries and herbs, is sympathetic to one who (hypothetically) toiled all day and then accidentally put away pretty much the whole bottle while cooking, then eating, and finally writing about it all.

Pastrami On Rye

I’m so heinously behind on posting- there’s just too much other work in the studio and garden (I’m redoing the herb garden right now, to make it extra elegant and much lower maintenance) and I can’t seem to deal with the computer a whole lot. But, since I did recently write the Reuben thing for TNS, here’s a follow-up that shows the final destination of that glorious, smoky hunk o’ cow after some parts were gifted away and other parts were made into epic sammiches. Forgive the redundant picture, but I can’t see this too many times:

Back in the winter, when I first seized on the homemade Reuben idea, I also began pondering other interesting uses for pastrami. Since pastrami is smoked, strongly flavored, and a little spicy from the pepper, it’s kind of like a big whole-muscle sausage (oh, stop giggling.) So I cut up the heel of it and slow-cooked it with our own mirepoix (still some left from last summer, and all of the components are now planted for this year) wine, grilled chicken broth (grilled chicken to be revealed shortly) and canned tomatoes for several hours until all married and reduced and divine.

While it was simmering, I mixed rye and white flours- both local- with a couple of eggs and made a pasta dough. After a rest (for the dough and for me) I rolled it out into fettucine and dropped them into boiling water. Once the pasta was done, I tossed it into the bubbling sauce and tossed it all together, then served it up with a perfect salad of both wild and domestic greens on the side. Now the rye-ness was not super-evident; next time I will grind a little caraway into the dough to underscore the point. But hoo boy does pastrami behave like sausage in a nice ragù. It was just fantastic; the only thing I’d do differently would be to cook it for twice as long and then push it through a food mill to make it completely disintegrated so every bite had the same perfect blend of flavors. I am so making more pastrami in the near future. We had this with a lovely rosé, but I can’t remember which.

Content Schmontent

I have once again written a guest post at Thursday Night Smackdown, so you can go there to read all about my almost entirely home-made Reuben, and then feel bad about what you’re making for dinner, and just give up and order Thai food.

Should you want to read the other posts I did there last fall, you can find them here and here. They’re actually pretty good, since I worked on them for a while, unlike this one, which not so much.

Dough, Boy

The giant meaty lamb bone from Easter got me inspired to do something besides lamb sandwiches or lamb fried rice with the leftovers. I made a big pot of pho with the bone, using half of it in other things and freezing two quarts for later. Lamb makes a wonderful (if untraditional) pho. I’ve been trying to branch out with the sourdough starter- though I am overdue to make bread- and thought that gyros with fluffy, chewy sourdough pita might just work. Since the meat near the bone was still quite rare, it could handle some cooking and still remain tender. And we had a little sour cream left from the cake, and the ramps were going off in a major way, and, as if that were not enough, there was a cucumber in the fridge. See where this is going?

Linda was coming over so I could interview her before we went to her photoshoot/cooking demo down the road, so the night before I fired up the interweb and found this excellent recipe for live-starter pita. I used about 30% rye flour, so it needed a little extra flour to get the right consistency. And since our starter had been in the fridge for a couple of days since its last feeding, I let the dough sit out on the counter overnight in a covered container to rise. By morning it was big and bubbly. I divided and shaped it into six rounds, rested them, rolled them out, and rested them again, then cooked them in a medium hot iron skillet until browned and puffy.

After peeling, chopping, and seeding half the cucumber, I blended the sour cream with chopped ramps, salt, and a little lemon, then folded in the cucumber and a bunch of minced wild chives. All of this was done beforehand, and after our chat I threw some onion in a pan to sweat, then added the lamb, some pimentón, and herbes de Provence. I forgot to take a picture, but suffice it to say that these were far more about flavor than looks. And they were damn good, and kept us well-fortified while she worked all afternoon making magical treats (the article will be out on May 1.) I also forgot to serve a little bowl of the pho alongside the gyros, but I was preoccupied with doing this “job” thingy.

Last night I decided to try the same dough as pizza, so I made up a batch and put it in the laundry room to rise. It’s not really a dough that likes to be rolled out super-thin, preferring instead to be gently pressed by hand into rounds that are thicker than I normally make- like pita, in other words. Tangy and chewy, they will be perfect for grilled pizza, and I’ll be making those very soon now that the grill is back in business and the garden is starting up. But they did well enough in a 500˚ oven with good local mozzarella, ramp pesto, onion, and tomato purée. And the kid, as is predictable when pizza is involved, was beside himself with glee.

Simple Pleasures

It was just Milo and me this weekend, so we had lots of fun gardening and doing some cooking. Between the holdovers and new sprouts in the garden and the various wild edibles popping up all over, we’ve been eating big bowls of leaves every day for a week now. It’s wonderful.

In related news, trout season has begun, and our neighbor brought over a couple of beautiful rainbows for us. Milo loves whole fish- much more than anonymous fillets- so he looked on excitedly while I chopped herbs and garlic and wrapped them and one of the fish (and a pat of butter) in parchment and tossed it in the oven. Next I simmered some Israeli couscous, strained it, and tossed it with peas, olive oil, and salt.

When the fish was done, we pulled it out and unwrapped it, releasing fragrant steam and getting our appetites fully engaged. Gently filleted fish, with juices, atop the white and green spheres of couscous and peas, and tender, perfect greens on the side made for the first truly spring meal we’ve had this year. To underscore the event, the season’s first bottle of rosé: a 2007 Caves de L’Angevine Rosé d’Anjou. It made me smile, not least because it’s only 10.5% alcohol. After such a long winter, Milo and I were both delighted to spend a couple of leisurely days indulging in the basic joys of sun, garden, food, and leaving the toilet seat up.

He also ate both of the fish eyes, saying that they’re the best part.

All Right, Already

I think a lot of food bloggers cook as much for their blogs as they do for themselves; it’s understandable, since basking in the glow of validation that we receive from complete strangers all over the world is addictive and we all love attention. But what I enjoy most- especially these days, when I simply do not have the time to indulge in the complex cooking that most gratifies me- is the simple, ongoing mixture of experience and improvisation which generates home cooking and then uses the leftovers in subsequent meals. In this way there’s minimal waste (and what there is goes in the compost) and a perpetual challenge to repurpose and reinvent the remnants of earlier meals in such a way that nobody gets bored with them- because then they just turn into biohazards in the back of the fridge.

Documenting the organic process that tries to utilize equal measures of freedom and frugality is one of my main goals here, since the accrued richness and depth of stews and sauces that linger for days in the fridge are one of the easiest ways for the home cook to arrive at a depth of flavor which many restaurants only wish they could achieve. The combination of what is available- ideally from the garden, or inspired by a craving- with what we have loitering on hand, ready to be transformed- is the happy place where efficiency and inspiration overlap. And lately, since I have so little time for more ambitious cooking, it’s this rhythm that I’m trying to sustain.

Recently I had a hankering for a good vegetable tagine. So I soaked chick peas in the morning, then put them in water to simmer a couple hours before dinner time. Separately, I gently cooked cauliflower, carrots, onion, and raisins in a cumin-heavy Moroccan spice blend, adding the chick peas once they were ready, and then serving all, with copious cooking liquid, on whole wheat couscous. I used to eat couscous all the time, during and post-college, since it was so fast and got all silky with a little olive oil.

A few days later, once again short on time, I chopped up a sweet potato, more cauliflower, and a bunch of curry spices to tug the flavor from North Africa to South Asia, simmered them in the leftover tagine, then dumped it all in a baking dish and covered it with the second half of the tart crust which had been waiting helpfully in the freezer since the onion tart. The pot pie was just what we all needed on a chilly evening, though it seems now that the cold is finally ceding the season to the sun. Elegant it surely was not, but comforting and nutritious it most certainly was.

Easterly

Growing up, the two main holidays in my family were Passover and Thanksgiving; it was not a coincidence that both center around a meal. These days, since we observe nothing in particular, Sunday was better for us and our guests so that’s when the meal happened. I do have sentimental attachments to the Seder, but only the people- not to the tedium and all the rules. My Grandmother used to make a mean leg of lamb, and my Mom learned from her, but sitting there for what seemed like an eternity before we actually got to eat it was never any fun. Since they’re gone, it falls to me to continue the tradition, only without the waiting and with a few modifications to the technique.

The trick my ancestors used was to cut slits in the meat and poke garlic cloves inside to perfume the meat and cook along with it. I do the same, but I cut the cloves in half lengthwise so they’re thinner, and I wrap each one in a few rosemary leaves before I tuck them in. I also like a spice rub and cooking it on the grill instead of the oven. The above is a whole local lamb leg, with the shank cut off and frozen for another time, prepared thus and well-rubbed with a mixture of salt, pepper, pimentón, cumin, 5-spice, and mustard powder, then left to sit for about three hours to soak up the flavor and come to room temperature.

After a spell on the grill, it was perfect: nice and smoky on the outside, and still very red at the bone. We all took slices from different depths to enjoy the full spectrum. Around the lamb, moving clockwise, are preserved lemons puréed with good brown mustard, a pesto made only from things that I picked in the yard and garden (wild chives, ramps, oregano, parsley, chervil, kale, pan di zucchero, radicchio, sorrel, sage and enough oil to bring it together) then arugula salad, C&S’s kale and turnips in dashi, their burdock and celery with black sesame seeds, and parsnips they brought (all the vegetables came from their root cellar) which I steamed and mashed with sour cream, vanilla, and the steaming water.

We all went back several times. The two condiments were wicked with the meat, and all of the vegetables were amazingly rich and satisfying. My wife, who is much more into traditions and holidays and such, took it upon herself to make a cake. Lacking a lamb-shaped baking dish, she went with a simple springform and made a banana cake with sour cream and lemon buttercream covered in coconut. It too was well-received, especially by the kids. Best of all, when you have a big meal at 2 PM and linger over it you can skip dinner altogether.

The Kraken Shakes And Bakes

The wife wanted squid, and not for the first time lately; she’s been craving it. So she went out and got some, and since Milo went along for the ride they came home with a formerly live soft-shell crab that he fell in love with. (The guy behind the counter cut its face off with scissors so I didn’t have to. I’m going to call that a plus.) When they got home, I dredged the crab in seasoned flour and dropped it in some hot French fry oil from the jar in the fridge. If possible, Milo loved it even more once it was all crisp and golden.

For the squid I went super-simple, cutting it up and tossing it in the rest of the crab flour, then into a very hot wok for a minute, then dumping in watercress, garlic, ginger, kaffir lime, nam pla, shoyu, mirin, and yuzu juice, then quickly transferring it to a bowl once the greens wilted but before the squid could even think of getting rubbery. Brown rice soaked up the wonderful juices, and the whole thing (not counting the rice) took 5 minutes. Not too shabby. The leftovers were twice as good the next day for lunch, eaten right out of the container standing by the sink and looking out at the garden which threatens to start growing the minute the sun comes out.

Yours Truly



I'm a painter who happens to also spend a lot of time growing, making, and writing about food. I'm particularly interested in the intersection of frugal peasant cooking techniques and haute improvisation. And I have a really great personality.

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