Saturday, October 24, 2009

Want to waste not? Tips to use leftovers

Making a great pot of chili last night, my thoughts wandered to recipe cooking vs. instinctual cooking. Most everyone, who has basic cooking skills and instructions that make sense, can cook from a recipe and have a dish that turns out well. (Of course, everyone who conveys a recipe hopes the instructions make sense, but you'd be surprised at how many don't, even ones that make it into a cookbook.) But the instinctual cook uses his or her senses on how a dish should be and goes on to make it unique. The advantage to this method is that one can use what is at hand, the freshest produce and most inexpensive meats, even bits and pieces of previous dinners, commonly derided as "leftovers."

The dishes that lend themselves most easily to this are melanges, and almost every cuisine has one or two of them. My standbys are chili, jambalaya, gumbo, spaghetti, curry and soups (five options can get most anyone through a week; if you have others, please let me know).

For the chili, I started with a pound of ground turkey and a tablespoon of olive oil. Turkey is bland, but much like tofu, it picks up the flavors around it. I season it as it's cooking with garlic, onions, cumin and oregano. And of course, chili.

I prefer straight chili. Prepared chili powder is OK, but it's a combination of chilies, cumin, oregano, salt and sometimes other spices, and you don't know how old the other spices are that go into it, since the smell of chili overwhelms the others. I use ancho powder if I'm in a hurry; otherwise, I like to use dried whole chilies (a combination depending on how hot I want it) stemmed and seeded, soaked in a little boiled water for 45 minutes, then puréed.

If I'm preparing a bowl of red, I add a can of beer and stop right there. But turkey doesn't hold up nearly as well as beef for that. So my turkey chili is what the sainted Frank X. Tolbert would refer to as "a rather tasty vegetable stew." (Those were the fighting words that led to the first chili cookoff, which gave birth to a cultural phenomenon that will continue this year in Terlingua, TX, Nov. 5-7.)

I added a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, then found in the refrigerator the following: 1 eggplant, which I had sliced and salted in preparation to sauté, but had a change of plans; 1 1/2 yellow bell peppers, which had been charred and the skins removed; a lonely carrot; a half cup of refried black beans. I rinsed the eggplant slices, trimmed the skins off them, then chopped them and the peppers coarsely before adding them and the beans to the pot. I peeled the carrot and shredded it into the pot. Then everything cooked for about three hours. The texture, no doubt thanks to the refried beans, was just right; usually if the chili is a little soupy at the end, I add a little masa harina to thicken the stew.

One taste and you, too, would know why it drives me crazy when people say they'd rather eat fast food than leftovers.

Now, no discussion on chili would be complete without a little travelogue on Texas, so here's one on Big Bend National Park, which will give you a little taste of Terlingua country.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Clueless"? Silverstone's "Diet" is kind, but kinda naive

Here's a short cookbook review that got rather short shrift in the Washington Post's redesigned Health section yesterday:

The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight, and Saving the Planet (Rodale Books, $29.95)

Alicia Silverstone is famous for her role in the '90s teen film "Clueless" and as a real-life vegan activist. In "The Kind Diet," Silverstone provides three approaches to cooking vegan: "Flirting," for people trying out meat- and dairy-free foods; "Vegan," for experienced flirts; and "Superhero," which is basically vegan with fresh, local foods grown in-season. The book feels straight out of La-La Land: lots of exclamation points, italics and such sentences as, "Get ready to meet the beautiful, delicious, God-given foods that will rock your world." Her intentions are good, if a little naive - "I believe that following the Kind Diet can lead to world peace" - and, to her credit, she gets preachy only when criticizing the "Nasty Diet" of meat, dairy, sugar and processed foods. The book is like a hijiki-tofu croquette (a seaweed appetizer that Silverstone recommends in the recipe section): People already interested in veganism might like a bite, but for everyone else, it's easy to turn down.
- Rachel Saslow