Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sun-kissed Paella

Rick says I write too slow. Think too much. I need to say what needs saying and get on with it. I admit it—I am the queen of agonizing over every word. It takes me eons (literally!) to write e-mails. And it's not like I'm writing a bestselling novel here. I just want people to know that they can cook good food on a super tight budget, inside or outside, solar or conventional. So . . . here's today's entry before it's tomorrow.

I was horribly grumpy yesterday, and only slightly less so today. I was trying hard to get into a full blown funk, but in a reversal of roles, Rick kept trying to cheer me up. I could use his cheeriness now, too, but he's trying to redesign our Web site with a new program and there's a lot of muttering and sighing coming from the other room. Best to leave him alone. But, even without his unusual-for-him optimism to cheer me up, it was hard to be sad or worried today because it was just so darn nice. Warm and sunny. It feels like June, or maybe even July since it hit 88º yesterday, rather than April. Dry ground and low humidity, combined with strong, gusty winds prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for critical wild fire risk several times over the past few weeks. We actually had a fire last week that they dubbed the Brookhaven Blaze of 2012, that had 2,000 acres of nearby woodland burning. When Annalee came home from work today, she said the pine barrens were on fire again. She saw the special fire trucks that go off-road, into the woods, racing down the street, sirens going, as she drove home. Very odd weather, and kind of troubling, but it's also been perfect for solar cooking. (As much as I'm enjoying the sun, though, a little rain might be helpful.)

I had defrosted a package of two chicken leg quarters, but wasn't sure exactly what to do with it. It wasn't a lot of chicken by itself. I flipped through several cookbooks and finally decided to make an improvised paella. Rick's mom was the first to introduce me to paella—and hers always included chicken, sausage, lobster, shrimp, mussels, and clams—but since we don't have shellfish hanging about our kitchen, and I had no inclination to run out and buy any, I did what you're supposed to do with paella: throw in anything that goes along with rice. According to several internet sites, there's a legend that the dish was created by the servants of the Moorish kings, who threw all the leftovers from the royal banquets into one pot to take home. Another (more popular and accepted) story has it that the folks that worked the fields in an area south of Valencia, Spain, mixed whatever they could find in a flat pan over a fire. And, certainly, that's the area most people associate paella with today. Well, I don't work for a royal family nor do I work out in the fields, so I foraged in my fridge and pantry. I dug out two sausages, some dehydrated zucchini, leather britches (dried stringbeans), frozen peas, green olives, and a handful of raisins to go along with the chicken. That'll do. So here's my improvised version, which served three people. For more recipe ideas, visit Spain Recipes.

• Chicken, cut into small pieces and dredged in flour seasoned with salt & pepper
   (I cut the two leg quarters into two drumsticks & eight small pieces)
• 2 sausages, thickly sliced
• 1 onion, chopped
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 14 1/2 oz. can whole tomatoes, hand crushed
• 1 cup chicken broth
• rosemary
• teaspoon of paprika
• parsley
• zucchini, string beans, peas, olives, raisins 

• rice cooked with a pinch of saffron

Sauté the chicken until browned, place in black solar oven pot.
Brown the sausage pieces and place in pot along with chicken.
Add vegetables, garlic, rosemary, tomatoes, olives, raisins, and chicken broth to the pot along with the chicken and sausage.
Cover and place pot in solar oven.

I had the dish outside for about 3 1/2 hours with the solar oven averaging 300º. I probably should have checked it sooner, but I was busy and figured they always say you can't burn food in the solar oven. It looked and smelled heavenly when I brought it in, though. Next, I boiled some water and threw it over rice with a pinch of saffron and stuck that outside in the solar oven for 30 minutes or so. The rice was perfect. Dinner was done and it was only 3:00. At 6:30, I heated the paella and rice back up in a cast iron pot on the stove for a few minutes. It was super yummy.

If cooking this inside, after browning the chicken and sausage, throw vegetables in pot to soften, add tomatoes, herbs, and broth, and simmer it all for 30 or 40 minutes. Cook the rice either separately and add to the chicken mixture after it cooks, and serve. Or cook the rice directly in the pot with the chicken mixture for the last 20 minutes of cooking time. I've done it both ways. Serve with a simple salad and some crusty bread.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Solar Eggplant Caponata

How can people say they don't eat eggplant when God loves the color and the French love the name? I don't understand. 
—Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet
 The only thing I like better than an eggplant burger is a chocolate covered eggplant burger.
—Shaggy (talking to Scooby Doo)

It was sunny today and I didn't have any real plans as to what to cook, but no way could I let the day go by without using the solar oven. It would be wasteful, non-frugal, downright lazy not to cook outside today. After a bit of head scratching I decided to make something with the eggplant I bought the other day. It was a good deal, too. I got two eggplants and two carrots bundled together for $1.50 off the discounted vegetable table at Waldbaums, along with three grapefruits for 59¢ and a cauliflower for 99¢. As far as I could tell there was nothing wrong with any of it. Rick isn't a super huge fan of eggplant, though, so I threw a few recipe ideas at him so he wouldn't complain too much afterward. He chose caponata, although he claims not remember that and thought he picked curry. I pretty much just rolled my eyes at him.

Eggplant caponata is a pretty easy recipe and there are tons of variations. If you google it, or look it up in a cookbook, you'll find everyone has their own version. So, as always, improvisation is the name of the game. Below is how I made mine today, but that's because it's all the green pepper and tomato I had on hand. I also only had some typical stuffed green salad olives, but green Sicilian olives would work well also. Feel free to add more or less of some of these ingredients.

1 eggplant (no need to peel it), cut into fairly large cubes.
1 cup onion, chopped 
2 celery stalks, chopped
1/3 cup green or red bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2–3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup diced tomatoes, canned or fresh
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar (optional)
pinch of crushed red pepper

1/4 cup green olives, chopped in half
1 tablespoon capers
3 anchovy filets mashed to a paste

1. Heat oil in a frying pan and cook eggplant until it browns a bit (4 or 5 minutes). Do this in batches if necessary. Transfer the eggplant to a black solar cooking pot.
2. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, crushed red pepper, and garlic to the frying pan. Saute for a few minutes and then add the diced tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, herbs, and spices. Heat for a few minutes, then pour the mixture over the eggplant.
3. Cover the pot and place it in the solar cooker for 2 or 3 hours depending on temperature. My sun oven started off at 275º and climbed up to 350º, and I kept the eggplant out there for 2 1/2 hours.
4. Bring dish inside when vegetables are tender. Stir in the mashed anchovies, capers, olives, and a drizzle of olive oil. Adjust seasonings.
5. Leave dish stand at room temperature for several hours to blend flavors. Serve with a warm crusty bread.

Eggplant Caponata made in the solar oven.
photo by the hubby
Rick didn't think the eggplant caponata looked very appetizing for the photo shoot, though, so I grated some orange peel to scatter on top for photo appeal. If I'd had fresh lemons I would have grated lemon instead, but the orange peel actually tasted pretty good when I mixed it in after Rick took the photos. 


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Opening Day Baseball!

Uncertainty is the only sure thing in baseball. Of course, you could say the same about other sports, and life in general.
– Mark Herrmann, "Opening Pitch"
Annalee just called. She and her friend Sal drove in to Citi Field to see the Mets opening day game. Baseball season has arrived! As New Yorkers, we'll root for the Yankees when they play, and as baseball fans we'll enjoy a good game between any two teams, but there's something about rooting for the underdog, so the Mets are "our" team. Without a tv, we listen to the games on our radio. And, since many games start at 7:10 p.m., we tend to eat dinner while listening to the Mets. We've been known to get lost on our way to or from a Homegrown String Band performance, too, because of a Mets game. One time, after we finished a show in New Jersey, Rick was only half reading our driving directions while listening to a close and exciting game. We ended up driving close to 40 minutes in the wrong direction before I realized we were heading the wrong way. After that, I told him he had to read the directions carefully before turning on a game in the car ever again. (I do most of the driving, Rick is the navigator.) 

Today the Mets are playing the Atlanta Braves, with Johan Santana the starting pitcher. Last time I saw him pitch in person, before his injury and subsequent surgery, I was bored. It was a pitcher's game—neither he nor the other team's pitcher allowed any runs. Sheesh! Rick thought it was great, Santana was awesome (okay, I can agree with that), but I like a little action. Like the time the radio announcer accused them of playing like the Three Stooges: players were caught between bases, more than one runner was trying to get to the same base, balls were dropped or thrown in the wrong driection, runners lost shoes . . . It was a comedy routine. Stuff like that. Or they can win—which, I admit, is really better—if they do it by coming from behind in a spectacular finish. Now, that's exciting. I guess I'm not a true baseball fan. I want to be entertained and amused, or thrilled by the incredible feat. Rick and Annalee, though, they know stats.

It's supposedly going to hit 54º sometime this afternoon, but at the moment it's chilly and very very windy. And Annalee and Sal are sitting in the upper deck somewhere, where the wind will be worse. But at least it's sunny. Hopefully they'll manage to stay warm.

I tried to think of something to cook in honor of opening day baseball, but figured it was an afternoon game so we could eat leftovers for lunch while we listened. Instead, I made use of the bright sunny day and put the solar oven outside and got a pot of tomato sauce going. We'll have homemade sourdough bread (which is rising as I type), and the solar cooked sauce on top of some pasta. After stadium hot dogs, Annalee might actually appreciate coming home to this dinner anyway.

Meantime, let's go Mets!!!

P.S. Yes!! The game just ended and the Mets won 1-0. I just got off the phone with my mom and it brought to mind the first time Rick & I brought the girls to see the Mets play. August 22, 2006, just days before my dad died. Rick & I hadn't been to a game in 25 years and Annalee thought it would be nice to buy Rick tickets as a Father's Day present. Little did we know my dad's cancer would spread, so fast throughout his body, that by August it was uncertain if we'd be able to get to the game. My mom cared for my dad at home the whole time, and we drove back and forth and slept over to help. By mid-August we couldn't believe my dad was hanging in there, he was so weak. On August 22, we stopped by and decided to go ahead to the game. It was the most awesomely exciting game and a much needed break from so much sadness. The Mets came from behind to win against the St. Louis Cardinals in the bottom of the 9th with a homerun by Carlos Beltran. We went to games three more times that season, including infamous game 7 of the NL championship. They lost, but Endy Chavez's amazing catch right at the wall where it said "the strength to be there" felt almost personal. Annalee has a photo of that catch hanging on her wall. And I guess that's one reason I'm a Mets fan.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Salsa, Birthdays, and Embarrassing Moments

You can only be young once. But you can always be immature.
– Dave Barry
If you can't make it better, you can laugh at it.

– Erma Bombeck

Rick at his birthday dinner.
photo by Erica
Rick's birthday is tomorrow. We presented workshops and a concert up in Rhode Island over the weekend, so drove up to Massachusetts on Friday to stay with Rick's sister and family. She and her husband wanted to take Rick out for his birthday, so on Saturday evening, after the workshops, we drove a few towns over to eat at their favorite Mexican restaurant. Lisa managed to whisper to the waiter that it was Rick's birthday without him hearing, so he was completely embarrassed and flustered when a whole group of waiters made their way over to our table with a huge sombrero and plopped it on his head while boisterously clapping and singing happy birthday. My nephew, my brother-in-law, and Erica all snapped photos of Rick with their cell phones and immediately started e-mailing them off to friends and family. I asked them all to forward me the photos, too, so I could stick one in my blog for all the world (or at least anyone who happens to read my blog) to see. Hey, Rick is a good sport—he even fixed this photo up a bit for me while shaking his head and asking if I was seriously going to post it. You bet! I'm not sure if I've ever laughed as hard as I did when that sombrero hit his head. Sometimes it can be hard when everyone seems to be laughing at you, but laughter is a good thing. And when it's shared, it binds people together. Laughter is infectious, and just plain old makes you feel good. So, many thanks, Rick, for enduring a rousing rendition of happy birthday in a crowded restaurant.

The salsa at the restaurant was good, but I kinda like the one I make better.

Basic Salsa Mexicana

• One 14 1/2 oz can diced tomatoes (or use 3 fresh tomatoes)
• 1/2 cup chopped onion
• 2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper
• 1 small jalapeño finely chopped (or skip the green bell pepper and add another jalapeño or serrano pepper)
• 2 teaspoons lime juice
• 2 teaspoons salt (Note: this is a lot of salt, so add a little at a time and stop when you think there's enough for your taste. I was skeptical at first when I read the original recipe in a Mexican cookbook, but ended up liking a decent amount of salt, although I think I stop closer to one teaspoon than two.)
• a lot of cilantro, chopped (up to half a cup)

• Optional: Add a clove of minced garlic and/or a dash or two of Tabasco sauce to taste

Adjust the seasonings to taste. Stir well and let sit for a bit before serving to blend the flavors.