Living Well

March 9, 2012 § 6 Comments

I know, I’m writing about beans, again. But last week I wrote about how whenever we are in a money crunch the two things that make frequent appearances in our diet are bread and beans.  There was talk about  my current bread of choice and promise of a nice way with beans. So, see, I promised.  And,  I love beans and want everyone to know how good they can be.  So, here we are, at beans, again.  I should say at the beginning that almost every idea I have about making beans is from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (a treasure trove of thoughts on food). Before I read her excellent chapter on beans, called “How to Live Well”, I had one bean recipe. One. It’s a good recipe, but when your finances dictate inexpensive food (and you don’t want to eat ramen or boxed mac n cheese), you need ideas for beans and lots of ’em.

There is a lot of debate on whether you need to pre-soak dried beans or not (see an interesting thread on the topic here).  After reading about it pretty extensively, and being utterly confused by so much contradicting information, I’ve decided to just do what works best for me and hope for the best.  So, I pre-soak.  There is a quick soak method (bring beans and water to a boil for a few minutes, then take off the heat, letting beans sit in hot water for an hour) that works in a pinch, but I prefer the low-key nature of just plopping them in a bowl of water the night before.   Don’t let the idea of “soaking beans” send you into a “this is too much hassle” state of mind.  There are really only three actions involved: pouring the beans into a bowl, adding enough water in the bowl to cover them by a few inches, and placing them in an out-of-the-way place in your kitchen. And you’re done with soaking.  You can start a set of beans soaking without even having a detailed plan for them.  You don’t have to cook them in 8 hours or even 12.  You can soak beans for 24 hours (some people say even more) before you cook them, so you’ve got tons of time to figure this out. (It’s actually supposed to be great for easing digestion and absorbing nutrients if you do give them an extra-long soak.)

After soaking, I put all the beans in a large pot and cover them by 2 inches of fresh water (a little more if I know I’m turning it into soup).  I bring them up to a boil, but only just to the start of the boil, and then decrease the heat to what produces a light simmer in the water.  While the beans are coming to a boil, I chop up an onion (onion skin can do, too), a few carrots, some celery,  and 6 or 7 cloves of garlic (because I love garlic).  I take the skin off a lemon with a vegetable peeler or paring knife (no pith), and I get out a bay leaf, a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme, and my salt. Once I’ve lowered the heat on the beans, I dump all of the vegetables, the lemon, herbs, and about 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of salt (some people say not to salt until the end, but I’ve had better tasting beans doing it this way).  I usually then remember that the best beans (and soups) I have ever made have been simmered with a cheese rind (the hard end of your block of parmesan, pecorino, etc.  don’t throw them away; keep them in your freezer for such an occasion as cooking beans), so I throw one of those in, too.  I add about 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil, cover, and walk away, letting the beans bathe in all that goodness for about 30-60 minutes (the older the bean, the longer they need to cook). You’ll know they are done when you can peel the skin off the bean by lightly blowing on it (this is a technique from food writer Clementine Paddleford found in AEM and I love it in theory and in practice).  They should be creamy through the middle, not crunchy in the slightest.  Remove the bay leaf, whole herb stems, the lemon peel, and the cheese rind if you can find it.

You now have a pot of flavorful, hearty beans (and some vegetables) and all the delicious liquid in which they cooked.  What should you do now? Here are some places to start (almost all straight out of Adler’s book):

~If I want soup, I add diced potato and some chopped greens (my favorite is kale), and maybe a can of tomatoes, with the juice, to the pot and let it all simmer until the potato is cooked through.  After checking the seasoning,  I ladle it into bowl and serve with a small dollop of basil pesto if I have it, or olive oil and parmesan if I don’t.  Croutons made from yesterday’s bread are good here, too.

~If we are wanting meat and I have some sausage, I brown a few in a pan, ladle the cooked beans and vegetables into a baking dish, and nestle the sausages in so they are cozy.  Then I add a little of the bean broth and put the dish into a low oven (325 degrees F or so).  When the sausage is cooked through I serve them with some herbs and garlicky bread crumbs if available, or just serve it as is.

~Or, you can do my favorite meal that I could eat happily every day (I use pinto beans, but you could use any you like): Saute some chopped kale (or green of your choice) in olive oil. Season it with salt.  Take your cooked beans and veggies and a little of the broth and warm it all over medium heat.  Add the greens to the pan and stir.  Crack as many eggs as people to feed into the beans.  Season the eggs with salt and pepper, scatter some fresh thyme over everything, and cover.  Let cook until the eggs have turned opaque and then take off the heat. Squeeze some lemon juice over the pan.  Put an egg and beans into each bowl, add a some feta cheese or, even better, a bit of olive pesto. You might want to eat it everyday, too (and please invite me over).

Whenever I eat and serve beans in these ways I’m awed by how well we can do with very little money and a little care.  I’ll end with a quote from “How to Live Well” because she says what I mean so beautifully:

“We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn’t been our more foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar.  And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live.”

Don’t you agree?

For the list makers:

1 lb of dried beans (white, pinto, black, cranberry, etc)

onion (or onion scraps if you need the onion elsewhere)

chopped carrot (how much depends on your taste and what you have)

chopped celery (same as the carrot on the amount)

6-7 garlic cloves (or however much you like)

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of rosemary or 2 sprigs of thyme

peel of 1/2 to 1 lemon

1 hard cheese rind

olive oil



An Everlasting Meal and Starting Off Right

January 4, 2012 § 9 Comments

                                                                                          An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace

The beginning of a new year is upon us making it a great time to re-evaluate, set goals (some we’ll keep and some we already haven’t), and think about all that this coming year could be.  It’s an optimistic time, with the year in such an unblemished state, and thanks to cook and writer Tamar Adler’s recent book, An Everlasting Meal (a gift from thoughtful family member and friend…Thanks Ellie!) , I’m feeling especially excited about the year of cooking that’s stretched out before me.

An Everlasting Meal is less a cookbook with page after page of recipes, and more a book full of the author’s thoughts about her favorite ways to feed and even spiritually nourish people with great food, made simply, with the humblest of ingredients. From the introduction:

This is not a cookbook or a memoir or a story about one person or one thing.  It is a book about eating affordably, responsibly, and well, and because doing so relies on cooking, it is mostly about that…It doesn’t contain “perfect” or “professional ways to do anything, because we don’t need to be professionals to cook well, any more than we need to be doctors to treat bruises or scrapes: we don’t need to shop like chefs or cook like chefs; we need to shop and cook like people learning to cook, like what we are–people who are hungry.

In the introduction, Adler says that her book is fashioned after famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf, a book written to encourage World War II era cooks to prepare the best food possible, even when food was rationed and pantries were often bare.  Fisher’s book wasn’t strictly a cookbook, either, but was about “living well, in spite of lack”.

Both How to Cook a Wolf and An Everlasting Meal are full of ideas for cooks with limited resources, but their intelligent, witty writing make them more than practical cooking manuals. Take the chapter titles, for example: M.F.K. Fisher’s book has section titles like ”How to Be Cheerful Though Starving” and ”How to Have a Sleek Pelt.”  Tamar Adler’s book has “How to Boil Water” (an improbable ode to boiling) , “How to Catch Your Tail” (about making things from the tail ends of things), and “How to Light a Room” (how to use herbs to perk up your food or to actually BE your food).

My favorite section in An Everlasting Meal is one called “How to Live Well” where she describes the best ways to cook and eat beans.  I love beans, but I have tended to love them mostly because they enable me to feed my family for almost nothing.  Tamar Adler has helped me get over seeing beans as merely cheap and has given me ideas for cooking and serving beans that seem thoroughly decadent (usually containing joyfully immoderate amounts of olive oil). From “How to Live Well”:

“Warm cooked beans in a little pan.  Add sautéed kale, or roasted squash, or a little bit of roasted tomato, or add nothing at all.  Crack an egg or two into the beans, cover the pan, and cook.  If you have stale bread, put a toasted piece, rubbed with garlic, in each bowl.  Spoon the beans and egg over the toast, salt each egg, grind it with fresh black pepper, drizzle the beans and egg copiously with olive oil, grate them thickly with Parmesan, and dine like a Roman plebeian, or a Tuscan pauper, prince, or pope.”

Does that not make you want to sprint to your kitchen to create sumptuous bean dishes and give delight to all you feed?  The amazing thing is this book is full of these kind of passages, riddled with ideas and opportunities for creativity that will make cooking less of an “obstacle” and remind us that it’s “among the most human things we do”.

I’ll return to An Everlasting Meal over and over, especially at the start of new years and seasons, because it reminds me why I began to love to cook in the first place: “When we cook things, we transform them.”  There’s so much pleasure in being able to take things from one state and transform it into something different, something that you want: flour and butter into a flaky crust, a bunch of parsley into a healthy soup, an egg from liquid to solid in the shell or out.  Adler seems to know my mind exactly when she writes: “we feel, when we exert tiny bits of our human preference in the universe, more alive.” and,  I would add, we feel more like who we are meant to be.  This seems like a great way to start a year.

Recipes for the Holiday Rush

December 14, 2011 § 4 Comments

When I’m busy, I get caught: dinnertime comes, but I’ve not had a single thought about dinner.  Everyone’s hungry, I’m tired, and we just get a pizza or something. It’s fine sometimes, but the money can add up.  So, here are some links for a few recipes that I’ve been making lately in effort to get through the “busy, busy” of Christmas without breaking the bank on take out or fast food.

  • Pappardell with Slow-Cooked Meat-Yes, I know, “slow cooked meat” is a pretty unfortunate title, but this is a great recipe.  Pappardell can be subbed out for a less expensive noodle-type pasta.
  • Spicy Pulled Pork from Ree Drummond– we’ve seen this one before on this blog, but it’s just so easy, I had to mention it again.
  • Good Old Chili con Carne Chili from Jamie Oliver. Adding cinnamon into chili adds a great layer of flavor. Also, I like to triple the garlic and add a little tomato paste with the tomatoes, but it’s warming and lovely as is, too.
  • Pork Cooked in MilkNot used to cooking meat in milk? This will convince you of it’s virtues.  Lemon peel, sage, garlic? Say no more. The smell is enough of a reason for you to make this one.
  • Curly Kale and Potato Soup (with Sausage or without) This is a soup from Alice Water’s Art of Simple Food.  You can use sausage or make it completely vegan by leaving it out and changing chicken broth to vegetable broth.  It’s both tasty and kind to your wallet either way you decide to make it.

I think if I intersperse these kinds of meals with easy pastas, or a quick stir-fry, we’ll be able to maneuver through the holiday season without too many wallet or health hazards. I think it’s a good pursuit, whether we’re 100% successful or not.

What about you, readers? Do you have any favorites you like to use when you are too busy for words? I’d love to hear ideas!

Reminder Beans

March 24, 2011 § 9 Comments

For the last few years, finances have been pretty uncertain for our family.  And when I say uncertain, I don’t mean asking questions like “Will we be still able to take our family vacation this year?”  No. The uncertainty has been more like “Mommy? Are we going to make it to school this morning?” (because the red E is glaring at us and I have exactly $0 to spend on more gas)  We’ve lost our house, moved in with my in-laws  (with our four children! These are amazing people), and because we’re always paying off debt, we’re still month-to-month with money. Sometimes, day-to-day. There have been some ugly moments.  I’ve had meltdowns. I’ve sworn and yelled and cried.  I’ve thought, deservedly, “This isn’t supposed to be my life!”

The odd thing is, having less has been so good for me: I’ve learned I can do jobs I didn’t think I could stand, and lived without things I ridiculously thought necessary (vacations? Sadly, not necessary to life).  I guess I could be just getting used to it or learning how to make the best of a “bad” situation.  Or, maybe my entitlement is starting to crumble. I don’t really know. But, I do know I feel softer and in having less, I’m more attune to how good I actually have it.

This recipe, a staple in our house, has become a symbol to me of how rich you can be, even when you’re broke.  Humble, everyday ingredients transformed into something that’s both beautiful (contrasting, bold colors) and full of  intense flavors.  It reminds me that there are so many gifts around me, most of them costing little or nothing to experience, and that I really don’t want to miss them by wasting time, wishing we had more money. I know it’s just beans, but it’s a reminder.

I found this recipe in Gourmet a few years ago, when we were all in better financial shape (the magazine and my family).  I loved it then, but have since changed some of the ingredients because of cost (good sherry and avocado are typically out).  But, even if you do use the pricier items on the list, this is still an extremely inexpensive way to feed a crowd, and satisfies in a way you don’t expect from beans and rice.  It’s a great recipe.


Kemp’s Black Beans  (Gourmet April 2007)

  • 1 lb dried black beans (about 2 1/3 cups), picked over and rinsed (but not soaked)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 cups water
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • **1/4 cup Sherry (cream or medium-dry)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Bring black beans, onion, oil,  8 cups of water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to a boil in a 6- to 8-quart heavy pot, reduce heat and simmer, covered, until beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Thin with water if you need to.  Stir in Sherry (if using) and remaining teaspoon salt, then soy sauce and vinegar to taste (start with 1 tablespoon each), and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes.
Cook rice according to the package directions and serve with beans.
**I don’t typically use the sherry in my beans, but I have and it’s very good. I usually substitute a bit more balsamic and/or red wine vinegar.  The recipe is pretty forgiving, so you can experiment.  Just do it in increments and taste as you go.
Serve with your rice.

Goes well with:

  • sweet potatoes, peeled, cubed (1″), and roasted (with a little olive oil and kosher salt on 450 for 20-30 minutes)
  • grated cheese (any kind you like)
  • Pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds)
  • Chopped red or white onion (or shallot)
  • Chopped cilantro
  • Avocado, cubed
  • sour cream
  • Lime wedges, for squeezing on top
  • Hot sauce

Venison Stew

March 1, 2011 § 8 Comments

We were given some venison (yes, that’s a pretty way to say “deer meat”) by a friend of ours last year.  It’s been sitting in my freezer…just sitting there…waiting for me to not be scared of it.  I had sampled it when it was first given to us, and the experience was enough to keep me from cooking it again for a year. No, I was not  a fan. I had no idea how lean venison is (meaning it was totally DRY because of the way I cooked it), or what people meant when they said words like “gamey”.  I had never eaten it before.  I wasn’t prepared.

Well, I recently promised my childhood friend, Michelle, that I would post a venison stew recipe so she could have  more options for clearing out some of the game her husband likes to bring home.  I think she said her freezers were full. Freezers, plural.

So, I did some research here (a fun read, by the way) and found some instructions for venison stew.  Key, I found out, was a good browning of the meat, first, as well as adding more pungent types of herbs to balance the “strong” taste of the meat.  I kind of went from there and, with a little skepticism in my heart, got the kids in the kitchen and we went to work on it.

Well, we ate it tonight for dinner, and I was stunned at what took place.  People’s bowls were empty at the end! There was no bread to help the meal along, and no one  (well, ok, one, but not everyone!) complained. There was nothing, but venison stew.  And everyone liked it. Did I already say I was stunned?

I feel like I learned quite a bit by making this. First, a slow braise is so much better for venison than a quick saute (I’m sure everyone already knew this but me). Secondly, venison loves to keep company with bright flavors like rosemary, garlic, and lemon The lemon, especially, kept the dish from tasting too…”earthy”. Finally (and this may be the best discovery of the whole experience) the key to a crowd pleasing dinner, at least the crowd I live with, is potatoes…lots and lots of potatoes. I guess that’s good. It could be caviar.  Or truffles. Or saffron. At least they like the cheap stuff.

Venison Stew (or Deer Stew, whichever you prefer)

inspired by Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

2 lbs (or so) venison stew meat (you could use any other red meat)

1 large onion, grated with a large hole grater

2 stalks celery with leaves, chopped

4 medium carrots, peeled and chopped

4 or 5 large cloves of garlic, smashed and roughly chopped

1 sprig of rosemary

4 cups beef stock or venison stock, if you’ve got it.

2 cups water

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp coriander

2 bay leaves

6 smallish yellow flesh potatoes (I used Yukon Gold), cut into 2 inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Parsley, roughly torn for garnish

1 lemon (to squeeze over each bowl before serving)

Begin by heating a bit of oil and butter over medium high heat, in a large pan with a tight-fitting lid (a dutch oven would be great here).  Brown the meat in batches, leaving room for the meat in the pan so that no pieces overlap.  You want to really let it sit in the hot pan to get a nicely browned exterior. Don’t let it burn, but don’t move it around too quickly either.

Next, mix in the grated onion (b/c the onion is grated and not chopped it will release more juice, essentially de-glazing the pan for you).  Stir the venison and onion until there are no brown bits on the bottom of your pan.

Add the Celery leaves, chopped celery, carrots, and rosemary. Let this cook for 5 or 6 minutes, stirring a couple of times.  Add the garlic and let it cook until fragrant (a minute or two). Season with a big pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Add the stock, water, spices, and bay leaves.  Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook, covered for two hours.

Add potatoes, and continue to cook for about another hour, or until the potatoes are easily pierced by a fork.

Taste and season with salt and pepper until it’s to your liking. Sprinkle with parsley, squeeze a little lemon juice over each bowl, and serve. (Can be made ahead of time and reheated over low heat.)

Pioneer Woman’s Spicy Pulled Pork

February 12, 2011 § 11 Comments

Ok.  I’m one of those people who roll out of bed late most mornings. My kids and I are always running out the door, breakfast to eat, shoes to put on, hair to be brushed (or not), all in the car on the way to wherever we are going. Picture Hugh grant and “Scarlett” (I don’t know the actress’ name) in Four Weddings and a Funeral…late to every wedding and cursing all the way (well, I may do a little less cursing than that when the kids are in the car).

Well, don’t ask me how it happened, but this morning I was up early enough to consider the fact that we would have NOTHING to eat when we got home from the soccer field. (5 games in one morning!)  And there would be no stopping for something on the way home. (You don’t stop for convenience food when you have to make it four more days without spending even one more dollar. Yep, It’s one of those times.) The kids would be hungry, Vince would be hungry, I would be angry AND hungry…it wasn’t going to be pretty.

I’d been planning on making Pioneer Woman‘s Spicy Pulled Pork sometime soon, b/c pork shoulder was on sale when I went to the store this week. I decided the 30 minutes I had before we left for the field should be spent getting the pork into the oven and starting it’s 5 hour cooking session. (Crockpot people, you know how this goes…so satisfying to leave something behind working while you are gone!) So, I slathered on the marinade/wet rub, put it in a pot, put the pot in the oven, and left for soccer (We still didn’t do much hair-brushing, but we did brush our teeth! And I got to take the picture of the meat!)

We got home,  I  shredded the meat (like it was nothing! so tender!), and oh my goodness…yum.  Now, I did serve it with some of the extra “sauce” you rub on it before it cooks. The recipe made more than I needed for the rub, so I just used it on the cooked meat. It was dee-licious. Seriously. It’s a great flavor: sweet and smoky with a little garlic. mmmm.

All I can say is, This may be life changing. Yes, life changing.  My attitude about being at the soccer field every saturday morning could drastically improve thanks to this recipe. My husband will be so pleased. At the very least, I know I’ll be making it again, and that will please him, even if I have a bad attitude (well, maybe). A cheap cut of meat, a long, slow braise, ingredients I always have around the house? This one is going on the regular “meat meal” schedule. (Thank you Sarah for lending me this book!)

Spicy Pulled Pork From The Pioneer Woman Cooks

One 5-7-pound pork shoulder (mine was about 4 lbs)

1 whole onion, quartered

1 tablespoon chili powder

1/2 cup brown sugar

4 garlic cloves

1 tsp dried oregano (I used “Italian Seasoning” b/c I couldn’t find my oregano.)

2 tsps ground cumin

1-2 Tablespoons salt

freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

lime wedges

flour tortillas (we just ate it without the tortillas, but either way…)

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.

In a food processor, combine the onion, chili powder, brown sugar, garlic cloves, oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, olive oil and vinegar.  Puree until smooth (mine wasn’t super smooth, but it didn’t bother me).

Rub the mixture all over the pork, getting in all the cracks and crevices.

Place the pork in a dutch oven with 2 cups of water.

Cover tightly, and cook in the oven for 6-7 hours (mine only took 5 b/c of it’s smaller size).

If the pork is easy to pierce with a fork, turn the oven up to 425 degrees F and roast, uncovered for 15 minutes, until crispy (ish) on top.

Shred the pork with two forks, pour the pan juices over the meat, and serve with tortillas and lime wedges. (Beer would be good, too.)

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