Cooking In Self-Defense
The social and economic pressures since have largely, I think, forced "shop" and "home economics" (the names sounded goofy even back then) off of the educational radar, resulting in at least some people who are clueless about most everything except how to take standardized tests, and that not very well.
Using tools teaches you that some processes in life are absolutely linear: A + B + C = D. Cooking teaches you that some processes in life are non-linear: the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. You are prone to major mistakes in any walk of life if you do not understand both these lessons.
I did not learn to cook until I was in my middle twenties. I had preceded this with a deliberate campaign, as soon as I left my parents' home, to both expand my taste in dishes, and to obliterate strong food prejudices. Such prejudices, like the ones I had developed against beets and liver from baby food forward, stuck me as a silly refusal to seek new pleasures merely because they were strong and unfamiliar.
I was taught to cook in graduate school by a male roommate in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was Irish/Italian from Long Island and his Irish mother, unlike mine, had not chronically chased him out of the kitchen when he was curious about what she was doing there. Because we were both in the same graduate program, as artists with large materials expenses, and living on a shoestring, we had to cook the cheapest dishes possible, which means we taught ourselves the Northern New Mexico style of Mexican-American cooking.
Suffice it to say that I knew about tortillas, salsa, enchiladas, and burritos far earlier than almost anyone else east of the Mississippi River. I also knew about dishes that still have not penetrated the general culture of both "Mexican" (run by Anglos) and Mexican (run by Mexicans) restaurants: Carne Adovada (the best New Mexican dish and the simplest), Green Chile Stew, and Mixed Meat Red Chili (Lamb and Pork) garnished with olives.
Since I have your undivided attention, I will append the first recipe:
New Mexico Carne Adovada:
Pork, cut in one inch chunks--The chewier pieces do better, pork shoulder is fine.
Ground chile molido--This is ground red chile powder with no other added spices--take the time to seek this out in a specialty grocery and, if possible, obtain the brands from Chimayo, New Mexico--they are well worth it. I suggest "medium" if you are inured to chile heat, it has by far the better aromatic flavors than the "mild" or the "hot".
Minced garlic--Use fresh cloves if you have the time, but jar garlic is perfectly suitable.
Salt--1/4 level tsp per pound of pork
Mix ingredients, except the pork, with warm water to form a thick paste. Add pork and stir thoroughly. Refrigerate 24 hours. Cook as slowly as possible, a crock pot is excellent. Failing that, heat to a boil on the stove, then cook at a very slow simmer 2-4 hours. Serve with warmed and buttered flour tortillas, milk or chilled lager beer, tostadas and salsa. Carne Adovada also makes an excellent burrito filling.
The crock pot. That and the microwave oven are the backbone of defensive cooking, which is not cooking for pleasure and recreation, but, rather, a time efficient means to sustain eating for pleasure and recreation, particularly in terms of minimum prep and clean-up. In defensive cooking, one complements the other. The substitute for the crock pot, if you have the time to tend it, is the regular oven. The stove top is not completely useless, but its best application is in the making of Plannedovers, or dishes deliberately made in large quantities, either to be reheated or enjoyed without cooking.
Always use a crockpot with a removable crock. For safety's sake, since you don't want to ever make the Mexican dish known as the turistas or Montezuma's Revenge, always pre-heat the crockpot, microwave any slow cooked dish to germ killing temperature in the removable crock, and then return it to the heating pot. Depending on your oven and your crock, somewhere between 5 and 8 minutes on High setting should do this. A rough indicator of the proper time is when you can vividly smell the dish cooking while it is still turning in the microwave.
The microwave is an amazing tool in its own right, bringing the simplest of ethnic based dishes to fruition in a matter of minutes, such as Tibetan oatmeal. This dish is derived from the staple of Tibet known as tsampa, or roasted barley flour. Since my Tibetan friends tell me that any genuine barley flour you find in American health food stores is usually well past its peak of freshness, I have adapted the traditional Tibetan tsampa porridge for quick oats in the microwave:
1/2 cup Quick Oats
1/4 cup raisins
1 TBS salt-free butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 black tea bag
1 cup water
Place all ingredients except water and tea in a serving bowl. Heat water to tea brewing temperature in microwave, + or - 2 minutes on High. Brew tea in water 2-3 minutes, then pour tea into the serving bowl over the pat of butter. Stir until the butter is completely melted and the oats are soft. Enjoy. A dish like this, of course, offers many avenues for adaptation: dried apricots or apples, almonds, a little cinnamon or a very light touch of ground cloves or anise, ect.
The crockpot is essentially a small, slow oven, whose best use is either in the cooking of stews or in the roasting and braising of meats a blanc, or without browning. Carne adovada is the archetype of this process. To abandon browning gives up two things, a crisp outer texture and a degree of inner juiciness--if you want these in your meat, use the regular broiler or oven. A tip: larger roasts done in the oven can frequently profit by an initial 20 minutes of an oven pre-heated to a high temperature, around 475F, followed by longer time in a cooler and slower oven, about 325F with doneness assessed with a good meat thermometer. This procedure seals in meat juices.
Conversely, do not cook the leanest cuts a blanc in the crockpot, you will dry them out. A cheaper cut, pork shoulder or beef chuck, will serve you better. For defensive purposes, I buy larger roasts of such cuts at a discount and cut them myself at home to crock pot size pieces, essentially small roasts.
Slow braising a blanc requires interesting liquids which will complement the flavor of the meat and stand alone as a broth with the meat juices in them. Twenty years of exploring various cuisines on the business end have taught me some novel tricks. For example, meat likes to be cooked with fruit--particularly pork, lamb, and veal. Pork and canned tart cherries, lamb and dried apricots, veal and pears are some of my favorites.
Soy sauce and salsa combinations do well with chicken pieces, particularly chicken dark meat, and a can of sliced okra can be added to this at the end for a wonderful gumbo texture. Make lots of this liquid, for the leftover, with 1/4 tsp File powder (dried sassafras), makes a wonderful stew base for catfish nuggets or mock crab.
All of the above also have the added advantage of satisfying our various official dietary nannies about eating fruits and vegetables.
Lamb and beef go well with a braise of canned German potato salad, pork with turnip or collard greens, veal with any dairy product (you will find out first hand why the Levitican dietary laws prohibited seething a kid in its mothers milk--it is deliciously pagan and sinful when it graces your table), and any form of smoked or spiced pork with pre-cooked white beans and 1/2 cup of apple cider vinegar.
And, of course, if you have time, you can always brown the meat. A quick and useful way to do this with crockpot sized pieces of about 1/3 lb. is with an electric, George Foreman style, grill. You can also grill good steaks in this, of course, and succulent salmon pieces, but if you are savvy enough to cut beef round roast into 1/3 lb. chunks, with the muscle grain running the length, broiling them medium rare on the four length sides will give you exquisite slices of London Broil, crossways cut for serving.
Try this combination for grilling any beef or lamb: light salt, freshly ground black pepper, minced garlic, Worcestershire sauce, and lime juice.
Often the simplest way to cook defensively is not to cook at all. Frozen vegetables , for example, have already been blanched and are at their nutritional peak right out of the package. Further cooking, or even re-heating, degrades their nutrition to some degree. Many such vegetables are splendid served at room temperature, either alone or with a simple dipping sauce: drawn butter, olive oil & rosemary, rice vinegar with your favorite herbs, sour cream, or a good bottled salad dressing. My favorite vegetable for this treatment is sugar snap peas.
Moreover, even the stronger flavored green vegetables lend themselves to refrigerator pickling (a la Kim Chee) such as the following recipe:
Chick Pea & Brussel Sprout Pickle
2 small packages of frozen Brussel Sprouts
1 16 oz. can of chickpeas
Blended spices--my favorite is Original Mrs. Dash's
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup Rice Vinegar
Layer the sprouts in a flat-bottomed sealable container. Scatter some chickpeas between each layer. Sprinkle top liberally with the spice blend and pepper. Drizzle vinegar over the top. Seal container and invert it a couple of times to soak the sprouts and spread the spices.
This pickle develops its flavor over one or two days and its worth waiting this out before serving. It will keep a week, with occasional turning, in the refrigerator.
Finally there is the ultimate in defensive cooking, Black Bean, Hominy, and Salsa Salad. You can serve it as a cold salad; spread it over a layer of tortilla chips, garnish it with shredded cheese or guacomole or sour cream, and serve it as Killer Black Bean Nachos; you can use it to braise pork as Spicy Black Bean Pork; and you can dilute it with tomato juice, a touch of lime juice, 1/2 tsp or less minced garlic, and some minced fresh cilantro for Chilled Black Bean Gaspacho, garnished with a dollop of sour cream.
Black Bean, Hominy, and Salsa Salad
1 28 oz. can La Preferida Black Beans (this brand is superior and worth seeking)
1 16 oz. can Golden Hominy (you can substitute white hominy or even sweet corn)
1 16 oz. jar medium Picante Sauce
Mix the ingredients and chill.