Special Sauce

Let’s talk about food!

Remember, back in the day, when this was a blog about pie? Simpler times, those. As much as our lives have changed since back in 2011, some things have remained more or less constant. In particular, we are still deadly serious about food.

Upon arrival at our transitional home in Columbus, Carlos discovered that we lived practically across the street from Penzey’s. The only other time I’ve been in a Penzey’s store is the one right outside Pike Place Market in Seattle, so I was surprised and delighted to find one in our somewhat unremarkable neighborhood. And even better? THEY HAVE BERI BERI!

In our Seattle neighborhood, we were surrounded by Ethiopian restaurants, so much so that the smell of onions and turmeric would perfume the whole world some mornings. Even as recently as April, despite having been gone from Seattle for more than two years, the proprietor of our favorite (Assimba, if you’re curious) greeted us with the most joyful “salaam” I have ever received. Needless to say, we accepted the loss of abundant, inexpensive Ethiopian food as part of the price we had to pay in pursuit of larger goals.

Despite the fact that it is fundamentally just delicious stew, we never quite got up the gumption to try making our favorite dishes at home. Never, that is, until we discovered that my favorite purveyor of fresh and delicious spices stocks the bright, pungent powder that makes the magic happen. And you guys? Nothing will ever be the same again.

So, yes, obviously we have made a TON of key wat, doro wat, doro wat with turkey thighs, key wat pie. And it has all been pretty fantastic, honestly. But recently, something even better has come out of our beri beri obsession. Something so simple and powerful that I still wonder why I didn’t think of it myself, except that I know. It’s just not my style, but it is, to our great surprise and delight, Carlos’s: home-made barbecue sauce.

Homemade, wat-inspired, spicy, tangy, sweet, eat it with a spoon until your throat burns PERFECT SAUCE. How perfect is this sauce? Look:

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This sauce is so good that I’ll show you the only in-progress picture, which also happens to hint at how long it has been since I cleaned my stovetop.

I would share the recipe with you, but… It’s not mine, and it doesn’t live in my brain. I will say, though, that it has convinced me that it’s totally worthwhile to go a little deeper into culinary adventures. Even though there are plenty of great sauces out there, the effort that went into this is absolutely worth it for how far above and beyond even the best pre-made sauces this is.

The only thing about this wonderful development that still baffles us is this: what has happened that has turned Carlos into the kind of man who makes his own BBQ sauce? There is no event in our history that we can point to and say, “this is the moment that changed things.” Whatever it was, I am a fan!

Cider-braised Pork Butt

You guys! I cooked a food! And it was delicious! And perhaps even more exciting/scandalous/out-of-the-ordinary, I started with a recipe and actually followed it.

salt & pepper pork butt

Delicious pork butt, generously salted and peppered, pre-trussing.

tied pork butt

I found it much harder to photograph the trussed-up butt. Out of practice with the camera, boo.

apple cubes

Apples! I had a piece of pork about half as big as the recipe called for, and so only used about half an apple. This is a delicious organic Gala. Not pictured: the garlic cloves and tiny perfect red onion (that I substituted for shallots). Also, the cider, and ginger beer. Out of practice, still!

big porky mess

I asked Joe to slice the butt while I was doing something else, and forgot to tell him that the recipe specified slicing before removing the ties. The slices might have been tidier, but they could not possibly have been more delicious.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that Joe and I ate ours standing around the kitchen island, alternating bites of omg-so-tender pork and crispy roasted veggies out of their pans. It was tender and succulent and wonderful, and only became more so when we got around to heating up the leftovers.

The recipe is Braised Pork Shoulder with Cider and Ginger Beer, from Bon Apetit October 2012. I would link to it, but I cannot find it online. Tsk, tsk, Epicurious.

Back to Basics

Have we talked about my amazing skills at self-delusion? Like the way that I insisted that my enormously puffy sausage legs were TOTALLY FINE YOU GUYS, JEEZ, right up to the point where my midwives sent me to the hospital with the threat of inducing labor so the kiddo and I didn’t, y’know, die? Or when I said, “yeah, I”m kind of skinny, I guess,” when in reality I didn’t have enough body fat to keep me afloat in the swimming pool?

This week, it’s, “I”m just a little tired, I’ve had a lot on my plate!”

Let’s cut through that for a moment, though, shall we? I am, indeed, tired, and I do have a lot on my plate, and in the epic series of ups and downs that is the process of recovering from depression, I have hit a big dip. Today is not as bad as yesterday, and yesterday was a huge improvement over Monday, and I know that the downs are a normal part of the process, but man, they are hard.

As I have been wobbling back toward balance, I remembered some wisdom from the Yarn Harlot, about matching the scale of your care to the problem at hand. Actually, I think about this post a lot, when I’m taking care of the kiddo, but this is the first time that I applied it to myself.

The problems of a full-grown adult with a kid and a husband and so much going on are more complicated that the problems of a fussy baby, of course. I have big problems and little problems both. I’m antsy with cabin fever and I feel incompetent in just about every area of my life. I know, in my smart brain, that I am not entirely incompetent, but it’s hard to get over that feeling. I decided to approach it from both ends of the intensity spectrum: I made vegetable broth for my tiny little troubles, and then I went for (kind of) a run.

Vegetable Broth:

broth veggies

Dig around in your fridge for some veggies that look delicious and/or almost past their prime. For me, that was carrots, parsnips, celery, onion, garlic, mushrooms, and broccoli. Cut them into manageable chunks.

oiled veggies

Liberally coat with vegetable oil, and roast at 350 until they look toasty and delicious.

toasty and delicious

Put in a sauce pan, cover with water, simmer until you like the look of it. I had ambitious plans for this broth (soup! with butternut squash! And sausage!), but in the end I’m just drinking it. I am more of an invalid than I like to admit.

It doesn't even LOOK interesting
It doesn’t even LOOK interesting

 

This was very much a remedial food item for me. Take some simple things, turn them into something simple. Nothing complicated, nothing fancy, hardly anything that could go wrong. It was like putting a task I’ve already finished on my to-do list, so I know I’ll be able to cross it off. It is a basic, unassuming, fundamental kind of food, and it was perfect for reminding me that I am, in fact, capable and competent. Every day doesn’t have to be a party.

And then I went for a run

OK, that’s kind of a lie. I said to Dita, “do you want to go for a run?!” But the truth is that we went for a very fast walk with some short bursts of jogging. What I really wanted was to go for a bike ride, but a certain dog is a little too unfocused and perhaps stupid to be trusted as a biking companion. Putting on my shoes and leaving the house was hard, as it always is on days like this, but it was so worth it.

There are, of course, some time- and science-tested foods and methods that can help you cope with depression, especially these smaller episodes. This article is a good place to start. I already ate some brazil nuts, and on Carlos’s brilliant recommendation, I’m going to go see about some kimchi. And take my little kid for a walk.

Eating sweet potatoes

Remember when we used to write about food all the time? I have to admit that my pregnancy kind of took away some of my love of talking about food. Maybe it was the unsolicited opinions for strangers, but I think, honestly, it might have just been the sheer volume of constant eating that did me in. I love food, but spending so much time with my eating at the mercy of someone else made it less fun for me to talk (and think) about. It seems like just yesterday that our little RJ was a squirmy passenger in my belly, making all manner of demands about what I should be eating, and now here he is today, sitting up and crawling, and feeding himself avocado for lunch. Oh my, how time flies.

When he started out, we called him Blueberry Danger, because it was funny, and eventually it became clear that the thing he wanted me to eat was fruit. All the fruit. All the time. No, really. ALLTHEFRUITALLTHETIME. Like, pounds of strawberries in a day, or a whole pineapple, or several grapefruit one after another. It was both awesome and bizarre. But I obeyed! Because, hey, fruit! And also, the non-fruit cravings were so few and so specific that it seemed silly to ignore them. And then he was born, which was a whole thing, and I spent several more months eating all the food in sight, to fulfill my duties as a factory that turned food into other food.

Right about Christmas, RJ started figuring out that the big people were doing something with their mouths, and a week or so later realized that they are eating something that’s not breastmilk. OMG, YOU GUYS! Being a baby and a jerk, as soon as he figured out that people were enjoying something that he wasn’t getting, he wanted in on that action. I mean, seriously. During one lunch, Carlos and I had to trade him off multiple times just so we could each eat our sandwich, and he still ended up stealing a big piece of lettuce from Carlos’s salad and trying to intercept the french fries of the woman next to us.

Now, finally, at six months old, we’re starting to do the eating thing in the other direction: I wiggle around in front of him, and demand that he eat the things that I want! Okay, it doesn’t go exactly like that. In reality, he tries to grab everything that anyone appears to be eating, and, if successful, proceeds to smear it in his eyebrows. He’s not super great with the mechanics of eating just yet. But so enthusiastic!

So, we’ve started solid foods, which is awesome and also way more work than just making baby milk. On the one hand: sweet potatoes! THE SWEET POTATOES THAT WE EAT! I bake a sweet potato to perfection (thank you for reminding me how perfect they are, Mark Bittman), let it cool to warm-ish, and give him a pointy end like an ice cream cone and eat my own with him! I DO NOT HAVE WORDS TO ADEQUATELY EXPRESS HOW MUCH I ENJOY THIS!

His love of sweet potatoes is my favorite proof that he really is my child.

But there is another hand. And on that other hand: none of us can live on sweet potatoes alone, and now we have to take the digestive development of a tiny screamer into account when making dinner. Having just typed that, it kind of looks like I’m complaining about having to think about my kid while making dinner. File that under: well, duh, parenting is work. Thankfully, beyond sweet potatoes, he seems to really be enjoying most of the things he’s tried, including green beans, jicama, and the drawstrings on my hoodie. We are starting to realize that the next stage (after “one new food at a time”) is going to be pureeing up our dinner wholesale, and that we’re probably going to need to cut out dairy products when we do that. Sad faces all around, but no cow’s milk for babies just yet.

So! Pro: I get to eat ALL THE SWEET POTATOES and lots of other veggies and fruits and generally good foods. Con: I have to think about what I’m feeding us, and the prospect of giving up dairy. We’ll call “pooping” a neutral, because, well, everyone poops. And I think my “Cons” are clearly actually “Pros,” so, I’ll quit my complaining. grass in his toes

During this process, I’m really enjoying having a big community of parents on Facebook, sharing the mundane stories of every day life. I like hearing about how your kids are doing! They give me guidance about my own kid! I can’t wait until we get to have real time for them to play together (and us too!).

(The pictures are from his first meeting with something he didn’t try to eat – grass. He was not particularly a fan, it turns out.)

Carnitas!

As a somewhat-snobby foodie person with my roots in the American Southwest, I can be a little (read: ridiculously) picky about my Mexican food. It is my comfort food in many ways, and I like it exactly the way that I like it. I don’t like Tex-Mex, chiles rellenos should never be battered (good gravy!), beans should be refried with lard, and the soupier the better.

As my path in life has taken me away from the pockets of Mexican culture that have nourished me as a child and an adult, I’ve figured out that the best way to get good, real Mexican food is usually by finding a food truck, preferably with pictures on the menu (yes, that sounds totally racist. sorry). But even then, there are some dishes that never quite live up to my standards, and so I just don’t eat them. (Actually, this isn’t only true of Mexican food, not by a long shot, but this post is.)

After a house party last year, we were left with a bunch of half-finished jars of home-made pickled – Carlos’s killer carrots & jalapeƱos, and juniper-berry scented onions, most notably. And of course, not a bit of the delicious carne machaca that had originally been served with them. But I did have some pork shoulder chunks, and a pregnancy-driven desire for carnitas.

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Now, I don’t generally like carnitas, and before this moment, I had never had any desire to make them. But they are high on my list on Mexican foods that never live up to my hopes, so it was make them or go without, and by this point I had learned that “go without” didn’t usually cut it for baby-driven cravings. A housemate of mine in Olympia made a great batch, once, but I remembered it being labor-intensive. But there I was, all grumpy and pregnant, and needing carnitas. So, like we do in this modern age, I went to the internet. And like 90% of my successful recipe searches, this one lead me to David Lebivitz. Now, at first glance, a former pastry chef living in Paris is not an obvious choice for a carnitas recipe, but he’s basically the best at everything.

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I used his recipe, but I don’t think I had cinnamon sticks, so I used star anise instead. Mmm, star anise. Absolutely the best thing about this recipe is that it used the pressure cooker instead of taking all day. Pressure cooking for the win! This recipe is frankly kind of amazing: brown up your meat, pressure cook it with spices, shred it up, and like magic, there’s just the right amount of sweet liquid to coat the craggy pieces and create all those perfectly browned crunchy points that make these carnitas stand out.

Springing Back

Greetings, grumpy friends!

We’ve had a super busy couple of months over here at Casa Grumpy Pie, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from my total, ridiculous silence. It’s been awesome, wonderful, good busy, though. Just… busy.

But now it’s springtime, for real! The sun was shining there for a hot second, and even though the clouds are back, it’s neither raining nor bone-chillingly cold, so hurray! The gentlemen have been busily building things and going on international adventures. I’m almost done with some sweaters (yes, the same sweaters. Let’s not talk about it.), and more than halfway done cooking our baby. We’ve all been adjusting to a new city and a new country, and even the dog is finding new dogs to be irrational angry at through the windows. I’ve been eating lots of weird and awesome things, in keeping with our plan to subject the fetus to a world’s worth of food before it’s born, and I have pictures and stories aplenty to share. I was going to tell you about the time we ate duck feet, but it turns out I forgot to take a picture, which is super sad. Because they were awesome! Not to worry, though, they came from the dim sum place right down the street from us, and we’ll be back.

In the mean time, Blueberry Danger (aka future-baby del Rio) and the change in seasons have conspired to bring salads back into my diet. You may not know this about me, but I am very particular about salad, especially at home. As you know, I love me some lentil salad, and I make a pretty killer potato salad (light on the mayo, heavy on the awesome), but a big plate of lettuce is the bane of my existence. LETTUCE IS NOT FOOD, at least on its own. So, today it’s lentil salad, tomorrow it’ll probably be potato, and there may be another in the future.

I’ll say this for the little person-to-be: with the exception of the two days in the first trimester when I hated coffee, we’ve had a pretty awesome time on the food front. My mom tells me that when she was carrying me, she had a daily craving for nacho cheese Doritos and 7-Up. Given that, there’s no way I’m going to complain about salads, and that time when nothing in the world was spicy enough (more on that later!).

photographing brownies is not for the lazy

We do have one weakness, though: baked goods. Are you surprised? Today I was really proud of myself for not buying any leftover easter candy at the grocery store, until I read this lovely post about life with an entrepreneur courtesy of my friend Geraldine, after which I had to make some brownies. Can’t win them all, I guess. Still, home made brownies are better than half-price Cadbury eggs, right? We’ll just say yes.

Comfort food – Beans & Greens

Mr. Pie and I had a lovely nine day adventure to Hawaii to begin our year. We were lucky to stay in two places that had full kitchens, so we did a lot of our own cooking. This is one of the best things about vacation, as far as I am concerned. While I enjoy eating out as much as the next person, I am happiest when it’s an option, and not an obligation. We made some pretty delightful food on our trip, which we plan to replicate for the blog soon. Keep your eyes peeled!

But the best part of vacation eating is coming home and eating in my own kitchen again, hands down. Even if it was not exactly clean when we came home, and had no groceries in it to speak of.

And what’s even better than cooking in my own kitchen after vacation? Someone else cooking for us, of course!I had grand plans for making some comfort food, but got nowhere. Thankfully, Joe stepped up to the plate, took his first run at my favorite bean-cooking method, cooked more bacon than I would have, and generally made my night. Hurray, Joe!

This is a super easy, very adaptable recipe that gets a lot of use in my family. It’s absolutely fine to use canned beans, if you have them. Use whatever kind of greens you like. Mustard greens looked good to me at the store, but I’ve had great success with kale and chard as well. Add some chili flakes or a splash of wine. Make it yours!

Beans and Greens!

Using my magic beans method, cook beans until tender. When your beans are cooked, fry bacon in a wide pan until crispy, then add mustard greens, cover, and cook them until they’re wilted but not soggy. Add beans, mix, top with hot sauce, enjoy!

Quick and Lazy Curry for Busy Days

Are you ready to participate in the world’s easiest (and in absolutely no way authentic) curry, for those days when you don’t have time to cook (or everyone is working full-time fighting what you suspect is both a cold AND a flu)? This isn’t even really a recipe. It’s a thing I did, that I have done before, and will doubtless do again, though it’s never exactly the same.

Go to your fridge. Find all the vegetables you like and need to use up. I found some Chinese eggplant, baby carrots, russet potatoes, red bell peppers, and yellow onions. I also found Brussels sprouts, but I felt that they were not a good match for the rest of my players, so they stayed in the drawer.

Cut them into smallish dice. I generally quartered the baby carrots. After cutting the amount shown above, I decided I needed twice as much. Do what feels right to you.

Mmm, chinese eggplant. I meant to pickle this, but life got in the way. Normally I might have salted it, but in this case I just threw it in with everything else.

Combine all your vegetables in your slow cooker, or a heavy bottomed pan. Return to the fridge, discover that you have just enough yellow curry paste to make this work (hurray! Also, Rose, buy more yellow curry!).

You can use vegetable or chicken or beef broth for this step instead of coconut milk. Or even water. We <3 coconut milk, though, especially with yellow curry. Add these magical ingredients to your slow cooker, stir to make sure the curry paste is incorporated, turn that bad boy to "high," and go back to sleep on the couch for several more hours. Or, do something useful, which is probably preferable. If you're cooking this on the stove, bring it to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until your potatoes are pretty tender, then add the red bell peppers. Serve with rice, or as a stew. Bonus: this keeps and reheats pretty well, which is great if you love leftovers (we do!). I cannot say enough in praise of Aroy-D curry paste. We get it at Uwajimaya, but you can get it on Amazon. They’re super easy to work with, very flavorful, and free of MSG (usually, check the package before you buy). I almost always have at least two varieties in the fridge. We love them. Go get some! (They do not give me anything for free, I just really like them)

Dutch Baby for One

One of my go-to brunch foods is the super-easy Dutch Baby, or Big Pancake (it has lots of names, it’s always Dutch Baby to me). This giant puffy pancake starts life as an unassuming puddle of batter in a well-buttered pan on the stove, and through magic in the oven becomes a puffy, crispy giant popover of awesomeness. And it’s super easy, so easy that I can start it before the coffee is ready and still be confident of success.

The standard Dutch Baby recipe is kind of huge, serving 6-8. That’s totally fine when we’re feeding a hungover household, but sometimes nobody else is home, and I need a little Dutch Baby love. Thus, the “for one” adaptation.

When I make a full-sized recipe, I use the blender, though I have done it by hand to equally acceptable effect. Today we’re using the immersion blender, because it’s easy. If you don’t have one, a fork will do the job just fine (the batter volume here is a little too small for normal-sized blenders.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Combine milk, egg, sugar, salt, and flour. Blend together until flour is fully incorporated and batter is smooth. Let it rest up to half an hour. You can use it immediately, but giving the gluten time to relax will yield a more tender pancake.

Melt butter in small frying pan over medium high heat. Add pancake batter, allow to bubble just a moment, then put it in the oven for 20-25 minutes. (I like mine good and brown, so I always cook them 25 minutes, but your mileage may vary.)

Remove from oven, transfer carefully to a plate, dust with powdered sugar and lemon juice (or whatever you like on your pancakes), and enjoy! I love the way that every Dutch Baby has a character all its own – no two ever look quite the same!

There are lots of variations on this out there in recipe-land – often calling for vanilla or cinnamon in the batter. I have made it with half wheat flour and half cornmeal, which turns out pretty well. That version also had fresh herbs in the batter, and we used bacon fat instead of butter. Best. Baby. Ever.

Christmas cookies, omg!

I got sucked into an internet rabbit hole of Christmas cookies. It is for the best that I don’t love making cookies, and only got sucked into a vortex of looking at them.

How cute are these Korean flower cookies? I guess they’re not traditionally Christmas-y, I think that’s good. A little surprise is a good thing, right? I want them, bad.

I’m a really lazy cookie decorator, which increases my admiration for people who put together cute things like gingerbread heads. Also, her ‘draw the faces in advance strategy’ is killer.

My go-to Christmas cookie for the last half decade or so has been this Ginger Orange Star from Bon Appetit. I love them enough to make the icing, and that’s saying something.

If I do get it together to make some cookies this year, it may be Dan Savage’s Ma’s Christmas Snowballs. They’re an entirely different cookie than I have generally made, and I like that. I think I would use walnuts, though, because pecans are lame.

Are you making Christmas cookies? Do you try new recipes, or stick to known winners?