Monday, July 14, 2008

Food & Cooking, Part 3

And now for the delayed report on the Buffalo shopping trip. It's a bit belated; we're in Vermilion, OH now. But I do at least try to keep my promises. Be warned; this post is loooooooong.

As I mentioned previously, we prepare our first meal in a location out of our pantry, with whatever food items we brought with us to the new location. Our first night meal in Buffalo was a quick chicken chili.

The next day, we go shopping. By then, we have our itinerary for the location, so we know how many meals we'll need. In Buffalo, we needed three picnic lunches and two dinners. No breakfast food necessary; we got our breakfasts at the hotel.

Our picnic lunches are pretty routine. We pack your basic school lunch: sandwiches, fruit, veggies, cookies, crackers, water, juice boxes and soda.

For dinner, we split the total days and we each choose a meal for half of the available days. I get to pick the first night dinner at the next location, since I make it while CKL is setting up the electronics and settling in the cats.

In this case, we were each responsible for one dinner. CKL chose pasta. Since we had a pound of new potatoes left over from DC, I decided to make either a hash or some sort of vegetable stew, to be determined by the available produce.

Our necessary ingredient list looked like this:
  • Bread for sandwiches (we already had some curry naan, which was good for cheese sandwiches*, so we decided to get a couple of rolls from the bakery too)
  • Sliced cheese (for the sandwiches)
  • Fruit (whatever looked nice at the store)
  • Veggies (we had sugar snap peas on hand)
  • Cookies & crackers (we were hoping for a 6-8 pack of mixed cookies and crackers)
  • Bottled water
  • Juice boxes
  • Soda (tons on hand; CKL bought a case in DC because it was cheaper than a 12-pack and only slightly more expensive than a six-pack. Dunno why.)
  • Pasta (we had a 1/2-bag of penne on hand from a pasta dinner in DC)
  • Pasta sauce
  • Fresh vegetables for hash or a summer vegetable stew
  • Fresh veggies for pasta
  • Meat for pasta (optional)
  • Cheese for pasta (optional)
  • Frozen veggies in a steamer bag for the first dinner in Ohio
  • Organic wheat grass (for Jasper. We look for it at every store, usually fruitlessly.)
We chose Tops Friendly Market, since it was the first grocery store we found. They were indeed friendly. Every employee I saw greeted me, and our cashier went out of his way to find us a rewards card so we could save a few cents on our purchase.

Their produce, however, was very expensive and very ugly: squishy peppers, bruised zucchini, no eggplant, mildewy onions, etc. Even the fruit was bad. We ended up getting a couple of Washington apples (which I hope were from an early 2008 harvest, rather than leftovers from last winter). As expected, the cat grass search proved to be fruitless.

At this point, I gave up on the vegetable stew or hash, and decided to make some sort of potato salad. I went back to the produce aisle and found a lime that wasn't too battered. On my way out of the produce aisle, I got lucky and found some beautiful, if horrendously expensive ($7/lb) organic grape tomatoes.

From there, things went pretty well. We were able to find everything else on the list (except for the cookie-and-cracker combination, which we really didn't need anyway) and filled our veggie needs out of the freezer case. I decided that our potato salad would be a Warm Potato & Green Bean Salad with Tomatoes and Tuna.

Just in case you're interested in my less-than-inspired simple recipes, here they are.

Buffalo's Quick Chicken Chili: This was a very mild, tomatoey chili. I am not friendly with beans, so I used brown rice and corn instead.
  • olive oil (just enough to coat the pan)
  • 3-4 pinches red pepper flake
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 28-0z tomatoes (use whatever you like. I had a 14-oz can of puree and a 14-oz can of diced tomatoes)
  • 3c chicken broth (I used water + 3 broth packets)
  • 1 Tbs chili powder (Or more, but this was all I had left from the big pot o' chili I made in Arizona)
  • 1c instant brown rice
  • Cooked chicken chunks (whatever you want; I used a shelf-stable 7-oz bag of chopped chicken breast)
  • 2c corn kernels
  • Salt & Pepper
Add olive oil, pepper flake, onion and garlic to the pan. Cook over mild heat for a few minutes, or until the onion starts to look a little translucent. Add tomatoes, broth and chili powder and turn up the heat.

Cover the pot and bring it to a boil, stirring every few minutes to keep the tomatoes from burning to the bottom of the pan. I tend to forget to stir, so I set a timer for 3-4 minutes and stir every time it goes off.

When the mixture boils, add the rice, reduce the heat to medium (or whatever won't boil like crazy in your kitchen). Cook for five minutes.

Add the corn and chicken. Cook for five more minutes. Taste the chili. Add salt & pepper, as needed to make it not taste boring.

All told, the chili took 45 minutes to make, but I spent 25 of those minutes grumbling at a pot that just wouldn't boil. Once the chili finally boiled, it was ten minutes until we got to eat. I miss my gas stove.

We had a lot of leftovers (which I had to throw away after the debacle with the refrigerator. I had been planning on eating the leftovers for breakfast on a lazy day, so I was very sad.)

Warm Potato Salad with Tomatoes and Tuna: I wanted something like a pared-down version of a Salad Nicoise. But warm. This is what I ended up with. It's missing a lot of ingredients many people say are necessary for a Salad Nicoise (anchovies, olives, capers, lettuce) but I still liked it a lot. And it was easy!
  • 1 lb new potatoes**, quartered (or cut into chunks, if potatoes are larger than 2")
  • 1 lb green beans (I used frozen, as you know if you've waded through this post)
  • 1 large lime, juiced & measured
  • Olive oil
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 6oz can tuna, drained (or less. I gave a third of the tuna to the cats.)
  • 2oz cheese, cut into 1/4" cubes (I had some leftover Iberico, so I cubed & used that)
Cover the potato chunks with salted water to about an inch higher than the potatoes. I usually just guesstimate how much salt water I need, add the potatoes and then pour off the excess. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the frozen green beans, cover the pot and cook for another 5 minutes (or longer, if your crappy electric burner is shocked so badly by the addition of the frozen green beans that it can't come back to a boil in 5 minutes.) Alternatively, you can cook the potatoes and green beans separately*** to ensure that each is cooked just the way you like it.

If you aren't committed to preparing your ingredients before you start cooking, take this opportunity to prepare the tomatoes, tuna and cheese.

Taste a potato and a green bean. If both are done to your liking, remove the pan from the heat and drain it. Set the pan aside to cool slightly while making the vinaigrette.

Put equal parts lime juice and olive oil in a small bowl and beat with a fork until mixed, glossy and slightly thickened. Add salt & pepper and taste. If it tastes good but a little strong, it's just right.

Pour the vinaigrette over the potatoes and green beans in the pan. Taste again. Add salt, pepper, olive oil or whatever you need to make it taste good.

Put some of the warm potato-green bean salad into serving bowls. Top with the tomato halves. Scatter cheese chunks across the salad, then top with tuna. Grind on some black pepper.

The leftover potato-green bean salad can be mixed with the remaining tomatoes (if any are left. We like tomatoes) and refrigerated for later**** use.

* Trader Joe's curry naan is great plain, but also delicious in a cheese sandwich. Another delicious, quick and non-messy picnic sandwich is cheese and dried fruit. We made Colby-Jack with Chili-spiced dried mango on sesame rolls. Chili-spice dried mango and peanut butter also makes a really good sandwich, if a little sticky. It's quite good with curry naan, too, but a little spicy.

** Don't use baking potatoes unless you want to be really, really careful. Red potatoes, golden potatoes and purple potatoes have less starch, so they don't get all fluffy when baked. This is also why they don't crumble away into nothing when boiled too vigorously. Of course, if you do end up with a potato mush, just add some chicken or veggie broth packets, a little more water and skip the vinaigrette. Stir in the cheese until melted, then mix in the tuna. Taste and add salt & pepper to taste. If you want, add a dash of cream. Tell everyone that you made them a lovely potato-green bean chowder. They'll never know the difference.

*** Of course, I would never cook my vegetables separately. It may preserve the flavor of each vegetable, but it's too much of a pain. I was utterly horrified the first time I came across a Chicken with Red Wine recipe that told me to cook each ingredient separately, keep them warm, and then combine them all just before serving. Dealing with a whole lot of different pots and pans and places to store my food-in-progress is way too complicated and messy. I want to eat and I want to eat soon. Besides, I only have one pot and one fry pan.

**** Just make sure your refrigerator is at a safe temperature. It almost broke my heart to throw away the leftover salad. I was all excited thinking about turning my leftovers into an omelette.

***** No, there isn't a recipe for the quick pasta we ate. Quick pasta is more of a formula: pasta + jar sauce + veggies + meat (optional) + cheese (optional). In this case, it went like this:
  • Put salted pasta water on to boil. And wait 45 minutes, which more or less negated the whole quick idea)
  • Add pasta to boiling water and wait for it to come back to a boil. In this case, it was another 10 minutes. Set timer for one minute less than the recommended cooking time.
  • Add sauce, frozen vegetables, and pre-cooked sausage to fry pain. Cook on fairly high heat (in this case, the highest setting), stirring every minute or so.
  • When veggies are tender, turn off heat (or turn to low if using a gas stove)
  • Taste pasta when the timer dings. Cook longer if not tender enough.
  • When pasta is done, turn off heat and drain pasta.
  • Place pasta pot back on hot burner, pour in sauce mixture.
  • Add pasta and blend with sauce.
  • Serve, sprinkled with cheese.

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