Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Waste Not Want Not

I'm starting this blog coz my pal Gina Orr put me up to it (come to think of it, I started my music blog "Howlin' Wuelf Howls" because Sam Phillips (the songwriter, not the late producer) put me up to that!

This will mainly be a venue for sharing recipes, primarily that make use of leftovers.

In my life I've ben through a wide variety of culinary experiences. When I was growing up my parents fed us a lot of instant mashed potatoes, with wax beans and hamburgers, macaroni and cheese and the like. We went to school with bag lunches that often had Velveeta Cheese food on white bread (with butter) or liverwurst (again on white!). At the same time, my Dad had learned how to make spaghetti and meatballs from a lady of Italian decent down the hall from us -- and they were pretty spectacular (and frankly I've never had a sauce as good anywhere in the world). He also had a deft hand with Southern fried chicken that basically spoiled me for life and it wasn't till my wife and I stopped at some divey place in the French Quarter (closed since the Federal Flood) that I tasted anything that even came close (and since then I've had to admit that places like Willie Mae's Scotch House and Fiorello's actually do it better). I remember the first time we ate in a restaurant (and perhaps we'd been to diners twice before), I was probably 13 - it was an Italian place on Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City in the Greenville area; we were told to order lasagna and when it came I was utterly shocked by its utter exoticism. As I got older, I started taking on rudimentary cooking duties - both parents worked and sometimes got home pretty late: I managed to sling together basic stuff like sloppy joe's, English muffin pizzas, hot dogs that you'd split, pan fry and melt a strip of cheese on -- and the like.

At college (Rutgers, New Brunswick), I started out eating in the cafeteria but by junior year, was living in a group house where everyone shared kitchen duties (with varying levels of success). I think I was working with a Better Homes and Gardens Casserole Cook Book and making things like Chicken Tetrazini -- lotta pasta and sauce to stretch our meager house budget (which always had to cover bread at every meal and a can of Hawaian Punch!).

After college, I married a lady who couldn't cook a lick so I wound up as house chef. Her parents were bon vivants outta Southern Maryland (her step dad had been dean of the test pilot school at a navel base down here - he trained the first couple batches of astronauts), and had a way with 60's style "modern" cooking -- meaning, lots of casseroles, lots of odd mixtures of ingredients (rice and cheese, fruit and meat) some of which came from 1) efforts to develop cooking technologies suited for a culture that was adding women to the work force, liberating them from full time housewifery and therefore, needing things that were quick and simple 2) efforts to adapt foreign dishes to ingredients readily attainable at A&P's (beef stroganoff made with ketchup, canned cream of mushroom soup and pre-cooked hamburger). When we broke up, I was largely broke (made $8000 per year salary, most of which when to rent for a slightly weathered one room apartment I split with a roommate), and began to investigate the cheapest forms of nutritious eating I could discern -- I became well acquainted with multiple minor variations on black beans and rice -- I'd make up a pot of both on Sunday and then mix and heat some up every night for the week that followed.

Eventually I wound up working in the music industry and my horizons were quickly and explosively widened. Whereas my vision of haute cuisine had been Blackie Jrs in downtown Washington DC (about 3 blocks from the White House: $2.99 for the crappiest cut of steak, plus baked potato, salad bar and, for an adition $1 all the draft Tuborg Gold you could guzzle), in short order I was eating Indian food in Brixton, at the Colombe D'or in Nice, Balthazar's in NYC, Le Cirque 2000, lalalalala.

And what I've learned from all the above is -- it's good to eat food that tastes good, it's useful to know what goes into the food that you enjoy and it's pointless to get overly hung up on the provenance of ingredients. Of course if you have unlimited budget and to procure your ingredients and get the best of everything -- well, that's good! But if your resources are a lot more limited, that's no excuse to wind up serving wax beans and instant potatoes when a little bit more money and some imagination will yield surprisingly impressive results.

Case in point. Mrs. Wuelfing and I got to love a place called the Church Street Bistro in Lambertville, NJ (run by the late great Andre LeNoble). One of their signature dishes was the "creamless cream soup." Rich, creamy; no dairy involved. Eventually Amy enrolled me in a one day cooking class with the Bistro's chef. I show up with a spanking new notebook, multiple pens and am ready to be schooled. The rest of the students are all ladies. As the chef starts going through his dishes he's plying us all with wine, giving us samples of each dish, and giving a quick list of basic ingredients - but no measurements, cooking times or temperatures! I wind up endlessly beleaguring him with a million questions until I've got detailed worked recipes for all the dishes in question, filling up my notebook. I start with the creamless cream soup which calls for Arborio Rice which you cook, then puree. This worked fine enough but I gotta admit the rice was pricey. I tried regular rice but it seemed impossible to get that to puree down to a smooth paste. I was stumped. Then one day it occurs to me -- basically this is starch paste - could I substitute cooked potatoes? And I had some leftover mashed potatoes, or maybe I steamed up some 'taters...whatever. I tried that as the basis of one of these soups (probably with squash) and... voila - worked perfectly! Velvety smooth, flavorfull. Delish. And I ain't looked back since!

So enough backstory - here's a recipe, especially useful around holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving.

All The Fixin's soup recommended music to play whilst cooking: Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Reordings, Columbia Legacy - CD 4 ingredients: leftover mashed potatoes (white)
leftover gravy
1 onion, chopped fine
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
4 cubes bullion (chicken or vegetable)

directions: dump all the ingredients save the water into a kettle or Dutch over or any pot of that size
add water until you've covered your ingredients and have about 2 inches of water above 'em
bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and simmer about 45 minutes

comments: you might be able to cook this 10 minutes and get away with it as everything's already cooked excepting the veggies, but I think it's important to go the whole 45 minutes so you can marry the flavors of the ingredients to each other thoroughly - especially the potatoes and gravy. wait till this is almost done cooking before seasoning! More than likely you salted the mashed potatoes and likewise the gravy is likely salted and seasoned with bay leaf, pepper, etc. So, wait until the flavors are married (after say 30 minutes of simmering), and then taste and see if you want to add salt, etc. ALSO -- it's likely that what you taste may suggest the precise accent you may want to add which could be anything from tarragon to masala depending. You want to accentuate what's already there, not mask or oppose it. this is an easy one to customize by adding chopped meat, and/or some leftover or frozen vegetables (throughing in a handful of peas adds color, texture and nutrition. IF you wind up freezing this and then thawing and heating up afterwards, the potatoes tend to clump up - but once you've heated it, take a whisk, stir it up briskly a few seconds and it'll smooth out immediately.

As long as you keep this dish simple, it's hard to mess up!

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