My Mapo, aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

It's a pretty common trope that blogs, especially cooking blogs, are supposed to be cheery, encouraging, inspiring their readers with a can-do, positive attitude about taking ingredients and turning them into tasty, Instagrammable meals.

But I won't lie to you. As much as I love taking sustainably grown, bursting-with-life, seasonal ingredients and making delicious meals for my family, the daily chore can get to be a grind. Throw in a global pandemic that limits trips to the store to once a week rather than nipping to the store for that lime you forgot on an earlier trip, not to mention social distancing, masks and gloves, and pretty soon you're over your stress limit.

Personally, my cranky quotient has been off the charts lately. (Just ask Dave.)

This rant is all by way of saying, let yourself off the hook. Sam Sifton and Gwyneth Paltrow aren't peeking in your windows, so don't worry if you don't have all the ingredients called for in a recipe. Find something in your pantry or in the back of the condiment shelf in your fridge that might approximate it, or leave it out altogether. You're cooking in a pandemic, dammit!

This exact thing happened the other evening as I was trying to come up with something for dinner. I wanted to use some tofu that I'd bought the week before that had found a super cold spot in our fridge and was partially frozen but still usable. I was looking up recipes and came across one for mapo tofu that called for ground pork—I had some in the freezer and could easily thaw it in time—but also required a Chinese fermented bean paste called doubanjiang, and mirin, a Japanese rice wine. Neither of which I had.

I did find a half jar of gochujang, a Korean fermented red chili paste left from a batch of kimchi, some black miso a friend had made (thanks, Linda!), and there was a splash of sauvignon blanc left from the night before. "Good enough!" says I. And dang if it wasn't perfectly swell.

I am, after all, cooking in a pandemic.

My Mapo aka Pandemic Pantry Tofu Pork

1 lb. firm tofu
3 cloves garlic, minced
1" piece ginger, peeled and grated
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 c. spring onions, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp. gochujang or doubanjiang
2 Tbsp. mirin or dry white wine
2 Tbsp. miso
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. toasted sesame oil
Slivered green onions or save a few slices of green tops from the spring onions

Take 1 pound block of firm tofu and slice into 1/2" slabs. Place in single layer in 8" by 10" dish. Set slightly smaller dish on top and weight with large cans or bowl of water to press water out of slabs. Allow to press for 30 minutes. Drain and slice slabs into 1/2" cubes.

Heat oil in deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add garlic and grated ginger and warm about 30 seconds. Add ground pork and brown. Add sliced spring onions and sauté until tender. Add remaining ingredients and stir for 3-5 minutes. Add cubed tofu on top and very gently combine with the meat and onion mixture; reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Serve with rice. Garnish with slivered green onions.

Soup's On: Sopa de Carnitas

As often happens around my house, this soup recipe came about on a chilly winter night when I didn't have any particular plan for dinner. Which means I started rummaging around in the fridge looking for inspiration, hoping desperately that I wouldn't have to make a trip to the store.

Fortunately there was a smallish chunk of pork shoulder stashed in the meat drawer, a couple of potatoes in the veg bin and half an orange left over from a batch of granola I'd made earlier in the day. Hmmm…maybe carnitas…

The problem? Without that dreaded trip to the store, there wasn't going to be enough to make carnitas tacos for three hungry people. But then it occurred to me that adding pork stock to make a hearty soup—a go-to winter dinner around here—would be a cinch. With tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal alongside, this was a simple dinner-on-the-fly recipe that would be fit for company served with a big chicory or winter greens salad.

¡Buen provecho!

Sopa de Carnitas

1 1/2 lbs. boneless pork shoulder, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 qt. pork or chicken stock
2 c. water
1 onion, cut in 1/4" dice
3 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp. dried oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 orange, cut in quarters
1 tsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
2 yellow potatoes, cut into 1/2" dice

Put all ingredients except potatoes into Dutch oven or soup pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cover. Simmer for 2 hours until meat is very tender and starting to fall apart.

Remove orange pieces and bay leaves. Add diced potatoes and simmer for 30 minutes until tender. Add salt to taste and serve.

Winter Warmer: Lentils with Ground Pork and Radicchio

"I’m duty-bound to eat lentils on San Silvestro (New Year’s Eve). Why? Because each tiny legume represents another coin added to my treasure chest in the year ahead and if I don’t consume lentils, well, poverty inevitably will loom."

Writer and author Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who lives part-time in her hometown of Camden on Maine's charming coast and a portion of every year among her beloved olive trees in a tiny Tuscan village, lives my dream life. She is completely at home in both places, speaking both Downeast-ese and Italian, and is fluent in the cuisines of both, as well.

Her recent ode to the tradition of eating legumes at the turn of the year to assure prosperity in the year ahead captured me, so much so that when I saw lentils in the bulk bin at the store, I had to buy a pound to try them out.

For me, lentils always meant the brown lentils ubiquitous in every natural foods cookbook and on every hippie café menu during my young adulthood. Hearty, for sure, and marvelous when paired with a beefy stock and roasted tomatoes, I loved the flavor but wished they had a sturdier texture since, when cooked, they tended to moosh up into a dal-like consistency (not that there's anything wrong with that, as the saying goes…).

So when Nancy wrote that these lentils "are incomparably sweet and hold up well, not disintegrating when they’re simmered for 30 to 40 minutes," I was all in. I had a vision of a meaty, slightly brothy stew with tomatoes (see above), but also featuring some hefty, simmered greens for color and texture. Having just processed a half pig, I used a pork stock to simmer the lentils and ground pork for the meat, but having no kale or chard in the fridge (!) I decided to use a small head of treviso in a nod to Nancy's Tuscan side.

The resulting hearty winter stew was a rich counterpoint to the blustery cold winter weather outside, and I'd recommend it for your table any time you have a need to feel prosperous, indeed.

Lentilles de Puy with Ground Pork and Radicchio

1 lb. Lentilles de Puy
1 qt. stock (chicken, pork, vegetable, whey or simply water)
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground pork
1 onion, chopped in 1/2" dice
1 tsp. fennel pollen
1 Tbsp. dried oregano
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 c. (16 oz.) whole roasted tomatoes
1 head treviso radicchio, sliced crosswise into 1"strips
2 Tbsp. fermented cayenne peppers or other chopped, roasted red peppers
1/8 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. salt or to taste

Bring the stock to a boil and add the lentils and bay leaves. When the stock returns to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 30-40 min. When lentils are done, strain and cool, reserving stock in a separate bowl.

While lentils cook, heat olive oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add ground pork and brown. Add onion to the pork and sauté until tender, then add garlic, fennel pollen and oregano and heat briefly. Add tomatoes, radicchio, peppers and vinegar and sauté briefly. Simmer over low heat, adding enough of the reserved stock to keep the stew from drying out  too much (I used it all), at least a half hour and preferably an hour in order for the flavors to meld. Also terrific reheated the next day. Serve with a loaf of artisan bread and good red wine—preferably Italian, right, Nancy?

Rollin' Rollin' Rollin': Meatloaf with Greens & Cheese

Do you ever get an idea in your head and it just sits there, occasionally tweaking your brain with that "now what was that" niggling feeling? That was the case when I was thawing out some pasture-raised hamburger from Carman Ranch the other night, wondering whether to make burgers—we had leftover homemade buns in the freezer—or a marinara with pasta, or tacos or…meatloaf?

That's when it hit me. That idea I'd toyed with at some point in the misty past to make a meatloaf with the usual sofrito of onions and garlic, binding it with eggs and oats, but then flattening it out, filling it with with greens and rolling it up like a jelly roll.

How would I roll it up? Would it stay together or crumble into a mashy mess? There was only one way to find out.

Fortunately, my neighbor Bill had gifted me some radishes from his garden with their gorgeous greens still attached, and we had some leftover grated Parmesan from a risotto I'd made the night before. The rest, as they say, was history.

Rolled Meatloaf with Greens and Cheese

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 lbs. hamburger
1 1/2 lbs. ground pork
2 eggs
1/2 c. rolled oats
1 Tbsp. dried herbs (I used a combination of basil, oregano and thyme)
2-3 c. greens, sliced into chiffonade (I used radish greens, but kale, spinach, chard or any other greens would do.)
1 c. finely grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 375°.

Heat olive oil in medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add chopped onion and sauté until tender. Add garlic and sauté briefly until aromatic. Take off heat and allow to cool.

Combine hamburger, pork*, eggs, oats and onion mixture in a large bowl. (I mix it using just my fingers so the meat stays crumbly and doesn't get clumped together.) Form the meat into a loose ball in the bowl.

Lay out a sheet of parchment paper or plastic wrap about 15" long on a cutting board. Put the meat in the center of the sheet and start pressing it out until it's about 3/8" thick. Sprinkle it with the cheese and the greens in an even layer. Take the long edge of the sheet and start rolling it, repairing any cracks with your fingers, peeling away the sheet as you roll. Close up each end by patting the meat over the exposed edges.

When it's rolled up completely, transfer seam-side down to a sheet pan that's lined with parchment. Bake in a 375° oven for 40-50 minutes until instant-read thermometer inserted in thickest part reads between 140-150° (cookbooks all say 160°, but I find that results in drier meatloaf, so you decide for yourself). Remove from oven, tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 min. Slice and serve.

* I like a combination of beef and pork, since it seems to me to make a moister loaf, but all-beef is perfectly fine, too.

Smokin' Dinner: Puerto Rican-Style Smoked Pork Shoulder & Black Beans

When I invited two of my favorite Italian restaurant owners over for dinner, the last thing they were going to hear from me was, "Wait until you try my risotto. I think you'll love it!"

Going into the smoker.

So I went in a completely different direction, to the small island east of Cuba that was hammered so mercilessly by Hurricane Maria a little less than two years ago, an island filled with our fellow American citizens who are still all but ignored in the sturm und drang of our current national crises du jour.

It's hard to find this island's cuisine represented on our local dining scene, and while the flavors of cumin, garlic and chile are found in many Latin cultures, I thought it might be fun to make a dinner based on a Puerto Rican theme. Plus we love their take on pork shoulder, a dish called pernil that, though delicious when roasted in an oven or even on a grill, takes on a whole different character when left for several hours in the smoker.

Ready! (And check out that smoke ring.)

With Dave primed to spend his day, beer in hand, tending the fire, I needed to come up with a side that would fit in. It just so happened that I had some black turtle beans from Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in the pantry, so I put them on to soak while I did a little research.

Similar to the black beans I make for taco nights at home, traditional preparations start with a sofrito of onions, garlic, cumin and chile powder, then add in chopped peppers, splashes of wine and vinegar, and chopped olives. These are best simmered for several hours, allowing the beans to get buttery-tender and for flavors to meld into a rich, stewy whole, so I put them on first thing in the morning. Cooking them overnight in a 250° oven would work, too, the only problem being you'd wake up wanting to make huevos rancheros after breathing in the heady aroma of the cooking beans all night.

Dave, of course, did his usual magic with the pernil, allowing the pork to roast low and slow, swathed in the smoke from the mix of charcoal and fresh oak. And the beans got their share of raves, along with sincere thanks from our friends, who, like most chefs I've cooked for, are just grateful to have someone cook for them for once!

Pernil

Adapted from Mark Bittman

1 pork shoulder, 4-10 lbs.
4 or more cloves garlic, peeled
1 large onion, quartered
2 Tbsp. fresh oregano leaves or 1 Tbsp. dried
1 Tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ancho or other mild chili powder
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Olive oil as needed
1 Tbsp. wine or cider vinegar
Lime wedges for serving.

Heat oven to 300 degrees or prepare a fire in the smoker, allowing it to reach a stable temperature of 250-275°.

Score meat with a sharp knife, making a cross-hatch pattern. Pulse garlic, onion, oregano, cumin, chili, salt and pepper together in a food processor, adding oil in a drizzle and scraping down sides as necessary, until mixture is pasty. Blend in the vinegar.

Rub this mixture into pork, getting it into every nook and cranny. Put pork in a roasting pan and film bottom with water or, if smoking in the smoker, place it on a rack above a pan of water. Roast pork for several hours until an instant-read thermometer reads 180°. [Our 10-lb. shoulder took 6 hrs. - KB]. Add more water to the pan as necessary, until meat is very tender.

Let meat rest for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting it up; meat should be so tender that cutting it into uniform slices is almost impossible; rather, whack it up into chunks. Serve with lime.


Puerto Rican-Style Black Beans

1 lb. dried black beans, rinsed thoroughly
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 poblano peppers, chopped in 1/2" pieces
4 to 5  garlic cloves, crushed
2 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. oregano
4 c. water
3 bay leaves
1 Tbsp. salt, plus more to taste
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. green olives stuffed with pimentos, thinly sliced

The day before cooking, soak beans overnight in large pot with water covering them by at least 3". The next day drain them and rinse. Set aside.

Heat oil over medium-high heat in large Dutch oven. Sauté onions until translucent, stirring frequently. Add chopped peppers and garlic and sauté until tender. Add cumin and oregano and sauté 30 seconds. Pour in water and add drained beans, olives, bay leaves, vinegar, and white wine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered, for at least 2 hours. Check occasionally to make sure the beans aren't dry. If they are, add more water.

When beans are tender, if beans are too soupy remove lid and keep simmering until liquid is reduced. Remove bay leaves, turn heat down to warm until ready to serve.

Craving Carnitas

I'd been jonesing for tacos for days, and just hadn't got around to making them. Then, fortuitously, some friends said they were going to be in the 'hood one evening, which gave me the perfect excuse to try a new method for making carnitas. (And yes, I'm one of those people who tries out new recipes on guests, much to the chagrin of my mother who considered it much too risky.)

I'd already pulled a four-pound pork shoulder out of the freezer, it being a weekend and the perfect time for a nice slow braise on the stove. So I picked up some cotija cheese made by Albany's Ochoa's Queseria, cabbage for slaw, plus an avocado, salsa and tortillas. (I'm a huge fan of the organic tortillas from Three Sisters Nixtamal. It's a local company that makes masa using a traditional process called nixtamalization, where dried corn kernels are soaked in slaked lime, then ground and made into dough.)

Carnitas, which means "little meats," is made by simmering chunks of pork with citrus and spices for several hours until it's tender and on the verge of falling apart. I had some whey left over from making ricotta, so I decided to use it for the braising liquid, since the acids in the whey would help to break down and tenderize the meat. The method I used then calls for shredding the meat, roasting it in the oven (or in a cast iron pan on the grill) until any remaining liquid evaporates and the meat is crispy.

Warming the tortillas on a griddle is quick and easy, though I'm always tempted to pile them with heaps of fixin's, but exercising a teensy bit of restraint is worth the reward of the perfect bite, instead of bursting the taco or losing too much on your plate. Plus it means I can enjoy a few more of those longed-for tacos!

Carnitas

4 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
1 qt. whey, water or stock
1 onion, sliced in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1/8” slices
8 cloves garlic
2 tsp. oregano
4 bay leaves
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 orange, quartered
1 Tbsp. kosher salt

Put all ingredients into large Dutch oven and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer for 2-3 hours until meat is starting to fall apart and liquid is almost gone. If there is quite a bit of liquid left, remove the meat to a roasting pan, disposing of the orange peel and bay leaves. Bring the liquid in the pot to a boil and reduce until there is less than 1 cup remaining.

While liquid reduces, heat oven to 450°. When liquid has reduced, pour over meat in roasting pan and place in oven for 20-30 minutes or until it starts to brown. Shred any remaining large pieces.

Braising Weather: A Pot of Beans

It's officially fall. The ash trees surrounding our house are turning golden, coloring the light that spills in the kitchen windows. The leaves that have fallen are dry and crispy, crunching under the feet of the neighborhood children walking to school. The urge to kick through the drifts of leaves on the parking strip is almost impossible to resist, and I can hear that most autumnal of sounds as the kids (and sometimes their parents) succumb to their siren song.

Nighttime temperatures are getting down into the 40s, requiring the addition of thick comforters to the beds, and mornings are brisk, with just enough of a chill to require pulling on a fleece jacket to walk the dogs first thing. The days warm up to the 70s by noon, and a glass of wine on the porch of an evening as the sun sets isn't out of the question just yet, warmth-wise.

This is what my parents used to call nigh-perfect Indian summer weather in the Northwest, though I'm beginning to think of it more and more as the onset of braising weather, time to pull out the Dutch oven for the season of low and slow-cooked meats and vegetables.

This year's crop of dried beans have begun showing up at the farmers' markets, and I was recently gifted some Rockwell beans from Willowood Farm on Washington's Whidbey Island. This variety was originally grown by an island pioneer, Elisha Rockwell, in the late 1800s, and it was brought back into production recently by farmer Georgie Smith when she took over the land her family had been farming on Ebey's Prairie since the 1890s.

Beans don't need much besides water, onions and garlic to make a mighty tasty main course, served with a hunk of hearty bread and maybe a drizzle of olive oil, but I happened to have a pig trotter (top photo) from the Square Peg Farm pig I'd butchered last winter. Beans and pork are a natural pairing, and the fattier the cut of pig the better. Trotters are almost all fat, and over several hours it gave a porky unctuousness to the pot. A half pound of bacon works well, too, and can be chopped or shredded before or after braising. Even a pound of pork shoulder will do its work on the beans, and can be shredded afterwards to make a beany, porky chili.

Regardless of how you decide to cook them, grab a few different kinds of beans from your local farmers' market and take them for a spin in a pot. I guarantee you'll find one (or more) you'll love, not to mention they'll warm up your family's bellies on these crisp fall nights.

Basic Braised Beans

1 lb. dried beans
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped roughly
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Water
1 Tbsp. salt, plus more to taste

Optional:
3 bay leaves
Pork (pig trotter, 1/2 lb. bacon, 1 lb. pork shoulder)

Depending on the type of bean, you may need to soak them overnight in water (cover by 2"). Check with the farmer or follow directions if they're packaged. Drain and rinse prior to cooking.

Preheat oven to 300°.

On top of stove over medium heat, add oil to pot and heat until it shimmers. Add onion and sauté until tender, then add garlic, sautéing briefly until it's fragrant but not browned. Add drained beans and cover with fresh water by 1". Add salt and stir briefly. Add bay leaves and pork if using.

When it comes to a simmer, cover the pot and put it in the oven for at least four hours or until beans are tender and meat (if used) is falling apart. Check occasionally and add water to cover if the beans have absorbed it all (the amount of water needed will vary with the type of beans and if they have been presoaked). If meat has been used, remove it to a cutting board and chop or shred it, then add it back to the beans.

This can also be done on top of the stove. Simply keep the beans on a low simmer, covered, and check occasionally to make sure all the liquid hasn't absorbed.

More bean recipes: Baked Beans Italian Style, Backyard Barbecue Beans, Mexican-Style Black Bean and Greens Soup.