Porridge sweats

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I’ve pretty much hit my limit with this winter. I now eat hot starchy things at almost every meal. Polenta, rice, pasta, cous cous, cracked wheat: whatever grain I can get my hands on gets cooked in liquid with a little cheese, herbs and/or butter and mixed with meat, vegetables, broth and–usually–additional cheese.

I know this isn’t a good solution, but I like the little bout of what I call “porridge sweats” that follows when I eat this type of insides-warming food. The sweats usually last long enough that I can make it a few blocks down the street without shouting “THIS IS BULLSHIT!!” into the bitter wind. (I’ve been yelling at the weather.)

Call me dramatic, but this is what Chicago winter does to a person. Each year, it discovers new ways of inducing despair. It might be through snow almost every day in December that turns the sidewalk into a distant memory; 15 straight days with no sunlight (trust me, that’s a lot); or like this year, a blizzard followed by a whole month of zero-ish temps so the snow turns into dirty styrofoam and everything else becomes permanently coated in either salt or black ice. Chicago winter, you are a sly minx indeed.

In search of new sources for porridge sweats last week, I ventured into savory oatmeal territory. I first had a variation on it with pork belly a few months ago at Owen & Engine and have been dreaming about it ever since. Steel-cut oats cooked risotto-style with a bit of wine for tang (or wine vinegar if you don’t have any wine open) and warm stock added little by little till they’re creamy with a slight bite in the center. My version, laced with sweet cherry tomato jewels and topped with Parm and a very runny egg, made for the perfect solo lunch. But you could also up the ratios, add some smoky bacon lardons and serve it for brunch to some poor, cold bastards in need of a good porridge sweat.

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Steel-cut oat risotto with poached egg
serves one

Ingredients

    Olive oil, as needed
    1 small onion, minced
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    12 cherry tomatoes, halved
    3/4 cup steel-cut oats
    3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
    3-4 cups chicken broth, warmed over medium-low on the stovetop
    1 egg
    1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar
    1 tablespoon butter
    1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
    3 tablespoons minced parsley

Method: In a medium Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil, the onion, and a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Saute for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic, and stir for a minute until fragrant. Add the cherry tomatoes and the oats, stirring to coat each grain in the oil. Add the red wine vinegar and stir until it’s all but dissolved.

Turn the heat down to medium. Add about 1/2 cup of the warm broth, and stir frequently until most of the liquid is gone.

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Repeat this in similar amounts each time, until the oats are cooked to al dente and have achieved a creamy texture. This should take about 20 minutes.

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Meanwhile, crack the egg into a small bowl or ramekin. Heat a saucepan over medium heat until lightly simmering (not boiling). Add a large pinch of salt and the distilled vinegar. Use a spoon to quickly stir the water in all one direction until it’s smoothly spinning. (This will keep the white from spreading out too much). Ease the egg into the center of the whirlpool, and let it simmer untouched for 2-3 minutes for a runny yolk (4 for a firmer yolk).

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Use a spoon to carefully remove the egg, and set it on paper towels to dry.

When the oats are cooked, turn off the heat and add the butter, along with most of the Parmesan and parsley, saving a bit for garnish. Check the seasoning and adjust as needed with salt and pepper.

Spoon the oats into a bowl, top with the rest of the Parm and parsley and the egg. Season the egg with salt and a few grinds of pepper, and eat!

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Marge’s first guest!

My older (and only) sister Madeline is my best friend and about half a foot shorter than I am. We love to eat, drink and complain together, and people often mistake our voices on the phone. She is also responsible for many of my and Sean’s nicknames due to a series of Gchat typos. I now answer to Merf, and Sean is affectionately known as Dean.

Here are two pictures of us eating with nice makeup on the day I got married. (Credit: Eric Futran and Andrew Boudreau)

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Over the past couple years, Mad has become quite a fierce cook. So when she texted me that she was successful in making a simple mung bean (or bean thread) noodle salad, I replied, “Where do you even buy those?! You have to do a guest blog about it!”

So here it is, in Mad’s–also Maddy, Mat or Mac’s–own words. This also happens to be the 101st blog entry of Marge’s Next Meal! A very fitting way to commemorate 101 posts. (As you can see, I forgot to mention when I hit the 100 mark last week.)

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Simple bean thread salad
by Maddy Shea

Growing up in our family, I think it is fair to say that with all the wonderful food provided to us everyday, I was never the one with the obvious talent for cooking. There are a whole host of meals I am loath to eat outside of my family’s versions because I already know that they will never measure up. My mom’s cooking still consists of my personal standard and ideal of what constitutes a homemade meal. So hearty meals like spaghetti and meatballs, German roladen, and stuffed chicken are absolutely never going to taste as good if they come from some outside source. My sister, now an accomplished chef and food expert, has created some of the most delicious foods I have ever tasted–Marge, I recall requesting that pork and ramen soup… where is it?? Even my dad has this one-of-a-kind knack for barbeque chicken so that I tend to stay on the safe side when at a picnic or barbeque restaurant and just go with a burger.

Needless to say, when it came to establishing my own cooking habits, I already had some pretty high standards. In fact, I still won’t eat many of the things I cook myself. One area in which I have begun to feel more confident, however, is lunch. I have always been better off throwing together what our mom has affectionately called “picky dinners,” or meals made up of a variety of small things–sandwiches cut into fours, bowls of nuts, slices of cheese, a fruit salad–rather than cooking full-blown meals complete with all kinds of appropriately coordinated side dishes.

One dish in this vein of “things tossed together” of which I am particularly proud is the bean thread salad. It is roughly based on the bean thread salad you can order at most Thai restaurants and of course largely based on what I find to be enjoyable to eat.

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This salad also offers a very malleable palette; you can include whatever ingredients you find to be most enjoyable. I happen to think sugar snap peas, shrimp, and water chestnuts would be great additions if you’re looking for greater variety. In fact, it’s so easy to make and lends so easily to personal taste that it is now a meal that rivals its restaurant-prepared cousin.

But what I love most about this meal is that it would not have been possible without my family’s shared love of savory, simple foods and some important takeaways from my all-time favorite cooks: mom’s homemade salad dressing is proof that all you really need is lemon juice and oil; my sister’s ability to make ordinary food special just by slicing it thinly; and my dad’s love of a little spicy kick to make things interesting.

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Bean thread salad with fried tofu

    1 package firm tofu
    Soy sauce, as needed
    2 tablespoons vegetable oil
    1 package mung bean noodles
    3-4 green onions
    1 large jalapeno pepper, stemmed
    2 medium carrots, ends trimmed and peeled
    1/2 cup cilantro leaves, plus a few reserved for garnish
    Juice of 1 lemon
    1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
    Salt and pepper, to taste

Method: First, put pressure on the tofu to squeeze out all the excess water. This can be done by placing a flat surface on top of it and weighting that down with a dense object like a cookbook or a can.

Once the water is removed, cut the tofu into 1/4-inch cubes and sprinkle with soy sauce until each cube has been evenly coated. This will give the tofu a much richer flavor.

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Pour the oil in a large skillet over medium-high and add the tofu. Turn the cubes until they are browned and a bit crispy. This will take about 7 minutes. Place the browned tofu on a paper towel-lined plate, and set aside to cool.

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Cook the mung bean noodles according to the package directions. After boiling them, I usually rinse them in cold water to speed up the cooling process.

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On a large cutting board, thinly slice the green onion and jalapeno pepper. It is important to slice the pepper into very thin slivers to evenly distribute the heat. Next, shave the carrot in long strips with a vegetable peeler. Mince the cilantro.

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In a large bowl, combine the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Then layer into the bowl a handful of noodles with a small pile of peeled carrots, some of the chopped green onions and jalapenos, a mini handful of tofu, and a pinch of cilantro. Repeat until all ingredients have been incorporated into the bowl. Layering the ingredients will aid in the mixing process. Toss the ingredients thoroughly with tongs, ensuring the noodles are coated with the lemon dressing and ingredients are evenly spread throughout.

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To serve, heap onto plates or into deep bowls, and garnish with a few whole cilantro leaves. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4 (or 2 hungry sisters, plus leftovers).

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