Serendipitous Salad

I love recipes and have piles of cookbooks that have been given to me by family over the years.

My counters are covered by cookbooks, most of which I love, but don't always use
My counters are covered by cookbooks, most of which I love, but don’t always use

I also have binders full of recipes I’ve clipped from magazines or asked for from party hostesses. And, the reality is that most of the time I just make up whatever I am preparing for a meal. Case in point, I was recently asked by a hostess to bring a salad. A couple of great ones I have in my recipe binder came to mind. Before I reached for them, I went to the store with the intention of just coming up with something. I decided the base would be Romaine lettuce because it holds up and there is no worry about wilting. I tossed the following into the grocery cart:

Carrots, broccoli, red cabbage, French green beans, green onions, snap peas, red bell pepper, radishes and asparagus, sunflower seeds, hard-boiled eggs and a fig & walnut oil dressing. (An aside on the eggs: I only found out about pre-packaged hard-boiled eggs last summer. I must have been living under a rock. They are fantastic if you are making deviled eggs. They are also nice to keep as a staple in the fridge because you can eat one with breakfast or lunch and add them to salads. I love sliced egg in a tuna salad sandwich). Once home, I proceeded to forget all about the French beans and snap peas as I set about assembling the salad without them as they sat in the fridge.

Slices of hard-boil egg add a festive touch to a salad
Slices of hard-boil egg add a festive touch to a salad

I cleaned and chopped two heads of Romaine and place the leaves in a large bowl. In turns, I steamed the carrots, broccoli and asparagus and then blanched them, placing the veggies on a towel to dry. (A note on asparagus: rinse the stalks and then snap them by holding the hard end between a thumb and forefinger and with the opposite forefinger press down on the fringed end. Lose the bottoms of the stalks and cook the part that snapped off.) I added these steamed veggies to the base, reserving extra in storage bags for the fridge. Then I chopped up the red pepper, radishes and some green onions, placing those in the bowl. I sliced off a little bit of red cabbage, diced it and sprinkled it over the salad. Finally, I sliced up three of the hard-boiled eggs and placed them across the top. I carried the sunflower seeds and salad dressing to the party for two reasons. One, some people cannot eat seeds so it is better to let people add them to their salads if they like. Two, don’t dress a salad until you are about to serve it. Plus, some people really prefer to dress their own salad. As for the green beans and snap peas, I made a stir fry the next night.

I might make this again in exactly the same way or maybe not. The next time I am making a salad for a dinner party, I may consult a cookbook. Or, I’ll just make up something else entirely. The point is to have fun with food and entertaining.

The Sage Leopard

Salad ingredients:

  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • red cabbage
  • green onions
  • red bell pepper
  • radishes
  • asparagus
  • sunflower seeds
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • fig & walnut oil dressing

Creative Stir-Fry for a Weeknight

It’s time to stop overthinking dinner. Stop thinking you need to follow a recipe to the letter of the law. First things first. Relax, it’s just dinner. Start with what is on hand. I had snap peas and French beans in the fridge as well as leftover steamed carrots and broccoli.

Getting started with French beans in the pan with garlic, ginger and green onions
Getting started with French beans in the pan with garlic, ginger and green onions

This veggie array was perfect for a stir fry, but peering into the pantry, I realized we don’t have any soy sauce. But, I did have Worcestershire sauce, sesame oil and Marie Sharp’s “exotic sauce,” a pepper sauce from Belize. The exotic sauce is made from green mangoes, tamarind, raisins, ginger, sugar, vinegar, onions, garlic, habanero pepper and some undisclosed spices. I figured this would take a different path than soy sauce, but paired with Worcestershire could work as a substitute. Departing from soy sauce gave me the freedom to work in other flavors, which I did with liberal sprinkling of garam masala, Madras curry and coriander. How did I pull this all together? The first thing was to finely chop a few cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of green onion, and a pinky’s length of fresh ginger root, and sauté those in a large pan with sesame oil on medium heat. Then, I piled in the veggies. I let them fry up a bit, but at this point, I wanted to add a broth and placed bouillon in a Pyrex cup with water. Next, I poured the instant broth into the pot with the veggies. Then, I got started with the powdered spices (coriander, garam masala, curry) and the Worcestershire and exotic sauces. Now, I had a pot of beautifully flavored vegetables steaming up with a hot broth.

Veggies cooking in broth with spices
Veggies and meat cooking in broth with spices

This was the perfect time to stir in meat. I had tenderized venison on hand, which I had sliced into small pieces. The meat cooked very quickly and maintained moisture with a lid on the pan. Meanwhile, I had cooked quick brown rice. The upshot is dinner came together with relative ease and in short order. The cooking was enjoyable as I smelled the aromas of the different spices, which was therapeutic. The bright colors of the vegetables were aesthetically pleasing. The approach was simple: what do I have? My quick survey ensured I had veggies, spices, meat and rice. To lay the foundation of the meal, I sautéed garlic and onion in oil (in this case, with minced ginger). Then, I added veggies and spice. Next, broth, and finally meat. That’s only a few steps to a beautiful and balanced meal. I do have a confession: I added salt when the meat was cooking.

Quick dinner with veggies, meat and rice
Quick dinner with veggies, meat and rice

In review, there are really just a few steps to making a great dinner on a weeknight:

  1. take an inventory of what you have and make a plan
  2. start anything good by sautéing garlic in oil in a pan
  3. add spices and veggies
  4. opt whether to add meat and/or rice or pasta, etc.
  5. eat, and proceed to enjoy the rest of the evening

Consider that all of this came together in less than the time it would have taken a pizza delivery to bring us something relatively unhealthy and over-priced. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the occasional pizza.) There also is the satisfaction of knowing you can pull together a home-cooked meal with a little creativity in no time. The best part of all was this meal was absolutely delicious and provided wonderful leftovers for lunch. Before you despair that you have nothing for dinner, take a longer look in the fridge and pantry and get creative!

The Sage Leopard

Simple Sautéed Shrimp over Pasta in 10 steps

My mother always says to cook with the freshest ingredients available or, if you can’t make it to the store, what’s on hand. I often look to my man for inspiration and asked him yesterday afternoon what he wanted. His answer was simple: grilled salmon or alternatively shrimp with pasta. At the grocery store, the salmon did not look appealing, but there was Gulf shrimp and given we live in southeast Texas within a stone’s throw of the Gulf of Mexico, I knew they were pretty fresh.  Here is how I went about cooking the shrimp with pasta.

Step 1: Fill pasta pot with water and set on stove over high heat with lid on.

Step 2: Get significant other to peel, devein and clean shrimp.

Step 3: Melt butter with olive oil in a big non-stick pot.

Step 4: Place the following on the counter: lemons, parsley, capers, grape tomatoes, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. The capers add a zingy, salty flavor while the lemons and parsley brighten up the shrimp flavor. Grape tomatoes sliced in half fit perfectly on the bottom of a fork prong while you twirl pasta on your plate or in your bowl.

Step 5: Start cooking shrimp on medium heat. Note that shrimp cooks very fast. As soon as it turns pink and white, it is done, so start adding the rest of the ingredients as described below.

Step 6: Fold in capers, chopped parsley (I use herb scissors right over the pot), and sliced tomatoes (halves).

Step 7: Season the shrimp pot with salt, pepper and a little bit of the red pepper flakes and squeeze lemon juice over it all.

Step 8: Decide if you want to add cheese. I diced up panela cheese, a mild Mexican cheese. I would avoid any particularly strong-flavored cheese for this kind of dish.

Step 9: The shrimp is done by now so turn off the heat and cover the pot while the pasta cooks with a dash of salt and about a tablespoon of olive oil added to the boiling water.

Step 10: Drained cooked pasta in colander and slide drained pasta into a pasta bowl. Pick up shrimp pot and pour contents over pasta. Toss pasta. Eat!

This dish was easy to assemble and cooked quickly. I recommend spaghettini, which is thin spaghetti, for shrimp dishes.

This meal also represents the motto of the Sage Leopard — “Reclaim Your Quality Time, Craft Your Own Happiness”. The motto is my philosophy in general, especially when it seems life has gotten hectic and I want to make sense of things by prioritizing and reordering my activities and time. Here with this kind of cooking I did reclaim quality time because it did not take long and I enjoyed the beauty of making it. I crafted it myself rather than going out or ordering in. We sat together and ate together, and we should take the little things for granted. They say the big thing in life is all the little things.

Friends who saw the shrimp and pasta picture on Facebook were so impressed that I wrote this blog to detail how easy it is to eat well.

Shrimp meeting the parsley, capers and other ingredients in the pot
Shrimp meeting the parsley, capers and other ingredients in the pot

You can either try this version yourself (please do) or invent your own way for this or a similar dish. The point of cooking well is to enjoy it!

The Sage Leopard

 

Seasoned Freeze-Ahead Chicken

Ever notice those individually wrapped, overpriced chicken breasts that are already trimmed and come in a three-pack? Ever notice how expensive they are compared to the big tray of chicken breast with rib meat? When the big package of chicken breast goes on sale for $1.99/lb., then I buy at least one tray. Think about it: chicken freezes beautifully.

Prepping chicken with flour and seasoning gives it a crispy, flavorful seal
Prepping chicken with flour and seasoning gives it a crispy, flavorful seal

You can trim and season the meat before freezing. Next time you see those big packages of chicken, get one or two, and buy some large freezer ziplock bags. When you get home, break out a large plastic cutting board. Leave the meat in the fridge as you plan the next steps for preparation. I like to season the chicken pieces before they freeze. I think tossing the chicken in flour and spices seals the meat really well to protect it from freezer burn. Plus, once defrosted, it is ready to cook — you can put it right on an electric grill or into the oven or skillet. Once out on the cutting board, I like to prepare the chicken breasts in a variety of shapes: mostly intact, fajita strips and cutlets. For the cutlets, I place wax paper over the chicken breast and pound them out with the flat side of a meat mallet. You can separate the chicken into batches for meals. For instance, you can place the cutlets in a freezer bag with a combination of flour and Italian breadcrumbs. The fajita strips can go in a bag with flour and fajita seasoning (or just the seasoning). Another bag could contain flour and paprika. This time, I seasoned the meat with garden dill seasoning, flour and paprika. And, into the freezer it went. All ready to go. A few nights later, I lacked the time and inclination to cook. I remembered the frozen chicken and as soon as I got home, I put the freezer bag in a bowl of warm water in the sink. For the sides, I pulled out a couple of zucchini, a red pepper and a bunch of asparagus.

grilled veggies complemented by cilantro
grilled veggies complemented by cilantro

Plus, I cooked up brown rice on the stovetop (Minute Rice is really easy and there are no additives like the material in the microwave bags).

Grilling veggies on a raclette grill
Grilling veggies on a raclette grill

Meanwhile, as the chicken defrosted, I cut up my veggies and turned on our raclette grill. I misted the grill top with olive oil spray and got cooking. The floured seasoning on the chicken browns well and adds a comforting flavor. It also seals in moistness. Before long, we enjoyed a healthy dinner of grilled chicken, veggies and rice.

seasoned chicken and grilled veggies with rice
seasoned chicken and grilled veggies with rice

And, I barely lifted a finger because I already took care of all that chicken preparation with the previously frozen batches. Next time you see chicken on sale, think of all the possible future meals that you can take care of in one fell swoop.

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

Springtime renewal, inside & out

Spring is the time to celebrate the return of things we love, such as bluebonnets in Texas, as well as a good time to try something new.

Leaves emerging for the first time on a young tulip magnolia
Leaves emerging for the first time on a young tulip magnolia

This weekend we enjoyed two new things: leaves on the tulip magnolia we planted last fall, and homemade red lentil curry dahl. We also enjoyed the return of bluebonnets and citrus blossoms in our garden.

The bluebonnet is the Texas state flower and makes its return each spring
The bluebonnet is the Texas state flower and makes its return each spring

Some things renew on their own. Here come the elephant ears, without prompting. A friend was once so overwhelmed by her elephant ears that she yanked a bunch out by the roots and put them in a huge bucket, which she left on our front porch. We were out of town and did not immediately attend to the bucket when we got back. Eventually, we planted them. They not only made it after the transplanting, they thrived. Then, they took over some beds. I yanked a bunch, and yet, a couple of years later, here they come again.

There are other things that need help. The caterpillars that will become Monach butterflies showed up and ate just about all the milkweed that had started to grow back. We rushed out to a nursery that fortunately was carrying milkweed and bought several little plants. As soon as they were in the ground, the caterpillars converged. We counted several.

Tomatoes are not something we lucked out on last year, our first attempt with tomatoes. For Valentine’s Day, we placed two tomato plants in the vegetable bed, fertilized them and crossed our fingers. Each one now has a tiny tomato growing, which bodes well.

The veggie bed is in the side yard with citrus trees. It all started with a mystery shrub, or so it appeared. Eventually, the plant emerged as an impressive Meyer lemon tree.

Meyer lemons can be consumed when green or yellow
Meyer lemons can be consumed when green or yellow

It became so prolific over recent years that we took to freezing the juice. Not too long ago a heavy rain came while it was overloaded with lemons and tree was uprooted, undermined by floodwater and its own weight. We had only been picking a few lemons at a time to have fresh ones in the kitchen. Live and learn. My boyfriend cut off several broken limbs and righted the tree’s trunk with a pitchfork as a temporary brace. I’m happy to report the tree survived and is growing again. Looking back, the amount of lemons I harvested from the broken limbs was comical. The neighbors all got some and there still is some of that juice in the freezer.

Meyer lemon harvest
Meyer lemon harvest
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Grapefruit blossom

We liked the lemon tree so much that we added a Satsuma, a grapefruit and a lime tree. The grapefruit tree was a slow grower, but amazingly started reaching skyward once we planted a more robust companion grapefruit tree a couple of yards away. Both are blossoming, literally.

To wrap up the weekend, we ate a traditional Sunday dinner with pasta and meatballs cooked in tomato sauce. Some people call this Sunday sauce. My grandmother called it tomato gravy.

Meatballs cooking through in tomato sauce after browning
Meatballs cooking through in tomato sauce after browning

She would serve the meat separate from the pasta, with the meat accompanied by Boston lettuce salad. The pasta was served in bowls, the lettuce on salad plates and the meat on the entree plate. Not sure what she would make of us eating the meatballs in the pasta bowls while sitting on the couch watching TV. This dish is a family tradition and brings much comfort. The other night I tried something completely new to us, at least at home: dalh. I had bought a lot of bags of dried legumes, including green and red lentils. An internet search led me to a recipe for red lentil curry dahl. I’ve made many curries before and ad libbed some as well, so I wasn’t intimidated.

Red lentil dahl with red curry
Red lentil dahl with red curry

The ginger and red curry combine so well it’s no wonder how popular the combination is. We liked it so much, I have a feeling that this dish may become as much as a staple around here as the meatballs.

The Sage Leopard

Create Your Own Tacos Night

If you live in Texas, you are well aware of increasing tension in cultural tacos wars about the origins of breakfast tacos and claims over which city has the best tacos. I’m not going to touch that debate with a 10-foot cooking tong. I’m simply going to relate the satisfaction of home cooking your own tacos, as well as share a tip for cooking the soft tortillas.

Tacos make for a colorful dinner
Tacos make for a colorful dinner

We happen to have a crepe maker, which happens to be a great device for heating through store-bought tortillas.

Cooking a tortilla on a crepe maker
Cooking a tortilla on a crepe maker

(Next, I will attempt to make homemade tortillas this way, but that’s a blog for another day.) When it comes to store-bought tortillas, another good way to heat and brown them is toasting them in a non-stick skillet. Don’t microwave. Nuked tortillas are just hot, but not quite cooked. The Velata crepe maker is really well-suited to warming through and toasting the tortilla. The advantage compared to a skillet is this crepe maker is electric and automatically shuts off so you don’t need to deal with a stovetop flame or burner controls.

Another personal take on tacos night in this household is we use ground venison instead of ground beef. The meat is from deer harvested in a management hunt (a hunt held to address overpopulation in a particular area). We hunted and cleaned the deer (meticulously), and took the meat to a local processor, or butcher.

Ground venison simmering with taco seasoning and sweet onion
Ground venison simmering with taco seasoning and sweet onion

The result is a freezer full of freshly prepared meats that are locally sourced (the hunt was not far here in Texas) and free of hormones or whatever else cattle may have in them. To be sure, there is really, really high-quality boutique cattle out there and it is very expensive. Our venison supply is relatively cost-effective and versatile. Plus, venison is very lean. Moreover, venison takes well to seasoning and works well with a variety of flavors, such as tacos.

Tacos night is a fun do-it-yourself dinner tradition
Tacos night is a fun do-it-yourself dinner tradition

The rest of the ingredients are easy to assemble and set up a serving station: salsa, cheese, salsa, beans and lettuce.

The beauty of tacos is you can make them in so many different ways, just like you can make a variety of crepes with savory fillings. Thus, my idea of cooking tortillas on a crepe maker isn’t wacky at all. My favorite taco toppings include freshly chopped cilantro, lime juice, chopped onion, jalapeños, hot sauce and salsa verde.

My preference for beans are black beans, hands down. Charro beans are a classic option. Refried beans can bind other ingredients to the tortilla.

Another meat option is desebrada (or deshebrada) which is beef or pork braised and slow-roasted in tomatoes. The meat then pulls apart. There is a Mexican restaurant near the house that has such good desebrada, I order tacos with it no matter if I am having breakfast, lunch or dinner. Sometimes I feel bound and determined to make my own desebrada, but then I think I won’t be able to emulate the restaurant’s version and I slink over there for some tacos.

Of course, Texans are obsessed with breakfast tacos and they are the best way to eat eggs. Eggs and cheese, eggs and sausage, eggs and bacon, eggs and beans, etc. Habanero sauce goes very well with the eggs in this most delightful breakfast food. At the risk of entering the great Texas breakfast tacos debate, I will just say that I have had the privilege of enjoying them in different parts of the state and they are all very good. Some of my first breakfast tacos experiences were at a restaurant in Kerrville and a tacos truck at an event in Nacogdoches.

The beauty of the taco is the endless variety and that you can make them anyway you want. Finally, tacos are easy on a weeknight or anytime you want comfort food with your favorite toppings.

The Sage Leopard

 

How Animals Lay Claim to Our Garden

You would think we could pinpoint the moment the obsession started, but all I remember is we both like Mexican pottery, specifically the Talavera style pottery with vibrant colors. Now, the backyard garden is a veritable menagerie of Mexican pottery animals.

Talavera armadillo
Talavera armadillo

Some of the creatures mark a special time, such as the armadillo birthday present and the bunny rabbit from a Laredo trip. I recall one squirrel we picked up after a BBQ outing. I don’t recall how the other squirrel got here.

Talavera bunny
Talavera bunny

I suspect some of the animals came home because of a healthy addiction. My boyfriend must be sneaking them in at night. He knows where the pottery purveyors set up shop along specific Houston roads and flea market stalls. He seeks out the unique, such as the snake. None of these animals scare away real creatures the way a fake owl or a scarecrow does.

Talavera alligator
Talavera alligator

Our yard is the playground of opossums, frogs, toads, caterpillars and Monarchs, doves, mockingbirds and stray cats. We really ought to find a possum version of Mexican pottery because the possums here walk along the top of the back fence about five times per week, setting the Sage Leopard (our Catahoula leopard dog) into a frenzy. If anyone knows where to find a pottery possum, be sure to advise. Our collection will surely continue to expand and we really ought to have a brightly-colored marsupial hanging around for authenticity’s sake.

The Sage Leopard

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Talavera sun
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Talavera frog
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Talavera butterfly and salamander
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Mexican-style pottery Longhorns
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Talavera snake
Menagerie of Talavera animals
Talavera squirrel