Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dessert for those who don't crave sweets - Strawberries with Lime Agave Syrup

Given that we're deep into the holiday season, we've been exposed to a TON of sweets lately.  My wife got into a baking mood and produced nearly five dozen chocolate-chip and smashed candy cane cookies which were a huge hit (especially for the 5-year-old who got to take a hammer to a bag of candy canes), but between that and all the other cookies and stocking fillers, I've had my fill of sugar.
Add to that the fact that we don't even normally like sweets that much, when it came time to choose a dessert for a recent dinner party, I just couldn't bring myself to serve anything like chocolate, ice cream, pie or cake.

The rest of the meal was SoCal/Mexican themed, so I had a huge bag limes from CostCo sitting on the counter.  That reminded me of one of my favorite summer desserts, and then I realized that I'm spoiled rotten by living here in San Diego, and I can get excellent summer fruits year round!

Image courtesy of barefootwine.com
This dessert is so dead simple it didn't even occur to me to document the process, until I found myself explaining it to my guests and subsequently a few other people.

1 lb Strawberries, hulled and quartered along vertical axis
Juice of 1 lime, fresh
2-3T of Raw or Dark Agave Syrup

Combine the lime juice and agave syrup in a squeeze bottle and shake to integrate (or take my easier route and simply add lime juice to the dwindling supply of agave syrup in its original bottle)

Portion the strawberries into 3-5 dessert bowls (depending on guest count), and drizzle some of the syrup from the squeeze bottle over each serving.  Serve immediately and collect compliments.

Like I said: Dead simple, but it's hard to appreciate how well the acid and earthy sweetness work to compliment the berries.  Dark/raw agave syrup will have more of the interesting flavors and be less sweet than the refined versions.

Monday, October 20, 2014

German Spaetzle

Fall is a wonderful time for shifting food styles.  Every year, several families in my neighborhood do a big "block party" to celebrate Oktoberfest, and it doesn't really feel like fall until I get those flavors and leave the summer foods behind.  The actual Germans in the group are responsible for the potato salad, handmade pretzels, spiral-cut radishes, and a dozen other important details.  Every year, though, I get to contribute one important dish to the effort: Spaetzle (or SpƤtzle).  It's a small dumpling-like pasta, traditional in Germany and surrounding countries.

One party-load. Beer and stein optional, but recommended.

Like many rustic dishes, the basics are simple, but the details are important. The traditional recipe consists of only coarse flour, eggs, and salt, and involves a special method for scraping long, thin, ribbons of the dough off of a cutting board into boiling water.  Modern cooks typically use a spaeztle machine instead - one of the only uni-taskers I own.  I also think a food mill with a large-bore sieve (3/8" holes?) would work, and some people have even used a basic colander with large holes.  

A modern spaeztle machine

A note on technique:  Most spaeztle recipes you find in books or online are derived from the traditional method and ingredients, but some adjustments are needed for the average home cook.
The proscribed process is to mix the ingredients like you're making a pasta - form a well in the center and gradually add egg mixture.  I don't like this approach as I think it encourages over-working the dough and makes the dumplings too chewy.  Traditionally, the flour used would be coarse, like Semolina, but we're using AP flour, so gluten formation will be more rapid.  The other important consideration if you're using a spaeztle machine, food mill, or colander, is that we need the resulting dough to "flow" and squish though the holes.  It should be wet and sticky, somewhere between a sponge and a batter.  
Therefore, instead of the pasta method, I do this more in the muffin method - prep the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately, then add all the wet to the dry and mix minimally, adjusting the liquid to get the proper consistency.  If you start with the base recipe as below and your flour is as dry as ours is here in the Southwest, you will almost certainly need to add at least another 1/4C to 1/2C of water to get the proper sponge wetness.  If the sponge is too tight, it won't flow through the hopper and you'll be frustrated.  If you've somehow gotten it too loose (big eggs?), add a bit more flour and soldier on.

Basic Spaetzle

(Feed ~six as a primary starch, I usually make a double batch for a big Oktoberfest party)

2-1/2 Cups Flour
1/2 Cup Milk
1/2 Cup Water
2 Eggs**
1/4 tsp salt

** If doubling these proportions, use 5 eggs to double the remaining ingredients. You may still need to add liquid to adjust the consistency, but a bit less. You'll want a BIG pot of water for cooking a double batch, if you can manage it. I use my biggest stock pot and by the end of the batch the water is getting pretty starchy. If you can't manage one huge pot, maybe better to work one regular batch at a time and bring a second pot of water to boil for the second batch.

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. 
  2. Mix flour and salt in a large bowl. 
  3. Beat eggs lightly, add milk and water. 
  4. Pour wet ingredients into dry, and mix quickly but thoroughly, being careful to avoid over-working. 
  5. Check consistency and add water in 1/4C increments until you have a loose sponge that clings to a wooden spoon but flows somewhat. 
  6. Begin making dumplings. Place whatever tool you'll be using directly over the pot of boiling water.  Fill the hopper of your spaeztle machine and "Grate" the dough mixture through the holes.  If using a colander, use the back of a spoon to press the mixture through.
  7.  I usually work in small batches (1-2 "hoppers" of the spaetzle maker at a time), so that as the dumplings cook I can pull them out with a wire spider or slotted spoon after ~2 minutes of cooking.  Transfer to an earthenware bowl or casserole to keep warm while you continue to boil the rest of the dumplings. If you are making the below "sauce" directly in your casserole, you can begin adding pats of butter now and stirring briefly so that the dumplings don't stick to each other. 
  8. Repeat until you've used up the sponge/batter/dough. 
  9. Reserve some of the cooking water if making sauce.

"Hopper" of my spaeztle maker, approx. 2 cups

"Sauce" for Spaetzle 
(recipe is approximate for an above batch - double if you're doubling the spaetzle)

1/3 stick butter (or more, if you're feeling frisky)
~1 Cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
1/2 Cup tarragon, chopped fine
1 tsp of lemon juice
~1/4tsp of Nutmeg, grated fresh
salt & pepper to taste

  1. After you've cooked the whole amount of spaeztle, or in between hopper-loads, add the butter (cut into pats so it melts better) and stir to start it melting 
  2. Add the herbs, probably 1/4 cup parsley and 2T of tarragon at a time, and stir. I usually judge the proper amount of herbage by the overall "color" of the mix and a taste test. You want a fair amount of both to impart flavor, but you're not making a salad. 
  3. Add the lemon juice, nutmeg, and generous salt and pepper to taste. 
  4. Add up to 1C of the cooking water and toss if it's too tight with just the butter. You can do all of this directly in the casserole dish, if it's big enough.

Ask around your local biergarten for more recipes

Alternative Preparations: Basic spaeztle are very versatile, and can be used like gnocchi, pasta, etc. with any of your favorite sauces.  Other classic German preparations are to fry the spaeztle in butter then season lightly, or to make into a cheese casserole with sauteed onions (Kaesespaeztle)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Quinoa Adobo Chile

The family and I recently attended the 2014 American Adventurist Mountain Rendezvous.  This is a fantastic event, and one half of their semi-annual series that gets together over a hundred Overlanding-oriented families and their rigs. 

Photo courtesy of Brent Haywood Photography
Many recent events have featured a Dutch Oven competition, and I wanted to participate this year.  As with many potluck events that we attend as a family, my goal was  to cook something vegetarian-friendly so my wife would be assured a meal.  We never like to impose her choices on anyone else and it's frankly ridiculous to assume.  In addition to being vegetarian, this recipe is also (accidentally) gluten free and could be full-vegan by either omitting the chocolate or using semi-sweet or other milk-less chocolate.  I had a lot of positive comments on this dish, and at least a half dozen requests for the recipe, so I consider it a great success. 
Pre-heating the oven. Photo by Kimberley Newmark
The other great success of my weekend was getting to use my freshly-built firepot tripod.  This shameless DIY clone of the excellent
Roadii Firegrill (prohibitively expensive in the USA since they're built in the UK), was desperately needed due to local drought-induced fire restrictions.  It is wonderfully convenient to be able to set up my lightweight fire system anywhere that's safe and not have to bend or stoop to manage the coals or the dutch oven.  I've also got an adjustable grill-grate on cables for when I want to use it for grilling. 

The quinoa is already a complete protein, but adding the soy meat gives nice texture, flavor, and makes it extra filling. Substituting turkey or other ground meat will add nice flavors as well! This recipe is designed for a 14″(8qt) dutch oven and produces a nice thick chili.  Obviously it can also be prepared at home over direct heat or baked in a 350° oven.  I can't take full credit for the recipe, as I adapted it from one I found at camp-cook.com, but here's my version "as prepared":

Quinoa Adobo Chili


1 cup quinoa (easiest to prepare in advance, per below)
2 cups vegetable stock
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 
1.5 tablespoon cumin 
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
2 cans of black beans (recommend unrinsed unless sodium intake is a factor)
12oz (1 package) Lightlife Smart Ground Mexican Style soy filling (alt: 3/4lb of ground Turkey or TVP)
3+ tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive oil 
1 onion, diced 
1 cup corn (For best flavor, roast your own or use Trader Joe's Roasted/frozen corn)
6 cloves garlic, minced 
1 quart of canned diced tomatoes
1-2 cups water 
2 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, diced large
1 large or 2 small zucchini, diced large
2-4 chipotle peppers and as much adobo sauce as you can drain from a small can (4 peppers makes for good heat without being overwhelming)
¼ cup semi-sweet chocolate, chips or broken into chunks (I used Belgian 75% cacao, omit or use 100%/milkless chocolate for vegan )
1 bunch of cilantro 
2 limes
salt and pepper to taste 

Photo by Kimberley Newmark
Prior to departure:
  1. Rinse the quinoa in a strainer until clear water is running through it.
  2. Toast the quinoa for about 3 minutes in a cast iron skillet.
  3. When toasted, add 2 cups of the vegetable broth to the skillet, cover, and let it simmer for about 15 minutes. The quinoa is done when it starts to split open. Resist urge to season at this point, you're just prepping an ingredient.
  4. Cool and bag or vacuum pack the quinoa for the trip
  5. Measure and combine cinnamon, cumin, chile powder, and paprika into a tightly sealed container or ziplock bag
  6. If sodium intake is a factor, you can rinse black beans and bag them now, however I prefer to include the starchy liquid from the can to help thicken the chili and add flavor. It's also way more convenient to just bring the cans. Likely no added salt will be needed if you use the liquid.
  7. You can optionally dice and bag your veggies now as well, but I am recently forbidden from transporting cut onions in our camper's fridge, so I elected to prep the veg on-site.
Simmering away over the coals. Photo by Kimberley Newmark
In camp:
  1. Pre-heat the 14″ dutch oven with a solid circle of ~28 briquettes on the bottom.
  2. Chop the Onion and mince garlic.
  3. Dice peppers and zucchini, if not done at home.
  4. When Dutch oven is hot, add the olive oil & onions. Saute the onions until they start to change color then add the garlic and veggie "meat". Just brown the soy meat for texture, but cook until no-longer pink if using real meat (about 2 min).
  5. Add chipotles and adobo sauce and the dry spices. Stir mixture for about 3 minutes.
  6. Add the tomatoes and their liquid, black beans, bell peppers, quinoa, zucchini, and ~1 cup of water. Mix well.
  7. Move 1/2 the briquettes to the lid of the Dutch oven to form a ring. Reform the bottom briquettes into one ring.
  8. Let mixture simmer for about 15 min then mix in the chocolate.
  9. Check thickness of chili: If mixture is too tight, add water and let it simmer covered for another 5 min. If too loose, remove the lid and let simmer uncovered 5-10 minutes to thicken.
  10. Garnish with fresh cilantro and a slice of lime. (Can't emphasize this enough - the late addition of acid really brightens up all the veggies!)


Photo by Kimberley Newmark

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

a typical Summer dinner.

There's a reason Summer is a celebrated season in so many parts of the world.  If you're a child, it means weeks or months of time away from school.  Depending on where you live, it might represent the time when the sun finally conquers the snow or rain, or it might be the time when certain favorite fruits and vegetables finally become available again.

Recent immigrants and visitors to San Diego like to complain about the lack of seasons here.  They remark how much they miss the proper seasons of their home (though I notice that most seem hesitant to leave.)  For those of us who've been here most (or all) of our lives, however, there are definitely distinct seasons, each with their own flavors, scents, and feelings.  Yes, the changes are more understated.  I prefer to think we San Diegans are in-tune enough with our environment that we don't need some garish lightshow of leaves changing colors to know when Autumn has arrived, or the first snowstorm to know when Winter is coming.  We can smell these in the air, and sense it in the way the sun feels on our skin.

Summer arrives with similar subtlety.  It is not the sudden brash arrival of hot days, we can have those any time of the year.  It is not the remarkable absence of rain or snow - they are rare enough to be a curiosity (or a miracle) in any month.  Summer in San Diego is the end of "May Grey" and "June Gloom".  The shift in humidity and the lack of onshore flow from the Pacific changes everything.  If you're an early riser, you'll smell the change in the native sagebrush as it starts to dry out and prepare for the late-summer bloom. The transition period can be a rough one for those prone to hayfever or allergies.

One of the markers of Summer we notice the most is the difference around dusk.  The sun sits higher in the sky, so porticos and pergolas have provided cooling shade through the day, but the days are longer.  As the sun finds the horizon, oblique, orange light filters in under our precious canopies and casts a glow on these spaces.   Evening mealtime tends to coincide with sunsets and the cooling breezes that seem to rush out as the sun finds the ocean.  

So of course, Summer for my family means dining outside.  Between late June and early October, it seems we take almost every evening meal on our patio (to the point we tend to allow the dining room table to become covered in junk mail and preschool art work.)  On many days, dining outside happens out of pure necessity; all the food comes from the grill, as putting any energy into the home envelope via cooking would be an act of madness.

On this evening, our meal begins with a simple salad of grape tomatoes, ciliegine mozzarella, and homegrown basil tossed with just a dash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

This day was cool enough that using the oven was not utter suicide, so I roasted a half-sheet worth of halved Brussels sprouts tossed in olive oil and salt.  Since the oven was already hot, it was an easy choice to add a second half-sheet, filled with quartered red potatoes herbed with fresh oregano and thyme from the garden.  

These alone with a glass of Chardonnay from our favorite local winery is enough for my wife the vegetarian.  My daughter and I split some nearly-healthy chicken piccata (with a minimum of flour and omitting the butter).  I'm impressed and proud that she likes such strong flavors in her chicken, but I only wish the same were true for the Brussels sprouts.

I admit, this meal is built of what some would call "Fall" flavors, but by July we have already gorged ourselves on early-arrival "Summer fare" from Mother's garden.  Corn, green beans, and peaches have to be eaten immediately.  The "Second Summer" of homegrown nectarines and tomatoes is coming, though. Visitors and newcomers probably won't tell you, but the locals with good internal clocks and calendars know that Summer came slowly in 2014.  June Gloom lasted into July this year, so Summer arrived late.  Will that mean Fall arrives late as well?  If you are curious, come October, find a local and ask them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Breakfast Quesadillas

I like think I know a fair amount about cooking. I'm no pro chef, but I'm friends with several of those, and on my good days I like to believe that the difference between them and me is less about outright knowledge and more the level of craft that they bring to the kitchen.
But every now and then, I get smacked in the face by some technique that is so simple, yet utterly brilliant, that I'm reminded how much there is left for me to learn.  I remember watching my neighbor make her German Potato salad with the intention of documenting her amorphous "recipe", only to be more struck by her ability to speed-peel five pounds of boiled potatoes in seconds flat.  Watching that simple action changed everything for me, and I pass it along whenever I can.
Well here I am again.  Someone just smacked me with a dead-simple solution to an old problem: Making breakfast (Egg) Quesadillas without dirtying two pans and without having the eggs fall out all over...
The solution from the dirty gourmet is to start the eggs like an omelette.  Let them start to setup, then apply a tortilla and flip.  Add the rest of the ingredients and the second tortilla, and voila', an egg quesadilla where the egg is a perfectly distributed fluffy pancake layer.

I was so excited by the revelation , I made these for dinner that very night.  They were perfect, and excellent.  And typically, I didn't take any pictures.

That however leads me on my normal path of "leftovers for breakfast".  Of course breakfast is a necessarily smaller meal, since I find I only need a few hundred calories to jump-start my morning, so I've experimented with reducing the portions and calories further.

Today's Breakfast: Open-faced egg quesadilla on a corn tortilla,  with chicken breast, sauteed vidalia onion, and green chiles.  Pico de gallo and avocado on the side.  

The cheese provides a large chunk of the calories, but it isn't really a quesadilla without it.  Since this method still yields good results with a single corn tortilla underneath, it's manageable.  Even so, this is a bit of a splurge at 380 calories.  Serving the same ingredients as an omelette with 1/2 as much cheese and sans tortilla would have brought this in at 275 calories.

For camping/overlanding purposes, I think I'll stick to the full "two tortilla" recipe from the Dirty Gourmet - it will be simpler to manage and easier to eat and clean-up, and the extra calories are never missed during a day on-trail.  For dieting at home, open-faced is fantastic!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Overlander's "Pita Pockets"

This recipe is another favorite of our daughter.  I make it often at home, but I originally learned it from another family while camping in Tahoe many years ago.  We call them "Pita Pockets" because our daughter loves the way that sounds, but these are pretty free-form, ethno-culinarily speaking, so you can experiment to fit your tastes.

The winning part of this meal from the kid perspective is that they get to assemble it themselves, and control what goes into their own pocket.

Like many good overlanding recipes, this one permits a lot of prep work to be done at home, making in-camp cooking a relatively easy job - makes my life easy and lets me enjoy a beer and the scenery instead of slaving away for too long.  (Although, if you have a lazy afternoon, fresh-cut veggies will retain a bit more 'snap'.)  It's also vegetarian-compatible, which is a big plus for the wife.  This recipe is basically one-pan or no-pan, but does require refrigeration (or a cooler) and a grill is better than a burner for this one.  As listed, should feed a family of 3-4.


  • 1lb of Lamb, Beef, or Chicken, optionally marinated (see Method)
  • Substitute (or add) grilled or roasted mushroom slices or falafel for vegetarian compatibility
  • 2C Lettuce - Romaine, Red-Leaf, or Spring mix (optional)
  • 1-2C Tomato - dice one large tomato or halve/quarter a big handful of small grape or cherry tomatoes, depending on taste
  • 1-2 Persian or Pickling Cucumbers (preferred), or 1/3 English Cucumber, 1/4" dice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 Onion, white or sweet, finely diced 
  • 1/2C Feta Cheese
  • 1/2C Kalamata Olives, seeded & halved or sliced
  • Tzatziki Sauce - Packaged fresh, or DIY for the ambitious
  • 4 Whole Pitas or 4-8 Flatbread rounds
  • Basque Marinade (optional)
  • Garlic Salt (optional)
  • Hummus (optional)
  • Lots of ziplock bags
  • Grill or heavy pan
  • Heat source (grill or campfire is best, burner will work also)
  • Heavy Duty Aluminum Foil
  • Grilling tongs


  1. Prior to departing for your trip, wash and dice all of the vegetables except tomatoes and lettuce.  Pack them individually in heavy-duty ziplock bags or Tupperware type containers.  If using bags, double-bag the onions.  Trust me on this.  
  2. If using grape or cherry tomatoes, you can safely quarter or halve them as well.  If using a juicy beefsteak or roma tomato, you may be better off leaving it whole and dicing on-site, as it may just turn itself into salsa if you pre-dice.
  3. Wash and tear your (optional) lettuce or spring-mix into smallish bits and bag with a paper towel to absorb extra moisture.
  4. Depending on your meat preference, you may want to start a marinade at this point.  Nothing other than a little garlic salt just prior to grilling is really needed, but if you want to punch up the flavor, I highly recommend Basque Marinade/Meat Tenderizer.  It seems to be readily available in the marinade/bbq-sauce section of every mega-mart grocery store I've ever been in.  For beef or especially lamb, just put the meat in a zip top bag and splash in enough of the marinade to roughly cover.  Double-bag the meat for safety against leaks, and toss in the cooler or fridge.  For chicken, the Basque marinade still tastes great, but the marinade is slightly acidic (vinegar), so it will result in rubbery chicken if you marinade for more than a couple of hours.  Another note on chicken: I normally prefer bone-in thighs whenever I'm cooking chicken, but for general ease of preparation/eating/cleanup in-camp, boneless breasts are probably a better choice if you choose chicken.  Optionally, you could even pre-cook chicken (any cut) then slice to a large-dice before leaving, then simply re-warm in a pan then toss with 2Tsp of the Basque marinade, but this wouldn't be my preference unless you really want a dead-easy meal prep and you're eating this meal on Day 1.
  5. Once in camp, prepare your fire, grill, or burner.
  6. If you prefer to eat pitas as actual pockets, slice them in half now.  There are a few methods to handle the bread:  The easiest is to stack them and wrap in heavy duty foil to make a "packet".  When you start grilling the meat, place this packet near the heat source, like the corner or the grill or the side of the fire, but not over direct heat.  Turn the packet occasionally (use tongs!).  The bread should be sufficiently warm and slightly steamed at service time.  Alternatively, you can warm the bread in a pan for ~1 minute per side, then transfer to a foil packet to keep warm.  This works better for flatbread than pita.  Finally, you can simply "toast" the flatbread over an open burner.  This does NOT work for pita at all...
  7. Grill your meat to preferred temperature.  On the small folding "grill" (really a brazier) we use when overlanding, only a minute or two per side is needed for most cuts of beef or lamb with the very hot fire I get from lump charcoal.  You can also pan-roast your meat if you only have a burner.
  8. Rest the meat for a few minutes after cooking, then slice to a large dice
  9. And finally: Pita-Pockets, Assemble!  Help the kids open up your warmed pita halves, or use a whole flatbread like a gyro wrapper, and assemble your sandwich with preferred mix of veggies, meat, Tzatziki or Hummus dip, and cheese.  Have a plate and a spoon handy for the kids to eat the filling as it falls;  my daughter, at least, has yet to master holding things horizontally and eating from the end, rather than the middle.  Usually at least half her sandwich is eaten like a salad or "bowl" after the bread is consumed, but that's half the fun.  I usually pair this meal with pita chips as it lets the family start in on the hummus  and Tzatziki dips while I do the cooking.  This keeps the hungry-kid complaints to a minimum.
Update 2014-06-10: Dietary Notes:
Wanted to add a couple of notes for any Overlanders who are counting calories, like me:  Using half-pitas in pocket form is about 40 calories per sandwich, versus ~150 calories if you use a whole flatbread.  That's a worthwhile change and the size of the pita will also force a bit or portion control in terms of filling.  Leaving out the meat or cheese is an obvious possibility, but choosing a lean bit of tri-tip steak and a good Low-Fat Feta Cheese (I like Trader Joes') doesn't add too many calories if you keep the portions reasonable.  Definitely skip the pre-dinner Pita-Chip and hummus course, though, unless you did a lot of hiking that day.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

... breakfast tacos (again).

I have previously documented my affinity for using leftover taco fixings as breakfast fodder.  In the time since I started the food blog, I've had to get more and more serious about watching what I eat as I've rededicated myself to my weight loss goals.

The one-two punch of a slightly abnormally efficient metabolism and intentionally eating at a calorie deficit to lose weight means that there are scant few calories in the daily budget with which to experiment and have fun with food.  That doesn't mean, however, that I have to eat bland healthy stuff all the time.  Or ever, really.

Here's an example of employing all my tricks and still getting to have fun with leftovers.  Admittedly, flank-steak tacos are anything but revolutionary, but it's the details that makes this meal possible:
This particular preparation of tacos rings in right around 400kcal.  Lately, that's an extravagant number of calories to "blow" on breakfast, but I'd just finished fleeing imaginary undead during a 5k run while playing Zombies, Run!, my favorite exercise-based alternate reality game.  For a normal day, I'd cut the amount of meat by about a third, and it would be at least closer to my normal 200-300kcal breakfast.

The tally:
Costco Flank Steak - 3oz - 198cal
2 Corn Tortillas - 110cal
Calavo Guacamole, 2T - 40cal
Olive Oil, 1t - 40cal
Onions - one 1/4" slice - 16cal
Hot Sauce - 0cal
Lime Juice - 0cal
Available Herbs, Cilantro, etc. - 0-1cal
Just over 400 calories.

I build flavor by caramelizing a big slice of Vidalia onion with a minimal amount of oil and a medium-low heat.  This takes a bit of time, more than I usually prefer to spend on Breakfast during the week, but it's low-attention, so I can let this sit while I tend to other details like feeding my daughter and prepping the day's lunch.  The meat was previously grilled, so I just toss it in at the end to warm, and then add a last bit of seasoning.  Tortillas are warmed in a dry pan, then assemble with a minimal amount of guacamole, the barest squeeze of lime juice, and a good hot sauce.
Is there any magic there? Not really.  It's the typical recommendations, but you have to actually follow through.  In this case, using minimal oil and a good pan for the onions is important.  Besides the meat, the biggest calorie hit comes from the tortillas, so make sure you buy good corn tortillas - first because they're healthier (lower calorie, and lower % of calories from fat vs flour tortillas), but secondarily because with good tortillas you need fewer.  No doubling up for structural integrity needed if they're properly warmed, and they contribute a good corny flavor and texture.  I had a large quantity of leftover Costco guacamole, and while homemade is better in terms of taste and texture, it is not any better calorie-wise.  At least avocados are the "good fat".  Finally, make sure you pick a Hot Sauce that doesn't have much (or any) oil added.  Some brands include oil for mouth feel, etc., but it changes the sauce from a calorie-free condiment into something you need to account for.  Not worth it, in my opinion.  

Almost as important as what's included is what's excluded.  Thinking stylistically, this is more of a street taco.  Even the three ingredients here (not counting condiments) is pushing it.  If I'd had cilantro on hand, that would definitely have gone in, but otherwise nothing else is needed here.  Even a small amount of shredded cheese would have added 25% to the calorie bill, but more importantly - it isn't even warranted for these flavors, since you already get the richness and creamy mouth feel from the caramelized onions and avocado.   

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

...vegetarian, or at least WITH a vegetarian.

So a friend pointed me to a Google+ post for a foodie who is delving more deeply into a relationship with a vegetarian foodie, and thought I might have something to offer on the subject, having spent half my life paired to a wonderful woman who doesn't eat meat.   My "simple" answer sort of... exploded.  Here's an amended (and redacted, for privacy) version of that comment, in which the author offers commentary on being a meat eater living with a vegetarian:

I was pointed here by a friend who thought I might have some input. By way of voir dire, my credentials are these: I've been an avowed meat eater attached to an avowed non-militant vegetarian for 19+ years. I do all the cooking, and it's a wonderful life. I'll get into some details below, but right up front let me say that learning to cook for our 4-year-old daughter's elevated tastes has probably the bigger challenge, day to day.

So, you enjoy meat, eh? Fine. I don't know you or [redacted], but it sounds like you're both foodies, which should help. Ability to appreciate interesting flavors and textures will give you much more variety to experiment with while you find a groove. As long as [she] is willing to tolerate the presence of meat in your home and on your table, there should be very few issues. I joked above that my wife was "non-militant", but this isn't a given - where you'll be compromising by finding ways to feed the both of you without meat on her plate, her compromise will have to be to let you have your meat without comment, snark, or political lectures. This seems obvious and probably patronizing to two adults, but it has to be stated. In our life together, the only restriction my wife has put on my enjoyment of meat is a prohibition on cooking lamb indoors (stemming from a particularly fragrant preparation of filling for Tiropita).

Your ultimate goal is to find that balance where cooking for the both of you results in a meal that satisfies both without being double the work. Steamed veggies and pasta isn't going to satisfy her every night, just as omitting meat from your shared meals wouldn't satisfy you.

Again, I don't know either of you, so the first question is "What proteins will she eat?" I've got it easier than many people, since my wife is technically Lacto-Ovo-Pescetarian (i.e. Dairy, Eggs, Seafood Ok). To be clear, years of not eating meat has left my wife in a state that the inclusion of meat products is sometimes hard for her to digest - a restaurant that uses chicken stock in a soup plus a clueless or careless waiter will usually equal a night of GI discomfort, at least. Her dietary choice is based on taste and texture, not a political or heath motivation, but there are boundaries I have to respect. My father in law is (relatively recently) strictly vegan for health reasons, and while I can comfortably cook a few meals for him, living with him full time would require further refinement of my thinking and practice. If [she] can/will eat seafood or the like, then a good place to start would be the relatively small step of replacing the meat protein in a meal you're already comfortable cooking. No matter how much you like meat, replacing one piece of beef/pork/poultry a week with a salmon fillet should be tolerable. If not, you've got to learn to cook salmon! For non-fish eaters, you'll be exploring the non-protein substitute realms like portobello mushrooms and soy-substitutes, at least initially. This isn't a "solution", but it's a way to soften the blow and flatten out the learning curve a bit while you adjust to the challenge. 
So the real "meat" of the problem, then, is how to construct meals (and a life together) where meat becomes a "side dish". You're free to go through the effort of cooking two completely parallel meals, but I've found my life greatly simplified by adjusting my thinking a bit and building a meal where my meaty protein is the tasty side-dish that some at the table simply don't eat. It's a break from classical thinking, especially in America, but it's right in line with the more humble fare (think rustic/peasant/whatever euphemism makes sense) of people who traditionally couldn't afford big portions of meat. Almost all great "ethnic" meat-containing meals are more meat-heavy Americanized versions of what was originally a poor persons way to stretch a meager supply of meat to feed a family. If you can "think like a peasant", and work on creating satisfying and flavorful meals where meat is the cherished coup de grace, you'll be on the right track. 
To that end, I make a lot of meals where the meat is basically "optional". If we use the "classic" meal of a protein, a starch, and a vegetable, as a starting place, then a more veggie-friendly meal would be a dish where perhaps the center of the meal is a starch that contains a veggie and (optimally) a non-meat protein, and you're free to pair it with a meat on the side. You're limited only by your imagination here, but exploring ethnic or traditional foods will point you in the right direction. Anything like Risotto, Pilaf, Pasta, Curries, etc. can be a vehicle for this kind of meal. My usual method is "pilaf". I say method, because I typically don't use just rice - we like everything from cous cous to quinoa or a mixed grain type combo. If you have a Trader Joe's handy, their "Harvest Grains Blend" (Orzo, Pearled cous cous, red quinoa, and split garbanzo beans) is a great example. Sautee your favorite vegetables (mixing hard and soft for texture is a good idea), add the grain mix and sautee briefly, then add your veggie broth and voila'. Toss in some herbage, a little acid, some raw tomatoes or raisins or nuts, grate a hard cheese over the top and that alone should be a hit. Plate that next to 4-6oz of any tasty protein I care to cook, and I'm stuffed.

The real goal is to take pride and care with what most cooks would call a side dish, and you'll find that they can become increasingly significant components of your meal. Revel in the craft of slow-cooking beans or rolling the perfect spring roll. Take pride in getting your mushrooms properly browned.

The same thinking applies to all the components of a meal. Our 4-year-old's favorite meal is "Taco Night". In the old days I prepared the standard condiments (pico de gallo, guacamole, shredded cheese) and some cheap tortillas and separate servings of a soy-based taco filling and a very carefully selected carne- or pollo-asada. The meat was my highlight, I'd drive miles to the tiny little Aztec market for their excellent pre-marinated meats. Over time, I evolved to using really good tortillas and adding some more interesting vegetarian fillings and condiments (black beans with lime, sauteed zucchini, Cotija cheese aka queso-fresco or queso-blanco) and now the only person who actually wants the soy-filling is the 4-year old, because it tastes like "Taco Bell".   More importantly, those fillings are so good that I will sometimes omit a meat filling alltogether or the meat will be part of a multi-use preparation (more on this later). The same strategy applies to dozens of meal types - start fretting over really nailing the non-meat aspects of a dish, and your vegetarian should be well satisfied by eating whatever you're eating, minus that one ingredient.

Another meat-eaters strategy that dovetails nicely with the "think like a peasant" ethos is to figure out how to stretch meat preparations into multiple meals. Beyond the actual cost issue (and learning to do this has definitely cut my food costs), there's the savings in labor. By all means, make that Spanish style beef stew you linked, but figure out what else you can do with it. To my way of thinking, that preparation would be incredible on day 2 or 3 as the filling for a taco, or ladled over a slice of crusty bread and topped with cheese and toasted in the oven. Spend the time and energy on making as big a batch as you can consume before it goes "bad" and reap the reward for days. 
My most basic example of multi-use of meat is the whole rotisserie chicken. Factoring in that the only carnivores are myself and a 4-year-old, a single chicken is at LEAST three meals. We do things a bit differently than many people, because my daughter is awesome and prefers dark meat poultry if eating it "straight". So day 1 is chicken thighs next to either rice and a veggie or the fortified pilaf I mentioned above. Day 2 would be the breasts either shredded as filling for enchiladas (made right after I finished making cheese/onion enchiladas for the wife), or seasoned and lightly re-fried for taco filling. The remainder (wings & bits) would be enough for inclusion in a weekend breakfast hash. This is all obvious stuff, but the point is that using a previously-prepared meat allowed me to focus my cooking time on quality vegetarian-friendly components to 2 or 3 meals, then add the meat in with minimal prep.

So far, this has been a lot of "philosophy", but I do have one "trick": Find her "trigger" foods. There are a few ingredients that my wife simply loves. I noticed early on in our relationship that listing ingredients like "pear", "polenta", or "peas" on a menu virtually guaranteed she'd order that dish. This is one of my "outs". On a night when I need to punt and can't figure out how to build a veggie-compatible meal, I fall back to a trigger food, and it's guaranteed to satisfy. A quick pre-bagged salad tossed with some julienned pear or some pre-made polenta fried in butter and topped with sauteed mushrooms and grated cheese is the near-zero effort way to make sure the wife is happy no matter what else I've served.

My last tip is to occasionally just revel in the meat. There is nothing that excites our 4-year-old quite as much as seeing the beer cooler on the counter, 'cause that usually means dad's going to be doing a steak en sous vide. I've shamelessly pimped her out and had her make friends with the meat cutter at my local market - and now he will happily cut a 2" ribeye right off a fresh primal for her, every time she asks him to. That Flintstone-sized slab of steak makes the wife roll her eyes every time, but us carnivores love it, and there's always leftovers for whatever meal we can think up next. On days when I'm having that giant steak to celebrate something, I find it supremely convenient that lobster sous vides at the same bath temperature as steak, so it goes in the water when the steak comes out for searing. If it's just a night where I'm craving beef, then I make sure to have either one of the aforementioned "trigger foods" or something at least hearty (see fortified pilaf, above) .

In the end, if your'e successful, food will unite you, not separate you. It's going to be a process, but the more you can work together on figuring out what she will/won't eat and what foods or preparations will satisfy her, the more happier you both will be.