Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pickled Vegetable Manifesto

In my twenties, I learned a lot about cooking, and I gradually acquired a good collection of kitchen tools. I tried things, I bought stuff, and I read a lot about the hows and whys and whats of cooking, which means I spent a lot of time learning about other people's priorities in the kitchen. I bought (and almost never used) a mandoline, a food mill, a mortar and pestle, some excellent cake pans and a garlic press. I also bought (and still adore) an immersion blender, a sturdy whisk and a couple of great knives.

In my thirties, I've spent more time learning about my own priorities in the kitchen. Am I the kind of cook that needs the tools to bake every possible dessert? I am not. My realistic annual baking output is fifteen batches of muffins, twelve dozen cookies, three pies, and something less than one whole cake. I clearly do not need to own any cake-specific tools. I like to be able to make a nice dessert. I do not need to be able to make all the nice desserts. I only make piecrust a few times a year, I kind of like to hand-slice cabbage for coleslaw, and my immersion blender makes excellent pesto. And so I have happily given away my poor, unappreciated food processor and I'm about to de-aquisition my mandoline. The waffle iron has gone back to the thrift store from whence it came, and if I ever change my mind, I know where to go to get another one.

I must admit, however, that this has not been a completely efficient process. I got rid of my sushi-rolling mat about a month before I realized that homemade sushi has quite a lot going for it (tasty, cheap, flexible, exciting, healthy). But three dollars for a new sushi mat seemed like a reasonable price to pay for cleared-out cabinets and a spring in my step.

I want the tools I do keep to be both useful and also actually used. One of my favorite recent additions is a handsome set of nesting enamel baking dishes. I have roasted chicken, baked casseroles, served grilled fish, made brownies, and tossed salads in them. They're pretty, sturdy and easy to wash and store. I have three favorite pans that do almost everything I need to do on the stovetop (and two junior auxiliary pans that I keep around for very particular reasons: frying dumplings, and cooking a single scrambled egg).

I've been applying this cold-eyed realism to cooking, too. Which sounds like a terrible idea, I know, but bear with me. I'm just after the best ratio between kitchen-hours spent and tasty meals produced.

So, when I cook, I try to make not only the meal at hand, but also a few incidental meal starters, accompaniments, or add-ins that I will be delighted to find the next time I open the fridge at 4:30 in an inquisitive and hopeful way.

In that spirit, here are some flexible pickled vegetables that are culturally non-specific, so you can make a big batch and eat them with scandinavian-style sandwiches, alongside Indian curry, tossed into a salad, layered in a sandwich, or tucked into a burrito. So efficient (also, good).

Universal Pickled Vegetables

6 tablespoons white vinegar (as culturally neutral as you can get)
3 tablespoons water (okay, maybe water is even more neutral)
1 teaspoon sea salt (a fairly global commodity)
2 tablespoons sugar (ditto)

1 large cucumber, thinly sliced (peeled and seeded only if skin and seeds are tough)
1 sweet white onion, thinly sliced
1 carrot, julienned or grated (I use this julienne carrot peeler all the time)
1 lemon, both zest and juice (or more-- the lemon is so good)

Mix the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a large bowl. Toss the cucumber, onion, carrot, lemon zest, and lemon juice into the bowl as you prep them. Mix well and refrigerate for at least six hours.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Set Phasers to Maximum Geek (or Advanced Freezer Management)

Last night, scraping the bottom of the fridge for dinner, I came up with a winner: Pea Frittata with Mint and Feta, with toast. I won't report the whole recipe here because it's fairly self-explanatory, but it got me thinking about Freezer Management and how helpful a well-stocked freezer can be. I tend to go in phases with my freezer inventory, and I'm forever forgetting and then re-discovering clever freezer strategies, so I figure it's high time to write some things down for myself (and you! everything is for you, dear reader).

There are a lot of time-saving freezer tips out there, most of which involve freezing completed (or almost-completed) dishes. The most extreme of these is Once a Month Cooking, or OAMC to its hard-core fans. These dedicated individuals cook twenty or thirty dinners in a day or two, load up the freezer, and then only have to thaw and cook for the rest of the month. This works well for some people, but it sounds kind of dreary to me, not to mention the freezer space it must require. My freezer philosophy borrows from the good old Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity, which I learned about in design school. The theory is that a few well-designed parts can be combined in multiple ways, resulting in many different products. So, ideally, anything that's given a spot in my freezer's Permanent Collection should have the potential to be a part of lots of different meals. I can cook according to whim, season, weather and pantry. The other main theory behind my freezer inventory is The Sale. If there's a good deal on some kind of meat, I stock up in a big way, and eventually end up with a diverse collection of meal-starters. Here are the ingredients and methods that have served me the best over the years:

Plastic tubs
I generally avoid plastics and food these days, but the freezer is one place where the utility of plastic outweighs my fear of it. Tapered plastic tubs (like you get yogurt or sour cream or takeout soup in) are great, mainly because of their shape. The truncated cone is made for the freezer. Being larger at the opening and smaller at the base, it can release frozen food without a lot of tedious thawing. Just run the tub under warm water to loosen things up, then squeeze out the block of whatever-it-is and proceed. This makes frozen food nearly as useful as fresh food for last-minute cooking. The only other thing you need is good labels: tape and a sharpie works for me.

Cookie sheet and waxed paper
Freezing things separately and then, once they're frozen, putting them all together in a plastic freezer bag makes them easier to use than freezing stuff in one huge lump that has to be thawed all at once. The cookie sheet is self-explanatory, and the waxed paper (a double layer) keeps the stuff from freezing to the sheet. This works well for gobs of cookie dough, fresh sausages, berries, single-serving lumps of pureed vegetables, and other things that will be used in small amounts or specific units.

Chicken Bombs
Chopped, cooked chicken packed tightly into plastic tubs, with chicken broth poured over to keep out the freezer burn. A chicken bomb can be turned into soup or curry or chicken pot pie or tacos or quesadillas or chicken salad or any other dish you can think of that uses cooked chicken. And you're clever, so you can think of a lot.

Homemade Chicken Broth
The trick here is to cook the broth down to quadruple strength (or even more). Let it cool and solidify in the fridge in one of those handy tubs, then pop out the chicken jello (mmm!). Since it's homemade and super-condensed, it'll be very firm. Cut it into hunks and freeze the hunks on a (waxed-papered) cookie sheet, and then into a freezer bag. This saves a lot of freezer space, and means you can use it either diluted for soup or a little, full-strength, for a sauce. Or, if you have more freezer room than time, freeze the broth regular strength in a plastic tub.

Curry (or Stew)
Most of the time and effort of curry and stew is in the browning of the meat and onions and the long simmering. The vegetables are quicker and easier to cook, and I'm likely to have some things on hand that can go into a curry at the last minute (including frozen vegetables). So I've started making a big batch of meat-and-onions-only curry, enough for four or five dinners. This saves space in the freezer, and I can prep vegetables (and/or clean out the fridge) while the chunk of frozen curry heats up on the stove. Just remember to divide and freeze it in one-family-dinner-sized portions.

Individually frozen on a cookie sheet, then bagged. I generally make soup with sausages, but they're flexible too. The trick is in the individual freezing, and the fact that sausages are pre-seasoned, pre-cleaned, pre-portioned meat.

Really Good Bread
Our local bakery sells large chewy, rustic rolls that are just the right size for two people. I freeze five or six at a time, and use them one by one. It does help to thaw them for a couple hours first, and then here's the trick: preheat the oven to 400, run the bread under water briefly (just to wet the outside) and then bake for 10 minutes. The crust will be restored to its just-baked glory, and you'll have what seems like freshly baked excellent bread for dinner.

The Good Frozen Vegetables
There are some truly terrible frozen vegetables that will make you feel as though meal-replacement drinks are a good idea. But persevere! At least in our area, there's one particular brand of broccoli that is really excellent, a different brand of green beans, almost any brand of corn, and ditto peas. Frozen kale and collards are a huge time-saver over fresh, and perfectly delicious in the right preparation (well-cooked, well-chopped). I've never had good frozen peppers, onions, or asparagus, and despite seeing frozen artichoke hearts in several recipes, I've never seen them in a store. Good frozen vegetables are a life-saver. They're just as nutritious as fresh (sometimes more so), often cheaper, and keep for months rather than days, so they're much less likely to turn into expensive sludge in the bottom of the fridge.

In the warmer months, any leftover fruit, odd ends of juices, the last inch of ice cream, leftover whipped cream, and any browning bananas often get blended together and frozen (along with a couple big spoonfuls of yogurt) in popsicle molds. The only caveats are: don't mix your purple fruits and your orange fruits (no one likes a brown fruit popsicle), and chocolate syrup doesn't freeze unless it's mixed in.

Summer Freezer/Winter Freezer
Turnover is an important part of freezer management, and I use the change of seasons to help me remember. My summer freezer is for popsicles, quick-cooking vegetables, ice packs for picnics, and the pinnacle of delicious and practical food-gineering: the ice cream sandwich (no bowls! no spoons! single serving!). My winter freezer is for broth, soups, stews and chili. As the weather turns, I try to plan some meals to use up the freezer stash and make room for some fresh stuff. Freezer-as-time-machine only works for so long, before freezer burn catches up with you.