Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Deconstructed Fish Taco of Steadfast Resolve in The Face of White Bread

Two people that I love are getting married this June, and they have sweetly asked me to be in the wedding. Good and good, right? Yes. Yes! I could not be happier for them. I could, however, be happier for me (hey, it's my blog).

My petty problem? I have this picture in my head of the wedding video: the camera pans past four radiant young things in honeydew green and then pauses thoughtfully on what can only be described as a bridesmatron. A short, lumpy bridesmatron. Sigh. I realize I should get over this, and I promise to come to my senses soon. In the meantime, I'm on a diet. I figured short and relatively elderly are beyond my control, so I'm controlling the remaining variable, and I've put myself on a diet-and-exercise regimen. I began with gusto a couple weeks ago, and chewed my way through a lot of fiber and hardly anything white (good old flour, sugar, and lard, how I miss thee). I got some new jogging shoes, and went for some nice long, um, walks in them (hey, I'm working up to it). All in all, it's going well. But today, I hit the wall. Salad, usually something I enjoy, has come up in the rotation one too many times. I can't pretend to be excited by carrots any more. But I'm not yet at the point where I'll give up completely and swan dive into a cheeseburger and fries. I've still got some willpower left, and I'll have even more if I can eat something that reminds me that food can be a pleasant part of life. So I decided to make something both very healthy and super-delicious, so that I could enjoy myself without slipping into the "Oh, screw it" mentality of the Diet Quitter, which for me is usually signalled by white bread and dairy fat. So, healthy fats, ahoy! How about some salmon? And also an avocado? And also some olive oil? Guess what? This is Delicious.

Salmon filets, one per person, whatever size you prefer

one 14 oz can of black beans
one small clove garlic, minced
two teaspoons lemony olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
zest of one lemon, minced
1/2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted

one pint grape tomatoes, halved
one avocado
one small onion, chopped
lemon juice

whole wheat tortillas

Most of the bean dishes I make are mushy and call for a little added salt, so bean-rinsing usually seems superfluous. It's just salt and water, and who am I to say that my salt and water are any better than the bean factory's salt and water? And if I think their salt and water might be sketchy, then why am I eating their beans? For this recipe, though, it's nice if the beans are pretty. So dump them into a mixing bowl, cover with water, swish, drain, and repeat until the water runs clear. Heat the beans in a covered bowl in the microwave, and then mix with lemony olive oil, minced zest, minced garlic, paprika, and cumin seeds. Let it sit so the warm beans can absorb all the goodness while you make everything else.

Make a salsa* with the onion, tomatoes, and avocado. Dress it with lemon juice and salt.

Warm the tortillas.

Cook the salmon however you want. I pan-seared it, but broiling, poaching, baking, and even microwaving would all do the job.

Serves three.

*This dish does lend itself to obsessive arrangement, so if you're in that kind of mood, feel free to slice the avocado thinly and fan it out on the plate, and drizzle oil and pile beans and tomatoes and make little slivers of onions into a funny hairdo on top of the fish and generally go nuts. I just made heaps, and it was still attractive.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Trial and Error, Chicken Style

There comes a time when it seems like there are only three dinners, there have only ever been three dinners, and there will continue to be only three dinners until the day dinners cease to be necessary. In the Northeast, this time is usually early spring, when everything is at its deadest, nothing looks like it will ever be green again, and people respond to a cheery, "Happy Spring!" with either a hollow laugh or just a straightforward left hook. Cold weather is no longer invigorating and exciting. It is no longer an incentive to put on a bright, cozy sweater and curl up with a cup of cocoa by the flickering television. Dark evenings are no longer an excuse to light candles and look sexier than you do under fluorescents. The coldness is just cold, the darkness is just dark, and dinners are just boring.

Last month some time, when grocery day rolled around, the fridge still had a good number of potential dinners in it. If it had been time for duct tape and plastic sheeting, a month's worth of meals could have been squeezed out of the kitchen, with only a few days on the Pickles and Chocolate Diet. Where did all this extra food come from? Could it be thanks to a high level of wifely ingenuity? Does the little woman know how to make one chicken into seven dinners? She does not. The little woman had been saying, "I don't know--let's just go out" all week.

So in the interests of not spending all the mortgage money at the Indian place, we browsed for new recipes that might make life seem like living again. And we came up with Chicken with Rice. Why do we not make this already? We like chicken, we like rice, this only has four ingredients, so it must be simple, so let's make it. Broiled Chicken? Ditto.

The broiled chicken involved so much mincing and stuffing and flipping and timing and basting that it would be less work to make risotto. Not to mention the leaking ziplock salmonella-bomb of brining chicken parts that was involved. But it sure was delicious! Not easy, not quick, pretty gross to put together, but delicious!

The chicken with rice was even more work. Skinning raw chicken parts sounds easy and worth it, right? If you're a former half-assed vegetarian with little intimate experience with chicken corpses, it's neither. If I had been that chicken, I would have been glad my skin was so firmly attached to my ankles, but I'm not, so I wasn't. The combination of tenacious chicken skin, greasy hands and a sharp paring knife seemed too likely to end badly, so I gave up the knife, left it to brute force, and there ensued a lot of tugging and sweating and cursing before the damn things were skinless. The recipe went on to breezily declare several things that turned out to be unlikely if not impossible, and we eventually ended up with overdone chicken and rice that I was sure was a warm, teeming mass of bacteria. I could have made my own version of mediocre chicken and rice in half the time.

Like many educational experiences, these were no fun but they do seem likely to lead to a better future. I learned:

-Brining chicken parts for an hour makes them about 200% more delicious. It's almost not worth having chicken if you don't brine it.

-Brining chicken in a plastic bag makes for an efficient brine/chicken relationship, but the bag should be at least 50% bigger than the stuff in it. Or you could just use a rigid container that the chicken fits into snugly.

-If you're brining in a bag, don't re-use a venerable old plastic bag that's had a hard life, even if it still looks reasonably perky. It probably has a couple of little holes in it, and will make a sweet little salmonella fountain in your fridge.

-If you slice the zest off a lemon in a haphazard fashion (minimize pith but don't agonize about it) and throw the resulting eight or nine yellow strips in with some braising chicken, you'll be so happy. The strips end up soft and delicious and give the chicken a subtle lemon flavor.

-If you want to sadden your companion, who has a low tolerance for lemoniness, deglaze the broiling pan with nothing but lemon juice and pour the resulting sauce all over chicken that would have otherwise tasted just fine. Lemon juice does not "cook away" like alcohol supposedly does (yeah, I know—duh).

-Paying a little extra for pre-peeled chicken is so, so worth it.

-The two sliced onions were the best part of Chicken With Rice. Next time—three.

So, if I apply the lessons learned, keeping the delicious and discarding the tedious and/or misguided, we're left with two modified recipes:

Elemental Broiled Chicken

Chicken thighs or legs, skin and bone intact.

Brine chicken parts for one hour in a mixture of 1 quart of water, 3/4 cup of salt and 3/4 cup of sugar (the sugar helps it brown). Arrange your oven racks like this: one right under the broiler, one near the bottom. Turn on the broiler and let the oven heat up. Put the chicken ugly-side up on a rimmed cookie sheet or broiling pan (a cookie sheet makes for optimal goo-retrieval when it's sauce time). Cook for 15 minutes on the low rack, then flip to the pretty side and cook 15 more minutes, still on the low rack. Move the chicken to the top rack, and broil until the skin browns—about a minute. Set the cooked chicken aside on a serving plate and deglaze the pan with wine or water. Pour those pan juices over the chicken.

Elemental Chicken and Rice

Skinless bone-in legs or thighs (as many as will fit in a loosely-spaced single layer in your biggest covered frying pan)
1.5 cups rice
3 cups broth or water
Rind of one lemon
3 onions
2 tablespoons olive oil

Brine the chicken parts for an hour in a mixture of 1 quart water and 3/4 cup of salt. Slice the onions into rings. Heat the olive oil in your big frying pan (the one that has a lid that fits it), and let the onions cook for 10 minutes in the oil, until they're soft and have brown bits here and there. While they're cooking, heat up the water or broth—you'll want it to be boiling by the time the onions are done.

Dump the rice in with the onions and oil, stir it all up, and then pat it out flat. Lay the chicken pieces on the rice in a single layer, and scootch them down into the rice, so they touch the bottom of the pan. Scatter lemon rind strips over the chicken.

Pour the boiling water or broth over the chicken, cover the pan, and let it simmer for 20 minutes or until the chicken is done and the rice has absorbed all the liquid. If you don't brine the chicken, and you don't use salted chicken broth, you'll want to add salt to the liquid. I like a half teaspoon, which will be way too much for some and pitifully bland to others. I don't want to hear about it.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Breakfast burritos always seemed like weekend food to me--lots of ingredients, lots of prep, proper-plate-and-fork food. But a tight schedule, a sparse fridge, and a stomach that was about to leap out and forage for breakfast on its own led me to a discovery*. The breakfast burrito, stripped down, might just be the most efficient way to get from starving to fed without resorting to options that are bad for either morale, life expectancy, or the monthly budget.

I'm not usually a fan of eating on the run, but when breakfast is a choice between nothing, fast food, or something that can be made in ten minutes and eaten in the car, then I'd have to support that last option. So allow me to sell you on the breakfast burrito, Winker-style.

If you cook the eggs right, you need neither plate nor fork, and most people won't even need a napkin (I realize I'm a barbarian. If you're revolted, look away).

If you buy tasty eggs and high-quality tortillas, you don't need ANY OTHER INGREDIENTS, and it's totally edible. Almost... delicious.

So, here:

One whole wheat tortilla
One fancy, happy, free-range, organic egg with extra omega-whatsits
nothing else**

In a small non-stick skillet, heat the tortilla while you scramble the egg and feed the cat. Once the tortilla is puffing up a bit here and there, remove it and set it aside. Pour in the egg. If the pan is hot enough, it'll sizzle a bit when you pour it in. Don't stir it around, just let it cook into a flat disk. When the egg is mostly solid, but still damp on top, flip it over, let it cook for a few more seconds, then flop it out onto the tortilla. Roll it up. Eat it.

If you don't like using non-stick pans, use a bit of fat in a regular pan. Just roll the tortilla greasy-side-in, so you'll keep your fingers clean.

There! Warm, portable breakfast, no plate or utensils needed, contains protein, a bit of fiber, and just enough delicious carbohydrate that you won't feel demoralized. For extra credit, have an orange or some blueberries too, and feel really virtuous.

*Which, of course, is how it always happens. I should put myself in situations of desperate hunger and limited ingredients more often, just for the recipe development and blogging opportunities.

**Cheese and other culinary adhesives may be used sparingly. Other embellishments may be added, but are not recommended as they may interfere with the user-friendly design of the finished product.

Update: I timed it this morning, and from what-ever-shall-I have-for-breakfast to mmm-this-looks-good-[chomp], it was three minutes. THREE minutes, folks. No excuse to go breakfastless now.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Socks: Lessons Learned

Lesson One: Socks ought to be suitable for both the washer and the dryer. Forty little drip-dry socks can be the straw that breaks the camel's back for even the most cheerful and helpful Laundry Manager.* I know this through painful personal experience. It is only recently that my Laundry Manager has softened his stance after The Great Laundry Rebellion, and been lured back to the job, and even then only with promises of dryer-safe socks. Yes, they do seem to fade and shrink more quickly, but domestic harmony is pretty much worth it.

Lesson Two: Each member of the household should have only one kind of sock. For ultimate efficiency, see if you can get all the feet in your household into matching socks, or at least into as few Sock Teams as possible. You no longer have Pairs of Socks, you just have Socks. They exist in bulk, like orange lentils at the health food store. This makes washing, sorting, storing, and wearing socks a matter of almost zero annoyance. There's never a stash of odd, mateless socks lying listlessly in the drawer, waiting for their other halves to find their way back from the crawl space under the basement stairs so they can both get back into, ah, Sock-ulation (heh).

This Unified Sock Theory means, of course, that you must pick a style of sock that comes as close as possible to the Platonic Ideal Sock, and so will always be available when you need a few more. It would only lead to heartache if you were to choose brown and yellow striped socks with small purple flecks, because in addition to being terribly ugly, they would be difficult to find again, so you would have to commit to buying a whole lifetime's supply at once. I'm not sure that many brown and yellow striped socks with small purple flecks even exist. Much better to go with something basic that you can supplement as needed, and the style of Basic Sock you pick should be the one that's most useful to you: The White Tube? The Ribbed Black Cotton? The Navy Knee High? Pick something like that, and get a whole flock of them.

The result of this smart and efficient system is that your laundry process becomes streamlined and your socks become boring. Really, really boring. I didn't fully realize this until, in a moment of madness, I bought a pair of red socks. Later, as I was wearing them, I happened to catch a glimpse of my own ankle. I was tickled beyond all rationality to see that bit of red instead of the ubiquitous Black Rib. It put a spring in my step, and I might even have started whistling.

I draw two opposing conclusions from my experience. You may select the one that makes you feel most at home, and proceed accordingly:

1) Bulk Socks are an unnecessarily grim exercise.

2) Bulk Socks both streamline your laundry experience and give you the opportunity to experience delight in a place you never thought to look for it.

I, personally, find it worthwhile. I have a bottomless vat of black socks that match well enough for everyday purposes, and when I do get all overexcited and buy non-standard socks, I buy two matching pairs, so that I can lose three socks before I have a mateless one.

*Titles are good for morale--mine are Groundskeeper, Senior Dietician, and CEO of Textile Division. The Laundry Manager is also Head of Tech Support, DJ, and Director of Publications. We share the jobs of Library Acquisitions, Facilities Management, and Interior Architecture, and yet we still manage to live happily together.