March 2009


If you watch cooking competition shows you will be familiar with the tendency to call any food item constructed in a  (bread/pastry base, something edible, another layer of bread/pastry, something else edible topped of with a third layer of bread/pastry) fashion a “Napoleon”. Any actual resemblance to the food item that originally bore the moniker has been practically eliminated and the pastry/food/pastry/food/pastry format has been co-opted as a technique, with the technique defining the dish as opposed to the constituent elements. Interestingly enough, by this definition, the Big Mac is a Napoleon. But I digress.

I have brought this up because I am calling this dish Tomatillo Gumbo because of how it is served. It is a tasty stew-like mixture served over a bed of rice – just like gumbo. Any further resemblance is non-existent. A second point is that I have absolutely no Texan or Mexican background at all. So in reality this doesn’t have any basis in that cuisine either. One could call it Tex-Mex/New Orleans fusion – but that would imply that I had much familiarity with either cuisine.

I’ll just call it tasty.

Hardware:

Saucepan w/lid and Blender.

The Software:

8 oz Ground Pork
1 lb Tomatillos
1 Small Poblano Pepper
1 Onion
1 Bunch Cilantro
2 t Garlic
1 1/4 t Cumin
Salt, Pepper, Chili Powder, Cayenne & Garlic Powder to taste.
1 t Apple Cider Vinegar (optional)

1) Remove husks from tomatillos and wash the sticky stuff off. Wash poblano and cut top off. Cut poblano in half and remove seeds and ribs, keep 1/2 for some other nefarious purposes and cut the other 1/2 into 1/4’s. Place poblano pieces and tomatillos in large saucepan and just cover with water.

2) Now, I just learned how to cook with tomatillos and I want to share some tips I have learned.

A – They float, so I am not really sure how you are supposed to “cover with water” when the little buggers keep rising to the top. I put enough water into the pot so that they float enough to not touch the bottom.

B – You are supposed to bring them to a boil and then simmer for 2 – 5 minutes or until they change color. This confused me – what color are they going to change to? How will I know? Will they explode? Well, I gotcha back on this one. I took pictures:

Ooooh, magic.

Ooooh, magic.

The one on the left is before the boil and the other is after the mysterious “Color change”. I cook them for 5 minutes and call it done.

3) While the tomatillos are cooking, peel your onion and cut it in half. Take 1/2 and chop coarsely and chop the other 1/2 a normal kind of chop. Also, wash and trim the cilantro. I usually just leave the rubberband/tie thingie on the bunch and cut all of the stems below it off.

3) Remove the tomatillos and pepper from the water and place into your blender, add

1/2 C of the cooking water and push the button a few times until they are busted up.

4) Add the coarsely chopped 1/2 of the onion, 1/2 C of Cilantro, 2 t Garlic and 1 t salt to the blender and really puree the heck out of it. Make sure to take off that center bit on the lid and hold a towel over it or else it might explode.

Really, I am not kidding.

Set the blender aside for later.

5) Sautee the other 1/2 of the onion in some olive oil until it has taken on some color and then remove it from the pan. Put the ground pork into the pan and cook it most the way then return the onions to the pan.

6) Pour sauce into pan and add cumin. Then add a pinch each of chili powder and cayenne. Simmer for 10 minutes and then salt and pepper to taste.

7) At this point realize that you have no idea how you are going to serve this. It isn’t really a taco filling like you thought it was going to be, nor is it exactly a chili that you would want to eat straight out of a bowl. Decide that you need to make rice. Cover the pot with a lid and start making rice.

8 ) After the rice is made reheat the sauce/stew stuff you made. Realize that you have lost a little bit of the brightness that you had and add 1 t of Apple Cider Vinegar. That works! Decide you need more garlic so add some powder and a little more salt and a little more pepper. If you, unlike myself, had the foresight to have the rice at the ready then you could probably skip the AC Vinegar step and simply season to taste.

9) Serve in bowls over rice and garnish with additional fresh cilantro.

Mmm, Green.

Mmm, Green.

My husband and I debated what I should call this. He is from Louisiana and has some definite … opinions … about gumbo. But in the end he agreed that we could call it tasty.

Freezing cold that is.

Apparently my thoughts are presently fixated on freezing stuff, so I thought I would share some other oddities that I have lurking in the smaller half of my ‘fridge.

You try to take a better picture of a bag of frozen dumplings, I dare you.

You try to take a better picture of a bag of frozen dumplings, I dare you.

These are dumplings, not those poufy, Bisquick style drop dumplings but the flat kind. I have decided I prefer these to the big fluffy kind that you eat and they sit in your stomach and bully any of the food that you eat later. They make it sit in the nosebleed section of your stomach and crowd your esophagus and then you get the acid reflux. And I don’t like the acid reflux.

But I like chicken and dumplings, and turkey and dumplings, and meatballs and dumplings (what? I had some leftover meatballs!) These little guys are kind of like the noodles in your chicken noodle soup on steroids. So much so that I think the next time I make them I am going to cut them into long, skinny rectangles instead of square-oid shapes.

I try to always have homemade chicken stock on hand, but if I don’t I like “Better Then Bullion” just fine. Bring some stock up to heat, grate in some carrots and chuck in some shredded chicken and you have yummy soup. And if you have these dumplings in the freezer you have Souper Soup.

Flat but Tasty Dumplings

1 C AP Flour
1/4 C Milk
1/4 C Water

Salt, Pepper and Granulated Garlic to taste I use 1/4 t each of Salt & Granulated Garlic and a goodly amount of pepper.

1) Combine flour and spices in a bowl and whisk together. Add liquids and stir with a wooden spoon until it comes together enough to turn out onto a floured surface. Knead gently, adding flour until you can handle it fairly well. This is a soft dough but you want to get rid of the stickiness.

2) Cover with a towel and allow to rest for 10 minutes. On a well floured surface, roll out rested dough until it is the thickness of a knife blade. You will most likely need to add more flour to make it workable. Using a pizza cutter, cut into rough polygonal shapes (the original recipe said 2 inch squares but who the heck am I kidding? And I thought 2 inches was too big anyway).

3) If you are making the soup right now, save enough for the number of servings that you need. Remove the rest (or all if you aren’t making soup) to a flat plate or cookie sheet covered with waxed or parchment paper. Check to make sure the plate/sheet that you are using will fit into your freezer. Don’t ask me why I feel the need to give you that tip, I just do.

4) Make sure that the dumplings do not overlap and freeze them for several hours or overnight. Once frozen, peel off of paper and place in freezer bag – squishing out as much air as you can. These can be thrown directly into simmering soup. Fresh dumplings take about 10 minutes at the boil, frozen a bit longer – just stop when they are done. This recipe can be doubled easily and it makes a ton of dumplings.

I like cheese.

One of my strategies to save some money and eat a bit more consciously is to reduce the amount of meat in our diet. We do this by having many vegetarian meals, but also by reducing the portion sizes of meat in the meat meals we do eat. I have found that one way to alleviate the feeling of “missing meat” in a dish is to add some cheese. Cheese always makes a dish feel special and luxurious (at least to me).

It is also a good source of protein and flavor and you can keep it on hand for a long time. You can also freeze many cheeses with little quality loss. But it can be an expensive item so I have had to work out some work arounds.

My local grocery store regularly runs a special on their store brand cheeses where you can buy three 8 ounce bags for $5, which is a pretty good deal compared to regular price. I would stock up on Quesadilla, Cheddar and Mozzarella cheese when they went on sale and chuck the extra bags in the deep freeze.

By the way, do you have a deep freeze? If not you might want to consider acquiring one. They really are an invaluable tool for food savings because of the very subject of this post, buying in bulk. If you think you do not have the room or the money you might want to do some research on deep freezes. You can find small ones about the size of the ‘fridge you had in college for well under $200 like this one:

Hmm, sidetracked…

Back to cheese. While my grocery store deal is better than buying full retail, we can do better. At the “Membership based wholesale club” that I go to I was able to find 5 lb bags of both shredded Mozzarella and Cheddar for about $9 per bag. And believe it or not, the shredded was cheaper than any of the block cheese prices that they had. So buying and shredding myself would not have saved any money.

I brought my booty home and proceeded to divvy them up into quart sized freezer bags in 8 oz increments. Why would you waste time on doing that you might ask? Well, my reasoning was threefold:

1) I usually buy cheese in 8 oz bags and that fits nicely into my ‘fridge’s deli drawer.

2) If I left it in the large bag then I would be tempted to use way more cheese than I need to because HEY LOOK HOW MUCH I GOT!!

3) Air is what damages frozen food, so repeatedly opening and closing a big bag of frozen cheese would cause faster deterioration.

Each of my 5 lb bags split up into ten 8 oz bags of cheesy goodness (talk about your higher math there). I tossed one of each flavor into my ‘fridge and put the rest into the freezer. It took me about 20 minutes to get it all done and I saved $6.00.

How did I figure that? Now is the time for the actual higher math.

3 – 8 oz bags of cheese for $5 = $1.60 per bag, 10 bags = 5 lb so:

10 x 1.60 = $16.00

$16.00 – $9.00 = $6.00

Yay! $6.00, don’t scoff. Think how many .10 coupons I would have to clip to save $6 bucks. But really, things can add up. Plus I have the convenience of knowing that if I run out of cheese I can saunter down to the freezer and pluck a bag out and be ready to go.

Let’s get things started right. I have been working on this dish for awhile, fine tuning it to my family’s taste and I think it is ready for prime time!  It is a true pantry/freezer meal, the only things in it that have to come out of the ‘fridge are the shredded cheese and the Lizano. Everything else can be stored in the pantry. It is composed of inexpensive food items so you can buy quality ingredients without breaking the bank – the only thing you need is time. And the time is mostly hands off time, so no biggie there.

Hardware:
First off, the hardware. I make this in my 2.8 Liter Oval Souffle dish with a glass lid. It really needs to be cooked in something fairly deep as opposed to one of those large rectangular casserole dishes. A medium Dutch Oven could work, as you can see in the picture the dish ends up being pretty thick so beware anything too shallow.

The Software:

1 can Black Beans, 15 oz
1 C Brown Rice, rinsed
1 C Frozen Corn
1 can Diced Tomatoes, 14.5 oz
1 can Rotel, Mild, 10 oz
1 t Granulated Garlic
1 t Ground Cumin
1/2 t Dried Oregano
2 T Dried Chopped Onions
2 t Salt
Black Pepper to taste
1 1/2 T Lizano Sauce
1 1/2 C Water or Stock
1 t Olive Oil
Shredded Cheese, Cheddar or Queso (amount depends on the size of your container)

Pre-heat oven to 375 F. Get a piece of heavy-duty foil ready that will cover the pot.

1) Combine tomatoes, Rotel, garlic, cumin, oregano, onions, salt, pepper, Lizano, and Water/Stock in a sauce pan over medium heat – the goal is to bring it to a boil. Take your cooking vessel and spray it with non-stick, measure your corn into the dish with the rinsed rice. Rinse beans gently and add to dish and drizzle with the olive oil, stir gently to combine.

2) Once the tomato mixture has come to a boil, pour into the dish and stir to combine. Cover tightly with the foil and top with lid.

3) Place in oven for 1 hour 15 minutes. Remove foil and stir gently to get the tomatoes distributed but pat the top back out smooth, taste to make sure the rice is done.
If the rice is undercooked replace foil and lid and cook until rice is done unless the rice is really “soupy” then do not cover.

4) When rice is done, sprinkle (ok cover) the surface of the rice with cheese of choice and return to oven uncovered. Remove from oven when cheese is nice and melty and bubbling, can take 5 minutes.

Ingredients/Potential Hacks:

Obviously the mystery ingredient here is the Lizano. If you poke around some of your Hispanic groceries you can find it, it is specifically Costa Rican and if you have a market that caters more to Central Americans than Mexicans you will have better luck.

I haven’t come up with a good substitution, it isn’t a tomatoey sauce but a savory sauce. Kind of like a Costa Rican version of HP sauce. It has Cumin and pureed veggies and odd stuff in it, but it is super tasty. It is worth it to have it in your ‘fridge and see what you can put it on.

Regarding the beans; I have measured a can of beans and it contains roughly 1 3/4 C of cooked beans. So if you wanted to use re-hydrated dried beans that is what you would be aiming for, but I don’t think that simply soaking and then tossing in would work. They would need to be cooked beans.

You can definitely up the heat on this if you wanted to by buying one of the hotter versions of Rotel I am a big ole sissy so I use mild. You could even add some jalapenos if you wanted to be wacky. Another fun variation can be had if you have a Trader Joe’s handy. They sell a frozen “fire roasted” corn that gives a lovely smoky flavor to this dish when you use it in place of plain ole corn.

If you really  wanted to, you could use white rice – but we like it much better with brown. You wouldn’t have to boil the liquid ahead of time and you would use less water/chicken stock – 1 cup should do it. Also your cooking time would most likely be shorter, maybe 45 min to 1 hr. If you try this out please let me know what your cooking time was.

Enjoy!

At the end, this seems like an awful lot of writing for what is really a simple dish. The process is really one step away from “dump it in the casserole and bake” but I wanted to add in all of the little details that have made this a sucessful meal for my family. We eat on the leftovers for days, it reheats in the microwave beautifully and makes a tasty lunch.

And I guess here is as good of a place as any, here being an explanation of why I would name a food blog Robbing Peter. The old cliche, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” seemed to be a pretty good analogy for the cooking style I have been developing to cope with current economic times.

You see, I have developed this theory that the food that I cook for my family has three primary considerations when it comes down to it: Quality, Cost and Convenience. And unfortunately you can only have two out of the three in any given situation.

Huh, you might say?

And I would say, for example, if a food is of high quality and is a convenience food (i.e.: prepared meal etc…) then it is not going to be cheap. Or, if you find a convenience food that is cheap then odds are that it is not going to be of the highest quality. This means I often find myself in the position of Robbing Peter, sacrificing one element to acquire another element that I desire.

In the past, when money seemed to be falling off of trees, I had no problem laying cost on the sacrificial altar to make sure things were quick. Now? Not so much. Now cost has risen to the forefront of concerns in my life as I suspect is happening in many others’ lives. But, I try my best to avoid throwing quality under the bus.

Which leaves us with convenience, or time, not the most available commodity in my world dominated by a 2 year old. The solution I have developed is stealing time when I can find it and using that time to make my own convenience items. As I come up with ideas, successful or otherwise, I intend to share them here – so watch this space!