Summertime Liver and Onions and Veggies

So, I love liver. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always loved liver. In fact, as time passes and I try more foods, I’ve come to discover that I am particularly fond of organ meat in general.

This fact has come in handy as I continue to live and eat Paleo on a regular basis: because many people find organ meats off-putting, they tend to be more affordable than your average cut of grass-fed meat. Now, in the interest of honesty, I will admit that I do not eat grass-fed, organic meat all of the time– I am about to start grad school (yaay!) and I’m not independently wealthy, which means I do the best I can. But the fact that I enjoy offal makes it possible for me to eat grass-fed and organic meat way more often than would otherwise be true.

I have become particularly fond of the meat from Happy Hooves Organic Farm. They have a booth at the Brighton Farmers’ Market, one of my favorite markets here in the greater Rochester area. Throughout the course of the summer, I have gotten delicious tongue, heart, and liver from them, and am eager to try more of their wide selection of ethically-raised options. All their animals are raised “in the fresh air and sunshine” with a soy-free and grain-free diet. If you are in the area, I highly recommend checking them out!

If you or any of your friends and loved ones are skeptical about liver, I hope this recipe will change your mind. It is overflowing with fresh summer flavors, and is sure to be a hit with one and all.

And, with no further ado…

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Summertime Liver and Onions

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  • Summertime Liver and Onions3-4 T refined coconut oil
  • 2 onions, thinly sliced
  • 8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and thickly sliced
  • 2 bell peppers (I used one yellow and one red), julienne cut
  • 3 summer squash (I used 2 yellow and one green), cut into strips approximately 3” long and ½” by ½” thick
  • 1 T chopped fresh dill (if you must use dried, use 1 t)
  • 1 or 2 t chopped fresh oregano (1/2 t dried)
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil (1 t dried)
  • 1 beef liver, cut into strips
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  1. Heat the coconut oil in a thick-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes while the onions sweat. Turn the heat down to low and cook until caramelized, about 45 minutes. While the onions are caramelizing, only stir them every 5-10 minutes. They are done when they have reduced significantly in volume and are golden-brown colored and sweet to taste.
  2. Turn the heat up to medium and add the mushrooms. Sauté the mushrooms until all of the moisture that they release has evaporated.
  3. Add the bell peppers and sauté a few more minutes before adding the squash and fresh herbs. Sauté all the veggies together for 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the liver, sea salt, and black pepper. Cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so.
  5. Remove from heat and adjust seasonings to taste.

Kalamata Olive and Asiago Crostini

These were the other canapes I made for my birthday get-together.

There’s not really much to say about these delightful treats, except that they are delicious and ridiculously easy to make.

One thing: there is an easy way to skin and seed a tomato. Simply immerse it in boiling water for approximately one minute, then place it in a bowl of ice water. This will cause the skin to pucker so that it peels off easily. The tomato can then be cut in half, and the seeds easily removed with your fingers. It feels gross and squishy and cool.

If you are vegan, just omit the asiago: there’s so much flavor to these little goodies that they will still be wonderful. If you eat dairy, but can’t eat aged cheeses, just substitute crumbled, un-aged feta or goat cheese.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Kalamata Olive and Asiago Crostini

  • 1/2 loaf French bread, sliced 1/4″ thick
  • 50 fresh basil leaves, chopped
  • 1 large tomato, skinned, seeded and chopped finely
  • 1 T finely chopped garlic, or to taste
  • 15 Kalamata olives,pitted and chopped
  • 2-3 oz. grated asiago (or fresh goat cheese, or omit)
  1. If the bread is not pre-sliced, slice it to 1/4″ thick.
  2. Combine the remaining ingredients and mix well.
  3. Spread 1/2 T of the mixture on each slice of bread. Place under the broiler (on a broiler pan that has been lightly coated with olive oil) until hot and the cheese is melted, approximately 2 minutes.
  4. Garnish with fresh basil leaves or a few pieces of asiago, if  desired.

Just Tea.

As I told you in an earlier post, I lived at a Zen Center for a good while. During that time, I drank a lot of tea. A lot of it. And, since I worked in the kitchen, I made a lot of tea. Usually a total of one to two gallons a day: more during meditation retreats.

Just tea. Simple, unadorned, unsweetened, unflavored tea. And I hope it doesn’t sound wishy-washy when I say that I learned a lot about how to approach life from tea.

Tea is attention. It is not through the ingredients– water and tea leaves– that tea is made, but by the careful attention to details and awareness of responding at the right moment of the tea-maker. The tea will reflect the mind of the maker: if the tea-maker is worried and agitated, it will be weak; if they are distracted and absent, it will be bitter; if they are present, it will be refreshing and light.

Okakura Kakuzo wrote in The Book of Tea that “The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe.”

Many of my friends and family members how much I love tea, and how much I value the process of tea-making. There is no condition of the bodymind that can’t be brought into greater equilibrium with a good cup of tea. I honestly believe that.

And so it was with great delight that I unwrapped an early birthday present for my upcoming 30th birthday: a beautiful teapot, with two cups reminiscent of the cups the Zen Center uses during meditation retreats. I cried a few tears of loving gratitude when I opened it, and I’m not too proud to say so.

As a result, I have been making a lot of tea today. A lot. And it occurred to me that a post on “Just Tea” would be well-advised.

One of the most important variables in the making of the perfect cup of tea is the temperature of the water. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo describes the three stages of boiling: “the first boil is when the little bubbles, like the eyes of fishes, swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.”

As poetic and accurate as those descriptions are, I decided it might not be a bad idea to post images of each of the three boils: keep in mind that is is impossible to actually capture the movement of water in a still photograph, but with close attention to the water as it reaches a simmer will help you catch it at just the right moment. Trust yourself, and learn from the results you get: if your tea is weak, you stopped the water too soon, but if it is bitter, you let the water get too hot.

First boil: see how the bubbles look kinda like fish eyes around the edges?
Second boil
Third boil: see how the steam billows wildly in the kettle?

For green and oolong teas, only bring the water to first boil; for black and herbal teas, bring the water to second boil. Third boil is too hot for the tender tea leaves.

For the best tea, do not let the water come to a full boil, and then cool down until it is at the right boil level. This will deplete the water, and the tea will not feel as smooth and soft on the tongue.

It also is important to use loose-leaf tea, rather than bagged. Allow the leaves room to unfurl, just loose in the pot, then strain the tea into cups.

It is preferable to use well-filtered water. Do what you can on this, without going so far as to buy disposable containers full of water. I strongly suggest getting a good filter on your kitchen faucet, but if the cost is prohibitive, just do what you can with a less-expensive water filtration pitcher.

For 4-6 cups of water, use one heaping tablespoon of loose tea leaves; for 8-12 cups, use two heaping tablespoons.

Green teas should steep 3 1/2 minutes for optimal flavor. Oolong teas should steep around 4 minutes, black teas for 4 1/2, and herbal teas for      4 1/2-5 minutes. Matcha teas only need 30 seconds to 1 1/2 minutes. Understeeping will result in a flavorless tea, while oversteeping will lead to a bitter tea that leaves the tongue and mouth feeling dry, instead of refreshed.

As you can now see, so much comes down to full attention to each moment, and an intimate understanding of the tea you are using.

I encourage you all to take up tea-making. Developing the skill of brewing the perfect cup of tea will not only benefit you with the delicious, invigorating refreshment of a steaming cup of peace, but it will also (potentially) develop a greater sense of attentiveness and sensitivity in how you see the world.

Think it’s hyperbole? Try it out. Make some tea every day for a week or two, then try to tell me you don’t feel a bit better.

Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

So, I don’t really know anything about the demographics of the writers of other food blogs, but I’m guessing I fall somewhat outside of the norm. This probably true even if we do ignore, for the moment, the obvious traits that distinguish me from the average person in nearly any environment– you know, the 2nd-generation-Caucasian-American-Buddhist thing and the whole pesky queer-person-with-a-gender-outside-the-binary thing.

You see, being a foodie typically requires a budget that allows for extravagances and the time to dedicate to preparing beautiful recipes that are more “created” than they are “cooked.”

Yeah, right. I wish I could do that, and nothing else. However, it is good for you, kind reader, that I can’t, because it means that the recipes that I am posting on this blog are, more often than not, simple enough to make amidst the cold, cruel realities of modern life. Yaaaaaay.

I work two jobs: one full time, one part time. I don’t do this solely for the joy of being of service to the world: I actually really need the money from both jobs. My boo and I have to do grown-up things like budgeting our money and simplifying expenditures. I’d love to dine on truffle mushrooms and crème fraiche, but the reality is that the pragmatics of the Working Trannies’ life make that pretty much impossible.

Sometimes, I get sleepy, and achy, and grumpy, and whiny, and don’t feel like making dinner at all. But when you combine the pressure of Lee’s first year of law school with the fact that I enjoy cooking, well, you get a situation that involves me cooking a lot.

Sure, we could just go out to eat. However, there are two major downsides to eating out on a regular basis: the first is that it gets really expensive really fast.

Furthermore, when you eat out, the truth is that you don’t really know what you’re eating. Chances are you didn’t research the restaurant’s suppliers, and you are probably eating produce from another continent that been sprayed in chemicals and trucked across the nation, deprived of sunlight, and lacking about half of the flavor and nutrients that it once had. Add to that the fact that you have no proof whether or not one of the kitchen employees decided to save a little time by cutting out that pesky “wash-and-rinse-the-produce” step, and who knows anymore whether the benefits of eating that meal really outweigh the costs.

So I do what I can to feed us well. Every once in a while, on a weekend when I don’t have to work, I’ll gild the lily and really go all-out on a meal. The rest of the time, I just want to make something that’s affordable, nutritious, and home-made in whatever time I have available.Of course, the fact that I love to cook does make me willing to spend more time at it than some people would, but the fact remains that I have limited time to work with when it comes to cooking, especially if I want to have dinner ready before midnight (which I usually do).

One important disclaimer: when I think about how healthy a food is or is not, there are some criteria that I consider more personally important than other criteria. I am not terribly worried about low-fat, low-calorie considerations. In fact, I think that the cultural obsession with low-fat and low-calorie diets has resulted in so many people eating pre-prepared, chemically altered, packaged “foods” that have been designed not by nature, but by a lab. Nitrates, nitrites and sulfates abound. Partially hydrogenated substances that are the biological equivalent of pouring sand into a watch are guzzled down gullets with enthusiasm. People no longer know how their food was grown, whether it is in season, where it came from, or what’s in it.

If you do choose to substitute one of the ingredients in my recipe for a more low-fat or vegan alternative, well, do what you have to do. But I would suggest making sure that you educate yourself as to the exact ingredients of what you’re adding, and consider where the ingredients were produced.

I am going to reiterate something I wrote in an earlier post: “The energy we take into our body has a direct, undeniable connection to the energy we have to use in the world, and it is my hope that the forward-thinking revolutionary queers will all be filled with the best possible fuel for changing the world.” It would be very sad if our culture and our community lost their connection to our sources of life-sustaining energy. Don’t let that happen to you. 

What I do consider when making meals that will nourish is whether or not the food is in season, whether or not it is growing locally, and whether or not the foods that I am going to prepare create a well-balanced meal.

Some tips for this recipe: don’t overcook the pasta. Given the baking time that happens after you cook the noodles, make sure they are al-dente, or even a little shy of al-dente. Unless you want to eat cheesy mush. Which just isn’t as good as cheesy pasta.

Change the vegetables that you put in it based upon what is fresh where you live. Right now, Lee and I still have tomatoes growing in our backyard, which is nice. Once tomatoes go out of season, they go out of the recipe. It’s just that simple. Winter tomatoes are gross, while imported tomatoes are grown in an unappetizing pesticide marinade. Blech. There are many things I enjoy putting in my mouth: crunchy tomatoes and pesticides are not among them.

Use whatever shape and size of pasta you want, other than lasagne noodles and manicotti shells, which just wouldn’t work for this recipe (but will be used in future recipes, I promise!). Just make sure you don’t overcook them.

If you want to add some fresh herbs, I suggest tarragon, basil, or dill, approximately 2 T (chopped coarsely) per batch. But don’t feel obligated. Sometimes just a simple mac-and-cheese is all that is called for, without pretension or adornment.

With that said, what follows is a delicious, economical dish that is simple and quick to make. It is not low-fat. And yet, it is still nourishing. Enjoy.

Adapted from my grandmother’s recipe.

 Veggie-ful Rotini-and-Cheese

  • 1 pound rainbow rotini (or other pasta), cooked just short of al-dente
  • 1 pound sharp cheese, shredded (the tried-and-true standard is sharp cheddar, but feel free to experiment with other cheeses, or to substitute 6 oz. goat cheese for some of the shredded cheese)
  • 2 1/2 cups light cream or whole milk
  • 3-4 T unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 8 oz. baby ‘bella mushrooms, chopped coarsely and sauteed
  • 6 oz. baby spinach, chopped coarsely and sauteed just until it is soft and dark green
  • 2 plum tomatoes or 1 heritage tomato, sliced very thinly
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Put the cheese, cream or milk, and flour in a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan. Melt over low heat, stirring constantly, until the cheese is melted and the mixture is hot. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Stir in the mushrooms, spinach and tomatoes.
  3. Mix the sauce into the pasta until it is evenly distributed. 
  4. Pour the pasta into a large baking dish or two medium baking dishes. 
  5. Bake in the preheated oven 25-30 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and slightly crunchy and the sauce is bubbling happily. 
  6. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving. 

Eggplant, Smoked Mozzarella and Basil Rolls

So, the first time I made these, I sliced the eggplant and tomatoes too thick, and I ended up with blobs of what was basically Italian baba ganoush. It was very yummy, but not exactly what I was hoping for aesthetically. The second batch turned out much better.

The moral of the story is: size matters, but not always in the same way. Don’t get over-enthusiastic: make your  slices thin.

Ready to roll!

Eggplant, Smoked Mozzarella and Basil Rolls

  • 1 large eggplant
  • olive oil
  • 6 oz. smoked mozzarella cheese, sliced into 8 thin pieces
  • 2 plum tomatoes, each cut into 4 thin slices
  • 8 large basil leaves
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. Cut the eggplant lengthwise into 10 thin slices and discard the two outermost slices. Sprinkle the slices with salt and leave for 20 minutes. Rinse, then pat dry with paper towel.
  2. Preheat the broiler and line the rack with foil. Place the eggplant slices on the grill rack and brush liberally on both sides with olive oil. Broil for 8-10 minutes until tender and golden, turning once.
  3. Remove the eggplant slices from the broiler, then place a slice of mozzarella and tomato and a basil leaf in the center of each eggplant slice, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Fold the eggplant over the filling and broil, seam-down, until heated through and the mozzarella begins to melt, about 5 minutes. Serve drizzled with olive oil, if desired, and a little balsamic vinegar.