Category Archives: Dinner

How To Make Pork Tenderloin with Braised Chard and Roasted Fennel

As promised, a recipe from last week’s CSA meal-plan:

We built a deck last week. To be more accurate, my parents built a deck while we schlepped stuff around and dug holes for footings and garden beds. The point being, we expended enormous amounts of physical energy in activities outside our norm, and were pretty hungry while having zero energy for cooking.  As a solution, one of the easiest dishes I know how to make: roasted pork tenderloin. It’s tender and succulent, and difficult to overcook if you watch it carefully.

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a cast iron skillet inside.
  2. Prep your vegetables: I chose carrots and fennel cut into three-quarter-inch pieces, tossed with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black pepper.
  3. Prep your tenderloin:
    1. Rinse it off, pat it dry, and trim away any silverskin.
    2. Slash it deeply in a few places and stuff the slashes full of minced garlic scapes.
    3. Drizzle the pork with a bit of olive oil, then massage a mixture of salt, pepper, and sweet Hungarian paprika into the meat.
  4. Pull the hot skillet from the oven; nestle the pork and veg into the pan, and pop it back in the oven for twenty-five minutes or until the internal temperature reads 160 degrees*.
  5. At the twenty-five minute mark, remove the pork to a carving board: tent it with foil and let it rest for ten minutes while the vegetables continue cooking, then slice it.

* Full disclosure: Clay swears by the instant-read meat thermometers, but I always determine doneness by color and texture. 160 is a little too shimmery and pale pink for my taste, so I generally end up slicing the pork, laying it over the top of the veg, and tossing it back into the oven for a few minutes to be really “done”.

During the twenty-five minute roasting time, prep the chard.

  1. Tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. I dislike the stems so compost them, but you could chop them into small pieces and cook them, as well.
  2. Prepare a seasoning mix of salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, and sliced scallions.
  3. Prepare braising liquid – a one-cup measure of chicken stock** and wine.

** I didn’t realize until most of the way through prep that my stock was frozen solid, so I strained off a bit of broth from leftover wonton soup and mixed it with an equal measure of pinot noir. It worked a treat.

Set a skillet over medium heat on the stove, and melt some bacon drippings in it. (If you don’t keep bacon drippings in your fridge, butter or olive oil will suffice but the final dish will be less flavorful.) Toss the chard and seasonings in the melted drippings; allow the leaves to wilt slightly. Add the braising liquid, lower the heat, lid the pan, and let it be for three to five minutes, until the greens are fully wilted. Remove the greens to a warm dish, then reduce the remaining liquid until it’s the consistency of a sauce; drizzle over the wilted greens.

Serve slices of pork over a small bed of wilted greens, alongside carrots and fennel. It’s an aromatic and filling plate, for sure – so much so that all four servings were eaten and the dishes were washed before I thought to take a photograph. Next time…

CSA Notes
We used all of the fennel and all of the chard from last week’s box in this dish, along with 1/5 of the garlic scapes and 1/2 of the scallions. The volume fed four adults with hearty dinner portions and no leftovers.

 

 

 

To Win the Game, First Boil Water

“What about Carbonara?” she asked, as we rode the train home last Monday evening.

“Carbonara,” I said, thinking that was beyond my reach; it would be 10 pm before we got home.

“We have bacon and eggs and cheese and pasta.”

Challenge accepted. It would certainly keep us from going to the drive-through window, or eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Neither of those is necessarily terrible, but we could do better.

I’m sure the idea arose because we’d watched an episode of a cooking game show the night before. Just for fun, the host challenged one of the judges to join the competition. The meal he prepared didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he started halfway into the cooking period and prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara in less than 15 minutes. (Because it was also a “budget” challenge, the judge used bacon rather than the traditional pancetta.)

“How did he do that so fast?” she asked. “Did they stop the clock to let him boil the water?”

I’m pretty sure, I said, that they let all the contestants have a pot of boiling water all the time. In fact, although I can’t remember where, I’d read that every cook should set a pot of water to boil as soon as walking in the door, even if you don’t know what you’re planning to cook. It could be used for to cook pasta, potatoes, or rice; or turn into the basis for a simple soup; or a steamer basket could go over it for vegetables. I don’t always do this, but it does seem like a good idea.

“Okay,” I said, “but you can’t hold me to 15 minutes since I don’t already have boiling water.”

That seemed fair to her.

Carbonara Against the Clock.

First things first. Come in the door. Put down your bag and go straight to the stove. Put on a pot of water to boil. Feed the cat.

Now take off your coat. Hey, every second counts.

Set a skillet on medium heat.

Pull a package of bacon from the freezer; and, from the fridge, a wedge of parmesan and a carton of eggs.

Green peas are not to be included, the judge pointedly said. Heck with him. Get peas if you want them. We didn’t have any peas. I grabbed some asparagus.

Turn on the oven to low, add a couple of bowls. No cold plates for hot food.

Dice a few strips of bacon and set them in the skillet to render, stirring occasionally so nothing burns. (If the bacon is frozen, so much the better: it dices neatly and cooks slower.)

Trim the asparagus (if using) and cut it into half-inch long pieces.

Grate the cheese until you have about half a cup.

When the water is boiling, in goes a half-box of spaghetti. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump.

When the bacon is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon to one of the warming bowls. If Pour off the bacon fat, reserving it for another day! Leave a little fat in the skillet and sauté the if-using asparagus in it.

Cracked four eggs into a big bowl and whisk them. Stirred in most of the grated cheese and a generous amount of pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, add it to the eggs-and-cheese bowl, and stir vigorously. This way, the hot pasta cooks the eggs gently—rather than pouring the eggs into the pasta pot, where they’d seize up instantly. Add the bacon and completely-non-traditional asparagus, stirred a little more to combine. Divide into the warmed bowls, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Serves two, who most decidedly did not have to go to the drive-through; if there are no leftovers, I will certainly not judge.

35 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down to eat.

Cooking game shows are fun to watch, though they don’t really have the play-along factor of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune—or, one that is very close to my heart, The $100,000 Pyramid. There’s no way to “get the answer” before the contestants do, and, of course, there’s no way for the home audience to “judge” the food the contestants prepare, other than by saying, “That looks good,” or “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Or—and this is particularly important for an improvisational cook like me—as a reminder of how to cook within limitations.

Whatever the challenge, first, boil some water.

Not Quite an Instant

Her parents gave us an Instant Pot for Christmas last year. We love it. We’ve never had such good yogurt as the stuff we make in it. It gives us great chili, and pulled pork, and chicken stock.

I’m not completely expert at using it. I haven’t yet got brown rice to come out as tender as it would from a saucepan, or chickpeas from the slow cooker. Maybe I’m rushing things–but if the whole idea of a pressure cooker is that it works faster than other cooking methods, then I think it really ought to be faster.

Our CSA share hasn’t been piling on the carrots and parsnips quite so much as it was for a while there, but we’ve still got quite a few, and some nice potatoes. And, with a bit of chill in the evening air of late, stew seemed like a good idea—and a perfect job for the Pot. I seared the beef, I chopped the veg, I added seasonings and wine, closed the lid and headed for rehearsal.

She didn’t have stew. She had, according to the text message she sent me, “cooked beef and veggies sitting in oily liquid—not broth, not gravy.”

And, unfortunately, the gravy separator had melted in a stovetop accident sometime during the holidays last year. (We don’t make gravy very often.) Ever-resourceful, she refrigerated the solids in one container, the liquid in another, and made mac and cheese for her dinner.

When we got home the next evening–a rare night home together!–I skimmed the solidified fat, made a roux, and used the broth to make a nice, hearty gravy. I warmed the meat and veg, added them to the gravy, topped the stew-at-last with some chopped celery leaves, and we had dinner in not quite an instant.

Some things happen in a flash. Some take a very long time. Sometimes it’s a little of both. We’d known each other for ten years before our first date.

Happy anniversary to us.

It Isn’t a Straight Line

We opened a musical last weekend.

Considering that we met over the possibility of working on a musical together, it’s hard to believe it took 14 years for us to be working on the same show at the same time. But it isn’t always a straight line from idea to execution. The path that took us from that first meeting to last Friday’s opening performance is as twisty as a path can be.

To be clear, the show we opened isn’t the show we first met to discuss working on; it’s also not the show we started discussing by text message in the middle of the night ten years after that (and which we still haven’t finished). It’s not a show either of us wrote at all. I’m the music director, and she’s a member of the cast.

It’s been a long rehearsal process, and a very challenging one. It’s a very complicated show, and one that has been as full of frustrations as triumphal moments. And just when we felt like we’d gotten good at performing the show—in the rehearsal room, that is, with just a piano for accompaniment—it was time to move into the theatre and start adding the technical elements of the production: set, lighting, costumes, microphones, and the orchestra.

We all know that each new element we add will cause something else to be a problem. The “real” set piece is harder to move than the folding table we used in rehearsal. Changing a costume takes longer than expected, and all of a sudden the actor misses a cue. Microphones don’t always work exactly as expected, so sometimes the conductor can’t hear a singer, and sometimes the cast can’t hear the band, and sometimes there’s shrieking feedback or a roar of a high note… In other words, it’s always something. Sometimes it’s many somethings at once. Sometimes it’s practically every something it can be.

Yeah, that was our first night of technical rehearsal. We all try to be good-natured about it, but it’s immensely frustrating to feel like it was one step forward, a quarter-mile back. It wasn’t a total disaster, but nothing is perfect.

We left the theatre disheartened, grumpy, and very hungry.

“What’s even open at this hour?” she said, mournfully. It was a Monday night in the suburbs, and I couldn’t think of much except the drive-through window of a fast food place.

“Our kitchen,” I said.

She looked skeptical—well, I think she did; I was driving, so I didn’t have a clear view of her expression. “If you’ve got five minutes of kitchen-energy for me, I’ll handle the rest.”

First Night of Tech Shrimp and Grits

1/2 cup quick cooking grits
1/2 lb steamed shrimp
2 or 3 scallions
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/2 tsp hot pepper sauce
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cumin
1 dash worcestershire sauce
2 tsp vegetable oil
5 or 6 asparagus stalks
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Set to boil 2-1/2 cups water.  Stir in the grits, add some salt. Reduce heat to low, cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. While it gets hot, pull the tails off the shrimp and discard them. Cut the shrimp and asparagus into bite-size pieces.

Slice the scallions and sauté the white parts, reserving the greens. Add the shrimp, sprinkle with paprika and cumin, toss to combine and sauté another minute or two. Add the asparagus, worcestershire, pepper sauce, and stock; stir to combine and reduce the stock a little.

When the grits are cooked (but a little looser than usual, because of the extra water), stir in the cheese; the whole thing will thicken beautifully.  Ladle the cheesy grits into bowls, top with the shrimp and veg; top with scallion greens. Adjust seasoning to taste; if desired, add a bit more hot pepper sauce.

5 minutes. Serves 2, who will know that at least one thing went well tonight.

Oh, sure, you could start with fresh shrimp, using the shells to make stock—but that would take longer, and after a night like this there’s no way you’d have the patience for that sort of thing. And if you’ve got leftover shrimp in the fridge, you really ought to use it. Purists will also grouse that asparagus has no business being in shrimp and grits. To such purists we say: pbbbbt. We like asparagus, we had some on hand that needed to get out of the crisper in time for Tuesday’s CSA delivery, and another vegetable in the dish made me feel less guilty about not serving a salad alongside. Why cut the shrimp into pieces first? Because when dinner is served this close to midnight you want it to be as easy to eat as possible.

Tuesday’s rehearsal went infinitely better: many things were much better, and new things went wrong. Wednesday’s went just a little better than that; more elements, more fixes, more oopses. Thursday was better still. We opened Friday to an appreciative crowd and if every element didn’t go exactly as we hoped, it’s unlikely that anyone but us knew. Was every meal along the way home-cooked and nutritious? Not quite. But, y’know, one step forward…


Tomato S…omething

Painted in Waterlogue

“We should make pulled pork,” she said. “There’s all that pork shoulder in the freezer.  And you should make favorite slaw from that cabbage.”

Ah. She wasn’t really jonesing for pulled pork; it was a ploy to use a young cabbage that had arrived in our CSA box. Still, I didn’t disagree. I never disagree with a request for pulled pork. But it was opening weekend for my new musical—which came directly on the heels of production week for my othernew musical—so we didn’t make the time to make the pork. I’d do it early on a weekday, and give it all day to sit in the slow cooker.

Except, well, there wasn’t all that pork shoulder in the freezer. Or any pork shoulder. There was a package of ground pork; there were several packages of ground beef, and some steaks; there were chicken breasts—she’s been doing most of the grocery shopping lately, and has been stocking up when things are on sale. That’s why I also found 10 pounds of butter, and quite a bit of ice cream. I’m not complaining about any of this; I’m just reporting what I found. Six quarts of really good stock, and bags of bones, shrimp shells, and vegetable clippings from which we’ll make more one day. And, although there was a package of bacon, too, nothing in the freezer was pork shoulder.

I also took from the freezer an unfortunately unmarked container of something red. I don’t know if its label fell off or it had never been labeled, but after it thawed overnight in the fridge and I tasted it, I still wasn’t quite sure if it was tomato soup or tomato sauce. (If the former, it had been made without cream; if the latter, without meat.) It was going to be the basis for dinner, but I wasn’t sure whether to make grilled cheese sandwiches or pasta.

Then the CSA delivery came, bearing purple carrots, green peppers, red onions, and some tender young eggplants. I chopped a big pile of each and sweated them in a big skillet, and set a pot of water to boil.  When the vegetables were softened, I poured in the tomato-something and let it simmer gently. There was some leftover sausage in the fridge, so I chopped and added it, along with a hunk of parmesan rind. If the red stuff had once been tomato soup, it would be soup no longer.

Dinner was wonderful. We haven’t had a bowl of pasta-with-sauce in quite a while. It felt like a treat.

Planning is good. Preparing is good. Stocking-up is great. Organizing the freezer once in a while is essential. Proper labeling is a fine and glorious thing. And figuring out what to do with a mysterious package—well, it might be better if there weren’t such mysteries, but the figuring-out was fun.

It’s Thursday, so the grocery store fliers will be in today’s mail. I’ve got a bunch of cole slaw, so I hope somebody’s running a special on pork shoulder.

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Odd Little Heirlooms

“I bought some salmon,” she said, as we were talking about meals for this busy week. “And feta.” I didn’t realize at first that she was talking about smoked salmon, so I didn’t make the connection right away; I didn’t realize she was talking about a salad she makes from salmon, feta, and soba noodles. Having caught on, I was completely in favor. It’s not something I’d ever had before we met, but I like it a lot; Neither one of us, in fact, could remember making it since we’d moved into the Country House. So it was very definitely time.

When we started our life together, we brought lots of things from our pasts. We spent a fair amount of time comparing and deciding which to keep—or sometimes both, and occasionally neither. There are some things that each of us brought that delight the other. How I ever lived without a wide-mouthed funnel is a great mystery to me. She used to hate driving, but loves being behind the wheel of the Prius.

We both brought recipes, too. Some from our families—her aunt Donna’s Lemon Squares are not to be trifled with!—and some we’d collected ourselves. And some from—well, where did they come from?

Salmon-Feta-Soba Salad

Cook the soba noodles according to package directions—usually about 7 minutes. That’s planty of time flake the 6-oz package of smoked salmon and to crumble the feta if it didn’t come that way already, and to chop a bunch of parsley. If it’s been an especially rough July and the parsley in the kitchen garden has wilted from too much sun and too little care, don’t beat yourself up; seven minutes is still plenty of time to see what you can use instead. One of you can harvest some chives from the pot on the porch while the other chops a cucumber, a couple of carrots, some tomatoes, a rib of celery, and, what the heck, a fat handful of kale that you chop and put into a steamer over the pot of noodles.

Then, not at all long after, when the noodles have been drained, combine everything in a big salad bowl; add a pepper to taste—you won’t need salt, since the salmon and feta bring plenty. Squeeze some lemon juice overtop if you feel like it. Maybe drizzle a little olive oil, too—but, really, no dressing is required.

At some length, we figured it out: this is a recipe she’d been introduced to by somebody she once thought she’d marry. That relationship didn’t work out—and much to our eventual and current happiness. But it’s the only recipe she could think of that she kept from that relationship—an unusual keepsake. An odd little heirloom.

This salad can be served warm, cold, or at room temperature. It’s hearty without being heavy; it’s nothing like any mayo-glopped pasta salad you’ve ever encountered. The bunch of parsley originally called for brings plenty of brightness; the assortment of vegetables I substituted were chosen for convenience and availability and because of the moisture they’d bring to balance the salty, fishy, buckwheat-y goodness brought by the original ingredients. But, really, use whatever you’ve got. If the tomatoes at hand are odd little heirlooms, they’ll be wonderful. But a handful of slightly-withered grape tomatoes from the supermarket will work, too.

Honor the past, be grateful for the present, look forward to the future.

Latch-Key Mac and Cheese

IMG_0036 Packaged macaroni and cheese is the first meal she was allowed to cook. It was an after-school snack when she got home before her parents did. She wonders sometimes that her parents let her come home to an empty house, but it was a simpler time back then, and she was a very smart kid. Boil and drain the noodles, add a lump of butter and some milk, stir in the packet of bright-orange powder, stir and enjoy. A pot of boiling water might be risky, but at least there are no sharp knives involved, and there’s no possibility of undercooking meat. As after-school snacks go, it’s probably better than a bowl of ice cream or an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She knows it’s not gourmet cuisine, but it is comforting and friendly and nothing in the world is going to change her mind on that subject. Well, maybe a recall of packaged macaroni-and-cheese. Even without a recall because they accidentally added metal shavings, there’s a lot of stuff in that orange powder that you wouldn’t put in if you were making it from scratch.  All you need, really, is macaroni. And cheese. We joke about the “extras” I try to put in M&C, like a pile of sautéed kale or a handful of pan-roasted tomatoes, but even I recognize that they are accompaniments rather than ingredients. We both laughed out loud when I saw this recipe: Fundamentalist Macaroni and Cheese The humor of The Awl’s essay, from which this is adapted, is lost in this simplification. Read the original for fun. Boil 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni until it is not quite al dente. Grate a pound of cheddar cheese–half mild, half sharp. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot and rub with butter. Add the macaroni back into the pot, then stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Add about 1/2 cup milk. Bake at 350F until top is slightly brown and crunchy, probably about 40 minutes. That’s it. I made a batch. And it was really quite good. Not at all elaborate, not complicated, but very good. The cheese was neither too mild nor too sharp; the noodles were nicely sturdy. I thought it could use some kale, but that’s another story. She got home and was thrilled to see what I’d done, but since I’d also made tomato soup–it was a batch-cooking Sunday night–she opted for a grilled cheese sandwich with the soup for her supper. Turns out it doesn’t reheat all that well, though. The cheese separates a little in the microwave. Maybe it would be better if it were reheated in a pan on the stovetop, or maybe at a lower power level. Or maybe this is a recipe we use when we don’t want leftovers. My grandmother lived with my parents and me, so I hardly ever came home to an empty house.  I don’t remember the first meal I was allowed to cook.  It was probably something like Spaghetti-o’s, which are arguably no healthier than the Blue Box. Maybe I just had a cookie. Or three.