Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kingsolver's Take-Out

I've been asked a few times whether I have a shelf with all my canning stuff on it, and the answer is yes, I sure do.  It's in my garage, increasingly obscured by the growing mountains of crap that seem to sprout like dandelions once you get a house with a garage.  It's where everything I preserve in summer goes to hibernate, catch a little dust and stay out of the damaging light.  One of my favorite parts of canning during the summer is after all of the jars have cooled, gathering them all up and lining them up in rows on the shelf.  It's the last satisfying step, the stockpile.  As the namesake's mother promised in Blueberries for Sal, "We will take the berries home and can them.  Then we will have food for the winter." 

I read recently in an article about food preservation a woman comment that "there's nothing lovelier than a summer window lined with jewel-toned Ball jars of food."  No summer window, but a 20-degree winter sunshine does the trick. 

Speaking of winter sunshine, what a difference a week makes.  Last weekend I was craving barbecue and patio furniture, and with the super-late snow and the frigid temperatures that have plagued this schizophrenic week, I've been sent right back into hibernation mode.  I was craving all of those flavor-layered, warm and slow-simmered comfort foods that complete a night huddled next to the fire (and yes, I have been literally huddled around our fireplace doing my school work lately, it's so outrageously freezing!!).  But you can't just come home from work and decide you want chili.  Unless you're having a Nally's chili craving, but that would require coming home from work completely drunk.  I decided to go for the next-best thing... spaghetti.  I do love slow-simmered spaghetti sauce, but again I went for the next-best thing, the spaghetti sauce I slow-simmered and canned last summer.  I remember staying up until about 2 am waiting for the damn sauce to thicken up and reduce so I could process it, thinking that some distant day in the long, cold winter, I'd open one of these time capsules and remember this moment where there were more fresh tomatoes than we could eat and I was basically throwing basil away, it was taking over the counter so brazenly.  And maybe it would help us remember that those days would come back again, like they always do.

I remember Barbara Kingsolver, in her August canning chapter in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,  talks about her similar sentiments on her canned spaghetti sauce.  She claims that on some stressful winter night in the future it will be her take-out, so very easy.  I don't think so.  If I want take-out, I'm getting effort-free take-out.  Spaghetti sauce is a happy compromise.  Not going out, not cooking something but still eating something that isn't completely processed.  I mixed it with some basil chicken sausage and Schwan's onion and mushroom mix, then let it simmer a bit on the stove for about half an hour.  The end result was a clean, fresh pasta that served as a reminder of how great our first home garden was, and how much fun it will be to have again in a few more months.  That's the beauty of the canning shelf, being fed heart and soul in the desolate winter. 

Monday, February 21, 2011

Take a Loaf Off

When I ask Matt what he wants for dinner, I never get the answer I'm looking for.  It's never "lime shrimp carnitas with queso fresco crème and tomatillo relish", or "lamb shanks in rainier cherry demi-glace."  It's always one of four desperately-craved manly standbys:  Steak.  Lasagna.  Meatballs.  Meatloaf.  37 times out of 40 I scrunch up my nose, say no, and ask why the hell the shanks don't sound amazing.  He's a guy with a simple palette, the meat and potatoes stereotype.  And I'm the food snob stereotype on a diet, which makes me even more persnickety against those cow-laden comfort dishes. 

This weekend though, I wanted to be nice.  I can't remember why.  I must've wanted something at the time, maybe that new dress on etsy.  Either way, when I was filling out the week's menu pre-New Seasons trip and asked him what he wanted for dinner Sunday night, he spun with Meatloaf.  "It's been so long since we had meatloaf last," he lamented, full-on pouty face.

"All right, I'll make meatloaf tonight."

"With mashed potatoes?!"


"And CORN!?"


Pouty face alleviated.

I'm not the world's biggest proponent of meatloaf.  Let's start with the name.  Meatloaf.  Kinda gross.  Falls into the whole "fatback" category of unappetizing monkiers.  The appearance doesn't help it much either.  There's a reason vintage housewives dumped a whole bottle of Heinz on top.  Right out of the oven it looks like a greasy trough of meat.  Let's let my all-time favorite Food Network oh, let's say, "chef", demonstrate for us:

And finally, there was a fatal combination during our first couple years together of buying bargain-priced meat and me still learning to cook.  There is a long, winding curve of learning how to make stuff taste good.  I'm just now starting to feel comfortable winging and creating stuff that I know will probably be pretty tasty without having to immediatley break out a cookbook.  Luckily, I just loved being in the kitchen so much that I survived that learning process without getting too fed up.  But I did get pretty sick of extra-greasy, cheap hamburger-flavored hunks of meat on meatloaf night, resting over a nest of box mashed potatoes.  Oh early twenties.  Good times. 

At New Seasons we bought 3/4 lbs each ground 10% fat beef and ground pork.  We're making a big effort to move away from industrial-farmed meats, and aside from the ethical concerns over animal treatment, the taste enough qualifies paying the extra dollar or two per pound.  You pay for that cheap meat one way or another--we all do.  I don't think you can discount the clean flavor of good-quality meat.  Mixing two kinds (I've also heard people like to do ground beef and veal) also helps it from being too redundant.  It gives the loaf its own distinct profile, so you don't feel like you're gnawing on a hamburger patty pumped with steroids. 

The second trick that made this meatloaf freakishly outstanding was the three crispy-cooked bacon slices I had left over from breakfast.  We've been on a sandwich kick lately, and I made Matt a home version of the Subway Morning Flatbread Melt with tandoori naan bread and sriracha mayonnaise stuffed with eggs, sharp cheddar, ham and the aforementioned bacon.  Why can't we start every day out like this?  The dry, sad instant oatmeal that kicks off every weekday just kind of dooms it to be less sunny than a wild panini morning.

So I had three slices left over that I crumbled super-fine into bacon bit-like tiny pieces.  I mixed them into the ground meats, distributing them throughout the loaf.  I've seen bunches of recent recipes featuring bacon strips wrapped right around the loaf itself, but I'm a retro ketchup chick myself.  By using such a small touch throughout, the smoky flavor and subtle crunch didn't overwhelm the other meats and seasonings.  Every once and a while you'd just have one hit the back of your throat like a meat candy surprise. 

Hearing my multiple exclamations of loaf lust between bites, Matt had to ask, "can we have meatloaf more now?"

Absolutely.  Although some shrimp carnitas would be good too. 

Tabitha's Yes-To-Meatloaf
3/4 lb 10% fat ground beef
3/4 lb ground pork
1 egg
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
3 strips of crispy-cooked bacon, crumbled very fine
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 tsp worcheschire sauce
1/2 tsp garlic salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper

For the sauce:
1/3 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon whole grain deli mustard
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Mix all of the loaf ingredients together in a large mixing bowl by hand.  Do not overmix, just knead together until all ingredients are well-combined.  Use to evenly fill a loaf pan.  Bake at 375 degrees for 45-50 minutes, until browned with a good amount of fat rendered out. 

In the meantime, mix sauce ingredients together.  When the meatloaf comes out, use a spoon to remove all of the rendered fat you can out of the pan.  When fat is removed, top the loaf with the ketchup mixture.  Bake for an additional 10-15 minutes.  Allow to cool for about 10 minutes before slicing and serving with mashed potatoes and corn. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jumping the Gun

When I started Eats of Eden almost a year ago (this March!), I was already caught up in a nasty case of spring fever.  Actually, no.  Screw spring.  I wanted summer.  And guess what?  I'm feeling the same way right now, watching the sun filter through our windows (that need cleaning) and peeking out at the blue sky as I slog through pages and pages and pages of red-ink revisions on my canning story.  It's actually just 19 pages of revisions, but they are taking me an age.

My thoughts kept sneaking back to the hibernating patio furniture in the garage, the new fire pit waiting patiently in its box from Christmas morning, and the wondrous barbecue that's right next to the garage door for white trash winter grilling.  Because, you know, if you're not white trash you have some year-round outdoor kitchen setup like Bobby Flay.  That's how it works, I think.  

I had to take a break, if not for my sanity at least to dig up something for dinner out of the freezer.  The first thing that I saw was the rack of ribs, drowning in sauce, that was on Costco coupon last week.  Oh good god that sounds perfect.  Messy ribs, with their little charred bits from the grill.  Summer, prepare to be faux-ed.

Under the ribs were a less likely summer staple:  frozen tortellinis.  Also from Costco, of course.  Who doesn't love some bulk-priced inspiration?  Tortellini salad would be a fantastic side dish.  Back inside I started rounding up what were virtually leftovers:  an Italian sausage and bottle of garlic oil that had been in someone's stocking or basket at Christmas, some leftover parsley and chives from last weekend, the last bit of Tuscan Sunset at the bottom of the Penzey's jar.  Tossed together and chilled, I was ready for the best picnic ever... except I'd probably sink and drown in the muddy sinkhole that is everyone's backyard in Oregon February.

What wasn't quite as easy to procure was the pie supplies.  We had to make a trip to the store for cherries and apples, which somehow came out being a $75 bill.  It doesn't seem possible for us to go to a grocer without spending enough money to buy a pretty damn cute outfit.  If only I could cut food out of our budget, I could get all kinds of cute stuff.  When I was filling up the pie plate and cutting the lattice crust, I got out the Williams-Sonoma pie shape cutters.  Matt is constantly amazed at the stuff that we have in the kitchen.  "Where did these come from?!"

"Williams-Sonoma sale bin."  Circa 2008.

"You have more random stuff than anyone I know," he said.  I think my mom might have me beat (turkey-shaped butter molds!!), but that's all right.  "Too bad you can't paint them with food coloring red and green."

Umm, can't?  I don't think so!  That sounds awesome!  He watched, totally tickled, while I assembled my little painting palette.  Unused makeup brush, a few drops of each color, and we were ready to paint.  Probably the most fun I've had in at least a few weeks.  Painting pie crust, edible art--the best of all universes.

The sun was long gone when we fired up the barbecue and sat down for dinner, but the chilly rays infused our conversation with meditations on vegetables we should plant, how we were going to get the grass green again, and whether we should get that second air conditioner.  In between exclaimations about how great everything tasted.  What is it about little burned bits of barbecue that are so irresistible?

I've made quite a few pasta salads the last few years, but we both agreed there was something fantastic about this one.  I think it's the addition of more acidic elements:  capers and red wine vinegar.  It cut the oil and gave it a good, tangy punch.  I'm going to try and post the recipe, but since I always make these salads by just adding stuff until it looks, smells and tastes right, I'm kind of guessing on the amounts.  If you try it out, you'll have to play and adjust it to get it the way you'll want it.  Be prepared to eat lots of tortellini nibbles (sorry, I know life is hard). 

Summertime Tortellini Salad
1 package of frozen or refrigerated cheese tortellini
1/2 a salami, sliced into very small chunks
3 green onions, finely sliced
Handful of fresh parsley, minced
1/2 cup garlic-infused oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers, minced
1 teaspoon garlic salt
1/2 tablespoon Penzey's Tuscan Sunset (or other Italian seasoning)
Good grind of pepper
(if you had some fresh cherry tomatoes and/or feta cheese, that would probably taste great in it too)

Cook tortellini in boiling water according to package directions.  Allow to cool to room temperature.  Toss with all ingredients, and refrigerate for at least three hours.  Taste and adjust flavors and seasonings (I had to add a little extra oil, vinegar and salt at this point).  Allow to chill until serving (overnight works to allow flavors to marinate).  Remove from refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving time so it's not ice-cold.  That's no good.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Riding the Peachwave

I had my own little reason to celebrate today.  Last night, I found out that I've certifiably lost 20 pounds.  It was something that had seemed impossible, and I gave a million excuses ("I'm just getting older and changing," "my clothes shrunk…somehow…in the closet" and of course "I'll take care of it when I'm out of school in like two years").  There were a couple of pinpoint moments when I decided that, no, all of that wasn't good enough and I needed to take control of the situation right.  NOW.  For the love of all things Ann Taylor. 

This was the first, a clip from our company's charity event that was filmed by a local news crew.  Somehow I was caught as the screenshot for the video.  Ouch.
Then there was the trip to Burgerville with a few co-workers, where I ordered onion rings alongside my veggie burger (like ordering a Meat Lover's Personal Pan Pizza and a Diet Coke).  One of them started talking about his 70-pound weight loss, and I suddenly realized, of course I've gained so much weight, when ordering a freaking onion ring basked with lunch is the new normal.  Slowly, nibble by nibble, my portion control and healthy eating choices had gone out the window.  I was trading house salad for hollandaise and scoop-sizes to shovel-size.  Although it tasted good, the other 23.80 hours of the day after those bites felt pretty crappy. 

After trying so hard to be disciplined and healthy for several months, though being far from perfect (I still can't work exercise into school and writing, work, talking to my husband a little and my friends hardly at all - I probably COULD if I tried HARD enough, but I sort of draw the line when I'm already falling asleep on books and steering wheels), I felt a treat to mark the milestone was more than appropriate.  My first thoughts were of my old-school favorites I hadn't tasted since I started on "the program":

a.  Red Robin's Whiskey River BBQ Chicken Wrap with bottomless steak fries (and obviously taking advantage of the word bottomless; they're free, after all!)

b.  A Papa Murphy's Deep Dish Stuffed Pizza

c.  Pad Thai... and yes, the whole plate.

d.  Sweet & Sour chicken from Rice Time in Canby.... absolutely the whole plate.

But rewarding myself for losing weight with the food and portions I've been working so hard to get away from seemed a little like building your dream home and then kicking down the front porch railings in jubilation.  Just that Red Robin meal alone, my standard order every time we used to visit (which used to be in the 1-2 times a month plus range) runs 41 points when I'm supposed to keep it to 34 a day--and that's not including the onion rings I would always steal off of Matt's plate. 
So instead of going extravagant, I decided to keep it simple and sweet.  I went to Bridgeport's Peachwave on my lunch break, one of the many self-serve Asian-themed frozen yogurt boutiques that have been sprouting around Portland like evil, invasive blackberries (sorry, I'm writing an essay on canning-I'm a little jam-centric at the moment).  The yogurt is primarily fat and/or sugar free, but tastes sweet and airy and authentic to its namesake flavors.  To top it off--literally, ha ha! there is a ginormous bar of toppings that curls around the counter, starting with a plethora of fresh fruit.  Nothing canned, cocktailed or otherwise syrupy, just truly-sliced fruits and berries that bring your dessert to life.  Then there's the crushed candy bars, little pieces of cheesecake and fudgy, caramel-y sauces that you can go crazy-decadent with, but if you want to be healthy you still can get out of there without sabotaging your diet day.  But at the same time, I could take Matt along and he'd be happy too, since he wouldn't be stuck eating the sauerkraut chocolate cake that was in my last Weight Watchers brochure.

Please do not read this as negative will toward sauerkraut in chocolate cake.  I bet it's actually freakishly good, like sour cream additions.  I'd just never get a bite into him if he saw what was in it.
If I stopped in here every lunch break, I'd probably look this happy in my office every afternoon.  There's also something very deviant-feeling about eating frozen yogurt at work.  Where did you get it?  You can't bring it in a bag.  It's not typical takeout.  Where were you?  And put that away, it looks like way too much fun for an office.

Tonight I got a surprise surprise... I went to the opening of H&M at Washington Square, and was able to get into sizes that I haven't attempted in several years.  Like, was still Tabitha Jensen years.  Like, Mehitabel wasn't the poster child for kitten-hood obesity years.  It kind of softened the blow of running through Jack in the Box for take-out and not getting the delightful curly fries and fantastic-looking crispy chicken sandwich, but the grilled salad with light dressing applied at home. 

You can't always have it all.  I can't eat all of the stuff I love and still love myself as much.  It's all a psychotic balancing act:  sacrifice and indulgence, work and school, not enough cumin and way too much cumin.  Right now I'm feeling slightly more graceful in the ballet of it all, but that's always temporary.  A ball inevitably falls.  When it does, apply frozen yogurt rigorously.  Top with more crumbled Heath bars if necessary.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Shops and Spaetzle

Cooking stores typically run a pretty narrow gamut.  On one end you have the sometimes-corporate, always-premium luxury stores like Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, and this one place in the Pearl District I went to when I was still a student and broke and got "the look" in.  You know, that "don't touch my Ruffoni pans, you unwashed chreton" squint.  They often offer cooking classes for $100 a head in a gorgeous back kitchen that, though aesthetically breathtaking, is better suited for wine tasting and watching than true functionality.  Then there's the, uhh, "other" side, the places I don't go to.  I'm thinking of those outlet mall places with generic neon-hued signs perma-fixed to the windows screaming SALE!  and 75% MARKDOWNS!!, raping your mind's ear whenever you pass.  They're crowded and messy, but you can get a pretty good colander for cheap.  Middle ground is rare, as most specialty and independent shops are evaporating.  When was the last time you saw a little bookstore?  (Mine was Seaside, a month ago, and they had the most wonderful bookstore kitty, but it was a heartbreaking stretch of nothingness right before that).  Good, small cooking stores are comparably atypical.  Mrs. Cook's at Seattle's U-Village is a nice one.  The Green Eyeshade in Port Townsend is unforgettable (met the owner of Mt. Townsend Creamery there once, good times).  Even the housewares section of the West Seattle Metropolitan Market could be used as an example as such, albeit an arguable one.  But until this weekend, I hadn't experienced that in Portland. 

I'd known about Mirador in Southeast Portland since taking my canning class in 2008.  They're known around the more-authentically PORTLAND areas as the go-to canning supply place.  Based on this reputation, I contacted the co-owner Lynn to see if she'd be willing to do an interview for my in-progress essay on the Great Recession renaissance of food preservation.  Sweetly and graciously, as I learned was her nature, she obliged.  The store is down on Division near Clinton Street, a district I find myself in probably more often than any other neighborhood that I wish I went and visited more (Hawthorne, Belmont, 23rd, et. al.).  The exterior, with its airy mural and wind chime collection, beckons you right inside.  It looks like a house, for god's sake!  How could you be more welcoming? 

I'm pretty jaded when I go into kitchen stores.  Microplanes?  Nice.  I've got, like, five.  Gourmet apple pie filling?  I'll make my own, thanks.  Lodge Logic display.  YAWN.  Can we go to Jamba Juice now?  I want a Mango Mantra.  But as soon as I got into Mirador's sprawling cooking section (the store also boasts earth-friendly home goods, cleaning products and other fun stuff), I receded into pure giddy mode.  They had an entire section devoted to pasta-making, with a wonderful ravioli press and the kind hearty ravioli cutters I've seen Mario Batali tossing around.  And... A Spaetzle Maker!  I've only heard of these, and in lieu of having one, I've been making my spaetzle ghett-style by putting an old colander over boiling water and running the batter through with a spatula.  It doesn't really work, and it makes a huge mess.  Yes, I did hear Alton Brown's voice in the back of my head... "Unitasker!"  To which I say, psh.  You are just not very creative, sir.  It's also a conversation piece.  Duh.  For all your stimulating conversations starting with:  "What's that?"
"A spaetzle maker."
"Oh.  Cool."
There was also a place for home cheese and yogurt starts, and that most frightening of on-the-rise do-it-yourselfers:  komboucha.  Not sold on that stuff, but I've always wanted my own fresh mozz. 

Despite the pre-Super Bowl flush of customers (which is great to see in a small business), Lynn spent a good chunk of time talking about canning trends and such for my piece.  I'm not exactly Michael Pollan, so it was very nice to be taken kind-of seriously as a sort-of writer by someone who really does know this topic and community.  She personally lived through the organic food and food preservation resurge in the 1970's, when food inflation prices drove people back into their kitchens and gardens for the first time in years, and the store has seen the Great Recession home-canning renaissance that started booming in 2008.  Definitely an interesting perspective that broadens my mini-window of experience.

Although I left to return to the country with my spaetzle equipment and my very own canning instructor's freshman book, I'm going to need a return trip.  There was an adorable apron I was eyeing, and I keep thinking about that ravioli press.  And I'm a Portland food blogger and I've never been to a freaking food cart... I need to get back into Southeast, dammit!  It's a moral imperative!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Starbucks Chicanery

There was a coffee bean emergency at my work this morning (don't ask or even try to comprehend; it's not worth it), so I had to run over to Starbucks and get a bag of whole beans.  As I waited in a sprawling line almost out the door to pay for three things with three different credit cards, a sign for New Artisan Sandwiches! caught my eye.  Artisan sandwiches, eh?  Sounds fancy. And it also sounds a hell of a lot better than the packet of dry Quaker oatmeal with reconstituted apples in my car.  The bacon and gouda sandwich on ciabatta made my mouth water, but the veggie monterey jack had my healthy senses tingling.  It's veggies!  Those are good for me.  I swiped my card for one (then my boss's for his Grande Americano, and the company card for the damn beans), then took it back to my desk to savor.

When I opened it up, I expected it to be overflowing with leafy, bright goodness.  This is exactly what I get whenever I order the Noah's Bagels Spinach, Mushroom and Asparagus Thin Egg White Melt (oh my god, YUM!  So fresh-tasting and delicious!).  It's an earthy mix of crisp, real veggies that makes my mouth water just thinking about it.  Not quite as good as their Santa Fe Burrito I used to order about once a week before I realized I needed a serious food intervention, but still pretty awesome.  Instead, I found myself playing a game of Where's The Veggies?  I see the egg, I see the cheese.  Where the hell are the vegetables?  The egg tasted lightly dusted with veggie, like maybe someone rubbed a piece of broccoli against it at some point.  Otherwise, I was drowning in a world of yellow breakfast blah.

OH WAIT, A PEPPER!  Well, now it all makes sense.  This is definitely a produce feast for the senses.  This fleck of bell pepper absolutely proves that.

Lying corporate hacks.

If that wasn't bad enough, I plug it in to my Weight Watchers tracker and find that it's 10 points!!!  The same amount of points as the probably-far-superior Bacon Gouda one!  Although, I don't know.  I may have been just as disappointed if the theme holds through and the sandwich ended up just 'bacon-kissed.'  Anyway, I wasn't exactly benefited by making a perceived healthy choice. 

I want to love Starbucks, I really do.  Yarr, th' salty waters of Puget Sound run through me veins thick 's blood.  I'll always cheer Seattle over Portland.  Go Sounders!  Go Real Taco Time!  Go Other Pioneer Square!  But Starbucks makes it so hard:  the bad, overpriced coffee, syrups with bad aftertastes, shitty beatnik Muzak, the frozen-in-the-middle spinach wrap I had once, and now this!?  I think I've learned my lesson.  Dutch Brothers for coffee, Noah's for stellar breakfast sandwiches, and Quaker for dry reconstituted oatmeal.

Case closed.