Humility on a plate

Posted by Anita on 10.11.07 5:12 PM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedThe lovely and talented Jennifer of Last Night’s Dinner challenged me to divulge the five foods that I’m ashamed to love. After chewing on this meme for nearly two weeks, I have a confession to make: There aren’t a lot of foods I’m embarrassed about anymore.

Some of my former foibles have fallen by the wayside. After reading up on the delightful ingredients in my once-beloved Fresca — what the hell are ‘brominated vegetable oil’ and ‘ester of wood rosin’ doing in my soda pop? — I’ve managed to get that particular grapefruit-flavored monkey off my back.

There are plenty of foods that I like that other people find amusing. I take a fair bit of good-natured ribbing about the frequency of my macaroni salad consumption, but it’s hardly the stuff of blushes and stammers. Sure, there’s a slight bashfulness about my regular indulgences in cheesy Mexican combo plates …but I eat enough of the real stuff that I can accept my fondness for the less-authentic version as a regional quirk. I’ve made peace with my unholy love of canned corned-beef hash, and even found a few foodie friends who share my tragic attraction to the pink cylinder of doom. But even this, the worst hyper-processed dreck of the lot, I wear as as a badge of my eclectic taste rather than anything I’m actually trying to hide.

But there is one food I’m just a wee bit embarrassed to love: Casseroles.

When we were kids, Mom always managed to make fabulous dinners on a slim budget. Our evening meals were never gourmet (that was Grandpa’s turf), but they always tasted great. Shake-n-Bake chicken with rice, meatloaf and baked potatoes, even the occasional steak on the grill… we must’ve been the only kids on the block who didn’t have to be coaxed to clean our plates. One-dish suppers were the mainstays of our family diet: Mexican lasagna, a pair of tuna casseroles — one with curried rice, another simply called “That Tuna” — and the frankly named Oven Put-Together. But the queen of them all, the one I still crave, was a homely little dish called Creole Rice.

Much like so many of the faux-ethnic dishes of 70s, there’s not much ‘Creole’ about this mélange. (I suppose it’s slightly more authentic than the disgusting-sounding Thai’ Pepper Salad that my friend Michael recently dredged up. Secret ingredients: Bulls-Eye BBQ Sauce and Miracle Whip…). And while we’re being honest, Creole Rice is definitely one dish that won’t win a single beauty contest — it’s about as beige as can be.

But it’s comfort food in the extreme, at least for my family, and Cameron eats it without too much smirking. I jokingly call it Trailer Park Paella (though it’s closer to Redneck Risotto), but that doesn’t stop me from hauling out the old recipe card a few times a year. Still, that red-and-white can of Campbell’s cream of chicken soup lurking in the dark recesses of our pantry was cause for more than a little locavore angst.

Inspired by The Homesick Texan’s recent post about revamping her hometown favorite, King Ranch Chicken, I decided to see if we might be able to remove the store-bought gloop from good ol’ Creole Rice without losing its homespun charm. Given that the soup was really the only scary ingredient, it wasn’t terribly hard; if you use homemade breakfast sausage, you can probably even make it entirely with local ingredients.

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Creole Rice Redux
2T salted butter
2T flour
3 cups chicken stock
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 cup sour cream
1 pound pork breakfast sausage
8 to 12 oz white mushrooms, sliced
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced onion
1 cup uncooked long-grain rice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Melt the butter over medium heat in the bottom of a large saucepan, then add the flour. Whisk continuously until the flour browns slightly — you’re looking for a blonde roux. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for a few minutes until it reaches a thin but sauce-like consistency. Add the pepper and taste for seasoning, adding salt and more pepper if needed. Remove from heat and stir occasionally until warm but not hot. When cooled a bit, add the sour cream and stir until well combined.

While the sauce cools, sauté the pork sausage until browned, crumbling into small chunks. Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon, and place in the bottom of a large casserole. In the sausage fat (or oil, if you prefer) sauté the mushrooms until cooked but not dry. Add to the casserole on top of the meat, then top with the chicken sauce-sour cream mixture. Layer the remaining ingredients in the casserole in the order listed — do not stir. Push down any rice that rises above the level of the liquid, then cover and place in the oven for 75 minutes.

At the 60 minute mark, remove the casserole lid. The dish will still be fairly soupy at this point; push down any rice that has risen above the liquid, and continue to cook until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid, 15 to 25 minutes more.

Serve hot, with the curtains drawn.

family, other blogs, recipes


DOTW: Sun Witch

Posted by Anita on 10.05.07 7:04 AM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedAs I walked down the escalator to baggage claim at the Las Vegas airport, Mom glanced at the jacket slung over my arm, a wide smile breaking across her face.

“Did you need that coat at home?” she quipped. “You sure won’t need it here!”

When temperatures hover in the 90s in the late afternoon, even in October, you begin to wonder if Las Vegas might not be enchanted by some sort of spell: a warped incantation that keeps the Southern Nevada desert sparkling-hot at the same time as the rest of the country is starting to think seriously about airing out their woolen sweaters and setting a savory stew on the fire.

The notion of a mischievous spirit was never far from my mind as I dug deeper into my cocktail books and online sources for another suitable Strega cocktail. As I sweltered away, I sampled tall drinks, fizzy drinks, and citrus-spiked drinks designed to beat the heat. But they all felt a little blah, like unimaginative variations on better-known concoctions. I kept wishing that I could add an ingredient or two, play with proportions, and generally jack up the flavors. But tempting though that notion was, it’s entirely contrary to the purpose of “Raiders of the Lost Cocktail” — to rescue an existing recipe from cocktail oblivion.

Digging through the eGullet archives for cocktail-book suggestions for further research, I stumbled upon an old Strega thread. In the midst of a general discussion of Strega’s merits and quirks, I noticed a mention of an unnamed Strega cocktail served at Seattle’s Troiani restaurant. Enchanted by the description of a drink that “starts fresh and strong and ends like a wisp of dessert”, I knew I had to add this to my trials.

Unfortunately, the post dated from the restaurant’s early days… many moons and several staff-changes ago. Ever hopeful, I called Troiani one afternoon and asked if anyone in the bar might remember the drink’s proportions. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no. (Well, more like “Huh? What’s Stray Gull?”) Nobody could even tell me who might have tended bar there, all those eons ago — two and a half years is an eternity in the restaurant world.

All I had to go on was a list of ingredients in the post: Vodka, Strega, crème de cacao, orange and lemon juice, with a vanilla cream float. Nothing like that existed in any of the books at my disposal, nor in CocktailDB or any other familiar online source; it must have been someone’s in-house creation. Over on a site called DrinksMixer — where their ‘Most Popular’ sidebar inauspiciously lists the Apple Martini, Jager Bomb, and Long-Island Ice Tea among the top five — I noticed a similar drink, with a most appropriate name.

If it were mine to tinker with, I’d suggest you make the Sun Witch with a lighter hand on the creme de cacao. If you do as Troiani’s sadly anonymous bartender did, adding lemon juice and vodka, you’ll enjoy a lighter finish… at least as far as these sorts of milkshake drinks go. If you’re in the mood for a dessert cocktail, you could do far worse than to fall under the Sun Witch spell.

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Strega Sun Witch
1 oz Strega liqueur
3/4 oz white creme de cacao
3/4 oz orange juice
1 oz whipping cream
Orange slice, for garnish

Shake with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a slice of orange.

Sun Witch a la Troiani
1 oz Strega liqueur
1/2 oz vodka
1/4 oz white creme de cacao
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz lemon juice
1 oz whipping cream
vanilla extract or vanilla liqueur, to taste

Lightly whip the cream with the vanilla; set aside. Shake the remaining ingredients with ice, and strain into a cocktail glass. Top with the vanilla cream, and garnish with a light grating of orange zest.

Drink of the Week, drinks, other blogs, recipes


Tomatoes on the brain

Posted by Anita on 10.04.07 7:42 PM

(c)2007 AEC  ** ALL rights reservedAs summer fades into fall, I’m taking great comfort in our pantry full of canned tomatoes. Sometimes I just stand there with the doors open, gazing in at the luxury of summer’s bounty — more than 40 quarts in all — hedged against the privations of winter’s mealy produce. Bought from a local organic farmer at a seriously good price, these tomatoes were picked at their peak of ripeness and processed within 48 hours. Row upon row of jars sit in the cool larder, bright red orbs shining out of the darkness.

Gag-inducing, isn’t it? But I must confess that the road all this unseemly self-congratulation was paved with dismal failure.

A few weekends ago, Cameron and I blanched and peeled 40 pounds of Mariquita Farms San Marzano tomatoes. Later in the day, Tea popped over to help us fill cases of quart-sized canning jars with our haul. Seven quarts at a time, we arranged our bounty into the shiny-new pressure canner, sealed the lid, and waited.

We’ve put up jams and preserves for many years, and pickles for at least the last five. But our first foray into the tomato realm was a rather limited success. Almost a third of the jars didn’t develop a proper seal. Of those that did, half lost so much liquid that we feared they would spoil. (Reputable books tell us not to worry: the contents may darken, but they’re safe to eat.) We toyed with the idea of re-processing the unsealed jars, but with no clue as to what had gone wrong and exhausted from a day on our feet, we decided that we’d had enough.

But the next morning, in what can only be described as a “when life gives you lemons” moment, I realized that we had everything on hand that we needed to make a giant batch of pasta sauce. I set the ingredients in a large kettle to simmer, and by bedtime we had dozens of quart-sized bags ready for the freezer. Surplus sauce will not be a problem. We eat our bastardized version of pasta Bolognese every Friday night, as it’s the kind of meal that makes its way to the table with a minimum of fuss. Cameron can whip up a simple salad and a side of garlic bread while the pasta boils, while I pore over my recipe files to plan the next week’s menu.

Determined to correct our mistakes (and unable to resist the siren song of ripe ‘maters), we bought another three crates. That’s 60 more pounds to make 100 pounds in all, for those of you keeping score at home. Guessing that our slightly lackadaisical jar-filling approach had been our undoing, we used a sterilized metal ruler to gauge the gap between the top of the tomatoes and the lip of each jar, ensuring that a half-inch of headspace — and not a millimeter more or less — remained.

Our measuring mania paid off: Not a failed seal in the batch, and a lot less liquid-loss, too. Now that we’ve got our technique dialed in, I can’t wait until next summer to try it again. In the meantime, even our failures yielded some nice side benefits: Our freezer’s overflowing with spaghetti sauce… probably just enough to last us through to next year’s Early Girls.

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Not-Really-Bolognese Pasta Sauce
2 to 2-1/2 pounds ground meat*
3 cups chopped onion
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
12 oz white mushrooms, sliced
1T olive oil
3 quarts home-canned whole tomatoes, undrained (or 3 cans Muir Glen whole peeled tomatoes, with their juice, cut into chunks with kitchen shears)
2 cups tomato sauce
6 oz tomato paste (1 small can)
1 bottle (750 ml) red wine
1T kosher salt
2T dried Italian herbs (we use a combination of 2 parts thyme, 1 part rosemary and 1 part oregano from our garden; if using fresh herbs, triple the amount)
3/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Fry the meat in a large stockpot, breaking up into very small pieces. Add the onion and sweat until soft. Meanwhile, sautee the sliced mushrooms with the olive oil in a separate pan over medium heat until liquid evaporates; do not add salt. When onion is soft, add the garlic to the meat and cook 2 minutes. Drain off most of the fat from the meat and add the mushrooms, tomatoes, salt, herbs, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Rinse out the tomato cans or jars with the wine, and add to the pot.

Cook for 2 to 3 hours (depending on the amount of liquid in your tomatoes), or until thickened to a dense sauce-like consistency. Add the chopped parsley and remove from the heat. Chill over an ice-water bath to room temperature, then chill overnight if desired. Package in 2-cup quantities in quart-sized freezer bags, and freeze flat.

Each bag will contain enough sauce to coat a half-pound of cooked dried pasta in the American style, to serve 2 to 3. After reheating, we like to add a bit of the pasta water and/or a touch of cream to the sauce before tossing with the pasta, to help the texture recover from the freeze-thaw cycle.

* Our ratio is usually something like 1-1/2 pound ground chuck, 1/2 pound ground pork, and 2 Italian sausages.

Italian, locavore, preserving & infusing, recipes