Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Oops, I made cassoulet!

Last Sunday I decided it was time to roast the pork hocks that my dad gave me. He cures them himself, and includes not only the hocks, but also the feet. There's not a lot of meat on these things, but I am content to chew on the slow cooked tendons, and my kids are delighted to have unlimited access to 'skin'.

I suspected I'd have leftovers, and thought about making some sort of a dish with beans and whatever pig parts I had to work with. It turned out to be two feet and virtually no meat, but I decided it would still add some flavour.

I began thinking that I could make a riff on some sort of Cajun dish, like Red Beans and Rice de Guise. I had the recipe in front of me and started assembling similar but not exact ingredients. I didn't have sausage, but I had a wedge of my dad's smoked bacon, basically a hunk of pork belly, salted and smoked. I didn't have fresh herbs like tarragon, but I had salted herbs. I didn't have porcini mushrooms, but I did have dried mixed mushrooms. I found some homemade beef stock in the freezer as well.

For vegetables, I had half a fennel bulb, a tired orange sweet pepper, onions and celery. I snipped some rosemary off one of the plant that lives under a grow light all winter, and grabbed a fresh bay leaf from its neighbour. The beans I had on hand were Romano, sort of in between red and white beans. My initial plan was to chop the bacon, fry it, throw the vegetables into the fat, and then build the bean dish from there.

Looking at my collection of ingredients, I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that I had all the makings for a cassoulet, especially if I added a small container of duck meat that was in the freezer since the last time I cooked a duck, waiting for an opportunity just like this.

Cassoulet, in the recipes I've read, tends to take days to prepare, starting with confit duck legs and linking your own sausage. When I saw my own collection of ingredients, however, I began to wonder if this isn't where the dish began: in a French farmhouse kitchen on a day when the femme had various scraps of cooked and raw meat, not enough for a meal on their own, but combined and mixed with some dried beans, enough for a satisfying dinner.

I pulled out my birthday gift from my husband, the last porcelain enamelled cast iron pan he'll ever buy me, or so he promises. The drawers where I keep my pots can't handle any more weight! The pot is a shallow Dutch oven, perfect for braising, and while my first thought was that I didn't really need it, since I have a good number of cast iron frying pans and a Dutch oven already, I have put it to use several times since he gave it to me.

Instead of cutting up the bacon, I threw it in and simmered it as a pork belly. Between it, the duck and the pigs feet, I'd have a rich sauce for the beans. I sautéed the vegetables, and then added the meats, chopped mushrooms and their soaking broth, and the beef stock. I topped it up with water, and set it to simmer.

It bubbled all afternoon. Since I needed to run out to a meeting at one point, I experimented with putting it in the oven. I realized the beans weren't going to cook that way, since I hadn't even soaked them before throwing them in the broth. I put it back on the stove and left it on low. The results, a few hours later, were a sticky, savoury stew, studded with the occasional bone from the pig feet and duck pieces. I instructed my husband to pick up some French bread on the way home.

To add a bit of green to the meal, I sautéed some kale in garlic, and topped my stew with it. When I ladled it into bowls for my family, I had no expectations that my kids would enjoy it. They're lukewarm on stews most of the time.

Little did I know that the way to their hearts was through their French roots. D started scooping his stew onto his bread, like the ultimate beans on toast. G took a bite and said, "I want more of this." I reminded him that his bowl still had quite a bit of stew in it. He followed his brother's lead, and topped his bread with the mixture as well. He ate it all, and asked for a second helping.

My husband bubbled over with gratitude. "You used the pot I gave you to make cassoulet?? On a weekday?? Where did you even get this duck?!?" I sat across the table, with smug satisfaction, and watched him savour every bite.

The entire experience was completely gratifying. I loved having such beautiful ingredients to work with. I loved having enough experience to look at what I had to work with and see what it could become. I loved that my family enjoyed their dinner so much.

I know that not all of my readers will have access to pigs feet or smoked pork belly, or left over roast duck, and even fewer would have access to them all on the same day. This post isn't about sharing a recipe that you can recreate. It's more about the long term benefits of making scratch cooking and good quality ingredients a priority, because with time and experience, you too will be able to transform a few scraps of meat and leftovers and some tired vegetable into something both comforting and transcendent. Look into your fridge with an attitude of inquiry—you'll be amazed at what you can create.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

First (of many) Meal Plan for 2016

Instead of offering excuses or blathering about resolutions, I am simply going to say I'm back and intend to make more time for blog posts. A few things have shifted in my life so that I just might be able to stick with this on a regular basis. Yay!

For today, I will get back to the basics—providing my meal plan and recipes for the first week of January, and also sharing a bit of my current challenges around feeding my children.

As many parents would agree, the challenges seem to constantly shift, so once you think you've solved one problem another one seems to arise. Once we adjusted to D deciding he hates mushrooms, we suddenly also have to take into consideration that G has turned against pancakes (this is a tough one, since D doesn't consider a weekend to be complete without a large serving of pancakes).

At 5 and 7, my boys are considered by most to be good eaters. D in particular is growing fast enough that he can't afford to be fussy. Several moms have commented that when my boys are over, they are delighted by how enthusiastic they are about food. They eat most vegetables, they like all kinds of meat and starches, including lentils and whole grains. But if I try to mix things up in some kind of casserole, or too much spice of any kind, it is branded "too spicy" by five year old G, and rejected outright.

The strange thing is that G loves to eat when he likes what is put in front of him, and I've seen him literally break down in tears when we've had too many meals in a row where he has to try things he doesn't like or pick through things that contain ingredients he doesn't like. I don't want that to be his food experience either. It's tough on everyone.

If I were willing to serve what I have heard some chefs call "prison food"—a meat, starch and steamed vegetable, served untouching on the plate, my kids would for the most part be happy. It's me and my insistence on variety that get me into trouble. But I also know that sometimes they'll reject something one day and enjoy it the next, so I don't want to give in to their requests for simplicity just yet. It's all so confusing.

I'm trying to do more planning in order to make better use of what is in our pantry and freezer. I'm also trying to provide a variety of food experiences that both serve my kids' preferences for plain and simple and offer some new flavours and healthful options. I'm hoping it will do us all a service in the long run.

Starting with our meal tonight, I've set up a plan for six nights, offering a mix of vegetarian, meat, and options for using leftovers. Here goes!

Emeril's Asian-Style Braised Short Ribs
Steamed brown and wild rice
Braised Bok Choy

This meal has been a hit in the past, so I was pretty confident going in. I don't get fancy with the sauce, just braise the ribs and then put them not the table. The kids love the ribs and the rice. The bok choy, while loved by my husband and me, and scarfed down by D, was rejected by G. Oh well. He ate the kale salad the night before, and both a romaine salad and roasted broccolette the night before, so I'm just going to have to accept my losses along with the wins.

Fried rice with leftover roast pork, peas, corn and eggs
Asian inspired salad (Probably this salad dressing, Romaine lettuce and fresh mandarin oranges and cashews)

I don't really have a recipe for fried rice. I will just dig around in my fridge, pull out what I can find for veggies, chop it small and stir-fry it with the roast pork and leftover rice. Then I'll mix in an egg. I have already been informed by D (and G will certainly follow) that this will not be a popular meal. Maybe I'll bend a little and make up plates of all the stuff in the fried rice, but not mixed together, for the kids.


Vegetable Upside Down Cake (from Mollie Katzen's Enchanted Broccoli Forest (I have the old edition, but there's a new one))

I've never done this before, but it is a novel idea, and it fits my goal to pack in more vegetables in novel ways. I have lots of sweet peppers in my fridge after Christmas and New Years' parties. G declared sometime last year that he hates them, but he can usually be persuaded to pick them out.


Monster Meatballs in Tomato Sauce (from Canadian Living's new seasonal slow cooker magazine, Easy Does It)
Caesar Salad

At worst, G will eat plain spaghetti with cheese. Strangely, his favourite cheese of all time is fresh Parmeggiano, which he will eat by the handful. I'll maybe save him some lettuce without the 'spicy' Caesar dressing so he gets some vegetables.


Quinoa egg muffins by slenderkitchen.com
Roasted acorn squash
Salad (of some kind)

Squash is slowly becoming accepted in our household...very slowly. I'm not sure how this will be met in our house, but since I can't let the poor thing go to waste, I'm going to cook it. I'll try to work leftovers into my lunches.

As for the egg muffins, I will have a sense of what else needs using up by Thursday, and I can hopefully make a few without red peppers, so that G will enjoy them too.

Friday (Date night!)

I will only be cooking for the kids on Friday, since my hubby and I are planning to head out for a much needed adult night. We've been either traveling for work or just too busy to schedule a night out together for well over a month. We're looking forward to dinner and a movie.

My food fallback for date nights is usually smokies and perogies, some fresh veggies and a bowl of frozen peas. Weird, I know, but my kids plough through frozen peas like you wouldn't believe. Try it sometime! I often offer them as an after school snack.

Looking back on this meal plan, it may be too pushy for poor fussy G. But we have leftover roast pork and short ribs that we can make a meal of somehow if needed. And tomorrow, we're back to school lunches so I made a big batch of Morning Glory muffins, switching out the pecans for pepitas, to abide by the school's nut-free policy.

I thought I could find the morning glory muffin recipe link that I have been using for years, but I've been thwarted by the ephemeral nature of the World Wide Web. The original link is gone! But lucky for everyone, I have two hand-written copies of it in my recipe binder, so I will share here:

Morning Glory Muffins

Mix together in a large bowl:

4 c. flour (I used half white and half whole wheat)
4 c. oatmeal
2 1/2 c. sugar
4 t. baking soda
2 t. baking powder
4 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
1 c. sunflower seeds
1 c. sesame seeds
1 c. raisins
1 c. pecans (or pepitas)
1 c. coconut

In a separate large bowl, mix the wet ingredients:

6 eggs
1 c. buttermilk (or milk kefir)
1 c. vegetable oil
2 t. vanilla
2 c. grated carrot
2 c. grated zucchini
2 green apples, peeled and grated

Add wet ingredients to dry and mix well. Spoon into muffin cups and bake at 350F for 20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. I make these as mini muffins too. Then you only need to bake them for 10 minutes. This makes 4 dozen large muffins. You'll be enjoying them out of the freezer for a few weeks!