Friday, March 30, 2018

Literary Inspriations: Under a Scarlet Sky

It's a busy season here in the Disordered Kitchen.  Once again SPP and I are back in the theater, working on a spring production of Mame.  Mostly we are doing our best to make what is turning out to be a disastrous rehearsal schedule not kill us.  Weather, cast member absences, and power outages have caused more rehearsals to be canceled than completed. When we do end up rehearsing, it's a mess due to cast absences creating a constant shift of blocking.  The closer we get to performance time, the more the push feels stressful.

Even with my busy schedule, I do my best to find time to read.  I read on the train as I travel to and from work.  I read for a few minutes before I go to bed.  I read in the park at lunch time weather permitting.  Reading is to my soul what eating and breathing are to my body.  I need it.  It is a form of self-care for me.

Despite these stressful times, I am also determined to cook my meals.  It would be easy to rely on takeout when I'm in rehearsal almost every night, but that's both expensive and unhealthful.  Cooking is a part of my physical self care.  

My slow cooker is becoming my best friend.  Lately I have been using my Instant Pot more on slow cooker mode than as a pressure cooker.  I had hoped the pressure cooker would reduce my cooking times on busy nights, but I find it falls short of those expectations.  The time it takes for the pot to come up to pressure and then depressurize adds far too long of a wait to the seemingly shorter amount of time it takes for the food to actually cook.  When I have rehearsal, I put that sucker on slow cook mode. Dinner is ready when I come home.

I wasn't expecting to find a literary inspiration for my slow cooker, but my most recent read gave me some ideas.  I read Under A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan.  It is based on the true story of Pino Lella, an Italian boy during World War II who at 17 was escorting Jews through the Alps to help them escape to Switzerland and then joined the army at 18 and used his connections as a driver to a prominent Nazi general to spy for the resistance. 

I did not expect to find inspiration for slow-cooker-friendly foods in a book about Italy in World War II, but I had a few surprises.  Like many of the books I have read recently, there were few specific dishes mentioned in the story.  At one point Pino stays in a monastery where the brother who does the cooking is an excellent cook.  Specific dishes were rarely mentioned other than a chicken stew and fresh bread.  Pino's love interest often cooks for him, but the dishes she makes seem basic (although extravagant for wartime).

When I read That Month in Tuscany, I used the region to inspire me.  Under a Scarlet Sky takes place in Milan and the surrounding region (the Alps and the lakes).  Food in this area tends to be heavier than the food of Tuscany and also a bit more cosmopolitan.  Milan is a major business and cultural center.  It is closer to the norther borders of Austria and Switzerland and takes on some of those food influences.  Rice and polenta often replace pasta in this region.  Veal "milanese" seems to be an Italian take on Austrian weinerschnitzel.  Stewed dishes like osso bucco (slow-cooked veal shank) are common here.  To the south of Lombary is Emilia-Romagna, home of Bologna and it's famous ragu`.

Slow cooked dishes like pasta bolognese or osso bucco are perfect for the slow cooker, although they aren't always well received at my house. The tough cuts of meat do best with this kind of cooking, but this doesn't make Sir Pickypants too happy.  I give him credit for being far less picky than he used to be. He tries new flavors and recipes more often.  He also doesn't complain about an upset stomach every time there is even a slight suspicion that one of his formerly forbidden foods touched his plate

That doesn't mean he takes much pleasure in eating some of them.  He may eat a hamburger and even a piece of beef tenderloin at a steakhouse, but he freaks out at the sight of bones, fat, and connective tissue.  When I cook one of these cuts, I have to make sure I cook it well enough to dissolve as much of these offending bits as possible and carefully excise anything that might possibly remain after cooking. I do what I can to make it palatable and cook a lot of side dishes.  He eats it.  His only other choices are to cook himself or order takeout.  He doesn't want to do the former and he is too kind to offend me by doing the latter.  He may be picky, but he's a good man.  Even if he doesn't like the food, he's going to eat it to make me happy.   He appreciates the effort even when he complains.

So I love pork and he doesn't.  (He's Jewish, so he has an excuse for that one.)  Unfortunately pork is a great meat for the slow cooker.  I recently tried cooking some thick pastured pork chops in red wine (inspired, but not exactly copied from Thyme for Cooking), carefully removing as much fat as possible before cooking, and slicing the cooked meat off the bones before serving.  I wanted to work with an even more slow-cooker-friendly pork.  The obvious cut for the slow cooker is pork shoulder, but a typical shoulder or butt roast is about 5 pounds.  That's way more meat than I need for just two people.  Leaner cuts can dry out in the slow cooker (loins and tenderloins do well in pressure cook mode though if you have time). I decided to try using hocks.

I cooked hocks once before and they were delicious.  I decided in honor of the cuisine of northern Italy I would cook them in a ragu`and served it over polentaI took my inspiration from two of my previous recipes.  The first was my recipe for lamb shanks.  The second was my pork shoulder  ragu` which I also served over polenta. Once the hocks were cooked, I blended the vegetables into a sauce and removed the fat , and pulled the meat from the bones and chopped it up.  This made a uniform sauce wihtout too many scary parts in the meat and without the chunks of mushy vegetables I hate.  I cooked the hocks for eight hours, but in the future I might let them cook an hour or two more.  I wanted them to be shredded, but they didn't pull apart so easily.  I had to use a knife.  

My camera battery was dead and I didn't have time to take a good photo with the light box and it was too late for natural light.  You get a photo taken on the stove top with the phone. 

Although the meat could have cooked a bit longer, the dish was delicious.  The fennel gave it an unexpected unique flavor.  This would also be good on pasta.

Instant Pot Slow Cooker Pork Hock Ragu`

  • 2 fresh pork hocks
  • 1 Tbl olive oil 
  • 1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
  • 2-4 carrots, finely diced (Quantity depends on size of carrots.  Mine were small.)
  • 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup strong red wine
  • 2 bay leaves
Put your Instant pot in saute mode and brown the hocks on all sides for several minutes.  Add the oil to the pot and soften the onions. Add the fennel seeds and stir into the onions until fragrant.  Add the fennel and carrots and cook until fennel is soft.

Mix together the wine and tomatoes.  Place the hocks on top of the vegetables and cover with the tomato-wine mixture.  Add the bay leaves.  Put lid on the pot and cook on slow cook mode for 8-10 hours.

At the end of the cooking, pull the hocks from the pot and set aside.  Remove the bay leaves and discard.   Optional Step: Blend the sauce to a smooth consistency with a stick blender or blend it in batches in a food processor.  Chop or shred the meat and return it to the sauce.

Serve with pasta or polenta.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

In Squash We Trust

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm not a fan of squash.  I don't hate it the way I hate peas or olives.  It's not inedible, but it's not something I enjoy.  I have written extensively about how much I hate pumpkin.  I'm also not a fan of the well-loved butternut squash.  The same goes for acorn or pattypan or most hard-shell squashes.  Their taste is nothing special and I can't stand the texture.

Are any squashes edible to me?  I can name two.  The first is zucchini.  The taste is mild and the texture is more vegetal than mealy. I have also found that I like spaghetti squash.  Both varieties have mild enough flavors that can be covered with the right sauces.

Squash with sauce was quite important in the past six weeks because I was participating in the Whole Life Challenge.  You can read more about it in the link for the specific rules, but there is one thing I had to do for six weeks.  I had to cut out pasta and noodles of all kinds.  If I wanted pasta that badly I either had to lose points, or find a substitute.  The most common replacement for pasta on a grain-free diets are the two most tolerable members of the squash family. I hoped I could use them to make me miss pasta less.

For much of the challenge I didn't crave pasta, but last week I had a craving for sesame or peanut noodles.  I was thinking of pad thai or the sesame noodles you get at Chinese restaurants as an appetizer (that are usually mostly peanut butter).  I decided to try making something similar out of spaghetti squash.

My dilemma was whether or not I wanted the noodles to be peanut or sesame.  Peanut butter can be heavy and gloppy and sesame paste can be bitter.  I decided to use a mix of both sesame oil and natural peanut butter.  I balanced that with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and lime juice.  In the end it was probably a tad too acidic, but not bad.  I would probably go with only one type of acid the next time.

I learned a trick online.  If you put a spaghetti squash in the microwave for a few minutes, you can cut it in half more easily for roasting.

Spaghetti Squash in Sesame Peanut Sauce

  • 1 spaghetti squash
  • 2 Tbl sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup natural peanut butter
  • 2 Tbl soy sauce*
  • 2 Tbl rice vinegar
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 2 Tbl coconut sugar**
  • 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • Sesame seeds for garnish
  • Scallions for garnish
Gently score score a slit around the squash with a sharp knife along the lines where you want to cut it.  Prick it all over with a fork.  Place it in the microwave and cook on high for 6 minutes.  Remove and let cool for a minute or two.  Carefully cut it in half, lightly coat it with oil. and place on a cookie sheet.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Scoop out the pulp of the squash.  Cook for 45 minutes.  Cool until it's cool enough to handle and use a fork to scoop out the strands.  Set aside.

Mix together the peanut butter, sesame oil, vinegar, lime juice, salt, sugar, and ginger.  Toss with the squash.  Garnish with scallions and sesame seeds.

*  You can also use fish sauce.  I find the fishiness in fish sauce is too pronounced in cold dishes, so I don't use it.
**You can also use brown sugar or palm sugar


Another popular substitute for pasta is "zoodles" or noodles cut from zucchini.  This has become so popular, you can now buy special tools just to turn your vegetables into spaghetti.  I admitted I cheated and bought pre-spiralized zoodles in the produce section for my next recipe.  I don't think I will use a spriralizer enough to justify purchasing one.

One of my favorite pasta sauce in the world is pesto.  As I have said many times before, it just tastes like summer to me.  The Whole Life Challenge doesn't just forbid pasta and flour-based products.  It also forbids dairy.  That means my pesto can't contain parmesan.  I decided to take on the challenge of pesto pasta that was compliant with the challenge and still tasted somewhat authentic.

Vegans and paleo dairy avoiders often use cashews as a substitute for cream or cheese.  I decided to let them stand it for the cheese and the pine nuts in my  sauce.  Vegans use yeast to get a more cheese-like flavor, but I just used vinegar for the acidity.

This didn't taste like a summer pesto, but it made a flavorful side dish.

Zoodles in Dairy Free Pesto

  • 2 cups spiralized zucchini "noodles"
  • 1 cup raw cashews
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 1 Tbl white wine vinegar
  • 1 cup basil leaves
At least an hour in advance, soak the cashews in water.

When you are ready to make the sauce, drain the nuts and reserve 1/4 cup of the water

Place the water, cashews, basil, garlic, salt, and vinegar in a food processor.  Blend until you have a creamy green mixture.

Cook the zoodles in boiling water for two minutes.  Drain and serve with the sauce.