Sunday, May 29, 2011

Casserole 911

It's always nice to make something nice with a few day's preparations, but there is a special sense of accomplishment when you come into a strange kitchen and make something tasty out of whatever you might find.

I had that experience when the pizza to be delivered to a friend's house turned out to be not so delivered. How to feed a lot of large, hungry men folk. The yeast was a bit out of date so I couldn't just make some pizza from flour and such. A feijoada or cassoulet is another sure fire crowdfeeder, but no dried beans or big hunks of beast. A couple of pounds chicken though. Many cans of diced tomatoes. Canned black beans. A giant tamale casserole? Perhaps.

I had an ace in the hole in that I bought a ridiculous amount of butter to replace and supplement what I use making brownies and/or other baked goods in this person's household. No need to be shy with that.

Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a giant pan. Brown 3 lbs chicken meat, cubed, working in batches, until browned. Reserve browned meat. Add 3 onions, chopped, to fat in pan. Add 4 more tbsp butter. Fry, scraping, until softened. Add about 1-1.5 cup masa harina, or corn meal if you don't have masa, but if you have some corn chips make a cup or two of corn chip crumbs and use those instead (corn chip crumbles make fantastic tamale pie). Fry for a few minutes. Add 1 tbsp chicken bouillon, 1 tsp oregano, 2 tbsp chili powder, 1 tbsp garlic powder. Stir until that's all incorporated. Fry until aromatic, then add 2 cans canned diced tomatoes. Stir until a gravy like substance is formed.

Open two cans black beans.

Shred at least 2 cups cheddar cheese.

Get a 12" oval casserole, or larger, really, and put down a layer of half the tomato gravy, half the chicken, half the beans, half the cheese. Repeat once more. Put the assembled casserole in a 350 degree oven for about an hour. Remove and preferably let stand for 12-30 minutes. It should produce a nice, slice-able casserole.

Serves six hungry people.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Shanghai Vegetable

Another batter for the sub 200 supper is a minimal stir fry. This time we're introducing carbs but in the form of friendly bok choy.

12 oz fat free chicken tenderloins or pork tenderloins, sliced very thin against the grain.
.5 cup soy sauce
.5 cup rice wine vinegar
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 head bok choy, slice green parts and keep separate, slice white parts into 2" pieces on the diagonal
4 quarts water and 4 tbsp salt
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
6 scallions, green parts only, sliced into 1" pieces

Combine first 4 ingredients in a zip lock bag, squish around to combine, and let marinate for 10-30 minutes. Room temperature is fine, there is so much salinity and pH in there bacteria don't want a piece of that action.

Bring 4 quarts of water with salt to a boil. Put white parts of cabbage in there, boil for 1m45s or until it is crisp-tender. Drain, refresh with cold water until completely cooled.

Drain the meat from the marinade, squeeze in colander to get excess off.

Heat a nonstick pan on medium high heat until water drops dance on surface when spilled there. If you are not watching calories quite so carefully swab 1 tsp oil around the pan before heating, and add meat when oil is shimmering.

Put meat in skillet and allow to brown, about 90 seconds, depending on how thin you sliced it. Stir it around a bit, deglaze if necessary. Remove browned meat to bowl.

Put ginger and garlic in pan, stir until aromatic, about 15s. Add cabbage greens and fry, stirring, until wilted. At this point or really any point during the stir fry process, if the pan scab is going from brown to black, add a splash of water to deglaze the pan, but remember to reduce the liquid again or you'll have soup. Try not to overcook the greens. For that reason perhaps it's better to deglaze after the meat is browned, I dunno.

Add the whites of the cabbage to the pan along with the reserved browned meat, stir until everything is warmed through. Serve, giving some rice to the carbophiles.

I've seen recipes that use the same technique but with crab, tofu, any number of meaty proteins really. I say go nuts, but cook the whites and the greens separate. In bok choy it really is like two vegetables in one.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Skinny Southwest Soup

Soup is great stuff for the calorie restricted. Here we see the same secret ingredients of unflavored gelatin, psyllium fiber, and egg whites that we saw in the slimgolemono, but with a different spice pack. The gelatin does a really good job of making the soup seem greasy, when there is nary a drop of oil in it.

The following recipe delivers a flavorful sub-200 calorie meal for 2 diet-tortured folks. It's about as satisfied as you'll ever be on less than 200 calories.

12 oz fat-free chicken tenderloins, cut into .75" dice.
Some nonstick cooking spray
2 cups water
2 tsp Tone's chicken base
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp liquid smoke
2 tbsp paprika
1 tsp thyme
1 tbsp garlic powder, rehydrated in 2 tbsp water
3 tbsp lime juice
1 packet unflavored gelatin
3 tbsp egg whites
1 tbsp psyllium fiber, obtained by emptying 6 fiber capsules
handful cilantro, chopped

This recipe really needs some smoke flavor, which means browning the chicken is worthwhile. Working in batches, brown the chicken dice in nonstick cooking spray. You only really need to brown one side of the dice, but more flavor never hurts in this calorie range.

Once that's finished browning, add the rehydrated garlic to the pot, fry until fragrant, 15 seconds. Add the water, chicken base, chili powder, cumin, liquid smoke, paprika, and thyme. Cook until chicken is falling apart, 20 minutes on high pressure in the pressure cooker. 

While that's going on bloom the gelatin and fiber in 1/3 cup water.

When the chicken's done, whisk in the gelatin-fiber disk until dissolved. Take off the heat. Whisk in the egg whites- it's OK if they scramble a bit- then stir in the lime juice. Test for seasoning- it might need some salt, or more paprika if it is not quite red enough. Serve, sprinkle each serving with the chopped cilantro.

This recipe was crying for 1/3 cup of frozen sweet corn kernels thrown into it just before the last paragraph, but it would up the calorie count and blow the carb compliance right out the frickin' window. So, maybe keep that in mind if maybe you're not low-carbing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Mediterranean cuisine has an egg yolk fetish I've never really understood. Maybe it's the fact they don't have lots of butter and cream, or maybe they don't have the right grains to thicken things. In any case, it's the home of the Provencal Bourride, a weird but nevertheless very tasty egg-thickened fish stew, served with a sauce made of more eggs- a spicy mayonnaise, usually. The Med is also home to avgolemono, an intense lemon and egg soup, usually made with chicken and rice.

The challenge is that I had to make a light lunch soup with no carbohydrates (no rice), maximal protein, and weighing in at less than 500 calories for a 4 cup portion for 2 (no egg yolks either). I scratched my head for cooking knowledge and a sort-of-avgolemono game out: the slimgolemono. I didn't think I could satisfy two adults on a meal totaling 450 calories, but it worked. The gelatin and fiber added a nice bit of body as well.

16 oz fat-free chicken tenderloins, cut into 3/4" pieces
1.5 cups water
2 tsp Tone's chicken base
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp unflavored gelatin
1 tbsp psyllium husk (empty 6 tabs fiber capsules)
2 tbsp lemon juice
3 tbsp egg whites

Put first 6 ingredients in pressure cooker, cook on high pressure for 20 minutes, until chicken falls apart. While that's going on, in a mixing cup mix gelatin, fiber, and 1/3 cup water, allow the gelatin to bloom. Unlid the vessel with the chicken and stir in the gelatin/fiber disk. Bring the mixture to a simmer. When the gelatin is dissolved, whisk in the egg whites, stir until soup is thickened. Add lemon juice and serve.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sandwich of the Big Shoulders

I wanted to make a Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich but had the same problem I had with risotto: I had not eaten it yet at an actual restaurant. So I made a sandwich that tasted the way I imagined an Italian beef to taste like. Hopefully it went as well as the risotto, but I won't know until I try an actual Italian beef for myself.

First problem was that I had no bread. Italian beef is a soggy mess, served in eight different ways (where each way means "drippy") and it needs serious bread. A recipe's worth of pizza bianca would work. Pizza bianca in its Roman incarnation is a concoction that is absolutely nothing like pizza. It's basically a really good crust with seasonings on top. It also happens to be super easy. Whisk 3 cups bread flour with 1 2/3 cups water- no chlorine water, it kills the yeast, use bottled water if you have to- and, eh, 1.5 tsp table salt. Mix until combined, let sit for 30 minutes. Sprinkle 1.5 tsp yeast, 2 tsp sugar on top, then mix for fifteen minutes, until it gets glossy and starts pulling away from the side of the bowl. Oil another big bowl, then plop the dough into the oiled bowl using an oiled silicon paddle. There's a theme here, oiled, and the theme is that this stuff is sticky. Oil the top of the dough, wrap bowl in saran wrap and let rise 2-2.5 hours, until it has doubled or tripled in volume. Using your oiled spatula again, sort of scroop the dough into an oiled, rimmed baking pan. Smoosh it out into the corners with your oiled spatula. It's very liquid dough, which makes it much more bubbly on baking, a good thing. Throw some rosemary and kosher salt on top, or whatever else you want, really. Let it rise again for about ten minutes until bubbly. Preheat the oven to 450. Bake for about 30 minutes in the middle of the oven until crispity crackly and golden brown.

Italian beef is supposed to be made out of either round or top sirloin if you're fancy. I had neither. Some chuck on hand that needs to get used, and which, if you couldn't guess by now, is one of my favorite all purpose beef cuts. Seriously. Meatballs? Throw it in the food processor with some bread, milk, parmesean, parsley and a little egg. Hamburger? Same as meatballs but without any of the frou-frou. Stir fry? Done. Curry? Hells yes, Thai or Vindaloo. Pot roast? Is that a question? You serious?

Anyway, 20 oz chuck. Cut into 1.5" cubes, brown cubes in pressure cooker, add 1 cup beef stock, 1 tsp rosemary, 1 tbsp oregano, 1 tsp thyme, 1 tsp rubbed sage, 1 tsp black pepper, 1 tsp red pepper flakes, and 1 tbsp garlic powder. Stir to dissolve brown bits. Lid, cook on high pressure 55 minutes, or forever if you're oven braising (3 hours covered at 300 degrees). Remove meat to bowl, bring cooking liquid to a rapid boil, reduce cooking liquid by 3/4. Shred reserved meat, then add back to reduced cooking liquid. Thicken with slurry of 1 tsp cornstach to 2 tbsp water. That's the "sort of Chicago beef".

Slice your pizza bianca into planks, then cut each plank down the middle and put the meat slurry in between. Stuff some hot giardiniera in there and you have, if not a genuine Italian beef, something that is at least Chicago-beef-inspired. Hey, it's tasty.

You'll have plenty of pizza bianca leftover too.

Now excuse me, but I think I need to go on a diet.

Postscript: I might use the giardiniera for a diet, too, actually, it's pretty good for you. Recipe after the jump.

Post Postscript: Sometime I need to go to Tony's Italian Beef down in Sarasota and get the real thing. After a diet.

Bonus recipe: Hot Giardiniera
2 green bell peppers, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
8 fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1/2 cup fresh cauliflower florets
1/2 cup salt
water to cover
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 (5 ounce) jar pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped
1 cup white vinegar
1. Combine green and red peppers, jalapenos, celery, carrots, onion, and cauliflower, salt, and fill with enough cold water to cover. Wrap and chill 24 hours.
2. The next day, drain and rinse. Add rest of ingredients, chill 2 days before using.

Beef and Broccoli

I sort of suck at stir fries. "Suck" might be a bit strong. I also suck at cake baking, and by "suck" I mean I don't do it often enough to innovate. I have to sort of cling to whatever recipe I have because I don't know enough to do anything else, and I know if I deviate I'll break the thing.

The thing is I have great cake recipes and maybe not so great stir fry recipes. Well, that's not quite true either. I do have great stir fry recipes but from an enormous and very authentic Mandarin cookbook which needs ingredients like sow blood and moon pepper. Someday I will make something according to a recipe in this cookbook and it will be amazing, but it will require an independent trip to the oriental grocery and a lot of gesturing. So I have generally used Betty Crocker stir fry recipes, which were, well, they were OK, but without enough soy or ginger to really punch through the middle-America barrier. The Betty Crocker cookbook is amazingly consistent in how good its recipes are, but in the stir fry department it really wants to stay in its comfort zone, which happens to be right in the middle of a vat of mac and cheese at a church social in Arkansas.

So I got a request for stir fry. Complicating things is an impending move which requires me to make use of existing ingredients, and I had some beef chuck and some frozen broccoli I needed to get rid of. So I found a beef broccoli that worked really, really well. I didn't have flank so I sliced the chuck roast very fine and it went fantastically, the fattier cut making a much more beefy, velvety sauce. I also didn't have red bell peppers or scallions, and I subbed rehydrated garlic for fresh where needed, as well as some other things. Before you scoff, yes, garlic powder works fine, it just needs to be rehydrated in water before it is added to other ingredients.

.5 pound chuck, sliced into 1/8" slices or as thin as you can get it.
1.5 tablespoons soy sauce
1.5 teaspoons marsala
.5 tsp chicken base or bullion
1 tablespoon water
2.5 tablespoons oyster sauce
1.5 teaspoons sugar
.5 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
.5 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tbsp garlic powder, rehydrated in 1 tbsp water
2 tsp minced ginger
Some oil
14 oz frozen broc florets
1 cup rice, 2 cups water, a bit of salt, a  bit of oil

1. Combine beef and soy sauce in medium bowl; cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 10 minutes or up to 1 hour, stirring once. Meanwhile, whisk next 8 ingredients in measuring cup as sauce mixture. Combine garlic, ginger, and 1/2 teaspoon peanut oil in small bowl. Cook broccoli in microwave for 3 minutes or as directed on package. Start the rice on another burner.
2. Drain beef and discard liquid. Heat 2 teaspoons peanut oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over high heat until smoking. Add beef to skillet and break up clumps; cook, without stirring, for 1 minute, then stir and cook until beef is browned around edges, about 30 seconds. Transfer beef to medium bowl.
3. Add 2 teaspoons peanut oil to now-empty skillet; heat until just smoking. Add broccoli and cook 30 seconds or until browned, remove and place aside with beef ( I used the same bowl for that). Add a bit more oil, let it heat, then add garlic and ginger and cook, mashing mixture with spoon, until fragrant, 15 to 20 seconds. Return beef and broccoli to skillet and toss to combine. Whisk sauce to recombine, then add to skillet; cook, stirring constantly, until sauce is thickened and evenly distributed, about 30 seconds. Take off the heat and serve over rice. If you have some scallions chop them and scatter over each serving.

Serves 2, but it scales pretty well so long as you don't try and do more than 1 lb of beef at a time. Remember to not crowd the pan when browning meat or you get steamed meat instead of browned meat.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Wonderland Trail
Summerland to Nickel Creek

I crawled out of the tent into the coldest morning so far, somewhere around freezing, with the clouds filled back in, promising the thick mist Northwesterners call "rain". My ground pad isn't holding air anymore, which shouldn't surprise anyone, as I've had the thing since 2004. I put down some brush under the tent last night to help insulate my sleeping body. Bag gets rolled, incidentals go in the incidentals bag, eat my protein bar, then down tent and up onto the stepped climb to Fryingpan. The visibility declined, making the climb feel more episodic, as you could never quite see where the pass was, and every climb felt like the last. I passed though krummholtz meadow, ice lakes all around, and then up a glacier so large I couldn't see either side in the middle of it. In the middle of the glacier crossing I heard falling rock above me. If I dodged or moved quickly I would certainly slip down the glacier and crash into the rocks three hundred feet below. I heard the fall and stopped, looking around, putting all my faith in the low probabilities of a rock passing through the same space I currently occupied. It passed ten yards behind me.
I started to learn some basics on moving around on ice. Without crampons, it's vital to keep both poles on the ice while stepping. Don't pivot on your feet. Don't stay in one place too long or else the ice melts under your feet and spills you. Above all, speed doesn't win here. Crampons are a definite buy for the High Sierra.
After a final ice crossing I crested Fryingpan gap and began the steady drop into the cirque and the Indian Bar campsite. I was passed by a Northwestern Fitness Leprechaun, who mentioned that the conditions were "borderline". Good to know. "You'll be alright, though, guy like you, in your, what, mid-forties?". I smiled sadly at him. He laughed apologetically, and I paced him to Indian Bar. Goddamn fitness leprechauns. The guy was running down the mountain and was older than my dad was when he died.
Indian Bar is one of the prettiest spots on the trail, at least in those conditions, just below the cloud ceiling, so that the floor of the cirque could be seen for a few hundred feet before rearing into the clouds. It had a shelter, which allowed me to cook a hot lunch for myself and relax. The fitness leprechaun zoomed ahead to meet a friend at the Steve's Canyon road crossing. He was replaced with a squad of Microsoft guys trying to do the Wonderland in a four day weekend. They were hoofing twenty five mile days and suffering from a kaleidoscope of muscle and joint trauma. I handed out ibuprofen, moleskin, and duct tape, it being my turn to be the medic. They thanked me and set out for White River.
I wondered if I could do such a feat. I probably wouldn't unless I lived up here. Pulling a twenty on this sort of trail would involve shutting down a lot of sensory input. Mp3 player would be going, pounding trail. For a flatlander like me, though, the fact that I would probably never come this way again meant I needed to savor this. Every moment. Especially this Mountain House Lasagna.
I packed up and girded myself for the climb out of Indian Bar, which I had read was pretty strong. Strong it was, but afterwards came a very un-Wonderland section of ups and downs following an unnamed connecting ridge to Bald Rock, before the plunge down to what would be my final campsite on the trail at Nickel Creek. Goodbye to the high country..
The weather was definitely determined to clear. Several times folks said to me, "Florida! Wow, what are you doing out here? Enjoying our October?" My weather research had not been wrong then. This was weird weather for the mountain in early September. Several rangers were worried about the late spring combined with an early winter, and its effects on wildlife. I was worried I wouldn't get to see the mountain again.
I set my tent up at Nickel and went to the relatively bug-free drafty area by the creek. I ate much of the rest of my provisions, and thought, and ate some more. I tuned into the water noise and got to hear what sounded like a bluegrass concert. I was convinced there was a big party somewhere down river. But of course it was just the mountain talking. There must be a way in life to make sure as many moments like this happen as possible, but I don't know what it is.

Sunrise Cleaners

Wonderland Trail
Sunrise to Summerland

The landscape yesterday had been dazzling even in the gloom, white sheaths of ice on grey rock, piercing drafts of wind and water punching us walkers roaming the waste. I dropped from a high pass to a meadow, then climbed again to a gravel lot that marked the end of the Sunrise-Longmire road. Somewhere on that road was a food drop and perhaps some shelter; I had heard already that the snack bar was closed for the season, so I had gotten over the fact that there would be no trail hamburgers this trip out. I legged it down the road. The reputed vistas of the Sunrise area were hiding behind the more or less constant drizzling overcast, and I wasn't totally sure that I hadn't missed the Wilderness Information Center and my food drop. I had passed a loud generator sound, and I hoped that wasn't it. A pickup came up and I flagged it down.
"Afternoon. Is the WIC down this way or did I pass it?"
""Nope, just a mile or so down the way. You gettin' off?"
I smiled and shook my head, "I think it's going to be faster just walking back to Longmire."
This was a bit of a lie. If I couldn't dry my bag out at Sunrise I would be seriously thinking about getting out. The weather forecast had proven less than accurate, and the hypothermic adventure at Mystic had frightened me and left me a little nauseated. It would, however, be disheartening, and besides, what better place is there to be than freezing and soggy on Mt. Rainier?
Lots of places, it turned out. The rangers at the WIC let me dry and warm myself as long as I cared to. I feasted on some canned treats in my food drop, and met some outrageously funny prison guards out for a stroll.
"You sure you don't want to come down with us?"
I reaffirmed my commitment to walk out, and parked myself in the sheltered area outside the men's room to wait out the heavier rain. It would be my last temptation to get off the mountain, but it was a good temptation. I'm pretty sure I would have had a blast with those guys.
Another duo of hikers were bound and determined to camp out in the dry and heated men's room, which was tacitly approved by a WIC staffer. "No one ever checks in here at night". Wink. The pair were unloading their food drops on the diaper change table, which was sort of a decider for me. Sure, I might get a little soggier in my Shires Contrail, but I would have less of a chance of getting some horrifying parasite. At the Sunrise camp I chatted with a gregarious trekker who bore an uncanny resemblance to one of my favorite former co-workers, Keith Fulsom. I had my ego battered for a bit, not unpleasantly so, by the awesome fitness level and general woodsiness of Northwesterners. Not the first time or last time that happened either.
The journey from Sunrise to Summerland tantalized with its constant promise of a break in the weather. I got some good views down into the White River area, and gazed ahead at the Goat Island prominence. The trail descended through White River camp- two road crossings in two days!- and went around Goat Island on a gentle grade, then up Fryingpan Creek on what has become a sort of trademark Wonderland grade. Steep enough to make you go deep inside yourself, but not so rugged that you become frustrated.
Summerland had better cell reception than I get at home, incidentally. I took advantage of it to call the wife and relate the details of the trip so far. The summerland shelter was booked solid, but the folks there were happy and bundled in several dozen flocks' worth of down. I was reminded again that I might have some genetic factor for dealing with cold. "Did you bring anything besides rain gear?" Some, yeah, but the sleeping bag does the heavy insulation. With rain gear inside your bag, you can stay toasty indeed.
That night the clouds almost parted, showing a glacial climb ahead, full of ice crossings and high passes. I can't imagine what this place looks like then the weather's good.
The chipmunks have suddenly become insane. It's a hilarious task kicking them out of your tent while you're trying to roll up your sleeping bag while trying to avoid the thick web of condensation on the inside of the tent. They will steal food from your beard if you leave any there. Brass little bastards.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


An apology for the hiatus to the Philoculture blog.

The Rainier adventure will be completed from voice logs, and coverage of lovely recipes shall continue.