It’s been rainy, gray, and damp for several days. No sun, no free time, just loads of work. Meals can tend to get boring and drab during these times, and that’s where imagination and creativity come into play. An interesting dish can liven up a dull day.
Partner/Spouse did it again; he made a phenomenal slow cooker pork roast with chili seasonings. It was so tasty! And as I’ve carried on before, we had tacos! Spicy, hot, cheesy, delicious tacos. We love tacos. There was an internet meme Partner/Spouse posted the other day that said “Taco Tuesday is misleading our nations youth into believing tacos aren’t appropriate for any day and any meal.”
So there was a ton of pork roast left over. Two new meals came out of it. First, there was a ton of meat juices left from the slow cooking. Father in Law is still visiting and wanted to make soup out of it. So he left the slow cooker on and put large chunks of potato in it with a can of black beans and some frozen corn niblets along with some of the roast. He let that cook until the potatoes were done. It was an amazing soup made from leftovers and pantry stuff. Hot, satisfying, delicious, and as simple as only soup can be. Home made biscuits would have made it better.
The next night, last night, I wanted to use up more of the leftover roast. Let me tell you, when you have a two and a half pound pork roast and it’s shredded into chunks, it takes a lot of doing to use it all. I got home from work around 5, an unusual event itself, and I didn’t really want to spend a vast amount of time cooking, particularly since I had other things needing to be done. I made up a pot of rice with onion, garlic, and lime seasonings in it. Very good just on its own. I heated up some of the roast in a skillet while heating up a can of ranch style beans.
Let me talk about these beans for a minute, cuz I love ’em.
I cook beans from scratch all the time. I use beans from a can just as often. My favorite brand is Bush’s beans. They come in all kinds of flavors and all kinds of sizes. FiL buys the cans in super small single serving sizes. I buy them in standard 16oz sizes, and in the much larger “family” serving sizes. Ranch style beans, for those who don’t know, are also called Chili style beans in other brands. They’re basic white beans or pinto beans (depending on brand) with a spicy sauce just right for chili, or for a side dish with some zip. Lots of times, I open the can, grab a spoon, and eat them cold right from the can. Their flavor is amazing. (Bush’s has also added a line of “Steakhouse” grillin’ beans and many of them add chunks of peppers, mostly jalapenos that are also very very good.) I use ranch style beans to enhance dishes all the time.
Back to the dinner I was making. While things were heating up on the stove, I got the rest of the ingredients together. I poured chilled salsa into a bowl for easy access. I shredded sharp cheddar cheese into another bowl. Then I chopped a fresh tomato, and some cilantro, and as an afterthought, some chopped cabbage we had laying around. Everything sat in bowls ready to be used next to some flour tortillas.
When all was in readiness, I called the FiL over, and we filled our bowls. Rice as the first layer, beans as the second. Next came cheese, then pork, then more cheese. Tomatoes, salsa, cilantro, and it was done. A bowlful of pure goodness. Only thing that would have made it better was a glass of wine on the side. We both forgot the cabbage and the flour tortillas. It was so good.
So, from one pork roast, we got tacos, soup, rice bowls, and there’s still some left. Any ideas what to do with it? I’m open for suggestions.
I don’t really consider myself a 5 star cook, or even a two star cook. I think I’m pretty much a run-of-the-mill standard type cook who can follow a recipe, and modify it to my own tastes and the tastes of my family. My “family” changed over the years, as most people’s does. When I first moved to the D.C. area, I shared an apartment with two guys in the Navy who immediately elected me “chief cook and bottle washer.” I told them no deal. If I was cooking, they were cleaning. For one reason or another, we decided to pool our resources into one account and pay the rent (no utilities) and buy groceries. We didn’t know each other very well, so I was left to figure out what we liked in common.
“Okay, guys, before we go grocery shopping, I need to know what you like to eat. Are you allergic to anything? Is there something you really dislike?”
Turns out, they liked everything. They didn’t want anything fried since they were both trying to lose weight. They wanted healthy style cooking with loads of vegetables. Salads were good. The occasional treat would be welcome, but dessert wasn’t a standing order.
We decided breakfast and lunch would be up the individual and I would make dinner each night we were all home, about five times a week. They would alternate the cleaning between them. That didn’t work and a couple of times I had to go on strike to get clean dishes to cook with.
The first night, I fixed tacos. We sat down to the table with a bowl of Spanish rice, refried beans, and all the fixin’s for tacos. The looked blankly at the table.
“How do we do this?”
Turns out, they’d only ever had premade tacos, never made on their own. I showed them how to fill and build a taco shell, and we all tucked in with gusto. They ate some of the beans, and a little bit of rice, but I didn’t pay much attention to that. Not everyone likes rice or refried beans. And I could take them to work for my lunch for a couple of days.
It was a good meal, a good time, and I learned a little about the guys.
The next night, since I had a little more time, I baked herbed chicken (boneless, skinless chicken breast because they were both watching their weight), baked a couple of potatoes, and made a giant bowl of salad. I placed everything on the table, we all sat down, and I filled my bowl full of salad. I ate two bowls of salad and one piece of chicken, while they ate their potatoes and a bunch of chicken, but no salad.
I was puzzled but decided they just weren’t in the mood for salad that night.
The next night, I don’t remember what I fixed, but I put the salad out again since it was still good and there was plenty of it. We ate, and I ate salad, and they didn’t touch it. I didn’t say anything, but wondered again about it.
The next night, I freshened the salad but didn’t put out a big bowl of it and when I was the only person eating salad, I decided not to make salad anymore. I tossed the rest of the salad down the disposal because it wouldn’t last another day of recycling and went on from there.
After that, there were still plenty of veggies, but no salads.
It was actually a really good experience for my cooking skills. They never protested if I made spaghetti three nights in a row as I was trying to get the taste just right. They liked when I went into a cake phase and made a different cake each Friday night. I was able to experiment and test and play around. I’d never eat as much as I was cooking at the time so it was good that food was seldom wasted.
Inevitably, there came a time, sooner rather than later, when they wanted to talk about the menus.
“We’re not losing any weight. Are you cooking healthy?”
Yes, I replied.
“No more frying.”
I don’t fry anything.
“Stop making gravy. It’s fattening.”
I don’t make gravy. All I do is clarify and reduce pan juices. It’s called de-glazing.
“No more cookies or cakes.”
I can do that. But if I decide to make cookies in the future, just realize I made them with ingredients I bought and don’t touch them.
“We don’t understand why we’re not losing weight.”
Try eating less and exercising more.
“The food tastes so good, it’s hard not to eat all of it.”
I manage to survive on smaller portions.
“Why don’t you make more salads?”
Wait a minute, I made salad the first week we lived here, and neither of you touched it.
“That’s because you put things in it we don’t like.”
“Well, green onions, and croutons, and carrots, and tomatoes.”
You guys don’t like TOMATOES?!!! I’ve never heard of that.
“We’ve never liked tomatoes.”
So basically you’re happy with a bowl of shredded lettuce?
They nodded happily. I started putting out bowls of shredded lettuce. They ate it.
We had repetitions of that conversation for the next three years, with them trying to blame me for their lack of weight loss. By the time we left the apartment three years later I was getting married and ready to start a new chapter in my life. They were starting new chapters in their lives as the Navy had severed their employment due to their lack of weight loss.
I have since then met other people who don’t like tomatoes, but I think they’re probably aliens or something.
I also refer to this story as the time an apple might have saved my life.
In my youth, about a hundred years ago, one of my favorite activities was hiking and backpacking. This continued on into my adulthood, and I still keep it up, although on a MUCH more scaled down version than I used to. The time of this incident, I was at the height of my hiking infatuation and spent as much time on the trail as possible. I had all the “right” equipment, and went out well-equipped. Hell, I even drove a Jeep Wrangler, the Jeep Jeep, with all the doors off.
One weekend, I wanted to hike to one of my favorite overlooks where the Shenandoah River runs into the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry. I’ve hiked this trail many times, and never failed to be awestruck. I wanted to go out on a Sunday morning and spend about an hour at the overlook. It was fall, the trees were going to be spectacular, but I hoped there wouldn’t be many people.
I was in luck because it turned out to be a cool, drizzly, gray kinda day. I put together my favorite trail lunch and slid it into my day pack. I owned four different packs at the time, each one totally necessary to whatever kind of hiking I planned to do. Now I own one. It works out well.
Food on the trail is vitally important. Anything can happen when you’re hiking, and having the right food with you can ultimately save your life. I knew one seasoned hiker who kept 2 cups of dried dog food in a zip lock baggie in his pack at all times. His reason was he would never be tempted to eat it so it would always be available, and in an emergency, it would keep him alive since it kept his dogs alive and well nourished. I never went that far, but I did try to tailor my meals to the activity. Since I was only going to be out for a few hours according to the plan, I only packed lightly. My favorite trail lunch is two PBJs, homemade cookies, a banana, and a glass of wine. (I used to have a bota bag specially for wine and nothing else.) I threw in a couple of ripe apples as an afterthought. I was pretty sure they’d be coming home with me, but just in case I was still hungry after the hike, they’d make a nice snack at the end of the hike.
My ex-wife was supposed to go along, but bailed at the last moment because of the drizzle. She didn’t want to hike over slick rocks, or be out in the cool temps when she could be home relaxing in the warm apartment. So off I went to commune with nature.
This particular hike is pretty rigorous. I was first told about it by a friend who made one of the roughest sketches of how to get to the trail head as any I’ve ever seen. How I managed to find it amazes and amuses me still today. I’ve taken several people there and everyone is staggered by the hike, but impressed by the overlook. Partner/Spouse often refers to it as the one where you hike uphill both ways.
It’s kind of true. You really are just climbing a mountain. The trail doesn’t have many switchbacks, but the first one gives you a wonderful view of the Potomac River. It’s pretty steep. I tend to hike as fast as I walk, so by the time I get there, I’m usually a little winded so it makes a good place to take a break. Then you continue up the mountain toward the interior, away from the river. After 45 minutes, you arrive at a fork in the trail. The left takes you further up the mountain. The right takes you to the overlook, if you know it’s there. I take the right trail, always. You continue to climb until the mountain turns rocky then follow the blazes to get to the trail down to the overlook. It’s a spectacular view. When you return, you must climb up the overlook trail to the main trail before heading back down the mountain. Hence the “uphill both ways” comments. It’s rocky and not well blazed, but it’s hard to get lost once you find the turn off. There are some Civil War battlements, etc. you can view along the way.
I was lucky this day. There was no one on the trail. I was breaking spider webs across the trail letting me know I was the first person that day. I took some pictures of some streams and some leaves, but mostly kept hiking till I arrived at the overlook. Score! No one there! I could enjoy the peace and quiet by myself. Sometimes, it’s so crowded that it’s standing room only. So I carefully made my way over the slick rocks to the edge where I could sit, think, eat, watch, swing my legs, and just enjoy the day. I sat for about a half hour. I wanted to write in my journal but it was much too wet for that.
Finally, I decided to pull out my lunch. There’s something deeply satisfying about biting into a PBJ and tasting the earthiness of the peanuts combined with the sweetness of the grape jelly. Even the bread adds it own particular squishiness to the overall impact. And I had two of them! I sipped my glass of wine, but wasn’t very interested in it so I tossed it over the side. A mistake a discovered in a few minutes. Water was fine for my lunch. I ate the banana, setting skin to the side. Another mistake, along with setting the apples to the side. I’m a firm believer in Pack it In, Pack it Out so I didn’t just toss my trash away. But I did leave everything setting beside me as I continued to watch the rivers flow by, wondering about fish and ducks, and thinking about a story I wanted to start working on soon.
Then I heard a snuffle. I thought someone else was visiting the overlook and brought their dog, so I turned about to greet them, and froze.
There was a small Black Bear standing on the trail between me and the main trail.
It was a small bear, maybe an adolescent, certainly not as big as an adult bear. It was looking around trying to find something, but ignoring me completely. I ran through everything I knew about black bears, admittedly very little. And I quickly reviewed my options. I could try to climb down the overlook over a hundred feet. I was experienced at rock climbing so I figured I’d do okay. The rocks were slick with rain so the possibility of falling was very real. I could see my Jeep parked just a few yards away from the overlook so I figured if I fell, I’d be able to crawl to my Jeep and get help (this was in the days before cell phones.) I also figured I might be able to outflank the bear by climbing over rocks to an alternate trail several yards away. Slipping was a real possibility there, too.
Then I noticed the bear’s nostrils were flaring. He was sniffing something. I was sweating a bit, but I wasn’t redolent of anything except peanut butter, but maybe apples!!
The bear was smelling the ripe apples, and probably the banana skin, and likely the wine I’d tossed over the side of the overlook. I’d violated one of the primary rules in hiking by making myself a “visible” target though scents. Black bears have good eye sight, but even better scent sight. I grabbed the apples and gently tossed them to the side with minimal movement, then did the same with banana skin. When the bear started to move toward them, I grabbed my pack and started running, fast! I was certain that critter was right behind me, loping along and laughing at me as he caught up to me with no effort. I don’t think my feet touched the ground more than a dozen times as I learned to fly down the mountain that day.
When I finally reached my Jeep and pulled away, I glanced up and saw a small black head moving around the rocks I’d just been sitting on. Even though there was over a hundred feet separating us, I thought I could see him lapping the rocks. Probably drinking the wine I’d tossed out.
I drove home, full of adrenaline, and ecstatic that I’d managed to escape the bear. About three hundred feet before my turn off home, a siren and flashing lights made me pull over. Damn! Another bear, but probably one I couldn’t out-maneuver. He was a young guy, younger than me, and somehow we got to talking about my bear. I had him laughing as I finished my story, telling him I was driving fast because I was certain that bear was still chasing me. We both finished laughing.
He gave me the ticket, anyway.
But I’m certain those apples saved my life.
Okay, so spices, herbs, and seasonings. When I was first trying to get a handle on the whole cooking thing, my mom gave me a simple recipe for spaghetti sauce. I browned and drained a pound of hamburger. I added a large can of tomato sauce, and a smaller can of tomato puree, and a smaller can of tomato paste. Then I added some garlic powder and onion powder and some dried oregano flakes. I added two cups of water, brought it all to a boil, and simmered until it thickened, stirring occasionally to make certain it didn’t burn. For months, that was spaghetti sauce in my house. I didn’t realize until later that she was just giving me a simplified version of her own sauce because she thought it would be easier for me to handle. After awhile, I grew dissatisfied the bland nature of the spaghetti sauce and ventured into the pantry where she had an entire shelf filled with spices and herbs. I’m sure many of them she’d had for over a decade. I’m also sure she had no idea exactly what was on that shelf beyond the first layer or two.
I pulled every bottle, can, tin, jar, and packet off that shelf. If it looked old and dusty, or looked like it had “gone off”, I tossed it into the trash. Then I sorted everything by the kind of container it was in and matched large and small containers together. Then I alphabetized everything and started the real job. I read every single one of those containers. I didn’t just read them, I sniffed them too, to find out what their properties were. If needed, I tasted them. Then I grouped everything by sweet and savory (although back then, when I didn’t know any better, it was “sweet” and “not sweet”.) Because I was going to make spaghetti sauce, I also set aside anything that said “good for Italian cooking.” At the end of two hours, perhaps a little more, I not only knew exactly what mom had in her spice coffers, but I also knew what spices and herbs were supposed to be good for different styles of cooking, according to their own containers.
So when I made that batch of spaghetti sauce, I added a little of this and a little of that. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, preferring to surprise everyone. Back then, you didn’t worry to much about allergic reactions, or personal taste preferences. When we sat down to eat, everyone remarked on how flavorful the sauce was and mom asked me what I’d done. I proudly explained my process and everyone told me to keep it up. Over time, listening to my family’s preferences, I omitted or cut back the amount of bay leaf I’d use, or not use chili flakes with cayenne pepper. I’d found a jar called “Italian Seasoning Blend” and started using that as a jumping off place. After a long while, I found myself back to garlic, onion, and oregano, with sometimes adding some basil. Mom knew what she was doing.
After a lifetime of cooking, I found there are some herbs and spices that I keep around all the time. They match my flavor palette and Partner/Spouse likes them. I call them the staples of my spice rack and always make sure I have them on hand. There are others that will come and go as needed, but these are always here. So, in no particular order:
Garlic – I keep this one around in fresh, dried, and powdered forms. Nothing is better than fresh garlic and it’s actually really easy to use. Sometimes, though, I’ll reach for a bulb or clove (a section of a bulb) and it will be bad. So I’ll have to get out the dried or powdered version. And for the record, we no longer use the jarred version cuz they don’t seem to have any flavor. Garlic enhances everything, except maybe peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And donuts, although I bet someone has made a garlic donut at some point.
Salt – I used to keep just the standard round blue box of iodized salt around for decades. Then I learned more about salt. I much prefer a salt grinder now. I keep boxes of kosher salt around. I even have bottles of pink rock salt from the Himalayas but that’s mostly for chuckles. I also have the standard blue box, but it lasts a lot longer than it used to. Now, the salt I reach for depends entirely on what I’m using it for.
Pepper – Salt and Pepper just go hand in hand, don’t they? I no longer even have a box of ground pepper around anymore. I use fresh ground black pepper exclusively, when I use pepper at all. When I started tasting how other herbs and spices tasted in combination, my use of black pepper declined to the point of almost non-existence.
Ginger – Ginger in any form is a great flavor, but it’s best used fresh. Unless you’re baking with it. Ground ginger is best for baking. Unfortunately, fresh ginger root will expire pretty quickly and you don’t want that stuff around, so I buy it when I’m going to use it. Ground ginger we get by the half pound bags. We use a lot of it. And we keep candied ginger in the freezer. We also have ginger tea, and most of the time we have ginger ale hanging around. Ginger is one of those natural “feel good” herbs that helps upset stomachs, among other things. The fact that it tastes good is just a plus.
Cinnamon – Cinnamon is the only tree bark that’s good to eat. It has a highly pungent and pleasing aroma. In concentration, it produces a heat worthy of a five alarm fire. In much smaller amounts, it provides a taste and flavor that sends many into ecstasy. Combined with chocolate, it’s become the unofficial taste of Valentine’s Day. I like cinnamon okay; I just don’t get crazy for it. I know some people who would put cinnamon on there flip flops and eat them.
Basil – Easily, one of my favorite plants. It’s versatile and easy to grow. Just make sure it gets water, pinch off the flower buds when they appear, and two plants will handle an entire Spring-Summer-Fall season of meals. By itself, it’s tremendous on pasta. Added to sauces or soups, and it brightens flavors well. It’s so good, it was the only topping along with cheese and sauce for pizza Margherita.
Mint – I love mint. I love growing it and I love cooking with it. I don’t use it as often as I should but that’s partly because I just like having pots of mint hanging around. Of course, the best way to enjoy mint is with sugar, lime, and rum. Mojito!!!
Sage – With Chicken. Nuff said.
Cumin – Cumin has an earthy, hearty flavor that complements beef and enhances the inherent beefiness of meat. It’s a staple in Mexican cooking. It lends a light tang as well. Just don’t over do it because then all you’ll taste is cumin. It comes in seed form and ground. Ground cumin is the easiest from to use and certainly the most popular.
Citrus – Whether you use citrus fresh, zest, juice, or crystal, it’s all good. Lime has a unique flavor that enhances pork and chicken. Orange has a sweet earthiness that can be enjoyed on its own or blended with nearly any meat on the planet. Lemon can brighten plain pasta, plain chicken, plain pork, plain plain. It’s just that good. I keep the crystals around all the time, but buy it fresh to use for specific dishes when needed. Growing up where I did in Arizona, citrus is a staple for us.
So what are your “go to” spices?
As I was writing this, I was reminded of something I heard a comedienne talking about years ago. She’d been to a bridal shower for a not-too-close friend and one of the ladies had purchased a huge spice rack and thought it would be “cute” to wrap each spice individually. She said for half an hour they were all sitting around saying “Oooh, paprika!” in hushed tones.
Oh, and just a side note: spice racks ruin spices. Spices should be stored in cool dry places to extend their shelf life.
Last year, I wrote a post about the Annual Tomato Festival in a nearby town.
It’s a six hour event and it’s a pretty big deal to the people around here. We went early and left early after having seen everything in about 45 minutes. It was too hot to really stay around and support everything that was happening.
Well, it was held again this past weekend and we showed up about a half hour after opening. We didn’t ride the tram this time since we knew our way from the parking area to the festival.
It was mildly disappointing, for a couple of reasons. First, the area has started a new event to be held next weekend called the Annual Watermelon Chucking Contest, wherein they use highly powered cannon-like devices to toss watermelons across the river. Because of this, they didn’t have the watermelon chucking contest. Last year, you could set the criteria of the cannon and press Shoot and watch your watermelon sail over the river, hoping to hit the other side.
Second, the number of booths had dwindled noticeably. Last year, there weren’t a huge amount of booths, enough to easily visit each one in an hour. This year, the same booths were there, but less of them. The Humane Society was absent so there weren’t any dogs and cats to cuddle. And the used books booth wasn’t there which we had all been looking forward to. There was only one place to buy food, one place to buy drinks, and one place to buy sno-cones. The lemonade at the drinks stand was remarkable only in the fact that it didn’t taste nearly as good as the little girls’ stand across the street from a couple of weeks ago.
But despite the minor disappointments, it was a fun morning. It was great to be out and not at work. It was good to be in a small community enjoying the day and supporting a worthwhile cause, the local volunteer fire dept. We bought a new filet knife made of carbon steel. Sharp as a scalpel. I haven’t cut myself yet. FiL bought one antique pocket knife and two brand new ones. He whittles and carves so knives are like toys to him. We got more information on upcoming events. We watched some ladies carding wool into fibers and spinning that into yarn.
And we watched some people have a tomato race. The official race took place long after we left, but they allowed people to race against each other for fun and practice. Like an egg race, the competitors balance a ripe tomato on a spoon and run or walk fast through a course without dropping the tomato. One little girl kept dropping her tomato and picking it up until she put it in her pocket and just carried her spoon upright to the finish line. Her brother cried foul, of course, so they both got prizes.
Since it’s on a river, there were boats everywhere, and places to walk along the water. There were cool breezes to enjoy, people to talk to, and even people we recognized and recognized us.
Before we left, we bought some heirloom tomatoes, some lettuce, and other salad stuff. We had home fried chicken, baked rice, and fresh salad. Way good stuff.
And you know what? We had a really good time after all.
What? You’ve never heard of baked rice? It’s so easy!!
Heat your oven to 350. Pour two cups of chicken broth into a dutch oven with a tight lid. Add one cup of rice, and any of your favorite seasonings. Go light on the seasoning since the cooking process will intensify the flavors. We also add chopped onion sometimes. Cover the pot, and bake for about 45 minutes. Take out of the oven and let it sit for 15-20 minutes then serve. Easy peasy. If the rice is too soft, reduce the cooking time next time.