Sauerkraut on the menu for a hearty autumn dinner

I never really went for sauerkraut. I love cabbage a dozen ways–steamed, or rolled around a filling and baked in a sauce, or blanketed with cheese, or shredded raw in a slaw or taco filling. But fermented?–No thanks.

Then my friend Bob Rose introduced me to Pleasant Valley Farms organic sauerkraut, made just an hour’s drive north of here in the Skagit Valley. Here’s Bob standing in front of the operation’s fermentation tanks, near La Conner. (Pleasant Valley Farms has a great story of its own, by the way; stay tuned for an upcoming post about it.)

Love this sauerkraut! Tangy cabbage, not lumpy vinegar. Crisp and crunchy, not limp and slimy. Here’s the entire list of ingredients: organic cabbage, organic cabbage juices, water, and salt. That’s it. As it says on the package, “made the old-fashioned way.”

So I can add one more food product to my growing list of those that taste completely different when fresh or prepared authentically. Ever taste canned asparagus?–Don’t. Still shaking Parmesan from the green can?–Stop; buy a block of the real stuff and grate it yourself. And go get some of this great kraut. You can get it at Whole Foods now; look for it in its plastic pouch in the refrigerated case (and store it in your fridge at home).

After my Thanksgiving cook-a-thon (timelines! flowcharts!), I got interested again in the problem of recipes for whole meals, not just single dishes. So here is one way to use this sauerkraut in a very nice dinner for a chilly autumn evening!

Bratwurst with sauerkraut and beets on their own greens

Start about an hour and a half before you want to eat.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Choose beets (leafy tops intact) that are about the same size, so that they will cook evenly. (I used organic red beets from Ralph’s Greenhouse, also from the Skagit Valley!) Cut the greens off your beets (leaving a short stub) but don’t peel the beets or cut off their tails. (I gather that the stubs and tails help keep them from leaking juice during the roasting.) Rub them with a little olive oil, wrap them in aluminum foil, and roast them for about an hour. (When they are done, you will be able to pierce them easily with a sharp knife.)

After you get the beets in the oven, put the beet greens to soak in a bowl (or sink) of cold water. (At this point, you now have about an hour to kill.)

After the beets are roasted (say after you’ve watched the news), put them on a plate to cool and start the bratwurst. Bring a pan of water to a simmer, add the brats, and let them simmer for about 20-25 minutes. (Don’t boil them!–The casing will split open). Turn them over every so often.

After you’ve gotten the brats going, make a vinaigrette for the beets. Mince a clove of garlic, then add a half-teaspoon of kosher salt on top. Smear the garlic and salt around with the side of a knife-blade until you have a paste. Put it in a small bowl and mix it with a half-teaspoon of a nice coarse (country-style) dijon mustard and a tablespoon of good vinegar. (I used a nice sherry vinegar.) Then, whisking like crazy, add three tablespoons of a good olive oil. (I fill a tablespoon with oil, then rest that hand on the rim of the bowl and let the oil drizzle in as I whisk with the other hand. Then repeat twice.) Set the vinaigrette aside for now to let the flavors blend.

Chop about a quarter-cup of walnuts; toast them if you want to in a dry skillet (but watch them like a hawk because they burn easily).

Then, put a steamer-basket in a saucepan, add water up to the bottom of the steamer basket, and bring the water to a boil.  While you wait for the water to boil, take the beet greens out of the cold water they’ve been soaking in, trim about an inch off the bottoms of the stems, then cut the stems on the bias into pieces an inch or so long. Cut the leaves across their width into ribbons about an inch wide (in cooking school they tell me this is a chiffonade.)

Close to the end of the wurst’s simmer, heat up a skillet, turn the heat to medium-low,  and add a little oil. When the sausage is done, transfer it to the skillet and turn it occasionally as it browns nicely.

While the brat is browning, turn the heat to low under the saucepan with the steamer basket, add the beet stems, and cover the pot. After about five minutes, add the leaves and cover. Cook until the stems are tender and the leaves are wilted but still have nice texture and color. (When are they done? Nibble on a leaf and stem!–Cook them until they are the texture you like. I cooked mine about five more minutes after adding the leaves.)

As the brat continues to brown and the beet greens cook, rub the skins, stem stubs, and tails off your roasted beets. (Just rub them with your hands!–The skin slides right off.) Slice them into rounds and toss the rounds with some of the walnuts and vinaigrette. (Whisk the dressing again if it has separated.) Put the sauerkraut in a microwave-safe bowl and zap it until it is steaming-hot. (Add caraway seeds or dill seeds if you like, but it is great by itself!)

Everything ready? Make two beds on your plate, one of sauerkraut and one of beet greens. Put the bratwurst on the sauerkraut and the dressed beet slices on the greens. Add some of the dijon mustard to the brat if you like. Sprinkle the beets with the rest of the chopped walnuts.

Pour yourself a German beer or a sturdy red wine and enjoy!

EAT! Week in the rear view mirror

My one-week, 21-meal “plan-prepare-&-eat-a-thon” hit me with some big realities. First, eating this way is work; I couldn’t have done it (at least, the way I did it) had I not been on spring break. My respect has zoomed off the charts for the millions of parents out there who put food on the table every day for their families!

Also, cooking for one person has its challenges, and across the whole week, I constantly found that my planning/preparing eyes were bigger than my stomach. Most of the overage ended up in the freezer (in fact, I just had another bowl of that tasty squash soup). Some of it ended up in a second serving that I didn’t really need. (I suspect that I gained a few pounds across this little venture.) Some of it went straight from pan to freezer when I got a better offer from a friend. And some (too much!) of it ended up as worm food.

But let’s look at the up side. I definitely ate more fruits, nuts, and vegetables and less meat than usual. I had a very nice bit of fish. And the leftovers fed me almost every meal this week too, and will still be going strong next week.

Notes for next time:  Scale it down!–Plan most of your meals, not all of them. I’ll focus mainly on dinner, so that I pull things out of the freezer soon enough to defrost. And I’ll target amounts that will give me a couple of extra servings for lunch during the week, so that I don’t keep blowing my money at the taco truck–but not too much more. Beyond that, I’ll rely on my usual habits: keep some breakfast stuff around, and pantry staples like broth, pasta, grains, and canned tomatoes that let you improvise the rest. The strategy for fruits and vegetables?–Buy small amounts and then use them!–No more compost farming in the fridge.

So we arrive at the end of EAT!week! Two open questions that I continue to chew on: How local and how fresh? And where does it comes from and what’s in it? Stay tuned for more on these topics!

EAT! Week day seven

The last day of my reality show!

Breakfast

I had planned on a Saturday frittata, but opted instead to go with an omelette (after last night’s marathon with the moussaka, fewer steps is good!) I sliced up and sauted my last mushrooms, then moved them to a paper towel. I threw some spinach leaves into the pan for a couple of minutes, then added them to the paper towel. Then, in the same pan, I made a two-egg omelette, with some filling inside and the rest on top. (No toast and jam; too much food!) Very nice.

Lunch

I made a panini sandwich for (a very late!) lunch: a meat patty made out of the rest of the Lefever Holbrook ground lamb that I had defrosted for the moussaka, a Grand Central Bakery hamburger bun, some spinach leaves and tomato slices, and a horseradish/mayo dressing. Somewhere along the way I’ve actually acquired a panini press; it’s fun to use and gives you those cool ridges in the bread.

Dinner

The twenty-first meal of EAT! week! Most of my groceries are cooked (if not actually consumed), my fridge and freezer are full of leftovers that will take me through next week (and, for the now-frozen moussaka, much longer!), and I am stuffed, sated, and  . . . overfed.  So this is what I am going to have for dinner tonight. If I can eat it all.

Overall Score for Day Seven:  A-. Points for finishing with restraint.

EAT! Week day six

We are heading into the home stretch!

Breakfast

No news here–just cereal with my last banana sliced on top. (My last banana for now; I’ve resolved my banana issue. The votes are in and the verdict is, eat them whenever you want. Bueno apetito.)

Lunch

Remember the stir-fry earlier in the week that didn’t happen? It happened for lunch today. The recipe is: see what’s in the fridge and throw it in. Not an elegant dish, but crunchy-good! Here’s what I did this time.

Make rice. I use my trusty rice cooker.

Get everything that’s going in the stir-fry totally ready ahead of time because once you fire up the wok, things go FAST. Prep all the veg by cutting them into pieces about the same size. (This time I used an onion, two stalks of celery, two carrots, and a red bell pepper. In a different bowl, I sliced up almost all my mushrooms–regular white ones as well as a couple of portobellos–and tore up the rest of the Thai basil.) Slice some garlic. Measure out your sauce: for this amount of veg, one tablespoon of soy sauce and two tablespoons of fish sauce with a dash of sugar will do.

Then heat the wok on high. When it starts to smoke, add about a tablespoon of peanut oil, swirl it, and let it get super-hot. (If I’m not  scared, I know my wok isn’t hot enough.) Then throw in the garlic, followed instantly by the cut-up vegetables. (This is so that you don’t incinerate your garlic.) Toss the whole time; I use two spatulas to do it. Once the veg start to glisten and maybe show a little color, add the sauce, toss again, and finally add the mushrooms and basil. If the heat isn’t turned up as high as it will go, do it now. (This is so that you don’t end up with mushroom soup.) Toss like crazy. (It feels like you are playing the cymbals.)

Now dump it into a serving bowl. I sprinkled it with some sriracha (do you know this hot sauce? I LOVE it.) It looks more carroty in the photo than it was; actually the mushrooms were the big deal. But go ahead and EAT!

Dinner

I decided to go ambitious for dinner: moussaka, which I have never made.

As I read the recipe, I got the beginnings of a bad feeling. Prepping the vegetables is going to take an hour? Well, you have to partly-peel, slice, salt, drain (this is where the hour comes in), rinse, and dry the eggplants, and boil the  potatoes. Okay, I’ll get all that going, then watch the news.

While the potatoes are cooling, you preheat the oven, line two (two??) sheet pans with foil, and oil them. Next, you separate your eggs, lightly beat the whites, and spread bread crumbs on a plate. So this is all leading up to Step One:  get your eggplant in the oven. You dip each slice in the egg whites, dredge it in the bread crumbs, and put it in one layer on the pans. This takes a while.

Now we are ready to make the meat sauce. Finely chop two onions (then hold your face under the cold-water faucet until you can see again), mince the garlic, and chop the parsley. Measure out everything else. Then saute the ground lamb, add the onion and garlic, and keep sauteing; add the wine and simmer a while; add your spices, tomato paste and puree, and sugar. Let it simmer for about 15 minutes. All of this adds up to Step Two.

Pull the eggplant out of the oven and set it over there to cool. On to Step Three:  make the bechamel sauce. Lightly beat your egg yolks. Warm the milk. Now, melt the butter and whisk in the flour; let it cook for a bit. Add the warm milk in a steady stream, whisking away. Simmer until it thickens a bit. Take it off the heat, stir in the egg yolks and nutmeg, and put it back on the fire to thicken.

This is all just prep for the main event: Step Four, assemble the moussaka. Grease the biggest baking dish you own, sprinkle the bottom with (more!) bread crumbs, and cover it with a layer of sliced potatoes. (Leave a small moat around the edges.) Top that with a layer of eggplant slices, then the meat sauce. Sprinkle with a quarter of the grated cheese. Add another layer of eggplant splices and top that with another quarter of the cheese. Now, pour the bechamel sauce over the whole thing, making sure the sauce fills up that moat. Put the rest of the cheese on top. Now heave a sigh of relief and put it in the oven!

Okay, let’s assess our situation here. It’s 9:00 at night, I still haven’t eaten supper, and my kitchen is a horrendous effing mess. But on the up side (unless, when I ran out of breadcrumbs, it was a fatal mistake to sub in the panko breading), in about an hour I will have a nice piece of homemade moussaka.

And here it is!

Overall Score for Day Six:  B. Extra credit for effort. (What was I thinking??)

EAT! Week day five

Breakfast

I finished off my ancient oatmeal today with a nice handful of blueberries on top. Then I went out and bought another box!–This is a very tasty hot cereal.

Lunch

I must admit that by now I was suffering from a slight case of food fatigue. For lunch, I had a simple bowl of leftover bean and vegetable soup. No bread, no fruit, no cheese. Just right.

Dinner

My friend Mary and I were booked to take in a movie this afternoon, so I invited her over here afterwards  for halibut tacos.

Growing up in Texas, I ate more than my share of the classic Tex-Mex taco: crisp corn taco shell, seasoned ground beef, lettuce tomato onion, jalapeno slices, and grated yellow cheese on top. I still love it.

But I’ve branched out. Tonight I pan-grilled a halibut steak and flaked it into good-size chunks to go into soft flour tortillas. On top went lettuce, tomato, cilantro, thin-sliced radishes, shredded red cabbage, and cotija cheese. And the pieza de resistencia, pico de gallo. I make mine with onion and tomato diced small, cilantro, minced jalapeno, and lots of lime juice. (Tonight’s version would have been improved with more lime juice; unfortunately it turned out that I had bought the Bartleby of limes.)

Overall Score for Day Five:  B+ (sense enough to scale down lunch, plus a pretty good taco)

EAT! Week day four

Oh good!–Today we get to do chemistry!

Breakfast

I started the day with pretty much the breakfast I had planned–cottage cheese with dried fruit and toast (no jam; the fruit was sweet enough).Those dried apricots were so plump and bright! I glanced at the package. You guessed it–sulfur dioxide. So, what is this stuff? I checked it out on Wikipedia, AltMedAngel, Yahoo Answers, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest CSPI).

Wikipedia defines it as a chemical compound with the formula SO2 (not big news, given its name) produced by volcanoes and some industrial processes. (I’m eating volcano poop?!?) It is a major contributor to acid rain; inhaling it is tied to respiratory disease, difficulty breathing, and premature death. (Death? Great.) CSPI agrees that it can cause severe allergic reactions in some people, but concludes that, for non-sensitive people, sulfites (of which sulfur dioxide is one) are safe. (I must be non-sensitive, since here I am, typing away.) Nevertheless, AltMedAngel lists it among the Top 20 Food Additives to Avoid.

So naturally, it’s used as a food preservative! Especially apricots. Yahoo Answers informs us that dried apricots without it are darker and drier. Well, I’m too cheap to throw out the rest of my chemically enhanced apricots, but now I know what to look for in my next batch–pick the ones the color and texture of ancient sandal soles!

Lunch

Too much food! The lunch I planned for today (leftover lamb shank, spinach) seemed like overkill, so I just had another bowl of yesterday’s squash soup with baguette croutons. Just right!

Dinner

And my calendar tells me that I’m signed up for a Bon Vivant cooking class tonight! Vegetable Paradise. I’ll see if they’ll let me take a pix or two. Before I go, I’ll have some cheese and crackers or grapes or both; the class doesn’t start until 7:00, and it takes a while to crank out the first dish.

Maybe later in the week I’ll cook the dinner I had planned for tonight. But in any case, on to Day Five!

Overall Score for Day Four:  Incomplete

EAT! Week day three

Breakfast

Today I woke up pretty sullen about the whole question of tropical fruit. (Hey, coffee drinker, I’m eating the banana. You got a problem with that?) And I did have the banana, sliced on my LOCAL Cascadian Farm cereal.  A simple, tasty breakfast!

Lunch

Today’s plan for lunch was to make soup out of the rest of last night’s butternut squash. After dinner last night, to get a jump on today’s cooking, I went ahead and pureed the squash, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up making a fairly complicated soup. (I got the recipe from foodnetwork.com; it was posted by Michael Chiarello back in 2007.) I had to scale up the quantities to match my more than three cups of squash puree (this was a hefty linebacker of a squash!), so I doubled the recipe.

Tip #1: I went ahead and made the toasted-spice rub that he described. Very good! But I wouldn’t encourage tossing the toasting spices to keep them from burning; stirring does perfectly well. I’ll be vacuuming up coriander seeds for a week.

You get started by sauteing onion, celery, and carrot–AND cinnamon sticks!– in olive oil; salt and pepper the mixture, and add your broth (plus  spices–I added coriander, plus some sage and a tiny dollop of balsamic vinegar, since I didn’t roast the squash with them). Let it simmer, then add your squash puree and let it simmer some more. Take out the cinnamon sticks. I threw in some of the spice rub as well.

(All of this was taking a while, so I ate half the apple that I was supposed to have for dessert. A tart green Granny Smith. It went so well with the flavor of the soup that I cut up some for garnish!)

More simmering. Now puree the soup mixture.

Tip #2:  Do not, I repeat do NOT, over-fill your blender with hot soup. (Don’t ask.) About one serving at a time is good.

Dinner

Serendipity!–My friend Jan invited me out for a glass of wine and appetizers. (We always go to Bai Pai, a Thai place with a great happy hour.) Crab won-tons, spring rolls, calamari, and spicy green beans. Mmm good. Plus, of course, a couple of glasses of wine!

So no peanut butter pasta; all those ingredients are pantry staples and will keep. And I’m not hungry enough for a salad either. But I did whip up the eggplant and green onion side dish, just because I had the ingredients fresh on hand, it’s more or less a Thai dish, and I love it! (Roast the eggplant; stir-fry the green onions, add the lemon juice-garlic-sriracha-fish sauce, add the sliced eggplant and stir-fry briefly, dish it up and sprinkle with Thai basil!)  I’ll eat it over rice one of these days.

Overall score for Day Three:  B+, for attitude!