A finicky guy's exploits in finding gustatory (and other) satisfaction in his kitchen, his neighborhood, and beyond.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Now I'm Cooking! — Quick Work-Day Fridge-Cleaner-Outer

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the panicky feeling that arises when you have to find time in your crazy schedule to make something to eat for you and your family.  You want to come up with something healthy and delicious, but there are only so many hours in the day, right?  It's so tempting to over-rely on prepared foods from the grocery store or take-out from a restaurant.  But after a few such meals, my palate begins to crave something cooked with love (as my Mom would say) -- or with safe levels of salt and saturated fats (as my doctor would say).  Besides, the Earth can accommodate only so many plastic food containers in her already-stuffed-to-the-gills landfills.  (My cupboards, too, have already accepted their share, which I use in place of Tupperwares.)

And what the hell am I going to do with these little bits of this and that before they turn into biochemical science projects in my fridge:

Will these become dinner. . .or mold gardens?
I had a two-hour block of free time between students yesterday afternoon, during which I challenged myself to come up with a meal for the evening that would nourish us well and use up some of the odds and ends cluttering up the refrigerator.  This is actually my favorite kind of culinary challenge, and it often results in my throwing together seemingly incompatible ingredients that I would never think of combining if I were setting out to create a recipe, but that turn out to work amazingly well together.

And, occasionally, it results in an unappealing concoction of ingredients that truly do not belong in the same bowl.  Which kind of result will I come up with today?  Read on to find out. . . .
After I assembled the motley assortment of ingredients shown in the picture above -- some left-over boiled potatoes, a handful of radishes, a half slice of cornbread, a few stems of oregano, and a "salad" from an Indian take-out meal consisting of raw sliced onions and iceberg lettuce -- I scoured the freezer and the pantry for other things that would potentially play well with them.  I found some ground turkey in the freezer, as well as a tupperware containing some collard greens I'd chopped and steamed and frozen for future use.  Well, the future was now.

I thought I'd thaw thum foodth
One of my favorite "blank-canvas" foods -- food templates that provide a starting-point for further creativity -- is Keema, an Indian dish of ground meat with various types of vegetables and spices.  Today, I decided to create a Keema casserole, falling back on my long-honed personal cooking style -- Michael's Indian Fusion.  This version of Keema, however, would contain some ingredients never encountered on the Sub-Continent.  (In Indian culinary tradition, Keema is normally accompanied by plain rice or a rice dish and/or breads.  I have been known to serve it atop pasta and in other non-traditional ways.)

Here's the procedure, which I completed in about an hour (including taking/editing/uploading all the photos).  It was ready in plenty of time to pop it into the oven when my last student of the day arrived, to be baked while I taught, so that I could serve my meal within minutes of finishing my workday.  Brilliant!

First, I sauteed the "salad" along with several sliced garlic cloves in enough oil to cover the bottom of my pan.  I thought about picking out the pieces of chopped lettuce, but in the end, decided that they wouldn't hurt anything.  (They didn't.)

Saute-ing onions and garlic in olive oil
Once the onions had softened a bit (5 min or so), I added some spices I'd ground in my mortar (approx. 1 T coriander seed, 1 t cumin seed, 1 t turmeric powder) and continued to saute for another minute or so.

I sometimes use an electric coffee grinder, but the mortar/pestle is more fun!
Then I tossed in the ground meat, which I'd thawed a bit in hot water.  It was still in a big semi-frozen lump, so I had to keep flipping it in the pot, scraping off the thawed bits as they were heated.  Once the entire block had thawed, I stirred the meat around for a few minutes, until all the pink spots had turned cooked-looking.

You can also use ground lamb or beef, more traditional choices.  Once, I even tried using "Beef-Not," a form of TVP, with about the level of savoriness you might expect to obtain from fake meat.
Then I added to the pot a half-teaspoon salt and, stirring it in a tablespoon at a time, 4 T of whole-milk yogurt.

Stir well after adding each T of yogurt, until it is completely incorporated.
At this point, I covered the pot, turned the heat down a bit, and let the meat simmer for about 15 minutes.  Then I added the thawed greens and the raw radishes, sliced into fourths. 

Raw radishes are so pretty.
I put the lid back on the pot and let the whole concoction simmer for another 15 minutes.  (If this was going to be the end of the cooking process, I'd have left the pot on for about an hour total meat cooking time.  I stopped early in this case because I was going to bake it as well.)

During the simmering time, I'd put the boiled potatoes (chunked), oregano leaves, and some grated Asiago cheese into the bottom of a baking dish.

Potatoes, herb, cheese
I lightly beat two eggs and poured it over the top of the potatoes, creating a sort of omeletty layer on top of which I poured the Keema when it was done simmering.

Eggs added: For a REALLY quick meal, you could bake just this mixture!
After pouring the Keema over the egg layer (I'm not referring to a chicken), I crumbled the cornbread over the top and grated on some more Asiago.

Ready for baking
I baked it in my convection oven for 30 minutes at 250 degrees (while I worked on developing Danielle's chest voice and getting it to coordinate with her head voice, but that's my other blog), after which my Keema Kreation looked beautifully browned, like this:

Just try to name a food more delightful than browned, cheesy cornbread crumbs!

What a delight to emerge from my teaching room to smell the aroma arising from this dish!  A what a relief to have dinner all ready to serve.  All we had to do was crack open a bottle of hard pear cider and serve the Keema Kreation into our shallow bowl-plates.  This one was definitely in the category of "success."  I am happy to say there is enough left for tonight's dinner as well, since I am going to see Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera and will not have time to cook.   Vissi d'arte, indeed!  (Although I live for food as well.)

I would love to hear from you if you have ideas for quick-and-easy meals that can be tossed together before the workday or during brief breaks throughout the day (for those, like me, lucky enough to work within a few steps of our kitchens).  Help me stave off the need to go online to order my next dinner!  Save the earth!  Save my arteries!

This final picture is dedicated to my reader Debbie, who was kind enough to include the pictured doggie wieners in a box she was mailing to me.  Thank you, Debbie, from my whole pack!

Willy & Freddy awaiting the signal to dive into their treats.  Willy was quivering so much in anticipation that I'm surprised the photo came out in focus.


  1. I always said that I would never be like my mother, but I find, at least in my cooking, I am very much like my mom. Mom always kept 3 or 4 large coffee cans lined with plastic bread bags in the freezer. As she scraped potatoes or carrots, or peeled onion or other veggies, the peelings would go into one can. When the can was filled it would be boiled down for stock. Another can held chicken bones, the third beef bones, and again those would be used for stock. The last one was for leftovers. Leftover potatoes, carrots, any veggy, bits of meat, whatever.....it all went into the can. When the can was full we had stew(or soup-depending on how much stock was left).

    As a child, stew meals were always filled with some anxiety. Sometimes it was just wrong. Very, very wrong. Other times, it was heaven in a bowl, and we were all happy to be members of the "clean plate club".

    As an adult, I am a little more discriminating about what I put into the "coffee can". In my case, it's a large ziplock bag. But I don't have a lot of waste in my kitchen. It makes an easy meal by adding some stock (sometimes mine, sometimes boxed) and some rice or noodles.

  2. Leave it to a mom to come up with such an elegant solution! I will definitely be starting up a "freezer recycling center" this weekend. Now I can put to good use stems from greens, carrot ends, bones, and all that other stuff that really doesn't belong in the trash yet.

    I'll let you know when I cook up my first pot of stock. With luck, I will have been discriminating enough to have created a clean plate club treat and not something very very wrong.

    Thank you for sharing this great suggestion.

  3. To add to Pikojiko's comment, I think it would be a very interesting to see a post specifically about how to incorporate frozen leftovers, produce, etc., into meals. I never even think to put anything in the freezer (save for ice and vodka), so any tips on freezing for later use would be awesome. I always end up throwing out food (herbs especially) that could potentially be frozen and used later. Perhaps it's much simpler than I think?

  4. Pack, you're welcome. :-)

    That dinner looks delish! Nothing comes to mind for a quick meal to share because I usually do exactly what you do and just start tossing stuff together. Or, if the science project in the fridge is too imminent, we toss the veggies outside (far away!) for the critters that visit in the night — possums, raccoons, armadillos, foxes, owls — a veritable zoo. Or we walk down to the neighbor's goats and hand feed them.

    We were both eating ground turkey last night. Us: turkey meatloaf, rosemary red potatoes, and steamed garlic-y fresh kale with canned Italian tomatoes.

  5. My friend had a special freezer container for leftover veggies. When it was full she made vegetable soup.

  6. If you've ever read my blog, you know that I'm unfamiliar with actual leftovers. If you realize that I have 6 sons, 5 of whom are over 6 feet tall (and the 6th of whom is only 11), you'll know why. I did enjoy seeing you make sure yours didn't turn into a mutated science experiment!

  7. Split pea soup is a favorite of mine for quick and easy. Night before put a cup and a half of peas in the crockpot with about five times that much water. In the morning add two smoked ham hocks, two bay leaves and a chopped onion and let cook for four to six hours. About two hours before you want to eat it add chopped carrots, about two cups worth. Very tasty.

  8. @Margie: 6 SONS? You're not cooking, dear, you're catering at that point. If you try any of the recipes on my blog, you'll have to multiply the amounts by about 19 to have enough for leftovers.

    @Treadle27: That did it — I am now putting a crockpot at the very top of my wants list! And this split pea soup might just be the inaugurating recipe for it.