Post #578 A Meal of the Slithery Kind

June 30, 2018 at 6:56 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snakes, and their aquatic counterparts eels, have never figured as a major component in my life.  I’m not afraid of snakes, but I have a healthy respect for them.  It’s a “live and let live” relationship.  Even if I find one inside, I generally don’t kill it; I try to herd it outside.  Where I grew up, snakes (mostly the of the killer variety) were just a fact of life.  You got used to it.  My mom never got used to it.  In truth, there were only four kinds of snakes that ever bothered her:  big ones, little ones, dead ones, and live ones.

There was a time when I was in high school and my brother and I were walking home from the bus stop.  We walked into the house to find my mom a dithering basket case huddled on the couch.  Mom was the most fearless person I knew, so to see her like this stopped my in my tracks.  Turned out my little brother had kept a snake for a pet and it had gotten loose.  Mom found it, quite by accident, as she was walking down the hall to the laundry room and the snake was slithering up the hall to whatever it could find.  I put mom to bed, called dad at work (who replied in his deadliest tones) and started straightening the house up.

Dad arrived soon after with bags of fast food hamburgers and fries.  We all sat to eat and as my brother sat down, dad said, “No, not till you find that snake.”  A couple of hours later, after my school work was done, I started looking for it too, but dad nixed that idea quickly and succinctly.  “No you’re not.”  My brother did eventually find the snake around two in the morning and set it free, whereupon dad made him finish off the cold burgers and fries.  His lesson was learned, though.  He never brought another wild critter into the house again.  That I knew of.

One time, when Partner/Spouse and were hiking during the weekend of our commitment ceremony, he exhibited one of his superpowers: levitation.  We were in a national park along the seaside walking an asphalt path.  We were talking about nothing in particular.  I was a seasoned hiker and backpacker so while we were enjoying the path and nature, I was scanning the path behind and ahead.  I noticed a stick in the path that looked odd.  I put my hand on his shoulder to stop him.

“Wait a second,” I said.  I walked slowly and heavily toward the stick which lifted its head and slowly started to slither away.

Upon which Partner/Spouse levitated about 500 yards down the path.  We still talk about it today.

The aquatic variety of snake, the eel, I don’t have as much experience with.  I know that people eat them a lot.  I’ve read loads of different ways to prepare them.  But I’ve never had opportunity (or desire) to make them or eat them so I don’t know much about how they taste.

However, one time while I was in China, I was walking through a local market with a colleague.  We had already seen the textiles and electronics, and we were making out way to the fresh fruits and veggies.  To get there, we needed to walk through the fish market.  The thing about fish markets is people think they smell bad.  That’s not true.  As long as the fish is fresh, there is no rank odor.  At least not in my opinion.  It simply smells like fresh fish.  I find that butcheries smell worse, at least, to me.  So I was enjoying seeing what was available locally and trying to identify the various types of fish, largely unsuccessfully.

We saw vats of fish still swimming; we saw trays of whole fish gutted and scaled; we saw trays of gigantic fish cut into family sized portions.  We saw crabs by the bushels; we saw mounds of shellfish and bivalves.  And we saw aquariums full of eels.  It looked like there were more ells than the water could support.  And while we watched, people were snapping them up as quickly as the vendors could get them out of the water.  The Rule (see Post #3) dictates that if several thousand people are enjoying something, it’s not something I should be turning my nose up at.  But I didn’t have the opportunity to try any at the time, or since.  But my mind was sort of made up as I watched three or four eels swimming as hard and as desperately as they could in about two inches of water in a gutter in a misbegotten attempt for freedom.  I know I saw two escape.  Don’t know about the others.

The veggie market was nice.

So what’s all this got to do with cooking?  My mind works strangely sometimes (okay, I’ll fess up, most of the times) and for some reason, recently, I was thinking about a class I took in high school.  You all know I grew up in the desert of the southwest, and I was interested in learning all I could about the desert and the animals and plants and survival.  So I took a course in desert biology.  I found it fascinating.  The teacher outfitted the classroom as a lab and there were examples of local flora and fauna all over the place.  There were even live rattlesnakes.  The once nearest my desk hated me for some reason.  It would be completely docile until I sat down.  Then it would spend the next 50 minutes buzzing its tail and glaring at me.  It was like that the whole semester I was in that class.

One day, towards the end of the semester, the teacher had a couple of older students come for a demonstration.  They had a couple of dead, skinned, and gutted rattlesnakes and an electric frying pan.  I watched entranced as they sectioned the beast, tossed it in flour and set them aside.  Then they heated oil in the frying pan and fried up the rattlers until they were golden brown.  Each person got a couple of pieces of rattler to try.

Tasted like chicken.  Seriously.

But what that showed me is that anywhere you are, there is good food to be had as long as you’re not afraid to try it.

After I was finished, I looked at that other snake buzzing and glaring at me and thought, “You just watch out, bub!”

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Post #577 Bad Ideas That Only Got Worse

June 24, 2018 at 9:11 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I think I’ve mentioned once or twice or a dozen times that my mom was an uninspired cook.  What she liked to cook, she cooked very well.  But she didn’t enjoy cooking very much so she was constantly looking for ways to make it simpler, less expensive, and something her family would enjoy.  Some of her ideas were truly disastrous.  This picture reminded me of a phase she went through where everything was made with cream of something soup.

There are so many things wrong with this picture, it would take two posts to discuss it all.  So I won’t.  But suffice to say that toaster waffled covered in tuna, cream of mushroom soup, and green olives stuffed with pimentos while a “garnish” of what could be parsley is likely the worst thing ever.

Except maybe these ideas my mom came up with, or was told about.

The first truly terrible idea was a spam casserole.  Spam, in my humble opinion, should be wiped off the face of the planet.  It’s not even fit for sharks to eat.  But the premise was simple.  You sliced a can of spam into equal slices and laid them on the bottom of a baking dish.  Then you took a box of Au Gratin potato mix (remember freeze-dried potatoes?) and sprinkled half of it over the spam.  Then you put another layer of spam, and finished with a layer of potatoes.  Then, following the package directions on the box of potatoes, you mixed the sauce powder with milk and poured it on.  Things got a little dicey at this point because along with milk, you were supposed to blend in a can of cream of celery soup.  Or cream of chicken, or cream of mushroom, whatever you liked.  Then that mess got poured over the top.  Then you put a layer of grated cheddar cheese over the top and baked it following the package instructions for the potatoes.  Then you ate that mess.  We had it exactly twice before we rose up in revolt.  Our stomachs could only stand so much, after all.

Another idea she had wasn’t bad in theory, but execution sucked.  She was looking for a way to get everyone to eat more vegetables.  That always struck me as odd because we loved vegetables in our family.  We constantly had fresh salad on the table and there were seldom any leftovers on that, maybe due to some of her less successful attempts at culinary legend status.  But in this dish, she would drain a can of chicken then dump a can of cream of chicken soup into a small skillet.  She would boil noodles and frozen chopped broccoli and drain them.  Then she mixed them together and sprinkled parmesan cheese over the top and served it, with a salad come to think of it.  It wasn’t too terribly bad, but sometimes she would mix the soups and you’d have cream of chicken, mushroom, and celery fighting for dominance in your mouth, when all you really wanted was to eat the chicken and noodles.

Someone once gave her a new “easy” recipe for spaghetti sauce.  Mom’s spaghetti sauce was legendary.  One close friend gave my mom the highest compliment she could when she proclaimed it “As good as Ragu!”  So why she ever wanted to do mess with it was odd.  It was a meatless sauce.  All you did was mix together two cans of cream of tomato soup, two cans of cream of mushroom soup, one cream of something I don’t remember what, 2 cups of water, and one tablespoon of mixed Italian seasoning.  That got cooked and stirred until it was all blended and the water simmered off leaving a thick, gelatinous, very bland tasting mess that you put over pasta.  No amount of garlic or parmesan cheese could fix that.  She really tried to make that good because it was so easy to do.  But since she like her spaghetti sauce too, she finally decided not to mess with success and the cream soup spaghetti went away.

Another one she tried with some moderate success was a beef and mushroom stew.  She’d take stew meat and cut each piece into smaller bites so it would cook faster.  She’d brown the meat with some garlic and onion.  Then she’d pour two cans of cream of mushroom soup over it and two cans of water.  Then she’d cook it slowly, stirring every few minutes to keep it from burning to the pan and adding more water as needed.  After a couple of hours, the meat would be falling apart tender (what is usually referred to as “fork tender”).  Sometimes she would add a cup of sour cream at the end and sometimes she didn’t.  Then she’d serve it hot over noodles or rice or mashed potatoes.  I haven’t made this in decades, but we used to refer to it as a mock stroganoff.

Hands down, though, the worst thing she ever made with creamed soup was a mess she did just once with cheese soup.  She baked a chicken and sprinkled it with herbs and garlic powder.  When it was done, and while it was resting, she drained off the juices from the baking dish and got rid of as much fat as she could.  Then she put the juices into a pan and heat them and added a can of cheese soup, butter, worcestershire sauce, and a few drops of tabasco.  That would be a sauce to pour over anything on your plate.  It was thick and spicy and disgusting.  And when it cooled off, it got worse.  Even the dogs wouldn’t eat it.  (These are the same dogs that couldn’t get into her microwaved bread.)

I haven’t really looked seriously at canned soup in years since fresh is so much better and pretty easy to make.  Once in a while I’ll see someone in the stores grabbing cans of cream soup, and I wonder if they’re going to eat it as soup or as sauce.  Either way, I don’t want to know.

Post #576 The Hungry Time

June 17, 2018 at 8:48 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My father passed away a few years ago so I don’t get to wish him a Happy Fathers’ Day anymore.  But I remember his legacy several times a year, and today is one of those days.  And what was is legacy, you may ask?  Well, I’ll tell you.

Like mom, Dad could not stand to see anyone hungry.  He was a Marine for a full career, and non-commissioned officer for a large part of it.  Weekends and holidays were always given over to working around the house and yard, or fishing, and drinking beer, and grilling in the back yard.  They always made a festival out of it.  Even if it was just burgers or hot dogs, there was always plenty of lemonade or soda for the kids, and plenty of good side dishes like tossed salad, potato salad, potato chips, etc., and usually a cake.  When corn was in season, there were ears of roasted corn slathered in butter.  At some point in the afternoon, the pool saw a lot of service.

There were always  one or two friends about, sometimes as many as ten.  It never got too rowdy, but it was typically loud and boisterous.  Dad would reach out to the guys and girls working under him and if they had not plans, they were invited to our house to relax and have fun.  Like I said, he couldn’t  stand seeing someone left out, or hungry.  I’ve seen him give his sandwich to a dog he thought was hungry.

That’s the legacy he and mom left behind, instilled in their children and grand children.  None of us can stand seeing anyone hungry without doing something about it.  My brother has people at his house constantly.  My sister sets out bread, cheese, fruit, vegetables, and nuts in the midafternoon on Saturday and Sunday and feeds anyone who shows up at her house.  And we’re always inviting people over to eat, or taking food to work.

But, and this is a big but, summer has started.

That shouldn’t be anything but happy for every kid in America.  Except for millions of them, it’s the beginning of the hungry time.  One in every five child in America is going hungry.  Schools have stepped into the breach and have fed breakfast and lunch and sometimes a late afternoon meal to millions of kids nationwide.  But schools are now out for the summer, and these kids are hungry.  Something as simple as toast is out of their reach.  Some communities are helping, some churches, but the efforts are not wide spread, not funded well, and need our help.

This is something I’ve written about before, and the message is still the same.  Your spare dollars can assist in reaching hungry kids.  And it can be easy.  Each time you shop for groceries, pick up an extra jar of peanut butter to put in the food donation bin.  Find out where food banks in your community are and volunteer to assist.  You don’t need to single handedly feed every kid in America, but if you can help with the ones in your area, it alleviates part of the problem.  I watch for any time I can donate a dollar, or box of mac and cheese, or a can of tuna.  It doesn’t have to be big.  It’s the small efforts, if everyone does it, that count.

All you can do is what you can do, so it’s time.  The hungry time is here, but it doesn’t have to be.  Thanks in advance for everything you can do.

Post #575 Pizza Time!

June 10, 2018 at 4:34 PM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #575 Pizza Time!

Does anyone remember the first pizza they ate?  Yeah, me neither.  I do know that I’ve been eating pizza for decades, and I’ve eaten it all over the world.  I’ve had pizza with red sauce, white sauce, curry sauce, garlic sauce, and no sauce.  I’ve eaten pizza with every imaginable kind of topping, even grilled squid.  It was good.  I’ve eaten round pizza, square pizza, rectangular pizza, free form pizza, pizza strips, pizza rolls, thin crust, thick crust, medium crust, alternate crust.  I’ve made my own pizza, and I’ve eaten pizza made by other people, places, or factories.

Pizza is probably one of my favorite foods.  And if it’s made properly, it can also be one of the healthiest.  There’s just something about the combination of tomato sauce and cheese that is universally appealing.  One of my favorite comic strips had the family sitting around the dinner table with a pizza.  The little girl said, “Don’t forget to take off all the toppings I don’t like.”  The mom did and the little girl said, “Not so much cheese on it.”  The mom fixed it and the little girl said, “Scrape off the sauce.  I don’t like too much sauce.”  When she was done the mom was frustrated and said, “That’s just wet triangular bread!”  And the little girl said, “I just love pizza.”

There are pizza snacks that go along with the pizza technology.  Some are microwavable, but I prefer to cook them in the oven.  Microwaves do terrible things to dough.  And I’m seldom in that much of a hurry.  Most of the time, pizza snacks are uninspired, but some are truly terrible.  I experimented with making mini pizzas when I was a kid.  I used toasted bread or English muffins for the crust and grated cheddar cheese and jarred “pizza sauce”.   I had mixed results, but when you’re a perpetually hungry teenager whose standards aren’t very high, nearly anything works.

Over the years, I’ve refined some of those results.  I’ve used my own hand made marina sauce.  I’ve played around with a mix of cheeses to include mozzarella and parmesan.  Toppings became whatever was at hand, but usually a mix of veggies and meats.  I’ve flipped the crust over in the style of a hand pie or a calzone.  But the only real pizza snack that I’ve found that I’ve truly enjoyed were accidents.

First, let me define what I mean by a pizza snack.  It should be small enough to be eaten in two or three bites.  It should have all the elements that define a pizza: tomato sauce, cheese, and a crust of some sort.  The crust can NOT be soggy.  Whenever possible, a topping should be incorporated.  It should be easy to eat with your fingers.  It shouldn’t take a huge production team to make it.

My first pizza snack was really an off shoot of following a recipe from ATK.  They made a thin crust, free from pizza on the grill.  It was a real production, but once you got used to making it, it was pretty easy.  You just had to be very careful about burning it.  You grilled the crust briefly on both sides, pulled it off, added the pizza fixings, set it on the grill until the cheese melted, then served it hot.  For the pizza snacks, I grilled the crust then finished it in the oven.  I sliced it into bite sized pieces, crisped it in the oven for a couple of minutes more, then served.

My second pizza snack I got the idea from a pizza I was eating at the time.  We had ordered a pepperoni pizza and the restaurant had been generous with the pepperoni.  So generous, several pieces had stayed on the crust and baked/burned into the crust.  This took on a flavor all its own.  The next time I made pizza, I left out a small chunk of the crust and rolled it out separately into a thin sheet and put some already cooked pepperoni on it so there was very little dough surface uncovered.  I flashed baked it, high temp short time, so the pepperoni crisped, and the crust wasn’t burned too much.  When it cooled enough to handle it, I cut it into strips to serve.

Corollary to this one, I also discovered that if you place thin sliced pepperoni in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about fifteen minutes at 375, then take off the baking sheet and allow to cool, they crisp up and become pepperoni chips.  So good to eat!

Today, though, I discovered a new pizza snack.  Weekends for us are a time for doing errands we don’t have time for during the week.  The primary one is grocery shopping.  Since we know we’re going to be on the go for several hours, we always make certain we get something for lunch that day.  Sometimes we eat out, but mostly we’re rushing home to put things away and to relax.  So today, we bought something called Pizza Sticks.  When it was time, I baked them for 15 minutes at 375.  They were crispy and filled with cheese and pepperoni and had a spicy marinara sauce for dipping.  They were quite good and checked all the boxes for my pizza snack.  So, of course, I immediately started figuring out how I could make this at home.

The sauce was the easiest part.  It was just tomato sauce with Italian spices in it.  Open a can, shake some spices into it, a little salt, heat it up and let it cool.  You’re done.  You can use a jarred sauce if you like, just make sure it’s one you like and is flavorful enough to carry its role in this.

The pizza sticks were actually rolled in the nature of a spring roll.  The cheese was a low quality mozzarella, and the pepperoni was lacking in bite.  Again, when dipped in the sauce, the overall effect was good.  So here’s what I came up with.

First, use either wonton skins, or spring roll wrappers.  Use something thin so they crisp nicely in the oven.  Spread one open on a surface with plenty of space to work.

Next, lay out a thin slice of mozzarella, but use a good quality.  You want some flavor in the cheese, not just the meltiness and pull of mozzarella.  Put a thin layer of pepperoni (or you favorite topping) on next, then a couple of shavings of parmesan-reggiano cheese for extra flavor.  Then roll them tightly as you would a spring roll.  Fold the sides into the center, then roll the end closest to you tightly until you reach the other end.  Moisten the end before reaching it, and once you’re done rolling, place the roll seam side down on a plate.

When you’re ready to cook, heat the oven to 375.  Spread a piece of foil on a baking sheet and lightly spray with vegetable spray.  Lay the rolls on the tray seam side down and not touching.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Serve warm with cooled sauce for dipping.  The cheese will be melted, the toppings heated, and the whole thing will be delicious!

As always,

Post #574 That Rice Dish

June 3, 2018 at 11:46 AM | Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Post #574 That Rice Dish

As you undoubtedly know, I’m constantly on the lookout for quick and easy and inexpensive meals.  We don’t like eating leftovers immediately in our house (unless it’s cold pizza) so I watch for ways to use up things that I haven’t used up completely.  The ideas and recipes and suggestions come from everywhere.  I get ideas from novels I’m reading (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn gave me several idea for things from stale bread), from television shows (Think America’s Test Kitchen, or Ciao Italia with Lidia Bastianich), from movies (Julie and Julia most recently), and magazines.  Plus, I’m constantly talking to people about food, and cooking, and ingredients.  I want to know what my neighbors are making that smells so good.  I want to know what the wonderful aroma is as I’m walking around the back streets of Paris.  I want to know how to make that loaf of bread that tastes so good from the farmer’s market.

A couple of days ago, I was talking to the young girl who sits behind me at work about food.  Things were slow and we had time and she mentioned a  particular rice dish her grandma makes, that she’s adapted to her own tastes.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  We love rice at our house.  I can talk for hours about the different types and flavors rice has.

Her:  Yeah, we use a lot of rice too.  My grandma makes a great rice dish.

M:  Oh!  Wanna share that?

H:  It’s really simple.  It’s just layers of rice and hamburger with cheese on top.

M:  I assume it’s cooked rice, right?

H: (nodding) Yes, whatever leftover rice you have.  Nothing more than a day old, though.  It gets pretty gnarly otherwise.

M:  You cook the hamburger first?

H:  Yeah, I just sauté it with onions and garlic till it’s cooked through, and drain all the fats out of it.  Then I put in about three tablespoons of tomato paste and half a cup of tomato sauce.  I cook that till its bubbly and add frozen vegetables.

M:  So, what, you layer it like a lasagna?  Rice, burger, cheese, rice burger cheese?

H:  Sort of.  You spray a baking dish with vegetable spray, then put a layer of rice down.  Make the bottom layer a little thicker than the others.  Then put a layer of the hamburger and veggies, then more rice, etc. till the dish is full or you run out of stuff.  Then top it with a pound of mixed cheese.  My grandma puts ham pieces in the cheese too.  Bake it slow until the cheese turns brown and melts into the rice.  It’s really good.  I leave the ham out of it, though.  It’s too salty.

M:  You could substitute bacon bits for the ham.  That’d be good.  So it’s like a cheesy casserole, then.

H:  It’s got a Portuguese name.  Roughly translates to Something Hidden, you know, cuz the layer of cheese hides the rice and meat underneath.

M:  (nodding) sounds really good.  Are there traditional veggies you use?

H:  No, just whatever is at hand.  It’s a way to use up leftovers.  I use broccoli, or whatever frozen mix I’ve got.

M:  Any spices or seasonings you use?

H:  Just a little salt and pepper in the burger.  Grandma uses pepper flakes, but that gets a little too hot sometimes.

M:  Maybe chili powder to give it a kick.  Or pepper jack cheese?

H:  (smiling and nodding)  That sounds like it would be good.

M:  I think I’d just call it That Rice Dish.

So, that’s why I like talking to people about food.  Here’s the “recipe” as near as I’ve put together.  Haven’t tried this one yet, but I will soon.

That Rice Dish

  • 2-3 cups cooked rice, cooled
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 medium to large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup tomato sauce, or water, or beef broth
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder (less or omit if too hot)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 cups cooked vegetable, cooled and chopped small
  • 3 cups shredded mixed cheeses, mix of sharp and mild, tasty cheeses, Pepper Jack will add extra kick

Heat oven to 325.  Spray an 8×8 inch baking dish lightly with vegetable spray.  Cook ground beef, onion, and garlic over medium heat until beef is no longer pink.  Drain well and return to heat.  Add tomato paste, tomato sauce, cumin, and chili powder and mix well.  Stir in the chopped vegetables.  Cook until bubbly, then removed from heat.  Layer 1/3 of the rice in the bottom of the dish, then half the meat mixture.  Spread another layer of rice, and the rest of the meat mixture.  Top with the final layer of rice.  Spread all the cheese evenly over the top.  Cover with foil and cook in oven for 30 minutes.  Remove foil and leave in oven until cheese turns golden and bubbly.  Remove and cool for ten minutes, then serve hot.  This recipe is meant to use up leftover, so play around with the cheeses and veggies to get whatever flavor combo you like.  You can also play with the meat mixture.  Leftover chicken would be good.  Or left over roast.

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Side Comment:  I’ve never actually state this before, but if you ever want to share one of these posts, please feel free.  I don’t mind in the slightest.

 

 

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