Pork and beans

One of the first things I learned to cook was “Beanies and Weanies,” a delightful (if, to my adult sensibilities, somewhat revolting) combination of hot dogs and canned pork and beans. I got fancy with it and added brown sugar, mustard, sometimes minced garlic, freshly ground pepper. I probably experimented with dried thyme, which for a while I added to everything (it’s really good in scrambled eggs). Also, once I became an expert in this dish, my specialty, I insisted on baking in the oven rather than cooking on the stove top. The baked version resulted in a thicker, slightly carmelized sauce that even my 9-year-old self recognized as being far superior to the glorpy goo that came off the stove.

Now, all these years later, I cannot even imagine eating canned pork and beans. And, while I appreciate hot dogs, I’m not sure I could actually eat one. Yet the combination, pork and beans, is a classic pairing.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to start writing about the grown-up pork and bean pairing that I came up with last night, when I made dinner for a couple of friends. I had pork, from the pig I helped to butcher last weekend. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/24/inspiration-and-bacon-from-the-underground-food-collective/) And, while I’ve been making steady progress, I still have a whole lotta heirloom beans waiting to be transformed into something wonderful. But one of the people who came over for dinner last night, someone I love and respect as much as I love and respect anyone, simply abhors beans. All beans. It’s the texture, he says, the gritty beaniness of the beans that he cannot abide.

So. What was I to do with this problem? Surely I could find a way to make him like beans. Because they’re delicious. Especially with pork, which this friend loves. Another friend posted this recipe  on my Facebook wall. (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/20/dining/beans-and-red-wine-party-hearty.html?_r=0) Inspired, I came up with a menu that surely even a bean hater would eat with gusto:

Pork rib roast
White beans braised in red wine
Slow cooked kale with bacon
Pan-fried potato, apple and fennel.

It sounded perfect. But, as the day approached, my conscience spoke louder and louder, reminding me: he does not like beans. I can’t make him like something he doesn’t like. It doesn’t matter what I think. Respect his reality, as it is. Have a dinner party without beans. The blog doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you get to cook for, spend time with, people you love, in your home. That’s what matters. Screw the blog. I would make the menu I came up with without the beans. And it would be great. Because I’ve grown, I’ve evolved. Yes.

Except no. It doesn’t matter how many hours I spend on the mat, practicing yoga, or generally trying to become a better person. I remain hopelessly human. My ego was so sure that I could change his mind, make him like beans. Plus I had Vallarta beans in the freezer. I would serve the Vallarta bean puree that I made a few weeks ago with short ribs. (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/02/13/vallarta-bean-puree-with-short-ribs-and-bitter-greens/) I knew it was delicious. When I proposed the plan, trying to sell the beans by name-dropping Thomas Keller, of French Laundry, he agreed to try a bite. But I also agreed to make polenta. To be safe. Compromise is beautiful.

In the end, I didn’t change anyone’s mind. The puree was still gritty, said the bean hater. I don’t get that still, but honestly, the Vallarta beans weren’t a perfect match for the pork. I should have made the white beans. For me and my other friend. But everything else was terrific. And it was super fun. So much so that I completely neglected to take photos. Sorry! Oh well. Here are the recipes. Note that the potatoes in the hash recipe are pre-baked, so you’ll need to think ahead.

Pork Roast
4-rib pork roast
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1/2 onion, coarsely chopped
1 rib celery, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup water
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper

1. The day before you’re planning to serve, wash and dry the roast. Slice between each rib, stopping about 1″ before the bone. Rub all over with salt and pepper, cover, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

2. Preheat the oven to 365. Remove the roast from the refrigerator, tie with kitchen string, and let it sit out for about an hour. Place on a roasting rack in a pan. Toss the vegetables on the bottom of the pan and add the water. Roast until the internal temperature comes up to 130, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, cover with foil, and let rest for 20 minutes. Carve the meat off the bone and serve, either plated, as pork chops, or on a platter, with the bones, family style.

Pan fried potatoes, apples, and fennelpan roasted potatoes, apples, and fennel on a bed of blanched Swiss chard
4 medium to large Yukon Gold potatoes, baked
1-2 Gala (or other firm) apples
1/2 small fennel bulb, sliced
3 T. olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Chop the potatoes into 1/2 or 3/4″ chunks. Heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes in a single layer. Salt liberally, 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon. While the potatoes are cooking, chop the apples into 3/4″ chunks. Turn the potatoes and add the apples and fennel. Cook for another 5 minutes or so, until the potatoes are crispy and the apples are browning but not soft. (This photo is from last weekend, when I made this for the first time.)

Slow cooked kale with bacon
2 bunches of Lacinato (dinosaur) kale, leaves stripped from the stems
1 Vidalia or other sweet onion
4 cloves of garlic, sliced
1/4 c. diced bacon

Add the bacon to a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot, and cook on medium-low until the fat renders and the bacon starts to crisp. (NOTE: I used the bacon I cured at home, which I foolishly finished in the slow cooker. While it sort’ve worked, the end result isn’t really bacon, as the fat rendered away. So I had to add olive oil. But it tastes delicious.) Add the onions and garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the onion turns translucent. Add the kale, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover and add 1/2 cup of water or, if you happen to have some, white wine. Cook for another 10-15 minutes, until the liquid has reduced. Serve. Eat. Enjoy.

Ayocote Negro (Black Runner) Beans in Rick Bayless’s Brick-Red Mole

Mmmmm. Mole sauce. Good. Before moving to Chicago, I don’t believe I’d ever heard of, much less tasted, mole sauce. And when I tasted mole, good mole, I didn’t imagine being able to make it. Such a deep, complex flavor seemed impossible to recreate at home. Because I knew it wasn’t really just chocolate. Then I found Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen. (http://www.powells.com/biblio?inkey=1-0684800063-26)

I’m not sure whether I would love this cookbook quite as much if I didn’t livechilies 3 in Chicago, where all of the ingredients, including these beautiful ancho and guajillo chilies, are available down the street, at least in all the neighborhoods I’ve lived in. The recipes are time-consuming and call for about a million ingredients. But man–I’ve never been disappointed by the results, including what I made today.

This time-consuming dish is traditionally reserved for special occasions. In the past, back when I was partnered up, I made mole for a few dinner parties and once as holiday gifts. But today? There’s no special occasion. Not really. It’s just me, at home, cooking for myself. Yet I had the day off, to celebrate presidents. And I feel celebratory. Filled with gratitude. Because here I am, working every day to build a meaningful life on my own, in a way that brings me joy. Which is really cool. Plus I love all-day cooking projects. Lots of dancing in kitchen. So what the hell. I decided to make my own special occasion by making mole sauce, celebrating myself, in my new life, with some of my fancy heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo. (www.ranchogordo.com)

black runner beans2Rick Bayless’s original recipe for this particular mole sauce calls for scarlet runner beans, which I didn’t have. But I had two bags of Ayocote Negro, or black runner beans, which, according to Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando, is supposed to be “the perfect salad bean.” This is because they’re quite starchy, I think. But it also makes sense because they’re absolutely gorgeous. So I’ll definitely save the other bag for a salad some warmish day. However, since Steve Sando tells me that all of the different varieties of runner beans can be used interchangeably, it worked out perfectly to use one bag for this dish.

Tonight, I served the mole over rice with cauliflower steaks and sauteed kale.  mole(Here’s a bad photo, which perfectly demonstrates why one should not include photos of food unless they’re good. But I digress.) Bayless suggests “a good cheese, hot tortillas and a salad.” He also says that the beans in mole make a good taco filling if you simmer the sauce longer, until it is thick. I think next time I’ll take this advice, as honestly, the kale and cauliflower weren’t perfect matches. You could also skip the beans entirely and use the mole as a sauce for enchiladas, tamales, grilled chicken, braised pork loin, etc. But whatever variation you choose, if any, read the recipe through a couple of times first. It’s not difficult. And it’s really very satisfying. But there are several steps. Including the sneaky non-step step of stemming and seed the chilies beforehand, which is only noted in the ingredient list yet takes some amount of time. So you’ll need to plan accordingly.

12 ounces (about 2 cups) scarlet or black runner beans
2-1/2 t. salt
6 medium dried ancho chilies, stemmed and seeded
3 medium dried guajillo chilies, stemmed and seeded
1 med-small round or 3 small plum tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 T. sesame seeds
1/2 t. cinnamon, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela (I didn’t bother)
1 generous t. dried oregano, preferably Mexican
Scant 1/2 t. black pepper, preferably freshly ground
3 T. (about 3/4 oz.) coarsely chopped Mexican chocolate
3 to 3-1/2 c. chicken broth
1-1/2 T. olive oil or lard
1 T. honey (original recipe calls for 2-1/2 t. sugar)

1. Rinse the beans, transfer into a large pot or slow cooker. Add 1-1/2 qt. cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer gently for 2-3 hours. Alternatively, cook in the slow cooker on high for about 5 hours or until tender. Check the water level and add more water as necessary to keep the liquid a generous 1/2 inch above the beans. Season with about 1 t. salt.

2. Make the mole while the beans are cooking. Heat a heavy skillet or griddle over medium heat. Toast the chilies a few at a time by laying them flat and pressing down with a metal spatula for a few seconds, until there is a crackle or perhaps a thin wisp of smoke. Turn and toast the other side. Transfer the toasted chilies to a medium bowl, cover with hot water, and allow the chilies to rehydrate for about a half hour. Drain and discard the water.

3. While the chilies are soaking, toast the sesame seeds for about two minutes, being careful not to burn. Transfer the seeds to a plate to cool. Toast the garlic and tomato in the skillet or griddle, turning, for 10-15 minutes, until soft and blackened in spots. Cool slightly, peel off the skins, and transfer to a blender (ideal) or food processor (adequate but won’t grind up the sesame very well). Add the sesame seeds, chilies, cinnamon, oregano, pepper, chocolate, and 1-1/2 cups of broth. Process  until smooth. The original recipe says to strain the sauce in a medium-mesh strainer. I didn’t strain the sauce today, because I don’t have a medium-mesh strainer and I don’t really care about perfectly smooth sauce. But you may. Mine definitely had texture, mostly sesame seeds.

4. Heat the oil or lard in a heavy, medium-sized saucepan over medium-high. Once the oil is hot enough to make a drop of the puree sizzle, add the puree all at once and stir for 3-4 minutes, until it’s thickened a bit. Add the rest of the broth, stir, partially cover, and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Taste and season with salt, usually about 1-1/2 teaspoons, and honey or sugar.

5. Stir the drained beans into the mole. Simmer for about 20 minutes, for the beans to absorb the flavors, adding more broth if necessary.  Taste for salt and serve.

quinoa, crustaceans, and the general impossibility of ethical eating

This past week I read a couple of articles that brought me back to that time when I first realized the impossibility, at least for this weak human, of eating ethically. One article, this one (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa), begins as follows: “Ethical consumers should be aware poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices.” Oh god. My attempts to eat healthily are the direct cause of poor Bolivians being forced to eat crap!

And there was also this article (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/17/169443117/yes-virginia-crabs-likely-feel-pain-but-theyre-still-delicious), about recent research suggesting that crustaceans, specifically crabs, probably feel pain. Reading it, my first thought was, OF COURSE THEY FEEL PAIN!!!!

I don’t know, of course. I’ve never spoken with a crab, or a lobster. I’m not a scientist. But why would we imagine these living creatures don’t feel pain? Because they’re not like us? Does no pain qualify as pain if it does not mirror human pain? Are we really so blind to the fact that the universe does not revolve around us? I hope not.

There was a time, many years ago, when I grew so freaked out about our food supply that I had trouble eating anything. Even water was problematic. It seemed like every single thing, all food, was either poison or poisoned, polluted or caused pollution, suffered or caused suffering,or just generally made the world worse. It was awful. Particularly because I have a tendency to faint when I don’t eat. Which is embarrassing.

Luckily, this phase didn’t last long. In a perfect world, I would grow my own food and raise my own animals, which I would love right up until I ate them. But this is impractical. I have no land, no money, no farming skills. I only know how to go to the grocery store and/or eat at restaurants. I soon realized not only that my eating habits weren’t going to make or break the world, but that if I wanted to contribute I needed to stay alive, which required food.

So I made peace with reality. I accepted that we live in a broken world, that everything is imperfect.  I recognize the problem and that I am part of the problem but also that I didn’t create this world and all I can do is try my best. I try to buy organic, locally raised vegetables, and eat only animals that lived well and happily. But I fail a lot.

Honestly, I’m not sure where I’m going with this post. One of my goals with the idea of a bean cookbook is to try to make the wold a better place. Because beans really are better for us and for the planet than most foods. Yet I don’t always want beans. Sometimes I want a cheeseburger. Or a lamb chop. Or steak. I wish I didn’t. But I do. Honestly, I get shaky if I go too long without meat. I have other friends who have never liked meat, feel sick if they eat it. We’re all different.

Most of the time I prepare and eat vegetarian meals. If I buy an appliance, it’s Energy Star. I turn off the power strip to my television. My water use, while not minimal, is mindful. But I love taking long, hot showers, and baths. And I eat animals, not all of which lived very good lives or were given a good death. So I fail. I am imperfect. But I try to do my best. Which, at the end of the day, is all we can do. Live love.

Best ever “Mexican” layer dip

Tonight I came home even more starved than usual. There were several dinner options in the fridge, but I was so hungry that nothing sounded good. I wasn’t in the mood for black bean burgers. Pasta would be okay, but it would just create more leftovers. More leftovers is the very last thing I need, as my fridge is already filled with several ready-made foods that I’ve cooked or taken from the freezer in the past week.

I find it interesting that, so far, my biggest challenge in learning to live on my own is trying to keep up with my cooking. Before my ex moved out, I thought about what it would be like, of course. I worried about having to take out the garbage and clean the litter box. Not to mention the specter of crushing loneliness. But no. My biggest problem, at least so far, has been a struggle to figure out what to do with all the extra food. And I should not be surprised. My life has always revolved around food.

Actually, I suppose my love affair with food, and cooking, is the reason why I’m not being crushed by loneliness. Not that I don’t have days. I do. And I’m certain I’d be lost without yoga and my large network of loving friends and family. Yet, as my life is now, today, my most consistent, difficult-to-figure-out struggle is around meals, primarily dinner. At least on the nights, like tonight, when I don’t have something planned out in advance. And that’s incredibly cool. Because it means that even in the midst of what is a fairly difficult period, I am constantly nourishing myself with food that I made, with love.

Tonight, when I got home and looked in the fridge, the most tempting option was the refried beans leftover from the other night (https://dreamsofmyfava.com/2013/01/15/refried-beans/), when I made burritos. But I wasn’t in the mood for burritos again so soon. And refried beans alone seemed somehow depressing. Then, as I stood before the open fridge, inspiration struck–Mexican layer dip! It would not be a traditional dinner, true, but, well, one of the advantages of cooking for one is that you don’t have to please anyone other than yourself. So cool. So fun. And quick! This dish, which is actually reasonably healthy–avocado is a superfood, after all (http://www.livestrong.com/article/402176-avocados-almonds-as-super-foods/), came together in less than 10 minutes.

The following recipe filled a small casserole dish, half of which made for a rather filling single portion. I recommend doubling or quadrupling if you’re making this for a party.

1/2 c. cold refried beans (the temperature will help keep the other ingredients from mixing into the beans as you spread)
1/4 c. prepared salsa (I used green tomatillo salsa, because that’s what I had, but in the past I’ve used red salsa. Either will be good.)
1 ripe avocado, mashed with 1 T. fresh lime juice
1/4 c. Greek yogurt or sour cream (or Tofutti)
1/2 ripe tomato, chopped, optional (I didn’t use any tomato tonight because I didn’t have any. The dip turned out fine without but I think it’s better with)
1 – 2 T. chopped, canned black olives (I tried this once using Kalamata olives from the olive bar. Not as good.)
1/2 c. grated pepperjack cheese

Mix the salsa into the beans. Salt to taste and spread the beans over the bottom of a shallow bowl, small casserole dish, or a serving dish with 2″ sides. Spread the avocado over the beans and then spread the yogurt over the avocado. Don’t worry if they mix together a little bit. Sprinkle the chopped tomato (if using) and black olives over the yogurt and then top with cheese. You can cover and refrigerate at this point or serve immediately, with tortilla chips.

Saying “Yes”

This post is about beans. Really, it is. Just not about cooking beans, or eating them. Instead it’s about the dream aspect. Except, as an aside, I did eat some beans last night, at Ed’s Potsticker House, where they’re served in small bowls, waiting on the table when you first arrive, a snack. Unfortunately, though, I can’t tell you what those beans, which were glazed with some deliciousness, tasted like. Starving, talking to the people around me, I reached for what I thought was a piece of lotus root. I should have looked more carefully. What I saw was not lotus root. It was star anise. The spice. Which I realized only when I actually bit into and chewed it. My first bite therefore kind’ve overpowered the subtle flavors of, well, everything else. Not smart. But funny. And awesome.

The fact that I actually bit into the star anise in a mistaken belief that it was food is awesome because it was so completely ridiculous. The reason I’m writing about it, however, is to celebrate my recognition and appreciation of the ridiculousness in the moment.

What does all of this have to do with beans, you ask? Or saying “Yes”? Everything.

Six months ago, had I mistaken the star anise for food and therefore temporarily destroyed my sense of taste just before what was expected to be a marvelous feast with friends, an event that I’d been looking forward to for days, I would have beaten myself up, embarrassed and angry and sad. I would also have recognized the humor, of course, but it would have been tainted. Last night, however, I didn’t have to sort through any complicated barriers to get to enjoyment.

The difference, I believe, is that six months ago a dear friend and I started taking improv classes. Everyone who knew me well was shocked, as I was universally considered to be, as one person put it, the very last person on earth one could imagine taking–or doing–improv. I’m a planner. An analyzer. An over thinker. I make lists and ponder and agonize, plotting out my life years in advance in a series of short and long term goals. Of course few if any of these plans have ever worked out exactly as anticipated, but that does not stop me from trying.

My original plan for improv was to take a single class, both as a diversion from grief over my failed marriage and also as a tool to overcome my terror of oral argument. I had no interest in performing. In fact, the thought was absolutely horrifying. But at the time I was in the process of drafting a cert petition that actually had a chance of being granted, and figured that I needed to do whatever I could to prepare myself for a possible appearance in front of Justice Scalia.

To some extent, the plan worked. I discovered a whole new world within Chicago, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with the life I led with my then-husband. Diversion. And, while my cert petition was denied and therefore I don’t have to worry about arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court anytime soon (or, probably, ever), I have grown more comfortable with oral argument. I’m no longer so afraid.

The part of the plan that didn’t work, or, rather, worked out much differently than what I expected, was that improv changed my life.

When I started Level A, I had been practicing yoga for about 15 years. The entire point of yoga as I understand it is to stop thinking, to be in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “Flow.” (http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html) In all my years of yoga I’ve rarely experienced Flow. Yet I found it in my first night of improv. And since then I’ve found myself connecting more deeply in my yoga practice.

This past week was the first class of Level D, my fourth term of improv. I don’t know whether I’ll keep going after this, whether I have any desire to perform. The idea still terrifies me. Yet this past week also reminded me of how short life is. Two people I know, one a colleague, one a very close friend of several of my close friends, died. Neither reached the age of 50. Life is short. It must be lived, fear and all. Which is why I signed up for a free workshop tonight,  with Sirens, an all-female improv group. (http://www.sirensimprov.com/upcoming.html) After the workshop, we, the students, will open for Sirens. Eeeeeek! I’m petrified. But I’m saying yes.

I can’t claim to have found flow in every improv class. In fact, much of the time I’ve been actively miserable. It’s terrifying to be so exposed, doing and saying things without time to think. Yet I keep going. Because I feel myself growing and stretching, learning that the more I risk failure, the greater the reward. Which brings me to my point. I decided to write about this today after reading an article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/12/tina-fey-30-rock-star-success_n_2458102.html) about Tina Fey’s secret to success: say “Yes.”

“There are limits of reason to this idea of saying yes to everything, but when I meet someone whose first instinct is ‘No, how can we do that? That doesn’t seem possible,’ I’m always kind of taken aback. Almost anyone would say, ‘It’s Friday at two in the morning. We don’t have an opening political sketch. We can’t do it.’ Yeah, of course you can. There’s no choice. And even if you abandon one idea for another one, saying yes allows you to move forward.”

The article resonated with me because, like Tina Fey, learning to say “yes” has changed my life, has made me less afraid to move forward even when I have absolutely no idea of where I’m going. I still plan, because that’s what I do. But I now do so without rigidity, knowing (or at least trying to remember) that I can’t control the outcome, that things may not turn out as anticipated.

As I wrote in my very first post, on January 1, “[t]his is the year I’m embracing the possibility of failure, trying new things, overcoming my fear of change.” So I started this blog. Which is pretty cool. I don’t know whether it will actually result in a cookbook, as per my plan. But regardless of what happens, I’m enjoying the process. Because, really, that’s what it’s all about.