It’s the little things that make you happy

It seems like we all spend an inordinate amount of time working toward the big events in life only to be disappointed when they don’t live up to the hype.  Think about the time you spent getting ready for the big dance and how often that turned out to be a major downer.  Christmas with all the preparation, buying presents and wrapping and planning for every little thing was often just a giant let down.  And that doesn’t even count the disappointment most of us feel when we open our own presents.

What I have realized over the years is that the unexpected small things are the ones that give me real flashes of joy.  I had no expectations so the event had nothing to prove.

Last week, I was grocery shopping with my husband.  As wives everywhere can attest, this is more likely to be stressful than joyful since they either wander off or keep saying things like “Are we done yet?  Are we really having that again?”

On this occasion, I was already in the check out line when he wandered over with a box in his hand and said, “Why don’t we buy this?”

“This” was the newest “As seen on TV” gimmick – little pans that let you turn a taco into a freestanding shell to hold salad without frying!  I absolutely never order anything off those commercials but I had secretly lusted after the little pans.  Guess what?  They work exactly as advertised!

taco_pan2   taco_shells_pushed_in
Single pan and all four pans with the taco pressed down inside

The pictures show a single pan and the set with tacos inserted.  I didn’t want to lift them into the 400F oven one at a time, so I turned over a cooling rack and put them in two at a time.  The feet on the rack face up so they won’t snag the oven rack.

browned_shell

Eight minutes later they came out perfectly browned.  I didn’t bother waiting for them to cool but used hot mitts to dump them out and fill them up.  I keep homemade cooked Mexican style chicken in the freezer.  I chopped up some lettuce and added cheese, spicy corn & chile from Trader Joe’s and salsa.

3layers  

If you are one of those people who likes pre-eaten beans, you could put those in, too.  Or add olives, guacamole or sour cream on top.

   taco salad_done
One of life’s little pleasures

I’m not ashamed to admit that we each had two both nights.  We are trying to think up other things to put inside – like scrambled eggs with the extras of your choice such as mushrooms, peppers or fried onions.

This was a lot of pleasure for just $11!

Perfect Pot Roast Sandwiches

When my sister emailed to ask if I had been abducted by aliens, I knew it had been too long since my last blog post.  To be honest, I haven’t felt very chatty.  The heat really gets me down, even when I stay in the house and I didn’t want to whine in public.  Now I have something positive to say.

Several years ago, a restaurant opened here called Copeland’s Cheesecake Bistro (or something like that).  It was apparently started by someone who used to work at the Cheesecake Factory because a lot of the menu is the same.  If you have ever been to either of them, they violate the number one rule of Robert Irvine, the Restaurant Impossible guy.  He wants to see one page menus.  Their menus are more like the phone book to a small town.

Being a discriminating diner (which I prefer to the derogatory picky-eater label other people try to stick on me), I want choices but when a restaurant offers every kind of food under the sun, I am suspect about how much of it could actually be prepared in their kitchen.

One of my favorite food groups is gravy, so when I saw the pot roast sandwich, that seemed like a good thing to try.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  They brought the gravy in a little bowl so I could dip every mouthful of my sandwich in it. 

Having that sandwich for lunch meant I didn’t need to fix dinner.  A scrambled egg or small salad was all I could manage even 6 hours later.  I knew it was too much food but, oh my, it was the most wonderful of comfort foods.  I exercised restraint and only went on special occasions, about 4 times a year.

Sadly, that was not enough to keep them in business and suddenly they were gone without warning.  Where was I going to get my pot roast sandwich fix?

And so the experimenting began.  I have made Yankee-style pot roast for years in a slow cooker but it never produced that thick, flavorful gravy that made me so happy.  The first significant advance was when I brought home a stainless steel Dutch oven from my mother’s house.  You wouldn’t think there would be such a difference between a slow cooker and a Dutch oven but the results were much more tasty.

The reason was simple.  I could caramelize the onions and carrots, I could sauté the meat.  The resulting flavors were a good start toward a more flavorful pot roast than the one I had been making.

The long, slow cooking seemed different in the Dutch oven.  Plus I was able to thicken up the gravy easily in a pot that could be used on the stove and brought to a boil.

But the final secret came because I am an inveterate reader of recipes.  I didn’t even save the recipe because it wasn’t a dish I would ever make, but the chef added oyster sauce to a meat dish.  Not a Chinese dish, just an ordinary meat dish.  I love Beef with Oyster Sauce, so I thought, why not?

It was perfect.  I felt like I discovered uranium, solved a quadratic equation, mastered weightlessness.  Only better – we could eat this whenever we wanted!  You can, too.  My recipe is below.

P.S. The original sandwich was picked up and dipped in gravy.  I served mine open faced and ate it with a knife and fork.  More gravy, less mess.

Pot Roast and Gravy
Prep time: about 30 minutes  Cooking time: 3-5 hours, depending on meat

Ingredients

2-5 lbs London broil, chuck, sirloin – whatever cut you prefer. **  Trim fat off and use a metal needle-type tenderizer before rubbing with seasoning mix made from bulleted items below

  • 2 tsps EACH salt, garlic powder, onion powder, ground mustard. 
  • 1 tsp black pepper

1 TBSP olive oil
1 bouillon cube each beef and chicken, dissolved in 2 cups water (use actual broth if you prefer)  Double to make more gravy
1/2 cup red or white wine
1 bag crinkle cut carrots
1 large sweet onion, chopped
12 oz. sliced mushrooms
4-6 segments of garlic, chopped, mashed or sliced
1/4 cup oyster sauce
3 heaping tsps of cornstarch dissolved in small amount of water (half a juice glass)

** I like the flavor of chuck best but it is so fatty, I spend a lot of time trimming.  It also tends to just shred apart.  Sometimes, that is what I want.  I’ve never liked eye round but, if you do, it should work fine.

For the sandwiches:
your choice of bread.  We used good quality sandwich rolls. French bread would work, too.
Mayo made with olive oil
shredded lettuce

In a Dutch oven, heat 1 TBSP of olive oil and add the chopped onion.  Cook on medium for 5 minutes.  Add carrot slices.  Cook until the onion begins to brown slightly, stirring occasionally.  Add the mushrooms and garlic and cook another 5 minutes.  Remove vegetables to bowl. 

While veggies are cooking, tenderize your meat and rub all over with your seasonings.  If you set the piece on waxed paper when you begin, there is no messy clean up.

Turn heat up to medium high.  Add meat to hot pot.  Cook several minutes on each side, until the meat begins to show a good brown color.

Remove meat and add wine.  I have a flat wooden stirrer that scrapes the brown off the pot easily.  Add the bouillon/broth and the oyster sauce.  Stir until blended.  Put meat and vegetable mixture back in the pot.  I made sure there was a layer of veggies on the bottom so the meat was surrounded by flavors.

Cover.  You can reduce the heat to simmer on the stove or put the pot in the oven at 275F.  The liquid should bubble gently but not boil.  Depending on how thick your meat is, cook for 3-5 hours.  The longer you cook, the more the meat will tend to fall apart.  If you prefer to have actual slices, check it at 3 hours.

When the meat is done, remove carefully to a platter and let rest as you thicken the gravy.  Dissolve the cornstarch in water and add to the liquid and vegetables in the Dutch oven.  Turn the heat up until the mixture bubbles continuously.  Stir occasionally.  You can tell when it has thickened.

This can be made well in advance of dinner, even the previous day.

To serve as traditional pot roast, you can actually add potatoes while it is cooking, but I prefer to cook them in a pressure cooker or bake them in the oven.

To serve as sandwiches:

Slice the rolls open and warm in the oven.  Here’s a tip.  Put the rolls on a baking tray and slide into a cold oven.  Turn on to 350F.  When the timer beeps, turn the oven off and remove perfectly warmed bread.

Arrange the two halves of each roll on a plate.  Add mayo to each piece and top with a generous portion of shredded iceberg lettuce.  It will actually stay crisp.

Spoon the pot roast mixture over the bread, being sure to add enough gravy.  Eat with a knife and fork.

Note: If you are watching cholesterol and calories, you trimmed the meat and added only 1 tbsp of fat to the pot roast.  The mix has lots of veggies.  You are using reduced fat mayo.  Okay, it’s not a chicken salad, but if you eat one helping, this seems like a reasonable dinner to me.

Cool dinner idea

I am not showing my age with old slang.  This is a no-cook idea for dinner.  I noticed the other day that I had two cans of Tyson chicken in the pantry.  I bought them during hurricane season last year, in case we lost power.  Happily, that never happened, so I decided I should use them before they go out of code.

Truth to tell, I have never bought this product before and was a little concerned it wouldn’t taste very good. Camouflage was called for!

Out came the emergency pack of pita pockets I keep in the freezer (about the only whole wheat bread I will willingly eat).  I got out a medium mixing bowl and in went

  • a big handful of shredded carrots
  • half a bag of salad, well chopped
  • 3 tablespoons of corn salsa from Trader Joe’s (which I had just bought and never tried)
  • 3 tablespoons of chunky tomato salsa
  • a chopped stalk of celery
  • the drained and rinsed chicken

I also added a bit of salt, pepper and crumbled basil.

I like my pita pockets warmed up and recently discovered that opening them first and tucking the back into the front of the one behind it keeps them open while warming.  I balled up a tiny piece of aluminum foil to stick in the front half so all the pieces are propped open.  The foil ball gets used over and over.

There is a very scientific way of warming them just right.  I put them on a baking sheet, stick them in the oven and turn it on to 350F.  When the beep goes off to tell me the oven is warm, they are done and I turn the oven off.  If I were feeding more than two people, I would leave the other pockets in the warmed oven while I got the first ones stuffed or I would get someone to help stuff!

Once filled, I put a little line of ranch dressing on top to simulate sour cream and served the pockets with chips.  My husband said I could serve them every day the rest of his life – which I am pretty sure is an exaggeration but I take it to mean they turned out pretty good.  That’s why I thought I would share my recipe with you.  Seems like you could serve it in a bowl with fresh hot bread, too.

(We do variations of this with the salmon and tuna that comes in packages.  I have to admit that I liked this better.  The fish is not my favorite.)