Going Where (Almost) No One Has Gone Before: Kimchi Risotto?

If nothing else, this pandemic has taught me to not be so slavishly obedient to the dictates of a recipe, and to trust my own tastes in flavoring dishes. That's because I haven't been able to run to the store for an exotic ingredient, or dash out when the yen for a special dish pings my brain's rolodex, or even to simply give up on a recipe, thinking I don't have everything the instructions call for.

Five-allium risotto? Why not?

Cooking every day—like everyone else, we're WFH or, in Dave's case, retired—means sometimes making three meals a day from a pantry that gets refreshed only a couple of times a week. For daily shoppers like we used to be in what are being quaintly referred to as "the before times," it's meant we've had to be more creative, more flexible and not so darn fussy. You might say we've been developing our dancing-in-the-kitchen muscles, while trying not to sacrifice deliciousness to expedience.

Not that every experiment or adaptation has been a smashing success, mind you. But the five-allium risotto made with  the yellow onion, green onion, shallot, leek, and garlic we had on hand when there was no chicken in the fridge? Or the mapo tofu made with some admittedly inauthentic ingredients? Or the sausage and pasta casserole when we didn't have enough sausages for grilling? They were all pretty dang good!

Not enough sausages for the whole family? Make a casserole!

So it was, when yesterday evening I found we only had three-quarters of a jar of Choi's kimchi and most of a leftover grilled pork chop to work with. To be honest, I'd actually been itching to try a kimchi risotto, just because it sounds so weird, and our nearly empty veg bin was the perfect excuse. How bad could it be? (Insert winking emoji here…)

Turns out it was actually easy as heck, and more of an umami bomb than you usually get from a traditional risotto. From the reaction of the diners I'd say it'll be appearing again regardless of the state of our pantry.

You can't ask for more than that from an impromptu dance in the kitchen!

Kimchi Risotto

3 Tbsp. butter
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion, diced fine
3 cloves garlic
1 1/2 c. arborio rice
4 c. chicken or vegetable stock, warmed on the stove
2 c. prepared Napa cabbage kimchi plus 1/4 c. brine
2 c. cooked pork or chicken (or substitute 1 lb. ground pork, sautéed)
1 Tbsp. fish sauce
Salt to taste
Red chile oil for drizzling

Heat butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat until the butter melts and starts to bubble. Add onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent. Add the rice and sauté for about 3 minutes or so—each end of the rice grains should be slightly translucent.

Add a ladle-full of stock with the kimchi brine and stir until it's almost all absorbed, then add another ladle of stock and stir until it absorbs. Continue adding stock, and when you've ladled in about half the stock, stir in the chopped kimchi and cooked meat. Keep adding stock and stirring until the rice is al dente or still has a nice texture without being crunchy. Stir in the fish sauce and salt to taste. Serve with a drizzle of red chile oil.

I separated a head of cauliflower into small florets (adding the chopped stalk and leaves), mixed in olive oil and garlic, then roasted it on a baking sheet in a 375° oven while I made the risotto. When it was browned nicely, I served it alongside the risotto as in the top photo.

Pandemic Pantry: Sausage and Pasta Casserole with a Kick

I suppose you could call us the casserole generation. We were one of the first cohorts of children whose mothers were entering the work force in the largest numbers since WWII, mostly because inflation had been whittling away at the salaries of "breadwinners" (mostly dads) for years. But women were still expected to do all their "mom" duties like laundry, housecleaning and, of course, shopping and cooking, in addition to putting in 40 hours on the job.

That meant my mom came home from her work as a social worker after an hour's commute and had to get dinner on the table fairly quickly while my dad, who (bless his heart), came home around the same time, turned on the nightly news, put his feet up and sipped a scotch and water until Mom called us in for dinner.

So with three hungry kids and a husband to feed, I can't blame my mother for welcoming convenience foods like Hamburger Helper with open arms, or making classics like Swiss steak and Spanish rice that could simmer away in the electric frying pan while she ran upstairs to change out of her work clothes.

(Did she have a glass of wine in her hand? Maybe…)

Noodle casseroles figured prominently in the pantheon of dinner menus—the "primavera" version hadn't yet appeared and fancified it into "pasta"—with goulash, macaroni and cheese and, on Fridays, the holy tuna version. (I was never sure why fish on Friday was a requirement since we weren't Catholics, though I suppose Episcopalians run a close second in the rules-ridden churchy hierarchy.)

As the female child, I was called on to put down whatever book I was currently immersed in to help my mother with prep chores and getting dinner on the table. It meant I learned to chop and mix and simmer early on, which I suppose cemented my inclination to appreciate the tastier parts of life. For that I'm thankful.

The recipe below—which involves little prep but calls for two-and-half-hours of simmering—would have been unthinkable for a weeknight dinner in my mom's day, but it's do-able in pandemic times since so many of us are spending scads more time at home. (And everyone needs an occasional break from Zoom meetings, right?) It's a variation on the perennial penne alla vodka served at 3 Doors Down café, which itself starts with a variation on the classic Marcella Hazan tomato sauce with onion and butter.

As the classic commercial from my childhood trumpeted, "Try it, you'll like it!"

Penne alla Vodka Casserole

1 lb. penne
4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 med. onion, chopped in 1/4" dice
1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes
1 qt. roasted tomatoes (or 1 28-oz. can tomatoes)
3 mild Italian sausages (~1 lb.) sliced crosswise in 1/4" coins
1 c. vodka
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 c. sour cream or whipping cream
1 c. Parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
Salt to taste

In a heavy-bottomed saute pan or skillet, melt the butter and add onion and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium-low heat until onion is translucent. Stir in the whole tomatoes with liquid and simmer for one hour. Add the sausage coins, vodka and oregano and continue to simmer for another hour. Turn the heat to medium high, add sour cream (or cream) and stir constantly for 10 minutes. Reduce to simmer and to cook for another 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

During the final half hour of simmering the sauce, bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Drop the pasta in the boiling water and cook, stirring frequently until tender but still firm to the bite, a little less done than usual "al dente." Drain well, put back in pasta pot, add sauce, then toss pasta with sauce and 2/3 cup grated cheese. Adjust for salt. Pour into 2 3/4-qt. casserole dish and top with remaining cheese. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and serve.

Pandemic Pantry: Making Veggie Broth to Calm Your Anxiety

Like all of us, my friend, illustrator Trista Cornelius is figuring out how to navigate her way through the pandemic between shutdowns, homeschooling her child, and freelance work. One coping device has been reading how others who've faced similar difficulties developed mechanisms to get through it.

Cornelius writes in her blog about reading MFK Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf, describing Fisher's experience in England in World War Two:

"MFK describes using every scrap of leftover food as an 'absorbing and profitable pastime' and offers plucky solutions to big problems: Not enough fuel to heat your stove? Put the ingredients in a pot with water, heat to a hard boil, immediately shut off the precious heat source. Place the pot in a box lined with hay and cover it with an oil cloth. Let it sit twice as long as you would have simmered it on a stove in abundant times, and voilà: dinner."

Another way of coping for Cornelius is making vegetable broth. Taking the scraps and peels and turning them into broth "eased my pandemic anxiety. It gave me a feeling of alchemical power. I could turn scraps into nourishment!"

Read her full post, and get a printable version of the poster!

Sloppy, Maybe, but Perfect for Messy Fall Days

What are your comfort food favorites?

Mine tend to run to the hearty warmth and belly-filling attributes of the foods my mom made for us growing up. Tuna casserole, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, and a classic pot roast top that list, and I've added a few more of my own—a pandemic pantry version of mapo tofu is a new favorite—along the way.

Fall (and a pandemic) means warmth and comfort are required!

Falling leaves and dropping mercury always mean getting out the braising pot and turning on the oven. It's an easy if not terribly efficient way to boost the chilly temperatures in a drafty old house like ours, for one thing, and the delicious smell of a joint of beef or simmering sauce wafting through the house for hours will have your neighbors hollering from the sidewalk, asking what you've got on tap for dinner.

The pandemic has everyone craving stability—three cheers for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—and comfort even more than usual, and with most of us working from home or needing to save money on groceries, homey dishes like the ones mentioned above are both easy on the budget and can handily feed a family. (No doubt the reason my mom was partial to them, with three kids and a husband to feed every night, even when she also had a full-time job.)

Dave's beautiful buns…

The other night I was rummaging in the fridge and came across a pound of ground lamb and leftover hamburger buns that Dave had made, plus there were two half-heads of cabbage left over from making tacos. I'd been craving sloppy joes for awhile, so figured now was as good a time as any to give them a whirl.

Since cooking in a global pandemic means a quick dash to the store was out of the question, I decided to deviate from the standard tomato-based sauce and take advantage of the lamb to give them a Middle East-meets-Asia twist. Plus, instead of making a slaw to serve alongside, I took a page from pulled pork sandwiches and plopped the slaw on top of the meat-slathered, open-faced buns.

(Note: It helps to have a wide-ranging condiment selection for this kind of cooking. Fortunately our condiment shelf is literally overflowing…insert hysterically laughing emoticon here.)

Feel free to use the recipe below as a guide and make your own pandemic pantry adaptations depending on what you've got on hand. It may just become a go-to comfort food staple on your family's list of favorites!

Ground Lamb Sloppy Joes

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. ground lamb
2 Japanese curry bricks or 2 Tbsp. curry powder
1 yellow onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
1 sweet yellow pepper, diced
1 sweet red pepper, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. cumin seeds, ground
1 tsp. coriander seeds, ground
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2 Tbsp. gochujang
2 Tbsp. white miso
1/4 c. barbecue sauce
1/4 c. sesame vinaigrette or 2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
4 hamburger buns, toasted
Cabbage slaw with miso vinaigrette (optional)
Fresh cilantro, chopped fine (optional)

Heat olive oil in deep sauté pan until it shimmers, then add ground lamb and brown. Add butter bricks or curry powder and heat, stirring until fragrant. Add yellow onion and sauté until tender. Add carrot, peppers and garlic and sauté until tender. Add cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger, gochujang, miso, barbecue sauce and vinaigrette and stir to combine. Simmer for 20 minutes until flavors meld and meat is cooked through. Adjust flavors to taste, add salt if necessary.

Toast buns on both sides under broiler until nicely browned. Place one opened bun on each plate, top with meat sauce and then slaw. Garnish with cilantro if desired.

Pandemic Project: Making Greek-Style Stuffed Grape Leaves

There are several homes in our neighborhood whose residents (current or former) planted grapes that, every spring, faithfully start producing leaves and vines that twine themselves around fences, trees or any stationary object, sporting clusters of teensy, pinhead-sized baby grapes. Most are table types, deep purple and seeded—contributor Anthony Boutard calls them "fecund"—with a few that are seedless, though their specific varieties have been lost to time.

So it was fortuitous that my friend, gifted cook and writer Denise della Santina, called and asked if I wanted to get together to make Greek-style stuffed grape leaves, the kind her mother used to make. Now, Denise's mother wasn't Greek, but she and Denise's father lived a peripatetic life, traveling extensively all over Europe with their three kids in tow, moving back and forth across the country as easily as they traversed oceans, eating and drinking and immersing themselves in the places they found themselves. It was almost the exact opposite of my own WASP-ish, Oregon-centric upbringing.

"We lived in Greece for five-plus years, so our Greek street cred is far better than elsewhere," Denise said.  "Mom learned from the village ladies even before she could speak the language."

Am I envious? Why yes, yes I am!

Denise said she'd get the supplies for the stuffing if I could find some grape leaves. I said I'd do my best.

I arrived at her house the next morning with a shopping bag stuffed full of leaves of various sizes, which turned out to be helpful, since we could use the smaller ones for stuffing and the larger leaves for covering the rolls while they cooked. She trimmed the stems and softened them in a pot of salted water on the stove while I chatted from the doorway—pandemic, remember—then brought them out to the deck where I proceeded to separate and dry the leaves.

Ever the efficient project manager, Denise had cooked and cooled the onions the night before so she could combine them with the meat and spices just before I arrived. In proper socially distanced fashion we set up our work stations at opposite ends of the long table, scissors at the ready should we need to clip some tough leaf veins and a big pot of the meat-rice mixture each.

She showed me how to lay the leaf with the underside up and the stem end toward me, and to place a small amount—a tablespoon or less—at the stem joint, folding up the leaf ends to cover it. Then, like a burrito, the sides were folded in and the whole thing was rolled up tightly.

Magic!

For the next ninety minutes or so we sat and rolled (and rolled some more), eventually filling up our trays with the shiny packets as we caught up on friends and family and  summer events. It put me in mind of the kind of repetitive, calming work that women in my family did when I was growing up, sharing stories and gossip while snapping beans or doing dishes—you wash, I'll dry—or folding clothes fresh off the clothesline.

It was a gift of near-normalcy, a small break, a time out that I sorely needed. Not to mention that dinner was done, a bonus in itself! Thanks, my dearest Denise.

Della Santina Stuffed Grape Leaves

For the stuffing:
60-75 grape leaves, about 6" in diameter*
3 onions, minced finely (a processor works for this)
2 lbs. ground lamb (or a combination of beef and lamb)
1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice
1/4 c. mint, chopped fine
3 Tbsp. dried mint (dried plus fresh gives added dimension)
3 Tbsp. olive oil (more if your meat is lean)
1 tsp. salt to start and generous grinding of pepper (see note)

For cooking the stuffed grape leaves:
1 c. water (or so)
1/2 c. lemon juice
1/2 c. olive oil

If you're using freshly picked leaves, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While it is heating, prepare the leaves by snipping off the stems and any thick vein ends. When the water boils, place the leaves in the boiling water and simmer for five minutes until softened and pliable (they'll turn dark green). Drain in a colander and run cold water over them until they can be handled.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the onions until they're translucent and tender. Cool to room temperature.

While onions cool, take the blanched leaves and pat them dry with paper towels. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cooled onions with the meat, mint and olive oil and some salt and pepper.

NOTE: To test for salt, pepper and mint, heat a small frying pan over medium-high heat and brown a small amount of the meat before you add the uncooked rice; rice will dilute the saltiness. Taste and adjust salt.

Once you're satisfied with the salt level in the meat mixture, mix the uncooked rice into the meat.

Take one leaf and lay it with the shiny side down and the veined underside up, with the base of the leaf toward you. Place a tablespoon (or less if it's a smaller leaf) of the meat mixture at the base near the joint. Bring the bottom lobes up over the meat and fold in the sides (like a burrito). Then roll the packet up toward the point of the leaf. It should make a tight packet. Repeat until you've used all the meat. At this point you can store the stuffed grape leaves in the refrigerator until you're ready to cook them.

To cook the stuffed grape leaves, pour three tablespoons of olive oil into a large Dutch oven. Place the stuffed leaves into the pot, stacking them in layers if necessary. Pour the water, lemon juice and remaining olive oil over them. The water should barely cover the stuffed leaves. If it doesn't add more. Top with more leaves (fresh are fine, too) and cover with a plate to hold it all down. 

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cover the pot with a lid. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour until the rice is done (test at 45 minutes and add time until meat is cooked, rice is very soft and the leaves are tender). Transfer to a platter, bathe in more lemon juice and olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

You'll also want to consider making tzatziki, a simple combination of yogurt, grated cucumber and crushed garlic.

* You can also use the preserved grape leaves that come in a jar. There are approximately 55 leaves in a 2-lb. jar.

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.