Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pathetic Snack Discoveries, Ch. 1

Dear Mouse,

Ok. I'll admit it. I have nothing to say. This is a first, and also probably not true. But the Blog Must Go On.

Turns out that in DC Theatre, Previews (as you know, the week of shows before opening night) are actually taken seriously and treated as a week of continued rehearsal and fine-tuning with the benefit of an audience.

I mention this not to bore you into submission but in order to paint a picture (read:excuse) of why I have not been blogging. We have been called to the theatre for 6 hour rehearsals daily during Preview week in addition to the shows at night. Today is an exception only because we have a matinee as well as an evening performance. Added to this are one back injury sustained during movement rehearsal (almost healed and then unfortunately renewed with vigor due to prematurely attempting the "8 Minute Pilates" video sent to me by The Date) and the strange (probably related) phenomenon of never.really. going.out.anywhere. I have not really left this 10-12 block radius since arriving. Because I am living with nearly all my coworkers, we usually just retreat to our living room and the several brands of bourbon currently on the kitchen shelf. I buy groceries, I eat the groceries, I run out of groceries, realize this halfway through rehearsal, scrounge for snacks that can be eaten on a five minute break or prepared with 1.5 hrs for dinner & digestion. Here are a few of my discoveries.

* Cocoa Roasted Almonds. Surely a snack of the gods. Almonds dusted with cocoa. They come in a shapely canister and have no more calories than regular almonds.
* Salt-Free rice cakes drizzled with honey. Yep, that's it.
* Dill Pickle flavor Pringles. Yes, these are real. No, I do not like them. My dressing room-mate keeps saying "But it tastes like a hamburger!" This does nothing for me.
* 1 Package Amy's Organic Brown Rice & Vegetables Bowl. Microwave while ch0pping up a precooked chicken sausage. Pick out the four thin tofu slices if, like mine, your body rejects soy, and discard. Add sausage. Mix. Eat.
* 1 Can Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. Heat on stovetop. Chop up a big handful of kale, 1 tsp fresh ginger, maybe 1/2 clove garlic. Add to soup. Eat.
* Instant Oatmeal w/Peanut Butter and sliced banana. I have not eaten this myself -- I don't do instant - but people here swear by this as an energy-packed, lifesaving breakfast food and a great way to avoid hotel breakfasts on tour.
* Regular Oatmeal with rice milk, walnuts, and dried cranberries. This is my breakfast of choice. Boil the rice milk in place of water, and cook with the walnuts and berries in from the beginning. This will get you through at least a couple of hours of "Hold! Take it again."
*Good Stuff Eatery. The only really blogworthy local dining establishment so far. Brainchild of Chef Spike from Top Chef, it is down the street on Pennsylvania Ave. I have had the turkey burger twice (comes with guacamole and muenster cheese). Both times I have been appalled by the length of time waiting for food, and both times I have forgotten my wrath instantly as I bit into my burger. "Village Fries" are coated in rosemary and salt, and the 'Snack Fry' size is enough for one.

That's it for now... off to our first matinee. Gotta grab a rice cake.

The Boo.

P.S. On another note, as I spend my evenings lamenting the corruption of democracy in Ancient Greece, The Date is spending his days in Haiti with this organization probably cutting someone open (you know, for their own good) as we speak. I have also linked to it in our 'Things We Like' sidebar for anyone looking to donate/support/learn/whatev.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Yet another reason to love Jamie Oliver...

Dear Boo,

As if I needed another reason.

My love for the Naked Chef was born many years ago, back when the Food Network actually showed cooking shows, hosted by real chefs, using real ingredients (no tablescapes or canned frosting). I loved Jaime because he was young, cute, with a delightful accent and slightly manic energy. And his food was delicious. In fact, as I'm sure you'll remember, his pea, spinach and feta salad was one of the first recipes I discovered on my own that was so enchanting it entered our regular family rotation and convinced me that some day I might actually have a kitchen "repetoire".

Then he went ahead and did this show where he took a group of at risk, underprivileged youth, and trained them in the culinary arts and put them to work running their own (highly successful) restaurant, all in as tasteful and non-exploitative a manner as possible, given the medium of reality television. Oh, and then he also got the british government to completely revamp the school lunch program to make it healthier and more environmental. And did a documentary on the disappearance of British pig farmers. And managed to publish 10 books, have a couple of kids with ridiculously delightful hippy dippy names like "Poppy Honey", "Daisy Boo", and "Petal Blossom Rainbow", stayed married to his sweetheart, and lives a generally charmed, if somewhat ADD-addled life.

But none of this compares to this chicken.

Sure, the food politics, charity work, endless idealism, hilarious baby names and plucky spirit is nice. But nothing beats a moist braised whole chicken with burnished gold skin, sweet caramelized garlic, lemony zing and hints of earthy sage and warm cinnamon. Did I mention the creamy sauce? Oh. There's creamy sauce too.

Also it's easy. And cheap.
As another celebrity chef crush would say, "How great is that?"

I first came across this recipe here, and could not stop thinking about making it for a good few weeks after, based on the photos and the claim that this would beat out all other roast chicken recipes in my arsenal. While that's still debatable, it was kind of phenomenal. And definitely unique. When I finally got around to making it, that is.
My lovely mis en place. The ingredients were just so pleasing to the eye, I couldn't resist. And I might have been a little ridiculously excited to cook this. Especially in my beauteous blue dutch oven.
Basically, all you do is brown the chicken in some butter in a big pot, then add the garlic cloves, sage leaves and a whole mound of lemon zest (I'd say the zesting is the most labor-intensive part, just to give you an idea of how simple this is). Pour a whole mess of milk on top, slap the lid on (not exactly part of the recipe, but all the online chatter advocated leaving it covered in the oven for the first hour or so) and stick it in the oven.

What comes out is fall off the bone delicious, perfumed perfectly, with a sauce to match. With mashed potatoes and spinach it was perfect.

Here's the recipe*: a good one to tuck away for when you need some home-cooking on the road. Minimal shopping, minimal cost, and all the house perfuming comfort you could ask for.


The Mouse

*I would definitely recommend cooking the chicken with the lid on for the first hour, then removing it for the last 30 minutes or so. This sort of braises the chicken instead of just roasting it, and keeps the meat super moist. mmm.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Deus Ex Meatball

"Your fate - you can't help but notice - it's the last thing you'd ever expect."- Orestes (Euripides/Anne Washburn)

Dear Mouse,

I can't even start this post by saying, "On New Year's Eve, I dropped my iPhone in a bowl of water", because that's not strictly true. Oh, it happened. And it was definitely my fault. But no 'dropping' occurred, per se. Placing, perhaps. As if deliberately, if not consciously so ... while distracted by ... these.

Due to a number of factors, my plan to spend New Years in NYC wearing a tiny dress had turned into plans to cook meatballs in my pajamas for our Director, Stage Manager, and Composer here in DC. I was hell-bent on making the above recipe despite some strange handicaps. Specifically, the recipe called for 2lbs ground beef, and the SM (co-chef) and I had been able to locate ONE open store with meat near the house. Rehearsal had run late and people were coming over kind of soon. That store was down to a single 1lb mystery package of ground ... something. No label, no sell by date, no nothing. "Looks like beef!" I declared hopefully, and we bought it at a considerable discount. (Guy behind counter: "Is no good, you bring back to me." Right.) We bought a pound of chicken sausage to round out the mixture (skin off, chopped up), swore each other to secrecy, prayed a little, and went home to mix up the delicious spicy mixture involving chopped bacon, marjoram, and hot red pepper flakes. Big hit, nobody died, happy 2010.

So all this was in my head as I set my iPhone down upon an innocuous-looking paper towel draped over a perfectly unassuming blue bowl on the counter, while rolling the meatballs and texting The Date in NYC at the same time. It is certainly plausible to say that I was simply too distracted to notice the several inches of WATER lurking below the paper towel, in which my house mate was soaking lentils, and into which I calmly PLACED my beloved, seemingly indispensable communication device. It was a full , oh, 30 seconds, before I reached to pick up my phone and wondered "Why is my hand wet?"

Long story short: You can do a lot to an iPhone, but not this.

At the end of the play I'm working on right now *Spoiler Alert* we see an example of a device common in Classical Greek theatre when a playwright had written himself into a corner or just wanted to quit and go watch Iron Chef: Argos on the Food Network. I'm sure you remember this from Theatre History 124 (you know, between naps), but in case you don't:

Deus Ex Machina (wikipedia): a plot device where a previously intractable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved, usually with the contrived introduction of either characters, abilities, or objects not mentioned before within the storyline. It is generally considered to be a poor storytelling technique because it undermines the story's internal logic.

Ha! Suck it, Euripides!

Basically, it's when the playwright has God show up and make a speech which goes something like, "Attention, everyone! The whole time it was Miss Scarlett in the Library with the Lead Pipe. Be nice to each other. Hail Zeus!" (Ok, it's slightly more complex than that, I'm just feeling peevish and have a lower backache from stomping and chanting about war).

In Orestes, it's the god Apollo who intervenes at the end. He tidies everything up and reveals some interesting tidbits of information, one of which is the mind-boggling revelation that Helen of Troy, the SuperTramp "loathed by the Gods" that everyone has been hating on this whole time, is actually, oh, a GODDESS, whose own father is Zeus himself AND who, oh, by the way, was only created in the first place to drive everyone crazy with her beauty and cause a war which would take care of some overpopulation issues.

Seriously. What a cynical mother - Where was I?

Oh, right. Meatballs. Seriously, they were SO GOOD. And very simple. And I think maybe they would be even better (?) with ground turkey. You brown them in the bacon grease before simmering them in the sauce til they're done. Mmmmmm.

The thing is, for a few months I'd been having the uneasy feeling that my beloved iPhone was maybe not such a blessing, despite its bells and whistles and 24-7 Facebook. As you may recall, it was not so long ago that I was up in Maine discovering that communal living, limited technology, artistic collaboration, and actual human conversation were quite possibly a recipe for health and happiness. And in only a few short months, I'd gone right back to being someone who regularly walked into traffic while updating my FB status or Texted my way through breakfast. I'd already begun to consider downgrading in order to regain some sense of balance. And here I was, once again, in a house full of actors, expressing my affection and gratitude by feeding them discount meat, and maybe it was my own personal God in the Machine that decided to step in and make the decision for me. Who knows.

Anyway, that's my story. Happy 2010! May this be a year in which we laugh, cook, and socialize in real time, face to face, and in which we learn to own our devices, not let them own us.

That's about it. I'm kind of having trouble wrapping this up. Not sure what to do. ....

Oh look! Flying monkeys are attacking my keyboard! Gotta run.


The Boo

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Xmas 2: Leftover Boogaloo

Dear Boo,

I'm just not ready to give up on Christmas yet, I guess. Though really, the lessons learned from our post-holiday leftover extravaganza do translate into your regular run of the mill overstocked fridge evenings. Repurposing the large quantities of leftovers into something a family would want to eat for oh, four days in a row, was a challenge, but one which the Boyfriend and I met head on. Okay, here's where I have to break it down. To be honest, I was worried about cooking the Christmas feast. Not because I thought the dishes were beyond us, but because really, the Boyfriend and I don't generally cook together. The main reason being our kitchen, which as you know, is the size of an airplane bathroom, making standing next to one another impossible, let alone bearing knives. As I see it, cooking with someone can be as treacherous as traveling together, or perhaps a more appropriate analogy for our line of work, like playing a scene together. Its all in the chemistry, the give and take, the compatibility of styles, and plenty of counter space (dressing room, or kitchen). The stage has got to be big enough for both of you, or someone's going to end up chewing the scenery. In Florida, the three kitchens available to us were spacious, granite countertopped, island-boasting affairs. Plenty of room to stretch out and stay out of each other's way. Too many cooks, you know. While we planned the menu together, we gracefully fell to our separate jobs, checking back on one another to taste, reseason, offer advice, or catch a drip. Overall it was a beautiful birth of a new partnership--or should I say, a new aspect of the current one. The success was evidenced by our a) not stabbing one another with a fork, and b) the fact that we continued to plan, shop, and cook together for the remainder of our stay. Quite tastily, I might add.

Boxing Day, December 26th: Pork sandwiches on leftover mini dinner rolls, topped with the leftover red cabbage and pickles. SO so tasty, it was almost better the second day around. Served of course with a side of...
The Boyfriend's fried yucca. The leftover yucca was sliced into wedges and fried in vegetable oil. I may have mentioned that yucca, like potato, is good for mashing or boiling. No suprise it's also, as our uncle would say, a KILLER when fried. We added a little Mouse/Boyfriend extra spice by serving it with chipotle mayonnaise and lime slices (recipe: buy a can of chipotles in adobo. Mix adobo and some of the chopped pepper with mayo to taste. Squeeze lime if you're crazy).

While the sandwiches and yucca were pretty much the tastiest things EVER, the award for best leftover makeover goes to our rice and beans, barely recognizable in the below pictures.

Here we have the beans, pureed in a food processor with a couple good chunks of onion, two chopped plum tomatoes, two cloves of fresh garlic, and a few jalapeno slices to create a delicious black bean dip. I topped it with a quick salad of deconstructed guacamole (if there'd been any guac left over from our late night xmas snacking I would have just used that): sliced avocado, diced onion and tomato, jalapeno, cilantro, lime juice and salt. SO good.

And here, though I can't say this picture does it justice, is the leftover white rice, gone cold and sticky in the fridge, transformed into a delectable arroz con leche, or rice pudding. I'd had the idea a while back to use leftover chinese/thai takeout rice in this manner, but never tried it. Personally, I love rice pudding, and the Boyfriend has rhapsodized before about the warm arroz con leche his mom used to make. Some experimenting and improvising later, I heard one sister say to another, "You have to taste this, even if you're full, if only because it'll remind you of mom." Am I kind of proud of this one? You could say that.

Needless to say, this meal kicked some post-holiday ass.

Sunday, December 27: Football at the Boyfriend's Brother's house. The Boyfriend's sister had hosted a Christmas Eve party from which there were, naturally, leftovers. One of those leftovers was a whole mess of roast turkey. I had mentioned making chicken salad from the leftover Old Bay chicken, and the Boyfriend suggested we use the turkey instead. As we were driving over to the house with a cooler full of leftovers, we brainstormed. What kind of turkey salad? Should we add craisins? More chipotle? Go traditional? Then it hit me--I'm always a fan of curried chicken salad which often involves grapes. Why not grapes and celery? Traditional enough to not offend the kids, but interesting enough to keep us cooks inspired. (Recipe: chop, slice, or tear up roast turkey. Toss with red seedless grapes, sliced in half, diced celery, and mayonnaise until the consistency is how you like it. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve on--leftover--potato rolls)

And, since no football watching is complete (or at all interesting to me) without chips and dip, we took the leftover-leftover black bean dip, topped it this time with shredded monterey jack and cheddar, and popped it in the microwave for a hot, cheesy, bean dip.

While I can't say there was nothing left idling in the fridge when we departed for New York, I'd say we did a valiant job of waving the waste not, want not flag. And getting creative juices flowing with the Boyfriend as we plotted and executed our spectacular reinventions is my new favorite way to work up an appetite. Well, second favorite. :)


The Mouse

Leftover Rice Pudding

2 cups cooked white rice (chinese takeout would work perfectly)
3 cups milk (I'd use whole, but a low-fat version would probably work too)
1/2 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 cinnamon stick
1 slice orange peel, minus the pith
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix first 4 ingredients together in a pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, lower heat and add cinnamon, orange, and vanilla. Simmer, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes until most of the milk has been absorbed or evaporated and the consistency feels right. Serve hot or cold with cinnamon sprinkled on top.
**this should work with any amount of rice and milk as long as the ratio is about the same. We had 5 cups leftover white rice and the proportions worked just fine.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Plantains and Peppermint: Christmas in Florida

Dear Boo,

Do you realize that the first entries we ever wrote were two letters to each other on the very first Christmas we ever spent apart? That time, I was in Jersey, holding down the buche, as they say. But this year, again at two different celebrations, I was at my very first Christmas away from our childhood home. It was a Christmas of firsts in many ways: my first Christmas away from the family, my first Christmas in a warm climate (Tampa, Florida), my first Christmas with the Boyfriend and his family, my first Christmas cooking the entire meal (with the Boyfriend, of course), and my first Christmas with an (almost entirely) latin menu, which in itself constitutes a number of firsts...

I'm not going to lie--it was hard being away from our family and our traditions (no Alastair Sim's Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, no lobster dinner the night before, no massive tree with wacked out homemade ornaments, no turkey!). But I decided early on that it was time to let go of the past, and embrace this Christmas as something entirely new. A day which, in spirit, resembled the holiday I knew, but in sights, smells, sounds, and yes, taste, was something all its own. I was, after all, a guest of someone else's family who have their own much-prized traditions, and far be it from me to impose my own esoteric Hart family mumbo jumbo where it doesn't belong and wouldn't quite fit. And I have to say, it was a lovely time, full of newness (for me), festive decorations, tons of kids (who are really what makes Christmas so magical, once the rest of us have gone all disillusioned and jaded. I actually engaged in Santa letter-writing, cookie and milk plating and then eating, and all kinds of fun little white lies in the name of the Jolly one), and feasting like you would not believe. Indeed, said feast went on for DAYS as the Boyfriend and I traveled from house to house to visit siblings, bearing leftovers which we reconstituted in all sorts of creative and delicious ways (Christmas Part 2: Leftover Boogaloo, soon to be posted).

As you may remember from last year's Christmas miracle, the Boyfriend had declared that this year, there would be no ordering food from the Cuban restaurant nearby. Having tackled the Pernil (roast pork leg) the year before, he would now (with my help) be cooking the entire menu. The sisters gasped, some reached for the phone to call in back-up orders in case we really blew it, and others reached for the fire extinguisher. We barely broke a sweat. I don't think I'm ruining the suspense when I tell you we pulled it off like gangbusters. Let's take a post-holiday tour, shall we?

The morning after we arrived, we took the rental car to pick up the pork from a little store that looked like an East Harlem bodega, complete with glass-enclosed, bar-covered corner where lottery tickets and phone cards are sold. The pork leg was handed over, a 26 pounder, and we were on our way. The Boyfriend seasoned it with the secret ingredients and set it to marinate in the fridge, which reeked of garlic every time the door was cracked. On Christmas morning, at 4am, the Boyfriend took it out of the fridge, let it come to room temp and then put it in a 450 degree oven for an hour, letting the top get golden, the onions turn to crisps. He then turned the oven down to 275 and we waited...and basted...and waited...until about 4pm when it came out, perfectly golden, falling off the bone, and soaking in its self-created gravy. Fingers immediately pounced, pulling off tender bits before the oven door was closed.

Here it is, ready for carving. Notice the bald spot where a taste was stolen. Child in background with maracas, natch.

A knife is hardly necessary after twelve hours of slow roasting. I turned the juices into a gravy that would have made grandma proud.

Also on the menu were my Old Bay chicken thighs and legs, for those who don't partake in pork (and those that do), and fried sweet plantains, made by the Sister-in-Law, who unlike us, has actually made them successfully before. Starchy, sweet, crisp, and delicious.

Yucca, tended to like a week-old babe by the Boyfriend who boiled them until tender, and then covered in a mojo of sauteed onions, a TON of garlic (I'm sure you're sensing the theme here), lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, and fresh oregano. Similar to a potato, the Yucca is good for mashing or boiling and absorbs the zingy, acidic sauce like a well-seasoned sponge. You can find a similar recipe here, if you're interested...

Rice and beans were also on hand, though I have hardly a picture to prove it. Sorry, rice and beans, I guess you're just not as visually arresting as a 26 lb hunk of slow-cooked meat. You were delicious, nonetheless, and provided essential leftover ingredients for the days to come.

Oh look, there you are! Alongside the green salad of onion, tomato, hearts of palm, and traditional noche buena (Christmas Eve) radishes.

And of course, the red cabbage. Did you really think I'd go without it?! The Boyfriend wanted me to add something to the menu that would represent my Christmas flavors, so I picked the cabbage not only because it, like the jello mold, is a ubiquitous part of the Hart holiday meal, but because out of all of our dishes, it seemed to match best with the menu. Cabbage is a natural pairing with pork and the sweet and sour nature of the dish echoed flavors in the plantains, yucca, and salad. Also, it's cheap and can be made on the stove, which with the oven occupied all day, was a plus. In the end, it was quite a hit and blended in with the crowd so well you'd think it was a native spanish speaker.

For dessert, two apple crisps, one with nuts and one without. Topping made with help from three nieces. Crumbling butter and sugar with hands is a great job for little fingers.

And, the chocolate cake made by our Aunt for Chanukah which was so delicious, so light and chocolatey and creamy, that I had to recreate it. It was quite easy as well, and kept perfectly in the fridge. Next time you have to make a birthday cake, use this recipe, from our favorite Contessa.

I have to say, one of my happiest moments was walking into the dining room, the tree glowing in the background, music tinkling and glasses clinking from the kitchen, and seeing nine small heads bent over plates of chocolate and apple sweets, cookies and candies, smiling and munching. Later that night, when all the gifts were opened, leftovers stored, a late night bourbon drunk, a midnight snack snuck from the fridge, shoes cast off, and a brother-in-law sleeping soundly on an armchair in front of the tree, I got into bed, turned down the lights, and with one earphone in my ear and one in the Boyfriend's, lay listening to the melodious tenor of Dylan Thomas' voice, reading A Child's Christmas in Wales, thinking of you and wondering if a few hundred miles away in a colder climate, you were doing the same. Some traditions I'm just not ready to let go of.


The Mouse

P.S. For pre-dinner bites, I made this guacamole, and this rosemary chickpea dip (which was more like a chunky spread due to the lack of food processor). Both delicious and simple. And to me, rosemary always tastes like Christmas.

Christmas Ubiquitous Braised Red Cabbage

3 strips of bacon (can substitute olive oil if you're anti-pork)
2 heads of red cabbage (2 heads served about 16, for a large party. But prorportions are forgiving if you want to halve or quarter for a smaller meal)
1 large onion, sliced
1 apple, sliced thin (granny smith works great)
6 Tablespoons cider or red wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons honey
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste

Slice cabbage thinly, removing core, of course. Soak in a pot of cold water for about 30 minutes to soften. Drain and discard water. Cook bacon in the bottom of a large, heavy pot until the fat is rendered. Remove bacon and discard (or eat). Sautee onion and apple (amounts can vary depending on your taste) in the pot with the bacon fat until tender and browned. Add the cabbage, vinegar, honey and sugar and plenty of salt. Turn heat to low, cover and let cook for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring and tasting occasionally. Amounts may vary depending on how you like it. I may have added more vinegar and sugar as I went until it tasted just right. Add black pepper and salt to finish. As mom wrote when she emailed me the recipe, HMMMMMYUMMMISH...GOES GREAT WITH HAM/TURKEY...