Saturday, February 27, 2010

Enjoy It Because You Will Never Eat It Again.

I heard that from my dad a lot growing up. At least once a week. My father was the cook of the house. This worked out because he got home from work before my mom, so he would have dinner waiting for her every night. Pretty sweet deal for Mom.

As soon as I was old enough, I helped. It was my time with my dad. My father was extremely talented, and his favorite hobbies were woodworking and working on cars- interests I never adopted. Thankfully, he also loved to cook. My dad taught me that you don't leave the kitchen while you're cooking, so we'd hang out, passing each other to turn or to stir between the stove and griddle or the grill outside on the patio, and the whole time, we'd talk. He'd tell me stories, jokes, and probably worked a little harder than I remember trying to get me to share what was going on in my life. My dad and I were very close- I was a Daddy's girl for sure- but, he was my father, the man of the house. I saw him in that light almost the entire time that I knew him. The summer before he got sick- the summer before my senior year in college- was when something changed and we started becoming friends. A small change from just a father/daughter relationship- we started talking like adults talk to one another, you know? It makes me sad that we had so little time to work on that aspect of our relationship, but I am happy I got to see its start.

Many nights were simple- hamburgers with mac and cheese, french toast and sausage, grilled chicken and boiled potatoes (which we would smash on our plates with forks and load up with butter and sometimes creamed corn... wow, that sounds so good right now.) Other nights were slightly more labor intensive. A few of those meals I remember most are venison back straps coated in flour and crushed saltines and shallow fried- we fought over these. We would actually count them out to make sure we all had a fair share. Tomato and meat sauce from scratch, chili, steaks on the grill with these grilled half potato things my dad came up with... all good stuff.

But, about once a week we'd clear out the leftovers and my dad would turn them into something so delicious and perfect... and it was bitter sweet, because like he would say, you'd never eat it again. This was the good stuff... where he taught me to be creative and to take risks and to think about marrying different flavors together. He'd grab a couple pantry items, add it to whatever was hanging out in the fridge leftover, and suddenly we had a new dinner. I don't remember it ever being bad.

My father is a huge part of why I love to cook, and I find myself copying him on the leftover thing quite a bit. Much of the time when I am cooking something I am thinking about what I could turn it into the next day. Other times, my inspiration just comes when I open the fridge and just start taking stuff out.

This particular day, I'd had a really intense workout at the gym in the morning and had to be at work at 11:00 AM, so I wanted something hearty to stay with me throughout the day. A sandwich was in order. I had the onions from the other day, so I knew they would play a part. I also had some leftover seitan from fajitas I made a couple days prior. If you're not familiar with seitan, it's really just wheat gluten and makes a fantastic meat substitute. I buy Field Roast brand sausages a lot and my leftovers were of the Italian variety. I'm not saying it tastes like meat, it really doesn't, but you can use it like you would use meat.
I got out a slice of Ezekial bread, the seitan, and the onions, and threw it all in a dry non stick to heat up... now I needed the rest. Ah! A hard boiled egg! I always make a few extra when I need one and I made tuna salad last week. Good thinking. I also had Laughing Cow garlic and herb cheese triangles. Done. Simple and hearty, this was going to kick ass.

I sliced the egg, spread the cheese on the bread when it was bit toasty and piled everything on top. Scott came over from his computer to ask where his was. Oops. I hadn't offered. My leftovers were only serving one. I gave him a bite of seitan with onions and hoped it would suffice. I also allowed him a bite of my masterpiece- it was the least I could do.

It was SO very good, I mean, really. The flavors just were perfect together. The cheese was creamy and egg sort of melded right into it. The seitan and onions had gotten a bit crisp when I warmed them up providing a nice mix of textures. This was a sandwich I will remember and I'm glad I enjoyed it, because I will probably never have it again.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inspiration at Hutch

When I woke up this morning, I was sure I wanted these cottage cheese walnut burgers that I sometimes make, but half way through my lunch shift at Hondos I changed my mind... and then I had no idea. I thought of pot stickers and stir fry. Salmon roasted with a honey mustard herb sauce, black bean soup... none of it was what I really wanted.

Hutch is this continuing side work at Hondos. We take the silverware and glassware from dish, and we polish it all and put it up on the hutch so it's ready for the tables. It gives you a lot of time to think since it's so monotonous. While polishing possibly my 100th glass of the day I realized I needed to make a decision because I would have to stop at Whole Foods on my way home for any ingredients I may not have on hand.

I worked on a party with Alberto today. He's the head waiter at an amazing Italian restaurant in town called La Grotta, but he puts in a few shifts at Hondos each week. Great guy. Scott and I ate at La Grotta on Saturday night and I think I can safely say it was one of the best meals I've ever had. Incredible. As we polished and polished, I asked Alberto what I should make for dinner because I really wasn't happy with anything coming into my mind on my own. He started rattling off a few of his favorite pasta dishes- one with zucchini and cauliflower that has his children begging for more and also a seafood pasta made at La Grotta. It has mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops with a spicy tomato sauce... now my wheels were turning. I had shrimp in the freezer. He mentioned shrimp scampi and everything came into focus. This was what I wanted.

The good part was that I only needed a can of tomatoes and some basil, everything else I had. This is always a good thing. $5 and I'd have everything I needed. Well, $7 since Whole Foods had a sample of their St. Germaine baguettes available and I had to have one... insane chewy perfection... I knew it would sop up the buttery tomato sauce I planned to make and be even better.

I started with the tomato sauce. I chopped a small onion and let it sweat out in a good bit of extra virgin olive oil with a few whole garlic cloves I gave a bit of a smash. I added a can of San Marzano whole tomatoes and let it cook down a little before using my wooden spoon to chop them into bite size pieces. I added some fresh basil and that was that...I let it do it's thing. Scott was already commenting on how good everything smelled. Onions, garlic, and tomatoes... it really is so simple.

In another pan, I put a tablespoon or so of EVOO (man I hate using Racheal Ray's term, but it does make things much easier) and a few pats of butter along with 3 minced garlic cloves and a generous amount of Penzey's Very Hot Crushed Red Pepper Flakes. I added a few tablespoons of capers and the shrimp... shrimp take like a minute to cook and their juices added to the fat to make an excellent sauce. I didn't have any white wine, so I added a glug of white wine vinegar instead.

When the pasta was al dente- I used thin whole wheat spaghetti- I saved a little of the pasta water and added it to the tomato sauce which got a bit thicker than I wanted while everything else was cooking.

On the plate, a mound of pasta which I tossed with a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce. I split the buttery caper and garlic shrimp between the two plates and topped them with a little more basil. Yum. It was really good. I will so be making this again. Scott will get the leftovers tomorrow- there was no way I could eat everything I put on my plate- my eyes are always bigger... But, that's a good thing... I work doubles the next two days and won't get to cook for him, so it makes me happy when I know the fridge is stocked with goodies.

I served a small salad on the side, a big chunk of the baguette, and a small glass of red wine.

Who knows what conversation and quiet contemplation will bring me over the next two days as stand at hutch and polish endless glasses... hopefully something as satisfying as dinner tonight.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My homage to the greatest vegetable ever.

Onions. Yesterday I realized there should be no other topic to begin my blog. Onions, to me, are the very best that food is. Many of you have heard this story, since to know me is to know my love of onions... but. When I was small, I would beg for slices of onions when my parents were cooking. Apparently, when I was like 3 or so, I was once again begging for onion... my mom couldn't prepare it fast enough for me. She grew impatient with my brattiness and just gave me the full onion after peeling it. I walked away happy as could be munching on a full onion as if it were an apple.

From what I understand, the origin of the onion is a mystery... lots of people say it originated in Asia, but others think Egypt. I guess they're pretty close together so, yea, whatever, that area of the world. There is proof that as early as 3500 BC the Egyptians were worshiping onions and even burying them with their Pharaohs. They felt the rings represented Eternity. When I'm gone, I'd be pretty psyched to have an onion patch growing above the place where my ashes are buried.... I like that eternity idea.

Sandra Cisneros wrote a short story called, Eleven. The narrator is a little girl who is turning Eleven and pondering why it is she still sometimes wants to cry like she's three or sit on her mama's lap like she's five or say something stupid like she's ten... and all of this is "Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion." Yea... Eternity. And if all of that is not enough, onions are thought pretty highly of in the medicinal world as well. Not only are they thought to harbor tons of cancer fighting antioxidants, they also are believed to lower cholesterol. Nice.

So, anyway, I went from eating onions like they were apples to deciding I didn't like them at all. I mean, what seven year old wants to admit they like onions? I'm not sure when I stopped liking them... I feel that the liver and onions we sometimes had for dinner may have had something to do with it, but I'm not sure. I avoided them throughout my young life and really was convinced I didn't like them. Of course, I heard the "ate them like apples when you were little" story constantly.

And then came my job at Sheetz back in 1994. Well, a MTO was made incorrectly and it was just turkey, so my manager offered it to me for lunch. Free lunch? Sure. I checked it out for any vegetables that might offend... all clear, just lettuce. I got about half way through and realized I might be eating the best sandwich ever. I opened it up for closer inspection, trying to figure out what was making this particular MTO so very delicious. Hidden in with the iceberg lettuce shreds were... onions. It was a day I will not forget.

I am pretty thrilled to eat onions raw alone, in salads, on sandwiches, cooked in sauces, soups, you name it... there is not a single preparation of onions that I dislike. However, there is one preparation I feel is superior. Caramelizing.

I'm not saying this is the textbook method, but it's how it's evolved for me, and has even had Scott ask simply for a bowl of caramelized onions for dinner. A man after my own heart.

First, you start with WAY more onions than you want to end up with. In these photos, I used 3 medium sized onions. And yes, type does matter... when caramelizing, I suggest simple yellow onions. Vidalias are also good, of course, because they are sweet to start with... but, really, I am a fan of the simple yellow onion when caramelizing... Cut off the roots, cut them in half, peel away the skins (go as deep as necessary- you don't want the flimsy layers- onions are cheap, peel another if you have to), and cut into half moons.
Use a good bit of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in a heavy bottom stainless steel pan. Turn the heat JUST PAST LOW!!! Well, ok, it depends on your stove. For mine, it's going right in between Medium and Low and then turning back almost halfway toward low. Just don't get ahead of yourself. Patience is what it's all about here.
After you have the oil heated, chuck in the onions with a couple good pinches of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Stir to coat- I recommend a wooden spoon, preferably one with a flat edge. Then leave them alone for a bit. Stir them once in awhile, if you see brown right away, your burner is way too hot. It should be a bit before any brown stuff is appearing. Maybe 15 minutes into cooking. When this happens- and it's so exciting!! You are starting to get there... at the half way point anyway. Just give it a stir every few minutes, and when there is lots of brown on the bottom of your pan (see pic) get a tiny bit of water (or preferably vegetable stock if you have a box open, but either works great) and add a tablespoon or so to the pan, it will steam up and make a great sound and while it's bubbling and excited, use the flat edge of your spoon to scrape up all the brown- that's the tasty good stuff- and allow it to add to the onions, then, let them alone again just stirring every few minutes. When there is a lot of brown stuff again, repeat the whole water/stock thing. They are done when you have half the onions you started with and they are brown and super sweet to taste. I can't stop eating them. I made them only for this post so they have no purpose and I can't stop going over to the stove.

No purpose?! Of course there will be purpose... I will use them for an omelet in the morning, or heat them and add them to the tuna salad I made yesterday, or I could made a simple pasta sauce with a can of tomatoes, garlic, and Italian seasonings... Or. I might just put them in a bowl and serve them as dinner for Scott when he gets home.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why I am finally doing this.

Ok Jamey. I've created my blog. And now I need to cook something. I cooked twice today, so tomorrow, or maybe the next day... (Let's remember I'm a slacker at times...) I will take pictures and blog about what I cook. It's only taken me two years to get this far- so. Thank you for the push. You Rock.

Like I said in my profile, cooking makes me happy. It's the only thing that has really made me feel creative. My pulse slows and stress falls away when I cook... nothing else matters... And maybe the most important reason I love to cook... my roots... my father, Bruce, and my grandmother, Phoebe were my first inspirations... my strongest memories of them are of being with them in the kitchen... making dinner every night with my dad, baking 500 cookies on a Saturday afternoon with Gram... I'm sure what they've taught me and the way they have inspired me will show itself throughout my postings.

I also see this blog as a push for me to try some things I've been putting off... such as baking bread (JSB- expect messages begging for tips) or making cheesecakes (Amb- I still have the spring form pan you left me with when you moved...) and I can't wait to try, to fail, and to get it all right in the end.

To end my first post... my philosophy on cooking is... well, unadulterated. I like things clean. I like quality, organic ingredients. I like things simple and when I'm done eating, I like to feel good. I want to be nourished and I want to nourish the people I love.