What I Cooked Last Night

Sometimes I make up these crazy meals that turn out to be wonderful. When that happens, i think it is worth sharing. Occasionally something turns out to be a total disaster, then it is the story, rather than the recipe that is worth sharing. My kitchen creativity is best used on leftovers. I can work tasty magic with leftovers. Be sure to read the first post, "About My Cooking Style" which will help in following recipes when given, or to recreate meals from my prose.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Crazy Leftover Night

Faced with a strange array of leftovers and no time to go to the store--amazing how often this happens to me-- creativity was the name of the game. From Monday I had about half of a London broil and maybe three cups of mashed potatoes. From Tuesday I had about two cups of pinto beans cooked with lots of garlic & onions and half a bag of baby spinach. After grabbing a few staples from the icebox I had the makings of a very interesting meal that turned out to be quite tasty.

First I diced up a green bell pepper and an onion and set them to cooking in a large saute pan with about a tablespoon of oil. While they were sweating it out I mixed about half a cup of shredded cheese into the cold potatoes and then made them into patties by cramming them into a peanut butter jar lid. After dredging them in flour they resembled great big biscuits. I began heating two tablespoons of oil in my cast iron skillet and then added the pintos to the onions and peppers. When the oil heated up I began frying the potato cakes until golden brown. Once the cakes were all finished I diced up the steak and added it to the pan with the veggies along with 1/3 cup of salsa. Salt and pepper took care of the seasoning as there were already some strong flavors in the mix. Once everything was heated through, supper was ready.

I tossed a big pile of raw spinach on each plate, then placed two potato cakes on each pile. Last I ladled a good portion of the vegetable and beef mixture over the top. A dollop of sour cream finished it perfectly. I put some three cheese Ranch dressing on the table, but it was superfluous. The components seemed perfectly balanced. I must say I was surprised at how good it was.

I may never have this exact combination of items on hand again, but this was simple and could be adapted to other foods. Chicken instead of beef, black beans instead of pintos, maybe even rice cakes or even grits cakes would be tasty. A veggie on the side would be okay instead of the spinach, but we usually have that in the house. The point is that even if it is never repeated, I fed my family a delicious and healthy meal that took little time, no precision and my two year old ate raw spinach for supper.

What's in your fridge?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

New Year's Day Feast

In the Lowcountry, we are great followers of tradition. One long standing and good tasting tradition is the customary meal enjoyed on New Year's Day. Roasted pork, collard greens, Hoppin' John and cornbread make for a fine feast, a marvelously pork flavored way to begin the New Year. Hoppin' John reportedly brings you luck while the collard greens ensure that you will have money over the next twelve months. Pork is the meat of choice as it compliments. nicely, the bacon and ham hocks that are in the Hoppin' John and the collards.

Now I am not generally a collard green eater, I have never developed a taste for them. However, being a person who loves tradition, I eat them annually when they are presented to me. Otherwise, I cook up some spinach with garlic butter and call it "greens." This summer, however, I paid a visit to Mary Mac's Tea Room in Atlanta, a place I have long wanted to visit. They served us up some fresh corn bread and pot likker with collards, and it was delicious. I was stunned. Now for those of you not from the South, I should explain. Pot likker is the cooking water in the pot with the collards. Technically, I guess it could be considered stock. Not ones for wasting anything, Southerners have long sopped this flavorful juice up with corn bread, and many make a whole meal, serving them up together in a bowl. Having completely enjoyed my collards, corn bread and pot likker at Mary Mac's, I decided to make some myself this year.

I consulted some important sources as I prepared for our holiday feast. I found no help from Charleston Receipts, likewise from Two Hundred Years of Charleston Cooking. So, I did an internet search for the recipe from Mary Mac's. I found a reasonably authentic version from Hoppin' John Taylor, a noted Southern food cook, writer and historian. I gave it careful study and moved on. Nest I turned to the Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook. This tome has, in just one year, become a definitive source for Southern food. Though Yankee by birth, these two guys were raised in Charleston (I used to skate the Pool with one of them) and somehow learned to cook like locals. The recipes are traditional, yet comfortably modern, takes on everything Southern. Though I grew up hating pimento cheese, a sandwich spread which is a staple at picnics, church luncheons, family gatherings and tea rooms. At the Food & Wine Festival, the Bros. challenged me to make their version which uses freshly roasted red pepper instead of jarred pimentos, mixes things up with a bit of cream cheese adding a depth of flavor and richness that is absent in mayonaise only versions, even if the mayo is Dukes. After a simple personal tweak, the pimento cheese instantly became one of the most requested items when I cook for friends. The collard green recipe was lengthy and looked excellent, I gained valuable information. Lastly, I consulted The Pat Conroy Cookbook. I got some great stuff there as well, but found the first recipe that calls for tomatoes, which sounded weird to be honest. Armed with instructions, ingredient lists and knowledge to use for inspiration, I headed to the kitchen to make it happen.

The Lee Bros. herald the use of ham hocks, other recipes call for bacon or salt pork (fat back), I used bacon and chunks of ham. (Whenever we bake ham, I freeze the bone for soup, and toss all random chunks, bits and pieces into a bag and freeze those too. When I am cooking beans or something else calling for hammy goodness, I just chisel off a hunk or two add them to the pot. This is what I used for the collards.) Pat Conroy throws in some onions, I thought that was a dandy idea, so I diced up a nice sweet one. Mary Mac's cooks them in chicken stock. I was out of ready made stuff, not inclined to make it from scratch, so i tossed a spoon of chicken soup base in the pot. The Lee Bros. champion the idea of cooking the meats and seasonings for an hour or so, to make a rich stock, before adding the collards, I like that idea just fine. My grandmother always tossed in a little sugar, so I did too. I also added a little twist or two of my own, of course. I have to say that the collards were a huge success. My two year old daughter ate them, with some encouragement, to be sure, but without resistance or calling them "yucky" or worse. My husband, a life-long collard hater ate his, doused with plenty or Tabasco, he declared them "Not awful." I rather enjoyed them myself. My mother however, declared that they were the best collards she had every eaten in her entire life. Better than her grandmother's, better than her own. I am still beaming. My technique follows at the end.

On to the Hoppin' John. (The most important thing to know is that it calls for FIELD or COW peas, NOT black-eyed peas. Remember that. Object if anyone serves it to you otherwise.) That said, I make my Hoppin' John with brown rice, a departure from tradition yes, but as they cook up all brown from the pea juice, no one knows anyway, and that makes me feel better about all the bacon I put in. They are delicious, I actually think that the brown rice adds a richness of flavor to the dish. It is simple to make and delicious to eat. We enjoy Hoppin' John throughout the year, not just on January First. Last year I came up with an alternative version, that we eat on Cinco De Mayo, Hoppin' Juan. Just substitute some black beans for the field peas, throw in a diced jalepeno and some spicy seasonings a presto! A Tex-Mex treat, But I digress. The Hoppin' John recipe follows at the end.

For the last, oh, ten years or so, I have prepared our traditional pork roast in a Crock-Pot. We spend New Year's in my dad's rustic hunting cabin, and the oven is unreliable, when it has fuel. A Boston Butt, some veggies and herbs and a slow cook all night is delicious. This year, there was a new oven, so I changed things up a bit. I got some Country Style Ribs, whatever they are. Not ribs, really, there is no bone. They are pretty lean as well, but not tough, unless you overcook them. We call them "pork fingers" mostly, and think them quite tasty, whether oven baked or tossed on the grill. A heavy sprinkle of Jane's Krazy Mixed Up Salt is all they need. I bake them in a 350 degree oven until they reach an internal temperature of 130 F and let them rest 20 minutes. Delish.

I baked up some cornbread and some chocolate chip cookies and it was a very happy new year indeed.

Brown Rice Hoppin' John

8 oz field peas or cow peas that have been soaked over night
6 slices lean bacon, chopped, cooked, drained (More if desired)
1 onion, diced
1 whole celery stalk
1 1/2 cups brown rice
2 bay leaves
Dash or three of Tabasco
salt & pepper to taste

Rinse and drain peas, put into stock pot with bay leaves, diced onion, cooked bacon, celery stalk, 2 teaspoons of salt and water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until peas are tender, 1-2 hours. Put the rice in a two quart baking dish. When peas are tender, add them to the rice, reserving the cooking liquid. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and discard the bay leaf and celery. Measure the reserved cooking liquid, add water to it until it makes 2 1/3 cups. Bring to a boil and add to the rice and peas. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with foil and then the lid to the baking dish. Bake for 1 hour. Allow to stand for 15 minutes before removing the lid.

Collard Greens

1 bunch collards, washed, drained, stemmed and chopped
6 slices of lean bacon, chopped, cooked and drained
Ham hock or chunk of ham (deli or luncheon meat ham will not do)
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar
Tabasco, salt and pepper to taste
Pan drippings if available

Put ham and cooked bacon in a large pot. Cook up the onion in the residual bacon grease in the pan after draining. Saute over medium heat until just brown. Add to the pot. Season with salt, pepper, Tabasco and the tablespoon sugar. Add 6-8 cups water and bring to a low boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer one hour. Add the collards by the handful and simmer for 45 minutes. Special trick: If you can, during the simmer of the greens, add some pan drippings from a pork roast or ham if you are cooking one of those. It really takes the flavor to an amazing place.

Serve with a bottle of Tabasco or pepper vinegar on the table. Be sure to make some cornbread to sop up the pot likker.

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