Monday, November 17, 2008

Save Money, Make Food... FROM SCRATCH

we're strapped for cash. what's new, right? i mean, i'm not the only person out here totally strapped, so i'm not fretting too deeply. i mean, i have an ex-husband who's lost another job and may be at the end of his rope, so i don't look at my situation as horrific. it's par for the financial course and we adjust to accommodate it, right? i have skills in the home that can work to our benefit and one of those is that i can cook just about anything. really. and so i have.

yesterday, i made two loaves of bread, two pints of fresh berry jam and an interesting lunch the boys devoured (nicholas took to lunch at school the other day). like the black beans, i made something from basic ingredients we keep around the house. i made something with corn tortillas, ground beef, leftover rice, spices, salsa, and cheese. it was YUM TUM... oops, wait, let's show you what we did and you'll see how it works:


1 garlic clove, minced
1 pound ground beef
2 cups leftover rice
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. cayenne
1 cup mixed cheese, grated (i used some yummy chevre and organic cheddar)
salt and pepper to taste
4 corn tortillas
1 jar chunky salsa (if you can get fresh salsa or make it yourself, great)
1 tbs. olive oil

what to do:
1. Preheat the oven to 350º and spray vegetable oil in a deep casserole with a lid.
1. heat the olive oil in a 12" pan. add the garlic clove and stir until it's fragrant -- about 2 minutes.
2. add the ground beef and saute until brown. add the rice and brown through.
3. add the seasonings -- oregano, coriander, cardamom, cumin, and cayenne (that's a lot of "c's"), stir until cooked through, about 2 - 3 minutes, hten set aside.
4. it's time to layer. spray the bottom of a casserole with vegetable spray and layer a spread of salsa (can be store bought, but the best and chunkiest you can get, the better) the put down one corn tortilla, lay some salsa on top, add some beef mixture then sprinkle with a little cheese, layer three more times then end with the salsa and some cheese on top. this is basically like a lasagna. Bake in a 350ºF oven for about 10-15 minutes.
5. when you take it out, the cheese should be bubbly and melted. cut as with lasagna and serve with a fresh salad with a light dressing.

what did we think: as i said, nicholas took this to school for lunch and brandon had two servings. i tasted it and it was yum. i know times are hard for everyone and i'm sorry, truly. we're in the middle of it, too. and whatever i can pass along that might help, food wise, i'll do.

cuz that's what friends are for.
thanks, Dionne, Stevie, Gladys, and Elton

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Beans are Magically Delish

i love beans. i do. i love black beans (or turtle beans, if you're into the various verbage for food), great northern beans, pinto beans, lentils, blah, blah, blah. i can be transported by a simple dish of cannelinis that are perfectly mixed with steamed, chilled baby shrimp, chopped prosciutto, some good balsamic, a quick brush with garlic and tossed with butter lettuce. it's one of my faves, so i'm easy like that. there's this place in l.a. called maple drive that makes a salad like that and i used to order it to be delivered to my house once a week. honest. and i'm not a believer in having dinner delivered to my house (i'd just rather cook it, as you can see). loved this salad. absolutely lived on it.

i can be happy with a good bowl of well-made beans on rice and nothing else. it's a complete protein when it's prepared that way. yep, it is. swear. if you pair legumes with grains -- preferrably those really great grains like brown rice, wild rice, quinoa and stuff like that -- then you're a happy, peppy (and potent) protein producer. it's good for you and they taste yummy if done right.

now, as you all may (or may not) know, i am an ardent follower of one reality show and one reality show only -- TOP CHEF. i love Project Runway, so don't get me wrong, but i watched one episode of that show this season, cuz i was way busy with other things, but when it comes to TOP CHEF, tom collechio owns me. for sure. and i will not miss my show. i'm so jazzed that it's starting, i can't even tell you. but i'm actually digressing... as i am wont to do, so let me get to the point. i watch a lot of Top Chef and in last season's top chef, one of my all time fave contestants got kicked off in the eleventh hour because she UNDERcooked her pigeon peas in puerto rico. i was heartbroken when she did that -- final cookoff jitters, i'm sure -- and especially when she gave the excuse of wanting to cook her peas al dente. um, there's no such thing as al dente in legume-ville. oh, you'll read places that talk about not cooking them to mush (i'm gonna have a tale about that at the backend of this, no worries), but beans aren't like pasta. the firmer is SOOOO not the better. uh, uh. or, at least, in my opinion. my blog, my rules. live with it.

okay, so, why am i telling you all of this? cuz i made what i am thinking is one of the greatest pots of bean feasting ever created. it is savory, it is the right consistency and it makes me happy. i do that from time to time, put up large vats of beans and freeze or can them. my kids like them over rice with tortillas, some good cheese, steak or chix and a flavorful salad. they just roll all that up together into a tortilla and down it. sometimes we do without the tortillas and there are just huge leaves of lettuce for them to wrap the whole mess in and they're happy.

i like it when my kids are happy, cuz, then, i'm happy. the sun even seems to shine a little bit more golden when my kids are happy, so i'm good with that.

but, anyway, tonight, i decided to make a big pot of black beans with chunks of sweet turkey italian sausage sauteed and dropped in them for good measure. i was going to add this to a bowl of steamed rice, a sprinkling of really good chevre left over from the obama celebration (which continues, believe me -- my friend, jonathan, who is a tres cool dude, made a JOKING suggestion for me to do a 100 days party and i'm so gonna... oh, yeah... thanks jp!) all accompanied by a good salad of romaine, japanese apple pear chunks and the smokey, spicey, sweet almonds i also made for the party. however, my eldest teen, who is the only one home tonight (my younger, at the end of tweendom kid is off partying with his "big brothers of america big brother"... and when i say partying, i mean playing video games and when i say playing video games i mean... well... playing video games), is exhausted from a day of thinking about cleaning the house and regaling the local borders bookstore with his dulcet musical tones with the rest of his middle school and he's fast asleep upstairs. has been for the last several hours. so no one is home to eat what i had hoped would be a masterpiece of comfort food other than me -- and i'm not all that hungry -- and the dog -- who is no way getting that (although i did give her some carrots and grapes earlier -- she's really into the veg thing. go figure.)

okay, so, i'm rambling and, well, i'll tell you the deal after i tell you what i concocted.

1 large clove garlic, minced
1/2 onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 1/2 tbs olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 tsp. italian seasoning (preferably organic)
1 package sweet italian sausage -- turkey
2 1/2 cups black beans (rinsed, picked through, soaked for a bit -- overnight, two hours, whichever tricks your trigger)
4 cups of cold, filtered water
1 bay leaf
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp. dried oregano, crumbled
pinch cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste

what to do:
1. soak the beans, if you're into that, and set aside.
2. heat your olive oil in a dutch oven for about 10 seconds then add the garlic, the onion and celery, sauteeing over a medium-high heat until fragrant and soft, about 3 minutes, making sure not to brown. add the salt, pepper and italian seasoning, stirring to combine. add the italian sausage, whole, and sautee until lightly brown on each side then add the drained beans and the 4 cups of water. add the bay leaf and bring to a boil. turn the heat down and bring to a simmer. DO NOT COVER.
3. simmer these little suckers. as soon as the italian sausage is cool enough to handle, cut them into medium sized chunks and add to the simmering water. simmer the entire pot for about 2 hours, check the tenderness of the beans and water level of the pot to make sure they aren't burning, adding more water if necessary. add the rest of the spices, including the salt and pepper.
4. cook the water down until the beans are creamy and tender, adding more spices if necessary (do this to your taste). remove the bay leaf and serve over steamed rice with a nice sprinkling of chevre or goat cheese on top.

i tasted this and, oh, this worked out VERY well. excellently well. i smiled. and it was just me, sitting on the couch, with my dog sleeping beside me, and tasting this in a small ramekin with a spoon as my only companion to share this. oh, man... maybe it's because it's night time, and i'm all by my lonesome, i'm getting ready to do some serious all night writing, and there's a serious comfort food thing about it, but i'm loving this recipe that's just been concocted. i could get into this.

and, now, my partying/videogame playing tween child has returned and is full of happiness about his evening, so i must, absolutely go to him and hear his joy at being able to zone out for as long as he has noticing the moon is glowing more brightly than before because of the reflection of giddy happy coming off of my kid , but, first a brief story about the al dente beans i experienced...

i have a couple of soup cookbooks. i like them and use them, often. i'm a soup girl, for sure. so, anyway, one of them has a recipe for tuscan white bean and shrimp soup, which is one of my faves, up there with Straggiatella and Pasta a Fagioli. oh, yeah. okay, so, i'm reading through the recipe first -- which one should ALWAYS DO -- and discovered this particular cookbook said they don't soak their beans first and they cook their beans just to doneness. they like having a little bite to their beans. okay, i thought. i'd never done that before, but i'm game, right?

oy... the recipe itself is fantastic, the flavor really good and the whole combo really amazing. it was the underdoneness of the beans that totally got me a little "hmm... this is one of those 'i need to think for myself' times". i still love the cookbook and i still use it, faithfully. i just do what i want with the bean soups, because i am absolutely not into al dente legumes. they don't need to be mush, so don't misunderstand me, but a little bite and not even cooked are too different things. oh, yeah.

such a little thing. a pot of beans. but a yum, happy thing just the same. and that's all right with me.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


i mentioned that last night we had a bit of a fiesta of food and friendship (nice f words are fun). i kind of skirted over it, but it was very food oriented and deserves its own blogspot of its very special own... ness.

the idea came to me awhile ago to do a happy hour with my buddies here in the red middle of the country and it was really for no particular reason, just a chance to hang and get toasted with work people, actually. but, when i had to postpone it, i realized the friday after the election would be a good day to celebrate or commiserate (yikes!) as we saw fit. i had no idea what i was going to serve, just where to do it: my friend, melissa's, party room in her condo building... as i said in the last post. so, no, i don't have short term memory loss. think of this as a television soap opera and i am recapping all of the highlights from the last episode in the first 30 seconds. sound fair?


okay, so my pal kindly agreed to work out the logistics of getting the room while i said i would do the food. she looked at me as if i had gone mad and i pointed out that, ya know, i used to do this for a living and liked doing it and got into the habit of entertaining like this, so i had to do it my way OR I WOULD GO FREAKIN' CRAZY!!! i just couldn't go and grab some wine, bread, cheese, fruit, crackers, lay it out and sit back. i had it to be what I WANTED for a happy hour that would last way past normal happy hour time -- it went from 5:30 until 11:00 at night, but pro'ly would have gone later if we'd done it on a saturday. pro'ly. anywho, so i began the process of putting together a menu for the shindig which was pretty fantastic and fun for me, cuz i hadn't done that for a long time, not since this siesta thing i had done soon after i moved here to thank the women who had welcomed me into their friendship-y kinda hearts. a total girly party with little slippers for yummy relaxation, mini-electric massagers and lots of sleepy areas to just chill the whole afternoon through.

i'm doin' that again. i LOVED getting that ready.

but, as always, i digress...

for this party, i wanted to have food that would appeal to vegans, vegetarians, non-beef AND beef eaters. men and women, boozehounds and highbrows. a good mix of yums as well as sweets that could give people lots of smiles, hopefully. when i looked at the menu i initially created i heard a voice inside of me say, in a rather sarcastic and irritating voice, "yeah, that TOTALLY makes sense. that won't stress you out AT ALL... right..." there were about 20 main course dish things on this list. how crazy i am is really my own burden to bear, i promise. i don't put it on my kids too, too much and try not to have my friends have to bear the load for me (anymore), but, yes, i'm nuts. and i'm all right with that (and i'm allowed to say things like "nuts" and "looney" when speaking of myself, because i used to work for the Mental Health Association of Los Angeles County, was a staunch advocate for mental health and focused on policies surrounding the better treatment for those suffering from it and have a deep and abiding affection for the cause, mean this in the absolutely least derogative way to those who actually suffer from mental illness and would never, in a million years, use this in serious discussion of such, so just back off). WHEW! might be some baggage there i need to clear up, but as i was saying, i needed to really shave off those dishes. i did... and i told myself that... and i did...

but not by much.

i now possess enough wine to make me able to go to book club without having to BUY a bottle of wine for a solid 2 years and that's only if we actually have book club every single month or i go every single month. if we or i skip a month, i have enough wine for much longer. i also have enough food to feed my sons without having to cook a single thing for the next full week as in 7 days... that is, if my sons weren't already taller than i, weigh more than i hope i EVER WILL and 11 and 12 1/2 size feet (and they are, as a reminder, as soap operas do, 12 and 13 years old... yep... ).

but, and i can not say this enough, that doesn't matter to me, because i loved each and every minute of putting this together, creating the list, making the food, plating it, writing what would go with what, finding the right platters, etc. i LOVED IT! it exhausted me, i am still, now, so tired, i can't close my eyes and i had to be up at 5:15 in the morning to take my older son to his last weekend of football so we could be there at 6:30 in the morning for weigh in and it was 32 degrees outside in a blustery wind (um, in case you didn't realize, they play that sport outside). i didn't go to sleep until a bit after 2:00 in the morning, because i was unloading my car of all the stuff i had taken to the party and putting away anything that could go bad if left out, which was a lot. thank the wondrous energy of faith based perfection (whatever your choice might be with that) for my having two fridges, 2 regular sized freezers and one deep freeze ( i also have a gas stove sitting in my garage waiting to be hooked up or sold, whichever becomes more vital to my existence, but that's another story for another time). i would do it again in a heartbeat, i'd do it every weekend if i could. i love feeding my friends and family in a festive atmosphere and here's why:

because it's pure joy, love, warmth, caring, passion, desire, life. food, to me, is not just sustenance. it is an event, it is beauty. when treated the right way, to me, food becomes a door opening up for new ways of talking, loving, being. i can not tell you enough how deep my affection for cooking goes. i would give everything up (except for writing, my children, my pets and my family, so not EVERYTHING, but everything else... oh, and except my friends. i like my friends a lot) to be able to cook in a great kitchen for the rest of my life and share that cooking with many people. not like in a restaurant, but in my home. cooking, eating, FEEDING is communal. i like the social aspect of it, the way of tasting something, letting it sit upon your tongue, savor it and enhance your next sentence or what you are hearing. it incorporates all of the senses and i like that about it as well.

the response last night was lovely to the food and i appreciate that, to be sure. i want to cook well so that when my friends or family taste the food it makes them feel loved, makes them feel good, so it definitely matters to me to have people enjoy my food, but that's not why i do it, so that they'll tell me how cool i am. what made the evening so great was being able to present something i felt underscored how important the occasion was simply by my desire to pull out the stops for the spread. because this is a momentous occasion in our nation's history and in my own doubts about my desire to remain in this country.

when our president was announced on tuesday night, my sons and i were ecstatic. but it wasn't until later, when i was sitting alone, that the tears came, because i realized i could feel belief in my heart again. that my love of country was something very true and real, because i didn't know, until that moment, that if the other candidate had won, i would have sold everything, packed up the kids, the pets and some cookbooks and moved to another country without a second thought. i understood then that all my talking about it wasn't just that. i meant it with all my heart.

but now i'm not. now, i am completely ready to see where life takes us and, right now, life's a bit hard for us, like so many others. but i see a light at the end of the tunnel that i feel will overtake all things in my life. and that's why i created the menu i did for the friends who matter so much in my life. here's the menu for us to check out just for giggles (but no recipes this time, sorry... those are secret and mine -- i know, what a bitch, right? get over it):

olive tapenade w/crostini
hummus w/pita chips
spicy marinated olives and caper berries
sweet and spicy cumin almonds
fresh and dried fruit basket with assorted cheeses
hot and gooey brie w/warm bread and assorted crackers
guacamole w/tortilla chips
onion dip w/kettle potato chips
marinated roasted veggies
minced tofu in won ton cups
minced chicken in won ton cups
vegetable summer rolls w/ponzu dipping sauce
shrimp summer rolls w/sweet spicy dipping sauce
bul goki bundles on warm rice cakes w/scallion dipping sauce
giant chocolate chip cookies
orange ginger oatmeal cookies
fudgy brownies
mixed berry trifle
mojitos, wine, beer, water

assortment, as they say, is the spice of life. it was fun and i can't wait to do it again. but, even more than that, this feeling inside is amazing.

last year, my younger son came up to me and told me he wanted to be the first black president of the united states. i told him then that this guy who was putting his campaign together, obama, might beat him there. he stopped, thought, then said, "well, then i'll be the first MIXED RACE president in the united states." i pointed out that obama was already mixed race. he thought another second then said, "well, i guess i better find out what he's all about." he was 10 at the time. now he's 12 and it was him and my other son who were downstairs while i was up in the kitchen cooking calling out the election results for me. it was all they watched tuesday night and when i cracked open some rather delicious spanish sparkling wine to celebrate the victory, they both cheered with me.

as for me, to quote the exquisitely haunting and subtly passionate nina simone:

it's a new dawn
it's a new day
it's a new life for me
and i'm feelin' good...

maybe that should be the anthem for the president elect's victory of 2008?
maybe so.