Sunday, February 8, 2015

Don't Call it a Comeback...

Hello there.  Long time no write.  I've realized lately how much I miss posting here, so I'm going to try again and see how it goes...

One of the hardest things for me to face as my chronic pain has increased is how difficult it is for me to plan.  I freaking LOVE schedules and charts and lists and spreadsheets, but the best, most detailed meal-planning in the world is useless if all this perishable shit is sitting in my fridge and I'm in too much pain to cook with it.  I've had to make a lot of changes to pretty much all areas of my life, but changes in the kitchen have been the hardest to get used to. My new approach centers on being able to make recipes in several small flurries of activities - sometimes spread over days (or, with freezing, spread over weeks) rather than in a single long slog.  I always loved those kitchen-days of the long slog, but I can't handle the resulting pain anymore, so I'm learning to adapt.

One of the most important (and most mentally challenging) changes was to stop shunning all prepared foods.  When I first met Devin, I announced "There will NEVER be store-bought tater tots in my freezer!" I make tater tots from scratch!  From scratch is better! But... yeah.  Is it worth the time in the kitchen when store-bought tots are quite good and very cheap? Probably not, (I suppose)... 

When we first made Devin's Famous Dirty Rice, I was a little freaked out about using the box of Zatarain's Dirty Rice Mix.  "Can't we make it from scratch?" I kept asking...  That was over a year ago, during which time I've bookmarked several from-scratch recipes for Dirty Rice, and during which time we have never strayed from that Zatarain's mix.  We use lots of amazing meats from our local butcher, and the seasoning in the mix is so dang delicious that I can't be bothered to grind up a bunch of chicken livers to make it from scratch.  If it ain't broke, etc...  (And those are easy from-scratch insanely buttery biscuits on the side...) 

Similarly, we saw this crazy recipe on Serious Eats for a Pizzadilla.  I like to make everything from scratch, but we went ahead with store-bought pizza sauce and store-bought tortillas, which made the difference between having to wait until my pain levels let me spend time making sauce and tortillas versus being able to throw the dish together on a whim when we had a hankering.  The latter is definitely preferable.  (And, honestly... It's a freaking Pizzadilla... Why am I trying to make something so silly, simple, and genius into something complicated and from-scratch?)   
 

I've also always avoided slow cookers, but after making slow-cooked grits on a stovetop, stirring super-frequently for what seemed like an eternity, making perfect grits in a slow cooker strikes me as being pretty brilliant.

All of us who love food  also know about how fresh is "best," but fresh is not always an option.  Even when I lived in Boston, I ordered individually quick-frozen dry-packed scallops from a great purveyor, knowing that I may not have the pain reserves to drive 20 miles to the place that sometimes has "fresh" diver scallops on the day I want to cook with them.  I've taken that concept further now.  For time-consuming recipes like the Pepperoni Lasagna from Maximum Flavor, I made the pepperoni red sauce one day (then vacuum-sealed and froze), made the homemade ricotta to blend with basil on another day a couple weeks later (then vacuum-sealed and froze).  When the day came to make the lasagna itself, it was just a matter of layering pre-existing ingredients... and it was the best lasagna I've ever had in my life.

Being sous vide people definitely makes using the freezer easier, too.  I'll do a quick 20 minutes getting chicken breasts and thighs into assorted marinades, then I vacuum-seal and marinate overnight before throwing them on the grill the next day. From there the meat is broken down and vacuum-sealed into 2-serving packs to go into the freezer.  When we have a brilliant idea like making scallion waffles to go with our Korean-marinated chicken (instead of the usual scallion pancakes), the chicken is ready to just toss in a water bath and re-therm, so the only work is a quick batch of waffles and a bit of herb-chopping. 
 

Finally, I am trying to embrace the simple.  It's hard to argue with pan-roasted chicken thighs on a bed of roasted veg...  
 

And why have I always avoided ground beef as a protein to use in anything other than burgers? It marinates up amazingly and is a quick, easy topping for a bowl of rice or noodles (like I Am A Food Blog's Loco MocoMazemen, below)... 

So, that's what I've been working on while I've been away:  Small flurries of activity rather than full days in the kitchen.  Making components ahead when you can.  Learning not to fear the freezer or the slow cooker.  Embracing (some) prepared foods.  Remembering how amazing simple dishes can taste.  It all seems pretty obvious... but somehow it took me over a year to get my brain into the right place to accept it. 

I've realized that this kind of cooking is handy not just for people in pain, but for anyone with a busy life who doesn't have long stretches of time to spend in the kitchen. (I've always found the concept of a 30-Minute Meal kind of obnoxious, but I love the idea of spending 10 minutes in the kitchen prepping a skirt steak, throwing it in to sous vide for 48 hours, then spending 10 minutes finishing it off into an amazing "fancy" meal. That's more my style of "quick" cooking.) Most things I post will be some variation of the above, with a heavy dose of sous vide (which remains a time-pressed cook's best friend) and my smoker... plus whatever else finds its way into my recipe queue.  Hopefully it will be fun and delicious...  

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