Monday, January 26, 2009


Nope, we don't eat them.

A friend emailed me the following: "...I have to admit that I am very impressed at your courage to cook entire animals such as lambs and goats. Do you try to use everything, or do you draw the line at, for example: brains? Does it come with its pelt? Do you try to tan it? Does the dog get to chew the feet and ears? These are pressing issues about whole-animal preparation!"

And I realized, I have been misrepresenting the size of my balls. In a parallel universe in which I am totally hard core, when faced with brains, fur, and feet, I'm all "bring it ON!" In reality, our "whole" lamb goes from the farm straight to a local butcher, who packages it up neatly and without offal. Our freezer is less random bits and more $7/pound rack of lamb.

Poor dog.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spontaneity? Overrated

One of the first scenes in the movie Flirting with Disaster has a character played by Tea Leoni writing off her former marriage as one of those sad relationships where you have to make an appointment to have sex. She's totally oblivious to the fact that she's interrupted the couple she's talking to on the night they were supposed to be getting it on. Planned in advance, of course. Hilarity ensues.

Five, ten years ago, I thought this scene was awfully funny, partly because I couldn't imagine living such as pre-scripted life. Now, it's still funny, but in a hits awfully close to home kinda way.

(If you have a kid like ours, you've got to carve. out. time. for your fun. That's all I'm saying.)

Anyway, I felt the same way about food. Menu planning was for the boring who walk among us, not for creative free spirits like me. I liked to flit through the grocery store, picking out anything that might work for this, or that. I had three menu options for every main ingredient, and spices for everything. It was fun.

But I've got less time and less money now, more of a commitment to eat carefully, intentionally, without throwing a crisper full of uneaten veggies into the compost regularly. I starting planning menus and coordinating them with our shopping list. Planning ahead makes those nights when we have 15 minutes to get food into the kid easier. It keeps us on track with healthy meals and local foods. We don't come home after a long day fantasizing about wheat berries with fall vegetables, but if it's on the menu, we'll make it and eat it and be glad we did. And it's surprising how much money you save when you aren't tempted to buy mascarpone cheese just in case you decide to make tiramisu at some point.

Here's how I do it:

When I read food magazines, I tab recipes I want to make with mini stickies. Food blogs, I clip and add to Google Notebook (or did, RIP).

On Friday evening (ideally), I make a list of the perishables that we must eat and random freezer/pantry items that are languishing and brainstorm some menu ideas based on those, writing additional necessary ingredients on a separate list. If I am in the mood, I check the magazine/blog/cookbook ideas I've tabbed and add some of those recipes to the mix. If not, whatever. I plan six meals, leaving one night open for laziness or a night out or just so I don't start to feel trapped.

On Saturday, we go to the farmer's market. I buy whatever I can on my list there and allow myself to buy some spontaneous chicory or cabbage or Chinese broccoli or whatever. Then we go to Trader Joe's, where we buy staples like yogurt and butter and wine and cheese.

Bulk food like oats and beans we buy from the health food store during the week.

Back at home, I do a final menu--easy meals for late work nights, long-cooking meats on weekends, pizza on Friday. I add notes about prep ahead like when to defrost meat or soak beans. I put snack, breakfast, dessert ideas in the margin.

It looks like this:

Sat: (defrost goat)
roast chicken with root veggies
arugula salad

Sun: (defrost lamb kabobs)
braised goat shoulder steaks

Mon: lunch with friends (make lamb kabobs, chopped salad with radishes/carrots/parm)

Tues: (soak pinto beans)
pad Thai w/ tofu

Wed: (morning-beans in Crockpot) (cook wheat berries, chop fall veggies)
burritos with leftover chicken & fried potatoes, pintos
brown rice

wheat berry stew with fall veggies
feta cheese


Other to-make items were pureed persimmons to freeze, chicken broth from the roast bones, and kale chips (just for fun).

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

How to make sugar syrup, redux

You know how you do something over and over and over again and then one day, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, you realize there's a much easier way to do it? And then you're all "Why the hell didn't I think of this before?"

Case in point? Sugar syrup. After all these years of lighting the stove, stirring and simmering, it hit me: the microwave.

Equal parts sugar and water in a Mason jar. Microwave until hot. Stir to dissolve sugar. Cool on counter. Slap a lid on the jar. Refrigerate. Make cocktails for weeks. Decide the cocktail hour is making you fat and vow to contain the cocktailing to weekends. Decide nothing goes with Jane Eyre, or with learning to knit, or with 8 PM like a little gin. Repeat.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Slow cooking Sunday: lamb neck bones

I skipped the requisite holiday blogging, I know. Travel to Internet-free zone, sleeping on floors, catching up with family, demanding in-laws, 9-hour drive, virulent stomach flu, blah, blah, blah... I have excuses in spades.

But it was lovely, when I wasn't being puked on: home-candied lemon peel, a stollen fail, thoughtful presents, a trip to the aquarium, baby's first cookie decorating, our traditional Christmas Eve mac and cheese (made proper-like, with b├ęchamel, and then utterly desecrated by ketchup), running in the sand, croissants and Vietnamese coffee in Little Saigon.

And now we're back home, sorting and discarding and organizing and improving like crazy after two weeks of suitcase living. It feels good.

So does my weekly (if I feel like it) ritual of Sunday cooking: slow-cooked meat dinner, prep for meals throughout the week, a batch of bread dough to refrigerate and pull out in chunks for fresh bread all week, the transformation my farmers' market picks into deliciousness. Well, often something resembling good, at least.

But this Sunday's beans and lamb were delicious, even if the picture looks like sludge.

This may be the best use for lamb neck bones, if you hesitate to use the little suckers for broth and waste those tiny, tiny pockets of meat. If you don't happen to have a whole lamb in the freezer (did I mention we bought a lamb?), this is a great economical use for kabob or stew meat or other cuts because it uses meat as a condiment more than anything, a way to make your beans taste fantastic. This is based on a Turkish recipe from The Sultan's Kitchen, by Ozcan Ozan, but reminded me of the ribollita W. and I ate in Italy ages and ages ago.

This is an easy recipe, but don't forget to soak your beans the night before.

Lamb with white beans

2 c. great northern beans, soaked overnight & drained

2 T. butter
1-1/2 pounds lamb neck bones (or meat in 1-inch cubes)

1/2 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 T. tomato paste
1 can plum tomatoes, drained and chopped
1/2 t. dried red pepper flakes (add more if you don't have a toddler joining you for dinner)
2 c. water
salt & pepper
a small handful of dried mushrooms, optional

1 red bell pepper, chopped

Melt the butter, over med-high heat, in a Dutch oven or cast-iron casserole or other dish with a lid that can go in the oven. Brown lamb in the butter--don't worry about it foaming. Getting it brown on all sides will take 5-10 minutes. Add onion and garlic and cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the next chunk of ingredients--tomato paste through salt and pepper--plus the beans.

(Note: I tossed in a couple dried oyster mushrooms here because we get them from our CSA. They made dish even better, although I'll admit to pulling them out of my serving at dinner because the texture of mushrooms is one of my residual childhood hatreds. I'll bet some chopped kale added at this point would be good too.)

Cover, turn heat to maintain a simmer, and cook 45 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Add bell peppers to the lamb and beans and stir. Cover and cook in oven 1 hour, or until tender. Check beans, adding a bit more water if they look dried out. The final dish will be like a thick stew, with some beans falling apart to make a creamy sauce.

You could gild the lily with some sausages and toasted bread crumbs, but we just had a green salad on the side and called it good.