Tater. Tot. Pizza: Pretty Much As Good As It Gets

We ate this all, and could’ve had another.

This is how relationships go.

You spend the first little while – six months, maybe – trying to be impressive as hell, your sparklingly best version of yourself. Even if you are a real, down-to-earth, no artifice kind of person, this is just how humans roll. We want to be loved and accepted for who we are, but it’s much easier to reveal the best parts first, the parts that are easy to love.

You and your new particular friend may do new and interesting things.

Maybe you try exciting new hobbies or go on long walks or eat at interesting places you have always wanted to try. Maybe you sit through the boring lecture or sporting event because it lights them up. Maybe they do the same for you.

Whatever happens, you don’t fart out loud, and if you fart at all you keep a dog handy.

#KeepinItReal

And then, somewhere around the six month or one-year mark, things begin to shift.

Contrary to popular cultural belief, this is where things start to get good.

Because it’s not the new adventures and the new food and the no-farting that make human relationships deep and wonderful (although all of those things definitely enhance life together).

It’s that part where you can exist in a space with another human and just be 100% who you are, the best and worst parts of yourself all at once without any effort or any need to go or do or be anything.

It’s when you allow yourself to relax enough to read at opposite ends of the couch together, and that’s the night without guilt or remorse or a shred of FOMO, even on Fridays and Saturdays where you start to feel hella old if you are in jammies by 9 but are secretly proud you made it even that late because you really wanted to put jammies back on around 5.

It’s sitting on the back porch in unseasonably warm weather, watching the earth spin as a planet moves across the sky. And that’s it.

It’s all of those nights where there is no pressure, no plan, a weekend off from running from thing to thing, a night in after being pulled in a million different directions, dealing with the slings and arrows of this mortal coil.

Maybe not every night. You don’t want things to get boring.

But just enough nights so that you can see how spending more time with your particular friend might just unwind into a whole new lifetime of love and adventure, even on nights when there is not much happening.

And this realization needs an appropriate snack: tater tot pizza.

You heard me: Tater. Motherfucking. Tot. Pizza.

I am not scared of salty language, but I will tell you that I am holding myself back from unleashing a torrent of curse words.

It’s just that fucking good.

Seriously. Tater tots + pizza sauce + cheese = perfection. Sheer, utter perfection.

This Saturday night, after a long walk and some bad news about a car (not mine, but still), this is the kind of easy, early night in food we needed.

Full disclosure: we ate the entire cast iron pan full of it. Zero scraps left.

And even more full disclosure: I won’t say this recipe is perfected as a pizza.

In fact, it’s still just a little bit messy and not quite the same all three times we have made it. The tots aren’t quite accepting of their role as a crust, and sometimes when you can’t wait for it to cool it ends up looking nothing like pizza and more like a bowl of deliciously crispy bits of potatoes slathered in tomato sauce and dripping with fresh mozzarella.

It’s kind of like how real life is with a new person after the new starts to wear off, just a bit if you’re lucky: comforting and warm, infinitely adaptable, and pretty good no matter how things turn out.

Tater Tot Pizza

Ingredients

One bag of tots

One jar of pizza sauce

8 ounces of fresh mozzarella

Whateverthefuck you like, toppings-wise

Method

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. You can use a cast iron skillet, a pizza stone, or a baking sheet – stick that in the oven while it’s preheating.

Meanwhile, shred your cheese and get your toppings ready. No rush, and you’ll see why.

When the oven is hot, take out whatever you are heating (it will cool a little; that’s okay) and dump about 1/2 a bag of tots to cover the bottom. Get fancy, or don’t, but make one even layer. If you are using a pizza stone, allow a two-inch gap between tots and the edge of the stone.

Pop back in the oven and cook for about 10 minutes.

Pull the pan out and smash the tots into an even layer that climbs a bit up the sides of the pan or reaches out to the edge of the pizza stone.

Place back in the oven and cook until the tots are done and crispy on the top and sides.

When Khristian makes it on a pizza stone, he uses the edge of a spatula to press the tots towards the center, forming a sauce-containing structure.

Add your toppings, and put back in the oven until the cheese is bubbly and brown and delicious-looking.

Here’s the dumb part: after you take your pizza out of the oven you have to wait for at least ten minutes, probably more like 20.

It SUCKS. Truly.  I am one of the least patient people, especially when it comes to tater tots and/or pizza.

However, waiting allows everything to firm up a bit and allows you at least the chance of picking this up like a pizza.

For me, I don’t give a crap if it looks like a pizza or not. At this point, I will put it in a bowl and be perfectly happy. When Khristian made it last night, though, it was more pizza-like than any of my creations, and he cooked for me, which made it taste EVEN BETTER.

However it turns out, it’s pretty much the most delicious thing ever.

Recipe Notes

  • Tater tot “crowns” by Ore Ida may work better for a pizza stone (no rolling), and all Ore Ida fries are gluten-free.
  • Why they give you two full cups of pizza sauce when you only need less than 1/4 cup for most pizza-making endeavors is beyond me. I portion the leftover out into 1/4-cup servings in ziplocs and freeze them flat until I need them.

 

 

 

Making Dinner Work: Harissa Spiced Pork Shoulder

Get up. Pee. Brush teeth. Drink water, take supplements.

Go downstairs. Start coffee. Let dogs out. Let cat in. Sip coffee. Let dogs in. Feed dogs. Sit down to the computer.

Sip coffee. Check email. Sip coffee. Check work email. Sip coffee. Visit The Facebook. Make more coffee. Get down to writing/recipe research/yoga class design/etc.

It takes a lot to get us out of our routines. From dogs to children to adults, we are all of us creatures of habit. When I was a horse owner, even the horses knew what to do and when; it got so that I didn’t have to put halters on to move them from pasture to pasture, and they stood in the same spot every day for dinner.

The dog knows when it is 5 p.m. just as if he had a watch strapped to his wrist. And could tell time. And had any understanding of the concept of “time.”

But I digress.

Routines provide a sense of structure that can be comforting and predictable. “Predictable” is often used as an epithet, but predictability is what our lives are based on. This keeps the trains running and makes sure that the grocery store has enough toilet paper on any given day (or your own personal bathroom at home, which is why most people in the U.S. go shopping every week).

Sometimes, though, routines call to be busted up. Routine-busting can be because you are compelled to do something differently because whatever is going on forces you to make a change.

And you know it’s bad if an introvert comes off the couch. #HearMeRoar

If something is gone awry, it might be because whatever routine we have fallen into no longer works, or our routine is suddenly disrupted. We might call it something else, but it’s that transition period between the old and the new – not the the old or the new itself – that causes us such turmoil. Once that period of transition is over, we fall into a new routine until the next thing happens.

This transition is both full of promise and scary as hell, simultaneously. Parents know that the first night with a new baby is joyful and nerve-wracking. Travelers know that coming into a new country for the first time is anxiety-producing and thrilling, often in equal measure.

On a daily, more microcosmic level, this idea of routine versus no routine (or a shook-up routine) is the difference between cooking and making dinner.

Making dinner is that thing that happens between 5 and 7 p.m. every night where you have the gaping maws of your family staring at you, opening and closing like baby birds who have forgotten that they possess opposable thumbs and can get their own damn snack before dinner.

Making dinner is why there is food in boxes that you add milk and butter to in order to get something resembling macaroni and cheese. It’s why there are rotisserie chicken soldiers, hot and ready, when you walk into the store at 5 pm, desperate because it’s Monday and you know everybody at home is hangry and you just need to shove something in their face so there is no arguing.

Cooking is something altogether different.

Cooking is wandering through the farmer’s market and seeing what looks good.

Cooking shops for each meal separately, not all at once, once a week.

Cooking has a sip of wine and is often alone with music playing and maybe a snoring dog (because it’s not necessarily 5 pm yet so the dog isn’t drooling and staring at you).

This recipe is in between making dinner and cooking. There is some leisure to it, but it doesn’t actually require much hands-on attention. There is only one ingredient in this that might require a leisurely trip to a store, but everything else can be thrown into the cart with all of the other groceries.

Leftovers are just as good as the day before and so make excellent brown-bag lunches that will make all of your co-workers drool. I imagine you could also make a ridiculous sandwich with this on some crusty bread with arugula.

Harissa And Orange Spiced Pork Shoulder

Just the delicious beginning.

Full disclosure: as much as I would like to say it’s mine, this idea is taken from another recipe and adapted with amounts added. The other recipe is a video and doesn’t really specify anything but cooking times, so I made some adjustments to that and also the ingredients based on what was available.

Ingredients

4-5 pounds pork shoulder

1/2 cup Mina harissa sauce (or 2 tablespoons harissa paste)

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon agave, maple syrup, or honey

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 cups orange juice

6-8 sprigs fresh thyme

1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Optional: lime wedges and fresh flat-leaf parsley, rough chopped

Method

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Combine harissa, tomato paste, vinegar, agave, and garlic in a small bowl. Season pork shoulder with salt and pepper, then rub the harissa mixture all over the pork shoulder (hands work best here). At this point, you could let the pork shoulder sit for a few hours (or overnight), or you can proceed.

Place pork shoulder fat-side-up in a Dutch oven or similar oven-safe, heavy cooking pan with a lid. Pour orange juice around the pork shoulder and throw in the thyme.

Cover pork shoulder and let it roast, covered, for 2 1/2 hours (or so).

Increase heat to 400 degrees and add cannellini beans to the pot. Cover and return to the oven for another 45 minutes to an hour.

When ready to serve, remove pork shoulder and slice. Return pork shoulder to the pot, or arrange on a platter and serve with sauce poured over.

If desired, squeeze fresh lime over the pork shoulder and garnish with fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley.

 

Connection Of The Day: Fried Macaroni And Cheese. And Crows.

Balls.

This past holiday was a strange one, on many different levels.

As noted in previous posts, I continue to see people struggling with mixed emotions and difficult feelings this year. I spent the holiday away from my child, which was the first time ever and proved to be more challenging than I thought it would be.

Fortunately, there was Khristian and his family.

I have hesitated, cursor blinking, at the period of that last sentence for ten minutes, unsure how to write the next one.

Khristian and I have some very eerie connections that have unfolded over this past year, but this holiday brought one that was deeper than others.

We have each lived in the same place, although at different times.

We both have moms with male nicknames – Khristian’s mom is Hank, and my mom is Mike (only my dad and my parents’ close friend Ben called her that).

But perhaps the strangest connection of all is between our fathers, both deceased, and both of cancer.

When I was little, my dad was minorly obsessed with crows. I remember very clearly chirping black crow babies in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, rescued by my dad (and I think nursed back to health, but this could just be the blurring of childhood memories).

One of my fondest memories from childhood involved my dad and a moonlit field full of crows. It’s a very long story, but suffice it to say that he and I walked home from a basketball game on a winter night when I was in sixth grade, five or so miles; the end of our journey took us across a harvested field of corn, severed stalks frozen and brittle beneath our feet. The sky was clear and cold and the moon was high, almost like daylight, and as we walked a murder of crows took flight, just a small one, strays, really, their voices echoing across the utterly silent field.

Magic.

Thirty years later, I walked into Khristian’s mom’s house over Christmas and ran smack into a painting of crows that I had seen first in 2012 at my friend Mandy’s house in Marietta, Georgia.

Mandy’s painting struck me from the moment I saw it, so much so that I took a picture of the crow, thinking I would get a tattoo.

Irony in acrylic.

Turns out, Khristian’s dad painted that painting and all of the ones that I saw this past Christmas (under the name “Abigail Christmas,” of all things).

With his left hand (as a right-handed person).

And was utterly obsessed by crows.

I believe Khristian’s dad and I would have gotten along swimmingly, and I am sorry that I didn’t get to meet him before he died (well before me, but still).

But the connection is undeniable and surreal (the word of the year, also on many different levels); in many ways, and tragically in the end, it seems as if Khristian and I have travelled across our own frozen, moonlit fields towards each other.

Although our connection seems to have been written before we met, the same cannot necessarily be said of our respective children. It’s difficult to be a step-parent (of a type) when you never thought you’d be one.

Nevermind that our kids are both great and have (for the most part) been very welcoming and warm. They never expected to be step-children either, and Khristian and I are both very aware (overly aware?) of the impact on them.

As my child is overseas, way very so far away, I spent 20 hours of my holiday driving to and from Georgia with Khristian and his child, D. Roadtrips are a true litmus test of any relationship, and this holds for those new relationships forged with children, too.

Sparing you the details, I will say it was largely successful with the exception of one shitty nap where someone (me) woke up grumpy, and a dearth of true roadtrip snacks. As this was Khristian’s family and thus his roadtrip, I left the organizing to him. This means that our roadtrip snacks consisted of a couple bananas, an apple, and a snack bag of leftover macaroni and cheese. This last was problematic because utensils were not to be found in the rental car; out of desperation, boredom, and hunger, D ended up squeezing the mac and cheese out of a tiny hole in the plastic bag.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have mac and cheese on the road?

Fried Macaroni And Cheese

Note: The velvety base of this macaroni and cheese is one of the French mother sauces: béchamel. Béchamel is a mild white sauce often used as a base for other flavors; here I have added cheese, making a rich, creamy, and deliciously, deeply flavored sauce. Pop in your macaroni, and you are done!

These are portable as hell and totally awful for you. Perfect for a roadtrip.

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons gluten-free all-purpose flour (or regular)

2 cups whole milk, warmed

1 cup grated cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

3 cups gluten-free macaroni, cooked (or regular macaroni)

1/2 cup gluten-free breadcrumbs seasoned with 1/4 teaspoon paprika, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, 1/2 teaspoon dried parsley, and a pinch of cayenne

Oil for cooking

Method

Prepare macaroni noodles according to package directions; rinse with cold water and set aside.

Make the béchamel: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter until it is bubbly but not brown. Add your flour and cook until it begins to smell slightly nutty and to faintly color (not too dark – it’s a white sauce). Using a whisk, add warmed milk and whisk until there are no lumps.

Continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce begins to boil. Turn heat down slightly and cook for two minutes more.

Remove from heat and add cheese. Stir until completely melted, then taste before adding salt and pepper (cheese varies in saltiness, so don’t salt until the very end).

Add cheese sauce to cooked pasta and stir.

Place in ‘fridge until completely cooled.

Season breadcrumbs and place them in a shallow dish (a pie pan works here).

Remove macaroni from the ‘fridge. Using an ice cream scoop (or your bare hands, you beast!), form mac-n-cheese into 12 balls. Roll each ball in breadcrumbs, pressing the breadcrumbs firmly into the pasta. Place in the ‘fridge while your oil heats.

Pour about two inches of oil in a large pot. Bring oil to 350 degrees. Carefully drop macaroni balls into the hot oil and cook for about two minutes until the outside is brown and crispy.

Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Serve warm. Prepare not to do much for about an hour after you eat them.

Recipe notes

  • I used Colby-jack cheese for its creamy texture, but cheddar, fontina, and gouda are all good options.
  • The gluten-free pasta I prefer is Tinkyada brown rice pasta. No soy, no corn; it acts very much like gluten-y pasta. I cooked it slightly less than the package directions to account for the bit of cooking that occurs when it is fried.
  • Don’t buy expensive gluten-free breadcrumbs: make your own. For 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs, I toasted four slices of gluten-free bread in the oven and then let dry completely before placing them in a sealed Ziploc and bashing them with a rolling pin and seasoning them. #Boom
  • If I am being honest, which I always try to be, this is a completely decadent, totally unrealistic regular meal. This recipe is why Americans have high rates of cardiovascular disease. But the mac and cheese itself is delicious; when not travelling, I favor a big plate of this and some peas.

 

 

 

 

Gratitude, Day 23: Walter’s Mother’s Gremolata

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

A ray of sunshine.
A ray of sunshine.

Today is the day before my daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s birthday.

I know. It’s weird.

But I really liked this kid. Smart, polite, funny, clever, and a caring human and good boyfriend.

Tomorrow is Walter’s birthday, and I still think about him.

I know. That’s weird, too.

Why they broke up is none of my business, but what is my business is the fact that just three days before things ended we all went over to Walter’s parents house (me, Sicily, and Sicily’s godparents, Mark and Kerry, and their two boys) and had dinner.

And I LOVED Walter’s family.

Funny, kind, liberal, warm, welcoming, open, honest. All of them from both kids to the parents and all the way back again.

I am not the most social of people, but Walter’s family went out of their way to make me feel comfortable, or at least that’s what it felt like, which is what good hosts do.

Walter’s mom, Susan, made me feel immediately at home as I walked in with my salted caramel cheesecake pie. I told her that I break the cardinal rule of potlucks every time, which is don’t make something for the first time for a potluck, and the cheesecake pie was no exception.

“Oh,” she said, “I did the exact same thing and always do.”

#KindredSoul

After the kids broke up, Susan and I emailed a couple times, hoping to get together, but nothing came of it, and maybe that’s as it should be (or maybe not. I am still hopeful).

I did come away with the recipe for the gremolata she served on the steak that night, and I have made it several times since that dinner.

Today I am thankful for that Walter’s mother’s gremolata.

I miss Walter and his family, but we’ll always have the gremolata.

Walter’s Mother’s Gremolata

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups packed mint leaves (I used half mint, half parsley)

1/2 cup shelled, roasted pistachios

2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 cloves)

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Method

Place all ingredients in a food processor and pulse to chop. You are looking for a pesto-like consistency, not a paste, so don’t overblend.

Serve on meat, chicken, crackers, toast, whatever. It’s fucking delicious.

What are you grateful for?

(image source)

Gratitude, Day 4: Lettuce Soup, Or How I Realized I Was Rich

NOTE: I am a fan of 30-day challenges, and November is traditionally a time of two: National Novel Writing Month, and 30 Days of Thanks. As I am not a fiction writer, this year I have chosen to publish a daily blog for the entire month, expressing my gratitude. This may not be entirely food-focused, but expect recipes aplenty. Feel free to join me in the comments below. What are you thankful for today?

Luxurious abundance.
Luxurious abundance.

In 1996 when I moved to Seattle, I rolled into town with just $200 in cash (and no credit to speak of, plus one black cat and a car of dubious quality). Even back in 1996, before the construction boom that is currently overtaking the Pacific Northwest, this small change didn’t get me very far. I slept on the floor of a friend’s cousin’s house for a couple weeks, then moved quickly onto another floor of a stranger’s house in West Seattle after the cousin began to hit on me.

At that time, I had just a college degree, no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and about $75 left, so I applied at a local temp agency and quickly found work that paid every Friday.

Temp work was steady but didn’t pay well, and the end of the week often found me short of cash and hungry. Too proud at that point to apply for any kind of financial assistance from my new city, I solved the problem with what I had at hand: coffee.

Every morning I would drink a fortifying cup of coffee for the commute to work, then continue to drink copious amounts of coffee throughout the day, lightened with a considerable amount of milk and sugar. This got me through the day without lunch (except for the days when someone would bring in doughnuts or bagels), saved tons of money, and allowed me to pay my bills without applying for any kind of financial assistance (from the state or from my parents).

These days, I can still stretch a dollar until it screams, but as I look back on that time I realize how rich I actually was. I was educated and had a job and a safe place to sleep at night. These days in Baltimore, 20% of Baltimore’s children face food insecurity in that they have no idea where their next meal is coming from. They may not have a safe place to sleep, and their parents may not have the educational resources (or, let’s be real, the skin color) to easily secure even a temporary job.

A couple months ago, I learned about a local organization that helps remediate food insecurity and works to alleviate food deserts: Gather Baltimore. This organization uses volunteer labor in the fields and on the street to gather food that would otherwise rot or be thrown out. The food is sorted (with decomposing or inedible food going to compost) and packed into big blue Ikea bags to be sold for $7 to anyone who wants one.

These bags generally contain between 30 and 40 pounds of produce and are designed to feed a family of four for one week. Bags also often contain bread, crackers, and occasionally, chips.

While this amount of food can be a lifesaver, one considerable issue can arise: what do you do with ten pounds of lettuce? Or five pounds of jalapeños? Or that crazy, lumpy brown thing that you know is a vegetable but you have no idea how to actually cook it?

For people who lack basic cooking skills or too many extra ingredients, this can be a considerable challenge. I have used the Gather bag to make some delicious things I would not have otherwise made, including a spicy corn relish that I could eat my bodyweight in.

The lettuce thing actually happened once when I got a bag that  contained not only two heads of butter lettuce but also a two-pound bag of shredded iceberg lettuce. From this, lettuce soup was born. Overall, this entire recipe cost me about $2, as I made the vegetable stock from peelings and vegetables from the previous Gather bag, and the spices were purchased from the bulk section at MOM’s in Hampden for less than a quarter.

It may sound crazy, but lettuce soup has French roots and is often a light course in a sumptuous French meal. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped (at least one cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander
½ teaspoon allspice
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
5 cups vegetable stock
8 cups of lettuce, any kind, but tender-leafed lettuce (e.g. butter lettuce) works best
4 tablespoons of butter
Optional garnish: Greek yogurt or sour cream, chopped cashews, mild white cheese

Method

Heat two tablespoons of butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and cook for two minutes, then add garlic and cook for one minute more.

Season with salt and pepper, then add coriander and allspice and cook for one minute more.

Add potato, lettuce, and stock. Bring to a low boil, then turn heat down and simmer. Cook until potato is tender.

Puree the soup in one of two ways:

1. Working in batches, use a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.

2. Use a handheld immersion blender and puree in the pot.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve with optional garnish.

Image source.