Potluck Jackpot

Maybe you spent too much on shoes, and payday is still a few days away.  Maybe you’re on a fixed income.  Maybe more than one person in the family has “La Grippe” (antique term for influenza), and a trip farther than the mailbox and/or trash bin right now is about as doable as a quick jaunt to Paris for lunch.  Or, maybe you’re snowed in.

But there are empty bellies, and the accompanying sad eyes.  So whatever chain of events brought you to this juncture, it’s here.  You’ve got faces to feed, and you’ve got to do it with what you have on hand.To research what might become dinner with a seriously depleted larder, I decided to play a mental version of Chopped, a Food Network show where the competing chefs get a basket of disparate odds and ends, then try to make something original and edible.

For inspiration, I chose a few items from my freezer, and inventoried my pantry.  You probably won’t have the same ingredients (that’d be weird and a little creepy), but maybe something similar that could spark some ideas.

I found a bag full of chicken from a ginormous rotisserie bird I plucked from Costco.  I’d already used half of the meat so had about 3 cups of clucker.

With it I could make:chicken dishesChicken salad flavored and sauced according to what else is in the kitchen.  I could make tacos.  Or mix it with some Eastern NC bbq sauce and have barbecue night.  Chopped and added to a frittata along with whatever kind of cheese on hand and some par-cooked spuds.  Folded into some cheese sauce and spooned over rice or pasta.  Stirred into soup or white bean chili.

There’s a package of pre-formed hamburgers in the freezer.  I could make them as burgers and dress them according to what’s in the fridge.

But.There’s no law that says they have to stay burger-shaped; or if I leave them as burgers, how I must fix them.  I could make burger parmesan by laying them in a dish, covering with marinara and melting some mozzarella on top.  I could make a cream sauce and have creamed beef burgers on toast.  Remold them into meatballs and slowly cook them in sweet and sour sauce, or a sweet smoky barbecue sauce.

But what if that proverbial cupboard is well and truly bare?  Say you’ve got one blue box of mac and cheese, and a few odds and ends of this and that.You could add veggies, like broccoli or shoe peg corn.  You could add bacon to it and then top it with a poached egg.  Or, make a frittata by pouring the mac which you’ve prepared according to directions in and around the beaten egg in the skillet.  If you want something that takes a little more work, but is heretically indulgent—make the mac, cool it, slice it, and then do a three-part dredge (flour, then egg wash, then breadcrumbs), let it set up in the fridge for at least an hour, then panfry it to golden brown.  Top with something green and lightly dressed; for contrast and to lighten it up some.And last, but actually one of my favorite need-to-go-to-the-grocery-store dinners is breakfast.  I scramble up a mess of eggs.  I always have a few potatoes floating around my kitchen, which I make into hash browns.  Then I add toast, or bacon, or even a small salad.  It’s the kind of feel-good meal that might just make you forget (or not care) why you couldn’t make it to the supermarket in the first place.Thanks for your time.

Mmm…double starch

The Kid has never been a picky eater. Beets, bananas, and fish sticks are a few of the small list of items that shall not pass my child’s lips.

And there are two one-pot main dishes that are on the no-fly list.  One is a recipe I got from my friend and former boss, Bosco.  It’s a rice, chick pea and hamburger skillet.

The other dish is the scratch-made version of a treat with both rice and short spaghetti shards one might find in San Francisco.  I’ve made it for years; I’ve even written about it before, but the last time I made it, I added a new ingredient. It’s a trick America’s Test Kitchen uses when making quick versions of slow-cooked dishes.  At first blush, it seems like one of those internet hacks that sound like a life-changing miracle, but when actually attempted leaves you with regret, frustration, a wine-stained shoe, a broken bottle, and glass shards embedded in your forehead.

It’s unflavored gelatin.See?  I told you it sounded bizarre.

But hear me out.  When you cook meats very slowly, the collagen eventually dissolves.  That’s what lends the unctuous mouth feel to things like brisket or ribs.  Gelatin’s a protein which comes from collagen.

I’ll never make this without gelatin again; it’s perfect in this dish, or any dish that needs a little silkiness.

San Francisco Cheat-2.0rice a roni1 pound 80/20 ground beef

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 pound mushrooms, sliced

2 teaspoons rosemary, chopped finely

1 teaspoon dry thyme

1 ¾ cups long grain rice

1-7 ounce bag fideo noodles (found in grocery stores’ Hispanic section)

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry or red wine

1 ½ cups thawed shoe peg corn

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin

½ cup cold water

Salt and pepper

For broth, whisk together:roni broth

4 cups beef stock

2 teaspoons horseradish

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Splash of mushroom or dark soy

3 bay leaves

Bloom gelatin: stir together gelatin powder and ½ cup cold water.  Set aside.  It will harden into gelled disk.

Turn large heavy pot with lid to medium-high.  Break ground beef into thumb-size pieces and drop into pan.  Season.  Let cook undisturbed until the portion touching the bottom of the pot browns and gets a little crust. 

When the meat is browned all over, remove meat from pan and set aside.  Pour out all but about a tablespoon or so of the fat left.

Add mushrooms, onions, rosemary and thyme.  Cook until liquid has cooked out and veg are caramelized.

Stir in fideo and rice.  Cook, stirring frequently until the rice and pasta have browned a bit.  Stir in tomato paste and let cook for a few minutes. 

Pour in sherry or wine, scraping up any bits on pot bottom.  Let cook until pan is dry.

Pour in broth and put gelatin disk into pot.  Stir until melted and liquid comes to a boil.  Add back the ground beef and stir in corn.  Turn down heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 17-20 minutes or the broth has completely cooked in. Remove from heat, leave covered, and let sit for 15 minutes before serving.  Top each serving with a pat of butter and some snipped chives if desired. 

Serves 6-8.

As far as savory gelatin goes, this beats the pants off those crazy aspics from the fifties, with tomato jello studded with celery, pimento-stuffed olives, and shrimp.

But for the love of Mike, why, oh, why, would they do that to perfectly innocent food and their digestive tracks?Thanks for your time.

Open your pie hole

Bless her heart.


Every good Southern girl knows what this means…

I grew up eating my mom’s version.  She uses canned beans, canned tomato soup, and instant mashed potatoes.  She calls it shepherd’s pie.  But lamb is the base of shepherd’s pie.  And lamb ain’t something that’s ever gonna happen at her house.  She hates it.  The closest thing to lambs at my folks’ place would be a wool sweater.

She makes hers with ground chuck, and when you make it with beef, it’s called cottage pie.

I’ve been in many different kitchens; both professional settings and private homes.

dream kitchen.png

Here’s the kitchen in my mind.

I’ve picked the brains of every cook I could get to stand still long enough to answer any one of a thousand questions.  I now have many of these generous culinary coaches on speed dial and email 911.  Because of their generous, patient, support, I have been able to develop my own personal cooking philosophy.

Here ‘tis:

“Treat every ingredient with respect and elevate it as much as is possible, be it a humble egg, or the most expensive cut of meat.”

So when I decided to make cottage pie, I wanted to use from-scratch ingredients.  I would also work to get the best flavor and most desirable texture to which each ingredient was able to rise.

Honeymoon Cottage Pie

cottage pie

1 lb. 80/20 ground beef

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, diced

1 lb. mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

½ cup all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons butter (if needed)

1/3 cup dark beer

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups low-sodium beef stock

1½ teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped finely

2 bay leaves

2 cups frozen peas

2 cups carrots, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes

Mashed potatoes:

10 medium sized potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks

4 tablespoons butter

1/3-3/4 cup fat-free buttermilk

1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Salt & pepper

Place potatoes into large pot with plenty of salted water.  Cook over medium heat until spuds are tender.  Drain.  Place back into pot and drop in butter.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and using a hand masher, mash until smooth/chunky.  Stir in buttermilk until just a little loose.  Taste for seasoning, cover and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350.

Heat a large heavy skillet to medium-high.  Brown seasoned hamburger.  When cooked, set aside, and leave fat in skillet (add butter if there’s not at least 3 tablespoons).  Put in onions, mushrooms, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaves.  Season veg.  Cook until onion turns golden.  Stir in tomato paste.  When paste darkens and starts to stick to the bottom, deglaze with beer.  When the liquid’s cooked out, mix in flour and cook for 1 minute.  Pour in beef broth and stir until smooth.  Bring to a simmer and take off heat (it should be nice and thick).  Add back meat and peas and carrots.  Check for seasoning.

Pour into a greased casserole dish, or 6 individual ramekins.  If you use individual dishes, you can freeze some for another night. 

Top with mashed potatoes.  Smooth over the top, leaving no gaps.  Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, remove foil and top with cheese.  Return to oven and cook under low broiler until browned and bubbly.  Serves 6.

This is even better with crusty bread and a crisp, green salad.  If you’re a beer drinker, serve it with a glass of the same type you cooked with.  You literally can’t get a better pairing.

Both Petey and I grew up in the 1960’s-70’s.  In this era most of the moms had been raised during the Great Depression and/or World War II.  They were sick of economizing, making do, and Victory gardens

This ennui resulted in a heady enthusiasm for cooking with cans of this, and jars of that.  The only fresh produce many kids from our generation ever saw was potatoes, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce.

Is it any wonder we have such a messed up relationship with food?  This stuff was considered good eats back in the 70’s.  And what’s up with the knife-wielding woman under the table?

So while many of those dinners we ate hold nostalgic appeal, processed foods do not.  Rehabbing this food using better techniques and fresher ingredients gives us the best of both worlds.

And since we baby boomers are looking at 50 in the rearview mirror, healthier is much smarter.  I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be around to embarrass my great-grandkids.

Embarrassing yes, but even I have my limits.

Thanks for your time.

Dinner as the reward of virtue

First, let me admit that I am most definitely no goody-two-shoes, uber-organized, Martha Stewart-wannabe.

I once overheard a woman say that she tries to retrieve her laundry from the dryer before the clothes go cold.  I try to retrieve my laundry from the dryer before the clothes go out of style.

There is, however, one exception.

Growing up, my father was in the Coast Guard.  Their motto is Semper Paratus – Always Ready.   My mother’s personal motto is Clean as you go along.  The result of being raised with these two philosophies is that when cooking, I am a cleaning, prepping machine.

There are few things I love more than getting into the kitchen and knocking out every step of a meal up to the final cooking.

Which is exactly what I was doing the other day when I was putting together a pot of goulash.

I grew up eating goulash.  It consists of hamburger, pasta, tomatoes, and loads of garlic.  It’s also known as American chop suey or beefy mac.

This time I did all the prep, and after adding the pasta, covered it, and took it off the heat.  An hour later I discovered that the residual heat had almost cooked the pasta.  But they were still opaque, and tasted a little doughy.  So later, when we were ready to eat, I cooked it briefly, stirring frequently, until the cavatappi was translucent and tasted cooked.

If you want to cook it right away, instead of taking it off the heat cook it on medium covered for 10 minutes, and uncovered for 10 more, or until the noodles are cooked and the sauce is thickened and clinging to the pasta.

Now-R-Later Goulash


1 lb. 80/20 hamburger

12 ounces mushrooms

1 onion

2 heads garlic

½ teaspoon bacon fat or vegetable oil

2-14 ounce can tomatoes

1 ½ cups beef stock

2 tablespoons tomato paste

½ cup sherry

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 bay leaves

1 ½ teaspoons dry thyme + ½ teaspoon

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped + 2 sprigs

2 teaspoons kosher salt + pinch

1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper + pinch

1 pound cavatappi pasta

Roast garlic:

Preheat oven to 350.  Cut heads of garlic in half horizontally.  Lay in piece of foil about 9 inches square. Place ½ teaspoon thyme, rosemary sprigs, pinch of salt, pepper, and oil.  Wrap, and bake for 45 minutes.  Remove from oven and let cool.  Extract garlic cloves from skins and set aside.

Put hamburger into large heavy pot with a cover.  When it’s just about cooked through, add onions, mushrooms, salt, pepper, and remaining herbs.  Cook until the veg have released and cooked out all their liquid.

Add garlic and stir.  Cook for 2-3 minutes.  Add tomato paste and mix in.  Cook until the paste has darkened, and started to stick to the bottom of the pot.  Add sherry, stir to pull up all the stuff on the bottom of the pot.  Cook until the sherry’s cook in.

Pour in tomatoes and juice.  Add beef stock.  Stir in pasta. 

Cover, take off the heat and let sit covered for 60 minutes.

10 minutes before service, put it on a medium burner, gently stirring frequently, so that all the pasta cooks to opaque.

Serve with a dollop of sour cream of Mexican crema.  Serves 8.

So, practicing the virtues taught to me by my parents, I was rewarded with a dinner that virtually cooked itself.

It’s like we dined on instant karma.

Thanks for your time.

Cheap Eats

From a Herald-Sun column published 5/16/2012
Mario Battali, an iron chef and successful restauranteur, is participating in an interesting, touching experiment. For one week, he, his family, and others in the food community are eating on $31.00. The amount is the maximum of one person’s food stamps.
That’s $1.48 per meal.
The object of the exercise is to illustrate how tough this can be. And, to persuade the government to stop cutting food aid in this very precarious economy.
This started me thinking about trying to put meals on the table for practically pennies.
It ain’t easy.
Free-range, organic, hormone-free? Forget it. That stuff automatically adds about 50% to the price. Frozen meals, pre-fab boxes, and prepared food is also out.
Think simple, think from scratch. Think starch.
Pasta, rice, and potatoes. They’re cheap and filling. But, as far as nutrition goes, they’re lacking.
So, that leaves meat and vegetables for vitamins and minerals. But generally, meat, dairy, and veg are the most expensive things in your cart. So, what to do?
You have to shop the bargains. Cheap cuts of meat, store brands of dairy, and look for sales.
As for vegetables, canned will be the bulk of them. Occasionally stores will have sales in the produce section, but not often. An eagle-eye and some luck will score fresh veggies, but it’s an uncommon occurrence.
All of this made me think about some dishes that I make which are inexpensive. Things that can stretch to feed extra mouths. Filling satisfying meals that don’t cost much.
Starches are great for bulking up a dish. Use meat more as an accent, rather than the main food of the meal. Or buy a cheap cut, say a pork butt, and it can be eaten for days, in different dishes.
One dish that I make, is cheap, and stretchable. My mom’s version is called porcupine meatballs. But I can’t cook a meatball that stays round and pretty. So I make the same thing into patties, and we call it “roadkill”. It’s actually one of our family’s favorite dishes. We all look forward to roadkill day.

1 pound ground beef (or turkey)
1 1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 egg
1 head garlic
1 can tomato sauce
2 cups beef stock (or water)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons cooking oil
salt and pepper

Roast the garlic: cut the head in half, and put both pieces into a piece of tin foil. Drizzle with a bit of oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little thyme. Close tightly, and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool, still in the foil.
In a large bowl, put rice, the roasted garlic cloves, hamburger, the egg, a tablespoon of oil, the herbs, salt and pepper and a tablespoon or so of the tomato sauce, reserving the rest. Mix well, and form into patties about the size of a hamburger patty.
Heat a large heavy pot with the rest of the oil. Brown the roadkill on both sides and remove to a plate.
Into the hot pot, pour in the rest of the tomato sauce, and the beef stock or water. Replace the burgers, and when it comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and cook on medium low for about an hour. The rice takes longer to cook than the meat, so when the rice is cooked all the way, the roadkill is done.

The great thing about this dish, other than the flavor, is you can add more rice if you need to. I usually use about half of the amount of rice to meat. But you can change the proportions depending on cash and diners.
As cheap as this dish is, it would still probably be a treat on a food stamp budget. And the people that have to rely on food assistance are your neighbors and co-workers, not some mythical “welfare queen”.
The next time you go grocery shopping, try to imagine feeding your family on $1.48 a piece. Frankly, I don’t know how it’s done.
I talk a lot about being broke. But, I am spoiled. I don’t really know what it’s like to be broke or look into my hungry child’s eyes, and have nothing in the cupboard.
So take a moment, and realize just lucky you are. Because for most of us, it could be a lot harder.
Thank for your time.