Grilled chicken, Chef Mike and a European Grill

After venison steaks on Sunday and venison sausage on Monday, grilled chicken was up tonight. We tend to have a protein rotation of venison, chicken and salmon, the latter two I like to cook on a raclette grill. Before I regale you with the wonders of raclette grilling, I want to introduce you to Chef Mike. Chef Mike makes really outstanding food in homes, restaurants and just about anywhere you can find a plug. Chef Mike, a.k.a., the microwave, is perfect for baked potatoes. For tonight’s dinner, there were only two cooking appliances: Chef Mike and the raclette grill.

Baked potatoes by Chef Mike
Baked potatoes by Chef Mike

On the menu: baked potatoes (courtesy of Chef Mike) with tzatziki sauce (courtesy of a herb mix), and grilled asparagus, squash, chicken and cheese. The cheese was melted in raclette pans, which are nonstick and easily slide under the griddle for light broiling. The beauty of the raclette grill is that the nonstick griddle top conveys the right amount of heat to cook the food without burning it. So, I was able to walk out into the backyard a couple of times to chat with my boyfriend. Raclette grills harken back to a European sensibility of gathering people around a table with wine and cheese, meats and bread, and veggies. Everyone places what they want to eat on the grill and the raclette cheese (a type of Swiss) is melted to go with the all the other ingredients.

raclette grill
Queso blanco melted in the raclette pan

We’ve adopted the raclette as an easy alternative to firing up the oven and getting a bunch of pots and pans dirty. Instead, I turn on the electric grill atop the kitchen counter, spritz on some olive oil spray and get grilling. Veggie slices, asparagus spears and meat. For meat, you want to use thinly sliced or pounded out cutlets. Fish cooks just fine. Shrimp cooks perfectly. I like that I can place food on the nonstick grill and walk away to get something or do something. When I cook with pots and pans, I feel I am more committed to hovering over the stove, lest something burns. Even on a low simmer, I have burned food, such a rice. That’s probably why I love that electric, nonstick rice cooker. Seriously, I absolutely love cooking and enjoy using various methods and gadgets. When I first heard of the raclette grill, I immediately thought of Korean barbeque. Funny thing is I have yet to try making Korean BBQ on the raclette. For that, we use our Lodge Hibachi grill outside.

Chicken grilling on the raclette
Chicken grilling on the raclette

The raclette is great for simple, everyday grilling inside. It also provides the best way ever to melt cheese. It melts evenly in the raclette pan and slides out onto your plate. Tonight, I used a queso blanco with green chiles. The cheese paired perfectly with the asparagus. After dinner, I rinsed and wiped the grill top with a soapy sponge. Rinsed again and placed it in the dish rack. Chef Mike gave me a knowing nod and we were done.

The Sage Leopard

 

This Dog – How the Sage Leopard Took over My life

I’ve never met anyone quite like Higgins. When we first laid eyes on him at the pound he was a high-energy, playful puppy of 7 months. He was labeled as a cross between an English foxhound and a Catahoula Leopard Dog. I had no idea what a Catahoula was and supplemented my internet search knowledge by joining a variety of Facebook groups for Catahoula lovers.

IMG_5237In short, the breed is the official dog of the state of Louisiana. The stewards of the breed guard it and express concern that some Catahoulas are not living the life for which they came into being: hunting and working. Well, we’re working on it. For the record, I think he might be a cross between Catahoula and Beagle. He is only 40 pounds, which is much smaller than the typical Catahoula Leopard Dog, which is an amazing breed. Higgins is not purebred, but we consider him part Catahoula and he does have some traits: he has webbed paws, spots in his fur (within the white part of his patchwork markings) and incredible intelligence. As I type, he is crying at me to stop and go play with him. His vision is stunning. He can spot an owl up in a tree in darkness, a squirrel down the street and wood ducks in a high flyover formation. Sage Leopard dogThe challenge is for me to harness all his skills and prowess. When I initially got him, I thought he would make a great jogging partner. He soon started running, and running really fast. He actually pulled me down, jerked loose and ran to the bayou’s edge. Amazingly, he also came back when called. He exerted himself in a very bossy manner and refused to direction from the eldest dog in the house. She was beside herself that Higgins ignored her. He also seemed to ignore me or rather listen selectively. I grew up with golden retrievers who happily complied with every command, so I became exasperated and took him to a trainer with a two-week boarding program. After two weeks, I hadn’t heard anything and called to check on the dog.Catahoula dog mix The trainer informed me that there are rare occasions with some dogs that take longer to train. After about three weeks, he came home much more obedient, but not quite. Unfortunately, the incident followed. A lost dog was staying with us a little while and Higgins was very possessive of me. Higgins and I sat on the couch when Roscoe, a miniature schnauzer, sought attention from me. Higgins snarled and I moved toward him chiding him to stop. Big mistake. I should have stood up and commanded him to get off the couch. His snarl turned to snap and he caught my lower lip. He realized his mistake and ran outside to hide. It was bad enough for me to go to an urgent care to have it checked out. This led to my beloved hound being reported to the county pound where we originally got him. My vet referred us to a behavioral vet who guided us on more training. Higgins has become far more affectionate, reliant and obedient. I haven’t given up on him because I absolutely adore him. We wrap up most nights with Higgins on possum watch and me watching him. The possum crossings over our fence line provide endless entertainment for the dog and it warms my heart knowing he is happy at home with us. He is my best friend, my inspiration and my happiness. He has many nicknames: cutey booty, pound hound, bossy boots, punk and, of course, the Sage Leopard. Higgins dog

The Sage Leopard

 

 

Venison Steaks, the Real Organic Meat

IMG_7479
Venison steaks (top plate) accompanied by drunken mushrooms, baked potatoes, grilled veggies and tomatoes.

We don’t need a label on our meat to tell us it’s organic. We know it is because we shopped at nature’s grocery. We took this meat in the field. Deer hunting isn’t easy, but it is rewarding, especially when it results in a freezer full of organic, lean meat. Venison is delicious, not “gamey,” if properly prepared. The first time I tasted it many years ago, the particular dish did taste gamey to me. But, it is really all a matter of preparation that begins in the field. A clean shot ensures the deer is humanely dispatched and there is no adrenaline rush that would impact the meat flavor. A clean shot is when the hunter is 100% certain the shot will be immediately effective. A responsible hunter doesn’t take the shot if he or she is not absolutely sure it is a clean shot. This is why it is called hunting, not taking. Hunting is not easy and requires a lot of preparation and patience. Some people take offense about hunting and yet buy meat at the supermarket. If you are going to eat meat, why not bring a healthy alternative into the mix.

Sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt, drizzled with olive oil and dressed with green onion.
Sliced tomatoes seasoned with salt, drizzled with olive oil and dressed with green onion.

It’s gotten to the point that I really don’t care for beef because my palate acclimated to the taste of venison. I think now this is what meat is supposed to taste like and love that is hasn’t had antibiotics or steroids or whatever else might be in other meats. The preparation of our venison is a simple process. After field dressing, the meat is placed in ice chests packed full of ice. Over the next couple of days, the ice water is drained and ice replenished until the ice water is virtually clear. This ensures most blood is drained and that is why our meat does not taste gamey. What we ate tonight were venison steak medallions and they were out of this world. My boyfriend seasoned them with a spice rub and butter before grilling them. Venison must be kept moist when grilling and butter or sesame oil both work great at sealing in the moisture. IMG_7469For the rest of the meal, I sliced tomatoes, including the first one from our patio tomato plant, sautéed mushrooms, and baked potatoes. I also deglazed the mushrooms with red wine. For the potatoes, I added onion dip seasoning to sour cream. Finally, I added some leftover grilled veggies. The meal was complete with the company of my boyfriend, who taught me to hunt.

Cheers,
The Sage Leopard

Empty Cupboard? Rice and Beans Rescue

Rice and beans, or beans and rice, are universally popular for several reasons. They provide whole grains (brown rice) and protein (beans). It doesn’t take much to make them delicious, as just a little salt, butter and hot sauce can make the rice and beans come alive with flavor.

Chopped cilantro adds a zesty flavor
Chopped cilantro adds a zesty flavor
Rice and beans are comfort food heaven
Rice and beans are comfort food heaven

An added bonus is they are filling. Tonight is what my Mom calls a “make-do” night. Make do with what you have on hand. I had no intention of going to the supermarket because I was busy and did not feel like planning out the rest of the week’s meals for grocery shopping. Instead, I opened the cupboard and saw several cans of black beans. I knew I also had a unopened bag of brown rice.

Turning my attention to the fridge crisper, I found the rest of the ingredients to place on the counter to get the meal going:

  • brown rice
  • can of Rotel
  • can of black beans
  • 2 carrots
  • 1/3 sweet onion
  • 1 green pepper
  • 1 red pepper
  • handful of cilantro

    Pantry staples are basis of an easy dinner
    Pantry staples are basis of an easy dinner

In one pot, I cooked the rice according to the bag’s directions. Once covered, I moved onto pot in which the beans would cook. I started by sautéing chopped carrots first in olive oil because carrot takes the longest to cook. Next, I added chopped sweet onion. I covered that pot to let the onion and carrots soften together and in the meantime chopped the peppers and cilantro. Then, all the veggies we folded into the pot with the carrots and onion, and simmer on medium-low for about 10 minutes.

Chopped veggies before being stirred together in olive oil
Chopped veggies before being stirred together in olive oil

Finally, I stirred in the cilantro followed by the entire can of beans and the whole can of Rotel. I brought that pot to nearly a boil before dialing it back to low. I covered it and let that cook for another 10 minutes. To serve, I scooped a serving of rice into a bowl and spooned the beans mixture over it. The finishing touch was a dollop of sour cream. And, Tabasco. I cannot eat rice and beans without Tabasco. If you like, you can also top rice and beans with a fried egg. Honestly, this was so delicious that I had seconds. And, there are leftovers, which is always a good thing. While I love planning menus and trying new recipes, I take equal satisfaction in pulling together a healthy and satisfying meal on a “make-do” basis.

Come to think of it, the pantry is stocked for this very purpose. I always have a variety of canned beans (black, garbanzo, butter, kidney, cannellini and pinto) as well as dried beans and lentils. Canned tomatoes, plain and Rotel, are also staples. You also want to have onion and/or garlic on hand to make dinner savory. Other pantry staples include: tuna, chicken or vegetable broth, rice and pasta, crackers and soups. There are certain food pairs that just go together: peanut butter and jelly, tuna and crackers, grilled cheese and tomato soup, and, of course, rice and beans. Sometimes the best things in life are comfort food.

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard

 

Biking Bucatini, What to Eat Before a Long Ride

Friday nights call for simplicity when it comes to pulling together dinner. I’m active in long-distance cycling and needed to carb up for a big, hilly, challenging ride tomorrow morning. Pasta was the only answer. Specifically, the bucatini shape of pasta. Bucatini is long and round, like spaghetti, but much thicker in width. It’s density provides a satisfying chew. I could just eat bucatini with butter. Then again, I did need veggies and protein to prepare for the big bike ride.

bucatini with vegetables and grilled chicken
bucatini with vegetables and grilled chicken

For the rest of the ingredients, I also wanted to use leftovers from last night: grilled chicken and sautéed cauliflower. A tried and true combination that works great with pasta is cannellini beans and artichokes. The water in the canned artichokes serves as a broth to unify the rest of the ingredients. Here’s how I started with the cooking: I set out on the counter four cloves of garlic, 1/2 cup chopped sweet onion, 1 diced red bell pepper, 1/2 cup diced grape tomatoes, 1 can drained and rinsed cannellini beans, 2 cans quartered artichokes (do not drain), and 1/4 cup shredded parmesan. While the pasta water was heating to a boil in a large pot, I started sautéing the garlic and onion in a large saucepan with olive oil. Once the onion softened and turned gold, I added chopped red pepper and the tomatoes. At this point, I seasoned the contents of the saucepan with salt and pepper. Next, the rinsed beans rolled into the pan and the contents of the two artichoke canned went in.

red pepper, grape tomatoes, sweet onion and garlic
red pepper, grape tomatoes, sweet onion and garlic

Those flavors combine fairly quickly at medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. The grilled chicken was cut into bite-sized pieces and was heated in the microwave. Same with the leftover cauliflower. The chicken and cauliflower was then placed in a large pasta serving bowl. Those ingredients were sprinkled with the cheese. Once the pasta was cooked and drained, I tossed it in the serving bowl to mix with the cheese, chicken and cauliflower, along with a dollop of SmartBalance butter alternative. Finally, the contents of the saucepan were poured over the top of the pasta bowl. The artichoke-infused water softly binds all the ingredients together, in terms of consistency and flavor. I feel satisfied that this meal will provide me with the right energy to take the hills on my bicycle. Maybe it’s psychological, but if and when I feel fatigued while climbing the hills, I can tell myself I  have it in me because I ate the right dinner with carbs and protein.

chopped grilled chicken
chopped grilled chicken

Of course, it will also help to hydrate more before bed, upon waking and while driving my bicycle out to the country town where the cycling group is meeting and riding. The really key thing for me first thing in the morning will be coffee, strong coffee. For the riding, I will have special sports mix for my water and protein bars. Afterward, the cyclists will hang out on the town square for a cookout with burgers. I’m hoping to ride around 60 miles tomorrow and the socializing will be the best part of the day. Well, the views are going to be amazing as well. All of the above are the motivation to keep pedaling those hills: bucolic views, friendship and burgers. I don’t normally eat them, but one doesn’t feel guilty about it after many miles of biking. I’m a little nervous about those hills, but still looking forward to it.

The Sage Leopard

Field to Table II: Everyday Venison Cooking

If the idea of cooking with venison makes you want to run for the hills, then you may be thinking of something other than the way I cook with this lean, delicious and versatile meat. Only once did I regret a venison preparation and it was because I used seasoning purchased in an outdoors store.

Pasta with ground venison, tomatoes and sautéed eggplant
Pasta with ground venison, tomatoes and sautéed eggplant

It certainly sounded appealing with fennel and orange, but whew, something else in that seasoning mix overpowered my meat. The only way I can describe it is it seemed like a lumberjack time traveled from the 1950s to sneak into my kitchen and give my meal a manly musk. In other words, don’t use someone else’s spice rub. I like to cook venison in Italian food (more on this below), in Asian dishes and by itself with a little olive or sesame oil and salt and pepper. It can also be marinated in buttermilk before cooking. Here is what I love about venison:

  • It tastes better than beef
  • It’s leaner than beef
  • It’s great in recipes that call for beef
  • I hunt it and therefore know where the meat came from, where it lived, what it ate and that it does not have any hormones or anything else suspect injected into it
  • Vacuum-packed venison keeps well in the freezer for a long time

My boyfriend introduced me to venison as a staple. I had no exposure to hunting before we started dating and now view it as an important perennial activity to stock our freezer. I’ve added venison chili and venison meatballs to my regular cooking repertoire. Plus, having a stash of meat gives me the freedom to experiment. When we take the deer meat into the processor, we order a mix of steaks, ground venison, tenderized meat and a variety of sausages. Well, the Hatch chile sausage was out of this world hot and I wanted to figure out a way to cool it down.

Sausage balls
Sausage balls

I thought I could make sausage balls by removing the Hatch chile meat mixture from the casings and folding in sour cream, egg and breadcrumbs. I started cooking the sausage balls and all seemed to be going well. But, even as I gently turned them, the sour cream I used to counter the spicy heat of the chiles made the sausage balls too soft and we ended up with what we called “Happy Accident Hash.”

Happy Accident Hash served with veggies and refried beans
Happy Accident Hash served with veggies and refried beans

I think I’ll make that again because it turned out to be delicious! Usually, I make meatballs with just plain ground venison mixed with egg, parsley and breadcrumbs, which are then browned before cooking through in homemade tomato sauce. To depart from that regular recipe, I recently opted to brown the ground meat in a pan where I had first sautéed eggplant. While letting the eggplant and meat drain on paper towels, I then cooked canned tomatoes in the pan and brought everything together to serve over spaghetti with freshly grated cheese. Here is a third and very simple example of a venison meal that came together very easily with the following steps:

  • Defrost venison steak
  • Prepare macaroni and cheese casserole with canned veggies
  • Chop and sauté red cabbage
These notes were taken from an old copy at my grandmother's home back in the '90s
This recipe from Southern Living was jotted down from an old copy at my grandmother’s home back in the ’90s.

My boyfriend seasoned the meat with sesame oil, salt and pepper. I had made a standby cheese casserole from an old Southern Living recipe (it’s called Jack in the Macaroni Bake from 1994, which I have hand-written out but cannot find online) and also sautéed the chopped cabbage in sesame oil.

Venison steaks with red cabbage and mac-n-cheese
Venison steaks with red cabbage and mac-n-cheese

I finished off the cabbage with liberal splashes of malt vinegar. Next thing you know, we were enjoying delicious steaks, veggies and comfort food casserole. I cannot think of an easier way to cook meat and the most satisfying thing is knowing where it came from. This is the beauty of field to table cooking.

 

Cheers, The Sage Leopard

Plan Your Life to Enjoy It

You only get one life, so don’t let it get away from you. There is that old cliché that life happens while you are making other plans, but I truly believe you need to plan your life. After all, when things happen, you still get to do more with your life if you plan a good amount of it. And those are the things you get to choose.

Kayaking is one of my favorite activities
Kayaking is one of my favorite activities

Think about it: I bet you have a business plan where you work, a retirement plan (or plans for a retirement plan), vacation plans and plans to spend the holidays with family. You probably have a shopping list and a to-do list. A meal plan, perhaps? A workout plan. Maybe you are really on the ball and planned a garden. You catch my drift. What are your plans this week? I don’t mean where you need to be at what time for some event or obligation. What are you planning for at home to enjoy yourself? Have you ever scheduled a break for yourself? Say, 8:00-9:00 p.m. Tuesday ______ fill in the blank.

Baking is as much fun as a party to me
Baking is as much fun as a party to me

Read magazines, do yoga/meditate, scroll through Pinterest, listen to music, etc. I’m serious. How many weeknights get filled with mindless TV watching? Want to take your dog to a state park but never do? Plan it. Put it on the calendar and then do it. If something comes up for that day, remember you already have plans with your dog.

One of our dogs really loves road trips so we take him on vacation when we can
One of our dogs really loves road trips so we take him on vacation when we can

Been wanting to do a girls night out, maybe one of those wine and painting shindigs? Well, pick a date, book a reservation and send out some invitations. Use Hobnob or another easy invitations by text apps. What else should you be planning? Maybe a relationship? In scuba diving, there is a simple practice for safety: plan your dive and dive the plan. This way you and your dive buddy are operating on the same page. With this basis, you can easily stick together and feel comfortable as the dive progresses.

Divers have a plan before they enter the water
Divers have a plan before they enter the water

If a need arises for a change in plan, you might just more easily communicate each other because you entered the water confidently with an understanding. It’s probably a good idea in everyday living within a relationship to run status checks on the relationship plan. What is the plan? A good relationship doesn’t run on autopilot. How do you frame out what you want so your life doesn’t run on autopilot? I like the structure of lists and calendars. I love the Evernote app and how I can access it easily by phone or laptop. I’m also low tech and use chalkboards and graph paper to plot out my plans, both business and personal. I’m thinking about making a dreamboard, but in the meantime using Evernote for a virtual dreamboard to pin images and write notes for big and little ideas.

Seeing the world with fresh eyes each time I clip in on my road bike
Seeing the world with fresh eyes each time I clip in on my road bike

I need to find a quiet space, with no TV blaring or appliances running, and open that dreamboard. There I can decide what should be in my life and what I can delete. Go ahead and plan your life to know you are doing what you really want and not letting life just happen. Often, just the process of focusing on things you love feels great! Just closing my eyes to let my mind’s eye wander to those places is enjoyable. For me its being outdoors – on a kayak, in the garden, walking the dog, riding my bike, sitting on a beach, cooking dinner, baking something for a party or drinking coffee before dawn while listening to mockingbirds. Sometimes when life is passing by, it is a good idea to build these things we love back into our schedules. This is what I mean with the Sage Leopard motto of Reclaim Your Quality Time, Craft Your Own Happiness.

My dog did not much care for his travel crate
My dog did not much care for his travel crate

Cheers,

The Sage Leopard