Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sweet Potatoes

I love sweet potatoes. Especially compared to regular potatoes-- not bad, but not particularly inspiring, either. My life has been immeasurably better since I discovered sweet potato fries. The vegetable helps a lot with my number one guiding rule of nutrition-- the more colorful, the better.

Baked sweet potatoes, though, don't do a whole lot for me. They're not bad on occasion, but I kind of lost the taste for them after a few too many Baked Potato Wednesdays at my college cafeteria. They were one of a number of foods there that were much better in concept than execution, at least execution repeated interminably. Part of the problem was that there was a period where sweet potatoes were one of the few things I ate at the caf. After a few weeks of a diet based on cottage cheese, sweet potatoes, white toast, and apple sauce, all the components start to lose their interests.

So I roast them. Not much harder, and I think far more tasty. My recipe goes like this:
1 onion (yellow, white, or sweet)
1 sweet potato
1 tsp olive oil
salt & freshly ground black pepper 
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the onion and the sweet potato up into 1 inch cubes. Peel the potato if you like, but it's not necessary. Toss with olive oil, salt, and black pepper, then spread out on a baking pan, or any flat, oven-proof dish. Bake for 30-40 minutes. Serve with a squeeze of lime or lemon juice. 
Serves 1. Multiply ingredients as necessary.
Foxboy, of course, feels strongly that these should be sprinkled with chili powder, "or cumin." I'm perfectly happy with the dish as presented. Last Friday, dinner was this and a baked beet, and it was excellent.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How to Cook Everything

Okay, I can't help you there. But Mark Bittman can-- and he will. If you're involved in food online at all, you probably already know about the dude. He has a column in the New York Times, and he's a bit of an activist, both about cooking itself and food politics in general. If you're interested in that sort of thing, he talks about his politics a fair amount on his personal blog, in between delicious recipes.

Me, I'm often surprised by how much I disagree with Bittman when it comes to food politics. I do strongly believe that veggie-as-main-dish, meat-as-side-dish is the best way to eat, for health and sanity reasons as much as anything else, and I'm as anti-farm subsidy as you can get. But I don't think that food advertising is magical brainwashing, I'm not convinced that local food is the be-all and end-all of responsible eating, (though I do believe that it, and its partner seasonality, is the beginning of fun and delicious eating), I'm not exactly a global warming evangelist, and I don't think that there's a strong justification for tax-based social engineering aimed at modifying our diets. (For one thing, no, junk food isn't cheaper. Note the byline, and be amused.)

None of that stops me for having tremendous respect in, and appreciation for, the man's food philosophy. Because he and How to Cook Everything very much have one, and I admire that in a cookbook.

How to Cook Everything is part reference book, and part sermon on the fundamentals of cooking. Its focus is on simple ingredients, simple techniques, and improvisational cooking, and on mastery of certain core recipes that form the foundations of a varied repertoire. When I want to cook an ingredient I've never used before, and need to know how to store it, how long it'll keep, and what the best way to prepare it is, this is where I go.

It fits my cooking style, and my cooking needs. I've done a lot of cooking in the past year and a half, since coming into possession of a food budget for the first time my senior year of college, and into the responsibility of running a single-person household now that I'm out of it, but I'm constantly struck by how little I still know about cooking. I know far more than my generational peers, sure, but I've still never baked a pie, roasted a turkey, or cooked broccoli. My repertoire of dependable, look-ma-no-hands staple recipes has only recently required more than two hands of fingers to count.

Building that repertoire is really what I'm focused on right now, and How to Cook Everything is an excellent tool. It's organized around the basic, fast, easy recipes that Mark Bittman believes should form the foundation of everyday cooking (and, for the most part, I agree with him), and since it's so focused on building blocks and variation (many recipes include several similar but alternative preparations, and the discussion of every ingredient notes acceptable substitutes), every new recipe I learn from the book expands the true number of dishes I can prepare several fold.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Black Beans

I'm finally starting to get the hang of beans-- hopefully in general, although lately it's been black beans specifically. I had a somewhat ill-fated adventure with Mark Bittman's Quick Soak method in October. They came out okay, not great. I made some foxboy-spicy bean burgers with them, froze the rest, and unthawed them just in time to make some disastrous pre-business travel burritos. (With melted white cheddar cheese that smelled sour and awful.) I never ate the burritos, and never did get around to eating the rest of the beans.

I knew I wanted to try the experiment again-- but I was hesitant. My rational, healthy food, cheap living brain knew it was a good idea. All that was standing in the way was the amount of time and preparation it'd take. I'm not always real great about thinking ahead, I told myself. I procrastinate. I'm busy. Maybe I should just give up and stick to canned beans? That would be more convenient.

This was all nonsense, of course. I'll do a lot of work and spend a lot of time to make, get, and eat food that I like. My food-brain just wasn't convinced that those black beans were going to be tasty enough to be worth spending even my usual evening's half an hour on. My main experience with black beans outside of that adventure was as a Baja Fresh side, where they were okay but not anything I'd go out of my way to eat. The evidence on black beans in general wasn't good.

But I gave it another shot, and man oh man, am I glad I tried them again. I've got half a pot of Black Beans and Rice, Spanish Style sitting in my fridge, and I'm positively excited about finding ways to use the rest of the pound of black beans I cooked at the same time. Black Beans with Orange (well, tangerine, since that what I have) and Beer Glazed Black Beans are at the top of my list, although I suspect it won't be long before I'm as confident at improvising my own variations on those basic How to Cook Everything templates as I am in the realm of simple pasta sauce.

In particular, the thing I appreciate about the Spanish Style black beans is that you cook the beans and the rice all in the same pot. Rice is another thing I don't make as much as I could due to misalignment of the work/tastiness ratio-- the dry grains get everywhere, and somehow it always manages to crust the bottom of the pan in a way that's a godawful pain to clean up. I don't crave it the way I crave noodles or biscuits or good bread, so that's what I tend to reach for. The only reason I'm as fastidious about keeping rice (Thai jasmine, almost always) in the house as I am is that foxboy likes it. I cook for myself more often, but I cook more for foxboy than myself.

For beans, though, there's no better pair than rice. It's fluffy and chewy where the beans are dense and moist, and it soaks up all that good bean cooking liquid. Being able to just drop rice into the bean pot and bake it for a while fixes the clean-up problem, and I'm definitely looking forward to taking advantage of that now-rebalanced work/tastiness ratio.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Salmon Cakes

I've been making these salmon cakes lately that really impress my roommates. "How did you make that so fast?" they ask. Answer being either "I'm a kitchen genius" or "they're stupidly easy." Pick one.

The basic recipe requires:
1 can of salmon
1 egg
1/4 cup of breadcrumps (approx)
vegetable oil

(Also pictured below is a variation on spaghetti with fried eggs that I've been making a lot lately too, for similar reasons.)

Beat the egg. Mix it up with the salmon and the breadcrumbs in a small bowl. You really just need enough breadcrumbs to get it to hold together into a cake when you shape it with your hands. I've discovered that if it's still fairly round when I put it into the pan and I try to press it flat it often cracks and comes apart a bit but it's still perfectly edible.

Fry the cake(s, since there's no reason you can't make more than one at the same time, if you have a big enough pan) in a mixture of half butter, half vegetable oil for a few minutes, until it starts to brown, then flip it and brown the other side. And you're done.

I usually also add:
dash of dried dill
1/4 onion, chopped and sauteed

The first time I made it I didn't have dill so I used ground clove instead, which was interesting. Tasty, but I use clove enough in other things that I don't feel the need to repeat the experiment.

This recipe is fairly eye-balled because I got it from my mom, who got it from her grandmother, who adapted it from something called "salmon loaf" that I've never personally been exposed to. I brought it with me to college because it's so fast, it's tasty, a cheap way to eat salmon, and I can make it out of things I pretty much always have around anyway. Along with frozen peas, it's my go-to "I don't feel like going to the grocery store today after all" dinner.