My Kitchen Staples

There are some items that are staples in my pantry–some you may know, others a bit more unusual.  Here they are in no particular order:

1. Smoked spanish paprika.  Not your garden variety paprika, this paprika lends a smoky, zippy flavor on veggies (I use it to make collard greens–adds a nice smoky touch), meats, and especially, eggs–great for rockin’ deviled eggs or a decadent scramble.  And it’s a sexy spice.

2. Roasted seaweed snacks,  I get these at Trader Joe’s, for 99 cents each.  There are several sheets of these crispy, nutty flavored snacks.  At 30 calories per serving, and two servings to a package, these are a great alternative to potato chips–and you get your veggies in, too!

3. Greek yogurt.  Nice, rich and thick, a great pairing with fruit or cereal for breakfast; it’s a wonderful marinade for chicken; makes a nice base for dressings, dips, and sauces; great substitute for mayo for potato salad (or you can use it to cut the mayo content–I like to use half mayo, half yogurt).  And–if you’re suffering from heartburn, a tablespoon full will put out the fire.

4. Tomato paste.  Thin sauce? Thicken it up with this.

5. Anchovies.  Even if you hate ’em, you need ’em.  I use them for improvised Ceasar salad dressing; to boost the meaty flavor of beef stew–and no, you don’t taste the anchovy at all.  Really.  And  anchovy paste, for the same reasons…

6.  The Mighty Avocado.  Use it for more than guacamole.  Avocados, when eaten in moderation, contain good fat.  They’re great in salads, amazing when paired with crab, and you can use them along with the next ingredient for a diet friendly snack…

7. Sardines.  Combine them with avocados to make Alton Brown’s Sherried Sardine Toast  which sounds awful, but is absolutely delicious and waist-friendly. Turn up your nose if you like, but sardines contain omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium (if you eat the bones).  They are also great in pasta–see Mark Bittman’s quick and easy seafood pasta.

8. Garlic paste. For when you don’t feel like peeling, chopping, mincing, or crushing.

9. Seltzer water.  A nice soda substitute, and a means to keep you full so you don’t eat too much.  And it’s always good to be hydrated.

10.  Heavy cream.  To make sauces richer; for creamy scrambled eggs with fluffy curds; to whip with sugar for simple desserts. Or to just eat with berries.

11.  Concentrated broth packets.  Again, from TJ’s–I get chicken and turkey.  Beats boullion cubes.

12.  A chunk of parmigiano-reggiano cheese.  I keep this to grate over pasta dishes, baked tomaotes, veggies. So much better freshly grated than that green can stuff.

13. Tortas! Specifically, Ines Rosales Tortas de Aceite.  They are wonderful, flaky crisps, and they come in savory and sweet flavors, and are wonderful with cheese, coffee, or just a snack.  I love serving these alongside soups or salads, and sweet flavored tortas, such as sweet olive oil and seville orange, are delish paired with sorbets and ice cream.

14.  Dark Chocolate.  Why ask why?

15. Streit’s Matzo Ball and Soup mix.  For colds, flu, and comfort food (and for the times I long for Mel Krupin’s deli).

16.  Pomi chopped tomatoes, imported from Italy.  I use these for the tomato-less winter months, when grocery store tomatoes tend to taste like cardboard.  You can get these for a song at World Market/Cost Plus.

17. Trader Joe’s packets of cumin and chili spiced chickpeas.  I use these to perk up lackluster dishes–stir them into cooked brown rice, for example–to elevate a side dish.  Or, if I’m pressed for time, combine these with cooked brown rice, some leftover meat and veggies, combine, sprinkle with cheese, stir in a little broth and seasonings, then throw it in the oven at 350 until heated through and cheese is bubbly–ta da!–casserole for a busy night.

What are YOUR kitchen go-tos?

Some--not all--of my kitchen staples.

Beachy. Keen.

I’ve gone to the beach a couple of times this year so far, and when it’s a beach road trip, there’s road food.  One weekend, Hubs and I decided to be spontaneous and drive up to Delaware to see what we could see.  I chose a beach from the map–Broadkill Beach, about 25 minutes away from Rehoboth Beach–and set off.

Now, on the way from the Washington D.C. area, off Rt. 404 in Queen Anne, MD, is Hot off the Coals Pit BBQ.  It’s tucked next to a gas station–look for the bull on the roof.  (Update 11/14/2011: The bull is no longer on the roof, but appears to be “grazing on the grass.) And the barbecue is the real deal–mouth-watering beef brisket, pulled pork and chicken–and the prices are reasonable.   It’s one of Hub’s favorite stops. Their motto: “You don’t need teeth to eat our meat.”  We opted to split the “regular” pulled pork (as opposed to the XL size, which is…enormous).

Pulled pork n' apples...

Thus fortified, we continued on up to the Delaware Bay to Broadkill Beach.  Where we had never been before. Remember, we were being spontaneous.  I had found Broadkill on Wikipedia, and it seemed like a safe bet.  It’s a local beach in a very small town ( only one street really runs through it)  so we parked our car on the side of the road and headed toward the beach.

There was no bathhouse, and the “Broadkill Mall” that I saw in Wikipedia was really, a general store, one that sells donuts and homemade ice cream, snacks, chips, and souvenirs.  We were still full from the BBQ, so we got water and snacks and hunkered down. With no bathhouse (we saw a couple of porto-potties) we decided this would be a “sit on the sand and read” kinda day.

Did I mention it was 90 degrees?

Broadkill Mall. Yep, that's it.

The Beach. This was moments after the frolicking Labrador left.

And there were flies.  Nasty, black, BITING flies that drove me back to Broadkill Mall to buy some bug spray.  We set up our beach chairs, dug our umbrella into the sand…and sat back.  It was a good thing we decided not to go swimming–there were folks fishing and a dog frolicking in the sand, so I was perfectly content with kicking back and reading my Kindle, listening to the surf, and relaxing.  Didn’t need to get a fish hook in my foot.

Until 10 minutes later, when we both realized the industrial strength insect repellent we were using wasn’t really working.  The flies were daredevils, swooping in, flying in our faces, zapping our legs and arms, our eyes, and buzzing in our ears.  Where the heck were they coming from?  Bait buckets, or even worse, was Fido on the Beach attracting them? There were so many.  Between that and the relentless sun (the umbrella seemed to be useless), it got really uncomfortable. After about 20 minutes of swatting and sweating, we were covered with welts from the flies–even after we had drenched ourselves with bug juice.

And then we noticed it.  The smell. Like something was dead.

It hung, nasty, in the humid atmosphere.  As we quickly packed up the chairs and umbrella after a record-breaking 30 minutes at the beach, we turned and saw what it was.

About 30 dead horseshoe crabs were piled up on the beach behind us.  Rotting in the sun and smelling to high heaven.  Oh, and flies.

Apparently, due to Broadkill’s proximity to the Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge, the crabs are protected wildlife, and at times crawl up to the beach to die.  Lovely.  Clearly, we had come at the wrong time of year. Or something.

Moments later, we were in the car and on the way to Rehoboth Beach to try to salvage the afternoon.  We were covered with fly bites, hungry, and a bit sunburned.  So I fired up the cell phone and found the Henlopen City Oyster House, where a parking spot was waiting for us right in front of the restaurant and happy hour was in full swing.

The Oyster Bar at Henlopen City Oyster House.

Oyster plates at Henlopen City Oyster House. So pretty.

Raw bar and steamed clams and oysters were available for a song, along with some tasty punches and yummy microbrews.  We opted for steamers…yum. This was absolute, well deserved bliss after the experience that was (B)Roadkill Beach.  Yum.

This was definitely one for the memory books.

Happy as a clam; I could eat these forever.

Mmmm. Chinese breakfast.

My childhood memories of Chinese food are somewhat pathetic. Back in the Motor City, the mostly Cantonese joints in my neighborhood would serve up greasy, meat-loaded entrees that we were allowed to have once in a while. And then there was LaChoy. Canned Chinese food for the home cook. Mostly chop suey.

When my mother died, my cooking repertoire was basically opening a can, dumping it onto a pot, and hoping for a good outcome. Really, the stuff was an Americanized version of Chinese food, and a salt bomb at that. Because I really couldn’t cook, we had a family of 7 to feed, and LaChoy Chinese food was cheap and plentiful. So we had canned chop suey or chow mein (don’t forget the can of noodles! UGH) at least twice a week for a year after my mother’s death, until we all got sick of it. By the time I hit college, my idea of Chinese food was sweet and sour pork, fried rice, egg rolls, and that was pretty much it. I avoided Chinese food like the plague.

Then I moved to Washington, DC, and began tasting things I had never seen in the Detroit I had grown up in. Dim sum. Szchuan cuisine. It was wonderful. And the world of Asian food opened up to me! By the time I got adventurous and hit my first Thai restauarant, I knew I was hooked on Asian cuisine. It’s a love affair my husband and I have developed over time, particularly since some of the best Asian food in the area we live in is inexpensive.

One of our favorite haunts is A&J Restaurant, a great Chinese restaurant in Annandale, Virginia (there’s also a location in Rockville, MD). On weekends, we’ll hop into the car and go to the unassuming storefront that holds this little gem. It’s Northern Chinese dim sum–there’s no seafood on the menu, and you don’t have those little carts–but it is some of the most authentic and flavorful places on the planet.

The menu is pretty authentic–no sweet and sour pork or egg foo yung here! No Americanized stuff…it’s the real deal.Instead, you get tasty, good to the last morsel offerings like smoked chicken, wonderful veggie combinations (try the beancurd mushroom rolls or our favorite, the mustard greens with soybeans), yummy soups (like Chinese fried chicken noodle soup) and our newest fave, the spicy beef and beef tendon noodle soup. Beef TENDON? you may gasp. Try it. Heaven in a bowl, a shimmering combination of taste, texture and memorable, satisfying flavors. Think pot roast, elevated and in a silky, spicy broth. Perfect for a lazy Sunday.  Adventurous? Try the smoked pork hock with special seasonings or the 1000 year egg (not for the faint of heart, but you should try it at least once!)

And on a Saturday or Sunday morning at least once a month, we have Chinese Breakfast. A&J serves a side menu of breakfast favorites. We usually opt for the Shao bing with egg (that’s a flaky sesame biscuit wrapped around a scrambled egg–lovely!) and a sticky rice roll (offered in sweet and savory–we are fans of the savory). Best of all? This cash-only establishment is DIRT cheap. Highest thing on the menu is about $6.75, and if you take friends, you all can feast like kings for less than $50. Seriously. An outing with 4 adults racked up $44.00.

We have been going to this place for nearly 10 years now, and we love it.

Below: Some of our favorites: Fragrant, spicy beef and tendon noodle soup; mustard greens and bean curd skin; mushroom rolls, smoked chicken, and a warm, savory sticky rice roll, tucked in its protective wrapper.

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Playing with Food: A post-Project project.

It has been a hectic few months. January, February, and part of March were swallowed up in a flurry of research, rehearsals, meetings, performances, recovery from performances, evaulating performances, making plans, and oh, and that wonderful little thing called the “day job.”

Things all came to a head this week, coming home to post-Project house (it looks like a bomb hit it), post-Project duties (one of which involved Fed- Exing a bill payment) and post-Project reality (I gotta clean the postr- Project house). And through all of this, you still have to put food on the table (well, at least on the corner that isn’t filled with Project-Related paperwork, books, and stuff). So one day last week, I was grumbling about life in general, and sinuses were making my head feel like a football. You know, I should never cook when I’m angry.  Because I either make a horrible mess of it, or I make too much food.   I try to use these opportunities to “cook ahead” meals for those days when I’m too tired to cook an all-out meal.  It also helps to resist the temptation to go out to eat when you have a fridge or freezer full of food.

No need to go into what ticked me off, but my initial plan was to cook a pork shoulder I had marinating in the fridge (I coated it with Jamaican jerk  paste), and to stir fry some collard greens.  Once I dumped the pork into the Crock Pot, and pulled out the greens, which I had prepped that morning, I noticed something I had been ignoring in the fridge.

A huge eggplant.  And it was looking lonely, aubergine, and sad. So I took it out and washed it.  Then for some reason, I went into the fridge again, found some tomatoes, some leftover Trader Joe’s Puttanesca,  and some shredded mozzarella.  Then I had an “aha,” stir-fried the greens and chopped them up.

Then I remembered an idea that a friend had given me–use eggplant to make lasagna–that is, using the eggplant instead of noodles.   So that’s what I set about doing.

I augmented the TJ’s  sauce with my own quick sauce–chopped tomatoes, basil, a little anchovy paste, sliced black olives, oregano, salt and pepper–cooking it on medium-high heat until the tomatoes broke down, then added some tomato paste to thicken it.  Turned the sauce down to low.  Then I sliced the eggplant, sprinkled it with some salt and covered it with paper towels for about 15 minutes–this helps draw out some excess moisture.  Then I laid the slices in a greased baking dish, covered them with mozzarella and sauce (I didn’t have ricotta this time around); laid down a layer of the greens, covered it with sauce and mozz, and repeated until I had filled the baking dish.  I topped the lasagna off with mozzarella and some grated Parmesan.

I crossed my fingers and baked it at 350 degrees for about an hour (yes, I was guessing!).

It was delicious!  Next time I will use ricotta or crumbled tofu and see what happens.  I love playing with food! 

Now, about that pork shoulder…

Sweetness.

 

I’m back, and I’m sorry it took so long!  Life intervened, and gave me a really great Christmas Gift–a Big Music Project, which has finally wrapped.

This year, I decided that I would try my hand at making edible gifts for the bulk of our Christmas/holiday gifts.  There’s a recession on and all that, and I hate fighting in the stores for the elusive “perfect gift.”  Cooking is a way that I could give nice gifts without killing my pocketbook or spirit.

I wanted to do something new this year, so I decided to do a little candy making. Fleur de sel caramels are relatively easy, and I fell in love with the result.  They are actually kind of fun to make, once you get the hang of it. You need to dedicate the time to make the caramels–don’t do this while you’re trying to cook something else; you’ll just be courting disaster. Follow the recipe (link below) exactly–no tricks or shortcuts.

The secret to success is being patient, watching your candy (or deep fat) thermometer and letting the caramel take its time to develop.

I made about 10 batches, and the were a big hit.  People called me for the recipe; others asked me to make batches for their sweethearts (I gave them the recipe).  Friends and families snarfed them down and raved about them to their friends. The Hubster LOVED these, especially, so I decided these would be a great Valentine’s Day gift.

Then we were hit with the Big Music Project–which was wonderful, but left no time for cooking dinner, much less caramels!  Valentine’s Day was celebrated with cards, kisses, and a wonderful dinner–at a restaurant! No candy.

We’ve come to the end of our Big Music Project.  But I want to thank my husband for all the support he’s given me, and for the wonderful job he’s done on the Big Music Project.

So when I can squeeze out some time, I’m going to surprise him with these before we get hit with another Big Project.

And I have a Plan B. His birthday is in May.

Want to know how to make these gems?  Recipe is here, via Epicurious.  My biggest advice is that you watch that thermometer!

Life is sweet.

Celebrations, Survival and a Sinkful of Chitlins

The concept of “Nose to tail” eating–using virtually every part of an animal–has been kind of a foodie trend that is fascinating and can be tasty, but it’s nothing new. People like my grandmother, Mamma Jones, who lived through the depression and lived by the motto, “Waste not, want not,” was reusing and recycling way before the concept became popular. She knew how to use every part of an animal– my childhood memories are riddled with the sights and smells of kidney stew, the notorious “sweetbreads,” and at holiday time, chitterlings–better known as “chitlins.”

When I was a child, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, my mother, Mamma Jones, or my aunt, depending on where dinner would be that year–would cook up what was aptly nicknamed “wrinkled steak.” Chitlins are pig intestines, meticulously cleaned and washed, then simmered for hours until tender. As children, we loved them (mostly because we didn’t know what they were). Served piping hot with peppered vinegar or hot sauce on the side, they were a feast and a holiday memory. We only ate them during the Christmas holidays, particularly close to New Year’s, as that was the traditional season, when the hogs were butchered.

And each year, my grandmother would tell us about our enslaved ancestors and the fact that the only time off they had from working was between Christmas and New Year’s Day. They celebrated Christmas Day by playing “Christmas Gif.” carrying little presents in their pockets–a bit of cake, candy, or fruit–in their pockets. When meeting with someone, the first to shout “Christmas Gif!” would be given the present. Then there was the day after Christmas, when the plantation owner would gather his slaves in front of his home, and give them presents–cast off clothing, shoes, and toys. And food, mostly leftovers from the “hog killin’ time'”–the pig ears, tails, feet, head, brains, and yes, the intestines. To people who only received a peck of corn or pint of salt, these were good eating. And the many foods and recipes that survived–head cheese, pig feet, chitlins, salted pork remnants, and hog maws, for example–continue to be traditional fare for African Americans and folks from the South. To Mamma Jones, eating chitlins was continuing the tradition of our ancestors and honoring their place in our lives and our history.

The chitlins came in a square plastic bucket, and we’d be shooed out of the kitchen, where they would be cleaned. And cleaned. And cleaned. They had to be absolutely clean–after all, they were intestines. Soaking, hand inspection under a good light, scrubbing with a round brush, and even a teaspoon of Tide or chlorine bleach was employed to get the chitlins squeaky clean. You had to use two sinks (one to wash, one to rinse) to insure cleanliness. (To see the painstaking process used to clean chitlins, look here). Once in the pot, chitlins gave off a thick, porky smell that gets old rather quickly and would stink up the house as they simmered. There were several “home remedies” to reduce the smell (a potato, a whole onion, for example) , but none of them really worked (other than opening a window in the middle of winter). And you only ate your family’s chitlins, because you knew who had cleaned them. I think of one distant relative who brought over a dish of chitlins once. She had bought the chitlins “out of season” (or so I was told–apparently chitlins were like oysters), had put red onions in them, which made them look pink. That was it. Her dish remained untouched and she had to lug it back home. This was a source of family legend for years. The next time we had a holiday gathering, she brought three packages of brown ‘n’ serve rolls.

My love affair with chitlins ultimately ended when I was faced with cleaning a sinkful of them for my family. It was shortly after Mom’s death, I was 15, and another female relative came into the kitchen and showed me how to clean them. It was at that moment that I realized what they actually were (you can block it from your mind if you don’t prepare them). After about an hour of supervision, I was left to clean the rest. It took me about two hours, because I was grossed out and terrified that I would kill someone because I wouldn’t get them clean. I was miserable, and once we finished cooking them, I didn’t eat them. I served them, and my grandmother beamed with pride because people were willing to eat the chitlins that I had cleaned and cooked, and I was trained and ready to continue the tradition. It was an honor that I quickly relinquished, because I haven’t cleaned one since, and I don’t eat them anymore.

But I understand their place in my history. And after all these years, and given what I know now, I realize that those “leftovers” given to my ancestors weren’t just a holiday treat–they were a means of survival that gave them the strength and energy to survive for another year. And for that I am very grateful.

In the spirit of tradition, my ancestors, and their wisdom, we’ll be having black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread on New Year’s Day. We’ll continue the tradition of making sure that the first person walking through the door is male (an African American tradition that hearkens back to the Scottish Hogmanay), even if it’s just that I make Hubs walk out the back door and through the front.

I wish I had recorded Mamma Jones’ stories–the specifics of her stories have grown faded and tattered in my memories. But I suppose that I am continuing the tradition by telling them now; they are a great comfort to me, particularly at this holiday time, when those who have long gone before seem to be their nearest.

Here’s some “Chitlins Con Carne” you can enjoy from guitarist Kenny Burrell.

The Book That Made Me Love Food

I remember the first time I fell in love with food.  It was a few weeks before Christmas. I was about 10 years old; and I was sick in bed, recovering from the mumps.

I loved to read. My mother had begun teaching me before I entered kindergarten and as a result, pretty much all I did as a child was read and write.  That summer, I had ripped my way through about 20 books. So you can imagine how happy I was when my mother bought me a new book to keep me from being too depressed while I was sick.

It was an old story, a familiar story. I had seen it in movies before. But a whole new world opened up to me when I read the following:

“Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course; and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!”

And then there’s that lovely business about the pudding.

Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing-day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding. In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”

I read the entire book in a matter of days, but I kept going back to that passage, back to the Cratchits’ feast. Reading it was like being there–I could taste the applesauce, imagined the stuffing coming from the goose, and was dying to taste a plum pudding (and I made it my business to try both years later).  Dickens’ masterful description of a poor family’s Christmas dinner was one of the first things that sparked my interest in food. It also made me realize as a child how special my family traditions were.

I read Dickens’ “ghostly little book”  every year–it never gets old to me. And I continue to relish the Cratchits’ Christmas and the many other scenes in the book–the Fezziwigs’ party, the Ghost of Christmas Present and his bountiful horn, and Scrooge’s journey back to loving humanity.  They are reminders of the things that bind us and sustain us as a human race: family, food, love, and tradition. The things that make us wealthy in spirit.

…here is the first sound movie version of “A Christmas Carol.”  In its entirety! Not entirely true to the book, but fun to watch.

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