Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

One at a time please

Happy Halloween!Raise your hand if you would like to spend a teensy bit more time focusing on the holiday at hand before rushing headlong into Thanksgiving and past that immediately on to Christmas. Hold your hands up high now, no need to be shy, we are all friends here....

I recently heard a complaint that the stores were already filling with Christmas decorations and we haven't even started Advent yet.

Now, Advent, for those of you not familiar with a Church Calendar, is a run up of days spent waiting for the "advent" of Christ into the world, born as a baby in our imaginations each year on the arbitrarily selected date of December 24th. It lasts four weeks, so counting is begun 4 Sundays before Christmas Eve whenever that falls, and as a church season, Advent has a liturgy all its own, has colors and rites and hymns and even a bit of home decor.

You've seen those sets of candles available around Halloween - the three purple and one pink sets? Those are for Advent wreaths, with the purple and pink representing the Roman Catholic variation of the theme and Lutherans (my denomination) more typically using blue candles.

I go either way, depending on the year. A candle is lit each Sunday of the Advent season, along with special prayers and layered in symbolism week to week. All these observances meant to focus attention on getting ready, being prepared, on the idea that the waiting, the sense of not here yet but on its way, is something not to rush in, or out of.

So, as somebody who has always liked the poignant expectant nature of Advent, the appearance of the many Thanksgiving themed food articles and magazines when we have not yet cleared the Halloween hoop, is something I find mildly distressing.

Because today is Halloween doggone it, and even though I will not dress up or go house to house for candy, I realized I have developed a dinnertime strategy for the interrupted nature of the evening meal for this holiday that includes the preparation of one or two traditional (for us) dishes.The requirements for a reasonable Halloween dinner evolved. As we moved past the requirement to actually accompany our own children as they trick or treated, we yet needed something that can be prepared ahead of time, something that would forgive the leaving off of eating and coming back, something that wouldn't cool off unpleasantly quickly or be spoiled if left to itself for a bit as we answered the door for a relatively steady stream of candy seeking costumed neighborhood children.

And so it came to be that we rotate back and forth year to year between Tortilla Soup or Chicken Chile Stew. This year is a Chicken Chile Stew year as it turns out, and mine is merrily bubbling away stovetop as I write.

This recipe is one of the few I feel is truly "mine". I put this stew together originally to use up leftover turkey after Thanksgiving one year. It turned out so well that after I reprised it several more times past that with the more easily secured boneless skinless chicken breasts, the whole turkey idea of origin simply faded away,

Here is the current incarnation in a pared down version for two. This stew can be made more souplike with the addition of more stock, and can be served as readily with rice or noodles in place of the potatoes. It is made special with the flavors of green chiles and crema added in, and is great with any sort of toasty warm bread product. We've enjoyed this with naan, flour tortillas, Challah, biscuits and sourdough rolls (though not all at the same time).Chicken Chile Stew
Serves 2 generously

1 whole large chicken breast (skinless boneless) cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 small onion chopped
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 teaspoon dried cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
2-3 carrots cut in 1/2 inch pieces (about 1 cup)
2 small cans Hatch chopped green chiles
2 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 cup peeled chopped potato
2 cups water
salt, pepper to taste
1 tablespoon oil
1/4 to 1/3 cup Crema [or sour cream]

Place oil in stock pot over medium high heat and brown chicken pieces on all sides. Lower heat to medium, add onion, celery, cumin and sage. Cook, stirring occasionally until onions are translucent (about 5 minutes).

Add carrots and green chiles, Stir well, deglazing pan, and add chicken stock. Simmer over low heat for 10 minutes.

Add potatoes and water, season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook over low heat until potatoes and carrots are tender and chicken pieces are fork tender.

The stew may hold at this point over low heat until ready to serve or may refrigerated at this point if made ahead.

When ready to serve, stir 1/4 to 1/3 cup of sour cream or crema into stew and ladle into bowls.

Notes: If you like your stews thicker, you may dredge your chicken pieces in flour prior to browning in oil or thicken with a cornstarch slurry prior to stirring in crema.For the best flavor of course, use your own home made chicken stock. If you don't have homemade stock, you might want to use thigh meat and/or chicken pieces with skin attached to get more of that chicken flavor in your dish. Otherwise the chile flavor will dominate which is ok if you are a green chile fan I suppose but not the point.As I mentioned before, this is delicious with any sort of bread alongside. I did try it with cornbread once, and the corn taste goes well with the green chiles no worries, but I like this much more with any sort of less crumbly bread product that will hold together and support my efforts to sponge every last drop of liquid out of my bowl at the end.

Final aside: I am not practiced at writing cooking instructions. If you have any questions about this please use the comments section and I'll do my best to clarify.

So there you have it. Just for a day like today, or more importantly, a night like tonight, a simple stew to provide dinner for two. If I'm fortunate this year and all the candy gets handed over to the younger set appearing in varying sized groups at the front door, I won't even miss having no sugary leftovers for dessert.

Happy Halloween, Y'all!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

This Post Just Wrote Itself....

Nah not really.

I read that in blog posts and think maybe it is true for them, but for me? There are stretches of days when I start to post but keep interrupting myself with visions of a T-shirt I saw that stated "nobody cares about your blog!". Or I'll recall a book by a big deal blog writing coach entitled "nobody cares what you ate for lunch".

I begin to think to myself is that what this is? Another "this is what I had for lunch post?".

Annnnd I slowly step away from the keyboard. Again.

I haven't been sitting around on my hands though. Far from it. I've got lots going on.

Some of my projects are well considered and clearly represent improvements. I consider others of my projects though and begin muttering to myself "OK Deb, is this charming....or just nuts? Eccentricity at play here or is it finally time to reserve that padded room?".Case in point:the other day after making stock I fished out and bleached these poultry vertebrae because as the retired manager for a neurosurgical practice, they spoke to me. (NO not out loud...artistic license for Pete's sake calm down).These aren't totally creepy are they? I mean, used in the right way as an element in combination with other items these small structurally intriguing bones could represent a fascinating glimpse into motion and how it is supported by our bodies. Right? (Right? Anybody???)

Honestly I see other people widely recognized as creative types out there with their whimsical garden elements {photo below from the wonderful Cheryl Goveia's garden and blog Conscious Gardening}and I'm inspired and think to myself "I can do that!".And, some of the time, I totally can.But I ask you, why is it that when I see a photo of something on anybody else's blog it looks totally legit and when I view something I feel is similar in my own spaces in real time I keep wondering if my neighbors occasionally wish me harm?

By now you are perhaps yawning politely behind your hand and wondering "when does this get to be about food because if I wanted to read about what you are doing in your crazy yard I'd be reading posts on your other blog, lady".

I do realize this blog by its own description is supposed to be food oriented and one cursory glance at my shape would assure even a casual observer "yes sirree that lady is sure enough eating!". But the cross blogging just seems to be happening lately. And, along with slightly cooler temperatures I've been either sticking to simple comfort foods such as meat loaf, or coming up with what turns out to be delicious dishes that I don't get a photo of because I'm just playing and not entirely sure how they'll turn out.Let's be real. You don't want to know how I make meat loaf now, do ya. You already have your own way to make meat loaf and I'm guessing yours is awesome for you like mine is amazing for me.

It all boils down to a certain lack of "here you go-ness!" lately. I can't say why but I am most definitely not taking things quite so much for granted. Can't say for sure what has my worldview jostled ever so slightly, maybe it is only the aftereffect of a summer's worth of desiccation. I'm definitely in the realm of the near miss/hunker down in the bunker tribe at the moment however.

Not rendered inactive, far from it. Just not quite so likely to "ta-DA" what I've been up to. That ever happen to you? Some sort of invisible to the naked eye cloak of hesitance ever settle in on you? Did it seem to be just what you expected or take you by surprise? Did you "do" anything about it or ride that pony to see where it would take you? I'm just curious....

In the meantime I'm keeping a critical eye out for just the right spot to stage my chicken bones. When I find it, you'll be among the first to know. You can thank me later.....

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Condiment Wars

Humorist Robert Benchley's Law of Distinction states there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't.

I confess. I am a "two kinds of people" world splitter from way back.

This categorizing began for me as a very little girl when I first noticed that my original assumption, the one where the rest of the world was a carbon copy of my own family with the only variation being the different stage setting of their individual homes, was faulty.Without any blood relatives living close enough to visit regularly, my first tip-off to the amazing variety of "otherness" out there was discovered at the dinner tables of friends and neighbors.

Especially as I began to spend the night over at friend's houses, meal time became revelation time. What other families ate and how they fixed what they served offered me a fascinating glimpse into a realm of food possibilities I thought existed only in magazines.

What is boringly obvious to the adult was to my child self an earth shattering observation. Other Moms shopped in different grocery stores. Bought different brand names. Prepared different dishes or perhaps most shocking to me initially; prepared the same dishes we had at home but in a different way.

I still remember grinning as a second grader, sitting at her kitchen table with my friend Meredith for the first time, swinging my legs happily as I ravenously devoured what tasted just like my own Mom's deviled eggs. Only these eggs were mashed and chopped up, served between pieces of bread! They called it egg salad sandwich. I called it genius.

I could not wait to get home and share this startlingly innovative idea with my own Mom who was frustratingly unenthusiastic in response to my suggestion that the rest of our family be let in on this Egg Salad Sandwich secret I'd discovered.

Undeterred, I began angling for meal invitations to suss out the subtle and at times not so subtle variations on food themes as expressed at the tables of young girls in my acquaintance.

I'd try to assure our presence in the kitchen while lunch or dinner was being prepared. While a few especially bountifully stocked pantries shimmered with the prospect of choices galore, most homes had expressions of preferences clearly outlined by what was offered us by the Mom in charge as our meal or snack time options.

There were houses offering Coca-Cola, and others where only Pepsi products were found. There were those who favored sweet pickles and those who were all dill all the way. Potato or corn chips? Bunny bread or whole wheat? Ready made bottled juices or pitchers made from concentrate?

I began to see eating with my friends as a way to vicariously sample how other people lived.Nowhere did the dividing line become more clearly expressed than with condiments. There was never, in my experience, a home where any choice was offered between mayonnaise or Miracle Whip dressing. If you wanted white stuff on your sandwich you got whatever they had which I later realized was (probably) going to be whatever the Mom of the house (or whoever did the grocery shopping) personally preferred.

I grew up unquestioningly eating what my Mother liked best, Kraft Mayonnaise. The Hub grew up eating what his Mother liked best, Kraft Miracle Whip. They look the same. They are made by the same company. Is there a difference?

Well, yes. For starters Miracle Whip is sweeter to the taste, but has fewer calories. This is partly due to a lower oil content, which prohibits Kraft from calling it "mayonnaise".

According to Real Simple's blurb on the topic, Miracle Whip, introduced in 1933 at the Chicago World's Fair, was premiered by Kraft as a Depression Era lower priced alternative to mayonnaise.

That makes the choice even more compelling as a matter of taste preference. My ever frugal Mom recycled the syrup from cans of fruit into the pitchers of reconstituted fruit juice she served us rather than dump that liquid she has paid "good cash money for" down the sink.

She didn't buy any brand that was more expensive if there was an acceptable alternative taste wise. But she consistently paid more for mayonnaise and never, EVER bought Miracle Whip. She just didn't like the taste.

When the Hub and I established our own home together, after an aborted attempt to eat mustard alone, it rapidly became clear neither one of us would easily or happily abandon our childhood ideal of what was the correct white spread to slather on a sandwich.

Thus, a truly hybrid pantry home was formed between us, one where both Miracle Whip AND Mayonnaise would be ever present. It was too difficult to choose so we chose not to choose.

Clearly I am not the only one who has noted this tendency to stick with whatever a person grew up eating. The recent ad campaign by the folks at Miracle Whip is (rather ingeniously I'll admit) playing with challenging that treasured 18-34 year old cohort to rebel against the majority (presumably as represented by their parents) who typically use mayonnaise products as the go-to sandwich spread.I'm not the only one to find the idea of Rebel with a Jar amusing. No less trenchant a social critic than Stephen Colbert had this to say recently on the subject:

Your turn to throw a knife in the jar. When it comes to your own sandwich making, are you a mayonnaise or a Miracle Whip person? If you are all mayo all the time, do you have brand loyalty? Are you one of the die-hard Hellman's/Best fans or do you buy what is available or what is less expensive? I mindlessly bought Kraft for years because that was what my Mom liked until I did a taste test of my own and discovered I liked Hellman's better.

Do you make your own mayonnaise fresh as needed and eschew the big jar of white altogether? We're all friends here - weigh in with your comments and let's clear this up.

What goes best between two pieces of bread?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RIP Gourmet (Sorry, I'm so so so sorry.....)

There seem to be as many types of responses as there are stages of grief surfacing over the recently announced death of Gourmet magazine.

I will admit, the end of Gourmet Magazine does seem to spell the end of some sort of era. There are those like Paige Orlof,genuinely eulogizing, seeking out family members for solace and respectfully reflecting how much the magazine has meant to her over the span of years, speculatively sharing how much she among so many others will miss her monthly copy.

Orlof's response along with others like hers, seems to reasonably fall within various stages of depression moving towards acceptance. As advised, one ought not try to hustle anybody through from one stage to the next, allowing time and grieving to do their own work.

There are others unfortunately stuck in some sort of earlier denial/anger stage, insisting on finger pointing as potentially typified by these dueling op ed pieces (delightfully or annoyingly, depending on your stance, playing out further in the comments sections for each) about whether food blogs and their authors are to be blamed for the failure of what many considered the flagship of high end food publications.Christopher Kimball in his NYT piece, Gourmet to All That, seems to feel food bloggers exemplify What is Wrong with American Food Writing Today. Kimball writes "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up."

In reply, Adam Roberts, aka the Amateur Gourmet posted A Response to C. Kimball wherein he proposes that "while the medium may continue to change, cream still rises to the top".I am no expert and I am most definitely not a dairy product. But because my Momma raised me to always be polite, especially about the dead, as one of some supposed thirty three thousand food bloggers on the internet*, I want to be near the front of the line to offer my personally-public apology to Ruth Reichland her readership, for taking Gourmet off the newstands.Ms. Reichl, Mr. Kimball, Interweb, and American Public in the form of my dozen (on a great day) readers: I am very very sorry my food blog killed your beloved Gourmet Magazine.

I did not mean for that to happen and I really, truly am sorry my blog posts are the reason this acclaimed magazine will no longer appear in mailboxes or on neighborhood newsstands.

If I had any idea my food blog would crash Gourmet magazine I would have never selfishly persisted in posting. I would most certainly take Eater's offer of twenty five dollars to shut my blog down forever, potentially even using that money to buy a subscription all my own to Gourmet which would clearly still be flourishing except for me and my incredibly influential two (to twelve!) regular readers.

I plead ignorance as my only defense.

After watching all the predictions come true as one by one MTV eliminated radio stations; VCRs eliminated movie theaters; online music sales eliminated record companies; and most recently Kindle eliminated all the publishing houses, I simply should have known the internet generally, and my food blog specifically, would be responsible for taking down the Gourmet empire.

I turned a blind eye to the facts, interweb, and I selfishly insisted on irregularly putting posts out where people could choose to read them if they wanted to. I was wrong, I was not acting in the best interests of Condé Nast, and now there are people who have lost their jobs because of me and my blog.

Taking this model out to its logical conclusion, I wish to preemptively apologize to the people working long and hard at the presumably similarly doomed Traveller magazine. Apparently your necks will be next on the line.I have willfully shared my vacation photos with friends and family all these years which will obviously be responsible, sooner if not later, for bringing about the demise of Traveller magazine.

I am sorry, I am ashamed, and I can only hope you will forgive me. I really had no idea.....

*I cannot say if the statement there are some thirty-three thousand food bloggers is correct. I just know I read it somewhere - probably on a food blog....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Slow Feast in the Field

Doesn't this look cool? I am a big fan of these schools although truth be told, neither ChefSon nor LawSchoolGirl attended, back in the day. No mind - check this out and see if you don't want to support the cause.

From the press release:
Third Annual Benefit for Unique Public Charter School

Austin, TX - October 10, 2009 - On Saturday evening, October 24, 2009, Green Gate Farms will host its third annual Slow Feast in the Field celebrating local, naturally grown, freshly harvested food to benefit the Austin Discovery School (ADS).

This magical evening will feature a progressive five-course gourmet meal served outdoors at the historic Bergstrom homestead. Guests will dine on seasonal fare surrounded by fields of produce. The menu will feature heirloom vegetables and Duroc/Berkshire pork raised at the farm and prepared by Chef Jesse Bloom of Ecstatic Cuisine.

“We look forward to hosting this event each year because Austin
Discovery School is one of the most innovative elementary schools in
Austin,” says Erin Flynn, co-founder of Green Gate Farms, a family-owned and operated sustainable farm eight miles east of downtown
Austin.  “Putting on this feast is such fun: the farm twinkles and the
food is divine.”

Local sponsors include: Slow Food Austin, Sweet Leaf Tea, Richard’s Rain Water, Marquee Event Group, Flat Creek Estate, Stacey Hoyt Events, Mary Louise Butters Brownies, Elixer Coffee, Texas Olive Ranch, Good Flow Honey, and Texas Medicinals.

This intimate dining experience is limited to 100 guests. The Austin Discovery School will use funds from the event to support it’s innovative programs, which include one of the county’s most established organic Junior Master Gardener® programs. Tickets are $100 per plate.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And this is why

I cannot (cough, ahem!) clean up the stacks on my desk, thanks.Seriously, how could I pass up watching my latest editor do her balancing act otherwise?Obviously, it is tiring work. But, a cat's gotta do what a cat's gotta do.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Something of a Stretch

Pay no attention to that man with the yam.

The inland oats and the oak trees have called it.Still needing the A/C running occasionally or not, it is by golly FALL.

And this past week especially I have been happy as happy can be for some slightly cooler temperatures, allowing me to reintroduce some cooler weather favorites back into our mealtime rotation.

I'll admit nothing original here, just some inspired borrowing and what I consider to be necessarily frugal and slightly more ethical reworking of ingredients to inventively stretch animal protein. Allow me to explain?

Serving as a first example of an old reliable in that category, a Niman Ranch shoulder roast. My Mom used to call beef fixed this way Pot Roast. It is a straight out braised roast really, cut into a few large chunks, with some of the resulting sumptuous meat pieces first appearing over a half baked potato liberally doused with braised onions and the eponymous liquid from the pot.

That braised beef next showed up neatly tucked into chimichangas. I use up small portions of pork or beef or chicken this way regularly, shredding the meat, moistening it with pesto or salsa, adding a bit of grated cheese and wrapping it all in butter softened flour tortilla bundles that are then pricked with a fork and baked for 15-20 minutes in a hot oven until toasty brown. Using smaller sized tortillas makes for great portion control and leftover chimichangas travel and reheat well for quick lunches.I put the third and final bit of the beef put to work center stage in a hash, costarring with a farm fresh egg, over easy. Hash is dead simple to make, there are all sorts of reliable guides to preparation out there and once you top it with egg it is all kinds of crazy good for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

As reliable and delicious as braised beef is (and oh boy is it ever!), I think the real winner around here lately is this recipe from 101 Cookbook's Heidi Swanson for a Rustic Cabbage Soup. As these things go, it was not the featured recipe for her recent post, but a link in that post to a previous entry from January of last year.

I began following Swanson's site to find recipes that could help me in my attempts to have us eat less animal protein.

I did add Nilgai sausage to the recipe (a gift from a hunter friend of the family). While that may seem counterintuitive to my stated purpose, let me hasten to add that whenever I add animal protein to a soup or stew, it stretches those protein servings out, so while the Hub and I are still getting our desired animal bits, we are getting them fewer and further in between while not losing anything in taste or enjoyment. Baby steps, y'all.The Rustic Cabbage Soup recipe is rich and delicious and I recommend it to you as written, or, if substituting in a link of sausage, just brown it with the onions and garlic and skip the addition of white beans. I especially appreciated how, after cooking the potato pieces first in oil, they held together as a discrete element in the soup rather than simply giving it up to the broth. I'll be incorporating that little trick into other dishes I'm sure. And isn't that a great part of the fun of cooking? Figuring out how these techniques are used to get a certain desired result so you can more confidently wing it when you want to, is the name of the game.

I spooned a little Crema on top to slightly offset the jalapeño liberally included in our sausages. We had the soup for dinner with a spinach and upland cress salad alongside. I sprinkled the greens with bits of organic pear and crumbled toasted pecans and coated it all lightly with a a rice wine vinaigrette.I offered toasted La Brea sourdough (now baked fresh daily at Wheatsville) slathered with Irish butter alongside and I promise you, nobody pushed away from the table feeling they'd been slighted in any way.

Finally, I want to offer a word of encouragement to anybody out there who has not yet made a batch of applesauce this season. If you are anything like me, you've gotten quite used to the array of applesauce offerings on the shelves at the store, and perhaps, as I did, you sometimes forget how pleasing and how easy home made really is.I can't begin to describe how satisfying it was to slowly peel and pare a 3 pound bag of apples, knowing I'd have several generous helpings of applesauce as a healthy dessert alternative to offer after that small effort.

Maybe it is just me being weirdly me, but I love to peel stuff. With a nice sharp knife in hand I get very much into the process, appreciating the textures, making progress in my pile of "to be peeled" versus my pieces of "ready for the pot". I find it quite meditative. And the smell! That wonderful aroma of apples cooking is as much an observation and seasonal celebration as anything I can imagine short of carving a pumpkin.

If all you need is a gentle nudge to remind you to make applesauce!, consider it done. Buy a bag of organic apples and make yourself a batch of applesauce while the supply is abundant, won't you? And, try Swanson's rustic soup. You can eat it right away as she suggests, or try my preference which is to let it sit overnight in the refrigerator for the flavors to fully develop before reheating and serving. It is wonderfully hearty and representative of some of Fall's best offerings.

Whether the thermometer is reinforcing your feeling of the season or not, Fall is here, the trees and the plants all know it, so be sure to find your own way to immerse yourself and enjoy it while it lasts.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's in a name? Part II

As I was saying, every family is somewhat at the mercy of whoever does the cooking for them. Growing up, I was vicariously subjected to the likes and dislikes of my Mom, my brother and my Father. Whatever they didn't like, especially Mom or Dad, we probably wouldn't see much of. Whatever they all liked could be counted upon to reappear with regularity. I had my own limited input, having potentially eliminated succotash from our table at least, and so it goes from generation to generation.When it finally became my turn at the kitchen counter, predictably I faced my own trials. Starting with the "too much salt and sugar in commercial baby food" scare of the 70's, once aware of the chemical soup contained in most prepared foods, I began a label reading quest for safe and healthy foods. Eschewing any ingredient I could not pronounce, on behalf of my then young children I pretty much eliminated most products considered "convenient" from my pantry and refrigerator.

Between only four people, two of us enjoyed casseroles, two of us, not so much. One of us was of the opinion no foods should mix or mingle until well after having been devoured singly, each food item taking its turn on the palate separately, no juices touching, please. There were ongoing issues of color, texture and smell. There were firm pronouncements "I don't like that." offered without further explanation to give some hint as to what went awry.

With the exception of three dishes I (infrequently) prepared deploying "cream of" cans of soup, when I came home from the office I faced making something completely from scratch every night. I either accommodated the tastes of my family or faced turning dinnertime into a reproduction of my childhood battlefield, something I deeply desired to avoid seeing as we had so little face to face time to begin with.

All along the way I chose not to push any particular dish on any particular diner once a preference to avoid was established. Whenever I did have advance notice one or more would be out of the dinnertime mix for any reason, I seized that opportunity to prepare some dish the missing members didn't like the rest of us enjoyed.

As time went by, this "while you were out" pattern evolved into ChefSon and I enjoying an occasional casserole together. Specifically, Tuna Casserole. Tuna Casserole became a shared comfort food my son and I bonded over while Hub and LawSchoolGirl were gratefully self excluded.

So, when I reported to ChefSon I'd tried a new recipe for tuna casserole recently, he was slightly intrigued.

A determining feature of any comfort food is that once you've hit upon just the right recipe, you rinse, lather, repeat. You take that dish, and you by golly fix it the same way, predictably, soothingly, time after time after time. I stipulate it is that reason, bottom line, why people like McDonald's and certain other chain fast food venues. It isn't so much about taste.

It is neither about ease or speed so much as comfort encased in the styrofoamed guise of predictability. It is what chains do best. In an otherwise unpredictable world they sell you certainty in the form of reproducible food.

Back to this new tuna casserole. I rushed to assure ChefSon that while I had jumped my usual hoop of "preparing the recipe the way it is written the first time" I had nonetheless added to this new recipe what is for us the obligatory comfortable starting point tastewise for any tuna casserole to succeed. You can offer other tweaks to the mix, but if you want our attention to be potentially followed by our devotion, this particular hot dish must be topped with fiery bits of salty crispy potato. Every bite of any tuna casserole hoping to pass muster, much less our lips, must be first be topped with crumbled jalapeño potato chips.

Thusly reassured, we moved into discussing why I'd bothered to try a new version of an old favorite.

"Nothing exotic going on" I told him, I had ingredients on hand I wanted to use up, and I'd always meant to find a tasty way to get past guiltily using that can of cream of mushroom soup to make an acceptable tuna casserole.

"This recipe for "Mediterranean Tuna Casserole"...." I started to say, and that is when our conversation took an unexpected turn.

ChefSon: (interrupting) Why is it called "Mediterranean"? What's in it?
Me: Artichoke hearts, bell pepper, shallots....
ChefSon: (breaking in again) Mom, are any of those actually Mediterranean ingredients? (no pause for answer) Is there anything in that recipe that actually represents the cuisine of the region? You know most artichokes are grown in California, right?
Me: Yes but....
ChefSon: I hate it when recipes are randomly named "Mediterranean" when there is nothing remotely Mediterranean about them. Is there anything else in there?
Me: Well, tuna, white sauce...
CS: When recipes get stupid labels people don't know any better and they have no idea what to expect when a dish is accurately labeled Mediterranean and actually based on foods from that particular region. I hate it when...
Me: (breaking in) OK, OK, let's agree to just call it Tuna Casserole then, all right?

And there we were. I had blindly accepted the name of the recipe without considering for a moment if that name related in any way to the ingredients in the dish. Do people living in Mediterranean countries ever eat what we think of as tuna casserole? I have my doubts. I had focused on what "Tuna Casserole" means to me giving any thought to what the use of "Mediterranean" in the name of the dish might imply.

Which is or is not crucial, but ChefSon does make a point. If I am going to work on understanding what it is I am cooking and eating at home or in restaurants, I do perhaps need to be more aware of that practice of carelessly slapping regional appellations on recipes or dishes when that bears no relationship to their origin or ingredient list. Inauthentically glamming up a recipe name by throwing in an unrelated food term ought not to be acceptable. Especially not when offered by no less a widely turned to online resource than the Martha Stewart empire.

Yes, this so-called Mediterranean Tuna Casserole is a Martha Stewart recipe.

Historically, when I read one of her brand's Everyday Food recipes, if my immediate reaction is "I'd like that!" and upon closer reading I do not discover some need for a piece of equipment I don't have (stand mixer, say) or the need to spend hours to days jumping through preparation hoops, then I forge ahead with confidence, knowing something predictably good will come out of my time and efforts.
(This photo: Martha Stewart Site)
And this Mediterranean Tuna Casserole, (recipe at link), part of a make one/freeze one for later series offered on the Martha Stewart website, does produce a legitimately delicious dish. That said.....

If I had tried the recipe in an attempt to introduce my family to "Mediterranean" foods? It would have been, even if they liked the taste, a massive fail because there is nothing even remotely Mediterranean about it.

Likewise if I had totally avoided the recipe because of some potentially epic succotash type battle over Mediterranean food in my past. Then I'd have missed something special for no real reason. You could be a Mediterranean Food Avoider of the first order and yet have absolutely no quarrel with this dish. The only thing Mediterranean about this recipe is the term itself, inexplicably thrust into the name of the dish.

In the end it simply matters what you call things. People associate names of foods or regional cuisines with what they already know and like about them. Or in some cases, dislike.

No matter what we call it, I will be preparing this recipe again because it was not only acceptable as a new version of this comfort food for me, it actually appealed to the Hub in this iteration, releasing me to fearlessly throw tuna casserole into our regular rotation. When I next fix this version of tuna casserole however, I think I will call it, "No Soup Tuna Casserole". That is, after all, not only accurate, but what drew me in to try the recipe in the first place.

I followed the recipe, ingredients halved, as written with one exception. After stirring the parmesean cheese meant to be sprinkled on as a topping into the casserole itself, and topped the whole shebang off with two-three handfuls of crumbled jalapeño chips.It was everything I could have hoped for in a new run at an old classic. Creamy, rich, colorful, and I didn't miss the convenience of the can one little bit.

No Soup Tuna Casserole is a winner. Doubtless the sauce-as-substitute-for-can technique will find its way into improving the two other dishes which I previously guiltily prepared, employing as I did, cream of something soup as part of their preparation.

What do you think? Do you care what a dish is called? Have you ever avoided a recipe just going by the title? Do you agree diners ought not be potentially taken in by misattributing a dish or its ingredients? I have to admit, once I thought about it, I was surprised at what seems careless on the part of an otherwise precise and controlled Martha Stewart brand.

Potato potahto, I will call this casserole a keeper and fix it again. If you or somebody you love is a tuna casserole fan, then give this recipe a whirl. Just please don't call it "Mediterranean".

Friday, October 2, 2009

Some of the time....

I kind of scare myself.

Exhibit A: Yesterday I made stock. Nothing remarkable about that, although by golly this batch was photogenic starting out. However, I promise you I did not stir or season or check the fluid levels in that pot one single time without feeling extraordinarily pleased with myself, and hearing my own voice sing-songing in my head "I'm making stoh-ohck!".Really. Smug. Over making stock. Yikes!

Exhibit B: Today I went ahead and bought Halloween Candy. We have a diminishing number of trick or treaters in our neighborhood, changing demographics, overall decline in kids who go door to door as opposed to attending parties, whatever. I still like to have something on hand but it was not until after I'd gotten home and was putting the candy in a safe (read:out of sight) place so it would actually still be around by the end of the month that I noticed what I'd done. Yup, that's right. I bought both Dum-Dums and Smartees. Sigh. I can't tell if I was being incredibly wry and witty on some unconscious level or if I ought to phone in a reservation for a padded room and get that over with.