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Yesterday, a cold front came down out of the Arctic and the temperatures dropped so low that the news was talking about it. I did not want to go to the grocery store. Reason #4,582 for a pantry dinner.

I call it rarebit because I actually eat rabbit sometimes and don’t like to confuse things in the kitchen. It’s a simple meal — cheese sauce on toast. Here’s my variation:

Saute half an onion in a  little butter until it’s starting to brown. Add a few cloves of minced garlic and stir until fragrant. Whisk in 1.5 cups (ish) of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. If you don’t have chicken broth, consider a bottle of dry cider, a bottle of porter, white wine, or vegetable broth.

Squeeze in a generous dollop of mustard. While the stock is coming up to a boil grate a lot of Gruyere and a little bit of Monteray Jack. Toss the grated cheese with a little bit of cornstarch (a trick I learned from Alton Brown’s Fondue Vudu recipe.) Add the cheese a little at a time and stir, letting it melt thoroughly before adding more.

If you don’t let it melt thoroughly, it will clump and there will be a thick knot of semi-melted cheese at the bottom of the pot. That’s okay, that’s what always happens to me. Just turn it on very low and let it melt while you finish the rest.

Defrost some chopped frozen spinach in the microwave.

A tangent for everyone who just narrowed their eyes at me about the frozen vegetables thing: It’s February in New England after a record amount of snow during a major work slowdown at the west-coast ports. Seriously, which do you think is going to be better tasting and retain more nutrition, “fresh” spinach shipped halfway around the world via truck or spinach picked at the peak of ripeness and flash frozen? Which is more likely to be in my kitchen after several weeks of irregular shopping? Which is going to take five minutes in the microwave and which is going to take half an hour of blanching and shocking? If you have a great source of super-fresh spinach in winter, the space to store it, and the energy to process it, then I’m happy for you. But don’t yuck on someone else’s yum.

While the spinach is doing its thing, toast bread slices. I had half a loaf of sourdough left, so that’s what I used. (The Sourdough Situation will require its own post later.)

Wring out the spinach thoroughly. Two packages of spinach, when completely wrung out, will reduce to a cottony wad smaller than a tennis ball. This is one of the many reasons I prefer frozen spinach — it’s already got a reduced volume. If I tried to do that with fresh spinach, it would take two or three of those enormous inflated bags to get enough for this meal. And the spinach is vitally important because then you can pretend it’s a healthy meal.

Stir the sauce carefully to get the melted cheese to incorporate with the stock.

Put the toast in a pasta bowl. Take the spinach and tease it apart and then sprinkle it on the toast. (It’s important to tease it apart.) Ladle the sauce on top.

I got it right!

One of the problems of going deep on a recipe is that you sometimes don’t know what flavor you’re looking for, so it’s hard to get there. I had an idea that I wanted something woodsy and earthy, but that was all I knew. Last week’s detour into sweet had been all wrong — far too orange — so I dialed way way back and focused instead on the really deep brown flavors.

I let the onions and mushrooms cook very very slowly in butter.  The trick with onions and mushrooms is that they are both mostly water and I wanted to cook all the water out. If I am cranky about what’s on the radio, I will wait until I see a lot of liquid and then crank the heat up so as ti evaporate it off quickly. And then I get distracted by something and it all goes pear shaped.

This time I turned off the radio and turned the heat way down and let it happen slowly. The juices simmered down and then browned on the bottom of the pan and I deglazed it with a bit of sherry and cooked it down even further. Once it was nearly a paste, I scooted it all out ot the sides of the pan and added a tiny touch of tomato paste. Tiny. A half teaspoon or so. Then I poked it with the tip of my wooden spoon, moving it around as it browned. But it was too little to really cook properly and I gave up and stirred it in with the rest of the pan. I added a bit of flour — maybe two tablespoons — and a generous helping of dried thyme. Then, at the last minute, a four cloves of crushed garlic.

I cooked that until it was nicely browned and deglazed the pan again with chicken stock and cooked it down until it was practically a paste. Frankly, I wanted to spoon it onto cheese toast and eat it like that.

But I was making soup, so I resisted.

I whisked in a broth that was mostly chicken but I decided to cheat a little and added a teaspoon of Better Than Boullion Mushroom Base. Three diced carrots, three stalks (with leaves) of the good celery from the CSA, and a bay leaf. While that was coming up to a simmer, I pulled out another pan and seared the skin side of four chicken thighs. I was too rushed and the skin stuck to the pan when I tried to flip them so I just dropped the still-mostly-raw thighs into the soup to cook, poured the golden shmaltz out into a tiny dish, and let the stuck skin crisp up in the skillet. Once it was crunchy-crispy golden, I deglazed the pan with more stock and scraped up all the brownness. Into the pot with the deglazing liquid (into the trash with the boiled skins).

All that was left was to fish out the thighs once they were cooked and shred the meat.

Sipping the broth, I realized what flavor I’d been groping towards: the smell of the forest floor in the thin wintry sunlight after a cold night and that dark richness of the soil under frost-spangled oak leaves after all the trees have gone bare. I wanted a soup that some fairy-tale hunter could come home to in the early twilight.

I served the soup with mini popovers, and the buttery eggy golden poufs were the perfect foil for dark, layered, but still lean soup. We were out of sweet cider — our last bottle had gone hard in the fridge and I couldn’t serve it to little ones any more. But a small glass of just-barely hard cider would have gone beautifully.

I made bread to go with soup the other day and forgot to add salt to the dough.

If you’ve ever done this you know that saltless bread is nigh inedible. Flat and lifeless and terrible. It’s like eating beige. I’m a frugal woman and didn’t want to throw out a big boule of bread, but I didn’t want to eat it, either.

Instead, I cut it into one-inch cubes, very very roughly speaking. This is peasant food at its finest and there is no precision necessary. I tumbled them all out onto a tray in a low oven to dry out. While it was drying, I chopped an onion and cooked it down with butter. Then I grated gruyere and defrosted some greens from my freezer. (How to freeze your greens.)

The trick here is to wring the greens out until they are as dry as humanly possible. This is not a fast or easy job and my forearms get a work out. Also, it stains my dish cloths green. But it’s worth it. I used two 1 pint freezer bags worth and wrung them out until they were like slightly damp cotton balls. Watching all that green water dribble down the drain bugged me, as it always does. One day I’ll need to figure out how to save that and what to do with it.

Then I mixed up a royale — dairy and eggs. You can use almost any combination, but I like a cup of whole milk, two eggs, and an extra yolk for richness.

I knew the base of the dinner, the bread, was flat and gross, so I added more flavor than usual to the royale — three big pinches of salt, along with nutmeg, black pepper, thyme, and a splash of sherry. I contemplated dried mustard but couldn’t find it in the mess of my spice cabinet and moved on.

I got out my favorite oval casserole dish and layered dried bread, cheese, pulled-apart greens, onions, three times, ending with an extra topping of cheese. Then I poured over the royale and baked at 350 until golden, brown, and bubbly.

It was pretty good. I could still tell that the bread hadn’t been salted, but it was edible and even tasty. When I do it again, I’ll use less bread and more royale and cheese. And, of course, I’ll salt the damned bread.

I haven’t done any food blogging in a while, but the Shutdown is in day 8 or 9 or something and I suspect there are people who are looking at their bank accounts and starting to get worried. Not just about mortgages or school payments, but about the act of getting a decent meal on the table tonight.

It’s a problem that women (let’s face it, mostly women) have faced throughout history. Down through the generations, the centuries, the millennia, they’ve faced down the challenge of getting something reasonable on the table in hard times. You can, too. In fact, depending on your pantry, my beans on toast will run you about $5 to feed a family of four, comfortably. And it will give you a head start on tomorrow’s meal.

Shopping/pantry list:
1 lb. bag of dried white beans (whatever is cheapest)
Olive oil
Garlic
Flour
Yeast
1 bundle swiss chard
Salt
Vinegar

In the morning, rinse and pick through the beans to make sure there are no rocks. Mix together in a large bowl (I like my red speckleware for this) 1 gallon of water (16 cups) and 3 T of salt. Stir the water until the salt is dissolved and then pour the beans in. Put it to one side, noting the time. You’ll need to take it out after about 8 hours.

Now make bread.

If you don’t know how to make bread, it’s not hard. It’s really not. Making amazing, fall-down, to-die-for French bread is hard — I’ve been cranking out two or three loaves a week for 20 years and I don’t make that kind of bread. But an everyday loaf requires very little genius. I will do a post on how to make a great load at some point, but the internet is full of ways to make bread. You can do a no-knead method that takes a full day, Alton Brown’s most-of-the-day loaf, or you can go to Craig’s List and get a second hand bread machine for $20. There are about 50 listed on my city’s page right now.

And yes, making bread is a skill. But if you’re furloughed, you have time. Learn this skill and save yourself a lot of money — flour is almost always cheaper than bread.

Once you beans have soaked for 8 hours, drain and rinse them. Then put them into a pot and cover them with cold clear water. If you have it, add a bay leaf, thyme, half an onion, or some other aromatic that you love. Bring the water to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the beans are done. This varies a lot depending on the bean, so start checking at about half an hour. Taste test at least four beans each time you test because they cook at different rates some times. It may take three or four, in dire cases. Start early in the afternoon.

Once the beans are tender, drain them in your sink. (Really thrifty cooks will save the bean water. I’m not telling you to do it, I’m just saying that they do.) Take about half the beans and put them into a snaptop in the fridge. You’ll eat them later in the week.

Take the warm half that you still have in front of you and put it into some machine to mash them up. A food processor is best for this, but a blender will do. If you don’t have a blender, put them in a bowl and grab a potato masher. If you don’t have any of these things, borrow them from a friend.

Before you mash the beans, though, add a few large glugs of olive oil, a hefty three-finger pinch of salt, and a bit of water. Now, mash the beans into a smooth paste. Think hummus. Once you’ve achieved that consistency, add minced garlic. Taste. Is it good? If not, add more salt, oil, and garlic, in small amounts, until it is good.

You can also add any other flavorings that may be hanging around in your pantry. Dried oregano or thyme. Fresh basil or parsley from your garden. Lemon juice. My daughter likes lime juice in it. Those jarred roasted red peppers you bought for that tapas party last summer? Excellent addition. That onion-bacon jam that your weird aunt gave you for your birthday? It’s fantastic with this. (And, yes, I’m the weird aunt who gives onion-bacon jam to people for their birthdays.)

Set that to one side. Now take your swiss chard and chop it up into narrow ribbons about as wide as your little finger. Cut the stems a little smaller — maybe as wide as a pencil. Dump them into a big bowl of cold water (my red enamelware again). Swish them around and let them sit while you put a skillet on the stove. Add about 1/16 of an inch of olive oil to the bottom of the pan and get it warm (not hot). Then add the dripping mess of greens from the bowl into the warm oil. It will spit and sizzle but not too loudly. If it’s loud enough to be alarming, turn the heat down. If you have to strain to hear the sizzle, turn it up slightly. Add a generous pinch of salt.

Use tongs to toss the greens in the warm oil. This is mildly tricky, because no matter how big your skillet is, there are always more greens in a bunch than fit comfortably in a skillet. This irritating fact is actually deliberate — the greens will wilt down to a fraction of the volume very quickly. So slowly and patiently turn the greens over and over, don’t mind if you spill a few. Your honey will clean up the stove because you’re cooking. Keep turning as the greens start to glisten darkly and begin to wilt. Keep turning. If you bought rainbow chard or ruby chard, the water in the pan will turn a shocking shade of pink. Once the chard is limp and reduced to a pile of luscious shreds, you need to add some garlic. How much garlic is up to you. One clove is fine. One head is fine.

Toss the garlic with the greens for about 30 seconds. Then add about 2 tablespoons of whatever vinegar you have in the house. I like cider vinegar for this, but wine or flavored vinegars are fine, too. Toss some more. Taste it. Does it taste good? If not, add more garlic, oil, vinegar, or salt until it does.

Now, you can serve the bean spread on fresh bread or on toast. You can serve the greens on the side or even on the bean spread. Either way, you have a whole meal for about $5.

Tomorrow, what to do with those leftover beans.

Variety at school

  And here’s why I need to pack variety.  I know she has time, that last snack box came home empty.  This one?  I added carrots because she was standing there in the morning asking for carrots.  What did she eat?  The turkey/tortilla rolls.  That’s it.  And she told me she didn’t like the things in it today, I shouldn’t put them in again.  I pointed out that everything she hadn’t eaten either she’d eaten yesterday, or asked for today, so she ate the rest on the way home.  Or most of the rest, her brother begged at least half the carrots.

I have another new tactic.  When I go to pick her up, I bring an apple for everyone, and we all munch them on the way home.  Note: I need to bring a bag for cores.  I tried bringing a snack for when we get there one day, but I don’t think she needs it.

Now here’s my next problem:  What do I feed them for lunch?  Lunch is now later than it was, because at lunchtime we’re still walking home.  I think I need stuff I can pull out of the fridge.  Pasta salads or something.  I’m so used to just saying ‘well, what are we in the mood for?’  Yay for mommy-transitions. :P

First Snack of School

  So Cynthia has half days for the first month, and doesn’t need to take a lunch.  She does need to take a snack.  We were advised to send ‘one item to eat and one item to drink’.  This is good and all, but what on earth do I send, that I can be sure will be what she needs at snacktime?  She has yogurt and granola for breakfast, so that means what she really needs at snack is vegetables, but veggies are not filling.  So I went the ‘overdoing it’ route, and sent in a couple bites of everything.

We have here a… roughly 3×5″ box.  I didn’t measure before it left this morning.  It contains a 2×3″ (I guess?) turkey sandwich, a small tomato cut to fit the box, a slice of cheddar cut into a heart, and a few sugar snap peas.  She can eat what she likes, I’ll see what comes home.

It worked pretty well.  I have cheddar flowers and hearts in a box in the fridge, and watermelon hearts and flowers in another box.  I don’t know how the watermelon will work, it might get drippy.  The sandwich is the size of a piece of bread folded in half, I squared it and ate the curves.  It was fun, this morning’s prep was fast (I did the hearts and flowers over the weekend), and Cynthia was thrilled.

Now I just have to figure out what to feed her after school!

So, you know how some people, when they are nervous, especially about something they can’t affect, take all their anxiety and squish it into something they can affect? That’s me. And the Child starts Kindergarten on Tuesday and I’ve spent the summer obsessing about school lunches.

Hearthwife is much more sane than I am and has merely thought about school lunches (see her post below), but I’m happy to know I’m not the only one obsessing. There’s a XX article on Slate, a food safety article on the NYTimes, and, of course, there are the BentoMoms. BentoMoms are crazy. Not bad-crazy but still way past what I’m willing to do. I mean, I’ll obsess but there will never be radish mice in my daughter’s lunchbox.

Growing up, I’d buy my little red and white carton of tepid milk, but ate the peanut butter on Wonder bread sandwich my mom stuck into a brown paper bag every day. I know there was more in the bag than just the sandwich, but I don’t remember the details, except that she used to buy those Frito Lay Variety Snack Packs. This is weird because I don’t remember ever liking anything in those packs. I do remember a lot of horse trading around the lunch table.

This is, of course, all anathema in modern helicopter parenting. Kids are trained never to share or trade food because of allergies. Parents are exhorted to send in whole grain bread and fruit, not Wonder and Doritos. (Maybe I liked Doritos?) And peanuts are just verboten anywhere there are children, it seems. (My friend T. has words to say about this.)

And, of course, there won’t be disposable brown lunch bags for my little one. I bought (at great expense) a set of stainless steel containers made by the irritatingly named LunchBots company. The containers are actually quite awesome — large ones for sandwiches, divided ones for everything else, and small round ones for GORP and yogurt and hummus and dips. Best of all? Dishwasher safe.

Nor will she be buying milk in those narsty little cardboard-ish cartons that never opened cleanly and always made the milk taste like wax. It’s not an option at her school. So I bought a Klean Kanteen (what is it with these brand names?) and she’s asked for iced raspberry tea.

She could buy lunch. But she can’t buy lunch on Tuesday and bring it on Wednesday. Either she’s always on the lunch program or she always packs. (I pack a snack either way.) To be wholly honest, I don’t have any faith at all in what the school system thinks in healthy, so she’s packing. There’s free breakfast available to all children but, again, I won’t let her eat that when she could have a healthy breakfast at home, around our table, with both parents.

At some point I’ll do a more thoughtful post on the issues around children’s nutrition, income, free lunches/breakfast, and the very serious issues around that. It’s particularly pertinent because of May’s school. I’ll even do a post on the Chocolate Milk Issue. Not today though.

May is a much bigger girl than Cynthia (Hearthwife’s kindergartner) and she will be having a much longer school day. My lunch-to-pack list includes a lot more calories and particularly more protein. What’s more, May’s really distract-able and tends not to eat unless reminded. (If I don’t remind her, she has a low-blood-sugar meltdown.) So I’m probably going to be packing as much oomph, calorically, into each bite I send.

But… I don’t want to get her into the habit of eating high-calorie foods, because she’s lovely and slim now but I’m not, nor is her father. She’s fighting a a genetic battle here and I want to make sure her brain gets wired the right way, not the wrong way. But short lunch times, long school days, and a very tall sturdy girl all combine to create a bad situation.

All of that said, she’s already picked her first-day-of-school menu. A lamb sandwich with goat cheese, arugula, and roasted red peppers; carrots and hummus; a granola bar; yogurt; raspberry iced tea. I’m going to spend the whole damned weekend cooking, it sounds like.

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