Under Pressure

Even the most experienced cooks have apprehensions about certain ingredients or techniques in the kitchen. Me? I’ve never roasted a whole fish (mostly because the vast majority of my diners would never eat it), I’ve never done any deep fat frying and I’ve never used a pressure cooker.

I *have* a pressure cooker; I’ve just never used it. It was given to DH and me as a wedding gift. He used it once or twice when we got married, and then up it went into the pantry rafters.

Frankly, those things scare me. I remember my grandmother’s pressure cooker and the noises it would make. It would shake and steam and whistle and it looked like it would come apart at the seams at any moment. I keep hearing about how today’s pressure cookers are so much safer, so much easier, blah blah blah…

Well, it’s time for me to suck it up, dilettantes. I AM GOING TO USE A PRESSURE COOKER. Recipe suggestions, as well as offers of anti-anxiety medication, are welcome. And I’m giving myself a self-imposed deadline of July 15th to try it. So grab some popcorn and settle in… this is going to be interesting.

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Wordless Wednesday

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Thirsty Thursdays: Trader Joe’s Low Calorie Pink Lemonade

This is quite possibly the most delicious store-bought lemonade I’ve ever had. Trader Joe’s has thrown down a gauntlet for all lo-cal beverage manufacturers in creating a drink with only 40 calories per 8-ounce serving. And the secret to their success? STEVIA. Stevia is, admittedly, a bit of a shock to the system when it’s the only sweetener in the cup; but TJ’s has softened it with the addition of a small amount of organic cane sugar. The result is a guiltless guzzle of epic proportions.

For you organi-philes, this will be an especially refreshing drink. The front label proudly states that the lemonade is made with organic lemon juice, but it also includes other organic ingredients: cane sugar, lemon extract, lemon juice concentrate, and flavor (all certified by QAI).

.Now, if you go searching for this gem in your local TJ’s, you will see that there are actually TWO lo-cal lemonade options: yellow and pink. There are people who insist that you cannot tell the difference, but our family has tried them both and swears that you can. DH, DS, and I prefer the pink version; my parents prefer the yellow. The only discernible difference on the label is the addition of black carrot extract (for color) to the pink version. Both versions contain “organic flavor” and “natural flavor”, so the secret may lie therein. I’d like to believe that, somewhere in the pink’s natural and organic flavor formulary, there is just a tiny extra bit of sunshine and happiness that seems lacking in the yellow. Or maybe I just like the color better. Either way, it rocks my tastebuds.

Incidentally, in our house the half-gallon container is a one-day supply. It’s a safer beverage alternative for the DH, since it’s reduced-sugar and low in phosphorus (two considerations for Type-1 diabetics everywhere). So on my once-weekly trip to TJ’s, I generally purchase 7-10 1/2-gallon bottles. The one time our local store was out (since the warehouse was out also), DH had to go without for almost two weeks. One the outside he was calm, but I know on the inside he was practically rabid over the loss.

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Wordless Wednesday

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Thirsty Thursdays: Sambazon Lo-Cal Amazon Energy

It’s a morning caffeine buzz incorporating Vitamin C and crazy amounts of bioflavanoids. It’s low in calories (only 60 per 12-oz. can), thanks to a combination of evaporated cane juice and stevia. And it tastes great. What more could you want? Oh yeah, it’s USDImageA-certified organic! My joy abounds.

I first ran into the Sambazon Amazon Energy line at our local Costco. I got a 12-pack of the full-test (at 140 calories per can) for a road trip with the DH and DS into the Pacific Northwest. It was fairly priced and tasted delicious, so I was sold. This was my go-to morning rush for months. Then on a separate trip to Whole Foods, I found the lo-cal version. Obviously it was more expensive to buy one can at WF instead of 12 at Costco, but not terribly so; I gave it a shot. After all, how many lo-cal energy drinks use natural sweeteners? Not a lot.

Wowie! I was converted. It was still sweet, but not AS sweet, which meant that the acai berry flavors could shine through. But of course, Costco didn’t carry the lo-cal version. Thankfully, my old standby Amazon.com had a Subscribe and Save option for a 24-can investment.

For those of you who read labels, the caffeine (80 mg per 12-oz can, which is less than that of an espresso shot) comes from guarana, yerba mate, and green tea extract. The Vitamin C is primarily from acerola juice.

I’m not the sort who cannot rise in the morning without a jolt, but occasionally the boost is pleasant (and, oddly enough, I seem so much more efficient! Hmmm…). And nothing will ever replace my love for a well-brewed French press with a tiny pitcher of half-and-half. But I can attest to this: it’s berry, berry good.

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Wordless Wednesday

Wordless Wednesday

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It’s not really autumn until the fat hunter sings (and two recipes)

Yes, I am keenly aware that the end of summer and the onset of fall (one and the same, I guess, but the terms seem so different in the emotions they invoke) came and went well over a week ago. But those last few days of September never really feel autumnal unless you’re in New England or Alaska, so the real approach of autumn doesn’t start until October. Even October can be hot and miserable here in Southern California — just ask anyone whose home has been threatened by a Santa Ana-fueled wildfire. And then there was my wedding day, almost five years ago, where at 10am on that early October Sunday morning the temperature was a cool, crisp…. EIGHTY-FIVE DEGREES.

Yeah, I get it. We don’t really have seasons in SoCal. But that doesn’t stop me from loving truly seasonal food.

To me, autumn means stews, and rich soups, and winter squashes, and oh-good-lord-I-don’t-think-I-can-stand-to-eat-more-thing-made-out-of-persimmons. And going even further back into my memory, autumn meant the advent of hunting season, when my grandfather and sundry other male relatives would don blaze orange and tote around rifles while hiking through the woods and stalking Bambi’s dad. This was serious stuff, the hunting was; my grandparents even had a second freezer in their garage to store the butchered meat that Grandpa would bring back from his expeditions. There would venison stew meat, and venison ribs, and so many other cuts that I couldn’t even tell you what-all was in there. I have a distinct recollection of making venison chili with my grandfather once; I also recall someone, maybe my mom, muttering that we should check the chili for buckshot before we ate it.

These days the “hunting expeditions” my grandfather goes on involve donning blaze orange and driving off into the woods to… play pinochle. So my access to venison has been exceedingly restricted. Have you ever tried to find venison in the store? No? Well.. unless you enjoy engaging in futile crusades, don’t even bother. I went to five grocery stores and three butcher shops before I even found someone who would special order it (thanks to Max at The Meat House in Brea for stepping up for me). Six weeks into my crusade I was finally able to bring home two pounds of cherished leg meat. The quest for making Hunter Stew — my first foray of the year into fall foods — was about to begin.

So, OK, let’s be frank. For the most part, stew meat is stew meat. After you add all the other stuff to it, the meat you use is almost inconsequential as long as it came from some kind of mammal. Some meats are gamier than others. (And if anyone ever asks you, “gamy” just means intensely flavored, like beef plus a little bit of liver.) In order of gaminess, it pretty much goes veal/beef/buffalo/wild boar/lamb/goat/venison. Game meat also has a tendency to be leaner, so it shouldn’t be cooked as long. So if you’re dead set on venison, by all means — hunt it yourself, dress it yourself, and dig in, OR find a sweetheart of a butcher who’s willing to bring it in for you at about $15 a pound. This recipe calls for 2 pounds of meat. It’s a dang good stew, but I don’t know if it was worth $30 plus the cost of the veggies and whatnot. Probably would have been just as good with buffalo, which would have been about a third cheaper, or with some grass-fed beef chuck.

And as for sides, well, there’s really only one you need: bread. A good quality, dense, chewy bread. All your veggies and starches are already in the stew, so bread is the only other thing to think about. You could buy a crusty loaf, or if you’re feeling super-ambitious and wanna plug in your bread machine on the same day you haul out that slow cooker, then by all means try this recipe.

HUNTER STEW

Ingredients

  • 1/2 lb. bacon, diced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 lb. venison stew meat (ideally leg meat), trimmed and cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1 t. pepper
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 12 oz. dark beer
  • 1 qt. beef broth (ideally reduced-sodium)
  • 8 oz. tomato sauce
  • 3 Yukon Gold potatoes, diced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 1 turnip, diced
  • 4 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 small leek, thoroughly cleaned and diced
  • 2T. fresh thyme, minced
Directions
Render the bacon in a heavy bottom pot until crispy; remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add olive oil to the rendered bacon fat in the pot.
Season venison with salt and pepper and dredge in flour; add it to the pot, browning it well on all sides. If any oil remains, add flour to absorb and make a roux.
Add the remaining ingredients to a slow cooker. Spoon in the venison and the reserved bacon; mix to combine. Cover and cook on HIGH for 4-5 hours or LOW 7-8 hours. Adjust consistency necessary with more stock and season again with salt and black pepper.
SUNFLOWER BREAD
(makes a 2-lb. loaf)
Ingredients
  • 1-1/2 c. whole milk, about 80°F/27°C
  • 1/4 c. sugar
  • 3 t. kosher salt
  • 4 c. “white whole wheat” flour
  • 1/4 c. roasted/salted sunflower seeds, shelled
  • 2-1/4 t. active dry yeast
Directions
Add to your bread machine in the order listed. Select the Whole Wheat Cycle for a 2-lb loaf. Once the loaf is finished baking (about 3 hours later), let it stand for another ten minutes before removing from the pan. Let stand an additional ten minutes before slicing.
Categories: Cooking, Food | 1 Comment

Gratitude in the shadow of grief

Today is September 11th, 2011.  The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. And as you go about your business today, you’re going to run into a number of folks. What do we say to each other? “Happy Patriot Day?” Not likely. There’s not much of anything happy about this particular “holiday”. Often we will discuss where we were when we heard about the attacks, much in the way people of my generation talk about the Challenger disaster and my parents speak of JFK’s assassination.

It’s easy to talk about where we were on 9/11/01; it’s not nearly as easy to talk about who we were, and how we were changed by the events of that Tuesday morning on the East Coast.

For my part, I can tell you that at about 6am PDT, I was leaving a warehouse about 2 miles from my house and returning home after having picked up my samples for the week (I was in the wine industry at the time). I turned on the radio and a couple of very confused DJs were talking about reports they were receiving about a plane that had hit the World Trade Center. At the time nobody was sure if it was an accident or not. I went home, turned on CNN, and started to watch the horrific scene unfold. About and hour later I called my boss and told him I wasn’t going out into the field because I was unsure if this was the end of the offensive or if there was more to come — and if it was still coming, and there was a potential for disaster here in SoCal, I wanted to be with my family. After that I went to my parents’ house, where my mom and I were glued to their (very large) television for the next several hours.

I doubt my initial response would have been any different if my life had been uneventful at the time, but the fact is my life was chaotic. Twelve days earlier — August 31st, the Friday before Labor Day — my mother had received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. That was an overwhelming tragedy in and of itself, and I wasn’t coping very well with it. In the space of two weeks I went from a confident, successful wine sales broker to a defeated, 31-year old foundling. My sense of security had evaporated. I began looking at my career, my social life, really every aspect of my adulthood as being trite. I threw myself into volunteer work to attempt to give my existence some purpose. It didn’t work. Between 9/11 and my mom’s cancer I felt I had been dealt a one-two punch.

Now go back and read that last paragraph. I jut told you the 9/11 attacks happened to me. That my mom’s diagnosis happened to me. But here’s the reality check, one that was “lost in the mail” for so long: they didn’t happen to me. They just happened.  And really, they happened to others. Did I have cancer? No. Was I dead (like almost 3,000 people were) or injured (like more than 6,000)? Did I lose anyone very close to me that day? Mmmmm… no. So as devastating as Summer ’01 was for me, the truth was that I got off pretty much scot-free. And I am filled with humility and gratitude for it.

And in that spirit, I’ve started looking at the events of ten years ago with new eyes. As horrifying as 9/11 was to our collective American consciousness, it would have been so much worse if the passengers on United Flight 93 hadn’t been so heroic. We feel a surge of pride when we think of those men and women, instead of dismay that one more plane hit another high-profile terrorist target — namely, the White House.

As scared as I was about my mom being sick, I have to say that it could have been much worse. My mom is ALIVE, and she is AMAZING. She’s been cancer-free (aka no evidence of disease, to those of you who are up to speed on cancer-ese) for years. When she went through chemo, she didn’t lose her hair. I don’t even remember her throwing up.

There are so many aspects of my life that I’ve reframed as well. Yes, DS was born with congenital heart defects. But he’s growing like a weed, runs and plays and never runs out of breath; not many of the other children in the waiting room of his pediatric cardiologist can say the same. I was with friends in New Orleans smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Ivan. But as scared as we all were as the storm passed, I know we were all grateful that our trip to NOLA was in September 2004 and not August 2005, when Katrina battered the city without mercy.

Most of the planet (about 85%, according to wikipedia) claims to have a relationship with some kind of divine entity — God, G-d, Allah, a pantheon of gods, what have you. And the vast majority of the prayers of this population is made up of petitions: “Please make __________ happen.” We hardly ever go back and say thanks, let alone thanks-for-making-it-less-awful-than-it-could-have-been.

As much as we grieve for all the losses in our lives, the one thing for which we ought most be grateful is this: that over time, those losses are less acute in our psyche, the sting being replaced a sad wisdom. I sure hope so, anyway.

It’s Patriot Day. Be happy.

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RECIPE: Thai-one-on Turkey Satay

Let’s be real: have you ever gone to a Thai restaurant and found *anything* on the menu with turkey involved? No? Me neither. And yet turkey has become a go-to meat for folks here in the US who are trying to reduce their saturated fat intake, their waistline, and/or their carbon footprint. Turkey is everywhere. You can’t escape it. I guess you could try, but then you’d end up eating ham or duck or something else out of place on Thanksgiving. But here we are, on a regular ol’ Tuesday night, and we’re jonesing for Thai takeout. But the only fresh meat in the fridge is turkey breast. No chicken. No beef. No pork. No shrimp.

Oh, and another thing: “satay” refers to the meat being grilled on a skewer, not to the almost-omnipresent peanut sauce that often accompanies the dish. So no, there’s no peanut sauce recipe herein. I hope you can continue to thrive in spite of the disappointment I know you’re experiencing right about now.

OK, let’s do this.

TURKEY SATAY

Ingredients

  • 1/2 onion, minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. ground ginger
  • 1/4 c. soy sauce
  • 1 T.  sriracha (a hot chili sauce, also known as rooster sauce)
  • 1 t.  honey
  • the juice and zest of one large, fresh lime
  • 1  lb. turkey breast, trimmed and cut into 1″x3″ strips
  • wooden satay skewers, or metal if available

Directions

Soak wooden skewers in cold water for one hour, if using. (Skip this step if using metal.)

Mix all ingredients except the turkey and put in a non-reactive, covered container. Lay the turkey strips in the container, cover and shake gently to ensure coverage. Refrigerate for 2 hours or as long as overnight.

Set oven to broil. Cover broiler pan with foil. Remove turkey from the marinade and thread onto skewers, and place on broiler pan, not touching each other. Broil for 15 minutes, turning once halfway through cooking.

Serve with rice and tropical fruits. Green papaya is especially good with this recipe.

Categories: Cooking, Food | 1 Comment

RECIPE: Choh-reeth-oh Ree-zoh-toh

That’s sausage and rice to you English-only folks. But for you eclectic, international gourmands, start thinking about what would happen if you did a culinary mashup of Spain, Mexico and Italy. Then get a napkin, fast, ’cause I know your mouth is watering just like mine was when I started cooking up this rich and spicy mélange of arborio rice, chipotle in adobo, and Spanish chorizo.

CHORIZO RISOTTO

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 c. vegetable broth
  • ¼ c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 c. arborio rice
  • 1 c. dry white wine
  • ½ lb. cured Spanish chorizo, diced
  • 1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced
  • 3 T. chipotle in adobo, chopped very fine
  • 1 c. finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. In a small saucepan, bring the vegetable stock to a boil, then keep warm over low heat.

2. In a large skillet, warm the olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until it’s lightly toasted and opaque, about 2 minutes.

3. Add the wine and cook over medium-low heat until absorbed, about 5 minutes. Ladle 1 cup of the stock over the rice and simmer, stirring frequently, until absorbed. Continue to add the stock ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently, until the rice is creamy and tender but still slightly chewy in the center, about 20 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, cook the chorizo over medium-high heat until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir the chorizo, the chipotle in adobo, and half of the green onions into the risotto until combined. Add the Parmesan and season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Divide the risotto among 4 plates and garnish with additional scallions and Parmesan if desired. Serve immediately.

For those of you who made note that there was a second recipe emerging at the same time as the risotto, I applaud you for paying close attention. (insert smiley-face emoticon here) The roasted veggies you see were the leftovers from a crudité plate from the night before. Everything was tossed onto a large cookie sheet, sprayed with olive oil (thank you, TJs) and seasoned lightly with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Roasted for about 20 minutes at 425º. So easy and so yummy.

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