Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Walk on the Wild Side of Stroganoff...(or, Stroganoff Safari)

This time, we will be taking a trip down the stroganoff path. However, I will admit right now that the recipe I’m gonna post here includes a McCormack’s Stroganoff seasoning packet. I know what you’re thinking—you’re thinking that’s cheating, and it doesn’t really count as cooking if you use a seasoning packet.


Okay, good. Now that we’ve set some boundaries, we can continue. So, put on your Russian ear-flap hat, do a shot of vodka, and say до свидания (goodbye) to boring stroganoff recipes, because we’re gonna go rogue! We’re not satisfied with boring old beef stroganoff—no way. We’re gonna make…

…Buffalo stroganoff.

Yes, you heard right. Buffalo. As in, “give me a home where the buffalo roam” and as in the big creatures the Native Americans used to eat before we took away their land and natural resources and killed the wild ranging herds they ate.

Now, don’t get all wimpy on me. I’m not asking you to eat bats or monkey brains or Taco Bell. If it’s good enough for the Native Americans, it’s good enough for you—in fact, it’s very good for you, in many ways.

I’ll knock the one that I know is most important to you out of the way first. “Ew, buffalo—what does it taste like? It can’t possibly taste good!!” Wrong! Buffalo tastes just like high-quality beef. Buffalo are related to cows, so this stands to reason. It isn’t like eating venison or rabbit, which taste gamey and…different. I promise you right now, if I served this to you and you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was really good beef.

Now, most people at this point will say “then why not just eat beef?” Excellent question! Thanks so much for asking it, cause that’s just where I was gonna go next.

Going back to my first blog post, I wrote about the evils of the industrialized farming complex. Possibly the most disturbing part of the many, many disturbing issues with industrialized farming is how they produce beef. Cows are herbivores, who are built to be amazing processors of grass; grass is not easy to digest, but cows have a system of four stomachs that allows them to do this very efficiently. But, when you are raising several thousands of cows at once (or more), finding enough growing grass for them to eat is…well…inconvenient (read: expensive). So, industrial beef farmers solve this by feeding cows other things. When they are done slaughtering a cow (or other animals), they take the leftover bits, grind them up, and feed this to other cows. This is problematic for two main reasons; one, cows are not carnivores, let alone cannibals, and so do not digest this easily, and two, this is how cows get mad cow disease, which is then passed on to the humans who eat them. They get the disease from eating the nervous system pieces-parts of other cows and other animals that are ground up in the mix. Yum!

But this is only part of their diet. Because of other dysfunctions in the industrialized farming complex, the U.S. produces more corn that it can begin to use. So, the farmers had an epiphany—let’s feed the corn to the cows!! Well, turned out there was kind of a problem with that: cows can’t digest corn.

But this is the land of Yankee ingenuity. What do you mean cows can’t digest corn??!! Ridiculous, how dare they not digest corn! We simply don’t accept that. So, we’re gonna feed them corn anyway. And when they get sick, which they will, we’ll pump them full of antibiotics and hormones to keep them on artificial life support. And then we’ll slaughter them long before we would have otherwise, because their systems can only take that abuse for so long before they die. And cows that die before we kill them do not make us money. You know, pesky health codes and all of that.

These unnatural feeding practices have many consequences. Some are not immediately disturbing—for example, that beef is much less lean that it was 50 years ago, because the new diet marbles the beef more extensively. This means that when you eat the same steak your grandpa did, you are getting more fat and fewer nutrients. But others are deeply disturbing: eating all of those antibiotics and hormones impacts our systems, in ways that we don’t even fully understand yet. And let’s not forget the mad cow disease. Or, the cruelly-treated (corn-sickness is miserable for them), prematurely-slaughtered cows.

So what is the alternative? Well, one way to go is to eat grass-fed beef. This can be pretty darn expensive unless you can find the beef on sale. You can also eat buffalo/bison, which tastes like beef, and is actually much leaner naturally than beef is. This can also be expensive unless you can find the meat on sale. Of course, you can stop eating red meat. I don’t particularly care for that one, since I’m a beef addict from way back; I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure my first utterance was ‘I can has cheezeburger?’ A lovely compromise is to cut back on beef, and according to our doctors, this is better for us, anyway. So my husband and I have settled on a blended model: we can’t eat grass-fed beef or buffalo all the time, because it’s too expensive. So, we get it on sale when we can, eat red meat less often, and sometimes have regular beef when we have to (when eating out, can’t find it on sale, etc.). And rather than just eat beef less often we try to stretch it and the alternatives more than we would have previously when we do make it…and this recipe demonstrates one way to do this, by putting in more mushrooms than the original recipe calls for, and correspondingly less meat than the original called for.

So, let’s review Mishka’s propaganda: Why eat buffalo? Because it won’t kill you nearly as fast as beef, or screw with your immune system and hormones like beef, and you won’t get mad cow disease from it. Oh, and it tastes just as good, if not better, than beef. Sign me up.

The last hurdle in place is finding buffalo, and finding it at a reasonable price. I was completely blissed out when I recently discovered ground buffalo meat at Target, of all places. At full price, it will put a strain on your budget (approx. $5.99 a lb). But, it apparently periodically goes on sale for $2.99 a lb, which is not very much more than 90/10 ground beef. So if you keep an eye out, you can substitute it for beef a bit here and there without too much of a stretch.

Okay, well, by now I hope that I’ve convinced you to keep an open mind about buffalo, even if I didn’t quite convince you to try it right away. So, in the following recipe feel free to put beef right back in to replace the buffalo. Just don’t blame me if you grow extra boobs, develop antibiotic immunity, or get mad cow disease.

One important caveat about cooking buffalo. Because it is so much leaner than beef, it can dry out quickly if you aren’t careful. So, if you buy buffalo steak or make buffalo burgers on the grill, remember to shorten your cooking time. In the case of this recipe, you will sautee mushrooms in the same pan while you are browning the meat; this will keep enough liquid in the pan to keep the buffalo from drying out.

Buffalo ‘if-cows-can-do-it-so-can-we’ Stroganoff (pun connecting back to bad introductory joke intended)....

1 packet McCormack’s stroganoff seasoning
2 tbsp. Olive oil
Approx ½ to 1 pound ground buffalo meat
8-10 cups sliced mushrooms
¾ cup water
2 tbsp white or red wine (I prefer red, and I prefer to have the total liquid, water + wine = ¾ cup, so the sauce is thicker)
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste (but keep in mind the stroganoff is meant to be peppery)
1 cup/8 oz. low-fat sour cream
1 lb package of egg noodles, cooked according to package directions

1) Heat approx. 2 tbsp of olive oil in a skillet.

2) Combine mushrooms and buffalo meat in the skillet. As you sautee the mushrooms, break the meat into smaller pieces, down to the size you desire. Cook together until buffalo is no longer pink.

3) Combine wine, water, and seasoning packet into the skillet. Heat until the mixture boils, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

4) Remove from heat. Stir in sour cream.

5) Serve over cooked egg noodles.

Note: Another way to stretch this recipe is to use less of the stroganoff mixture over more noodles. I love noodles, so this works wonderfully for me.

I have to send a shout out to Kandice for introducing me to the McCormack stroganoff packet, and making me one heck of a good plate of beef stroganoff. You rock!!

By the way, if you like a blog entry, let me know it! It can be lonely on this side of the blog

I’ll sign off for now, saying: хороший аппетит!
(or, bon appétit!)

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.

Potage Parmentier

Potage Parmentier...Roll that name over your tongue and your mind for a moment.

Potage Parmentier…what an incredible dish that must be! Does it contain a trio of complementary French cheeses, melted over something divine? A subtle hollandaise-like sauce drenching a perfectly poached salmon fillet? Mushrooms sautéed in a beautiful burgundy, set lightly atop a tender piece of filet mignon? Whatever it is, with a name like that, it must be good.

Ingredient list for Potage Parmentier: potatoes, leeks, water.

If you like, you can add salt, pepper, and/or butter. You heathen.

Seriously, you have to give props to a language so beautiful that it can make a three-ingredient (two, really) potato soup sound like a gourmet delicacy. That’s just not easy to do, no matter how much you like potatoes).

Potage Parmentier was the first of Julia Child’s recipes that Julie Powell made, so I was excited to try it out. I was particularly excited because it involves leeks.

For much of my life, I’ve had a dysfunctional relationship with leeks. Well, not dysfunctional so much as enigmatic and elusive. For reasons known only to Safeway and God, the supermarkets I shop at do not carry leeks; so, for a very long time, I had no idea what leeks looked like, or what they were (other than that they were some sort of vegetable). Were they a type of tuber? Were they a fancy kind of green bean? I had no idea, but there was something about the name 'leek’ that appealed to me, and I always wanted to know what they were and what you do with them. This was in the days before google, so there was no fast solution to the problem.

Eventually I found out that leeks are basically green onions on steroids. So, when I stumbled across them at the farmer’s market recently, I was able to recognize what they were. And I instantly grabbed up several bunches of them. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to wait until I had a clue what to do with them.

I brought them home, and gazed at them lovingly. I poked them. I sniffed them. I admired the cool way the green stalks braided together as they merged down into the light green and white parts. I turned them over. I contemplated them in grave silence. And then I put them into the vegetable drawer. Or, I tried to—they didn’t fit because they were too long and had too many leaves. So I put them on a shelf in the refrigerator, and tried my best to pretend they didn’t exist. This attempt was thwarted by Brian, who repeatedly complained loudly about how much refrigerator space they were taking up. (To be fair to him, they are huge, and take up way more space than their utility justifies).

Motivated by a need to justify my purchase, I remembered that the book ‘French Women Don’t Get Fat’ had a recipe (2 in fact) for turning leeks into the primary ingredient of a cleansing fast. I figured, hey, no way I’m fasting, but if it’s good enough to let you fast without feeling deprived, it must be good. So I made it. And I ate some of it.

I tried. I really did. I tried hard. I wanted to like it, wanted it bad. I managed to eat some, and decided it was an acquired taste. I tried some more again at the next meal. I tried it with balsamic vinegar drizzled over. I tried it with lemon and pepper. I tried it with my eyes closed and my nose plugged. I then came to the inevitable conclusion that leeks are pure evil.

I’ve witnessed an interesting phenomenon in women who give birth. They tell you in no uncertain terms that they will not have another baby, ever. Then, after about 2 years, they have a child who is no longer an infant, and who isn’t so much of a constant challenge/sleep succubus as their infant was, and they forget why they said they weren’t going to have another baby. And so they have another one. Repeat cycle ad nauseum.

I was amazed to discover that the same phenomenon exists with people who firmly conclude that leeks are the food of Satan. They swear they will never eat leeks again, but then with time, as the vile memory fades, they begin to think about leeks in a different way. “Maybe it was because the leeks were the primary ingredient” they say to themselves. “Maybe if it were a minor ingredient, it would be a different story.” Of course, it's possible the leek-blindness is specific only to me.

So I decided to try out the Potage Parmentier. Since my copy of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ hasn’t arrived yet (oh yes, you know I ordered it), I was left with a bit of a conundrum. Julie Powell describes the recipe in a general way only, listing the ingredients, but not their proportions. But, miracle of miracles, I do now live in the age of google. So, I googled it!

Have you ever heard the expression ‘a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never sure’? Yeah, well. It applies to Potage Parmentier as well. For most recipes I’ve googled, there are variations to be sure, but there is a basic core to the recipe that stays the same throughout. The same basic proportions are represented between ingredients, and the same basic methods are used. Not so for my Potage. Some recipes called for a ratio of 1 large leek for every three medium sized potatoes. Others suggested one medium sized potato for 3 large leeks. Do you peel the potatoes? Some do, some don’t. And how much water should you used? Enough to just cover the ingredients, or more? How long do you simmer for? What do you do with the simmered veggies, leave them whole, put them through a food mill, mash with a fork? The answer to all of the above is…anyone?

So, I sucked it up, and made some decisions. Given my previous decision that leeks should not be the main ingredient of a dish, I went with 1 large leek: three medium potatoes, and went from there. Here is the basic recipe that I tried:

Potage Parmentier…Maybe....
4 large leeks (or the equivalent number of smaller leeks)

12 medium potatoes (or the equivalent number of smaller potatoes)

Water to just cover the ingredients

Salt to taste (I did)

Pepper to taste (I did)

Butter to taste (I did in one bowl, but decided it wasn’t necessary)

1) Dice the leeks and potatoes; dice leeks thinly. I did not peel the potatoes, because much of the nutrients are in the peels.

2) Cover the leeks and potatoes with water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer until veggies are mushable (about 45 mins).

3) Mush veggies with a spoon, getting all the big lumps, but leaving the little ones.

4) Add salt, pepper, and/or butter as needed.

When I made this, I used too much water, so have adjusted it here; in my original attempt, there was a layer of water that kept separating from the rest of the soup.

The soup was good, and very economical (about $6 for enough to feed 2 people for 3-4 meals as a main course); I would certainly make it again. However, it wasn’t quite as yummy as Julie Powell described in her book, so I suspect my final recipe may not be the ultimate version. I’ll let you know when I receive my copy of MtAoFC. In the meantime, I am intrigued by versions of the recipe that used chicken stock rather than water to simmer the veggies…But I’ll wait to see what Julia has to say.

In the meantime, I’ll say what I know she says: Bon appétit!

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.

The Michelle/Mishka Project

I've decided to try something new...something I’m going to shamelessly call the Michelle/Mishka Project. No, this is not a new-agey commitment to self-improvement; it is a blatant rip-off of the Julie/Julia Project, which you may have heard of. Why am I doing this, and what does it consist of? Several factors came together to make this happen, I will pull the threads together below, before turning to the ‘what’ portion of today’s programme.

Influence one: My auntie recently sent me a report about some research that finds that unlike men, when women are stressed, they tend to nest. Houses become cleaner, more home-cooked meals get made, etc. This effectively lowers their stress by re-orienting them to certain nurturing aspects of their lives. So nesting, and as a part of this, cooking, is a wonderful way to decrease stress. And who couldn't use that?

Anyone who knows me knows I don’t cook. However, what many don’t know is that this isn’t because I can’t cook or I don’t want to cook. It’s because that of all the different things in life that you can outsource (and given there are so many that you can’t), cooking is one of the easiest. Open a can of something, pull out a frozen entrée, pick up a fast-food meal or a burrito from your local Mexican taqueria: yummy for the tummy and a boost for the timeclock.

Of course, just because it’s fast, easy and good-tasting, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. While we all know this on some level, it has been brought home to me recently via the information found in ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’. Haven’t read it? Do yourself a favor and get yourself a copy of the book or audiobook and start reading it TODAY. I’m not kidding even a little bit. The author’s premise is that if it isn’t something your grandmother would have recognized as food, it probably isn’t a good thing to be putting in your mouth.

Why? Think you’re making a good choice because you’re choosing low-fat mayo over regular? You’re not, and Omnivore’s Dilemma explains why. Is something high in high-fructose corn syrup a better choice than something high in fat? No way, not even close. Let’s say you haven’t had a bite of corn in the last year. Would you be surprised to know that a huge part of your diet consists of corn despite that? It does, and Omnivore’s Dilemma will tell you why the industrialized farming complex in this country has forced this to come to pass. Less surprising are the other dangerous side-effects of industrial farming: food that is less nutritious that it was even 50 years ago (thus requiring us to eat more calories), full of hormones and pesticides, and reeking in animal cruelty.

Don’t panic. I’m not trying to change anyone into a militant vegan. That’s not the book’s point, and it’s not mine, either. I love meat, and I ain’t gonna stop eating it; and yes, I realize that animals have to get killed for me to continue to eat meat. I am a full believer in the circle of life, and I know that when I die, I’ll go back into the food chain, and things will eat me. So what am I saying? I’m saying that this book opened up my eyes to many things, including the evils of industrial farming, which extend roots far deeper into our food culture than I had ever imagined, and that the lies the industrial farming industry and the food conglomerates—and yes, even the FDA and USDA—have been feeding us have been leading me to think that choices I’ve been making were actually good ones (like low-fat mayo) when they really were not.

Okay, so that’s another influence that has made me thing about how I’m eating, and one that has lead me to begin buying more organic food (OD will explain to you what *real* organic is, btw—what the USDA and FDA call organic may be nothing of the sort), and mostly to shop at my farmer’s market, in order to support small family farms that use healthy farming practices (and don’t waste fossil fuels shipping my produce etc. halfway across the country/globe). Okay, end fruity-sounding environmentalist rant.

The last influence, and probably the most important reason I’m turning this into a blog project, is a book I stumbled on earlier this summer: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 recipes, 1 tiny apartment. This lead me to read Julia Child’s autobiography, because the premise of the book is a woman named Julie Powell, who decides to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, while writing a blog about it. (And as you may know, this has been made into a movie that was released recently; I recommend it).

Both women go on a personal journey where food is the product, but not really what’s ultimately important. Both women are searching for their passion and their place in the world, a way to be able to believe in themselves. For Julia, this is cooking itself. For Julie, it’s being a writer.

For me, it’s about finding balance again.

Eating is so basic to our survival; maybe it’s just me, but that fact makes cooking a way to tap back into a more basic side of myself, one that has been put away for a while now. So, I hope that by keeping this focus in the back of my head, I will constantly keep a channel open to the part of me that is at the core of being human.

Now, I’m not masochistic, crazy, or thin enough to survive trying to cook my way through MtAoFC; I learned vicariously through Julie Powell that I don’t want to go that route (I mean really, did anyone ever actually enjoy cold poached eggs set in aspic? Does anyone under the age of 60 even know what aspic is?). But what I do hope to do is try a new recipe or technique once in a while. Maybe a side-dish, a simple hors d’oeuvres, a variation on something, or an entrée. And, I’ll probably have many quiet periods when I don't have new enough or interesting enough to be worth saying.

And, of course, if you have any of your own cooking adventures and/or favorite recipes you’d like to share, please do so in the comments!

So here’s my first recipe. I changed a recipe I found quite a bit to keep it from giving me instant heart failure. Turns out, the changes I made work well, and knock the fat in the recipe by at least half—you’ll never miss it. So here it is, my recipe for:

Mishka’s Modified Chicken with Creamy Mushrooms

2 pound sliced fresh mushrooms (approx. 12 cups, can be half this if you like; I like lots of mushrooms)

1 tablespoon olive oil (can be slightly less if you like, or you can substitute chicken stock when sautéing mushrooms)

1 ½ tablespoon butter

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (works best with Italian-marinated breasts, but this is not essential)

3 tablespoons rice vinegar or white wine vinegar

1 ½ cans 98% fat-free cream of mushroom soup

3 tablespoons capers, drained

¼ teaspoon black pepper

Salt to taste, but you won’t need to

1) Pound chicken breasts to flatten them somewhat, or cut them into large strips (ala chicken fingers).

2) Heat the oil in a large skillet at medium-high heat and sauté mushrooms until tender, approx 5 mins. Alternately, you can put the mushrooms in the pan with no oil, but continually add chicken stock such that the mushrooms are not swimming in it, but it keeps the pan moist and the mushrooms from burning. I used the oil version, but have used the chicken-stock version in other recipes successfully.

3) Remove mushrooms from skillet; reduce heat to medium.

4) Put butter and chicken into the skillet with remaining mushroom liquid. Cook until chicken is no longer pink (170F), approx 8-10 minutes, turning once. If you did not flatten or cut up the chicken, it will take at least twice that time, and you risk the outside of the chicken getting tough in order to get the chicken fully cooked.

5) Remove chicken from skillet, and remove skillet from heat. Do not clean skillet.

6) Add vinegar to the skillet, and loosen the browned stuff on the bottom of the pan.

7) Return the skillet to heat, stirring in soup, capers, and pepper. Bring to boiling. Boil gently for 1-3 minutes, or until sauce is the consistency you want. Put the chicken and mushrooms back into the pan, stir together, and serve.

I found this worked well over rice.

As Julia Child would say: Bon appetit!

© Michelle M. Chouinard 2007 All rights reserved.