Ground pork is an inexpensive protein, but I’d never found a great many inspiring recipes featuring it. I’d pick it up when I wanted to make eggrolls or wontons, but my imagination had never progressed much beyond that. Until one day, when I had a pound of it to use and felt too lazy to do all the filling and folding that eggrolls or wontons require, I started googling and came across a recipe for Vietnamese Caramelized Pork Bowls. See Nagi’s original recipe here.
I was intrigued – it didn’t require many ingredients and was quick to make. It also, quite frankly, sounded delicious with its combination of sweet, salty and hot flavors. I gave it a try, and after a few tweaks to suit my and my husband’s particular tastes, I had a new dish that is now a regular part of my weekly lineup.
You’ll notice I made a few changes from the original. First of all, I use soy sauce instead of fish sauce, as fish sauce is just too intense for me. I also reduced the amount of brown sugar. Feel free to adjust proportions to your taste. The lemongrass is optional, but highly recommended. If you don’t have any on hand, I would imagine that a bit of lime juice/zest would work as well. (As a side note, I highly recommend getting those tubes of pureed ginger and lemongrass in the produce department – one of those conveniences that I find it worthwhile to pay a bit extra for. But, if you mince your own, the amounts would be approximately the same). As for the red pepper flakes, we like quite a bit of heat, but reduce or leave out if that is not your thing.
You can serve over rice or noodles with the fresh vegetables of your choice. Traditionally these would be tomato and cucumber, but, since my husband doesn’t eat those, I went with carrot, red pepper and green onion. I find that the crunch and freshness of the vegetables is an essential contrast to intense flavor of the pork. And the colors are pretty, too.
With the arrival of some cooler fall weather, I start thinking about soup more and more. Since harvesting my onions from the garden, those thoughts turned to onion soup.
We’re all familiar with the classic French onion soup, which is good, but I was feeling sort of “been there done that” when it came to that. I’d also heard of another, less familiar classic onion soup, which is Cream of Onion soup, or Veloute.
However, in looking at recipes for this, I found it involves beaten egg yolks, and thus all the attendant issues of having to “temper” the yolks by adding small amounts of the hot liquid to the eggs gradually, to equalize temperature before you add them. (That’s so you don’t end up with onion soup with chunks of scrambled egg in it, instead of a nice creamy soup).
While I am fully capable of this, I was feeling lazy that day and didn’t want to deal with it. But I could see that the eggs would add another layer of richness to the soup, so I started thinking about an easier way to do that.
And then I thought about cheese. After all, French onion soup is usually served with cheese melted on top, so why not do a cream soup with the cheese incorporated into it?
After a couple of trials, I settled on my favorite combo of a beef broth base and smoked gouda cheese. I have also done this soup with a chicken broth base and gruyere cheese. (Gruyere is another cheese that plays particularly well with onions). Feel free to experiment with different cheeses, and also with the amount of cheese. Also, although shredding will ensure that the cheese melts completely, I have also cut it into small cubes, which don’t melt all the way and instead leave the soup with cheesy little bites, which can be kind of fun.
I am always amused when people who are not from Michigan assume that because we’re a northern state, we never have hot weather. When we were on the island of Hawaii a few years ago, a waitress commented, upon learning where we were from, that their 80 degrees must feel very hot to us. I told her that since it was mid June, it was likely hotter back home and certainly more humid, as we don’t have the trade winds to cool us down.
Michigan summers can be horribly hot and humid, and the last month or so has been no exception – frequent 90 plus days and humidity that you could cut with a knife. Clearly lemonade weather.
I’ve always loved the tart flavor of lemonade, and in recent years, there have been many different twists and takes on this classic beverage. There are those that combine it with other juices such as strawberry, raspberry, peach, etc., and those are good. But last year, I had a more unique and perhaps not as obvious version of lemonade – infused with lavender.
We were at a newish restaurant in Saugatuck, which, unfortunately, proved to be a bit disappointing – the food was creative but largely unappetizing and rather pretentiously priced. However, they did serve lavender lemonade, which I’d never seen before. It was delicious, and I resolved to make it myself.
Luckily I have a large patch of lavender in my flower garden, so all I have to do it walk out back and pick some. If you don’t grow any yourself, you can probably find it at your local farmer’s market.
The recipe follows the theory of making a simple syprup – the boiling of the water and sugar help infuse the lavender oils into the syrup. This syrup is a bit lighter than a traditional simple syrup – a 2 to 1 water to sugar ratio rather than one to one – but you can experiment with ratios to find what works best for you.
Place the lavender flower sprigs in the sugar and crush and roll them around a bit to release oils.
Add the lavender sugar mixture to 2 cups water in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
Strain the liquid into a pitcher, and refrigerate until cool, about 30 minutes.
Add the lemon juice and the additional 2 cups of cold water and stir well. Taste and adjust sugar and lemon juice until desired sweetness is reached. Serve over ice, and garnish with more fresh lavender and lemon slices, as desired.
Every spring, I harvest a nice crop of asparagus. What’s especially nice about it is that it’s asparagus that I never planted or cultivated. It has taken root in a couple of retaining wall planting beds on the west side of my house, the product of seed-spreading birds.
This spring, starting my second year of early retirement, I have finally had time to really clean up those garden beds that had been neglected over the years when I was busy working, raising a son, and in the last couple of years, earning a pilot’s license. (My ultimate bucket-list item).
But this year was the year to get all my gardens back on line. I figured I would simple uproot the crowns from my flower beds, and transplant them into the vegetable garden. Simple, right?
Turns out, it wasn’t that simple. Those asparagus crowns were HUGE and as tough as cement. After chipping out one small piece and transplanting that, I figured it was way too much work, gave up and simply mulched over them. They still continue to come up, so I snap off asparagus spears from between my narcissus and daylillies. I figure I’ll let a few go to fern to keep the crowns going, and just live with the non traditional location of my accidental asparagus bed.
A little about asparagus. Again, this was one of the vegetables I never liked until I had it prepared properly. My mother, like most women in the 1970s, always overcooked asparagus. Thus, it was limp, olive green and slimy – and for years I though I hated it. Whatever you do with asparagus, you must only cook it until it is just tender and still a fairly bright green. This only takes about 5 minutes, and sometimes less. For this soup, I would err on the side of slightly undercooking the pieces, knowing that there will be more cooking as the soup comes together.
This soup is a great and different way of using asparagus aside from the usual steaming, roasting, etc. It makes a great brunch or lunch dish.
Trim off tough ends of asparagus and cut into 1 inch pieces. Bring about 1 to 1&1/2 cups of broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add asparagus pieces and cook until just tender – they should still be fairly light green – about 5 minutes. (Tip – start with stem pieces for a minute or two before adding tips to keep from overcooking tips. Also, if asparagus is of varying diameters, start with thickest first, adding thinnest after a minute or two).
Remove about 1 cup of asparagus pieces and set aside. (Tip – start with the tip pieces as they make a nicer presentation at the end). Place remaining asparagus pieces with broth in a blender or food processor; blend until smooth.
Melt butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in flour until smooth; cook 1 minute while still whisking. Gradually whisk in remaining broth, cook until slightly thickened. Stir in asparagus puree, milk and cream, salt and pepper. Finally, add reserved asparaugs pieces and cook until heated through.
You might have noticed that my blog is very light on baked items. That’s because I’m primarily a cook, not a baker, and don’t have a huge sweet tooth. However, I do make a few exceptions. Yeast breads and rolls are one of them.
Amid the distruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s felt like a good time for making some of the comfort items I rarely make. Because this is a cooking blog, I’ll present the recipe in this post, but what I’d really like to do is to share some thoughts about change (and consistency) in this very strange time.
It’s been quite a different month than what I anticipated. At this time, my husband and I should be timing track meets for Saugatuck Public Schools, as we have done for many years. But schools are closed and sports are cancelled. Our son, Sam, should be going off every day to his physical therapy clinical at a Grand Rapids rehabilitation hospital. But clinicals have been suspended due to the virus, and his doctoral class is has been dealing with the uncertainty of how this will be handled and how it will affect graduation. So instead, he is stuck at home with us – all day, every day – working on his doctoral case studies, but otherwise with nothing to do due to the stay at home order.
Three weeks ago, Sam was planning on earning money bartending after May graduation until he took his licensing exam in July, and got a job in physical therapy. Now there is worry about when the Saugatuck restaurant he has worked at every break for five years will be able to open for dining in, and how business will be when they do. And, there is concern about how the PT job market will be until elective surgeries are allowed again.
A year ago, I was congratulating myself on retiring early and we were enjoying unprecidented growth in our retirement accounts. Instead, we’ve watched that growth melt away in a week and scrambled to move money to more conservative and safe funds.
With nothing else to really do except worry, buy groceries once a week, watch Coronavirus briefings, work out and take walks, it’s no wonder I have been drawn to baking. And gardening.
I’ve always been a gardener, as I like to grow a lot of my own vegetables and flowers. But I’ve never been able to put the time into it that I should. Until now. And I find it’s been greatly theraputic, not only in getting my mind off current uncertainties, but in showing me that there still are a lot of things that are certain.
Like the coming of spring.
As I busily clear dead growth and pull weeds in my flower beds, I become aware of the birds. The house finches are building a nest, as usual, behind the DirectTV satellite dish. A pair of bluebirds ducks in and out of one of our bluebird boxes. The tree swallows swoop and twitter as they start building a nest in another of the boxes. The phoebe sits on the hot tub cover on the deck, pumping her tail and “fee-beeing” in between building her mud and grass nest under the tractor port. A robin is busy on a nest in the rafters not far from the phoebe. And the barn swallows should be back soon to add to the avian neighborhood under the tractor port.
I take a break and take the dog into our woods for a walk. I notice the folded umbrellas of the mayapples sprouting through the dead leaves on the ground, and see the first spring beauties beginning to bloom. The bloodroots have buds, and should be open in a week or so, along with the Dutchman’s breeches and trout lilies. I hear the spring peepers chorusing from the swampy area at the back of the woods.
I channel my eight year old tomboy self and roll over logs, looking for salamaders. I find one (a red-backed) laying belly up, cold and unmoving. I pick it up, and very quickly the warmth of my hand brings the little creature out of its torpor, crawling suprisingly quickly through my fingers with its riduculously stubby legs.
I place the salamander carefully back under the log and take a look around. Nature’s on schedule, I realize. Spring hasn’t been cancelled. The larger forces of nature are consistent, and can be counted on. And I find that very comforting.
Combine milk, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan. Heat over low heat until butter melts and sugar dissolves. Cool to lukewarm.
Meanwhile, dissolve yeast in the warm water in a warm bowl. Add lukewarm milk mixture, eggs and 2 1/2 cups flour. Mix for 2 minutes at low (speed 2) in a standmixer with dough hook.
Add more flour, 1/2 cup at a time, continuing on speed 2 until dough clings to the hook and cleans the sides of the bowl. (You may not need the full amount of flour). Continuing kneading with dough hook on speed 2 about 2 minutes longer. (Dough will be somewhat sticky).
Place dough in a greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes to one hour.
While dough is rising, place brown sugar, sugar, butter, flour, cinnamon and nuts (if using) in a bowl. Mix with stand mixer at speed 2 with flat beat for one minute, or until mixture resembles pebbles.
Assemble, Proof and Bake Rolls
When dough has doubled in bulk, turn dough out onto a floured board, and roll to a 10 x 15 inch rectangle. Spread filling evenly on dough.
Roll dough tightly from long side to form a 15 inch roll, pinching seams together. Cut into 10 1 1/2 inch slices.
Place 5 rolls each into two greased cake pans.
Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes to one hour.
Bake at 350°F for about 20 minutes, or until lightly browned.
While rolls are baking, combine heavy cream and brown sugar in a small saucepan. Cool over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture begins to boil. Remove from heat.
Place cream mixture, 3/4 cup powdered sugar and vanilla in bowl. Mix with stand mixer with flat beater on medium speed (speed 4) until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add more powdered sugar if glaze seems too thin.
Chili is one of my cold weather go-to dishes. Chili, however, is one of those dishes that is a very personal thing, and, as such, has endless variations. But for me, if the chili isn’t spicy, it’s not worth it. I actually always carry a bottle of Tabasco in my purse for any bland food emergencies I may encounter eating out, which tells you something about me. (I also always carry a corkscrew, which tells you even more. I figure that between the two, I have all the important contingencies covered).
Anyway, back to this chili of mine. It’s spicy, but not even three alarm, in my opinion. Of course, there are people who live in my surrounding area who would disagree. But, keep in mind that most of these people would consider ketchup spicy. (Don’t even get me started on how many small, family owned Mexican restaurants in my area whose even moderately spicy food has been “blanded down” by complaints by these folks. It’s really a pity).
Anyway, this chili is a nod to a Mexican/Southwest style by its use of Mexican chorizo blended with ground beef, as well as a serrano pepper and chipolte pepper powder.
This is also a very easy recipe, as it does not require the meat to be browned – the meat is simply cooked in the tomato sauce and water. Not only is this easy and convenient, but also the best way I’ve found to get that fine grained texture to the ground meat – I’m not a fan of big chunks of ground meat. (Of course, if that’s what you like, feel free to pre-brown and leave larger chunks).
This is a nice chili to make for a quick lunch, but, as is the case with all chilis and many soups, it is actually better reheated, so it can also be made ahead and frozen.
1serrano pepper, seeds and membranes removed,diced
115.5 oz canpinto beans,drained
Place ground beef, chorizo, tomato sauce and water in a large pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil while breaking up meat with spoon until it is a fine, even texture. Boil until meat is mostly cooked through. (Meat will be more brown than pink).
Add the remaining ingredients and simmer, stirring occasionally, until onions and peppers are soft, about 20 minutes.
One of the few consolations about winter, to me, is that it’s soup weather. And the absolute favorite at my house is this one, fondly known as “‘tato soup”. I don’t make it quite as frequently as I used to, since we have a bit of carb-watching going on lately, but it’s something I could never completely give up.
I’m trying to remember where this recipe came from – I may have gotten it from a newspaper long ago, but, in any case, I’ve been making this for well over twenty years. It has evolved a bit over time, but I’ve always liked it for its simplicity combined with richness. I also like that I usually have all the ingredients on hand at any given time. This is also the first dish that my son learned and made for himself when he got out on his own.
If you don’t have a leek, feel free to substitute an onion. (My son actually prefers to make it this way). The extra shot of heavy cream is optional, but highly recommended. If you don’t have evaporated milk, I would imagine it would be possible to use whole milk or half and half.
When you break up the potatoes at the end, feel free to mash things finer if you like – we like to have some rustic chunks of potato remaining, but if you like a smoother soup, mash it a little more.
This is a really great soup for lunch on a cold, snowy day.
This is one of those dishes where I didn’t know what I was missing until I had it prepared correctly. I grew up in the 1970s, that heyday of prepackaged foods. To me, as a kid, scalloped potatoes were the dehydrated boxed version with the packet of powder that you mixed up with liquid and threw in the oven. And I liked them, since I didn’t know any better.
And then I grew up and started cooking. And then I learned to make a basic beschamel sauce. And then I got a food processor.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Or at least boxed scalloped potato mix was history to me from that point on.
The basis of this recipe is that mother of all sauces, the beschamel, that simple but genius combination of butter, flour and milk and/or cream. To me, you can’t really call yourself a cook unless you can whip up this basic white sauce. I mean, it’s the basis for so many dishes, from these scalloped potatoes to macaroni and cheese to lasagna besciamella to mornay vegetables to moussaka.
I’ve seen many scalloped potato recipes that just have you putting potatoes, butter and milk in a pan and baking. I’ve also seen those that use condensed creamed soups. Please don’t take these shortcuts. Trust me, the extra few minutes to make the beschamel makes a far superior dish.
Oh, and you will also see recipes involving cheese, but, to be nitpicky, then this is not scalloped potatoes, but rather, potatoes au gratin. Nothing wrong with it, to be sure, but I like to call things by their proper names.
You will see that I have onions in this recipe, because, well, we like onions at our house. However, if that’s not your thing, feel free to leave them out. Also, I use a combination of milk and cream, but, you can use all whole milk if you want the dish a little lighter. It won’t be as creamy, but it will still be delicious. Or you could use all half and half.
The baking times are approximate – it really depends on the amount of potatoes and how thinly they are sliced. (A food processor or a mandolin is a great help to cut down on slicing time). You just need to keep the dish covered in the first stage of baking so the top doesn’t brown too much. This recipe is also easily doubled to fit into a 9″x13″ pan, as well.
Scalloped potatoes are a classic accompaniment to ham and pork, but they can really go with just about every meat entree.
“If I’m a picky eater, Mom, it’s mostly your fault. You didn’t make me eat different things when I was little.” This from my 24 year old son, as I bemoan my even-more-limited-than-usual cooking palette when planning dinner. Sam is at home with us for awhile as he finishes his clinicals in his last year of physical therapy school. I know that he is basically pulling my chain to get a reaction out of me, but I can’t help taking the bait.
“Hold on there, Chief”, I reply. “There were plenty of things that I liked and served to you, but you refused to even try just because your dad wouldn’t eat them. So don’t go pinning it all on me.” I give my husband Ron a dirty look as I say this, and he just laughs.
So yes, not only did I marry a picky eater, but I also gave birth to one. Lucky me. Now, I do have some profound dislikes myself, which, fortunately, coincide with my spouse and offspring.
Stuff we all hate:
Peas. Yuck. Nasty little balls of mush. You will never see any of us eating peas, or even worse, pea soup. (Ron and I will do snow peas, but that’s a very different thing).
Winter squash. Squishy baby diaper stuff.
Blue, roquefort, feta, and all other very strong cheeses. Stinky.
Rye or pumpernickel bread. Totally overpowers everything on a sandwich, and not in a good way.
Fennel, tarragon, anise or anything that involves a black licorice flavor. No, just no and hell no.
Stuff Ron and Sam won’t eat:
Pickles or pickled anything
Stuff Ron won’t eat:
Any fruit pie other than apple or key lime
Scallops (to be fair, he may have had an alergic reaction to these)
Raw tomatoes or cooked tomato in large chunks (though he is okay with tomato sauce)
Stuff Sam won’t eat (or won’t try):
Any soup other than potato or egg drop
Creole or Cajun food
Corned beef (or the hash derived therefrom)
There lists are not all inclusive, nor are they in any particular order. But, you can see that these preference sheets mean I’m dealing with a fairly limited universe when it comes to getting some variety into the dishes I serve, especially when my son is around.
My world pretty much revolves around beef, pork and chicken for meats, and green beans and corn for vegetables, supplemented at times with fried peppers and onions. Potatoes are well received, with the exception that Sam won’t eat my fantastic from scratch scalloped potatoes. (His loss.)
So, in some ways, I have to be more creative than cooks with more options. I have become a master at different ways to dress up corn and green beans. (Although I can never serve my guys green beans al dente, as current fashion dictates – they have to be cooked through, like a limp dishrag, every time. Sigh.)
And sometimes, when I do try a new dish, despite my careful adherence to said preference lists, it is greeted with suspcious looks and subjected to after-the-fact custom seasonings.
For example, there was the night I proudly presented Chicken Francaise. Sam peered at the chicken breast pounded thin, fried with its crispy egg crust and served with a lemon, butter and wine sauce. “What’s this, and what’s in it?”, he queried, his brow furrowed. I explained. He tasted a bite, then walked into the kitchen, and returned with ketchup. I looked at him incredulously. “It’s a chicken tender”, he announced, and proceeded to eat happily.
I closed my eyes, sighed and thought of that saying about pearls and swine.
I’ve often wondered about this picky eating thing. Nature or nuture and all that. According to flavor scientists, the aversion to certain tastes seems to be inborn, while an aversion to aromas is learned behavior. And sometimes, pickiness is modeled on parental behavior.
So, I would say that our familial hatred of anise flavor is definitely genetic. Ron claims his hate of everything tomato (other than sauce) is linked to being bombarded by non stop fumes as his mother canned tomatoes every summer. (To be fair, the man does have an unusually heightened sense of smell. I didn’t realize how much this can affect how you feel about certain foods until I was pregnant and had a temporarily heightened sense of smell.)
Sam’s refusal to eat mushrooms is definitely because Ron won’t touch them. Not to mention his dad’s commentary about how he won’t eat fungus or anything that reproduces asexually. (My husband thinks he’s clever.)
So, I’m pretty much resigned to the restrictions that picky eating has placed on my cooking. If I want mushrooms or brussel sprouts, I make them for myself. As the saying goes, more for me, then. And if I’m really feeling diabolical, I will sometimes amuse myself by sneaking a taboo item into a dish and quietly contain my glee when it is unwittingly consumed. (Like the chicken liver in the traditional Bolognese sauce that Ron loved. Gotcha, smart guy.)
On the other hand, my son, as he gets older, has started to show flashes of adventurousness. Thanks to some study abroad opportunities he has been able to visit numorous spots in Europe in the past few years. I was stunned to learn that he tried, and liked, things like venison pot pie in London and mussels in Monaco. And he also loves, of all things, calamari.
Also, Sam has shown some interest in cooking beyond heating up convenience foods. When he started grad school, thus moving from dorm life to apartment life, he asked me to teach him how to make some of his favorites from home. So, he is comfortable making stir fry, ribs and even potato bacon soup from scratch. This is an area his dad would never think of venturing into. He’ll even watch cooking shows with me.
So, I hold out hope that perhaps at least my son’s palette will expand a bit. My husband, not so much. I think he would probably be content to eat the exact same things week after week – he’s certainly never been one to seek out a lot of variety. (Come to think of it, this is probably the main reason he’s stuck with me for almost three decades, lol.)
I guess I’ll just have to keep researching green bean recipes and maybe find a way to sneak some mushrooms into something every so often, just to keep things interesting.
Nothing says Italian food like spaghetti and meatballs, right? Well, no, not if you’re talking to Italians.
If you travel to Italy, you won’t find spaghetti and meatballs on a restaurant menu (except possibly to cater to the expectations of American tourists). Italians do have their own version of the meatball (as do most cultures around the world), but these polpettes, as they are known, are never served with pasta. Instead, they are either served as a meal by themselves, or in soups. They are also made with any meat, even turkey and fish.
Moreover, polpettes are rarely served in restaurants, rather, they are more commonly seen on the family table as the province of the home cook. In addition, they have a different proportion of meat to breadcrumbs – about an equal ratio, as opposed to our meat dominant American version.
So, the dish we are familar with here in America is really Italian American – developed by immigrants who, with better jobs in America, were able to afford more meat in their diets. Red sauces began to dominate since canned tomatoes were one of the few ingredients available in grocery stores. Spaghetti became an accompaniment either because it was one of the few Italian foods available here, or because early Italian restaurants needed to offer it to satisfy the tastes of Americans who were used to having a starch served with their meals.
But, no matter what the origins, what we Americans call Italian meatballs are a favorite. My version has been developed by attempting to take the best of several recipes I have tried over the years.
One of the most important elements, in my opinion, is to use a blend of ground beef, pork and veal. I firmly believe that you can never have the best meatballs using ground beef alone. Pork adds flavor, and the veal makes the meatball more tender. Most groceries carry a beef, pork and veal blend known as meatloaf or meatball mix. If that is not available, simply buy the three meats separately and mix in approximately equal proportions. If you can’t find ground veal, at least do half and half beef and pork. (Since the pork is fatty, use a leaner beef). The meatballs won’t be as tender without the veal, but the flavor will be superior to beef alone.